- For 168 years, mystified searchers have looked for the ships that carried Sir John Franklin and his 128 men to their deaths in the Arctic.
- They found graves, a note, a sled, a toothbrush and other relics scattered across King William Island, where the crews survived for a time after ice sank their two ships.
- But the ships themselves — Erebus and Terror, sturdy Royal Navy vessels that had successfully explored Antarctica — vanished in 1846. Only the Inuit preserved tales that the ships had been seen in Victoria Strait.
- The lost Northwest Passage expedition led to searches and inspired theories in the mind of a fascinated public in the mid-1800s, just as Amelia Earhart did nearly a century later.
Now, finally, one of the ships has been found in shallow water, close to where the Inuit said it disappeared. Its hull sits upright and remarkably intact. No one knows yet which ship it is.
May 19, 1845: Two Royal Navy ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror depart Greenhithe, England in search of the Northwest Passage under the command of Sir John Franklin.
1846: The expedition becomes trapped in late 1846 and remains stuck in the ice for an estimated one-and-a-half years.
June 11, 1847: Sir John Franklin dies on the ship, which was still icebound off the northwest coast of Nunavut’s King William Island.
1848: The 105 survivors abandon the ships and decide to march south to a fur-trading post in mainland Canada. All perished.
1850s: Dozens of Royal Navy vessels are sent looking for the expedition. By 1854, there were 22 expeditions and in 1859 a vessel, privately chartered by Lady Jane Franklin, finds a message from a crewman detailing some of the ship’s fate.
1981: Researchers find elevated levels of lead in the bones of Franklin crew members, whose remains had been found scattered in the Arctic.
1984: Researchers exhumed the well-preserved bodies of several crew members buried on Beechey Island and tests confirm the presence of lead in the tissue. Scientists theorize the crew had suffered from lead poisoning, likely from their canned food supply.
1992: The missing wrecks are declared a national historic site and become the only site in Canada with no known location.
1997: An agreement between Britain and Canada, effectively gave Canada ownership of Franklin’s ships if they were ever found.
2008: The Canadian government announces it will embark on a search for the British shipwrecks, making it the first of six Parks Canada-led searches.
2009: Scientists studying a 160-year-old can of soup add further evidence that lead poisoning may have been a primary cause of death for the shipwrecked crew.
2010: In its second search, in Mercy Bay off Banks Island, Parks Canada finds the sunken HMS Investigator, one of the dozens of Royal Navy vessels sent to look for the missing Franklin Expedition in the 1850s.
August 2012 — 2013: In its fourth expedition, Parks Canada discovers bone fragments, nails, screws and a toothbrush during the dry-land search. By the fifth expedition, Parks Canada had surveyed and charted the equivalent of 2,200 football fields of the Arctic seabed.
Sept. 7, 2014: The sixth Parks Canada search team, using new underwater robotic drone carrying improved sonar, finds one of the two missing ships.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper came to an Ottawa lab to see the evidence himself and make the announcement: “I am delighted to announce that this year’s Victoria Strait Expedition has solved one of Canada’s greatest mysteries, with the discovery of one of the two ships belonging to the Franklin expedition lost in 1846,” he said in a written statement.
The discovery garnered interest from across the ocean, with a statement from Queen Elizabeth shared via Gov. Gen. David Johnston.
“I was greatly interested to learn of the discovery of one of the long-lost ships of Captain Sir John Franklin,” the royal message read. “Prince Philip joins me in sending congratulations and good wishes to all those who played a part in this historic achievement.”
The key to cracking this cold case from the 1800s? Bad luck that turned into unexpected gold for searchers.
Sea ice had pushed the expedition away from its intended search zone — and straight over the wreck.
John Geiger, the CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, was aboard during the search for Sir John Franklin’s two ships.
“The ice conditions were very severe. Victoria Strait was ice-clogged; it was heavy ice,” Geiger said Tuesday. The four main ships and three smaller vessels needed an icebreaker to get in.
Ice pushed them farther south than they intended, and, as it turned out, to the wreck site in Queen Maud Gulf.
“It was an area where the Inuit oral tradition indicated one of the ships might have ended up,” he said.
Two Parks Canada staffers were on duty when an underwater drone carrying sonar made the find. Parks Canada had been the lead agency on six expeditions since 2008, with staffers watching the screen as drones scanned kilometre after kilometre of seabed, and suddenly there was a ship’s hull right in front of them.
“They said, ‘That’s it!’ I think they celebrated. They hugged each other,” Geiger said. Then it was back to work, trying to make sure it was a Royal Navy ship.
“Everyone was very excited, but I felt personally a real sense of poignancy, because you look at that vessel and think about the fact that there are likely people on it. So many people died — 129 died — the greatest disaster related to exploration” in Arctic history, Geiger said.
“So to me, in thinking about how those lives ended in that situation is quite haunting.”
“The main deck is largely intact. That’s a very good sign that there’s information within the hold,” Geiger.
That would include ship supplies of all kinds, preserved in the cold Arctic water. But it’s also likely that there are bodies of crew members below deck. Many of the men died of scurvy, cold, starvation or other diseases before the ships were lost.
They haven’t found the masts and rigging yet, “but there’s all kinds of detail, right down to visible signal cannons on it,” Geiger said.
The ship lies in about 11 metres of water. That’s deep enough to prevent grinding by the sea ice, but shallow enough to let divers reach it.
The bow rises about five metres above the sea bed, and the stern about four metres.
“There has not been a dive on it yet,” Geiger said. They used a remotely operated vehicle with cameras to film the ship and the debris zone around it.
“It’s going to be at least another week. The divers are back in two days, and then you will see some close-up imagery.”
There’s still no hint about the location of the other missing vessel.
The expedition was led by Parks Canada, with participation by the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, One Ocean Expeditions, Shell Canada and the Arctic Research Foundation.
In May 1845, Sir John Franklin set sail from England with two Royal Navy ships and 129 men to find the Northwest Passage and map the Arctic. They would never come home. Some died of disease aboard ship; others likely starved on land after their ships sank.
Some tried to haul a ship’s boat loaded with supplies across land to the south, baffling historians until lab analysis showed they had sky-high levels of lead in their bodies. Lead, a neurotoxin, can interfere with a person’s ability to think.
And the men’s food was tainted with it, from improper canning and possibly from the water-purifying equipment.
But while the expedition was a disaster, the repeated expeditions to find Franklin’s crews and ships led to the mapping of the Arctic Archipelago. And modern expeditions have mapped more than 1,200 square kilometres of the Arctic seabed in the hope of finding the missing ships.
Franklin and his men are widely credited with providing more knowledge of the North after their deaths than during their lives. And the repeated expeditions to find Franklin (and later to find those lost searching for him) are part of the foundation of Canada’s claims to Arctic sovereignty.
Erebus and Terror were solid ships that had previously explored Antarctica. Franklin, 59, was a distinguished sailor with three Arctic voyages behind him.
The ships were last seen by Europeans in July, when whalers saw them moored to an iceberg.
But in September 1846 they became trapped in ice. No word came back to England of the crews, even though Lady Franklin inspired search after search for her missing husband. Like Amelia Earhart generations later, the missing expedition was an enduring mystery that has fascinated people in many countries.
Searchers would eventually find graves, a note on a scrap of paper, but no survivors and few clues to what happened.
But that doesn’t mean all knowledge was lost. The last eyewitnesses to the Franklin disaster were the Inuit.
As the shipwrecked men tried to travel south, they repeatedly met with native people along their route. They told how the white men were poorly equipped for Arctic travel, and were trying to move heavy loads overland without dogs — an exhausting task.
Frederick Schwatka, a former U.S. Cavalry officer who learned to travel with Inuit guides and dogs, found some of the graves in 1879.
More discoveries have continued over almost a century-and-a-half since then. In 2010, sonar revealed the wreck of HMS Investigator, abandoned and crushed in ice in the Beaufort Sea in 1853 while searching for Franklin.
A note found on King William Island and believed to be genuine says Sir John Franklin died there on June 11, 1847. His grave has never been found.
Source: OTTAWA CITIZEN – TOM SPEARS
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