In recent years, Parks Canada archaeological teams have unsuccessfully been searching for the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the two ships that brought the ill-fated Sir John Franklin expedition to Canada’s Far North in 1845. Prime Minister Stephen Harper has apparently been drawn into the fascinating tale of the expedition, and so announced last week more funding is being made available for the search for the two vessels. It will be the fourth attempt by Parks Canada since 2008 to find the vessels.
“It is truly exciting to be launching this new intiative to continue searching for the lost vessels of the Franklin expedition,” said the prime minister in a press release. “It is also a privilege to meet with the members representing the extraordinary array of Canadian partners and researchers who hope to solve the mystery of the ill-fated HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and unlock the rich history of Canada’s Northwest Passage — a history that unites us all as Canadians.”
The announcement by the prime minister has as much to do with national and international politics as it does with uniting Canadians. For the Harper government, it’s merely the most recent measure designed to reinforce Canadian sovereignty in the Arctic.
The U.S. claims that the Northwest Passage is international waters, while Canada’s assertion is that the passage is within this nation’s “internal waters.” With the icefields diminishing in size with each passing year, access to Arctic’s vast natural resources are becoming more practical, and as such, who controls the passage is important. It’s doubtful finding the two ships will contribute much to reinforcing Canada’s sovereignty in the Far North — most believe it has already been well established by law and history — but the ships’ discovery would be an interesting historical footnote. As well, Harper’s announcement does draw renewed attention to Canada’s Arctic, a region that apparently fascinates Harper.
In 2010, the Parks Canada crew didn’t find the Franklin expedition ships, but they did locate the HMS Investigator, a ship sent by the British Admiralty to find Franklin that was last seen in 1853 after it was abandoned following two years of being held fast in Arctic ice off the shores of Banks Island in the Northwest Territories. Unlike the Franklin expedition crews, the Investigator’s crew, captained by Robert McClure, were rescued. And unlike Capt. Sir John Franklin, McClure is credited with finding the Northwest Passage.
The Investigator was been found 11 metres below the waters of Mercy Bay. The wreck is in remarkable condition, with the main deck intact, although the masts and bulwarks above the main deck are gone, presumably the result of ice damage. The discovery of the Investigator provided the Parks Canada crew with renewed hope that they will find the Erebus and Terror. The British Admiralty charged Franklin and his 129-man crew to travel up Lancaster Sound and then sail southwest across the uncharted central Arctic to link his earlier discoveries in the west end of the region. By following this route, it was believed Franklin would finally unravel the mystery of the Northwest Passage leading to the Orient. The expedition set out from England on May 19, 1845.
The last Europeans to contact Franklin and the crews of the two ships were whalers aboard the Enterprise and Prince of Wales in August 1845. From conversations with the expedition during this chance encounter, the whaling ships’ captains learned that Franklin was waiting for an opportunity to cross Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound. For three years after that, not another word was heard from Franklin and it became increasingly clear that some unknown fate had claimed the captain and his men.
William Kennedy, who had retired from the Hudson’s Bay Company in 1846 and later settled in St. Andrew’s, Manitoba, was hired by Lady Franklin to lead two expeditions to find her husband, but both were unsuccessful. Dr. John Rae, another Arctic explorer, whenever he encountered Inuit would ask if they had seen any “dead white men.” Obviously, Rae was under no illusion that anyone from the Franklin expedition had survived.
Rae compiled an account of the expedition’s fate from Inuit sources: “in the spring of four winters past ... Esquimaux ... near the shore of King William’s Land” saw “about forty white men ... travelling in company southward over the ice, dragging a boat and sledges ... by signs the Natives were led to believe that the ... ships had been crushed by the ice.” Rae’s report to the British Admiralty — confirmed by later expeditions — showed that Franklin had died in June or July 1847, and in the winter of 1847-48 no less than 24 of the men had died, nine of whom were officers. The Inuit said they found bodies in tents and under a boat used as shelter after the two ships were crushed by the ice.
The admiralty wanted confirmation of Rae’s report, so it asked HBC Governor George Simpson to commission another expedition. “Three Indians and 14 Red River of the North men” (men of the settlement in Manitoba founded by Lord Selkirk) were sent north. They found a pair of snowshoes of the “English make” with the name of Dr. Stanley, surgeon of the Erebus, and a boat with the name Erebus still visible. From the Inuit, iron pots and other items were collected. The Inuit told them, “one by one” the remaining men “laid themselves down and died.”
An expedition headed by Francis Leopard McClintock, commissioned by Lady Franklin, found bodies on King William’s Island lying in the snow and decapitated skeletons inside a boat lashed to a sled. But their most telling find was two reports on a standard admiralty form. The first from Franklin on May 28, 1847, said “All well.” The second told of the death of Franklin on June 11, 1847, and the two ships becoming entrapped in the ice on April 15,1848, forcing them to abandon the vessels.
Artifacts and burial sites associated with the Franklin expedition were found in the ensuing years. Five graves on Beechey Island were reported in 1904 by the crew of Canadian government steamer Neptune, although only two of the graves contained bodies. Tales of cannibalism and madness are associated with the last days of the Franklin crew, with many academics offering opinions as to the cause of their demise. Some have suggested they died of food-poisoning due to the tinned food they carried being contaminated by botulism bacteria. Exhumation and forensic testing of two crewmen in recent years found high levels of lead. Experts concluded that many of the men had died of lead-poisoning due to the contamination of food by the lead solder used to seal the cans.
The finding of the Franklin expedition ships may help in a small way to reinforce Canadian sovereignty over the passage, but the primarily result would be solving a mystery that has for over 160 years been an integral part of Canadian Arctic folklore.