It’s not much of a surprise that Prime Minister Stephen Harper made the recent announcement that one of Sir John Franklin’s missing ships, which were claimed by the Arctic over 160 years ago, had been discovered, although it’s still not clear whether the ship is the HMS Erebus or HMS Terror.
Harper has shown a long-standing interest in the Arctic, particularly, Canada’s claim to sovereignty over the fabled Northwest Passage, which he has linked to the fate of the members of the ill-fated Franklin expedition lost in 1846. In past years, he has been front-and-centre when announcing funding for the search for the Franklin ships. It seems that Harper has become enraptured by what he termed “one of Canada greatest mysteries.”
“Although we do not know yet whether the discovery is Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Erebus or HMS Terror,” said Harper in a press release announcing the discovery, “we do have enough information to confirm its authenticity. This find was confirmed on Sunday, September 7, 2014, using a remotely operated underwater vehicle recently acquired by Parks Canada.
“This is truly a historic moment for Canada. Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expedition, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundation of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.
“I would like to congratulate and pay tribute to all partners involved in this year’s momentous Victoria Strait Expedition, including Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Arctic Research Foundation, the Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy and the government of Nunavut.”
Since 2008, there have been six Parks Canada-led searches for the lost Franklin expedition ships. During the recent media announcement, a sonar image was projected that showed the ship just five metres off the sea floor in the bow and four metres in the stern (Canadian Press). The deck structure is still intact, and the contents of the ship will most likely be in good condition, according to Ryan Harris, a senior underwater archeologist and one of the leaders of the Parks Canada search.
The sonar image of the ship is available on-line and is remarkable in its detail.
“Finding the first vessel will no doubt provide the momentum — or wind in our sails — necessary to locate its sister ship and find out even more about what happened to the Franklin expedition’s crew,” added the prime minister.
Actually, the fate of the Franklin crew has roughly been pieced together through 19th-century explorations, but more information will definitely shed more light on the “mystery.” It was the search for Franklin and his crew which actually resulted in the discovery of the Northwest Passage, running from the Atlantic to the Pacific.
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 — revealed by Rae and disputed by Lady Franklin and the British Admiralty, saying that no Englishman was capable of such barbarism — 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 ship has indeed solved a mystery that has for over 160 years been an integral part of Canadian Arctic folklore; that is, where one ship actually sunk.