Feature photo: Bettman/Corbis
After more than 160 years of searching, the Government of Canada announced this week that a Canadian team has located one of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated Arctic exploration ships, just off King William Island.
"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," Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement September 9, 2014.
"Although we do not know yet whether the discovery is Her Majesty’s Ship (HMS) Erebus or HMS Terror, 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."
Bob Headland, senior associate at the Scott Polar Research Institute at the University of Cambridge and a member of Quark’s Expedition Team, tells Quark, "The discovery of the wreck of either HMS Terror or HMS Erebus is a major development in resolving some of the many mysteries of the fate of Sir John Franklin and his expedition. The results of a scientific investigation of the wreck will provide evidence about the ship's fate, although many other enigmas will remain."
Headland warns that documentary evidence is highly unlikely to have survived aboard. However, he says, "There is much that may provide other information, especially as the wreck is in such shallow waters."
The Lost Franklin Expedition has been one of the great archaeological and marine mysteries of the last century and a half. In 1845, Franklin and his crew of 129 men and officers departed England in search of the Northwest Passage. After three years with no reports back from her husband, Lady Jane Franklin convinced the government to send search parties. Searchers came back largely empty handed, though reports from Canadian Inuit indicated that Franklin and his crew had died.
A search by Leopold McClintock and commissioned by Lady Franklin in 1857 led to the discovery of a number of corpses and a cairn note chronicling the voyages of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. According to those logs, the ships had hung up on ice in May, 1847, but all was well. The ships were stocked with enough food supplies to last up to three years.
By April 1848, the tone of the missives began to show that all was not well at all. The men had been caught up on the ice for over a year and had begun to abandon ship.
What might have happened aboard the ships has been the source of much speculation since. In 1981, skeletal remains were unearthed on King William Island by a University of Alberta team. Lead poisoning and scurvy were identified through forensic testing as likely causes of death.
In 1984, the remains of three crew members were exhumed on Beechey Island, a National Historic Site of Canada thanks to its Franklin connection and a stop on Quark’s In the Footsteps of Franklin expedition. A small grave site now marks the final resting place of these three crew members, who were also believed to have died from lead poisoning.
Excavations in 1992 seem to point to a more sinister demise for some of Franklin's men, as the bones unearthed were inflicted with cut marks. Many have speculated that Franklin's crew had to resort to cannibalism in order to survive.
What happened aboard the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to cause the men to abandon ship? We may never know, but the discovery of one of the lost vessels certainly gives researchers new avenues to explore.
This week, Harper thanked the parties and agencies that had assisted in the discovery efforts. He said, "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 (RCGS), the Arctic Research Foundation (ARF), the Canadian Coast Guard (CCG), the Royal Canadian Navy and the Government of Nunavut. This discovery would not have been possible without their tireless efforts over the years, as well as their commitment, dedication and the perseverance of the many partners and explorers involved."
Canada also plans to continue searching for the second lost Franklin ship. In his statement, Harper promised, "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."
Headland explained to Quark, "Now the location of one ship is known, the probability of locating the other is increased. Relics from the expedition, including many poignant ones, have been detected for over a century and a half, but one of the ships is the largest of any yet. Careful examination of the wreck will take time, especially as the Arctic winter is rapidly approaching, but I look forward enthusiastically to learn of the findings."
He added, "The several Canadian organizations involved are to be congratulated on their success after much effort in searching for the ships has been made over many decades."
Travelers in search of an authentic Franklin expedition experience are invited to join us as we travel In the Footsteps of Franklin on a 13-day voyage from Greenland to Resolute, with an opportunity to explore eerie Beechey Island.
Quark Expeditions' Northwest Passage – Franklin's Legend expedition takes you deep into the heart of the crew's fabled journey so many years ago, as we head westbound. Explore firsthand the islands, waterways and wilds that led men such as Sir John Franklin and his crew to risk their lives in search of the elusive sea route between Europe and Asia.