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NOT HERE: THE WHITE NORTH
HAS THY BONES; AND THOU, HEROIC SAILOR-SOUL, ART PASSING
ON THINE HAPPIER VOYAGE NOW TOWARD NO EARTHLY POLE.
- Alfred, Lord Tennyson, inscription on a memorial to Sir John Franklin in Westminster Abbey erected by his widow, Lady Jane Franklin.
L'Astrolabe & Zelee |
Erebus and Terror: Ross - Antarctica Franklin - Arctic Franklin time-line | Fram Fram page2 | Nimrod | Terra Nova
Modern: Ice-strengthened and icebreakers | James Clark Ross | Kapitan Khlebnikov | Yamal
|Ships then and now - a comparison|
An illustrated description of a long and complex story, there are lots more details and many more works to read if you want to get more involved.
At the center of this story are two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. These were bomb ships designed to carry heavy mortar and cannon to bombard shore targets from sea. They were reinforced to take the considerable weight and recoil of the guns and so were stronger than other similar sized ships, this strengthening meant they were selected for polar work where they might encounter ice.
They had already been on a four year voyage to the Antarctic returning in 1843 with James Clark Ross, a now famous historic voyage of discovery. Mount Erebus, an active volcano in Antarctica and Mount Terror a nearby inactive volcano are named after the ships.
Erebus was 19 years old and Terror 32 years old by the start of the expedition already having had eventful lives. They were fitted with 20hp steam engines taken from the railways with screw propellers that allowed the ships to progress at 4 knots, the steam produced also provided heating and generated freshwater.
John Barrow, Second Secretary of the British Admiralty from 1804 to 1845 had coordinated and initiated much of the scientific mapping operations. He organized a major expedition that he thought would finally determine whether or not a Northwest Passage existed at all. On the 19th of May 1845 the Erebus and Terror with a combined crew of 133 set out from England under the command of Sir John Franklin, an explorer who had already led two land expeditions to find the enigmatic sea route.
At 59 Franklin was considered too old and unfit for such an undertaking. The first choice, James Ross couldn't be persuaded to take the position and political rather than practical reasons had a large part to play in Franklin's appointment. There were many detractors, John Ross, the uncle of James offered to lead a rescue expedition if nothing had been heard by February 1847, this even before Franklin set off.
Erebus and Terror were accompanied to Greenland by a supply ship which returned to England bearing letters from the crews of the two ships.
On the 26th of July 1845, two whaling ships saw Franklin's expedition in northern Baffin Bay which they reported on arrival back home in England in August. It appeared that all was well and on schedule. It was to be the last contact the expedition had with the outside world.
The crew were inexperienced in the polar regions with only very few having been to the Arctic previously, though Franklin had and Crozier the captain of the Terror had returned two years previously from the Antarctic where he had also been captain of the same ship in James Clark Ross's four year long expedition.
The diaries from the Erebus (where Franklin was stationed) that were eventually found report that these early days had a positive, benign and happy atmosphere where success was assured and failure not contemplated.
Crozier was less convinced however and presided over a ship less convivial. Both captains had a feeling they would not return home alive, shared only in their written thoughts.
In a time before telecommunications and with the ships heading to a region where they would likely be iced in for the winter with plenty of provisions to get them through and no likely contact for several months each year, no-one worried about what might be happening, no news was what was expected.
The expedition was expected to take around three years.
On the 9th of February 1847 John Ross true to his word to Franklin before he set sail approached the Admiralty Board in London with a rescue plan. He was initially rejected, as he was again later with a more detailed plan and as was another plan from a Dr. King. The expedition had been away for two winters at this point, it was known that they had provisions for at least another one.
Eventually by November 1847 in the absence of sightings or further news, a rescue mission was prepared by James Ross and accepted by the Admiralty Board. By the spring of the following year 1848, two sea-borne rescue missions set off along with a land attempt. Another (third in total) winter had passed since John Ross approached the Admiralty Board. None of these early missions found anything at all.
John Barrow died in November 1848 and with him any interest in the Franklin expedition from the Admiralty, or so they would have preferred. Franklin's disappearance was a major news story of the day, he was a hugely popular public figure and his disappearance only served to make him more so. Eventually the response of the Admiralty was to offer £20,000 for the rescue of Franklin, £10,000 for finding his ships and another £10,000 for finding the northwest passage. The issue was handed over to the Arctic Council.
Franklin's widow, Lady Jane Franklin became obsessed with finding her husband or at least his remains. She spent her time and money financing expeditions and when the money ran low, she lobbied others for funds. In 1850 fifteen ships entered the Arctic on search missions including two American ships, one expedition was financed directly by Lady Franklin and another small two-vessel expedition was financed and led by the now 73 year old John Ross. They had no real idea where to look. The main difficulty was an unawareness (despite much advice from people who were aware) of the capricious nature of ice in the search area, what can be clear one year can be blocked for the next several, such was the case with the Peel Channel, clear when encountered by Franklin but blocked by ice during the subsequent searches.
Sledge tracks were found extending at least forty miles up a nearby channel and it was assumed that these represented scouting parties Franklin sent out for the next summer (which would have been 1846 - 4 years previously by now). The search parties settled into a protected bay for the winter.
these filled with stones so as not to blow away and arranged into a cross.
The ships crews endured the endured the winter at a place they called Union Harbour more or less cheerfully. They also went out on numerous sledging expeditions, manhauling. No further signs were found of Franklin or the two ships or the 133 men that winter or by the ships that fanned out in the summer when the winter ice had cleared and so they returned to England in 1851 carrying with them a rumor via some convoluted connected whispers that Franklin and his men had been killed by Eskimos.
After this enormous costly search that essentially found nothing, the Admiralty had even less desire to continue. However Franklin had attained an almost legendary status and while the public had lost interest in the North West Passage, it was becoming a matter of national pride to find out what had happened to England's hero.
Every one had an opinion so it seemed about what had happened, where Franklin had gone and what should be done to find him. Arctic foxes were captured and had notes attached to them around their neck with details of where to find food in the hope that the men of the expedition might capture them and read the notes, a similar idea was also tried with balloons. Medals were struck and handed out to Eskimos so if they found any trace of the expedition, they would know where to find the searchers and inform them.
The main problem was that the search efforts were being made in the wrong place. The Wellington Channel was considered to be the most likely place to look, it is 500 miles almost due north from where the wreck of one of Franklin's ships would eventually be found. This expedition led by the unsuitable Sir Edward Belcher consisted of the ships: Assistance, Resolute, Intrepid, Pioneer and a supply ship, the North Star.
The ships froze in for the winter and Belchers pettiness and harsh application of the rules soon earned him many detractors and downright enemies, especially in the long, cold, dark winter night. Life on the frozen-in ships with Belcher was so unpleasant that almost all the men who could were volunteering for sledging expeditions, the level of discomfort of this being preferable. Belcher himself thought he was being told to look in the wrong place as much as anything to make an attempt on the North Pole if the opportunity presented itself, a situation that he resented and couldn't have helped his attitude to the men in his command. In fact his is considered to be the first expedition that was ostensibly "Looking for Franklin" where in reality it was a euphemism for making a attempt on the north pole. In subsequent years many similar expeditions had the same public and hidden agendas.
Belcher was ready to abandon his quest and go home when he received new orders, to search for the ships Investigator and Enterprise which had gone to search for Franklin in 1850 and had become not quite lost as such, but their whereabouts were unknown. In April 1853 sledging parties left the Resolute for what was to become a 105 day 1,400 mile journey, though they made only geographical discoveries. Another party went west and found the Investigator frozen into the ice at Mercy Bay, the now near starved crew had entered the Arctic in the west by the Bering Strait, the captain McClure thought he would be able to reach the Atlantic and become the first to traverse the North West Passage, spurred on in no small part by the £10,000 prize.
More sledging trips were made along the routes that Franklin might have taken, still to no avail. By February 1854 Belcher had become sufficiently worried about the safety of his ships and men that he ordered them to be abandoned and all crews to board the North Star and return to England, fortunately the crews were able to be divided amongst two other supply ships that arrived.
Belcher was subject to the automatic court martial for any captain who lost a ship, he had lost for out of five. While he was exonerated, the verdict was interpreted more as "not proven" than of actual innocence. He was never again given an active command. Later on, the abandoned Resolute broke out of the ice and drifted to Davis Strait where it was salvaged by an American whaler who couldn't believe his luck.
It was a man called John Rae a doctor and an overland man for the Hudson Bay Company who found what had happened to Franklin. While exploring the one empty space left by previous expeditions in 1853 he encountered a group of Eskimos who told him of an encounter they had four years previously in 1849-50.
The Eskimos told of meeting a group of forty men dragging a boat south, they were all very thin and using sign language made it known that their ship had been crushed in the ice, they purchased a seal from the Eskimos. Later the same season, the Eskimos encountered the same party, or at least what remained of it about a days walk from the Great Fish River.
The scene must have been apocalyptic, there were scattered dead bodies, in tents, under the upturned boat or out in the open. Many of the bodies has been hacked with knives and human remains were reported in cooking pots, they said there were thirty dead in that place, another five dead were found on a nearby island. The Eskimos also reported hearing gunshots later in the year after the game had returned (so probably after May) indicating that not all of the men had died by that time. To confirm the story they told Rae, they sold him a number of artifacts, a silver spoon, silver forks and similar with initials and names that confirmed their provenance as belonging to the officers of the Erebus and Terror.
Rae stated “From the mutilated state of many of the corpses, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource - cannibalism - as a means of prolonging existence”.
Rae's report caused great consternation when it reached England. The Admiralty however were relieved as they could now stop searching. Lady Franklin and the Arctic Council were shocked, not only was the news of death but death by starvation and with cannibalism thrown in to boot. They did the only reasonable thing they could, they doubted the story.
Rae had not seen the scenes described or even the region and why were the men in such an unlikely place? The Hudson Bay Company sent out a team to where they thought the Eskimos had seen the scenes they described. Wood and some relics were found connected to the Erebus, but no signs of dead bodies.
Another ship, the Fox in the command of Leopold McClintock was dispatched to the Arctic to search for what it could. Even Lady Franklin accepted that her husband was almost certainly dead now, 12 years after departure, he would have been 72 years old. It was hoped that some of the younger, fitter members of the crew would have survived or that at least journals and diaries might be discovered to cast a light on what had happened.
After two years, in 1859 following a difficult and at times harrowing journey, the Fox was able to start investigating the lost expedition of Franklin. Eskimos told of seeing men travelling to the south some dropping dead as they walked, a ship that had many books that became wrecked and the body of a big man with long teeth.
Eventually the first body was found, apparently having fallen down as the man walked, then the remains of a cairn though without a message and finally a cairn with a message still intact.
Handwritten around the margin of this was the following:
Signed by Captains Crozier and Fitzjames of the Erebus, it also states "and start (on) to-morrow, 26th, for Back's Fish River,".
This is the only written record of the expedition.
On the 28th of May 1847, all was as expected. Two weeks later Franklin was dead and soon another twenty four men had also died an unprecedented rate of casualties, some illness or disease seemed to have affected the crews.
At another place, Victory Point a huge amount of discarded equipment was found, winter clothing, four heavy stoves with other metal items such as barrel hoops, a wooden block from the ships rigging, navigational gear, a medicine cabinet, and an enormous amount of winter clothing, though the notable absence of any food or even empty food tins.
There were more questions than answers, why had the sledge contained so many frivolous items while the equipment at Victory Point was far more useful but left behind? Why was there so little food, the expedition had been equipped with easily enough tinned food to last to 1848 and beyond even if it hadn't been eked out with game caught during the summer months. The fact that so much useful equipment had been left undisturbed implied that any food had not been taken Eskimos.
North of Victory Point three cairns were found, the first, three miles on had an empty canister, the second had nothing at all, the next one was surrounded by the remnants of three small tents and some other scraps. A piece of folded paper was found tucked into the rocks of the cairn but was blank, two broken corked bottles were found, if they had contained messages they had long since blown away.
The monetary cost of the search expeditions had been enormous:
British Admiralty - £675,000 (2014 rates - £20.5M)
Still, the mystery was unsolved, no survivors had been found, much of the evidence was contradictory or just unfathomable. The north west passage had still not been discovered or even fully proven to exist, Franklin and the rescue missions found where the passage wasn't. It would be another nearly fifty years before Roald Amundsen made the passage with a small crew in a small boat with a very shallow draught. The journey took them five years as they were frozen in each winter and even then they only just scraped through. Had Franklin's expedition found the route, the Erebus and Terror would probably not have been able to sail through. The perils of unpredictable sea-ice, the difficulty and treachery of shallow channels and shoals meant that it was useless for the hoped for purpose of a quicker sea-route from Europe to the Far East.
The findings were inconclusive however as the lead levels could have accumulated over many years, the only way to find out was to compare to soft tissue lead levels. It was decided to exhume the bodies on Beechey Island and perform autopsies. Two of the (remarkably well preserved) bodies were raised in August 1984 and bone and tissue samples taken before they were reinterred. Pneumonia was found to be the ultimate cause of death, though there were soft tissue lead levels that indicated the men "would have suffered severe mental and physical problems caused by lead poisoning".
Initially the lead solder in the food tins were blamed for the lead poisoning, it is now thought that while this may have been contributory, the most likely explanation is that the lead came from a new system used for the first time on this expedition where fresh water from the steam engines was collected in tanks using lead pipes and lead soldered joints.
Another forensic expedition in 1992 identified high lead levels in bones and marks consistent with de-fleshing on nearly 400 bones and fragments from another site on King William Island.
The view today is that a number of factors were to blame for the loss of the crews of the Erebus and Terror. Lead poisoning would have had a significant effect with disease such as scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis affecting the weakened men, added to this are the effects of bitter cold and starvation.
With a lack of any real kind of written record and the fact that the artifacts are wide-spread and have been disturbed and/or lost before proper forensic archeological studies can be carried out, it is unlikely that the full story that slowly unfolded over four or five years will ever be properly known.
A number of searches for the wrecks of the Erebus and Terror found nothing. In 2010 however, the remains of H.M.S. Investigator, one of the ships that had gone on a rescue mission and became icebound before being abandoned and subsequently sinking were found upright and reasonable intact in 11m of water in Mercy Bay, Banks Island.
On the 9th of September 2014 a search called the "Victoria Strait Expedition" found one of Franklin's ships in east Queen Maud Gulf to the west of O'Reilly Island. As yet the ship has not been identified as to which one it is, but it is well preserved and largely intact. More here from Parks Canada
Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition
by Owen Beattie and John Geiger
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Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy
by Fergus Fleming
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