Throughout history, explorers have sought new trading routes to make commerce quicker and cheaper. In particular, the great powers of Europe long aimed to discover an alternate route to the Far East by sailing west around the world. Such a shortcut (should it exist) would allow easier access to the great riches of China, Japan, and the Spice Islands, whilst bypassing middlemen in Eurasia, yet such a passage, whilst drawing the attention of thousands of explorers, has proven elusive.
The rise of the Ottoman Empire and the closure of the Silk Road in the mid-15th Century – further reducing western influence in the region – provided greater incentive for the discovery of a western route to Asia. As such, in 1492, Christopher Columbus embarked on a voyage to do just that, hoping to return with precious cargoes of silk, tea, porcelain and spices. Whilst he failed in this lofty ambition, he did stumble upon the ‘New World’ – the Americas – altering the course of human history in the process.
The discovery of the New World gave the European powers an unprecedented new arena for territorial expansion and economic growth, but the desire for a westward route to Asia remained. Successive expeditions to the Americas definitively ruled out the existence of any sea route traversing the heart of the landmass, and so explorers concluded that the only possible location of a sea lane connecting the Pacific and Atlantic oceans would have to be in the unexplored north. From this arose myth of a fabled ‘Northwest Passage’ – a path crossing the isolated islands of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago and bringing Europe ever closer to the riches of Asia.
The search for this elusive Northwest Passage began only a matter of years after Columbus’s famous voyage. In the 16th Century, Italian navigator Giovanni Caboto explored and mapped the coasts of Newfoundland and Labrador (modern day Canada), whilst Englishman John Davis explored the icy waters of the Davis Strait between Baffin Island and Greenland. Then, in the 17th Century, Henry Hudson explored the Hudson Strait and Hudson Bay which today bear his name, whilst navigator William Baffin discovered Baffin Bay to the north of the Davis Strait.
By the Victorian era, arctic explorers were penetrating deeper into the Canadian Arctic Archipelago than ever before; in 1829-30 explorer John Ross went as far west as the Boothia Peninsula (in Nunavut, Canada). His nephew, James Clark Ross, continued to move west by sledge to King William Island, where he erected a cairn (stack of stones) at a spot he named ‘Victory Pointe’, to mark the furthest point west reached by the expedition.
Thus, by the mid-1800s the first crossing of the Northwest Passage seemed to be within sight. The accumulated knowledge of three centuries of exploration had narrowed the possible location of the Northwest Passage to just a small area south and west of King William Island. The Admiralty (the upper echelons of the Royal Navy) now began to plan its largest and most well-equipped voyage yet, not only to discover the fabled passage at last, but also to collect crucial magnetic data which would aid in future navigation.
Preparations began in early 1845. Two former Royal Navy bomb vessels, HMS Erebus and Terror, were selected for the journey. Both ships were extensively refitted to prepare them for Arctic conditions, including a doubling of their hulls, the heavy wooden reinforcement of their bows, the addition of iron sheet armour, and the installation of state-of-the-art auxiliary steam engines. The ships’ libraries were furnished with more than 1000 books to provide amusement for the men on their long journey, whilst enough tinned food to last three years was carried in their holds.
Whilst such preparations seemed reassuringly thorough, in truth they were not as sound as they first seemed. It was later discovered that much of the food had not been sterilized properly before canning; moreover, the lead soldering used to seal the tins inadvertently poisoned most of the rations. Three years’ rations soon became anything but. Even worse than this, the leadership selected for the expedition was questionable at best. Commander Sir John Franklin was certainly not the Admiralty’s first choice, and only 6 of the expedition’s 18 officers had prior Arctic experience.
Nonetheless, the Franklin expedition set sail from Greenhithe, Kent on 19 May 1845 in high spirits and with a full complement of 130 officers and men. It crossed the Atlantic in a matter of weeks without issue, stopping on the west coast of Greenland to take on more supplies. In late July 1845 the Erebus and Terror were spotted by two whaling ships in Baffin Bay as they were preparing to cross into Lancaster Sound (a body of water in Nunavut). No Europeans ever saw the expedition alive again.
Two years passed with no word from Franklin. Public concern soon began to grow for the fate of the expedition, until eventually, Franklin’s wife – Lady Jane Franklin – put pressure on the Admiralty to launch a search effort. In 1848, three search parties were sent out to rescue the expedition. Explorers John Richardson and John Rae led one group overland down the Mackenzie River to the Arctic coast, whilst James Clark Ross led a sea expedition entering the Arctic Archipelago from the Atlantic in the east. Henry Kellett led another sea party entering from the Bering Strait in the west. All three of these groups failed to make contact with the lost expedition and returned home empty handed. However, the search for Franklin’s lost expedition had only just begun.
The British government offered a £20,000 reward to anyone who could successfully find and recover the crews of the Erebus and Terror; and over the coming years, countless people took up the search, both by land and by sea. Using information gathered from these expeditions, historians today are able to piece together the rough outline of what happened to the men of Franklin’s lost expedition in their final days.
The first key breakthrough came in 1850, when an expedition of ships commanded by Horatio Austin (later a Royal Navy Admiral) stumbled across the remains of a winter camp on Beechey Island, off the southwest coast of Devon Island. The graves of three crewmen from the Franklin expedition were discovered on the island, their makeshift wooden markers stating that they had died in early 1846. This suggested that Franklin’s crew spent the winter of 1845-6 on the island, where three of their number had passed away. However, it remained unclear where the expedition went after the spring thaw.
Then, in May 1859, an expedition commanded by Francis McClintock discovered a note left behind inside a stone cairn on Prince William Island. The note had two sections; the first of which had been written in May 1847 and deposited inside the stone cairn at ‘Victory Pointe’ – hence the name ‘Victory Pointe Note’. It reads as follows: “H.M.S ships ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ wintered in the Ice […] at Beechey Island […] Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well.”
The second part of the message was written in a far more desperate state a year later, in April 1848, around the margins of the same page. It records how the note was retrieved from the Victory Pointe cairn by the surviving crew members, updated, and deposited in a new cairn (which would be discovered by McClintock’s expedition ten years later). It reads as follows: “H.M. ships ‘Terror’ and ‘Erebus’ were deserted on the 22 April, 5 leagues N.N.W. of this, [hav]ing been beset since 12 September 1846. […] Sir John Franklin died on 11 June, 1847; and the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men. […] start on tomorrow, 26, for Back’s Fish River.”
The Victory Pointe Note suggests that the two ships became trapped in ice in Victoria Strait in late 1846, and that in the following two years much of the crew, including Franklin, passed away. By April 1848, presumably running out of food, the remaining crew abandoned the ships and began a hike towards Back River on the north coast of the Canadian mainland, over 100 kilometres away.
This sequence of events is supported by the testimony of multiple Inuit tribes who were contacted by search parties in the 1850s. Explorer John Rae, for example, received reports of 30-40 white men starving to death near the mouth of the Back River, suggesting that those who survived the hike to the mainland met their fate on the banks of the river. More disturbingly, however, the Inuit tribes reported that the men resorted to cannibalism in their last days as their desperation grew – a fact which was ignored by Victorian society at the time who sought to preserve the gallant image of Franklin’s crew.
More recent evidence, though, supports Rae’s research; forensic examination of corpses in the 1980s and 1990s revealed bone patterns consistent with cannibalism. It also showed that many of the men had severe vitamin C deficiency (scurvy) and lead poisoning. Thus, the men of the Franklin expedition likely died of starvation and illness under horrific circumstances, which ultimately drove them to consume their fellow men in their final days.
The fate of the Franklin expedition serves as a reminder that, despite its mythologisation, exploration is not all glory and wonder. However, the men of the Erebus and Terror did not ultimately die in vain. The lessons learnt from the expedition, particularly the knowledge of avoiding the pack ice of the Victoria Strait by sailing south of King William Island, helped Roald Amundsen become the first man to successfully navigate the passage in 1903-1906. Since then, retreating sea ice has increased the viability of the passage as an international shipping lane, with the future of global warming now making it a feasible alternative to the Panama Canal.
The wrecks of the Erebus and Terror were discovered in 2014 and 2016 respectively, the latter found coincidentally at the bottom of an inlet called Terror Bay. This filled in the final piece of the puzzle of a 150-year search, bringing closure to the story of Franklin’s lost expedition at last.
Woods, A., 2016. Franklin’s Last Voyage. Archaeological Institute of America.