In May 1845, two British Royal Navy ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, set sail from England on a voyage of arctic exploration. The expedition was led by Sir John Franklin, a Royal Navy mariner with much previous arctic sailing experience, but both ships and everyone aboard disappeared in the Canadian Arctic, and the circumstances of the disaster and the location of the lost ships remained a mystery for 150 years. The shipwrecks were discovered in 2014 and 2016, and a new exhibit, “Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition,” featuring artifacts from the ships, runs at the Anchorage Museum until Sept. 29.
By the 1840s, two centuries of exploration had definitively proved there was no easy sea route connecting the Atlantic and Pacific oceans through North America. The long sought Northwest Passage lay instead through the high Canadian Arctic. Due to nearly year round ice, this effectively meant the route was useless for trade or military uses for 19th century wooden sailing ships, but the British Admiralty was still very interested in knowing exactly how to navigate across the top of North America. Previous expeditions had mapped the eastern approaches from Greenland into the archipelago of islands on Canada’s Arctic Ocean coast, but the passage from there to the Bering Sea remained uncharted. Franklin was ordered to sail west and map this last unknown section.
The expedition sailed from Kent, in southeast England, in May 1845 with 129 men. The ships stopped in Scotland and western Greenland for last minute provisions and personnel changes, then sailed north and west into the Canadian Arctic in early summer. The Erebus and the Terror were last seen by two whaling ships in Baffin Bay in July 1845. Two years later, with no word from the expedition, the first of many rescue missions was launched, but none found either the ships or the missing men.
In 1854, one of these rescue expeditions talked with several local Inuit who told of boarding an abandoned ship in the ice and meeting a large group of starving Englishmen walking south on King William Island. The Inuit mentioned cannibalism and showed the searchers a number of expedition items, including silverware from the ships, but where the ships had been lost remained a mystery.
In the early 1980s anthropological expeditions found the graves of a number of Franklin Expedition sailors, several of which, due to the low humidity and temperatures in the arctic, were remarkably well preserved. Testing later revealed the men had suffered from scurvy from a lack of vitamin C, and lead poisoning from tinned food cans and from a rudimentary desalinization machine, which leached lead from the machine’s parts into the ships drinking water.
In 2014, an underwater search for the ships using side scan sonar and Inuit oral histories found the Erebus in 36 feet of water in Queen Maude Gulf, south of King William Island in Canada’s Nunavut Territory. In 2016, the Terror was found 20 miles away in similarly shallow water. Both wrecks are amazingly well preserved, due to the cold water and a covering of silt, which prevented the growth of wood eating microorganisms.
The consensus among researchers and the Royal Navy is that the ships became trapped in the ice in the fall of 1846 and were abandoned in the spring of 1848. Some of the crew died of pneumonia on the ships, but at least some of the survivors attempted to walk out to civilization, eventually succumbing to starvation. Analysis of skeletal remains indicates the men had resorted to cannibalism before perishing. The ships were eventually crushed by the ice and sank in place.
Remotely operated underwater vehicles have probed the interiors of the Terror and the Erebus and images show dishes, bottles, furniture, and scientific instruments lying as they were left in 1848. Researchers hope to eventually get into desk drawers in the ship’s cabins where documents such as diaries and ship’s logs may be found.
In 2017, The British government transferred ownership of the Erebus and Terror to Parks Canada, which will safeguard the wrecks as historical and cultural sites. Any bodies discovered on the wrecks, as well any gold bullion aboard, will be returned to Britain.
The Franklin exhibit at the Anchorage Museum includes a one day symposium Sept. 21, which will discuss the latest findings from the lost expedition.