The Franklin Expedition of 1845: Terror in the Arctic

Human history is filled with stories of exploration – of conquistadores discovering new lands, sailors finding new passages to the west, and voyages to the moon and back. One hundred years ago, Ernest Shackleton led his crew to safety at South Georgia Island, surviving two brutal years in the Antarctic after their ship, the Endurance, was crushed in ice.

However, human exploration has not always ended so well. On 19 May 1845 an expedition set out from London hoping to discover and trace the last uncharted waters of the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, a legendary waterway through the Wellington Channel which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans from Baffin’s Bay to the Bering Strait. Two ships sailed down the Thames, both under the command of an experienced naval commander: Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin. The first ship, the HMS Erebus, was built in 1826 to be used as a war vessel, but won greater fame by withstanding three previous voyages to the Arctic under Crozier and Sir James Clark Ross. The second, the HMS Terror, captained by Francis Rawdon Crozier, was built over a decade earlier, and had contributed to the British bombarding of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor during the War of 1812. Both ships were refashioned as polar exploration ships in the mid-1830s, and both had previous successful voyages to the northern waters. 

The ships headed out into the cold waters of the north Atlantic, sailing towards Greenland where they would then follow the rocky, barren coastline into the Arctic Ocean. All seemed to be going well and according to plan. The ships were both in good condition for their age, and they had provisions to last at least eighteen months, although Franklin was convinced the provisions could be rationed to last them well into 1848 if necessary. However, the quality of the food would soon fail them. The vitamin C in the salted meat was not preserved properly, and the rest of the food was kept in cans made of 30 per cent lead. Soon the crew was in desperate need for nutrients in order to stave off starvation, lead poisoning, and scurvy. Franklin was hesitant to take up the native Eskimo’s way of life: hunting seals and whales for game. It was this very reason that in 1915 Ernest Shackleton was able to keep his crew alive; they were forced to eat raw seal meat, and even seal skin and eyes. But Franklin could not fathom sinking to such a level of uncivil and ‘indigenous’ behaviour. 

That first winter of 1845-46 served as an indication of what the next few years would be like for the crew. The first three crewmen were dead by the start of the New Year. The third, John Torrington of the HMS Terror, died on 1 January – an ill omen which must have terrified any superstitious members looking forward to the New Year. The ships could not sail during the winter months, for the ice was now surrounding them in every which way. They could only wait out the winter, hoping for a good lead when the spring arrived. The crew camped out on the eastern coast of Beechey Island, a small isle just north of Somerset Island, and due west of Baffin Bay. They were in the northern region of the Arctic, where the ice packed in the worst. The three crewmen who died aboard the ships were buried in the permafrost ground of Beechey Island, where their bodies still rest, amazingly preserved, today. 

Despite the deaths of crew members and the poor food supply, Franklin still wrote in his captain’s log that everything was going well, and in the spring of 1846 the ships set sail towards the south, passing by Prince of Wales Island through Peel Strait, heading straight into the heart of the Arctic waters. The native Eskimos watched the ships from afar, serving always as distant bystanders in the expedition. It is thanks to the Eskimo people that later rescue missions were given clues as to where the ships went next. Although the native’s accounts differ, it is likely that the Erebus and Terror made it as far south as the western coast of Boothia Peninsula before becoming trapped for good in the ice. Other accounts mention the ships getting trapped further north on the opposite side of North Somerset Island or in the middle of Prince Regent’s Inlet. At this point the tale of exploration ended, and the struggle for survival began.  

On 11 June 1847, the expedition’s leader, Sir John Franklin, died on board the HMS Erebus and Captain Crozier of HMS Terror was now in command of the expedition. The ice pack had not let up, and the slow currents had pushed the ships further south. That winter nine more crew members were dead, and 15 were close to dying. The ice still did not ease by the spring of 1848, and on 22 April, Captain Crozier at last called for the crews to abandon the ships. The 105 men that remained alive were in a bad state, sick and starving, but Crozier had weighed their odds of survival and concluded that they had a better chance of making it back to England if they tried to make for the mainland on foot. Before setting off, Crozier left a written note detailing the crew’s survival plans, tucking the letter into a cairn. Crozier decided the men’s best bet of survival was to trudge south onto King William Island and from there reach Adelaide Peninsula, the northern tip of Canada’s mainland. At that point they could easily reach the mouth of the Great Fish River which would eventually lead into the District of Keewatin and the northernmost outpost of the Hudson Bay Company.

At this point the story ends. No notes have been found nor any traces of their route and campsites. Random relics have appeared here and there, mostly taken by Eskimos and shown to rescue parties in later decades. Human remains of a few of the crew members have been found in various places, some as far south as the mouth of the Great Fish River, which indicates that at least some of the crew members held out long enough to reach the mainland before perishing. However, there were no known survivors. The Eskimo people recalled watching the men slowly trudging through the ice and snow, barely clinging to life. An old Eskimo woman told a search party some years later that she had witnessed the last of the party die. She described the very last man left alive sit down on the ice with his hands behind his head. Thus ended the Franklin Expedition of 1845. 

Back in London, friends and loved ones of the crew were becoming worried and suspicious. The Erebus and Terror were meant to have sailed through the Northwest Passage into the Pacific, where they then would have been able to send word back to Britain of their safety and success. It was now 1850, five years after the expedition, which was intended to take only 18 months, had set sail, and not a word had been heard from either of the ships since leaving the shores of Greenland in 1845. The British government put forth a reward of £20,000 to anyone who could discover the fate of the expedition. Rescue missions were quickly assembled in the following years, totalling 26 missions by 1880 – all were unsuccessful in finding the ships or the crew. On several attempts artefacts were found: spoons and ship planks, and, on rare occasions, a skeleton, bleached and long deceased. But no clues were good enough to trace the final whereabouts of Franklin’s party. 

Although the ships had not been found, the three graves on Beechey Island were discovered by one of the earliest rescue parties in 1850. The campsite there quickly became the most studied place on the Franklin route, and remained highly investigated well into the twentieth century. In 1981, long after newspapers had given up publishing anything about the tragic story, an anthropological research team from the University of Alberta led by Owen Beattie, brought the Franklin Expedition back into the spotlight. Beattie’s team exhumed the bodies of the three men on Beechey Island and looked at the skeletons found further south at various campsites. He carried out autopsies to find out if their deaths could have any possible explanation for why the expedition failed. The results were shocking and grim. Besides starvation and hypothermia, it was believed that scurvy, pulmonary tuberculosis, Pott’s disease, and worse – lead poisoning – were the most evident causes of death.

These results were mildly unsettling compared to Beattie’s other discovery. He found evidence of cannibalism on several of the skeletons. Cut and saw marks on the bones revealed the level of starvation which clearly plagued the last survivors of the expedition. What before had been a tragic tale of misadventure in the Arctic, became overnight a horrific saga showcasing the effects of human need and desperation. For years the Eskimo people had reported cases of cannibalism among the crew, but nineteenth-century search parties were unwilling to mention the dreadful news to journalists back in Britain. 

The fate of Erebus and Terror still remains a curious case. Although it was known from Crozier’s note that the ships had been trapped between the icebergs and were soon crushed, the exact location of the shipwreck remained a geographic mystery for decades. However, in September 2014, Owen Beattie carried out a search for the ships. After 169 years, the HMS Erebus was discovered, lying in a shattered mess beneath the solid waves just to the west of King William Island. It was a major find for Arctic, Canadian, and British historians, navigators, and relatives of the ill-fated crew. The HMS Terror still lies undiscovered. 

There have been, in human history, few cases of exploration as haunting and tragic as the Franklin Expedition of 1845. To this day it is still widely regarded as the most terrible tragedy in the Arctic’s history. It is a story of adventure and survival, but also a severe warning to any who dare to venture into the fickle and cruel waters of the earth’s most uninviting region. The Franklin party paid the price for penetrating its bays and icy inlets. An artist who once accompanied Beattie to Beechey Island perhaps best summed up the Arctic experience by saying that it is a ‘frightening place, guarding the great Franklin mystery. The silence is deafening. The spirits of the dead are there, prisoners forever in the ice.’

Image: Special Collections Toronto Public Library

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