In 1845 Capt. Sir John Franklin, famed Artic explorer, set off to finish what he started: mapping a sailing route through the Arctic above Canada so ships could sail from Greenland to Russia across a Northwest Passage. He had lead 3 other successful expeditions (although one of those successful expeditions involved 11 out of 20 men dying) and had mapped out significant parts of the theoried route up to this point. This last expedition would finish the job.
The Victorians were dedicated to mapping out the parts of the world still undocumented and explorer after explorer set off to do it in the name of Queen and country. In particular the Arctic was a major challenge and many teams tried desperately to be the first to reach the North Pole. Franklin’s quest was much more practical. A shipping route would be invaluable to trade and commerce.
Franklin was seasoned and knew finding a route to sail above Northern Canada would be tough. He prepared the best equipped expedition in history. His ships “had five years of food supplies, including 8,000 tins (in one-, two-, four-, six-, and eight lb. capacities) of meat, vegetables, and soup. In addition to the technical innovation of tinned goods, Franklin’s vessels the “Erebus” and “Terror” had cabins which were heated by hot water piped through the floor. The ships’ bows were reinforced with iron planks to help them break through ice. Moreover, each ship was equipped with a specially designed screw propeller driven by a wheel-less steam locomotive from the London and Greenwich Railway.”
On May 19th, 1845, with 134 sailors and officers Sir John Franklin set sail.They were last seen by the crew of two whaling ships, the “Prince of Wales” and the “Enterprise,” in Baffin Bay at the end of July.
Franklin’s expedition had been big news and when years started to pass without word, there was an outcry to find him or what had happened. Newspapers offered rewards, The Toronto Globe offered 20,000 pounds which it later doubled, no small sum at the time. The English government sent 3 seperate relief expeditions, but little was found.
It took years to slowly piece together what happened. In 1850 one of the expeditions sent to find him did manage to find some relics and 3 graves on an island in the Barrow Strait, Beechey Island. In 1854, explorer John Rae was surveying near the Canadian Arctic coast southeast of King William Island, and heard stories from the Inuit there of about 40 doomed white men who had trudged throug there some years earlier, dragging a boat behind them, looking really bad and killing seals to feed themselves. Later on, the Inuit said, and some ways south about 30 bodies were found with knife marks in their bones, a sure sign of cannibalism.
in 1859 Francis McClintock discovered a note left on King William Island with further details about the expedition’s fate.
Here is what happened:
The ships sailed from England to Greenland. 10 oxen carried by the transport ship were slaughtered for fresh meat; supplies were transferred to Franklin’s ships Erebus andTerror, and crew members wrote their last letters home. Letters written on board told how Franklin banned swearing and drunkenness. Before the expedition’s final departure, five men were discharged and sent home on Rattler and Barretto Junior, reducing the ships’ final crew size to 129. The expedition was last seen by Europeans in early August 1845, when Captain Dannett of the whaler Prince of Wales and Captain Robert Martin of the whaler Enterprise encountered Terror and Erebus in Baffin Bay.
Franklin’s ships slowly made their way through the never ending maze of ice and islands. Unable to continue as the weather worsened they wintered at Beechey Island. Over the winter 3 crew members died. Their wintering on Beechey was not a problem and to be expected. However even before they set off in the spring to continue their voyage their problems were already beginning.
The 8,000 tins of food they had prepared were prepared hastily, supplied from a cut-rate provisioner, Stephen Goldner, who was awarded the contract on 1 April 1845, just seven weeks before Franklin set sail. Goldner worked in haste on the order of 8,000 tins, which were later found to have lead soldering that was “thick and sloppily done, and dripped like melted candle wax down the inside surface”
The distilled water system in the ships were set up with lead pipes and as the pipes started to wear and tear lead crept into their water. Lead poisoning started to seep into their bodies, but they did not realize this yet.
In the spring, the expedition set off again, going south as North the previous fall had been a bust. They travelled down the western side of King William’s Island, unknown to them, a fatal move. The ice on the eastern side melts in the summer, but rarely on the western side.
Look at this map. Why would you go down and around on the east? You’d just go up and over on the west, right?
Despite what common sense would seem to suggest, going through the HUGE gap in the upper west instead of the narrow long way around at the bottom southeast is actually fatally wrong. The two ships became stuck in ice, locked like this for 2 winters as lead poisoning and scurvy from the bad tins and bad distillation destroyed the crews’ health.
The crew wintered on King William Island the winter of 1846-1847. They waited for the ice to thaw in the summer, but summer never came. Franklin died on 11 June 1847. The crew, unable to get either ship out of the ice was forced to winter again during 1847–48. The next spring proved just as bad as the one before and on April 22, 1848 the Erebus and Terror were abandoned after one year and seven months trapped in the ice
A note dated was found on King William Island from Apr. 25, 1848 stating that 24 men, nine officers and fifteen crew had died and those remaining were planning on leaving on April 26 toward the Back River on the Canadian mainland. However, they were a naval expedition. Only 4 of them had any experience crossing Arctic conditions on foot.
90 or so men set out. They pulled heavy sledges stacked high with food, shelter and firewood across the frozen wastes, but were already overcome with fatigue, malnutrition, scurvy and lead poisoning. By 200 miles, many had died. In 1950 they were seen by Inuits who also found one of the abandoned ships. There were 40 left.
Other Inuits later found 30 something bodies somewhat south with knife chips in the bones, signifying cannibalism.
In 1951, more Inuits, further south, spotted 4 men, the very last 4 survivors trudging along. To paint a picture: these guys had been trudging through the Arctic FOR THREE YEARS. The Inuit sightings have all been verified over time from various stone cairns with notes or relics from the survivors.
In 1852 there were 2 men sighted by Inuits, one of whom was Captain Crozier, the Captain of the HMS Terror. They had walked for OVER FOUR YEARS THROUGH ALMOST 3,000 MILES OF ARCTIC WILDERNESS.
Crozier and one other unkown crew member made it to the Baker Lake area they were aiming for, but as they were never seen again it is assumed they finally succumbed and died. I would prefer to think they said fuck it shacked up some Inuits, but this is doubtful.
Cairns and bodies have been found in the years since, as over a century the route and fates of the men have been uncovered.
The last question i leave you with is Why didn’t the Inuits help them? There is no simple answer to this question. It is an unquestioned fact that most British eplorers considered themselves and their culture utterly superior to the Inuit and looked down upon them, but if you’ve spent a few months, a year THREE YEARS trekking through the Arctic, i highly doubt you would be full of airs when running across the locals who live and thrive in the environment that’s killing everyone you left with. It is entirely possible certain Inuits helped them along the way. it is entirely possible they observed them from a distance, shrugged, and went back to their business. This answer we do not know.
Franklin’s expedition has been immortalized in poetry, music and books. I leave you with the song Northwest Passage by Stan Rogers.