The quest to locate and traverse a north-to-west passage through the Arctic Archipelago was one of the most mythical and emotionally tumultuous British campaigns of the nineteenth century. The expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, departed from Beechey Island in the spring of 1846 in search of an elusive passage to the Pacific Ocean. It never returned.
Early modern navigators searched for a passage to the Orient in vain but later land explorers like Franklin explored and mapped significant portions of the Arctic coastline. In 1822 Franklin returned from the Coppermine River expedition (an attempt to map the Northwest Passage) as ‘the man who ate his boots.’ Tragically, most of its indigenous voyageurs died and incidents of cannibalism occurred. Franklin led a second, less dramatic Arctic land expedition (1825-7), following which he was knighted and married Jane Griffin. Franklin was a shy man from Lincolnshire, England who worked his way up the ranks and served with distinction during the Napoleonic Wars. He was considered a humane, reliable, and honourable officer.
“Beechey Island became a place of investigation, pilgrimage, and haunting”
Franklin’s ships, HMS Erebus and Terror, had impressive technological might. They were converted bomb vessels fitted with screw propeller engines, a modern hot water heating system, and reinforced with iron hulls. The expedition was expected to take several years and was supplied with massive stores of food, rifles, ammunition, and winter clothing, alongside libraries and theatrical equipment for recreation. The British Admiralty had never before sent out such a well-equipped discovery expedition, which left London in May 1845.
The expedition departed amid much fanfare and optimism. Both the eastern and western ‘doors’ of the Northwest Passage were open and Britain’s imperial strength and naval dominance encouraged the public to believe that mapping this unknown corridor was quite possible. Yet the experiences of other naval expeditions should have sounded a note of warning. As Amundsen knew only too well, it was almost impossible for large steam-powered ships to navigate treacherous ice fields over successive winters. Detrimentally, Franklin’s massive crews were dependent on their stored goods rather than the kinds of environmental knowledge and craft expertise that Inuit communities depended on.
“British Admiralty had never before sent out such a well-equipped expedition”
The men of the Franklin expedition perished in dire circumstances: its history unwritten, its ships lost. Beechey Island was famous among Arctic explorers as the last safe winter harbour of the British expedition and central to understanding why Franklin failed. It became a place of investigation, pilgrimage, and haunting. In 1903, on their own Northwest Passage journey, Amundsen and his men felt the “heaviness and sadness of death” hanging over the island. The ghosts of the Franklin expedition remain there to this day, invoking a sense of mystery that surrounds its fate.
In 1850 search and rescue expeditions discovered a cairn of empty cans of preserved meats and soups and the graves of John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Brain of the Franklin expedition. They died during the winter of 1845/6. One searcher recorded his feelings of melancholy at the scene:
“The three resting places proved that death had been busy amidst the little band… [but] there existed no record pointing out their intended route, nor even a trace which gave a clue to their fate, which is, and alas! I am afraid will ever be, clouded in mystery.”
Why had these men died so early in the expedition? Why were no documents placed under the cairn, as was standard practice?
“The men of the Franklin expedition perished in dire circumstances: its history unwritten, its ships lost”
For some, the discovery of the Beechey Island graves created collective fantasies that the expedition had, in fact thrived and was actually trapped in the mythical ‘Polar Sea.’ Rumours and hoaxes spread through the British media during this period and dozens of young clairvoyants even offered their services to the search. Over 30 missions to find traces of the expedition were launched between 1847 and 1859, including official British Admiralty missions, United States expeditions, and private ships sent by Lady Franklin. Scepticism surfaced and they were officially taken off the Navy list by the Admiralty in 1854. It seemed that the Beechey Island would hold onto its mysteries forever.
Yet in 1854 evidence finally emerged. Dr John Rae, exploring the King William Island region for the Hudson’s Bay Company, heard stories from Inuit about 40 white men. The men communicated that their ships had been crushed by the ice and that they were heading south in search of deer to shoot. Later in the same season the Inuit encountered graves and the corpses of around 30 white men. The mutilated state of the bodies led Rae to believe that cannibalism had occurred. He brought the despairing news home to a shocked British public, along with the pathetic relics of a disaster – buttons, silver cutlery, and medals.
In 1859 Leopold McClintock, dispatched by Jane Franklin, found documentary evidence on King William Island: a record from May 1847, which gave the coordinates of the ships and mentioned that the Terror and Erebus overwintered on Beechey Island with the commander Sir John Franklin. McClintock noticed handwriting around the borders of the document that told a dark story. Dated April 1848, it recorded that Franklin had died on June 11 1847, the ships had been abandoned off the coast of King William Island, and that 105 officers and crew were heading south under the command of Captain Crozier.
“In 1854 evidence of the Franklin expedition finally emerged”
Many reasons for the disaster have been discussed throughout the years: scurvy, imperial hubris, massacre, cultural arrogance, and even bad luck, but the fact that 24 men, including Franklin, died by this point in the voyage suggests some form of disease afflicted the crew. This would have weakened the expedition and destroyed morale. The fact that the ships had been locked in the ice since 1846 also points to severe ice conditions inhibiting any channels through the Northwest Passage.
Beechey Island continues to gather researchers to its shores. From 1981-6 forensic investigations on the three buried bodies were carried out by Owen Beattie and others and after analysing the hair and bones of the remains it was concluded that lead poisoning was also a factor in their death. The source of this poisoning was found in the cairn of stacked tin cans. It seems that during the preparations for the expedition, Goldners, the company supplying the Admiralty with preserved goods, rushed the canning process and imperfectly sealed some of the seams. This allowed lead to seep into and contaminate the food, gradually poisoning those who were dependent on it to survive. Combined with the common naval danger of scurvy, lead poisoning may have doomed the Franklin expedition.
As long as the mysteries of the expedition remain, the ghosts of Beechey Island will live on.
The Most Notable Shipwreck Mystery of our Age
On October 1, 2014 Canadian Prime Minister, Steven Harper confirmed that Parks Canada Archaeologists found Sir John Franklin’s ship, HMS Erebus, which was last seen entering Baffin Bay 169 years ago. Franklin’s voyage ended in tragedy when his ship, alongside a second British Navy vessel, HMS Terror disappeared while searching for the mysterious Northwest Passage. 2014 marked Parks Canada’s largest search effort for the remnants of the Franklin expedition since the 19th century. Archaeologists have not yet explored the vessel interior, and cannot do so until the Arctic ice melts again next summer, so they can’t confirm whether Franklin still rests within the great ship or whether he was buried on shore or at sea.
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