Franklin expedition: Will we ever know what happened?
Canadian explorers have drawn a blank in the latest hunt for the remains of Captain Sir John Franklin’s fatal expedition, 160 years after he took 129 men deep into the Arctic. But will the mystery of the doomed crew ever be unravelled?
In 1845, Capt Franklin, an officer in the British Royal Navy, took two ships and 129 men towards the Northwest Territories in an attempt to map the Northwest Passage, a route that would allow sailors to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the icy Arctic circle.
Stocked with provisions that could last for seven years, and outfitted with the latest technology and experienced men, the two ships - HMS Erebus and HMS Terror - were some of the biggest, strongest, vessels ever to make the journey.
But the men vanished into the frozen Arctic, leaving a few clues but no explanation as to what went wrong.
The first search party set off in 1848 and searches involving teams from Canada, the UK, and the US have continued ever since. Last week, representatives from Parks Canada announced the results from their search this summer, which proved unsuccessful.
“What people have been looking for has changed. We’ve given up looking for survivors, we’ve given up looking for bodies. Now we’re just looking for any answers,” says William Battersby, who wrote the biography of James Fitzjames, the captain of the Erebus.
“The extraordinary thing is that despite all this effort, after 160 years and by thousands of people, we still don’t know where the ships are, and what happened on the expedition, or what happened to most of the men.”
Explorers have found rock cairns with messages from sailors who abandoned ship. They’ve taken oral history from Inuit people whose ancestors saw the ships get stuck in giant ice floes. In several cases, they’ve dug up the bones and preserved bodies of the ship’s crew. But they’ve found no ships, no logs, and no sign of Franklin himself.
In subsequent years, a rough sketch of the troubles emerged. During the first winter, the crew disembarked, travelled south to hunt. Franklin left a reassuring message in a rock cairn, signed “All well”. A month later, he was dead.
A year later, the crew returned to the cairn and updated the note. By that time, 15 sailors had died.
“If it had just been that, it would have been one of the biggest disasters of Arctic exploration,” says Ted Betts, a Toronto lawyer and author of the blog Franklin’s Ghost. But it wasn’t just that.
From that time on, things only got worse. The men, sickened from scurvy, tuberculosis and lead poisoning, got weaker and weaker. They reportedly abandoned ship in 1848, only to meet a cold death elsewhere.
In 1859, an explorer sent by Franklin’s wife travelled to the spot where the ships had been abandoned. He didn’t find the Terror or the Erebus. Instead, he found a small whaleboat, full of books, chocolates, and the skeletons of two sailors.
The boat, says Russell Potter, professor of English at Rhode Island College, was pointed towards where the abandoned ship once sat.
“Maybe they weren’t trying to get away, but to get back to their ship and die in comfort,” he says. “It’s a very poignant arrangement.”
Two other locations offered a concentrated amount of remains, says Battersby. “They do seem to be associated with men who just abandoned ship, gave up hope of ever being rescued, and sadly, gradually, cannibalised the bodies of their comrades.”
A few fully-preserved corpses have been found in the snow as well. But the bodies of others, including Franklin, are missing.
“They simply disappeared. It’s like Apollo 13 went around the moon and never came back again,” says Battersby.
“They never had a date of death, a place of death. They’re immortals who are trapped between life and death. Are they ghosts? How long did the last one live? We just don’t know.”
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Search for Sir John Franklin continues. . .