When expeditions in the 15th and 16th centuries opened North America up to Europe, many nations sought to find shortcuts from Europe to Asia through a speculated Northwest Passage. This was a sea route between the Pacific and Atlantic along the northern coast of North America, and was thought to be a possible trade route from Europe to Asia.
Expeditions were undertaken in the 17th and 18th centuries, by explorers including James Cook, James Knight, and Christopher Middleton, to uncover new geographic regions. By 1800, these explorations concluded that no Northwest Passage existed in temperate waters.
Sir John Barrow, Second Lord of the Admiralty from 1804 to 1845, pushed the Royal Navy to find the Northwest Passage and navigate towards the North Pole. A series of major expeditions were undertaken to the Arctic, including three by Sir John Franklin in 1818, 1819 and 1825. Franklin’s early expeditions were disastrous.
These expeditions meant that by 1845 more was known about the Canadian Arctic. Barrow believed that the Northwest Passage would soon be discovered. Here are 10 facts about the fateful Franklin Expedition that followed.
1. Sir John Franklin was not the first choice for the expedition
Barrow spent a long time deliberating over who should command this expedition. His first choice, William Edward Parry, declined as he had had enough of the Arctic. James Clark Ross declined as he had made a promise to his wife that he would give up polar exploration. Other choices were rejected by the Admiralty until Franklin was settled upon.
2. HMS Terror and HMS Erebus were the ships chosen for the voyage
Both Terror and Erebus had been built as bomb-vessels for the Royal Navy meaning that they were built to be strong enough to carry mortars and undertake bombardments. Their strong frameworks made them ideal to be refitted as polar exploration ships. Wooden ships sailed better in temperate waters: extreme cold and heat could cause issues.
Terror and Erebus were used in the 1839 expedition to the Arctic under the command of Francis Crozier and James Clark Ross, respectively. Ahead of the Franklin expedition, the two ships were once again modified. Iron plating was added to the hull and steam engines were fitted.
Franklin commanded Erebus and Crozier was given command of the Terror.
3. Enough provisions were packed to last three years
Preserving food on long voyages could be challenging. In the early 19th century, tinned food had been invented which proved to be useful for the army and the navy. 8,000 tins of food were ordered for the voyage. Stephen Goldner was awarded this contract but had only seven weeks to fill the order. Due to the rush and demand, the quality of the tins produced was lacking (the lead soldering had dripped into some of the tins).
Salt cured meat and live cattle were also included on the voyage. 7,088 pounds of tobacco were also packed, along with 2,700 pounds of candles.
4. It wasn’t just humans that made up the crew
Only a handful of the crew had been on Arctic expeditions before, including Crozier. Most of the crew were from Northern England but there were also sailors from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Canada, Norway and Australia. When the expedition began, there were 134 in total, but five were discharged at Greenland due to sickness.
In addition to the crew, Lady Franklin gifted Erebus with a monkey named Jacko and a Newfoundland called Neptune. A cat also made the journey.
5. The last time the expedition was seen was in Baffin Bay
Leaving Greenhithe, Kent on 19 May 1845, the expedition made a stop in Stromness and then sailed to Greenland with two other ships. At Disko Bay, fresh meat was loaded onto Erebus and Terror and the sailors wrote their last letters home.
Whalers the Prince of Wales and Enterprise encountered the expedition at Baffin Bay in late July. Except perhaps by local Inuit, the crew were never seen again.
6. For two years the Admiralty heard nothing from Franklin
The Admiralty saw no cause for alarm when they had not heard from Franklin or his crew for 2 years. Eventually, the Admiralty were pressured to find Franklin, undertaking a ‘three pronged’ approach: overland, by sea and through issuing a reward. These initial attempts failed in finding any remains or links to the Franklin expedition.
Frustrated by the lack of success, the press and public fervently pushed to find Franklin. Ballads were composed in honour of Lady Franklin and her desperate search for her husband.
7. Evidence of what happened to Franklin was first found in the 1850s
In 1854, John Rae learned of what had happened to Terror and Erebus by gathering intelligence from local Inuit and finding artefacts. Both ships became icebound around King William Island and were subsequently abandoned by their crews.
Several excavations, archaeological and research projects have been undertaken on Franklin’s expedition to determine what happened. Erebus and Terror were found in the 2010s: their recovery helped to determine why the ships were abandoned.
It is generally believed that Franklin took the more treacherous western route around King William Island where the ships became trapped in ice. The expedition then reached Cape Herschel and drifted further south until an order was given to abandon ship in 1848.
8. Forensic anthropologists investigated the crew’s fate in the 1980s
After abandoning the ships, and already with a diminished and sick crew, the expedition attempted to trek south across land. They were in a part of the Arctic that even the Inuit rarely visited, but they did have provisions for 3 years and would have been prepared to winter in the Arctic as was customary during these expeditions.
Research undertaken by the Franklin Expedition Forensic Anthropology Project (FEFAP) in the 1980s determined that the crew died from and succumbed to hypothermia, starvation, tuberculosis and scurvy. Lead poisoning was also suggested as a cause of the death (from the tinned food), but this has been challenged by recent research. The bones found also have evidence of cannibalism.
In May 2021, one body was positively identified as Warrant Officer John Gregory, the engineer on the Erebus. His great-great-great-great grandson was found in South Africa and was able to provide a DNA match for his ancestor.
9. Written messages from Franklin’s crew were discovered
The McClintock Arctic expedition (1857-1859) uncovered the only surviving written messages from Franklin’s expedition. In the spring of 1847, crew from the expedition travelled to Point Victory on shore and left a written record.
Known as the Victory Point Note, handwriting in the margins indicated that the ships had been stuck since 12 September 1846 and that they had been deserted on 22 April 1848. It was also noted that Franklin had died on 11 June 1847 and that 9 officers and 15 men had also been lost.
10. The expedition made a significant impact on the geographical knowledge of the area
Despite, or perhaps because of, the disaster that unfolded for the crew of Franklin’s expedition, more was learned about the geographical landscape of the Arctic. Subsequent search parties were able to document their expeditions. The disaster did, however, lead to the conclusion that there would be no Northwest Passage to the North Pole, given how harsh the conditions were for even the strongest ships. This marked an end to an age of polar exploration.
Whilst the exact fate of Franklin’s expedition will never been known, it paved the way for future expeditions to explore the depths of the Arctic and other parts of the world. It inspired generations of subsequent explorers.
The Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen made the first complete journey through the passage 1903-1906, though regular trade and shipping through the Northwest Passage was unable to happen due to the pack ice. The decline in sea ice over recent years has meant that the Northwest Passage can be more easily navigated.