5 Polar Expeditions That Ended in Disaster | History Hit

5 Polar Expeditions That Ended in Disaster

Harry Sherrin

05 Jan 2022
William Bradford's painting of the Polaris. 1875.
Image Credit: Taubman Museum of Art via Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

In the 19th and early 20th centuries, strings of explorers ventured to the world’s most extreme regions in search of glory, knowledge and adventure. For many, the ultimate aim was to reach the North or South Poles, or to discover the Northwest Passage, a fabled Arctic sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans.

But the stories of triumphant journeys to the world’s final frontiers are also often stories of hardships, struggle and death. For every polar explorer who made it out alive, there are dozens more that succumbed to starvation, drowning, mutiny, frosty temperatures and the polar wasteland.

From the mysterious disappearance of the Franklin expedition to S. A. Andrée’s disastrous attempt to reach the North Pole in a hydrogen balloon, here are 5 polar expeditions that ended in tragedy.

1. The Franklin Expedition (1845-1846)

Before the days of the Panama Canal, European explorers raced to discover the Northwest passage, a theorised route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans passing through the Arctic Ocean above Canada. One such explorer was Sir John Franklin.

In May 1845, the Franklin Expedition set out from England on an expedition to search for the passage. His fleet comprised two vessels, the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus, and some 129 men. Neither vessel nor any of the men survived.

Dr John Roobol discusses the fate of John Franklin and his crew, from how they suffered in the bitter conditions, to the crew members who resorted to cannibalism. John's work also looks into the Inuits, and how their testimony was largely ignored, as the Victorians were desperate to insist that no British explorers would ever resort to cannibalism.
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Franklin himself is known to have died in June 1947, but some of the crew remained alive until April 1848. An 1848 search party discovered the graves of three of Franklin’s men on Beechey Island. A later expedition, in 1859, found further remains on King William Island.

The exact details of the Franklin Expedition’s demise are contested, though it’s thought that scurvy and malnutrition played a hand in some of the men’s deaths. Later analysis of the bones of some of Franklin’s men revealed evidence of cannibalism.

In 2014, the wreck of the HMS Erebus was discovered in Canada’s Queen Maud Gulf. The HMS Terror was found at the bottom of the same body of water in 2016.

2. The Polaris Expedition (1871-1873)

A depiction of Charles Francis Hall’s funeral during the Polaris Expedition.

Image Credit: Internet Archive Book Images via Flickr / Public Domain

The Polaris Expedition of 1871, led by American explorer Charles Francis Hall, hoped to be the first to reach the North Pole.

The group set off on the vessel Polaris from New York bound for the Arctic, but rifts within the team quickly emerged. The party made it as far as northern Greenland when the harsh winter delayed their journey further north. There, tensions mounted as members of the crew began to question Hall’s leadership.

Though Hall was a seasoned explorer by this point, he had no experience as a leader. The expedition’s scientist Emil Bessels and meteorologist Frederick Meyer soon turned on Hall, defying his authority. Suddenly, Hall fell ill, a sickness he responded to by accusing Bessels of poisoning him. Hall died soon after.

The surviving men embarked on a treacherous return journey south, which saw them split up, drift on an ice floe, wreck the Polaris on the shores of Greenland and eventually be rescued after a bitter winter.

Hall’s body was discovered in 1968. Upon examination, experts concluded he had ingested large quantities of arsenic before his death, possibly suggesting that Hall’s fears of a poisoning had been well-founded.

3. The Jeannette Expedition (1879-1881)

The USS Jeanette departed from San Francisco in July 1879, carrying a party of men attempting to make the first-ever successful journey to the North Pole.

In September of that year, the vessel became trapped in sea ice. The ship remained wedged for nearly two years before eventually sinking in June 1881.

The ship’s crew were left stranded on the ice, nearly 500 miles away from the Siberian mainland. They set off across the frosty wasteland on sleds, towing two smaller vessels which they eventually deployed to carry them to the shores of northern Russia.

Of the 33 men that departed with the Jeanette, just 13 made it back alive. 20 men died on the journey to North Bulun, a Russian settlement where the survivors eventually found refuge.

4. S. A. Andrée Expedition (1897)

The Andree Expedition’s crashed hydrogen balloon, photographed by expedition member Nils Strindberg.

In 1897, the Swedish aeronaut Solomon August Andrée attempted to fly to the North Pole from the Svalbard archipelago in a hydrogen balloon.

The balloon remained in the air for more than 10 hours without descending. After that point, the balloon suffered several scrapes and collisions, enduring roughly 41 sleepless hours of intermittent air time and collisions with the Arctic surface. Eventually, the craft landed safely and the team were forced to make the return journey on the ground.

More an aviator than a Polar explorer or navigator, Andrée was ill-prepared for traversing the Arctic terrain. His sled was ineffective, food supplies minimal and his warm clothing insubstantial.

More than two months of icy travel later, after setting up camp on a drifting ice floe, Andrée and his two companions arrived at the shores of White Island, also known as Kvitoya, east of Svalbard. Within two weeks, all three men were dead – possibly killed by parasites in the polar bears they had been hunting and eating.

The bodies of Andrée and his companions were found more than three decades later, in 1930, by a Norwegian expedition. Amongst the recovered supplies were some rolls of photographic film, the frames of which were later processed, sharing Andrée’s story with the world.

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5. The Australasian Antarctic Expedition (1911-1914)

By 1910, Australian academic Douglas Mawson had built up a reputation as a fearless and reliable polar explorer. So much so that he was invited to join Captain Robert Scott’s Terra Nova Expedition of 1910-1913. Mawson rejected the invite, however, and embarked on his own polar expedition in 1911.

Mawson took a team to an inhospitable and remote portion of Antarctica, where they mapped the land, investigated species and performed a number of successful scientific studies. Things took a turn for the worse when Mawson led a small party on a trip away from base camp.

On 10 November 1912, Mawson set off into Antarctica with 16 dogs and two companions, Xavier Mertz and Belgrave Ninnis. Some weeks into the trip, Ninnis fell into a crevasse and died. He took a sled and most of the group’s food supply with him, forcing Mawson and Mertz to eat their dogs to survive. Mertz eventually died, too.

Mawson walked alone for 32 days straight across the Antarctic wilderness. After travelling roughly 100 miles on foot, he arrived back at base camp, having torn the soles of his feet off and in a terrible state of health.

Harry Sherrin

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