Second Lost Ships in Canadian Waters remembers the heroic Sir John Franklin expedition
Following on from last years RMS Empress of Ireland coin, the second release in the Royal Canadian Mints Lost Ships in Canadian Waters series is now upon us and goes back in time eighty years to remember the ill-fated expedition led by Sir John Franklin to chart the last part of the fabled North-West Passage. The mint itself has put together a detailed back story that is included below, so we won’t rehash it, but it’s certainly a story highly worthy of commemoration.
Like last years coin, it’s a one-ounce fine silver piece, selectively coloured, and with a mintage of 7,000 pieces. It’s an attractive piece, perhaps not as dynamic as the original voyage might suggest it should be, but depicting the ships in calm and serene waters, belying the sheer danger of them when conditions deteriorate. Packaged in the usual RCM burgundy snapper case, the shipper is well done and the whole a nice piece for $109.95 CAD. The 2014 Empress coin sold out, and we’d not be surprised if this followed suit. The mint also released a $35 silver-plated copper version in 2014 that carried different artwork to the pure silver coin. No sign of a 2015 release like this, but the 2014 was described as first in the series, so probably coming with the August release run. Available now.
It was the sensational story of its time, one that still captivates the imagination 170 years later. Under Sir John Franklin’s command, two Royal Navy ships set sail with every expectation of success in May of 1845 to chart the last unknown part of the Northwest Passage—yet they never returned. Subsequent expeditions who searched for the missing ships uncovered stories and relics; then, in September 2014 came news that stunned the world: Canada’s Victoria Strait Expedition had discovered the wreck of H.M.S. Erebus, Franklin’s flagship, lying on the Arctic seabed.
This scientific breakthrough raises the possibility that new evidence could help solve some of the lingering mysteries surrounding the lost expedition and its final days, for what really happened to the Franklin expedition? In its Lost Ships in Canadian Waters series, the Royal Canadian Mint commemorates this famously ill-fated voyage with a coin that depicts Franklin’s ships before they were lost to the ice and cold waters of the Canadian North.
DESIGN: The reverse design features Canadian marine artist John Horton’s depiction of the Franklin expedition’s H.M.S. Erebus in the foreground, with H.M.S. Terror to starboard. Edging their way through ice-filled waters, the three-masted wooden vessels are seen travelling at a reduced speed under shortened canvas. The cool colour palette recreates the blue hues of the sky in daylight and the darker, icy waters of the Arctic. This stunning portrait situates the ships off of the northwest coast of King William Island, providing geographical context for their location when first deserted in 1848. Edge lettering bearing the names “H.M.S. TERROR” and “H.M.S. EREBUS” further commemorates the two vessels and the 129 men who were lost.
H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror were converted bomb vessels that had been outfitted for a previous voyage to Antarctica; there, the southernmost active volcano on Earth was named after the Erebus—as was a crater on Mars.
Lady Jane Franklin spent much of her fortune financing attempts to search for her husband and his crew, including the 1857-1859 voyage commanded by Captain Sir Francis Leopold McClintock that confirmed the tragic end of Franklin’s expedition.
H.M.S. Resolute was part of an unsuccessful search for the Franklin expedition, and became one of four ships to be abandoned in the ice in 1853. Recovered by an American whaler, its timbers were re-used to create two famous desks, including the Resolute Desk, which has been used by several presidents of the United States.
Franklin’s expedition may have been ill-fated, but his intended route south of Victoria Island was used in 1906 by Roald Amundsen during his successful transit of the Northwest Passage.
Sir John Franklin and his crew set sail from Greenhithe, England on May 19, 1845 with instructions to sail from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean via the Northwest Passage. Both H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror were reinforced, equipped and well-stocked for this expedition, which initially looked promising. They were last seen by Europeans in Baffin Bay in the summer of 1845.
With no news from the 129 men and no confirmed sightings of the ships by 1848, the British government offered a substantial reward for information on the Franklin expedition’s fate. This inaugurated one of the greatest search and rescue operations in history, marking an unprecedented period of exploration as vast areas of the Canadian Arctic were charted. The first clues to the expedition’s whereabouts were finally found in 1850 when searchers located Franklin’s 1845-46 overwintering site at Beechey Island, where they observed hundreds of empty food tins and
three graves. But as the search continued, Inuit testimony and the discovery of additional expedition-related materials revealed that the crew had all perished in the vicinity of King William Island; the recovery in 1859 of a record in a cairn on King William Island’s west coast would offer the only written confirmation of the expedition’s demise.
This message reported that both ships had become icebound in 1846 in Victoria Strait and that
Sir John Franklin had died on June 11, 1847. By the time the ships were abandoned on April 22, 1848, 20 additional officers and men had also perished; the expedition’s final word was that the 105 survivors intended to head for the Great Fish River (now known as the Back River)—but neither the men nor the ships would be seen again, at least by Europeans, until H.M.S. Erebus was identified in 2014 by Parks Canada.
The story of the Franklin expedition has continued to captivate, often blurring fact and fiction. Theories abound about the last days for many of the 129 men lost, including the roles played by lead poisoning, scurvy, starvation and cannibalism; but recent discoveries may in time shed new light on some of these theories. In the meantime, interest in H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror remains high, spurred by those who seek to solve one of the world’s most famous maritime mysteries while revisiting a piece of Canada’s national narrative.
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