Did you know…
- 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.