Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to the NW Passage is remembered 175 years later on a superb Canadian silver coin

We can always expect a smattering of coins featuring the iconic maple leaf that so epitomises Canada’s national identity being released every month, as well as something gimmicky in an attempt to push coin design forward, but in amongst all that there’s always a real gem. In our view at least, the coin that fits that bill in April is this gorgeous depiction of a famous 19th century attempt to find the fabled North West passage.

Many of you may know of the expedition through the fantastical 2019 television series, The Terror, which took this failed journey as its basis. Full of artistic flourishes, of course, it nevertheless did a superb job of showing what it must have been like to be stuck in sea ice for over 11/2 years. Some 129 men died on the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and their fate remained largely unknown. Although the first relics were found in 1850, it wasn’t until 2014 that the wreck of Erebus was found, and that of Terror two years later. Ultimately a failure, the expedition has long been held as an example of human endeavour, and did lead to extensive mapping of the area, ironically by the ships looking for survivors.

The coin is a rare five-ounce effort from the Royal Canadian Mint and the design by Matt Bowen is of the firmly icebound HMS Terror being abandoned by her crew, in a last desperate attempt for safety. Apart from ‘CANADA’ and ‘2020’ inscribed on the reverse face, the scene is free to fill the rimless coin to its edges. It’s a gorgeous piece in our view, full of depth and exquisite fine detail. Even the Aurora Borealis, the fabled Northern Lights, is fashioned into the sky, and you get a good sense of the desolation and desperation experienced by the doomed crew. The edge is a clever touch, designed to appear as if the coin is a broken ice floe, This is carried over onto the obverse, which features the Susanna Blunt effigy of Queen Elizabeth II appearing as if floating on a pool of frozen water surrounded by ice. Why doesn’t the RCM make this kind of effort with more of its coins, as it works so well? The Perth, Royal Australian and New Zealand Mint’s would also do well to take note. The Mint of Poland was the first to regularly incorporate the effigy into a wider design and we’d like to see more of it.

A mintage of 750 and a price approaching $580 CAD means that this isn’t a budget coin, but it looks worth every penny. The packaging of the RCM’s ubiquitous maroon snapper case is a disappointment (the coin would have benefited greatly from one of the NZ Mint’s fantastic solid acrylic frames), but in every other respect, this looks a winner to us. Available to order now, it apparently isn’t shipping until the end of November, no doubt a victim of the current epidemic, albeit an unimportant one.


It was the Arctic voyage that launched a 170-year search. Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition is one of history’s greatest mysteries and, until recently, it seemed fated to remain unsolved. But by combining technology with Inuit traditional knowledge (Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit), archaeologists recently discovered two key pieces of the story that may yield more answers: Franklin’s lost ships, including the one shown on this coin.

Since 1848, more than 90 different search expeditions have attempted to find Franklin’s expedition or evidence of its fate. The only written record is a single sheet of Admiralty paper found in a stone cairn in 1859. Handwritten notes indicated the ships had been locked in ice for 19 months before being abandoned on April 22, 1848, when survivors moved onto King William Island and tried to reach the mainland.

In 2008, Parks Canada’s Underwater Archaeology Team (UAT) and partners embarked on a new annual search for the lost ships using underwater technology and Inuit testimony. On September 1, 2014, a helicopter team uncovered two objects that shifted the focus to the shallow waters of Wilmot and Crampton Bay, where HMS Erebus was discovered the next day.

In 2016, HMS Terror was discovered nearly 100 kilometres south of the point where she was thought to have been crushed by ice. A resident of Gjoa Haven reported seeing a tall piece of wood rising up through the ice. Based on this account, a research vessel detoured to Terror Bay, where HMS Terror was discovered resting on the seafloor.

REVERSE: Designed by Royal Canadian Mint engraver Matt Bowen, the reverse features an artist’s rendition of the doomed Franklin expedition (1845-1848). The coin’s corrugated edge resembles jagged ice, which has HMS Terror firmly in its grasp on the reverse. In a desperate attempt to survive, the surviving crew and officers are seen abandoning the ship, with one group in the distance hauling a lifeboat towards King William Island.

OBVERSE: The obverse features the effigy of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II by Susanna Blunt.

COMPOSITION 0.9999 silver
WEIGHT 157.6 grams
BOX / C.O.A. Yes / Yes