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The Franklin Expedition – Arctic Death (Part 2)

If you haven't read part 1, check it out before slipping into this.

The Franklin Expedition set off in search of the fabled Northwest Passage on 19 May 1845. They had state-of-the-art ships, more than enough provisions, and experienced leaders. Sometimes, there is no way to prepare for the cold claws of the Arctic.

Franklin's ships, the Erebus and Terror, were last seen by two whaling ships in Baffin Bay. Two years would pass before their silence became concerning enough to mount a rescue.



Lady Jane Franklin - Rouse the Admiralty


1848 was a tough year for Lady Jane Franklin. Her husband had been gone for two years with no word. Sir John Franklin should have led his men through the NorthWest Passage by now, or at least turned back.

The Victorian Admiralty weren't too concerned. Franklin's expedition had provisions for at least three years, after all.

Lady Jane was having none of their lackadaisical attitude. She petitioned the government, as well as the Navy, to conduct a search for her husband and the 128 men who had accompanied him into the Arctic.

Her persistence paid off, and soon the largest search and rescue operation in British Naval history was begun. Teams set off both overland and at sea, searching for the missing explorers. Years passed before they found anything.

The fate of the missing Franklin Expedition wouldn't be known until 1859.


Scarce Clues, Cannibalism, Chaos


Over the years, only a few traces were found of the brave sailors. The remains they managed to find were returned to England for examination. Most of the crew remained missing.

Victorian medical experts couldn't identify much of what happened to the remains they were given. They were fairly sure that the men were dead, but had no practical way of proving anything. That's a joke of course, they could see that the scattered body parts weren't alive, because they asked them.

Modern forensic analysis revealed that the remains found were of men who died of scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, and in some cases the bones bore cut marks indicative of cannibalism.

Investigators concluded that the tin cans must have been contaminated with lead. This would explain, at least partially, what happened to the expedition. Lead attacks the brain and central nervous system. Symptoms of lead-poisoning include:

  • Memory troubles

  • Inability to concentrate

  • Mood disorders

  • Headaches

  • High blood pressure

  • Joint and muscle pain

  • Death

The theory goes that Sir John Franklin and his two chief officers, James Fitzjames and Francis Crozier, all became afflicted by toxic lead-poisoning. They started making bad decisions, which led the expedition astray. Fights broke out among the sailors as their brains deteriorated. Eventually there was nothing but chaos and despair to keep them company.


Lady Jane Franklin kept the search going for 12 years. The final expedition managed to reach King William Island, where they found scattered remains and a note containing an account of the Franklin expedition up to 25 April 1848. That note became known as the Victory Point Note, and it was carefully placed in a stone cairn built by the sailors.


Trapped in the Arctic Claws



The written account stated that everything went according to plan up to 1846. They sailed through the Wellington Channel in 1845, and spent the Winter on Beechey Island.

Spring came and the Franklin Expedition sailed south. They passed through the Franklin Strait and all seemed well. By September 1846 they were about halfway between the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, in the Victoria Strait near King William Island.

The flash freeze caught them off guard, and both the Erebus and the Terror got stuck in the ice. Their steam engines and reinforced hulls proved no match for the Arctic ice.

Franklin and his men lingered there, trapped in the ice for years. Sir John Franklin, and 23 of his men, were dead by April 1848. By 22 April, the remaining officers made the fateful decision to abandon the ships and strike out across the ice.

105 men in total marched south, none would survive.


March of Death


The men headed for the Back River. Large parts of their long march took them across the sea ice. They were observed by the local Inuit people, who filled in a lot of the blanks for later European explorers.

Driven mad by hunger and lead poisoning, the men slowly trudged through the snow. One by one they dropped dead, at which point the others would cannibalize their former comrades.

According to the Inuit people, around 40 of the men died near the Back River. What remained of the expedition headed West, and may even have reached a body of water connected to the Pacific Ocean.

There were no survivors, and no further trace would be found until 2014.


Finding the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror


On the 7th of September 2014, a Canadian team found a shipwreck under 11 meters of water in the Eastern part of the Queen Maud Gulf. They identified the ship as the HMS Erebus.

Wreck divers attempted an exploration of the shipwreck in 2018, but were unable to conduct a thorough search due to poor weather conditions. Time is running out on the exploration, however, as the unforgiving Arctic Ocean has dislodged the wreck and caused serious damage to what's left of it.

The HMS Terror was found on 12 September 2016 by an Arctic Research Foundation expedition. South of King William's Island, in what is now known as Terror Bay, the HMS Terror is buried 24 meters beneath the waves.

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