Arctic exploration is a dangerous game. If the subzero temperatures don't get you, the near invisible death dealers known as polar bears will. The Arctic Ocean is unpredictable, and hungry.
Sir John Franklin was the typical 19th century explorer. He looked at a map and saw only adventure. Loading 129 brave souls into two ships, he set off to find a Northwest Passage that could take ships over the top of Canada.
All they found was death.
The Northwest Passage
Sailors are a daring bunch. The greatest feats of exploration have always come from a desire to find shorter, more efficient routes. Why walk from Europe to Asia when you can board a floating coffin and hope that you brought enough lemons to stave off scurvy?
Global trade rewards those who speed up the process. That's exactly what drove Christopher Columbus to sail West. He was looking for a quicker route to India. Spice was the hottest commodity.
Unfortunately for the Europeans, they didn't find a direct route to India. Instead, they found a massive continent blocking their way. So what could they do? National interests put great pressure on the explorers of Europe.
They started looking for ways around it. Going South was no good. Sailing around Africa was far more efficient than that. The only thing left was to go North, and West.
One problem kept coming up, the landmass that would become Canada was more of an Arctic Archipelago. Several small landmasses, often conjoined by ice. Theoretically, there was a way to sail through. Practically, no-one had succeeded by the time Sir John Franklin's doomed expedition set out in 1845.
Pedigree of a Polar Explorer
Sir John Franklin wasn't just some Victorian aristocrat playing at exploration. He joined the Royal Navy at the age of 14. Accompanying the man who charted most of Australia's coast, Matthew Flinders, on that very same expedition.
At the age of 17 he participated in the battle of Trafalgar, 1805. He served loyally for another ten years before participating in the battle of New Orleans, 1815. The young soldier made quite the name for himself, and as a result he was given command of the Trent as part of David Buchan's mission to reach the North Pole in 1818.
Polar exploration sat well with Franklin. He returned to the Arctic in 1819, remaining there until 1823 when he published a book recounting his adventures. Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea, in the Years 1819, 20, 21 and 22, clumsy title aside, was a smash hit.
Two years passed before the call of the frigid North pulled John Franklin back to Canada. His second overland adventure took 2 years and had him exploring the northern rim of mainland North America, from East to West coast.
This second expedition got him the Victorian era's greatest honor, knighthood. He was made governor of what is today known as Tasmania. 7 years away from the Arctic wore heavily on the explorer.
After his return to England in 1843, he began planning his greatest expedition yet. The Search for the NorthWest Passage.
Perfect Leaders, Perfect Ships
Two ships would sail from England in 1845. The Erebus, and the Terror carried 129 men between them. Sir John Franklin commanded the Erebus, and he had fellow Arctic Exploration legend, James Fitzjames helming the Terror.
The Erebus, and the Terror, were uniquely suited to the task. Both ships had state of the art steam engines and sails. They had interior heating, thanks to their steam powered hearts. Along with the men, the ships carried cattle and machinery for the production of fresh water. Their bows were reinforced with extra wood and iron to facilitate the breaking of thick ice. Three years' supply of canned food would see the men through their historic journey. Perfect, on paper. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
The ships stopped in Greenland for more supplies. Europeans would only see the Terror and Erebus one more time. Whalers spotted the pair making their way across Baffin Bay, heading for the Lancaster Sound.
Two years later, the Franklin Expedition was declared missing. Their fates would remain a mystery for the next 12 years, and that's only the beginning.
Read the rest of the Franklin Expedition's story in part 2.