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What you need to know about the incredible journey of Franklin and his crew.

Reaching for the Beaufort Sea: Six things to know about the Franklin Expedition

Daniel Martins
Digital Reporter

Wednesday, September 17, 2014, 9:22 AM - You don’t need to be a history buff to get excited over the big news last week that one of the two ships of the fabled, ill-fated Franklin expedition was uncovered in Canada's north.

We don’t know whether the vessel, found in Canadian waters, is HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, but its discovery near King William Island in Nunavut, brings us a little closer to ending one of Canada’s oldest mysteries.

Sir John Franklin’s stab at finding the fabled Northwest Passage is already an incredible story. Here are six things to know.

Franklin was a (young!) expert at Arctic exploration

Franklin first went to sea was as a teenager, and One of his first voyages was aboard a warship in the Napoleonic Wars. While still a young man, he joined an expedition to chart part of the Australian coast, which eventually ran aground and left him and his crew members stranded on a sandbar for six weeks while their captain went for help.

And that’s even before Franklin even got near the game of polar exploration, which he was first tapped for in 1818, as the Royal Navy cast about to give its post-Napoleonic War officers something to do.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The 1818 jaunt wasn’t successful, so his next assignment the following year was to try find the Northwest Passage by trekking from Hudson’s Bay to the Northwest Territory. 

Overland. Often in winter conditions. With little advance notice and little time to prepare.

Incredibly, despite inadequate supplies, not-always-cooperative local fur traders and harsh Arctic climate, he did make it to the Arctic coast, but rough weather hampered his exploration efforts. But by then the strain of the effort had rapidly shortened his temper, which alienated most of his men. 

Image: Wikimedia Commons / George Back

His group were forced to turn back when supplies ran out and the death toll mounted. They were forced to eat lichen and, on some occasions, their boots to survive. The whole thing was a disaster. 

But Franklin learned from it, and when he set out again in 1825, he was better prepared, more cautious and definitely more respectful of the rigours of the Arctic climate. This time, he made it, charting hundreds of kilometres of mainland Arctic coast before being forced to turn back.

Quite the Arctic resume, and it made him a popular choice when, at 58, he was selected for another seaward stab at the Passage in 1845.

This isn't even remotely a good enough summary of the man’s incredible story up to that point, so we encourage you to pour yourself a cup of coffee and check out this entry’s primary source for the whole tale.

Franklin’s ships were the best around

If there’s a reason for the Franklin Expedition’s failure, the fault certainly didn’t lie with his ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, if this piece in Canadian Geographic is to be believed.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

Basically, sending these two ships would have been, in sci-fi terms, like kitting out the USS Enterprise with the finest futuristic gear around, and then adding a whole other USS Enterprise to the deal just for good measure.

The two ships were old, like Franklin veterans of the Napoleonic Wars, and for that reason, they were tough, built to withstand cannon fire. Because history is rife with winding paths, Terror even saw action in the War of 1812, part of the fleet whose bombardment of Baltimore inspired the penning of the U.S. national anthem “The Star Spangled Banner.”

The ships’ sturdy hulls were reinforced with iron plates to ward off errant chunks of Arctic sea ice, but their most important innovations were steam engines to give them that extra bit of kick. Common enough by the end of the 19th Century, but a major novelty at the time of the expedition.

Image: Library and Archives Canada / George Back [License]

The three-year excursion wouldn’t even be the longest they’d spent in polar seas, having already undertaken a four-year mission to Antarctica.

And aboard the ships, soon to house 128 men in addition to Franklin, were enough provisions to keep the crew comfortably fed and watered for the duration.

The explorers would dine on 24 tons of meat, 35 of flour, 20,000 pints of soup, and lemon juice to ward off scurvy. To keep out the chill – and to help unwind, we presume – there were two tons of tobacco (TONS, we said) and an astonishing 7,500 litres of alcohol.

We’re not sure whether the crew’s literacy levels would have been really adequate to make the most of it, but it seems their were also around 1,200 books in the ships’ libraries.

These were the incredible vessels that vanished into history, last seen by whalers in Lancaster Sound, north of Baffin Island, in 1845.

So what went wrong?

With no survivors, researchers have only been able to piece together the details of the ships’ doom through discoveries made here and there in the Arctic wastes by search parties.

We know the expedition successfully overwintered in a sheltered cove at Beechey Island the first year. Three crew members died during the pause, and were buried there. You can visit their graves.

Image: Angsar Walk / Wikimedia Commons [License]

Then, once the ice receded in the summer, they set out again, but found themselves icebound as winter approached. They were stranded off King William Island, deep in the Canadian Arctic archipelago, but actually not far from the mainland.

Then here’s where the weather comes into play. Even with today’s advancing state of global warming, the extent of Arctic sea ice melt varies somewhat from season to season. And that season, what little summer warmth penetrated that far north was not sufficient to melt the ice well enough to free Terror and Erebus.

Sometime in 1847, Franklin himself died, never having seen the Northwest Passage. The survivors of the crew left the trapped ships and set out for the mainland. All are believed to have died by 1848.

Image: National Archives of Canada

NEXT PAGE: The ugly fate of the lost crew

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