Friday, March 10, 2017


In 1845, two ships, the H.M.S. Erebus and the H.M.S. Terror, carrying nearly 250 men and commanded by Sir John Franklin, set out to find the Northwest Passage. 

Three years later, they were still missing. 

Rear Admiral John Franklin -- leader of the pack.  For a while, anyways.
(Engraving from Wikipedia)

Little was known of the Franklin Expediton's fate, in spite of men and ships sent out to look for them. One single piece of paper, found in a cairn, told of the ships being caught in ice, Franklin's and other men's deaths, and the expedition's plan to head for the Back Fish River 'the next morning.' Inuit ("Esquimaux") hunters told searchers they'd come across white people camping, hunting...and dying. Inuit scavenged wood, iron and various artifacts from the boats and tents. They found plenty of skeletons alongside -- some with cut marks, evidently prepared for the pot. One family found pieces of boiled meat stored in high leather boots. The flesh was human. 

So what happened?

No one knows for certain.

To this day, explorers are still finding bits and pieces of the Franklin expedition -- the men disappeared in such a remote Arctic area that few, including the Inuit, visited much. Some artifacts have been found; much of what's left is in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, England.

Two of the best books on the subject: Finding Franklin by Russell Potter, who gathers bits and pieces from all sorts of Franklin researchers. The most illuminating, though, has been Unravelling the Franklin Mystery by David Woodman. This book focuses primarily on the oral Inuit testimony gathered about the expedition. It has some startling suggestions, too:  one of the expedition's commanding officers, Francis Crozier, may have actually lived (and traveled), along with a fellow crewman, for years after the others were bones under the snow. Crozier had learned to use Inuit methods, and according to some accounts, lived with them for some time. (He was known to the Inuit from some of his previous years' dealing with them in the Arctic.)
       If the testimony is right, he almost made it out to civilization.

Crozier -- how close did he get to getting out?
(Photo from Wikipedia)

Inuit narratives were dismissed for decades. After all, they were uneducated savages...right? Their conversations were interesting, but couldn't be trusted.

Turns out they could. 

Hunters insisted that they had seen and visited both the Erebus and Terror -- before, during and after the ships were trapped in ice, then sank. The 'experts' placed those shipwrecks in one area -- the Inuit said no, they'd been sailed down the coast, and sank in shallow water. No way, the experts insisted.

The experts were wrong.

Back in 2014, the Erebus was found, sitting upright on the ocean floor, in nearly 37 feet of water. The cold seawater preserved it nicely.  (By the way, the shipwreck was almost exactly where Inuit testimony had placed it.)

Last September, The Terror was also found! This one was located a little further out: in about 79 feet of water, on nearly the searchers' last day. And yes, it too was located 80 miles north of the Erebus -- again, very close to where Inuit testimony placed it. An Inuit hunter who lived on King William Island -- where the Franklin Expedition members largely ended up -- remembered a large wooden timber sticking up through the ice years back. He even took a photo hugging the strange piece of wood, which was lost. His account was also disregarded -- until he joined the search expedition, and helped locate the Terror, right where its mast had poked through the ice all those years ago. Go figure.

The Terror is in even better condition than its sister ship. (It sank first, and faster.) Divers are exploring both wrecks, when the Arctic weather -- and ice -- allow. What they're discovering are adding a whole new set of clues to the Franklin Expedition's story. 

One of the biggest lessons in all this comes through clearly: Don't easily dismiss the words and experiences of people living there. Not only do they know what they're doing -- they've proved it, by living and thriving in a cold, often inhospitable climate. If Sir John and his men had paid closer attention, at least some of them might have survived. I have a personal interest in this: Son #1 is part Inuit -- and one of the smartest guys I know.

Why is this centuries-old mystery so important?

Because it may be the key to who gets to claim the Northwest Passage.

If the Northwest Passage can be navigated, it connects the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans via the Arctic Ocean. That saves ships a lot of time and effort moving around the globe. Cargo ships would no longer have to move through (and pay for) the Panama Canal. Cruise ships could circumnavigate without having to deal with storm-plagued areas, like around the Horn, Africa's furthest tip.

 Now, thanks to lessening ice conditions, the Northwest Passage is achievable.  The journey that was so difficult in the past is easier to accomplish. It wasn't done until Roald Amundsen powered his ship through in 1903-1906. Today it still isn't easy -- but it is easier.

But who will own it? And could ostensibly charge for the privilege of using it?

Ah, there's the rub.

Although it's not quite as open about its motives for finding the Franklin ships, Canada is staking its claim. Millions of dollars and a number of years have been sunk into the search, and Canada has a quiet agreement with the United Kingdom, the original sponsor, that the shipwrecks will be its property.

If the Erebus and Terror were discovered in convenient locations (which they were), it could be argued that the Franklin Expedition actually achieved their goal. We own the ships, Canada says, and they discovered the Northwest Passage. Therefore the Passage is part of Canada's Internal Water system. (The U.S. and other countries disagree, by the way, arguing that it's really international transit waters.)

Here's the full documentary, Arctic Ghost Ship -- all about the Franklin Expedition, as well as the search expedition, mostly on the Erebus, but some about the Terror, too. It will explain this in much more detail. Well worth watching.

No comments:

Monday Stuff On the Way to Other Stuff: Recuperating

Now I understand the whole "lost weekend" concept...because, thanks to the Brick's emergency appendectomy , we "lost"...