After disappearing over 170 years ago, one of the two ships that Sir John Franklin led into the Canadian Arctic to chart the Northwest Passage has been found. According to Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper, it is unclear which of the two ships had been located, however photos of the wreck confirmed it is one of the long vanished ships.
In 1845 Franklin and 129 men set out into the Canadian Arctic aboard the H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S. Terror. After the two ships disappeared, one of the largest searches in history was launched in hope to find the lost expedition. The failed search that started in 1848 lasted over a decade. The loss of the ships became one of the greatest mysteries of the Victorian exploration era.
In 2008, in an attempt to assert Canadian sovereignty over the Northwest Passage, the government of Canada launched a new search for lost expedition. Due to Arctic ice melting, it was possible to send search ships into the areas Franklin was trying to chart. During the most recent search for the missing ships, sonar imaging near King William Island, in Victoria Strait, revealed the remains of an old ship on the ocean floor. Further investigation confirmed that it was one of the two ships that disappeared in 1845. While it is not clear which of the two ships has been found, Harper feels that the discovery will provide the necessary momentum to continue the search to locate the sister ship and potentially solve the mystery of what caused the two ships to disappear and what was the fate of the two crews.
William Battersby, a British archaeologist, has called the discovery of the shipwreck the biggest event in archeology since the opening of King Tutankhamun’s tomb. After viewing the images of the shipwreck, Battersby believes there may be a huge amount of evidence to be salvaged. The potential that some of the remains of crew members along with their belongings and expedition supplies may be present and recoverable.
After the disappearance, the mystery of what happened to Sir John Franklin and the crews of the two ships became a fascination for generations of Canadian’s and people worldwide for 170 years. This is partly a result of no clear answer what exactly happened to the ships and crew. One theory was that the ships became trapped in ice in Victoria Strait, where the crew may have abandoned the ships in a futile attempt to reach land and safety. According to Inuit people in the area, the men may have resorted to cannibalism in an attempt to survive.
Five ships were launched in a search spearheaded by Sir John Franklin’s wife. The ships search came up empty, but in hopes that Franklin and the crew were still alive, cans of food were left on the ice in hopes that someone from the missing expedition would find them and be able to survive until a search party could locate them. Over time, over 50 expeditions took part in the search for the two ships.
Over 100 years after the crews and their ships were lost, three bodies were found. These bodies found were believed to be members of the lost crews. The three bodies, found in the 1980s were discovered to have a high led content, leading to speculation that the crews may have died from lead poisoning from the foods stored in tin cans. However, recent research indicates that the food supplied to the expedition did not have a high enough acid content to cause a reaction with the tin cans to result in lead poisoning. The high lead content in these bodies likely came from the piping systems on the ships.
After 170 years, a team of Canadian archaeologists and divers began an extensive search to find the missing ships of the Sir John Franklin Expedition in 2008. Franklin’s attempt to chart the Northwest Passage was intended to connect the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. The discovery of one of the ships is the first step towards capturing one of the biggest prizes in marine archeology and may provide an answer to a 170-year old mystery.
By Carl Auer