Franklin’s Lost Expedition
Around the month of July of 2018, a month before I moved to North America, leaving my country of India for the very first time, I stumbled upon a TV series called The Terror. Released by AMC, the unrecognized gem of a show caught my imagination and quickly became one of my best loved – and most re-watched – piece of TV media, leaving me obsessed with Franklin’s lost expedition and the mystery that surrounds it.
More recently, I began reading Barry Lopez’s Arctic Dreams this month, a nonfictional exploration of the Arctic’s landscapes and biodiversity – and all the memories of AMC’s show came flooding back, making me nostalgic to watch it yet another time.
It also made me approach Dan Simmons’ book The Terror on which the show was based, and I began reading this, too, being the incurable book slut that I am.
All this made me reflect, not just on the historical events behind the book, but on historical fiction in general and why The Terror worked so well in this genre. I’ve decided to write a series of blog posts on this subject, which I’ll try to make as interesting so as to (hopefully) transfer some of the fascination I have with this event in history to you, the reader.
The Terror – the novel and the show, both – are based on the real-life events of the Franklin Expedition of 1845 – a maritime foray that ended in disaster for the two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and all their crew on board.
‘Man Proposes, God Disposes’
You see, for centuries, ships from Europe would have to sail all the way around Africa or the Americas to get to the East to trade or transport goods. Ever since the Earth was discovered to be spherical, explorers, traders, colonizers – almost any nation with a fleet sought alternate routes that would save time and lives. If a North-West passage were to be discovered – a short-cut, if you will, from the Atlantic to the Pacific ocean, we’d be talking about shortening a journey of three to five years, to a journey of one or two years. Not to mention that it would also possibly reduce the risk of weather and ocean hazard.
And so, in the mid 1800s, with Britain’s burgeoning naval and colonial prowess, and its Victorian hubris, much talk of the North-West passage was stirred up. Why go all around, was the idea, when you could just go up: past Canada, and through the frigid Arctic waters into the Pacific Ocean on the other side? Surely such a route, if discovered, would make travel more efficient and cheaper.
It was in 1845, then, with all the buzz of these possibilities, that this voyage of Arctic Exploration, led by Captain Sir John Franklin, set sail, in hopes of finding this passage.
It seems strange and stupidly foreboding that the ships should have been named the Terror (it’s the namesake of both the book and the show) and the Erebus. I mean, Erebus is the ancient Greek word referring to the darkness at the entrance to Tartarus, or the ancient Greek underworld.
Yes, all very charming.
But such a faux pas to begin with is forgivable considering that the ships had been warships that were repurposed to take on the uncertainties of the expedition. And here’s the catch: both the ships had already proven their worth in an expedition to the Antarctic. The expedition was the largest and best equipped naval mission that Britain had ever sent North. The ships had bows reinforced with heavy beams and iron plates, and were fitted with steam engines powered by coal to assist the sails, several years’ worth of canned food, and several kinds of livestock including hens, pigs and cattle that were meant to serve as food through the early stages of the voyage. In addition to all this, there was a library, musical instruments and an automated piano, all to serve the mens’ needs for leisure and entertainment on the voyage.
A Cast of Characters
Commanding the expedition was John Franklin, captain of the Erebus, with his second in command, James Fitzjames. Franklin was a man who was nearing the end of his career, and who was widely remembered in recent public memory as ‘the man who ate his own shoe’, after nearly starving in the Arctic on a previous expedition. Needless to say, Franklin probably did not want to retire in this light, and so readily accepted the command of the expedition.
Commander James Fitzjames was an officer who had a reputation that followed him, one of heroism in military campaigns. For, after all, he had fought in the Opium Wars in China, and had worked on a scheme to create a steamship route between the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean via the River Euphrates and the Persian Gulf.
Heading the Terror was perhaps the man who deserved more recognition than he received on this voyage – Captain Francis Crozier. Unfortunately for Crozier, he was Irish and of humble birth, which was undoubtedly why he was not given charge of the voyage itself considering he was a veteran polar explorer by then.
The total crew consisted of about 133 men when they first set off. This included a battalion of royal marines in order to the defend the ship or parties that were sent out from them by manning the guns and firing muskets. Given that the expedition would be in polar bear territory and might encounter Inuit that might not be disposed to be friendly, this was not a wholly unreasonable measure.
The crew mainly consisted of able seamen, meaning that they had had years of skill and experience serving on voyages. As a result, there were no novices as such on board, it being an important polar expedition. That being said, not many of the men had any polar experience specifically, and not many of the higher-ups did, either. Only 7 of the officers had any prior experience of polar voyages – this including the captains of both vessels. In light of this fact, we may say that they had it coming – after all, this was a voyage into frigid, unchartered waters and not a tropical cruise.
But would it really have been different if there were more hardened polar veterans on board? After all, nobody knew what the men would encounter at those latitudes, so no amount of preparation might have left them in a better spot.
From England, in May 1845, the expedition crossed the Atlantic Ocean and turned up in Greenland a month later. Here, we know from records that five men were discharged due to various medical reasons.
Little did the five know how fortunate they were.
Greenland was also the last contact with normal civilization that the men would have, and so any letters written by the crew were dispatched, and the ships stocked up on supplies. The letters tell us that morale and hope on board the vessels was high, and that the men were generally doing well and going about their scientific testing and observation of atmospheric and terrestrial phenomena.
After all, to the Victorians in the 1840s, the Arctic may very well have been another planet. It was a land in which compasses did not work well due to the constant shifting of magnetic North, a land where ribbons of colour called the aurorae would dance across the sky, and where sun dogs – an optical illusion created by sunlight and ice crystals – would give onlookers the impression that there was more than one sun in the sky. To us today, in a world of the internet and satellite navigation, situating oneself in space is not a concern, since technology does it for us. The crew of the Franklin Expedition, however, found themselves having to recalibrate their location repeatedly, correcting compass readings in relation to geographic north.
The next, and last, hint of any news of the expedition came from whalers who saw the ships in Baffin Bay before they entered the icy waters to what they thought was the passage.
After this, they seemed to have faded into the White North: ships, men and all.
The close of year of 1845 brought no news of Franklin and his men. This did not worry the families and loved ones back in England, however, since the ship had been stocked with food and was expected to spend at least one winter in the ice.
When January 1847 rolled round, however, Franklin’s wife Lady Jane began to get antsy about the fate of her husband and the two ships, having heard no news or sightings of any kind. She knew that the ships would run out of food by the summer of 1848, after which survival in a place as desolate as the Arctic was bleak. Any attempts at a rescue mission would have to be put in progress as quickly as possible if the men were to be discovered and brought home alive.
The English Admiralty, in stark contrast, were blatantly hesitant to invest in a rescue attempt. The reason given was that they had strong confidence in the skills of Sir John Franklin. However, it is not a stretch to suggest that much of the hesitation came from the admiralty not wanting to dispense with the financial burden of another polar voyage, this time as a rescue mission.
Kind of like the scenario of having half of your cookie fall into the tumbler of milk. Apparently, the British Admiralty did not think it wise to send the second cookie out on a rescue mission in fear that the same fate as the first may befall it.
Franklin’s wife certainly did, however. And that summer of 1847, she rallied up as much public support as she could. Things got to the point that the novelist Charles Dickens hopped onto the bandwagon as well. Eventually, the public concern came to a head that winter, and the British government realized that they’d have to act.
In 1848, the first of a string of rescue missions was sent to find Franklin’s ships, but it was only in 1850 that any clues were discovered.
This first clue came from Beechey Island, west of Baffin Bay. On a remote corner of the island, three graves were found with the remains of a camp scattered in their vicinity. Using this new evidence to piece together the events that transpired, it seemed as though the expedition chose to shelter off Beechey Island for the winter after entering Lancaster Sound. The headstones on the graves of tell a story, one that suggests that the crew of the expedition stayed a while, from January to April at the very least. The overwintering may have been prompted by the freezing of the waters to ice, not uncommon for the latitude in winter.
Franklin would have wanted to leave Beechey as soon as leads – paths of clear water – opened up in the North as spring approached, so as to make the most progress before the ice closed in again.
The next finding ended up being far darker. In 1854, years after coming upon the graves, the Scottish fur trader and explorer John Rae – who was actually smart enough to engage with and learn about Arctic survival from the natives – heard from an Inuk hunter called In-nook-poo-zhee-jook about the Inuit coming across dozens of white men dying near the mouth of Back River, a place that would later be named Starvation Cove.
Even worse, the Inuit gave Rae accounts of cannibalism between the men, accounts which were decried by the British Admiralty and the public. After all, these men were heroes in the eyes of the nation. They would never eat their own, would they?
In 1859, Lady Jane Franklin had grown tired of pleading with the government for another search effort, so she got down to business and commissioned one herself. The expedition was seen through by Irish explorer Francis Leopold McClintock. McClintock’s search of King William Island finally came upon a message cairn (a message cairn was a short tower of rocks that couldn’t be mistaken for a natural formation, in which polar explorers would leave messages for those who came after them) at Victory Point. The cairn contained a sealed box which held notes made by Franklin’s men. There were two messages recorded in this one, with a year having elapsed between when they were written. They were also starkly different from each other.
The first had been neatly written out on 28th May 1847, and relayed that Franklin was ‘commanding the expedition. All well.’
The second, hastily scribbled out in the margins of the same sheet of paper, was dated the 25th April 1848, and was far more ominous. Franklin, and 9 officers were dead, along with 15 of the able seamen. The ships had been stuck in ice for a year and a half. Crozier was now in command of the expedition, and had made the difficult choice to abandon the ships and lead a land party south towards the Back River. This desperate note was strange for another reason: there were errors in the details it mentioned. For instance, it confused the year of the expedition’s over-wintering at Beechey as 1846 to 1847 instead of 1845 to 1846. This could ordinarily be overlooked, but for reasons that I’ll make clear in my next post in this series, it should be a error to keep in mind, for it bears more significance than strikes the reader at first.
Besides this first written evidence they had of the expedition’s fate, the McClintock expedition also found several human remains that had objects and clothes still on or around them that identifiably belonged to the Franklin expedition. By now, any hope of finding survivors had been abandoned. Glaring questions remained, however, of just what had gone down while the ships were over-wintering.
Just what happened to the men on the ice?
In my next post, we’ll get into the findings of further search efforts and evidence that serves as puzzle pieces, as well as more recent findings using modern day technology.