Another maritime mystery closer to being solved

The Canadian government announced yesterday that it had discovered one of the lost ships from Franklin’s Expedition, the British Arctic exploration voyage led by Captain Sir John Franklin that disappeared in the 1840s.  While it is still unknown whether the shipwreck is that of HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, it is pretty clear that one of the two vessels has been found by an remotely operated underwater vehicle using side-scan sonar.

The side-scan sonar image from the Parks Canada underwater probe shows the nearly 170 year old wreck in remarkably well-preserved condition.

The wreck was located off the west coast of O’Reilly Island, in Queen Maud Gulf.

Franklin’s Expedition is considered to be an important event in the history of Canada, and the Canadian government had funded several expeditions to look for the ships and other archaeological evidence.

The Franklin expedition was last seen (at least by Europeans) in 1845, when a pair of whaling ships encountered the two vessels as they waited to cross Lancaster Sound.  After a couple of years with no word from the expedition, several searches were organized by both land and sea.  Soon the search to find Franklin and his men became somewhat of an obsession in British culture.  By 1850 the first signs of the expedition were found, when the graves of three men were discovered near the remains of a campsite.  The following year a gigantic iceberg was observed near Newfoundland that actually contained the wrecks of two sailing vessels, but since the ships were not closely examined, it was unknown at the time if the ships were from Franklin’s Expedition (they weren’t – they were probably whaling ships that had been locked in ice and abandoned). Then in 1852 an expedition to search for Franklin was organized by the British government under the command of Admiral Sir Edward Belcher.  The five vessels were themselves caught in ice and four were abandoned.  One of these ships, HMS Resolute, was recovered by an American whaler and wood from it was eventually made into a desk that currently sits in the Oval Office.

Other expeditions over the next thirty years or so eventually gathered more information, especially once native Inuits were interviewed.  Modern interest began in earnest in the early 1980s with several expeditions to the area that eventually led to the autopsy of the body of John Torrington, who had been the first member of the expedition to die.  Torrington’s well-preserved remains indicated a shockingly high level of lead in his body, especially in his hair, but  his immediate cause of death was pneumonia.  I remember reading accounts of these expeditions and what they discovered in National Geographic at the time.  Eventually more campsites were discovered, along with more bones that indicated that at least some of the expedition had resorted to cannibalism before they died.

It seems clear now, based on the accumulated evidence, that the entire expedition had perished from starvation, pneumonia, and tuberculosis, compounded by lead poisoning caused by the expedition’s innovative (but flawed) freshwater distillation equipment.    Many of the members of the expedition had survived until the spring of 1848, and some may have survived until 1850 or 1851, but all had eventually died before they could get back to any British outposts.

Of course, Inuits lived in the area (hence the interviews that would take place later) but for whatever reason (language barriers?  cultural prejudices?) the expedition apparently did not seek any assistance or advice from them.

Hopefully we will soon know the identity of this mystery ship and hopefully gain a little more knowledge of the expedition.


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