Arctic Sea Ice Map

In order to encourage further seafaring adventurers, the British Admiralty had offered a reward of 20,000 guineas to the first person to find a way through to the NorthWest Passage. Sir John Franklin, supposedly at the end of his career as a sailor and explorer, applied for one further chance. He had fought alongside Lord Nelson at the battle of Trafalgar and his earlier expeditions had helped survey

1,760 km of the northern Canadian coastline. He had also been governor of Tasmania but returned after a bitter dispute with the colonial secretary there. He was now 58 and initially thought too old to be given such a dangerous mission. However, he was, after considerable lobbying, given the opportunity to mount a final expedition to try and locate the North-West Passage. He was given command of two massive ships, the aptly named HMS Terror (345 tonnes) and HMS Erebus (380 tonnes). Franklin would command and sail the Erebus and Captain Crozier would command the Terror, although still under Franklin’s supreme command of the overall total of 129 men. They set out in 1845 and carried supplies estimated to last them three and a half years! They never returned and not one sailor was ever found alive.

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There were several search expeditions sent out to look for them, including some sent by the indomitable Lady Franklin who refused for many years to accept that her husband had perished. She even consulted clairvoyants who predicted where the sailors could be found, or at least their remains, but no one would take those predictions seriously. She never gave up and continually badgered everyone of importance to allow further expeditions to continue the search; including such notables as the Prime Minister, the Emperor of France, the Tsar of Russia and the President of the United States. After a further rescue expedition was also lost in 1852, the Admiralty authorised one final attempt to look for the two lost crews.

Francis McClintock led this search party but only the rescue expedition was found, although one of its leaders, Robert McClure, actually discovered the entrance to the North-West Passage. Unfortunately however, he didn’t navigate it but walked for most of its length. John Rae, an officer of the Hudson’s Bay Company, while surveying the coast of Boothia Peninsula, finally came back with the news everyone had been dreading. Local native traders had provided clues about the fate of Franklin and his men and the mystery of what had become of them. It seemed that they had been trapped in the ice with their boats for some considerable time and had eventually succumbed to lead poisoning from seepage of their canned supplies. There was additional evidence, although never officially accepted, that possibly driven mad by the poisoning, some of Franklin’s sailors had resorted to cannibalism. This would have been unthinkable in Victorian society, particularly by those who would not really understand the enormous deprivation experienced by such heroic adventurers and how desperate they would have become. Jane Franklin naturally refused to accept that terrible accusation as fact, as did her friend, the author Charles Dickens, who philosophised, ‘The men who learn endurance are they who call the whole world brother.’ However as recently as 1992 some of the crew’s skeletons have been discovered which showed cuts made by knives consistent with cutting flesh.

Over several years some ravaged corpses and skeletons were discovered and in 1857 Lady Franklin financed a further search expedition, again under the command of Francis McClintock. His ship, The Fox, first sailed to Baffin Bay, where it was iced in for the first winter and then sailed to Bellot Strait. Contact was made with the Inuit tribe that Rae had met who confirmed again the story of the deaths of Franklin’s men. McClintock’s lieutenant, Robert Hobson, whilst exploring the coast of King William Island, then made a startling discovery. In a cairn, Hobson found the only written record of what had befallen Franklin and his men. On a standard Navy form were two messages. The first was dated 28 May 1847 and stated that the ships Erebus and Terror had survived two winters without serious mishap. It ended with the two simple words ‘All well.’ With stark and despairing words, the second, added in the margin, told a very different story. It was dated 25 April 1848. ‘Erebus and Terror were deserted on 22 April. Sir John Franklin died 11 June 1847. Deaths to this date 9 officers and 15 men.’ There is no further record of anyone having subsequently survived. The epitaph of Sir John Franklin was written at his wife’s request by the poet laureate of the day, Lord Alfred Tennyson and placed in Westminster Abbey. The British Government and most others, appalled at the terrible loss of life suffered by this and many other expeditions, lost their previously keen desire to explore further for several decades. Even today there is a continuing fascination in Franklin’s expeditions; the Royal Canadian Mounted Police are currently sending out a 20 metre patrol boat in an effort to locate the remains of Erebus and Terror. This is part of a 35,000 km adventure of rediscovery, retracing the voyage of the police schooner that first circumnavigated North America through the North-West Passage.

Subsequent to Franklin’s time there have been many polar explorations to and through these frozen lands and some incredible exploits. Having experienced myself, though not to the same degree, the powerful emotional pull of the North Pole, I could appreciate and understand the ‘Arctic Fever’ that has gripped so many through the centuries. The immense desire to make the long and arduous journey across wastes of ice and snow that always threaten to overwhelm and to reach the end goal, no matter at what cost to yourself and your sanity, can only be understood by someone who has been similarly gripped or who has attempted to travel there. The Arctic is a desolate place.

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