Sunday, 17 July 2011

Historical References: The Lost Expedition

Relics from the lost expedition, published in the
Illustrated London  News, 1854

Do not go gentle into that good night
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

~Dylan Thomas
It is 19 May 1845, and the two ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus are setting out on an expedition to find the near-mythical North-West Passage. Aboard are 129 men. The vessels are outfitted with the most sophisticated and modern inventions — no expenses have been spared. Both have modern steam-engines and screw propellers, making them capable of travelling at a speed of 4 knots under their own power. They have reinforced hulls, and steam-powered heating for the crew-quarters. They have supplies to sustain the members of the expedition for five years. The commander of the mission is Sir John Franklin.

The two ships were last seen in the end of July that year by a couple of whaling vessels in Baffin Bay. Not until 1854 did any news  about the expedition's fate reach England. A search-party sent out by the Hudson Bay Company could deliver the following chocking account. "From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence."[1] This of course sparked quite a controversy back in London.

We now know that the expedition wintered off Beechey Island, not far from Nunavut, between 1845 and 1846. Here three men died. The following winter, both ships became locked in the ice off King William Island, and neither sailed again. Franklin himself died there on 11 June 1847. The crew wintered here one more year, and the survivors finally set out on foot in late April 1848. They would all die, never coming closer than several hundred miles from the nearest outpost of Western civilization.

What went wrong? There were a number of factors that played a part in the gruesome demise of the 129 sailors and officers. First off, seriously, you know you're in a horror-story when the plan is to take two ships named Terror and Erebus, into uncharted Arctic waters. Then there is the commanding officer, Sir John Franklin. He wasn't the first, or even the fourth choice. Franklin got the job because the rest either said no, or lacked the necessary social prerequisites for such a high profile position. I'm not saying he was a poor choice, but it fits the picture of a doomed journey quite nicely so far.

Another reason was the choice of course. Apparently, the passage on King William Island's western side took them into "a ploughing train of ice [that] does not always clear during the short summers."[2] The eastern passage was later used by Roald Amundsen when he, as the first to do so, successfully navigated the North-West Passage in his 1903-1906 expedition [Edit: See Robert McLure]. The Franklin-crew was also beset by illness:
"[Results of a study of] King William Island and Beechey Island artifacts and human remains showed that the Beechey Island crew had most likely died of pneumonia and perhaps tuberculosis [...] Toxicological reports pointed to lead poisoning as a likely contributing factor. Blade cut marks found on bones from some of the crew were seen as signs of cannibalism. Evidence suggested that a combination of cold, starvation and disease including scurvy, pneumonia and tuberculosis, all made worse by lead poisoning, killed everyone in the Franklin party. 

The lead poisoning came from the 8.000 tins of conserved food the expedition brought. As it happened, these were made by the lowest bidder, one Stephen Goldner, who got the contract on 1 April 1845, just seven weeks before the ships sailed. The tins were sealed with "lead soldering that was "thick and sloppily done, and dripped like melted candle wax down the inside surface." [3]

Over the years, many expeditions set out to find the remains of the lost crew, and steadily the pieces of this macabre puzzle was unearthed. Yet I am certain that there is more to this than meets the eye. "That is not dead which can eternal lie. / And with strange aeons even death may die."

See also:
The Franklin Expedition: 1845-1859 on The Victorian Web
Franklin's lost expedition on Wikipedia

[Picture source: Wikipedia]


  1. I read about that expedition a while ago. It really had doom written all over it.
    There are Laterna Magica shows about it and they are still shown in museums, although so far I haven't had the chance to see one.

  2. The National Maritime Museum has uploaded some photos of the expedition and of relics brought back on Flickr.

  3. One of the Inuit sources spoke of a ship locked in the ice, in which the men were clad in black, and had black hands and black faces. These men warned the Inuit about going to the camp on land -- where modern researchers have found skeletons with knife-marks on them.

    It really did go pear-shaped, this expedition.

  4. You should also read this article:

    He was one of the great explorers of Canada working for the Hudson Bay Company. He found out the fate of the expedition, but was discreditet because of the accusations of cannibalism. I love the portrait in the article, you could use it as an Pendrellian Explorer:)

    You should also check out Samuel Hearne, another great explorer employed by the Hudson Bay Company.

  5. That is indeed a good image. Copy/paste :)

    As for the cannibalism, I suspect that was the reason why the Admiralty didn't want to fund any further expeditions once Franklin's tomb had been found. No one wants to have one's heroes tarnished by such barbarism. Better not to crawl too deep into the rabbit-hole.

  6. Franklin's widow also did not want her late husband to be remembered as a cannibal, so she made several of her friends write bad things about John Rae in newspapers and pamplets. One of them is apprantly Charles Dickens.

  7. Yeah, I can see why she would do such a thing, although the truly horrible things didn't really start until after Franklin's death, as far as I know.

    The quote in the second paragraph is from Rae, and here you can find both his report and Dickens' response:

  8. The person on the painting to the left, the picture used for Captain Gryff Galan, is in fact Alexander MacDonald, Assistant Surgeon on the HMS Terror.

  9. Really? I did not know that. But which painting are we talking about?

  10. We have discussed this before, Harald. The painting to the left of the text you are reading right now.