Franklin’s Guardians

A watercolor of the HMS Terror exploring the Canadian Arctic, which she would never leave (Canadian Museum of Civilization)

Ownership of the two ships, Adm. Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, two of the most archaeologically important wrecks in the world, was formally transferred to the Canadian government with the signing of a Deed of Gift at a ceremony last month with the Inuit of Nunavut, who played a key role in their discovery, recognised as joint owners of the wrecks and artifacts.

After a local Canadian Forces Ranger pointed out where Franklin’s lost Arctic survey ship HMS Terror was in 2016, a group of 17 Inuit was enlisted by Parks Canada last year to camp out in rotating four-person shifts to protect the historic site and that of Franklin’s other ship, HMS Erebus, which was discovered in much the same way in 2014.

The two ships, under the command of Sir John, set sail from England in 1845 through the Canadian Arctic to find the Northwest Passage. During the treacherous journey, the ships became trapped in thick sea ice. The crews abandoned the ships to trek overland to safety, but tragically none survived.

Painting depicting the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition. ”They forged the last links with their lives’ by William Smith Via Royal Maritime Museum Greenwich

“The story behind these vessels is both fascinating and incredibly important to the history of both our nations. The UK joined forces with the Canadian government and Inuit population to search for these ships for 172 years and I’m delighted they will now be protected for future generations,” said UK Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson.

Artifacts from the wrecks will be available for display at museums in both countries. Currently, there are examples on display at the Canadian Museum of History as part of the “Death in the Ice” exhibit.

The Expedition’s timeline, from the Canadian Museum:

Franklin’s expedition and the dozens of follow-on missions to find him made headlines around the world, such as in this German print, for decades

May 19, 1845: The Franklin Expedition departed from Greenhithe, near London, England.

July 4, 1845: The ships arrived at the Whale Fish Islands, Greenland, after a stormy Atlantic crossing.

July 12, 1845: Officers and crewmembers mailed their last letters home.

July 29 or 31, 1845: HMS Erebus and Terror were sighted in Baffin Bay by whaling ships. This was the last time the ships and their crews were seen by Europeans.

Winter 1845 to 1846: The expedition spent its first winter in the Arctic off Beechey Island. Three members of the crew died and were buried on Beechey Island.

Summer 1846: The expedition headed south into Peel Sound.

September 1846 to Spring 1848: The ships were beset — surrounded and stuck in ice — northwest of King William Island.

June 11, 1847: Sir John Franklin died. He was 61 years old and had served in the Royal Navy for 47 years.

April 22, 1848: The expedition had been stuck off King William Island for over a year and a half. Fearing they would never escape, the men deserted the ships.

April 25, 1848: The men landed on King William Island. Nine officers and 15 seamen had already died. There were 105 survivors. Officers left a note stating their plan to trek to the Back River.

January 20, 1854: Franklin’s Expedition is missing for more than eight years. The Admiralty announced that its officers and men will be declared dead as of March 31, 1854.

1847–1880: More than 30 expeditions sailed, steamed or sledged into the Arctic from the east, west, and south. Very few found any trace of the expedition.

2008: A renewed search for Franklin’s ships began under the leadership of Parks Canada.

September 1, 2014: An important clue is found on an island in Wilmot and Crampton Bay: an iron davit pintle (fitting). Parks Canada refocuses its efforts near that island.

September 2, 2014: 167 years after the British Admiralty’s search began, the first wreck, HMS Erebus, is found.

2016: Almost two years to the day after the discovery of Erebus, Terror is located in Terror Bay, off the southern coast of King William Island.

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