Maritime Maunder has posted a number of pieces regarding the on going story of the Franklin Expedition to find the Northwest Passage in 1845. Those of you who read any of them might recall the expedition consisted of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, both fitted out especially for an arduous voyage into the Canadian icepack. You also might recall the expedition vanished with essentially no trace and following extensive research and exploration, the two ships were found in remarkably good condition, sunk, but with no explanation of why. Divers in the frigid Canadian waters can only work a few days a year unless the weather is exceptionally good - and then only a few weeks. Exploring the wrecks under those conditions obviously will take a long time. Maritime Maunder ended previous posts with notice more would be forthcoming as information became available. Courtesy of National Geographic, here's the latest on their progress with HMS Terror.
What’s known is that Sir John Franklin set sail in May 1845 with a crew of 133 men and orders to discover the Northwest Passage—a goal that had eluded explorers for centuries.
Then as now, geopolitics was a driving force in Arctic exploration, with the Royal Navy wanting to secure the fabled shortcut to the Pacific ahead of the Russians, who had maritime aspirations of their own. With this in mind no expense was spared.
|HMS Terror in the ice|
A brief note found under a cairn gives a bit of the story. Dated April 1848 and signed by Francis Crozier—captain of the Terror, who by then had taken command of the expedition—it stated that the ships had been locked in ice for a year and a half, that 24 of the men were already dead—including Franklin—and that Crozier and the other survivors planned to attempt to walk overland to a remote fur-trading outpost hundreds of miles away on the Canadian mainland. None of them ever arrived.
What caused such a well-equipped expedition to go so badly wrong remains a mystery.
But in recent years the two biggest pieces of the puzzle—the ships themselves—were discovered: Erebus in 2014, lying in 36 feet of water off King William Island, and Terror two years later, found in a bay about 45 miles away, in 80 feet of water and largely intact.
Why the ships ended up so far apart, which one went down first, and why and how the ships sank are questions archaeologists hope to answer.
“There’s no obvious reason for Terror to have sunk,” says Ryan. “It wasn’t crushed by ice, and there’s no breach in the hull. Yet it appears to have sunk swiftly and suddenly and settled gently to the bottom. What happened?”
Teasing out the answers won’t be easy, even with such a bounty of artifacts. There are plans to excavate both wrecks, but it will be a slow process requiring years.
“Diving up here is extremely difficult,” says Ryan. “The water is extremely cold, making it impossible to stay down for very long, and the diving season is short—a few weeks if you’re lucky, a few days if you’re not.”
Even so, this season’s work on Terror has already provided some tantalizing clues that will help researchers develop a chronology of the disaster.
“We noticed the ship’s propeller still in place,” says Ryan. “We know that it had a mechanism to lift it out of the water during winter so that it wouldn’t be damaged by the ice. So, the fact that it’s deployed suggests it was probably spring or summer when the ship sank. So, too, does the fact that none of the skylights were boarded up, as they would have been to protect them against the winter snows.”
Bottles and dishes photographed by diver launched drones are essentially intact, perhaps an indication of a "peaceful" demise of HMS Terror.
No doubt there are a lot more answers lying beneath the sediment in those cabins, says Ryan. “One way or another, I feel confident we’ll get to the bottom of the story.”
And so the mystery continues to slowly give up it's secrets, and, given time, more answers will appear and archeologists and historians will understand what transpired in the late 1840's.
When we learn more, we will bring it to you.
Until next time,