By Jurgen Braunohler
The corpse of Petty Officer John Torrington stared out of his grave, eyes open after 135 years buried on Beechey Island in the Canadian Arctic. His coffin had turned into a block of solid ice, and he was so well preserved that, with his mouth open, the archaeologists nearly expected him to say something.
But he and two other dead crew, with some structures and items, were all that was left of the expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin that vanished after 1845 trying to find a way through the ice-choked Canadian north. Since then, numerous search expeditions, in the words of Stan Rogers’ song Northwest Passage, have sought to “find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea.”
Sailing vessels have cruised the Canadian Arctic since the time of the Vikings. Numerous explorers tried in vain to find a route to the Pacific through the Northwest Passage. Roald Amundsen was the first to transit, sailing from 1903 to 1906 aboard his big gaff cutter, the Gjoa. Earlier, however, Britain’s Royal Navy was busy, gradually trying to chart every mile of the passage from both ends. At last, a comparatively short stretch remained unexplored. Franklin was ordered to chart it and complete knowledge of the passage. He would have to navigate just over a thousand miles through it and survey little more than three hundred to close the gap.
In 1845, John Franklin was already 59 years of age and had served in the Royal Navy since his early teens. He had explored the coast of Australia under the command of his uncle, Captain Matthew Flinders, and fought in several battles. In addition, he was Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) for seven years. Franklin had been to the Arctic three times, twice in Canada. Britain’s forty- year push to survey the passage was coming to a close, and Franklin was given his assignment, for which he needed a special ship.
HMS Erebus was a former bomb vessel. To withstand the recoil of the mortars she had to carry, she was built exceedingly strong. This made her much favoured for punishing Arctic exploration voyages. To further suit her to the task, she was also equipped with iron hull plating, interior insulation, and a steam engine scrounged from a train yard, with a propeller shaft that could be raised and housed while sailing. Customarily, these full-rigged ships were altered to three-masted barques, with a fore and aft rigged mizzen mast. This meant fewer crew were required and stretched out the food supply on a long voyage. She was joined by a second such ship: HMS Terror, under Captain Francis Crozier.
On May 19, 1845, Franklin got his two ships underway from Greenhithe, England and headed up the Channel to Aberdeen and the Orkney Isles to resupply. Then, with a complement of 129 officers and men, it was westwards across the North Atlantic to the Davis Strait and up the Greenland coast to Disco Island. She met with two whaling ships, the last that any Europeans saw of Franklin’s ships. The ensuing tragedy would be learned from a buried letter and from talks with Inuit who witnessed it. Meanwhile, the crews were glad of the heating from the ships’ steam engines as they entered Lancaster Sound, reached Cornwallis Island, then headed south to winter at King William Island.
In September, 1846, the pack ice moved in and cut off all escape. The first few men died of botulism in food and lead poisoning. More died from the cold and sickness. In June, 1847, John Franklin died. Still the floes held the ships in their grip. When the crews abandoned the vessels to walk south without asking
local Inuit for help, all vanished. The ships were crushed and sunk by the deadliest ice trap in the Arctic, the largest maritime disaster in Canada’s north. The result was the longest Canadian polar search operation ever. It led to discovery of the passage, and, finally, the sunken HMS Erebus was spotted in Victoria Strait on September 7, 2014.
See more articles in the April 2015 Flotilla Newsletter or learn more about Flotilla. Sign up to the OHCC Mailing List for ongoing news, events and articles.