In all the annals of Arctic exploration, there is no disappearance so famous as that of the lost Franklin Expedition. In 1845 Captain John Franklin led 128 men and two ships to search for the North West passage to Asia through the Arctic. Not a single man survived to be seen again. In the aftermath of the tragedy, the British admiralty and Lady Franklin sent out expedition after expedition to find out the fate of lost ships. In the end, it was an explorer on land, John Rae, who learned from the Inuit that the ships had sunk, and that the men had been so starving during their escape overland that they had resorted to cannibalism. For this discovery, he was ostracized by many of his peers, because Victorian gentleman would never eat one other; as such, he had insulted the dead.
This history has become part of Canadian identity. It’s a staple in Canadian literature and poetry, as Margaret Atwood discussed in her book, Strange Things. Stan Rodgers, the great Canadian folk singer, sang about Franklin in his iconic song the Northwest Passage. The only traces of what happened from the crew were two notes left in a cairn, miraculously discovered in the high Arctic. What happened to the crew after they left this record in April 1848?
Owen Beattie excavated the remains of three sailors who were buried early in the expedition’s travels (as documented by John Geiger in the great book, Frozen in Time: the Fate of the Franklin Expedition), and found that the remains had high levels of lead. Were the sailors suffering from lead poisoning from the canned food on the expedition? I have seen materials from the Franklin expedition at the Glenbow Museum in Calgary. As the men went south they took books and unnecessary equipment. Was this a sign that they were not thinking logically because of the lead? Over a century and a half people have sought to understand what happened, and why not one crew member escaped. Much of what we know has come from the Inuit traditions of the expedition, as recorded in David Woodman’s wonderful book, Unravelling the Franklin Mystery: Inuit Testimony. For anyone who wants to learn more about the long search, one cannot do better than than to examine the wonderful blog, “Visions of the North” by Russell Potter.
After all this time, it comes of something of a shock to learn that one of the ships from the Franklin expedition has been found, exactly where Inuit testimony had always said it would be. The sonar images show the ghost of a ship in amazing detail. Remarkably the ship was not torn apart by shifting ice floes. It sits intact on the ocean floor. The removal, preservation, and interpretation of the data will take decades. But we will have much better images from the divers in a few days. The importance of this find can be judged by the fact that the Prime Minister himself announced the find, as you can see in National Post coverage here. Prime Minister Harper has made finding the ships a national priority, and cynics have correctly pointed out that this was partly done with an ulterior motive, to strengthen Canada’s claims over the north. But even Queen Elizabeth has issued a statement of congratulations. And most observers won’t think first of the political issues upon hearing this news. In the modern age, there are few mysteries left. And one of them -the location of the ships Erebus and Terror- has been partly solved. Congratulations to all those who have worked so hard for so long to make this possible. And click here if you want to see Lady Franklin’s Lament. The song says that “the fate of Franklin no man may know.”
If you are fascinated by the north in Canadian myth and legend, you might want to look at my own book on the windigo, an evil spirit in Algonquian traditional narratives. In this work, I trace how the stories told about this being have evolved through time, from mythical stories to contemporary film. In Canada, it is now available at Amazon.ca or from the publisher. It is already available in Kindle in the United States and Canada, as well as other formats such as Google Play Books, Nook, Kobo and iBooks. The print launch for the United States is set for April 2015. Finally, if you would read about another Canadian maritime mystery, please read by blog post about the strange ghost ship called the Baltimore.
Shawn Smallman, Portland State University