Franklin Expedition for North-West Passage

John Franklin had already made his name as an Arctic explorer but after an unsuccessful stint as governor of Van Diemen's Land he sought a new challenge to redeem his name. He set himself the goal of discovering the North West Passage.

Franklin's ships, Erebus and Terror, were bomb-vessels powered by high-pressure steam engines with the latest boilers. Their keels were extended to obtain a more advantageous vertical alignment and to protect their interiors, and their sterns redesigned to allow the raising and lowering of new propellers. But they were only part of what was to be the best-equipped, best-prepared Arctic expedition ever mounted. The expedition took advantage of the latest technology in food preservation and canning, the most recent advances in Arctic land travel, and crews that were the cream of the Royal Navy. Supplies--which included handsome silverware, fine cut glass, and an extensive library--were expected to last for three years, though it was believed that the expedition would have solved the question of the north-west passage long before that and returned home in a blaze of glory.

Erebus and Terror sailed down the River Thames on 19 May 1845. Shortly before departure, daguerreotypes were taken of Franklin and his officers. Franklin sits in full uniform, a large man tending to fat with heavy jowls, his baldness concealed by his hat. It seems that he had changed little since 1827, when Lord Dalhousie described him as having 'dark complexion & hair, his head very round, bald, with thick curled short hair' (Ramsay). Franklin's orders were to sail to Lancaster Sound, and search either south-west from Barrow Strait towards the mainland (where he had explored on his first two expeditions) or north and west through Wellington Channel. On 26 July 1845 they were hailed by whalers in Baffin Bay, after which John Franklin was never sighted again.

At first the failure of the expedition to return provoked no response from the Admiralty: it was equipped to survive three years, the ships and men were the best the Royal Navy could provide, and their leader was the reliable, responsible Franklin. But when no word of the expedition had been heard by 1847, the families and colleagues of the crew, and especially Lady Franklin, began to agitate for the Admiralty to begin a search. Between 1847 and 1859 some thirty expeditions were sent to discover the fate of Franklin, most sponsored by the Admiralty, but some by Lady Franklin herself or by the wealthy American merchant Henry Grinnell, whose interest was roused by Lady Franklin's appeal to the president of the United States. Unaware of Franklin's fate, the Admiralty promoted him rear-admiral in October 1852.

Gradually, the search expeditions began to piece together what had happened to Franklin's expedition. In 1850 Horatio Thomas Austin and William Penny found his 1845-6 wintering site at Beechey Island in Barrow Strait. Four years later, HBC explorer John Rae heard accounts from the Inuit that white men had died on King William Island, and he found relics indicating that the bodies he found were unquestionably those of the crews of Erebus and Terror. Rae wrote that, 'From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource--cannibalism--as a means of prolonging existence' (J. Rae, letter to the Admiralty, 29 July 1854, cited in The Times, 23 Oct 1854).

Rae's claim outraged the British public, who dismissed his findings and allegations with scorn, refusing to believe that Englishmen of her majesty's navy would eat each other. The search continued, and in 1859 Leopold McClintock and William Hobson found, along with more bodies and relics, two written messages. The first, dated 28 May 1847, stated that Franklin was commanding the expedition and all was well. The second, dated 25 April 1848, was written by Franklin's second in command, Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, and reported that Erebus and Terror had been abandoned on 22 April, and that the remaining crew was intending to walk to Back's Fish River. Franklin, Crozier wrote, had died on 11 June 1847. He did not say how Franklin met his death, and, since it is likely that he was buried in the ice, only the discovery of his body will reveal the truth.

The final part of the Franklin expedition tragedy was as clear as it would ever be. After wintering at Beechey Island, the ships had circumnavigated Cornwallis Island and then sailed south through Peel Sound and Franklin Strait, where they had been beset in an area which has some of the thickest sea ice in the world. After Franklin's death and Crozier's abandonment of the ships, the party, weakened by starvation and scurvy, struggled towards the Adelaide peninsula, some dying on the way, others when they reached the mainland at Starvation Cove. Not one of the 129 members of the expedition survived. But, by reaching the Adelaide peninsula, the expedition essentially completed the discovery of the north-west passage, despite rival claims by leaders of the search expeditions.

The aura of mystery about and the horrifying fate of Franklin's final expedition, together with the fame and honour he had earned for his first land expedition, meant that biographers had difficulty making fair judgements of Franklin for many years after his disappearance and death. Assessments have oscillated between emphasizing his reliability, deep sense of morality, and courage, and his apparent inflexibility, inability to adapt to new conditions, and unquestioning following of orders. But, as with Robert Falcon Scott more than half a century later, the brave naval officers who died carrying out their duty for England, no matter how misguided or flawed, attained an exalted position with the British public. In Franklin's case, this is not wholly unwarranted: he was not the most innovative or successful of Arctic explorers, but his charting of the North American coast was accurate and extensive, his governorship of Van Diemen's Land was just and compassionate, and his personal qualities and characteristics were admirable.

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by Stephen Luscombe