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Sir John Franklin’s tragic quest in the Arctic

Posted in Disasters, Discoveries, Exploration, Historical articles, History, Ships on Monday, 28 November 2011

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This edited article about exploration and discovery originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 863 published on  29 July 1978.

Sir John Franklin, picture, image, illustration

Franklin was shipwrecked off the coast of Australia in his youth, by Severino Baraldi

Twenty thousand pounds reward. That was the then colossal sum of money offered by Parliament only 160 years ago for a discovery that so far had eluded all man’s efforts . . .

That discovery was a North-West Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans – a passage that would link Europe by a north-westerly route to China. Sixty-three attempts had been made to find it in the previous three centuries and still people believed that it existed, and should be found “in the interests of commerce and science.”

Although the reward was later withdrawn without a claimant, the challenge remained. And it was the challenge that inspired Sir John Franklin to file an application to lead the Admiralty expedition that was being fitted out for the task. The Lords of the Admiralty, reading Sir John’s request, raised their eyebrows dubiously.

“You have not sailed into Arctic waters for seventeen years,” they reminded Sir John. “Furthermore, you are 60 years old – far too old to be considered for such a daunting task.”

“You have been misinformed, my Lords,” replied Sir John spiritedly. “I’m only fifty-nine!”

Somewhat astonished, the Lords of the Admiralty decided to reconsider the man they had so quickly rejected. Franklin certainly had better qualifications than any other candidate. No man in Britain knew better the perils and the loneliness of those vast white wastes – the stinging cold, the illimitable ice, the chilling bleakness. And when the elderly explorer declared, “No service is nearer to my heart than to find this elusive North-West Passage,” it was agreed that he should have the job.

Franklin had had some experience of the Arctic, when, as a young man, he had been a member of an expedition led by Captain Ronald Parry to find the North Pole. The expedition was unsuccessful and for three years Franklin’s party was to endure amazing suffering. Once, when the temperature was well below freezing, the men had only lichen to eat for six days.

With starvation staring them in the face, they found some pieces of cattle hide and, singeing them, mixed them with the lichen. Another time the horns and bones of a dead deer were fried with some old shoes, and the “putrid carcase of a deer that had died the previous Spring was demolished by the starving men.”

When Franklin at last returned to England he had covered 5,500 miles of hitherto unexplored Arctic wasteland and mapped 500 miles of coastline.

As if magnetised by the great, empty, soundless tract, Franklin was soon back again in the Arctic. His brief this time was to descend the Mackenzie River and find the North-West Passage. For another two-and-a-half years, with another explorer, Dr. John Richardson, he trudged across the ice. They failed to solve the riddle of the passage, but they did discover a thousand miles of North American coastline. For this, Franklin received his knighthood.

Sir John, now commanding a warship, then sailed for the sunnier Mediterranean and gallantly joined the Greek War of Independence. Next he was made Governor of Tasmania. Even if he was only 59 – and not 60 – when the Government announced its intention in 1845 of finding the Passage, he had packed more action into his lifetime than most other men. But he was determined to take up the Admiralty’s challenge and return once more to the inhospitable Arctic.

Two ships were appointed to the expedition – the Erebus and the Terror. They carried crews of 129 men and several officers and were provisioned for three years. Certainly they were the best equipped ships that Britain had ever sent on a voyage of exploration.

On board everyone was convinced that this time the mystery of the North-West Passage would at last be solved. One of the officers was so certain that they would sail north-west from the Atlantic into the Pacific that he wrote to a friend: “Write to Panama and the Sandwich Islands (in the Pacific Ocean) every six months.”

It was in such high spirits that on 4th July, 1845, the crews of the two ships anchored off the west coast of Greenland. And from that day nothing else was ever heard of them until long after they were all dead.

As the eerie silence from the exploration party spread from weeks into months, then into a year, the awful truth that all might be lost dawned upon a British public that had waited patiently for the good news of discovery. Now began the clamour to find out what had happened.

Thus it was that in 1848 – three years after Franklin had last been heard of – the first search party went out under Captain James Ross. They returned without having found even a trace of the two missing ships.

Another expedition was at once despatched. By now the rewards offered by the Government and by Lady Franklin for the discovery of Sir John’s whereabouts totalled ¬£33,000. But the Arctic is a huge place, and this second expedition also drew a blank.

There was to be no giving up. By the autumn of 1850 there were fifteen ships searching for Franklin. By 1855 more than 20 had been sent out. And still not a trace of the explorers was revealed.

When the Government at last decided to quit the search, Lady Franklin, undaunted, fitted out a new ship, the Fox, and gave the command to Captain Leopold M’Clintock, a navigator wise in the ways of the Arctic.

A year after he set sail, in 1857, M’Clintock found three lonely graves on icy Beechey Island. They covered the remains of three sailors from the Erebus and the Terror.

A year after that, M’Clintock met four Eskimoes. One of them was wearing a naval button. He told M’Clintock: “It came from some white people who had starved to death on an island.”

Next day the entire Eskimo village arrived bringing relics – spoons, buttons, knives – of Franklin’s crews. One old man drew a sketch in the snow of where the relics had been found near King William’s Island.

Days later, when he arrived at the island, M’Clintock found more positive clues. The Eskimoes there had seen the two wrecked ships and a woman told how “many of the white men dropped by the way as they went to the Great River. We found their bodies the following winter.”

Then, after another long search, M’Clintock himself found the bodies that the Eskimoes had seen. Indeed, they had fallen down as they walked, just as the Eskimo woman had said. In a cairn, M’Clintock’s men found some notes that revealed, too, that, before his death, Franklin had succeeded in demonstrating the existence of the North-West Passage.

His men, forced out of their ice-bound ships by the ordeal of three long winters and the total exhaustion of their provisions, had set out for one of the Hudson Bay Company’s stations and, weakened by hunger and cold, had fallen dead in the snow one after the other.

Many years later, in 1906, the Norwegian explorer Captain Roald Amundsen sailed a ship from Baffin Bay to Bering Strait – through the North-West Passage that Franklin had intended to follow.

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