This weekend, I headed over to Greenwich, with thoughts of going to the planetarium, and possibly relaying the story of Andromeda to you (which will still happen, but probably tomorrow when I find some fitting art work…). What I hadn't realised before I went was how close the maritime museum was. Now I have a bit of a passion for the sea (along with a few other things) so split my visit to have a mooch around this fascinating museum. Currently they have a really fascinating exhibition on called "Death in the ice".
This exhibition centres around the fated expedition of Sir John Franklin, as he tried to make passage through the northern pass in an attempt to get through to Asia.
Landseer's painting is quite graphic as it shows polar bears chewing on the remains of some of the crew, and while a plausible ending, is one of sheer guess work as we will never really know what happened to this lost crew.
On the 19th May 1845, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror (why you would even consider boarding ships named this is beyond me, Erebus being the personification of darkness and terror…well enough is said right there) set sail from Kent heading towards the Artic.
Franklin was the second choice for this expedition as originally the offer had been made to Sir James Ross who declined and Franklin accepted as his reputation was waning after a period of non adventure. Franklin was 59 at the time of sailing. Franklin was named expedition commander with Captain James Fitzgerald in command of the Erebus and Captain Francis Crozier in command of the Terror.
This expedition was to charter the last 500 kilometres of the unexplored Artic coast line and as the ships set sail they were well equipped as the ships had been strengthened for the climate and a heating system had been installed. Thousands of tins of food , along with the essentials of tea (well they were English), chocolate and extra strong rum had been put on board the two ships. Libraries of thousands of books were also on board to help the crew through the long polar nights.
129 men were aboard the ships and this expedition held the British aim of finding a navigable route through the ice choked waste lands. This was to be the expedition that would end 300 years of searching for swifter passage to Asia…it could not fail.
As the ships set off the atmosphere was excitable and good humoured and the initial silence from the ships was expected due to the remote region that they were sailing to, but the quiet from them became unsettling, after two years of silence friends and family became anxious and the admiralty began to send search parties out as the feeling that something had gone awry became an increasing concern.
From here a story started to unfold, many of which were pieced together through Inuit accounts and artefacts which were retrieved. A lot of these artefacts you can now see at the maritime museum. Many of the items retrieved has been made in to other things by the Inuits, fashioning slivers of copper in to fish hooks and the remnants of tin cans in to knives. In one of the early searches John Rae worked with the Inuits and brought back disturbing reports of starving and desperate men who had resorted to cannibalism. Franklin's wife worked with Charles Dickens to dismiss these rumours in his magazine "Household words", but as searches continued it became increasingly evident that all the crew was dead and that they probably had resorted to 'the last dreaded resource'. Rae was paid £10,000 for the information he retrieved but his reputation never recovered from his statements of cannibalism.
In 1859, Leopold McClintock, made further discoveries, bringing back the only piece of evidence which would help understand the fate of the two ships. The first was a message noting the achievements up to May 1847, the second was scrawled in the margin of April 1848, telling of the death of Franklin along with 9 officers and 15 men. It also detailed the plans to abandon ships and trek back over land to Back river. The tracks of the men who left could be followed by the trail of debris and bones which were left by them.
The searches for these men and the ships never ceased, and in 1980 bodies where exhumed of men buried on Beechy island, and as they has been buried in perma-frost autopsies could be carried out, telling the story of how these men died….lead poisoning, botulism, tuberculosis along with scurvy and starvation.
In 2014 the HMS Erebus was found by Parks Canada using their sonar system, and the ship is remarkably in tact, the HMS Terror was found 2 years later and in even better condition. The ships in themselves have raised more questions than answers about the men's fate of this remarkable mystery.
For anyone interested in this, I whole heartedly recommend a visit to this incredible museum where you can learn so much more about the tale and see some of the amazing discoveries.