The Franklin Expedition: Why does it matter?

The excitement of the Franklin saga may make us feel more emotionally engaged with our northern territories

The excitement of the Franklin saga may make us feel more emotionally engaged with our northern territories

The recent discovery of the  resting place of one of the two ships involved in the doomed Franklin Expedition of 1845 has garnered a huge amount of media attention and a great deal of excitement from historians, explorers, politicians and the general public alike. The question is: why?

In addition to the media furor across the globe, even Prime Minister Harper has made no secret of his enthusiasm for the hunt for Franklin’s lost ships, the federal government has made substantial financial contributions to the search efforts which have been ongoing each summer since 2008.

So, what makes this project so important?

Unlike most of Canadian history, the story of the Franklin Expedition has been deeply mythologized in the 170 years since the disappearance of the ships and their crew. The fact that they no doubt suffered terrible deaths in a treacherous, forbidding landscape struck a nerve with the public 170 years ago and continues to do so today.

Sir John Franklin set out on his voyage from England in 1845 with one objective: to find the elusive Northwest Passage, which would provide a faster route for ships travelling from Europe to the rich trading grounds of Asia.

The voyage around Cape Horn was too long and very dangerous, so England, which by 1845 was the dominant European maritime military and merchant power, sought a quicker, easier route through the as-yet largely unmapped Arctic territories that would become part of Canada.

North America was not the only territory being explored by England at this time.  Australia and New Zealand, Africa, and Southeast Asia were all being “opened” to European exploitation, but most of those who ventured into those regions returned home to Europe; or at least the stories of what became of them were carried back by survivors.

However, Franklin did not come home.  He was 59 years old when the 1845 expedition began, and a veteran of Arctic exploration.  He brought with him 129 capable men, and two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. These ships were fitted with the best that contemporary industrial technology had to offer.

Though wooden, Erebus and Terror, had iron-clad bows for the icy Arctic seas.  They had complex steam engines manufactured by cutting edge rail companies, which would not only allow their propellers to maneuver the ships in tight situations, but also pumped hot water through pipes onboard the ship to keep the crew warm. There was a library onboard, and vast arrays of tinned food.

If anyone could have survived this voyage, it should have been Franklin.

The hubris of the mid-19th century was fueled by rapid advances in industrial technology. The media covered the story by portraying Franklin as a noble hero – a man dissuaded by nothing, who had every confidence that his cutting-edge ships would survive, and he would return home to England with a map of the Northwest Passage.

Instead, Canadian weather prevailed. The sea ice was too thick. The boats were immobilized. The crew began to die. None of their technology could save them; indeed there is even a theory that the lead used in soldering the food tins actually hastened the men’s deaths.

Inuit stories spoke of ghostly white men labouring in the cold, and of cannibalism amongst survivors. In 1859, a note dating from 1848 was found on King William Island which stated that Franklin was dead, and that the survivors had abandoned the ships and set off south on foot in a desperate attempt to survive.

In 1981, three corpses of Franklin’s men were found on Beechey Island, half starved, and displaying lead poisoning. Other remains were later found on King William Island which showed signs of cut-marks on the bones.  The Inuit tales of cannibalism seem to have been true.

At home in England, when no word had come from the expedition in three years, Mrs. Franklin began to lobby for rescue efforts. The British Admiralty offered a reward of £20,000 (the equivalent of more than $2 million today) for anyone that found Franklin’s missing ships and crew.

The loss was a stark reminder of the limitations of human ingenuity and technology when faced with the implacability of nature.

Approximately 50 expeditions since had tried and failed to determine with certainty the fate of those men. Mrs. Franklin became a national heroine in her own right; a valiant, persistent woman who refused to give up hope and for whom popular ballads were composed.

Today, the discovery of the Erebus is as remarkable as if 170 years from now we were to suddenly find the remains of flight MH370. The drama and tragedy of the Franklin story is once again in the public eye, but the discovery also casts light on some modern concerns.

Pragmatically, the issue of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty is tied up in the expedition and though the discovery would likely matter little to rival claimants Russia and Denmark, it has certainly cast our national attention on a remote area with which most Canadians feel little connection. The excitement of the Franklin saga may make us feel more emotionally engaged with our northern territories.

The issue of Arctic melt and climate change is also a pressing one, though ironically it has enhanced our capacity for northern exploration and travel. With the alarmingly rapid loss of sheet ice in our north we must also be aware that the Northwest Passage (now potentially navigable for the first time) may become a viable trade route. How will Canada regulate that trade? How can we better protect our Arctic environment?

The reawakening of interest in Franklin and his expedition provides a window through which we might examine our contemporary relationship with the Arctic. All of the modern political, technological and environmental questions that it underscores serve as a vivid reminder that history is not just in the past.

History is happening right now, and we are the ones writing it.

•••

Kate Humble is the interpretive co-ordinator at the Maritime Museum of B.C. The Maritime Museum will be running a regular column on historical and maritime topics. If you have any questions that you would like to see addressed here, please send them to khumble@mmbc.bc.ca.

 

Get local stories you won't find anywhere else right to your inbox.
Sign up here

Just Posted

Zahra Rayani-Kanji of Heart Pharmacy, Sidney Pharmacy manager James McCullough, and Naz Rayani, owner and founder of Heart Pharmacy, join sisters Becky Brigham and Judy Costanzo outside the business. Sidney Pharmacy has become the sixth Heart Pharmacy outlet in Greater Victoria after its purchase from Brigham and Costanzo. Their parents, Frances and Jim Brigham, first opened the business in 1959. (Wolf Depner/News Staff)
Sidney Pharmacy changes ownership, but retains family tradition

First opened by Frances and Jim Brigham in 1959, Sidney Pharmacy is now part of Heart Pharmacy

Ronald Schinners, owner of The Cabbie in the #YYJ, opened his taxi service in the West Shore last month. (Dawn Gibson/News Staff)
‘One man show,’ The Cabbie in the #YYJ cultivates 45,000 followers on Instagram

New taxi company brings unusual spunk to the West Shore

German Chancellor Angela Merkel has in the past warned of Öffnungsdiskusionorgien (translated as an orgy of discussions about openings), one of one of the 1,200 words added to the German lexicon as reported by the Leibniz Institute for the German Language. (Michael Kappeler/Pool via AP)
German lexicon grows by 1,200 words, many inspired by COVID-19 pandemic

Öffnungsdiskusionorgie (orgy of discussions about openings) among new entries

A decade into the 100-year blueprint for restoring the Bowker Creek watershed, Soren Henrich, director of the Friends of Bowker Creek Society, feels positive about the future of conservation and daylighting of the creek. (Nina Grossman/News Staff)
Ten years in, Greater Victoria’s 100-year Bowker Creek blueprint gets a boost

Victoria council passes several restoration recommendations

During a press event on March 6, Const. Alex Berube, media relations officer for the West Shore RCMP, addressed a deadly shooting that occurred in Metchosin the night before. (Devon Bidal/News Staff)
VIDEO: One man shot dead in ‘targeted incident’ on Sooke Road

Highway 14 reopens following multi-hour closure for investigation

The James C Richardson Pipe Band marches in a Remembrance Day parade on Nov. 11, 2019 in Chilliwack. Wednesday, March 10 is International Bagpipe Day. (Jenna Hauck/ Chilliwack Progress file)
Unofficial holidays: Here’s what people are celebrating for the week of March 7 to 13

International Bagpipe Day, Wash Your Nose Day and Kidney Day are all coming up this week

The Port Alice pulp mill has been dormant since 2015. (North Island Gazette file photo)
Parts recycled, life returning to inlet as as old Port Alice mill decommissioned

Bankruptcy company oversees de-risking the site, water treatment and environmental monitoring

The Conservation Officers Service is warning aquarium users after invasive and potentially destructive mussels were found in moss balls from a pet store. (BC Conservation Officers Service/Facebook)
Aquarium users in B.C. warned after invasive mussels found at pet store

Conservation officers were told the mussels were found in a moss ball from a Terrace pet store.

Hockey hall-of-fame legend Wayne Gretzky, right, watches the casket of his father, Walter Gretzky, as it is carried from the church during a funeral service in Brantford, Ont., Saturday, March 6, 2021. HE CANADIAN PRESS/Nathan Denette
Walter Gretzky remembered as a man with a ‘heart of gold’ at funeral

The famous hockey father died Thursday at age 82 after battling Parkinson’s disease

Donald Alan Sweet was once an all star CFL kicker who played for the Montreal Alouettes and Montreal Concordes over a 13-year career. Photo courtesy of Mission RCMP.
Ex-B.C. teacher who was CFL kicker charged with assault, sexual crimes against former students

Donald Sweet taught in Mission School District for 10 years, investigators seek further witnesses

(Black Press Media files)
Medicine gardens help Victoria’s Indigenous kids in care stay culturally connected

Traditional plants brought to the homes of Indigenous kids amid the COVID-19 pandemic

Personal protective equipment is seen in the COVID-19 intensive care unit at St. Paul’s hospital in downtown Vancouver. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Jonathan Hayward
$16.9 million invested to improve worker safety, strengthen B.C.’s food supply chain

Money to be used for social distancing, personal protective equipment, cleaning, and air circulation

More than ever before, as pandemic conditions persist, the threat of data breaches and cyberattacks continues to grow, according to SFU professor Michael Parent. (Pixabay photo)
SFU expert unveils 5 ways the COVID-19 pandemic has forever changed cybersecurity

Recognizing these changes is the first in a series of steps to mitigate them once the pandemic ends, and before the next: Michael Parent

Most Read