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.

 

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