What occurred on HMS Terror? Divers plan return to Franklin wrecks | Exploration

It remains one of the greatest mysteries of naval exploration. What doomed John Franklin’s 1845 attempt to sail the Northwest Passage, from the Atlantic to the Pacific, in his ships Erebus and Terror?

The expedition claimed the lives of all 129 men and has gripped the public’s imagination for the past century and a half. Now Canadian researchers are facing a crucial decision on whether to relaunch attempts to find new clues about the ships’ fate.

Over the past few years they have already recovered hundreds of artefacts – from shoes and ceramic dishes to a ship’s bell and a lieutenant’s epaulette – from the wrecks of the two ships after they sank in the Canadian Arctic.

But last year marine archaeologists had to abandon dives to the wrecks because of the Covid pandemic and they are unsure if they will be able return to the ships this summer when the sea ice retreats sufficiently to allow access to the wrecks near King William Island.

Franklin set off from Greenhithe in Kent in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, a polar route to the Far East. His ships were fitted with steam-driven propellers to help them manoeuvre in pack ice and their holds were filled with a three-year supply of tinned provisions. It was one of the best-equipped marine expeditions of its day. So what befell the ships?

From their first disappearance the mystery of the Erebus and the Terror has gripped the public’s imagination. As Andrew Lambert says in his biography, Franklin, Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation: “At the heart of every story about the Arctic stands John Franklin.”

Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Jules Verne and Mark Twain all wrote about the expedition. However, the screening of The Terror on BBC Two this month has regalvanised interest across Britain and taken viewers on board the two ill-fated ships to see what life would have been like for the crew who had to endure temperatures of minus 50C throughout several Arctic winters.

HMS Erebus in the Ice, 1846, by the Belgian marine artist François Etienne Musin. Photograph: National Maritime Museum

With both vessels trapped in pack ice, this grim tale – based on Dan Simmons’s bestselling 2007 novel – charts not just a journey across the icy Arctic wastes but also traces the conflicts that flared between those in charge. Crucially, the script also pays due attention to the culture of the local Inuit people, something that was often disregarded by Royal Navy adventurers who later tried to find Franklin and his men.

Francis Crozier who commanded HMS Terror, is played by Jared Harris (recently in Chernobyl) as the more cautious seaman who attempts – despite a debilitating alcohol dependency – to persuade Franklin (played by Ciarán Hinds) to abandon his mission as being too dangerous. Other key characters include the ambitious first officer of Erebus, James Fitzjames (Tobias Menzies), and Henry Goodsir, known as Harry, a kindly Scottish surgeon and naturalist (Paul Ready).

Much of the drama follows Simmons’s fictional conjecture that the division in the crews’ loyalties contributed to the eventual failure of the expedition, although supernatural elements also pepper the plot. The drama has been widely praised for its production and convincing depictions of the Arctic, which were recreated digitally using the same special effects that series producer Ridley Scott used in his film The Martian.

Divers found plates next to a mess table on HMS Terror.
Divers found plates next to a mess table on HMS Terror. Photograph: Ryan Harris/AFP/Getty Images

However, for all its televisual sophistication, The Terror does not answer the key question: what really doomed the Franklin expedition? Many theories have been suggested: the crews were struck down by botulism; they suffered lead poisoning from the poorly sealed tins of food; or were badly led by Franklin, who let his ships sail on a route frequently blocked by ice even in summer. What is known is that surviving crewmen eventually abandoned both vessels and headed south on foot across King William Island. Cut marks on skeletons make it clear some indulged in cannibalism before perishing.

Just why the expedition went so badly wrong is unclear but our understanding would be transformed by paperwork, says Claire Warrior, a senior curator at the National Maritime Museum in London – and that is the real hope of the dives that will eventually start again this year or next.

“If papers on the Erebus and Terror had been kept in sealed boxes or drawers, they may have survived immersion in the very cold, dark waters,” she said. “Diaries or written commands would make the most meaningful difference in terms of understanding what happened. That is what we are hoping will be found.”

A Royal Navy lieutenant’s epaulette found on HMS Erebus.
A Royal Navy lieutenant’s epaulette found on HMS Erebus. Photograph: Canadian Press/REX/Shutterstock

In the end, the bodies of more than 30 crewmen from the ships were found on King William Island. Most are still buried there, although two were returned to Britain. Lieutenant John Irving was identified from personal effects and was buried in Dean cemetery, Edinburgh, in 1881.

The second was initially identified as being that of Henry Le Vesconte, a lieutenant on Erebus, before it was interred beneath the Franklin memorial at Greenwich Old Royal Naval College in London. However, in 2009, the memorial was moved, and a facial reconstruction from the remains was carried out – and produced a close match with a surviving daguerreotype of Henry Goodsir. For good measure, isotope analysis of tooth enamel suggested an upbringing in eastern Scotland (Goodsir was raised in Fife) but not with Le Vesconte’s upbringing in southwest England. The remains are now attributed to Goodsir.

“Obviously we would like clues in future years to what happened to all these men but on their own, the items that have been recovered have transformed our appreciation of how they lived,” added Warrior.

“Bits of accordion, pipes and books have been found. These are touchstones to those lives and they have incredible poignancy.”

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