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Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition

The bell of the Franklin ship HMS Erebus The bell of the Franklin ship HMS Erebus Parks Canada/Thierry Boyer
11 Jul
An historic exhibition at the National Maritime Museum unveils the first public display of numerous items recovered from the rediscovered HMS Erebus

A left leather boot, specially crafted for Arctic conditions. An ornamental blue and white plate, a large chunk broken off. A brass fireplace broom. A pair of Royal Marine uniform buttons. A large bronze bell branded with the date 1845.

For nearly two centuries, these and other items lay far below the icy surface of the Canadian Arctic. There were all once kept upon HMS Erebus, which, along with HMS Terror, was one of two ships that set sail on the Thames on 19 May 1845 as part of Sir John Franklin’s search for the Northwest Passage. Now, they sit in the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London, for the very first display of such objects since their dramatic discovery just a few years ago.

Inuit made model of European shipInuit-made model of European ship (Image: Canadian Museum of History)

Significantly, although perhaps surprisingly, the initial portion of the exhibition is devoted to the Inuit communities and culture whose spoken history was essential is locating the Franklin ships. From thick, hooded clothing to a long caribou antler bow (with bone arrows) to a remarkable 16th century carved wooden model of a European ship, alongside numerous recordings and literal ‘voices’ of the Inuit, it’s repeatedly emphasised what a crucial role these people played not just in the Franklin story, but in the entire course of five centuries of European exploration into the Inuit territory of the Arctic.

In the 19th century, across the Atlantic, an obsession had developed regarding the Arctic. As the exhibition stresses, even long after the prospect of finding a practical Northwest Passage in order to reach Asia had been dismissed, romantic imaginations of the Arctic and far north of the North American continent continued to enthral the public. Large exhibition maps, including interactive displays showing a visual timeline of exploration in this region, help provide a powerful sense of context behind the entire pioneering expedition.

Victory Point NoteThe famous ‘Victory Point note’ revealed the dire situation the expedition had found themselves in (Image: National Maritime Museum, London)

One emphasis of the exhibition is to stress that each one of the 129 sailors aboard the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror was an individual person, with families waiting for them back home. Extracts from letters sent to their loved ones – which include details about activities such as animal collection and musical entertainments which occurred on the ships – underline the point that these men were all human, not mere pawns who happened to have been accompanying the great Sir Franklin.

For two years, nothing was heard of the expedition. The campaign of Lady Jane Franklin, emphasising the lack of contact from the ships (letters from Lady Franklin are accompanied by pottery dolls to show the celebrity status which she was able to generate during this time) eventually saw multiple search parties set sail to try and discover what happened to the expedition, as many as 36 over the years. Thanks to Britain being in something of a lull between the Napoleonic and Crimean Wars, figures from Robert McClure to John Rae to Francis Leopold McClintock were able to depart England in hope of finding, if not Sir Franklin and the crew themselves, at least some clue as to what became of them. The various tales which ensued – of which, of course, much more is actually known, many as dramatic as the Franklin expedition itself – are captured briefly but succinctly in the exhibition.

Underwater archaeologist collecting samples from HMS ErebusUnderwater archaeologist collecting samples from HMS Erebus (Image: Parks Canada/Thierry Boyer)

As Franklin experts will know, the ‘Victory Point’ note eventually recovered on King William Island by McClintock revealed the vast number of deaths which had occurred on the expedition between May 1847 and April 1848, including Franklin himself. So what killed the crew, whose remains were uncovered scattered all around King William Island? Fans of autopsies will enjoy the chance to examine images of the preserved bodies of three crew members, while fans of conspiracy theories will enjoy deciding between the various potential causes of deaths which so wrecked the expedition. Was it tuberculosis? Lead poisoning? Hypothermia? Make up your own mind.

Ultimately, this entire story was completely turned on its head on 2 September 2014, when Parks Canada finally uncovered HMS Erebus, and, two years later, HMS Terror, as far as 160km from the understood abandonment location. With both relatively well preserved in the Arctic ice, excavations are currently underway to unscramble the mysteries of what happened to these ships, and the people who once sailed them. Details about the modern process of locating and identifying such shipwrecks are highly detailed, and demand praise for the dedication and efforts of those who were determined to finally solve this 170-year-old mystery. Especially given the timeframe available, this is an immensely well crafted exhibition – whatever knowledge you have of the Franklin story, there will be something for you to build upon it here.

Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition in on at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, from 14 July 2017 until 7 January 2018. For more information visit rmg.co.uk/franklin

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