SIR JOHN FRANKLIN 1786-1847

2 Jan

In Waterloo Place, St James, London there is a poignant tribute to Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition, planned to last three years from 1845, to find the Northwest Passage – the sea route that links the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The names of the 129 Royal Naval officers and men who lost their lives in the expedition are listed on each side of the memorial.

The Northwest Passage runs from its eastern entry from the North Atlantic (between Greenland and the Canadian Archipelago) and is contiguous with Canada’s northern mainland coast. The discovery of a route through the maze of islands making up the archipelago was considered to be a most important economic prize. Although it lay within the Arctic Circle and the passage was thought to be frozen most of the year, many speculated that the route would be considerably shorter than the long sea route via the South Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and The West Coast of North America

The route had been sought for many years and many thousands of pounds were offered as a prize to the successful navigator. Experienced seamen had failed to do this though many miles of the Northern Canadian coast and its archipelago had been explored and surveyed.

Sir John Franklin had been one of these explorers. In total he made four journeys to the Arctic. On the second, the expedition ran out of food and the men chewed leather to reduce their hunger pangs. This thrilling escapade made Franklin a British National Hero. On his third expedition he mapped over 1000 miles of the Northern Canadian Mainland coast and like subsequent explorers recorded the weather, wild life and plant life. In 1845, aged 59, he was considered an excellent choice to lead a further expedition and to gain the elusive prize.
Franklin led an expedition of 2 ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, (whose names are now well recognised as volcanoes on Ross Island in Antarctica). They were sailing ships but had small steam engines to blast through the ice. The ships carried food for 3 years including thousands of tins that were sealed with lead, (which, it is now speculated, could have caused lead poisoning). The ships left England in May 1845 and were last seen off Baffin Island in July of that year. It is known that initially the expedition explored Canada’s Northern coast but in the winter of 1846-47 the ships were beset in the Victoria Strait, an area of deep sea between Victoria Island and King William Island.
Franklin died in June 1847, many of the crew sickened and died. Later the same year the ships were abandoned when Captain Crozier decided to attempt to travel south overland to seek help. No one survived.
Many expeditions went subsequently to try to ascertain the fate of the men, including John Ross and his nephew James Clark Ross, McClintock (who was given buttons, needles and knives from the ship) and John Rae (Orkney’s greatest unsung hero and Edward Wilson’s personal hero) who recorded that cannibalism had occurred (hotly contested by the Great British Public including Charles Dickens and Sir John Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane who spent her fortune financing search parties).
There have now been remarkable developments. Recently the 2014 Victoria Strait Expedition was launched to find the lost vessels. Huge resources were put to the task that was backed by the Canadian Prime Minister, Stephen Harper. A helicopter expedition to an island in the eastern end of Queen Maud Gulf found remains from one of the ships; the wonderful find of an iron fitting from a davit and two halves of a deck hawser plug. Soon after a sonar towfish found the wreck of one of Franklins ships. This was subsequently identified as Erebus
Stephen Harper spoke at a press conference in September 2014 in Ottawa of the truly historic moment for Canada. He said that Franklin’s expedition laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic history
There will be much more. The hull is amazingly intact. It may be that information will appear about the fate of Franklin. Great stuff!

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