Ghostly sonar images, taken from below the ice of Northwest Canada, appear to show the final resting place of the lost ship HMS Erebus, which vanished in the area during the mid 19th century.
The ship was part of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition to discover the Northwest Passage (a sea route that would hypothetically –and later actually- link the Atlantic to the Pacific via the Arctic seas).
The expedition had departed from England in 1845.
The HMS Terror, under the command of Captain Francis Cozier, had also accompanied the Erebus (commanded by Captain James Fitzjames) on this dangerous, and ultimately deadly, voyage.
Reportedly, both ships were spotted by whaling vessels in Baffin Bay – and earlier, as they departed Melville Bay off the coast of Greenland, in the summer of 1845. However, neither vessel was ever seen again until the discovery of the wreck of the Erebus earlier this month.
This new discovery provides a solemn coda to a tale of exploration and tragedy that has captured popular imagination for almost 200 years.
Sir Franklin, who was 60 years of age at the time the expedition was launched, set sail with three years’ worth of provisions, as well as 129 men under his command. The crews of both ships fully expected to become trapped in the unforgiving ice of the region for at least one winter – and had prepared in advance for this eventuality. As with other nautical disasters, like the sad fate that befell the RMS Titanic, the ship and crew seemed to be too well prepared for such a terrible end to have befallen them.
From 1848 to 1859, one of the largest-ever maritime searches was mounted for the missing ships. More than 50 expeditions embarked on a fruitless search for the missing explorers. One such expedition was launched by Sir Franklin’s wife, who sent five ships in search of her missing husband and even went as far as to ensure that canned food was left on the ice in case the survivors required it.
By 1850, at least ten ships were still actively searching for Franklin, or any survivors of his expedition. Meanwhile, Inuit hunters told tales of white men that had been struggling to survive the harsh environment. Native accounts tell that the desperate men resorted to cannibalism before they succumbed to the cold. Sadly, this was confirmed by forensic analysis in 1981.
Chillingly, in 1859, one search operation discovered two skeletons lying aboard an otherwise abandoned sledge-boat, adorned with plates, cutlery and clothing that had all come from Franklin’s expedition. It is considered by many to be one of the eeriest (and most baffling) shipwreck discoveries of all time. To quote investigators John Fairley and Simon Welfare, who wrote for ‘Arthur C. Clarke’s Chronicles of the Strange and Mysterious’ in 1987,
“Further north and facing out to sea, an extraordinary catafalque was discovered – a full-size ship’s boat, mounted on a massive sledge with iron-shod runners, and, in it, two bodies, equipped like some Chinese emperor for the afterworld. Each had a double-barrelled gun with one barrel locked and cocked. With them were calfskin slippers, edged with red silk ribbon. One skeleton was wrapped in furs. There was a complete set of dinner plates with Sir John Franklin’s crest and silver knives, forks and spoons with the crests or initials of five of Erebus’ officers and three of Terror’s. There were books, towels, soap, silk handkerchiefs, and ‘an amazing quality of clothing’. And all this facing back towards the frozen sea”.
In 1984, the mummified bodies of Petty Officer John Torrington, Marine William Braine and Able Seaman John Hartnell were discovered in the ice of Beechey Island, in Canada’s Barrow Strait. The bodies had been buried, but had hardly decomposed due to the extreme cold, and the pictures stunned the world.
However, the ultimate fates of the Terror and the Erebus were still not known.
It was suspected that the sailors in question died from either scurvy or lead poisoning, which offered at least two possibilities as to the final fate of the rest of the expedition’s officers and crew. Lead poisoning, which can lead to severe depression, is hinted at in several sources and is generally considered to have been a major blight on the doomed voyage.
Later expeditions uncovered two messages that had been left on King William Island, the first was left by Sir Franklin himself, saying “all well”. The second message was apparently written in April of 1848 and explained that the Erebus and the Terror had been deserted just a few days earlier. Thus, 105 crewmen, under the command of Captain Crozier, had sought refuge on the island.
The note further explained that Sir Franklin had died in June of 1847, not long after he had written the first note.
Following the discovery of the notes, more than a dozen bodies were found South of the island, at Starvation Cove. It is presumed to be the Southernmost point the starving survivors reached during their quest to find help.
Rumours abounded that the ships had been seen lodged in an iceberg and, indeed, the testimony for this was believable enough. However, whatever the fate of the HMS Terror, interested parties at last know the final resting place of the HMS Erebus.
“From the images it is clear that a huge amount of evidence will be preserved from the expedition, possibly even including the remains of the men and maybe, just possibly, some of their photographs,” says British archaeologist William Battersby, who described the find as “the biggest archaeological discovery the world has seen since the opening of Tutankhamen’s tomb almost 100 years ago”
The Canadian government has spent millions of pounds in their search for the lost ship and Prime Minister Stephen Harper even participated in the search personally.
Canada has been attempting to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage ever since the Arctic ice began to melt at an increased rate, causing the area to become accessible to ships. The search for the missing ships, well known mysteries of a lost age of exploration, has been seen by some as an attempt to further the country’s claim to the waters, which are, for now at least, still seen as international territory.
In addition, 2014 marks the 200th anniversary of the opening of Pembroke Dock in Wales, the shipyard which initially built the Erebus. John Evans, of the Pembroke Dock Heritage Centre, told BBC news that, “It’s become one of the biggest maritime mysteries, up there with the Mary Celeste, and our volunteers are already working on a new exhibition to mark the historic event.”
It seems that the solution to one of the all-time great maritime mysteries may finally be within our grasp.