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Ch. 5: The Tragedy of Franklin's Fate

The month of May 1845 found two stout ships, the Erebus and the Terror, riding at anchor in the Thames. Both ships were already well known to the British public. They had but recently returned from the Antarctic seas, where Captain Sir James Ross, in a voyage towards the South Pole, had attained the highest southern latitude yet reached. Both were fine square-rigged ships, strengthened in every way that the shipwrights of the time could devise. Between their decks a warming and ventilating apparatus of the newest kind had been installed, and, as a greater novelty still, the attempt was now made for the first time in history to call in the power of steam for the fight against the Arctic frost. Each vessel carried an auxiliary screw and an engine of twenty horse-power. When we remember that a modern steam vessel with a horse-power of many thousands is still powerless against the northern ice, the Erebus and the Terror arouse in us a forlorn pathos. But in the springtime of 1845 as they lay in the Thames, an object of eager interest to the flocks of sightseers in the neighbourhood, they seemed like very leviathans of the deep. Vast quantities of stores were being loaded into the ships, enough, it was said, for the subsistence of the one hundred and thirty-four members of the expedition for three years. For it was now known that Arctic explorers must be prepared to face the winter, icebound in their ships through the long polar night. That the winter could be faced with success had been shown by the experience of Sir William Parry, whose ships, the Fury and the Hecla, had been ice-bound for two winters (1821-23), and still more by that of Captain John Ross, who brought home the crew of the Victory safe and sound in 1833, after four winters in the ice.

All England was eager with expectancy over the new expedition. It was to be commanded by Sir John Franklin, the greatest sailor of the day, who had just returned from his five years in Van Diemen's Land and carried his fifty-nine winters as jauntily as a midshipman. The era was auspicious. A new reign under a queen already beloved had just opened. There was every hope of a long, some people said a perpetual, peace: it seemed fitting that the new triumphs of commerce and science, of steam and the magnetic telegraph, should replace the older and cruder glories of war.

The expedition was well equipped for scientific research, but its main object was the discovery of the North-West Passage. We have already seen what this phrase had come to mean. It had now no reference to the uses of commerce. The question was purely one of geography. The ocean lying north of America was known to be largely occupied by a vast archipelago, between which were open sounds and seas, filled for the greater part of the year with huge packs of ice. In the Arctic winter all was frozen into an unending plain of snow, broken by distorted hummocks of ice, and here and there showing the frowning rocks of a mountainous country swept clean by the Arctic blast. In the winter deep night and intense cold settled on the scene. But in the short Arctic summer the ice-pack moved away from the shores. Lanes of water extended here and there, and sometimes, by the good fortune of a gale, a great sheet of open sea with blue tossing waves gladdened the heart of the sailor. Through this region somewhere a water-way must exist from east to west. The currents of the sea and the drift-wood that they carried proved it beyond a doubt. Exploration had almost proved it also. Ships and boats had made their way from Bering Strait to the Coppermine. North of this they had gone from Baffin Bay through Lancaster Sound and on westward to a great sea called Melville Sound, a body of water larger than the Irish Sea. The two lines east and west overlapped widely. All that was needed now was to find a channel north and south to connect the two. This done, the North-West Passage, the will-o'-the-wisp of three hundred and fifty years, had been found.

A glance at the map will make clear the instructions given to Sir John Franklin. He was to go into the Arctic by way of Baffin Bay, and to proceed westward along the parallel of 74 15' north latitude, which would take him through the already familiar waters of Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait, leading into Melville Sound. This line he was to follow as far as Cape Walker in longitude 98, from which point it was known that waters were to be found leading southward. Beyond this position Franklin was left to his own discretion, his instructions being merely to penetrate to the southward and westward in a course as direct to Bering Strait as the position of the land and the condition of the ice should allow.

The Erebus and the Terror sailed from England on June 19, 1845. The officers and sailors who manned their decks were the very pick of the Royal Navy and the merchant service, men inured to the perils of the northern ocean, and trained in the fine discipline of the service. Captain Crozier of the Terror was second in command. He had been with Ross in the Antarctic. Commander Fitzjames, Lieutenants Fairholme, Gore and others were tried and trained men. The ships were so heavily laden with coal and supplies that they lay deep in the water. Every inch of stowage had been used, and even the decks were filled up with casks. A transport sailed with them across the Atlantic carrying further supplies. Thus laden they made their way to the Whale Fish Islands, near Disco, on the west coast of Greenland. Here the transport unloaded its stores and set sail for England. It carried with it five men of Franklin's company, leaving one hundred and twenty-nine in the ill-fated expedition.

The ships put out from the coast of Greenland on, or about, July 12, 1845, to make their way across Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound, a distance of two hundred and twenty miles. In these waters are found the great floes of ice which Davis had first seen, called by Arctic explorers the 'middle ice.' The Erebus and the Terror spent a fortnight in attempting to make the passage across, and here they were seen for the last time at sea. A whaling ship, the Prince of Wales, sighted the two vessels on July 26. A party of Franklin's officers rowed over to the ship and carried an invitation to the master to dine with Sir John on the next day. But the boat had hardly returned when a fine breeze sprang up, and with a clear sea ahead the Erebus and the Terror were put on their course to the west without even taking time to forward letters to England.

Thus the two ships vanished into the Arctic ice, never to be seen of Englishmen again. The summer of 1845 passed; no news came: the winter came and passed away; the spring and summer of 1846, and still no message. England, absorbed in political struggles at home—the Corn Law Repeal and the vexed question of Ireland—had still no anxiety over Franklin. No message could have come except by the chance of a whaling ship or in some roundabout way through the territories of the Hudson's Bay Company, after all but a slender chance. The summer of 1846 came and went and then another winter, and now with the opening of the new year, 1847, the first expression of apprehension began to be heard. It was remembered how deeply laden the ships had been. The fear arose that perhaps they had foundered with all hands in the open waters of Baffin Bay, leaving no trace behind. Even the naval men began to shake their heads. Captain Sir John Ross wrote to the Admiralty to express his fear that Franklin's ships had been frozen in in such a way that their return was impossible. The Admiralty took advice. The question was gravely discussed with the leading Arctic seamen of the day. It was decided that until two years had elapsed from the time of departure (May 1845 to May 1847) no measures need be taken for the relief of the Erebus and the Terror. The date came and passed. Anxiety was deepening. The Admiralty decided to act. Great stores of pemmican, some eight tons, together with suitable boats and experienced crews, were sent in June 1847 to Hudson Bay, ready for an expedition along the northern coast. A ship was sent with supplies to meet Franklin in Bering Strait, and two more vessels were strengthened and equipped to be ready to follow on the track of the Erebus and the Terror in 1848. As this last year advanced and winter passed into summer, a shudder of apprehension was felt throughout the nation. It was felt now that some great disaster had happened, or even now was happening. It was known that Franklin's expedition had carried food for at best three years: the three years had come and gone. Franklin's men, if anywhere alive, must be suffering all the horrors of starvation in the frozen fastness of the Arctic.

We may imagine the awful pictures that rose up before the imagination of the friends and relatives, the wives and children, of the one hundred and twenty-nine gallant men who had vanished in the Erebus and the Terror—visions of ships torn and riven by the heaving ice, of men foodless and shelterless in the driving snow, looking out vainly from the bleak shores of some rocky coast for the help that never came—awful pictures indeed, yet none more awful than the grim reality.

A generous frenzy seized upon the nation. The cry went up from the heart of the people that Franklin must be found; he and his men must be rescued—they would not speak of them as dead. Ships must be sent out with all the equipment that science could devise and the wealth of a generous nation could supply. Ships were sent out. Year after year ships fought their way from Baffin Bay to the islands of the north. Ships sailed round the distant Horn and through the Pacific to Bering Strait. Down the Mackenzie and the great rivers of the north, the canoes of the voyageurs danced in the rapids and were paddled swiftly over the wider stretches of moving water. Over the frozen snow the sledges toiled against the storm. And still no word of Franklin, till all the weary outline of the frozen coast was traced in their wanderings: till twenty-one thousand miles of Arctic sea and shore had been tracked out. Thus the great epic of the search for Franklin ran slowly to its close. With each year the hope that was ever deferred made the heart sick. Anxiety deepened into dread, and even dread gave way to the cruel certainty of despair. Not till twelve years had passed was the search laid aside: not until, little by little, the evidence was found that told all that we know of the fate of the Erebus and the Terror.

First in the field was Richardson, the gallant friend and comrade of Franklin's former journeys. He would not believe that Franklin had failed. He knew too well the temper of the man. Franklin had been instructed to strike southward from the Arctic seas to the American coast. On that coast he would be found. Thither went Sir John Richardson, taking with him a man of like metal to himself, one John Rae, a Hudson's Bay man, fashioned in the north. Down the Mackenzie they went and then eastward along the coast searching for traces of the Erebus and the Terror. For two years they searched, tracing their way from the Mackenzie to the Coppermine. But no vestige of Franklin did they find. The queen's ships were searching too. Sir James Ross, with the Enterprise and the Investigator, went into Lancaster Sound. The Plover and the Herald went to Bering Strait. The North Star went in at Wolstenholme Sound. The Resolute, the Assistance, the Sophia—a very flock of admiralty ships—spread their white wings for the Arctic seas. The Hudson's Bay Company sent Sir John Ross, a tried explorer, in the yacht Felix. Lady Franklin, the sorrow-stricken wife of the lost commander, sent out Captain Forsyth in the Prince Albert. One Robert Spedden sailed his private yacht, the Nancy Dawson, in through Bering Strait; and Henry Grinnell of New York (be his name honoured), sent out two expeditions at his own charge. By water and overland there went out, between 1847 and 1851, no less than twenty-one expeditions searching for the Erebus and the Terror.

Thus passed six years from the time when Franklin sailed out of the Thames, and still no trace, no vestige had been found to tell the story of his fate. Then at last news came, the first news of the Erebus and the Terror since they were sighted by the whaling ship in 1845. The news in a way was neither good nor bad. But it showed that at least the melancholy forebodings of those who said that the heavily laden ships must have foundered before they reached the Arctic were entirely mistaken. Captain Penny, master of the Lady Franklin, had sailed under Admiralty orders in 1850, and had followed on the course laid down in Franklin's instructions. He returned in 1851, bringing news that on Beechey Island, a little island lying on the north side of Barrow Strait, he had found the winter quarters that must have been occupied by the expedition in 1845-46, the first winter after its departure. There were the remains of a large storehouse, a workshop and an observatory; a blacksmith's forge was found, with many coal bags and cinders lying about, and odds and ends of all sorts, easily identified as coming from the lost ships. Most ominous of all was the discovery of over six hundred empty cans that had held preserved meat, the main reliance of the expedition. These were found regularly piled in little mounds. The number of them was far greater than Franklin's men would have consumed during the first winter, and, to make the conclusion still clearer, the preparation was of a brand of which the Admiralty since 1845 had been compelled to destroy great quantities, owing to its having turned putrid in the tins. It was plain that the food supply of the Erebus and the Terror must have been seriously depleted, and the dangers of starvation have set in long before three years were completed.

Three graves were found on Beechey Island with head-boards marking the names and ages of three men of the crew who had died in the winter. Near a cape of the island was a cairn built of stone. It was evidently intended to hold the records of the expedition. Yet, strange to say, neither in the cairn nor anywhere about it was a single document to be found.

The greatest excitement now prevailed. Hope ran high that at least some survivors of the men of the Erebus and the Terror might be found, even if the ships themselves had been lost. The Admiralty redoubled its efforts. Already Captains Collinson and M'Clure had been sent out (in 1850) to sail round the Horn, and were on their way into the Arctic region via Bering Strait. To these were now added a squadron under Captain Sir Edward Belcher consisting of the Assistance with a steam tender named the Pioneer, the Resolute with its tender the Intrepid, and the North Star. Stations were to be made at Beechey Island and at two other points in the region now indicated as the scene of Sir John Franklin's operations. From these sledge and boat parties were to be sent out in all directions. At the same time Lady Franklin dispatched the Albert under Captain Kennedy and Lieutenant Bellot, an officer of the French navy who had given his services to the cause.

Once again hope was doomed to disappointment. The story of the expeditions was an almost unbroken record of disaster. Captain M'Clure, in the Investigator, separated from his consort, and vanished into the northern ice; for three years nothing was heard of his vessel. The gallant Bellot, attempting to carry dispatches over the ice, sealed his devotion with his life. Belcher's ships the Assistance and the Resolute, with their two tenders, froze fast in the ice. Despite the earnest protests of some of his officers, Belcher abandoned them, and, in the end, was able to return home. The Admiralty had to face the loss of four good ships with large quantities of stores. It had been better perhaps had they remained lost. One of the abandoned ships, the Resolute, its hatches battened down, floated out of the ice, and was found by an American whaler, masterless, tossing in the open waters of Baffin Bay. Belcher may have been right in abandoning his ships to save the crews, but his judgment and even his courage were severely questioned, and unhappy bitterness was introduced where hitherto there had been nothing but the record of splendid endeavour and mutual help. The only bright spot was seen in the achievement of Captain, afterwards Sir Robert, M'Clure, who reappeared with his crew safe and sound after four winters in the Arctic. He had made his way in the Investigator (1850 to 1853) from Bering Strait to within sight of Melville Sound. He had spent three winters in the ice, the last two years in one and the same spot, fast frozen, to all appearances, for ever. With supplies dangerously low and his crew weakened by exposure and privation, M'Clure reluctantly left his ship. He and his men fortunately reached the ships of Sir Edward Belcher, having thus actually made the North-West Passage.

The disasters of 1853-54 cast a deeper gloom than ever over the search for Franklin. Moreover, the rising clouds in the East and presently the outbreak of the Crimean War prevented further efforts. Ships and men were needed elsewhere than in the northern seas. It began to look as if failure was now final, and that nothing more could be done. Following naval precedent, a court-martial had been held to investigate the action of Captain Sir Edward Belcher. 'The solemn silence,' wrote Captain M'Clure afterwards, 'with which the venerable president of the court returned Captain Belcher his sword, with a bare acquittal, best conveyed the painful feelings which wrung the hearts of all professional men upon that occasion; and all felt that there was no hope of the mystery of Franklin's fate being cleared up in our time except by some unexpected miracle.'

The unexpected happened. Strangely enough, it was just at this juncture that a letter sent by Dr John Rae from the Hudson Bay country brought to England the first authentic news of the fate of Franklin's men. Rae had been sent overland from the north-west shores of Hudson Bay to the coast of the Arctic at the point where the Back or Great Fish river runs in a wide estuary to the sea. He had wintered on the isthmus (now called after him) which separates Regent's Inlet from Repulse Bay, and in the spring of 1854 had gone westward with sledges towards the mouth of the Back. On his way he fell in with Eskimos, who told him that several years before a party of about forty white men had been seen hauling a boat and sledges over the ice. This was on the west side of the island called King William's Land. None of the men, so the savages said, could speak to them in their own language; but they made signs to show that they had lost their ships, and that they were trying to make their way to where deer could be found. All the men looked thin, and the Eskimos thought they had very little food. They had bought some seal's flesh from the savages. They hauled their sledges and the boat along with drag-ropes, at which all were tugging except one very tall big man, who seemed to be a chief and walked by himself. Later on in the same season, so the Eskimos said, they had found the bodies of a lot of men lying on the ice, and had seen some graves and five dead bodies on an island at the mouth of a river. Some of the bodies were lying in tents. The big boat had been turned over as if to make a shelter, and under it were dead men. One that lay on the island was the body of the chief; he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his gun lay underneath him. The savages told Dr Rae that they thought that the last survivors of the white men must have been feeding on the dead bodies, as some of these were hacked and mutilated and there was flesh in the kettles. There were signs that some of the party might have escaped; for on the ground there were fresh bones and feathers of geese, showing that the men were still alive when the wild fowl came north, which would be about the end of May. There was a quantity of gunpowder and ammunition lying around, and the Eskimos thought that they had heard shots in the neighbourhood, though they had seen no living men, but only the corpses on the ice. A great number of relics—telescopes, guns, compasses, spoons, forks, and so on—were gathered by the natives, and of these Dr Rae forwarded a large quantity to England. They left no doubt as to the identity of the unfortunate victims. There was a small silver plate engraved 'Sir John Franklin, K.C.B.', and a spoon with a crest and the initials F.R.M.C. (those of Captain Crozier), and a great number of articles easily recognized as coming from the Erebus and the Terror.

One may well imagine the intense interest which Dr Rae's discoveries aroused in England. Rae had been unable, it is true, to make his way to the actual scene of the disaster as described by the Eskimos, but it was now felt that at last certain tidings had been received of the death of Franklin and his men. Dr Rae and his party received the ten thousand pounds which the government had offered to whosoever should bring correct news of the fate of the expedition.

In all except a few hearts hope was now abandoned. It was felt that all were dead. Anxious though the government was to obtain further details of the tragedy, it was not thought proper at such a national crisis as the Crimean War to dispatch more ships to the Arctic. Something, however, was done. A chief factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, named Anderson, was sent overland in 1855 to explore the mouth of the Back river. He found in and around Montreal Island, at the mouth of the river, numerous relics of the disaster. A large quantity of chips and shavings seemed to indicate the place where the savages had broken up the boat. But no documents or papers were found nor any bodies of the dead. Anderson had no interpreter, and could only communicate by signs with the savages whom he found alone on the island. But he gathered from them that the white men had all died for want of food.

For two years nothing more was done. Then, as the war cloud passed away, the unsolved mystery began again to demand solution. Some faint hope too struggled to life. It was argued that perhaps some of the white men were still alive. The imagination conjured up a ghastly picture of a few survivors, still alive when, with the coming of the wild fowl, life and warmth returned. With what horror must they have turned their backs upon the hideous scene of their sufferings, leaving the dead as they lay, and preferring to leave unwritten the chronicle of an experience too awful to relate. There, penned in between the barren grounds and the sea, they might have somehow continued to live: there they might still be found.

It was through the personal efforts of Lady Franklin, who devoted thereto the last remnant of her fortune, that the final expedition was sent out in 1857. The yacht Fox was commanded by Captain M'Clintock. He had already spent many years in the Arctic. Touched by the poignant grief of Lady Franklin, he gave his service gratuitously in a last effort to trace the fate of the missing men. Other officers gave their services and even money to the search. The little Fox sailed in 1857, to search the waters between Beechey Island and the mouth of the Back. When she returned to England two years later she brought back with her the first, and the last, direct information ever received from the Erebus and the Terror. In a cairn on the west coast of King William's Island was found a document placed there from Franklin's ships. It was dated May 28, 1847 (two years after the ships left England). It read: 'H.M. Ships Erebus and Terror wintered in the ice lat. 70 5' N. long., 98 23' west, having wintered in 1845-46 at Beechey Island after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat. 77 and returned by the west side of Cornwallis Island. Sir John Franklin commanding the expedition. All well.'

This showed that Franklin had, as already gathered, explored the channels west and north from Lancaster Sound, and finding no way through had wintered on Beechey Island (1845-46). Striking south from there his ships had been caught in the open ice-pack, where they had passed their second winter. At the time of writing, Franklin must have been looking eagerly forward to their coming liberation and the prosecution of their discoveries towards the American coast.

But the document did not end there. It had evidently been placed in the cairn in May of 1847; a year later the cairn had been reopened and to the document a note had been appended, written in fine writing round the edge of the original. The torn edge of the paper leaves part of the date missing. It runs '... 848. H.M. Ships Erebus and Terror were deserted on the 22 of April, 5 leagues NNW. of this ... been beset since 12th Sept. 1846. The officers and crews consisting of 105 souls under the command ... tain F. R. M. Crozier landed here in Lat. 69 37' 42" Long. 98 41'.'

No words could convey better than these simple lines the full horror of the disaster: two winters frozen in the ice-pack till the lack of food and the imminence of starvation compelled the officers and men to leave the ships long before the summer season and try to make their way over ice and snow to the south! And Franklin? The other edge of the paper contained in the same writing a note that ran: 'Sir John Franklin died on the 11th June 1847 and the total loss by death to the expedition has been to date 9 officers and 14 men. F. R. M. Crozier, Captain and Senior Officer. James Fitzjames, Captain H.M.S. Erebus.' At one corner of the paper are the final words that, taken along with the stories of the Eskimos, explained the last chapter of the tragedy—'and start to-morrow 26th for Back's Fish River.'

M'Clintock did all that could be done. He and his party traced out the coast on both sides of King William's Island, and, having reached the mouth of the Back river, he traced the course of Crozier and his perishing companions step by step backwards over the scene of the disaster. The Eskimos whom he met told him of the freezing in of the two great ships: how the white men had abandoned them and walked over the ice: how one ship had been crushed in the ice a few months later and had gone down: and how the other ship had lain a wreck for years and years beside the coast of King William's Island. One aged woman who had visited the scene told M'Clintock's party that there had been on the wrecked ship the dead body of a tall man with long teeth and large bones.

The searchers themselves found more direct testimony still. A few miles south of Cape Herschel lay the skeleton of one of Franklin's men, outstretched on the ground, just as he had fallen on the fatal march, the head pointing towards the Back river. At another point there was found a boat with two corpses in it, the one lying in the stern carefully covered as if by the act of his surviving comrade, the other lying in the bow, two loaded muskets standing upright beside the body. A great number of relics that marked the path of Crozier's men were found along the shore of King William's Island. In one place a plundered cairn was discovered. But, strangely enough, no document or writing to tell anything of the fate of the survivors after they started on their last march. That all perished by the way there can be little doubt. But it is altogether probable that before the final catastrophe overtook them they had endeavoured to place somewhere a record of their achievements and their sufferings. Such a record may still lie buried among the stones of the desolate region where they died, and it may well be that some day the chance discovery of an explorer will bring it to light. But it can tell us little more than we already know by inference of the tragic but inspiring disaster that overwhelmed the men of the Erebus and the Terror.

Stephen Leacock

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