Segment of Ship's Wheel from HMS Erebus.jpg

Segment of Ship’s Wheel from HMS Erebus

The Anchorage Museum’s summer exhibition, ‘Death in the Ice: The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition (thru Sept. 29)’ explores Sir John Franklin’s fatal attempt to complete a Northwest Passage. He departed England May, 1845; his ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were abandoned in frozen Arctic ice, April 1848. The show helps visitors empathize with what it must have been like to be deathly ill in a subzero environment, without any hope of rescue. Digitized Daguerreotypes of Franklin and two senior officers, taken before leaving London, picture them to be just like any modern human, further drawing-in onlookers to their perils. Yards of hanging canvas mimic giant sails that propelled these boats and a large video depicts frozen ice in motion, while moving maps show numerous Arctic explorations attempted. Wall diagrams outline interiors of Franklin’s vessels, revealing ceilings were low, quarters compact, but nonetheless, officers dined on bone china, real silverware, and read from a library, while the crew played cards and acted in theater productions. Food rations, although minimal, contained citrus to ward off scurvy. Lead poisoning from the modern invention of canning foods was unavoidable. Omitted from this show but very imagined was ‘the love that dare not speak its name (Lord Alfred Douglas 1892)’. Many of the crew shipped out with tuberculosis, which lessened chances of survival even before being trapped in ice floes. So, why do we still care about an egomaniac captain who sailed into an Arctic area which hardly ever thawed in summer?

Since the Sixteenth Century the desire to find a Northern trading route from Europe to Asia resulted in many deaths, with some lucky to be rescued. Today with Climate Change melting this region faster than anywhere on Earth, icebreakers helped by satellite imagery plow the Northwest Passage, now a much safer but still a dangerous marine highway. It has also become a strategic military arena which is why Russia wants to control it and China wants a stake. Trump seems to want more than Alaska, which may be why he wanted Denmark to sell him Greenland; hey, we already have a military base there.

Portion of a recovered Boot.jpg

Portion of a recovered Boot.

Brief History of Franklin’s Expedition

Sir John Franklin (1786-1847) was a British war hero having seen action at the Battle of Trafalgar and the War of 1812. He had also made several Canadian and Arctic expeditions. He was like a modern day British rock star, and therefore was applauded when he accepted the job of charting the remaining 500 kilometers of the unexplored Northwest Passage. Franklin hauled three years of supplies aboard Erebus and Terror, only to become trapped in ice off King William Island, today part of the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Starvation, illness and wet wool clothing contributed to the crew’s demise. After Franklin died, allegedly all his men decided to walk south towards the Back River which they never made.

There were over thirty rescue attempts, with the British Admiralty offering a £20,000 reward. But, until the Twenty-First Century only abandoned gear, rock cairns with fragmented desperate messaging, and a few gravesites had been found.

Modern Franklin Explorations

Interest in this misadventure rekindled in the late 1960s when helicopters were used for aerial searches and dive teams fruitlessly probed the Arctic Archipelago. There continued to be traces of wood and iron thrown onto beaches but with so many decades of shipwrecks, artifacts remained inconclusive. For instance, copper sheathing used to keep barnacles, seaweed or shipworms from damaging hulls, often washed ashore. Of note: Royal Navy records showed that Franklin’s boats had no sheathing.

In spite of Global Warming, the cyclical melting/freezing sea ice continues to hinder. But, Twenty-First Century tech money has made expensive searches possible. In 2014, an expedition finally uncovered Franklin’s Erebus with the aid of modern equipment: ice breakers, GPS/computers, and improved underwater equipment: robotics, sonar/3-D imagery, sophisticated diving gear, and improved lighting. In 2016, another expedition discovered Franklin’s Terror; ironically in its namesake, Terror Bay. Both vessels were found in only thirty feet of water at the southern end of King William Island; Franklin’s ships were abandoned on the Northern part of this island. Known to Natives forever, one Terror mast remains visible above water. Old theories about crewmen staying together were replaced with new theories that groups had separated and possibly some had navigated the ships southward, only to be once again stuck and perish.

Overlooked Native Factor


Ship's Bell from HMS Erebus

Franklin’s initial exploration and Twenty-First Century discoveries of his vessels create two narratives. But there is a third story about the Nunavut Inuit who had collected oral histories on the Franklin expedition for decades. Reality: fascination, prejudice and abuse toward Native people accompanied explorations worldwide. Officially the British Navy told seamen to play nice. And even on some voyages there were attempts to learn Native dialects. Contradictory tales as to whether Franklin himself was friendly persist. Unfounded rumors that Inuit killed Franklin’s men live on.

Had Native oral histories not been discredited, much of what was recently discovered could have been found much earlier. Inuit folklore was superstitious of areas where Franklin and crew had landed. They became cursed zones, as the Franklin Expedition disturbed spirits causing bad hunting and intermittent starvation.

Even during Twentieth Century expeditions, Inuit involvement was discouraged. Oral histories that documented where the two ships lay were discounted since the first Naval rescue attempts.Inuit scavenged materials off many shipwrecks to remake into useful hunting or household goods. They had even boarded one of Franklin’s boats before it sank. More folklore indicated Inuit had tried to aid starving Franklin sailors, offering them food and clothing; they also recorded all were inevitably too far gone to save.

By the end of the Twentieth Century, those researching the Franklin expedition began to realize oral histories should not be overlooked. It was acknowledged that ancient Native hunters had occupied search areas as evidenced by stones that once anchored hide tents. A beached ‘davit pintle’ thought to be off one of the Franklin ships was further proof of searching in the right locations, as the Natives directed. Finally, Inuit stories about the location of the vessels became invaluable, along with satellite and sonar technology, to eventually locate both ships.

In 2014, an Inuit ‘men and dog on ship story’ led scientists to HMS Erebus, submerged at the eastern entrance of Queen Maud Gulf. In 2016, HMS Terror was discovered in Terror Bay, north of Queen Maud Gulf on southern end of King William Island. Again, an Inuit story about fishing in the area and seeing ‘a ship’s mast protruding out of water’ led archeologists along with instrumentation to Terror. Realizing they could profit, the Nunavut Inuit laid claim to artifacts as a basis for needed jobs: tourism, conservation labs. The area has become a National Historic Site managed by both Parks Canada and Nunavut Inuit.

Exhibition Artifacts

Bringing the flawed Franklin expedition into the Anchorage Museum became more real by presenting digital photographs of the three sailors who were exhumed in the mid-eighties on Beechey Island. Their eyes were never shut and clothes remain intact, which was enough to make me pass up my usual afternoon tea and cookie. Also shown were recreations of butchered human bones, proving cannibalism had occurred as a last gasp for survival. Victorian England wavered between the shock that sailors would eat each other and skepticism having heard the tale via Native oral histories. A section of Erebus’ wheel found on the seafloor imagines Franklin’s helmsman steering the ship across the Atlantic and into the Arctic. Erebus’ bell also found near the wreckage site was once the pulse of the ship as it rang for every onboard activity and watch. And the remains of a leather boot from a dying sailor trying to navigate snow/ice to safety did little good to insulate feet from frost bite and gangrene; Arctic Bunny Boots were decades away.

It remains unclear why so much fuss has been made over solving the mysteries of the failed Franklin expedition, with the whereabouts of his body still unknown today. My take: humanity loves the ‘Sublime’, needs to complete a narrative, and doesn’t like to be told ‘no’. With Arctic Melt uncovering more wreckage, fascination for scientists, profiteers, pleasure seekers, and now artists to probe this amazing area continues. The Arctic is also a strategic space to exert power and control, which hopefully won’t erupt into further political combativeness between nations.

Mini Sleuth: ‘Death in the Ice’ catalog is available at the Museum book shop. ‘Ice Ghosts’ by Paul Watson was used for additional information and is available on Amazon.

Jean Bundy aica-usa is a painter/writer living in Anchorage

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