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Picture Library catalogue: British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition 1845-1848

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British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition 1845-1848

The British Naval Northwest Passage Expedition, 1845–1848 led by Sir John Franklin, was searching for a northwest passage in an unexplored region southwest of Barrow Strait. If a way through the ice could be found a shipping route could be established which would be much quicker than the current trading routes. Sailing from London in May 1845 HMS Erebus (Captained by Franklin) and HMS Terror (Captained by Crozier) were well equipped, with food for seven years, silver cutlery and 1000 bound editions of Punch. They were last seen heading for Lancaster Sound by two whalers in northern Baffin Bay in late July 1845. After that, the expedition disappeared and Europeans never again saw Franklin, what happened to the 129 men and their ships is still a mystery.

In February 1847 when there was still no news from the expedition James Clark Ross (who had originally been offered and turned down the command of the expedition) suggested to the British Admiralty that a search party should be sent to establish the fate of the expedition and hopefully rescue the men. However, the Admiralty were of the opinion that the expedition would still have enough supplies and so a rescue mission was not yet necessary. Finally in the summer of 1848 when there was still no news of the expedition the Admiralty decided to send a search party to establish the fate of expedition.

In the following ten years many ships were sent to the area to investigate the fate of Franklin. Lady Jane Franklin offered a £5000 reward and the British government £20,000 for the discovery and hopefully the recovery of the expedition.

During the course of many search expeditions the main facts regarding the route taken and final fate of the expedition were established. It is believed Franklin turned into Lancaster Sound, travelling west until he reached Cornwallis Island where he turned into Peel Sound. The various rescue attempts took a similar journey, however, when they came to Peel Sound they found it blocked by ice and impassable. It never occurred to them that at one point the Peel Sound entrance had been clear, as it had been when Franklin sailed down in an unusually warm season. Furthermore as many of the search parties had a second goal to their mission - the desire to be the first to reach the North Pole, many of parties directed their rescue attempts northwards rather than southwards.

Through the many search parties that travelled to the region some details regarding the fate of the expedition were established. In 1850 at Beechy Island off Cornwallis Island the first winter quarters of Franklin’s expedition were found. Here remnants of a camp were discovered, including over 600 empty tin cans, and the graves of W.Braine, J.Hartnell and J.Torrington. However, a message saying where the expedition had gone could not be found. Later in 1854 when John Rae was commissioned to explore the region for the Hudson Bay Company he met some Inuit who told him they had seen a large party of white men dragging a boat in the Pelly Bay and Repulse Bay areas. From these Inuit Rae was able to purchase items which proved they had been in contact with the expedition, this included a small silver plate with ‘Sir John Franklin K.C.B’ engraved on it. However, Rae also brought back with him the news that the Inuit claimed starvation had caused the men on the expedition to resort to cannibalism. Such accusations against British naval men proved to be extremely controversial and whether the men did or did not partake in cannibalism is still hotley debated today.

John Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin was not happy with Rae’s tale of cannibalism or the lack of documentation concerning the fate of the expedition and so in 1857 commissioned an expedition using her own steam yacht the Fox, commanded by Captain F.L. Mc’Clintock. He found remains of the expedition scattered along the western shore of King William Island including a sledge boat containing two skeletons and most importantly a written record of the expeditions fate in a cairn at Victory Point.

Here an original message left by Franklin saying all was well had been amended, to show the situation was now the very opposite! From this we now know that the expedition wintered at Beechy Island between 1845-6, the Erebus and Terror then sailed southwards to the entrance of Victoria Strait. Here on 12 September 1846 the two vessels became beset in the ice north of King William Island, they spent two winters here between September 1846 and April 1848. Franklin died on 11 June 1847 (the document does not give the cause of death) and the command passed onto Francis Crozier. Abandoning the two vessels on 22 April 1848, 105 survivors led by Crozier set out toward Back River. Here the written record ends, Inuit accounts suggest that some of the survivors returned to the stricken ships, which sank at different times. It is thought some survivors may have lived as late as 1850, eventually all perished from a combination of exposure, scurvy and starvation.

We shall never no exactly what happened to Franklin’s expedition but the mystery and controversy still holds a grip on our imagination today. However, the expedition unknowingly did succeed in their aim, by discovering a channel of communication between known points in Barrow Strait and on the north coast, Franklin’s men had effectively discovered the Northwest Passage.

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Data in this catalogue was last updated on Tuesday, 13th June 2023.