The Royal Navy, Ruler of the Seas

Franklin's Tragic Expedition

Sir John Franklin, circa 1845

Caption: Sir John Franklin, circa 1845

The new expedition, led by Sir John Franklin, an experienced 58-year-old captain, was prepared meticulously: provisions for three years, clothes specially designed for winter, ships equipped with auxiliary steam engines and bows covered in iron plate to break the ice. In short, every foreseeable factor was taken into account. In May 1845 the HMS Erebus 115 and the HMS Terror sailed, the 134 men on board convinced they would find the famous passage. Whalers saw them for the last time at Baffin Bay on July 26.

In 1847 British opinion began to show concern. The following year, the last for which Franklin had provisions, two expeditions went searching for him, one from the Bering Strait, the other from the Atlantic, both unsuccessfully. Other attempts followed. In 1850 some debris and three graves were found on Beechey Island, where Franklin had wintered in 1845. But where were the ships and their crews? The whole world was caught up in the mystery. For the next four years no fewer than 38 expeditions left by land and by sea to search for them before any sign was found. Some Inuit reported to Dr. John Rae of the Hudson's Bay Company that in 1848 they had seen to the west some 40 white men pulling provisions and a row-boat over the ice. Their bodies were finally found on the Adelaide Peninsula of King William Island. Another expedition, sponsored by Lady Franklin, who still hoped to find her husband alive, discovered a message dated April 25, 1848, reporting Franklin's death on June 11, 1847, and the abandonment of the two ships caught in the ice. All members of the expedition had perished, then, martyrs of Canadian Arctic exploration.