The Canadian Prime Minister’s Quest to Discover a Missing Explorer and Rule the Arctic

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May 19 2014 6:00 AM

Canada’s Prime Minister Is Obsessed With a Missing Explorer

An archaeological quest to promote Canadian exceptionalism and rule the Northwest Passage.

The large display case in Centre Block 307-S, the Canadian prime minister’s office, is reserved for objects dear to the nation’s history and culture. The current leader, Stephen Harper, personally chose a handful of relics to display during his term in office. They are related to one of the darkest chapters in 19th-century exploration: the Franklin expedition, a British naval voyage to find the Northwest Passage. In the case lies a battered food tin with traces of red paint and lead solder oozing from its rim. A tattered label from a can of ox-cheek soup instructs diners to open it with a hatchet. A fragment of wood planking may have come from one of the expedition’s two lost ships.

Sir John Franklin was taken aboard the Erebus before it departed the Thames in May, 1845.
The Erebus’ equipment included a daguerreotype camera. This photograph of Sir John Franklin was taken aboard the Erebus before it departed England in May 1845.

Courtesy of National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

It seems like an odd collection of stuff until you understand the enduring mystery of the Franklin expedition—and its unexpected significance for Canadian geopolitics in the 21st century.

For hundreds of years, the British Admiralty had been dispatching expeditions to search for a geographic chimera, the Northwest Passage linking Europe and the Pacific by a navigable route over the top of North America. Some voyages were more successful than others, but none was able to push through hundreds of square miles of pack ice from Baffin Bay to the Bering Strait. Despite having almost nothing to show for the expeditions except nautical charts revealing where the Northwest Passage was not, the Admiralty kept the dream alive. Claiming the Northwest Passage became a matter of national pride for Victorian England.

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In 1845, the Admiralty outfitted its most sophisticated expedition to date. It chose naval officer Sir John Franklin to command the voyage, even though some criticized Franklin’s age (59) and physical fitness (lacking). The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, freshly returned from a four-year mission to Antarctica, had proven their ice-worthiness. They were fitted with locomotive steam engines and screw propellers to breeze across open water. Every modern technology was provided for the expedition’s crew of 134: a library of at least 1,200 books, a daguerreotype camera, one mechanical hand-organ per ship, three years’ worth of canned food (a recent invention), steam-heating systems to keep both vessels toasty, and even a pet monkey.

Their mission: Chart the last unexplored area of the Canadian archipelago for a likely route to the Bering Strait. They were to voyage via Lancaster Sound and Barrow Strait, filling in the final blank space on the Arctic map. What could possibly go wrong?

After leaving London, Franklin’s party stopped at a Greenland whaling post to collect supplies and discharge five sick crew members before heading into Baffin Bay. Two passing whalers hailed them on July 26, 1845. Then the Erebus and Terror vanished.  

It wasn’t uncommon for Arctic voyages to last two or three years without communication home, but by 1847, the Admiralty was getting worried. The government sent a series of search-and-rescue operations, but no trace of the Franklin expedition was found until 1854. That’s when the world learned the horrifying truth.

the fate of the Franklin expedition.
The single written document ever found relating to the fate of the Franklin expedition. The sheet of naval stationary bears a handwritten note from 1847 indicating that the men are “all well.” An addendum written in 1848 describes Franklin’s death, the ships’ permanent besetment in the ice, and the crew’s impending march to the mainland.

Image via Creative Commons

From Inuit testimony, artifacts, and a single note left in a stone cairn, the story emerged. After a season of successful exploration, both ships were beset in pack ice west of King William Island on Sept. 12, 1846, and trapped for that winter and the next year. Franklin died of unknown causes on June 9, 1847. The remaining crew abandoned the iced-in ships on April 22, 1848, and began marching toward the closest Hudson’s Bay Company outpost on the North American mainland, hundreds of miles away. No one survived the ravages of exposure, lead poisoning (likely from their canned food), scurvy, and starvation, even those who had been driven to “the last dread alternative”—cannibalism. The Hudson’s Bay Company surveyor John Rae, who spoke with Inuit witnesses and discovered the crew’s misfortune, told the Admiralty that the survivors of the Erebus and Terror suffered “a fate [as] terrible as the imagination can conceive.”

The combination of heroism and horror has kept the Franklin mystery alive for generations. Many questions remain unanswered: Where did the ships finally sink? Where is Franklin buried? What happened to the ship’s logs and journals? Why did the survivors march south instead of north, where search parties were already looking for them? For Canadian researchers and their Franklinophile-in-chief, Stephen Harper, the truth may still be out there.

The British government transferred sovereignty of the Arctic islands to Canada in 1880 and its rights to the expedition’s artifacts decades ago. The Canadian government designated the Erebus and Terror as national historic sites, even though their locations are unknown. Since 2008, Parks Canada has sent teams to the wind-scarred gravel shore of King William Island to look for clues. The flat, treeless land has become ground zero for archaeologists and amateur sleuths every August—the brief research window the Inuit locals call “Franklin season.” Using sophisticated side-scan sonar and underwater remote-operated vehicles, archaeologists have searched the seabed for evidence of the ships and ruled out square kilometers that yielded nothing. Teams on land, together with Inuit guides, have combed the pebbly shores for clues to Franklin’s final resting place. They’ve found fragments of clay pipe stems, discarded food tins, a Victorian toothbrush, and a lot of unidentified human bones.  

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