In September 2014, Parks Canada, working with partners including the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, located what John Geiger, CEO of the RCGS, calls “the most important polar archaeological discovery that has ever been made.” Said discovery is the relocation of one of Sir John Franklin’s Royal Navy vessels that used to search for the Northwest Passage, the HMS Erebus.
For over 17 decades, the Erebus was missing, lost at sea, holding the secrets to what became of Franklin and his men. There were no survivors from the expedition, and artifacts on Franklin’s ship could shed light on whether the group successfully located the Northwest Passage. We caught up with Geiger at New York’s Explorer’s Club to discuss the discovery, what’s next for exploration and what will happen to the artifacts recovered from Erebus.
So it is a great mystery — it’s not well known but it’s an amazing story. So it caught my attention and that of Owen. I spent three field seasons there battling plagues of mosquitos and the occasional polar bear. The weather which lurches from quite beautiful with the warm temperatures, to cold, plus five Celsius with sleet. So really a remarkable place. I spent three years doing that in the summers. So I have been involved in field science and I have always been very interested in the whole realm of exploration — particularly as it pertains to polar regions.
Franklin himself was a very experienced arctic explorer. He had already made two overland expeditions across the barrens of Northern Canada and had mapped a large portion of the arctic coastline of North America. So he had significant experience, but had not commanded a naval expedition into any polar region. He was chosen after James Clark Ross, a more experienced naval commander in polar expeditions, declined. So Franklin, in 1845, was given command and they sailed off. They stopped in Greenland; letters were sent home to relatives saying how great Franklin was: “He was a very popular commander,” “great optimism for success,” “they were going to get through the passage very quickly.” They had three years’ worth of food with them — including new food technologies like tins. So really, the sense was that they were going to have an easy success.
They entered the so-called Northwest Passage into Lancaster Sound and they were last seen in Baffin Bay by some whaling vessels. They obviously were later seen by Inuit in the arctic setting. And the ships vanished. They didn’t come out of the arctic as anticipated. A year went by, two years went by. Finally Lady Franklin began to raise questions. She used her political connections, her social connections, to try to understand what had happened to the expedition — why they had disappeared. It essentially took more than a decade of searching to understand what became of the expedition. It was not an easy solve.
What was finally decided was, based on research and historical analysis of them, was that the expedition had successfully over-wintered their first year there [in the arctic]. There had been three deaths, which was a little unusual — a little high in terms of mortality, but they successfully over-wintered at a place called Beechey Island. They then set sail and probed further, deeper into the arctic. The ships were beset in ice off the northwest coast of King William Island and as a result of that they got trapped. The ice didn’t clear so they remained trapped. So after essentially two years of being locked in this ice, with an ever-increasing number of deaths on the expedition, including John Franklin himself who died aboard ship in 1847, the decision was made to abandon the ships. The crew left the ships and attempted to walk out of the Arctic. They walked south, which is a mystery to many historians. As a result of going south, they had to cross the Barren to a Hudson’s Bay Company post a couple of hundred miles away. The more logical escape route would have been Northeast to Somerset Island, where the first searchers went looking for them. They were reported by the Inuit to literally have dropped dead as they walked along.
Over the years we have been able to put together a pretty good picture of what was happening, and it was a mass disaster that was played out over a fairly lengthy period of time — with deaths aboard ship and deaths when they abandoned the ship, and cannibalism among the last surviving members of the expedition. Really a horrific story.
The greatest mystery of all has been: where are the ships? How do two royal navy exploration ships simply vanish? And literally in 17 decades there was no evidence of these ships. There were accounts, that one ship had been damaged, and sunk quickly off the west coast of King William Island. A second account of one of the ships farther to the south was actually visited by the Inuit and there were reports of Franklin and crew being alive on that ship. These accounts were reported by the Inuit and collected and recorded by researchers. But 17 decades associated with the two most significant artifacts — two ships with whatever is aboard those ships.
In the case of Erebus and Terror, nobody survived. We didn’t have the ships, we didn’t have the human survivors. Many of the men remain missing. Franklin himself is missing. Logs are missing. There is this great dearth of information. The significance of the discovery of the ship is so enormous because there are so many unanswered questions. There may be human remains on the ship, and it’s Franklin’s ship, so his own possessions will be there. It’s possible even, some historians believe, that Franklin’s remains will be on the ship — so it is a great importance in terms of understanding the Franklin disaster.
It also comes at a time when the whole world is fixated on the arctic because of the effects of climate on that landscape. The fact that now you are looking at the possibility that the Northwest Passage could be a commercial trading route, so it really is a significant time.
Like in all explorations, sometimes it is just luck that makes the difference between success and failure. And in this case it was luck. It was because the team was looking in the right place. It was because they were doing terrestrial archaeology as well as underwater archaeology.