Death in the Ice

A new exhibition documents the tale of a vanished explorer, writes John Westbrooke

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One of the great Victorian mysteries is revived in the new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum: whatever happened to Sir John Franklin?

He left Britain in May 1845, in search of the North West Passage, a fabled Arctic sea route across northern Canada that would let traders sail from Europe to Asia without the hard work of rounding Cape Horn. Many had looked for it before, including the Englishman Martin Frobisher back in 1578. None had found it, but after voyages from both the Atlantic and Pacific there was a gap of just 900 miles in the middle where, it was hoped, ships might find a route.

So off went Franklin with two ships – the Erebus and Terror – and 128 crew. It was a hard-nosed enterprise: Franklin, a Trafalgar veteran, had been to the Arctic before (he was known as “the man who ate his boots” after one not entirely successful voyage); the ships were specially reinforced to deal with ice; provisions for three years were loaded.

Letters and archaeological finds on display in the exhibition, from this and other voyages, show the sort of cargo carried by men who expect to be away for a long time: willow-pattern china plates, a violin, compasses, snow goggles, playbills (the officers would perform theatrical farces to entertain the crew), and even a nice beaded purse. Everyone was getting on fine together, despite the cramped quarters, the officers wrote home. Though there’s also a replica cat o’ nine tails, hinting that life aboard may not have been all beer and skittles.

But it was also a romantic adventure. To Victorians, it was a case of “the Arctic – the final frontier”, boldly going where no European had gone before. Darkest Africa and desert Australia were yielding up their secrets, but the inhospitable north remained unknown. Mary Shelley sent her characters, Frankenstein and his monster, there to die at the end of her novel.

Two months from home, Franklin’s explorers were sighted by whalers in Baffin Bay, west of Greenland. After that – nothing. They were never seen by Europeans again.

Prompted by Lady Jane, Franklin’s determined wife, a lot of media hubbub, and a government offer of a £20,000 reward, as many as 36 relief expeditions went looking for them between 1847 and 1880. And gradually, enough artefacts and reports filtered back to provide an outline of what probably happened. The searches resumed after a 100-year gap in the 1980s and are still producing finds that give an insight into the lost age of exploration.

Some Inuit gave detailed accounts of meetings with a white man – amazingly, this turned out to be Frobisher, nearly 300 years earlier, still remembered in oral history. Some of them were using materials, on display here, that they had apparently taken from Franklin’s ships, such as metal knives, much simpler and sharper than their own stone ones.

One explorer, John Rae, was told of two ships trapped in ice near King William Island, north west of Hudson Bay, their starving men trying to escape and resorting to cannibalism. This was not what shocked Victorians wanted to hear: Rae was paid a £10,000 reward but bitterly criticised, and Charles Dickens claimed the Inuit, of whom he knew nothing, were liars and murderers.

The searches continued but little more was found, though a note left behind for any rescuers revealed that Franklin had died in 1847 and survivors were heading inland. One expedition, led by Robert McClure, was also trapped for three years and had to be rescued by another party; he then continued ahead, claimed to have found the Passage and collected a reward and a knighthood – even though he seems to have covered the last few hundred miles over land. And gradually public interest faded.

But in the 1980s renewed searches round King William Island turned up more relics and even some corpses, remarkably well preserved by the cold. (They’re not here, but photos are, and visitors are warned of possibly upsetting content.) Analysis threw up various possible reasons for their death and perhaps those of their fellows: lead poisoning, botulism from spoiled tinned food, scurvy, TB – and cannibalism, because Rae was right: some bones had evidently been cut open; others showed cut marks on the fingers, suggesting they mat have been still alive when attacked.

And in 2014, the Erebus itself was discovered, in excellent condition in a relatively shallow 10 metres of cold water – far from where everyone had expected, but fitting an Inuit description of a ship they’d seen sink. Its bell is on display, its conservation work only just completed; the number of very recently discovered exhibits on show is unusual. Last year the Terror too was found, deeper underwater but also in good order.

There are still lots of unanswered questions: did the crew return to the Erebus and sail further before abandoning it again? Just what went wrong with this well funded and carefully prepared voyage? Why would someone take a lady’s beaded purse to the Arctic? Dives are continuing (there are only a couple of narrow windows each year when they can take place); more treasures are being brought up and examined all the time. As Death in the Ice demonstrates, the story will run and run.

As for the North West Passage, global warming has helped make it work, and a cruise ship traversed it last year. If you try it, you can expect high fares and ecological controversy, but the world has come a long way since Franklin vanished into the icy wastes.

Death in the Ice, produced with the Canadian Museum of History and Parks Canada, is at the National Maritime Museum until 7 January 2018. Adults £12, concessions available.