The search by Europeans for a western shortcut by sea from Europe to Asia began with the voyages of Christopher Columbus in 1492 and continued through the mid-19th century with a long series of exploratory expeditions originating mainly in England. These voyages, when to any degree successful, added to the sum of European geographic knowledge about the Western Hemisphere, particularly North America, and as that knowledge grew larger, attention gradually turned toward the Arctic. By 1800, the discoveries had already showed conclusively that no Northwest Passage navigable by ships lay in the temperate latitudes between the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.
In 1804, Sir John Barrow became Second Secretary of the Admiralty, a post he held until 1845, and began a push by the Royal Navy to complete the Northwest Passage over the top of Canada and to navigate toward the North Pole. Over the next four decades, explorers made productive trips to the Canadian Arctic. Among these explorers was John Franklin, second-in-command of an expedition towards the North Pole in the ships Dorothea and Trent in 1818 and the leader of overland expeditions to and along the Canadian Arctic coast in 1819–22 and 1825–27. By 1845, the combined discoveries of all of these expeditions had reduced the relevant unknown parts of the Canadian Arctic to a quadrilateral area of about 181,300 km2.
It was into this unknown area that the next expedition was to sail, heading west through Lancaster Sound and then west and south as ice, land, and other obstacles might allow, to complete the Northwest Passage. The distance to be navigated was roughly 1,670 kilometres.
The so-called “Franklin’s lost expedition” was a British voyage of Arctic exploration led by Captain Sir John Franklin that departed England in 1845 aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. A Royal Navy officer and experienced explorer, Franklin had served on three previous Arctic expeditions, the latter two as commanding officer. His fourth and last, undertaken when he was 59, was meant to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. After a few early fatalities, the two ships became icebound near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic, in what is today the territory of Nunavut. The entire expedition, comprising 129 men, including Franklin, was lost.
Pressed by Franklin’s wife, the Admiralty launched a search for the missing expedition in 1848. Prompted in part by Franklin’s fame and the Admiralty’s offer of a finder’s reward, many subsequent expeditions joined the hunt, which at one point in 1850 involved eleven British and two American ships. Several of these ships converged off the east coast of Beechey Island, where the first relics of the expedition were found, including the graves of three crewmen. In 1854, explorer John Rae, while surveying near the Canadian Arctic coast southeast of King William Island, acquired relics of and stories about the Franklin party from local Inuit.
Rae, while surveying the Boothia Peninsula for the Hudson’s Bay Company (HBC), discovered further evidence of the expedition’s fate. Rae met an Inuk near Pelly Bay (now Kugaaruk, Nunavut) on 21 April 1854, who told him of a party of thirty-five to forty white men who had died of starvation near the mouth of the Back River. Other Inuit confirmed this story, which included reports of cannibalism among the dying sailors. The Inuit showed Rae many objects that were identified as having belonged to Franklin and his men. In particular, Rae brought from the Inuit several silver forks and spoons later identified as belonging to Franklin, Fitzjames, Crozier, and Robert Osmer Sargent, a shipmate aboard Erebus.
Next were James Anderson and HBC employee James Stewart, who travelled north by canoe to the mouth of the Back River. In July 1855, a band of Inuit told them of a group of qallunaat (Inuktitut for “whites”) who had starved to death along the coast. In August, Anderson and Stewart found a piece of wood inscribed with “Erebus” and another that said “Mr. Stanley” (surgeon aboard Erebus) on Montreal Island, where the Back River meets the sea.
Despite the findings of Rae and Anderson, the Admiralty did not plan another search of its own. Britain officially labelled the crew deceased in service on 31 March 1854. Lady Franklin, failing to convince the government to fund another search, personally commissioned one more expedition that sailed from Aberdeen on 2 July 1857.
Over the next 150 years, other expeditions, explorers, scientists and interviews from native Inuit peoples would piece together what happened. Franklin’s men wintered in 1845–46 on Beechey Island, where three crew members died and were buried. After traveling down Peel Sound through the summer of 1846, Terror and Erebus became trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846 and are believed to have never sailed again. According to a note dated 25 April 1848, and left on the island by Fitzjames and Crozier, Franklin had died on 11 June 1847; the crew had wintered off King William Island in 1846–47 and 1847–48, and the remaining crew had planned to begin walking on 26 April 1848 toward the Back River on the Canadian mainland. Nine officers and fifteen men had already died; the rest would die along the way, most on the island and another thirty or forty on the northern coast of the mainland, hundreds of miles from the nearest outpost of Western civilization.
The Victorian media portrayed Franklin as a hero despite the expedition’s failure and the reports of cannibalism. Songs were written about him, and statues of him in his home town of Spilsby, in London, and in Tasmania credit him with discovery of the Northwest Passage, although in reality it was not traversed until Roald Amundsen‘s 1903–1906 expedition.