Column: Franklin expedition opens window on the North

The whole Franklin story not only represents Canadian and Arctic history but the entire saga of colonial exploration and trade.

The discovery of one of the ships of the Franklin expedition was stunning news this week. Talk about the Holy Grail of marine archeology! The whole Franklin story not only represents Canadian and Arctic history but the entire global, sometimes tragic, saga of colonial exploration and trade. The idea of a shorter, northern passage to China was right in line with 19th century economic expansion.

The discovery has launched a grocery list of things that archaeologists hope to find. Having found one ship, there’s huge momentum to locate the second one. And given the quality of this vessel’s preservation, researchers can’t wait to see what treasures lie inside.

The scientists are an eclectic group from Parks Canada, the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, the Arctic Research Foundation, Canadian Coast Guard, the Royal Canadian Navy and the Government of Nunavut as well as an alliance of public and private organizations.

Captain Sir John Franklin set sail in May 1845 from Greenhithe on the River Thames estuary, England, with HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, both sturdy vessels outfitted with state-of-the-art equipment. Their steam engines were sourced from London-based rail companies that allowed a steady clip of 4 nautical kilometres. Creature comforts included steam heating for the 134-member crew, a 1,000-book library, and food for three years that included 8,000 lead-soldered tins of preserved supplies. In tow on their way to Greenland were two other vessels HMS Rattler and a transport ship Barretto Junior.

On Greenland’s west coast, they dropped anchor to slaughter 10 oxen for fresh meat carried on the transport ship, transfer the last of the supplies to Erebus and Terror, and write final letters home. Five men were discharged and sent home with the support ships before Franklin set sail westward with a final crew of 129.

Franklin was no seafaring rookie. He had begun his career at age 14 and was a seasoned Royal Navy officer and explorer by the time, at age 59, he commanded this, his fourth and what would be his last, Arctic exploration.

He wouldn’t have known then but the Northern Hemisphere was starting to pull out of the Little Ice Age, a period of three hundred to four hundred years of glacial expansion driven by increased volcanic activity and changes in ocean chemistry and circulation. The Arctic in his sight was still deep in the clutches of advanced glaciers, the sea ice didn’t always melt in summer, and his vessels were no match for what lay ahead as he set sail for Lancaster Sound to eventually became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island in 1846.

Many search expeditions tried and failed to find the lost Franklin ships and those searches continued from 1848 to 1859. But enough tantalizing clues surfaced over the decades, including a cairn with a note inside confirming Franklin’s demise on June 11, 1847, human remains, and pieces of a ship. Each was a clue to a mysterious past that was cemented in time and place by Inuit oral stories of ships locked in ice and starving men struggling to survive.

Now, with the discovery of one of the lost ships, what is next? It’s no secret Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a history buff. He’s obsessed with the North, the whole Franklin experience, exploring the Arctic, mapping the floor. All that knowledge added to the accumulated information on the Arctic that had been gathered in so many past searches and likely far more than Franklin himself would have gathered had he been successful.

Ever the politician, Harper no doubt sees this all-Canadian find strengthening his endgame of strategy and sovereignty. He wanted the Franklin mystery solved on his watch. Will the Arctic  be his legacy?