Echoes in the Ice: Finding Franklin’s Ship will soon conclude its run at the Alberni Valley Museum.
Here are 20 cool things you need to know about the Franklin Expedition, gleaned from the exhibit itself as well as a lecture by Dr. Robyn Woodward, an archeology professor at Simon Fraser University.
Exclusive exhibition — Port Alberni is one of just two cities in British Columbia that will host this expedition in 2019. Prince George was the other community.
Britain’s original 007 — Doctor John Dee was a 16th century mathmatician, astronomer, astrologer, geographer—well, you get the idea. He was also a spy, and he signed his messages “007”. Dee was the one who taught pirate Martin Frobisher (dubbed “The Queen’s Pirate”) navigation skills before Frobisher was dispatched by Queen Elizabeth I to explore the arctic and the Northwest Passage.
A tale of two ships — The Franklin Expedition was considered the “most sophisticated and well-equipped Arctic expedition” of their time. They departed England in May 1845 and never made it home.
The two channels the ships were directed to explore were the two shallowest channels in the Northwest Passage, and became ice-logged. Some deemed it “the channel of which there was no escape.”
In April 2015, when the HMS Erebus was finally discovered, searchers had to cut through two metres of ice to open a hole in order to dive into the frigid water. Only four metres of water separated the bottom of the ice and the deck of the Erebus.
The HMS Terror is in slightly deeper water, about 20 metres.
Bomb vessels — The two ships were known as ‘bomb vessels’ because of their round shape. The bows of both the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were reinforced with iron plating and 25-centimetre (10-inch) reinforcing beams on the inside walls to protect against the pressure that pack ice would exert on the hulls.
Books aboard — The ships were stocked with 2,900 books on a variety of subjects.
“The ship was like a little community,” said Cathy Bagley, who assisted in putting the exhibit together.
Making music midships — The crew—134 in total—knew they would be stuck in the ice, so they also brought musical instruments to keep themselves amused. There were also the more serious scientific instruments too.
Longitude all attitude — Captain James Cook, an officer in the British Royal Navy, had already retired when he was called upon to lead his final—and fatal—voyage to find the Northwest Passage. He tested the chronometer, which determined longitude: long considered vital to creating accurate maps (and to determining the position of a ship at sea).
What do you pack in a lifeboat? — Francis L. McClintock during a search expedition in 1959, discovered a 27-foot lifeboat beached on the shore and dragged over the ice from one of Franklin’s ships. Inside the lifeboat searchers discovered a dead man sitting upright, fully clothed, clutching two loaded shotguns, and another body curled up at the opposite end. Between them were 40 pounds of chocolate, five bibles, eight pair of boots and a novel titled The Vicar of Wakefield.
Going loco without cocoa — Provisions that included 8,000 cans of tinned food could have actually killed the sailors aboard the Erebus and Terror. They likely affected their mental capacity. Provisions to sustain the 134 crew members for three years were sealed with lead solder, which leached into the food and probably caused lead poisoning among the crew.
These boots weren’t made for walking — A boot heel dotted with copper nails and buttons were among the artifacts discovered on King William Island, before the Frozen Franklins were found. The boot heel in the Echoes in the Ice exhibit was probably used as a “snow creeper”.
Number of searches undertaken — Once the British Navy figured out that Sir John Franklin had disappeared, the search was on. Between late 1847 and 1859, there were 32 separate search expeditions launched by land and sea. What began as a rescue mission turned to learning about what really happened to the men on board the two ships. It also led to—you guessed it—the discovery of the Northwest Passage!
The modern-day search area for the ships was 1,570 square kilometres.
Lady Franklin — Lady Jane Franklin sponsored seven expeditions in an effort to find her husband. She was equally interested to find proof that Sir John Franklin had discovered the Northwest Passage. Ironic, isn’t it, that the searches she financed did more to aid the discovery of what is now Canada’s arctic than her husband ever did.
This was no Oliver Twist — Lady Franklin was a force to be reckoned with. When Dr. John Rae, a surgeon, fur trader and arctic explorer, wrote a book based on two searches he conducted as well as Inuit stories and sailors’ possessions they had, she was furious. Mostly about the stories of cannibalism. In a public display of censorship, she sicced author Charles Dickens on Rae, and Dickens tried to discredit Rae’s books, claiming the Inuit were untrustworthy and that Rae himself had turned “wild”.
But did they really eat each other?? — Owen Beattie tested one of more than two dozen skeletons that were discovered on King William Island near Booth Point and in Erebus Bay. Not only did he discover signs of scurvy (a disease caused by lack of Vitamin C) and high levels of lead, but knife marks were visible on scattered arm and leg bones. One of the bodies was deliberately dismembered and bone marrow was removed frome the femur (thigh bone).
Do you have a spare battery? — A dead battery is responsible for the discovery of the two ships, in the summer of 2014. A senior archeologist for Nunavut accompanied a Coast Guard helicopter to the west side of Adelaide Peninsula to change out the batteries of a navigation beacon.
The archeologist spotted a large bronze rudder gudgeon that had a naval symbol on it and determined it couldn’t have moved too far from a wreck site.
Two Parks Canada members launched a survey vessel and started searching the shoals. It took them an hour to find the first ship, the Erebus, in just 10 metres of water. Boom! A 165-year-old mystery was solved.
It would take two more years of narrow search weather to find the HMS Terror.
Guardians of the sea — Dr. Woodward noted Inuit members accompanied scientists on every expedition to find the ships. Residents from the closest community, called Gjoa Haven, act as bear guides, interpreters and site guards. They are specially trained as site guardians, protecting the culture as well as the integrity of the site.
The Alberni connection — Barb Baker from Port Alberni, a museum volunteer who helped set up the Echoes in the Ice exhibit, has actually visited the gravesite of the Frozen Franklins—likely the first three men to die on the expedition, because they were given Christian burials.
When is a ship of war not a ship of war? — For the first time in history, the British Royal Navy has signed over ownership of two of its war ships. The Erebus and Terror when first discovered were still considered possessions of the British Navy. They have since signed over ownership to the Government of Canada.
On the small screen — There are two films about the Franklin expedition that one can watch as part of this exhibit: one for the younger, more gentle audience, with authentic theatre seating in front of the screen; and one behind that, facing the wall, that is more, shall we say, graphic. Both are worth the time to watch them.
National historic sites without artifacts — The lost ships of the Franklin expedition were declared national historic sites in 1992, even though nobody knew where they were until nearly 20 years later. It was “Canada’s largest running cold case finally solved,” Dr. Woodward said.
“Archeologists over the next number of year have a lot of questions to keep on asking. Should they find any evidence of bodies on the ships or of people coming back to the ships…there are still lots and lots of questions to ask.”
These are just 20 fascinating things about Echoes in the Ice. To learn more, check it out at the Alberni Valley Museum until June 8. The museum is also open until 8 p.m. on Thursdays.