Background to the Franklin Expedition

To a large extent, the information here presented on the Franklin Expedition is provided by two sources. One is Ice Ghosts by Paul Watson. The other is Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition: Lost and Found by Gillian Hutchison.

After the Napoleonic Wars, the Royal Navy mostly found itself without enemies and to a large extent without a mission. However, the British Empire’s trade and influence was expanding and burgeoning, due in large part to the dominance of the Royal Navy over the seas. The industrial revolution was just beginning, an event that would see human living conditions, or at least the goods available to them, expand and boom as never before. However, to make all this profitable, as far as possible voyages by sea needed to be cheap and success guaranteed. For hundreds of years sailors and other travellers had guided themselves by magnetic north. It was well known, indeed had been well known among the educated classes since Ancient Greece that the world was round.

The distances at the top of the world were far shorter than they were towards the middle. Before the Suez canal, ships from Europe to Asia and from Asia to Europe had to pass either through the Pacific around Tierra del fuego or around the Cape of Good Hope. This involved voyages that were long in distance and in time. Furthermore it was becoming increasingly known that natural phenomena in the polar regions could help people calculate and predict the weather and time more accurately, contributing to efficiencies in commerce. It was hoped that the Royal Navy would be able to find a passage from Asia to Europe in Canada’s northwest arctic that could possibly cut months off of shipping journeys. This was the northwest passage that over the next 50 years many Royal Navy expeditions would attempt to map and navigate.

The first in 1818 under John Ross was a disappointment that nearly ended John Ross’ naval career. Though he was able to map part of the arctic he mistook a polar optical illusion to be a mountain range and turned back. It was subsequently found to be ice and water, something that the admiralty never forgave John Ross for, believing he had given into timidity.

In 1819 an expedition under William Parry was more successful in mapping more of the arctic. Due to the extremely cold temperatures sailing in the arctic could often only be done briefly in summer. Parry’s expedition had to winter over in the arctic where he devised various methods to keep his men entertained in the long sunless, bone freezing arctic winter. Parry and others later credited their survival at least in part to their use of canned food.

Concurrently, John Franklin led an overland expedition to map the north Canadian coast. Due to bad luck and poor preparation 11 out of 20 members of the expedition died. There were dark whispers of cannibalism. What is certain is that Franklin and his men had to resort at various points to eating their shoe leather and lichen.

In 1825 Franklin tried another overland expedition to map the northern Canadian arctic coast. He had learned from his first expedition and was far better prepared this time around. His expedition succeeded in mapping much of the north Canadian coast.

In 1829 an embittered John Ross, accompanied by his nephew James Ross, led a privately financed polar expedition mostly comprised of Royal Navy sailors. They sailed in a small steamship, the Victory. It was during this expedition that King William Land (later discovered to be an island) was mapped and James Ross set up a Cairn on the island to be used by future arctic expeditions. During this same expedition James Ross also finally mapped the magnetic North Pole. However Victory became trapped in the ice in 1831 and in 1832 a decision was taken to abandon ship and the expedition marched east, where they were only saved in 1834. This 5 year survival was made possible only by the use of supplies abandoned in the wreck of HMS Fury. HMS Fury had been on William Parry’s second expedition to the arctic in 1825, but had to be abandoned after being trapped and damaged in the ice. The five years that John Ross and his crew survived later played a role in the fate of the Franklin expedition.

In 1844 the Admiralty decided to make a definitive try to navigate the Northwest passage. The lessons from previous expeditions were taken into account and it was determined that this expedition should be the best equipped and best provisioned expedition yet launched. For the first time the sailors were to be issued with clothing and equipment made especially for the arctic, including snow goggles. The expedition was also to be provisioned with 2000 books, exercise books, sports equipment, and drama costumes to allow the men to keep themselves entertained during long periods trapped in the ice.

Crucially this expedition was to be the most hi-tech yet, and the best provisioned. The expedition would be provided with three years worth of preserved and tinned food. The bomb ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, both ships used by James Ross in another expedition in the antarctic, where Francis Crozier had commanded HMS Terror. Both ships were retrofitted with steam engines to boost speed by an extra four knots to allow them navigate faster in tighter situations in the ice. Their hulls were reinforced with iron to make them more durable and less likely to be crushed by the ice. The ships were also outfitted with central heating systems, that recycled heat used by the ships’ mess cooking to heat the ship and help prevent sickness and death due to cold.

Captain Sir John Franklin was put in command of the expedition, with Captain Francis Crozier as his second in command. Both were polar region veterans explorers. Commander James Fitzjames, an up and comer in the Royal Navy, was made second in command on Franklin’s ship, HMS Erebus.

On 19 May 1845, the expedition, fully loaded with provisions and 134 crew in total set sail from Greenhithe, England and headed north.

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