Finding HMS Terror: the Franklin Expedition and making sense of the past

Earlier this month it was announced that the long-lost ship of Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin, HMS Terror, had been discovered in the northern Canadian territory of Nunavut. Abandoned in April 1848 after the expedition party encountered heavy ice in the Arctic’s Northwest Passage, the exact fate of those onboard – none of whom survived – has long been a mystery. Here, maritime historian Andrew Lambert explains the significance of the discovery…

On 12 September 2016, a team from the Arctic Research Foundation announced that a wreck identified as the British Arctic research ship HMS Terror had been located on the southern coast of King William Island, in the middle of Terror Bay, at a depth of 69–79 feet (21–24 m). The ship was designated in 1992 as a National Historic Site of Canada, even though its whereabouts were then unknown. Since its discovery earlier this month the exact location has been withheld in order to preserve the wreck and prevent looting. An Inuit hunter and member of the Canadian Rangers who joined the crew of the Arctic Research Foundation's ship Martin Bergmann recalled finding what appeared to be a mast sticking up out of the ice seven years earlier – his information led the searchers to the wreck.

The Arctic Research Foundation, a Canadian private charitable foundation, was established in 2011 by businessman Jim Balsillie to support long-term sustainability in the Arctic. Its finding of Terror follows the discovery, two years before on 8 September 2014, of the first of the Franklin expedition’s ships, this time by archaeologists from Parks Canada, the national body charged with oversight of heritage and the environment. Parks Canada announced that it had located one of Franklin's ships at the eastern end of Queen Maud Gulf on the north coast of Canada using multi-beam sonar and a remotely operated underwater vehicle. Three weeks later, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper confirmed that the ship was indeed Sir Franklin's flagship, HMS Erebus.

Inuit testimony played a critical role in locating Erebus – oral testimony recorded by British and American missions in the 1850s and 1860s spoke of a large ship sinking in Queen Maud Gulf, narrowing the search area. But the expedition’s second ship Terror, the old accounts suggested, had been destroyed by the ice. In the short Arctic dive seasons of 2015 and 2016, Parks Canada’s divers have surveyed the Erebus, cleared marine growths and recovered a number of artefacts, including the ship's bell, brass cannon, crockery and navigational instruments.

Both the ships appear to be in very good condition. Initial (limited) inspections of the more accessible internal spaces suggest the ships remain much as they did when Franklin’s men abandoned them, although it is likely one or both were pillaged by Inuit hunters who recycled wood and metal for their own use. Many of the artefacts they reprocessed were later recovered by the search missions of the 1850s and are held by the National Maritime Museum at Greenwich. There is much more work to carry out, but in the Arctic underwater archaeology is restricted in time by temperature, pack ice and cost. 

HMS Terror was built originally as a bomb vessel, one of the heavily built wooden sailing ships of around 350 tonnes displacement built to carry and use heavy mortars. Terror had fired some of the famous ‘bombs bursting in the air’ that feature in the American National Anthem, when she joined the bombardment of Baltimore in September 1814, a battle fought between British invaders and American defenders in the Anglo-American War of 1812. Many bomb vessels were later modified for Arctic research, their stout hulls reinforced, the bows sheathed in iron and heating systems installed. Under the command of bold and capable navigators these small ships pushed into the eastern Arctic in the 1820s, adding a series of Regency names to the map.

In 1845, after returning for a four-year mission to circumnavigate Antarctica and determine the location of the South Magnetic Pole, Erebus and Terror were refitted and equipped with small steam engines to drive propellers. The engines were second-hand railway locomotives. Terror’s spindly funnel still stands, along with her three masts and the projecting bowsprit; her upper works are intact, and like her near sister the details of her distinctive upper deck layout were critical to establishing her identity. This could be checked against the shipwright’s plans drawn at Woolwich in 1845.

The two ships had sailed from the dockyard at Woolwich in the spring of 1845 on a wave of euphoria; everyone expected they would return triumphant having conquered the wilderness. Instead they became locked in the ice to the northwest of King William Island, in the grim, desolate heart of the Canadian Arctic archipelago. Franklin died in 1847 and the survivors abandoned ship in April 1848. More than 100 emaciated, sickly men marched south in sub-zero temperatures, in a region without animals to hunt, in a hopeless attempt to reach safety. Along the way they met grim and terrible fates amid the ice; some died, others were cannibalised, none survived. To date we have no written record of the expedition, just 263 cryptic words on a scrap of paper left by Terror’s Captain, Francis Crozier, as he led the doomed march, and the archaeology of a catastrophe. Much of the story has been recovered from the trail of human bones, many cannibalised, spread along the west and south shores of the Island.  


The ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror used in Sir John Franklin's ill-fated attempt to discover the Northwest Passage. Original publication ‘Illustrated London News’, published 24 May 1845. (Photo by Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

Many of those remains were found in Terror Bay, where the marching men had camped. The new discovery places HMS Terror in the bay and seems to show the crew had deployed an anchor. This would rewrite the narrative of the disaster without adding anything to our understanding of why the ships had been abandoned. That story is locked up in the long-lost written records – ship’s log books, medical records and official reports – which would enable historians to rewrite the greatest mystery in polar navigation. To date neither Erebus nor Terror has offered up any new written evidence. What we do have are final resting places for the two most famous ships in the Arctic; locations that can be added to charts of discovery.

For centuries explorers had sought the Northwest Passage, a navigable sea passage through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago that would connect the northern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and could be used as a possible trade route. Erebus, probably without a living soul on board, completed the last unexplored section of the Northwest Passage, the 200-mile gap between the Atlantic based voyages of William Parry and Franklin’s 1820s canoe journeys along the Canadian Pacific north coast. However, the old story that the expedition had been sent on its mission specifically to complete the passage should not detain us for long.

By 1845 everyone knew the Northwest passage was economically useless, impossible to navigate in a single season and lethally dangerous. It would require bigger and powerful ships. Captain Sir John Franklin (1786–1847), fellow of the Royal Society, was sent not to explore the Northwest passage but to conduct the most important scientific mission of the era, taking several tonnes of equipment to the Magnetic North Pole to conduct a nine-month programme of observations. These formed part of a global effort to understand the earth’s magnetic field and whether it could be used as an aid to navigation. It was this, the largest science project of the age – and not the geographical curiosity of the Nortwest passage – that persuaded a hard-pressed, cash-strapped British government to send Franklin and a costly expedition into the Arctic.

The project was driven by high-profile scientific lobbying. It was truly global, involving research stations as far afield as Tasmania and Siberia. This, and this alone, explains why the ships were stuck in the ice close to the Magnetic North Pole. There is evidence of the expedition’s research station ashore. Franklin had been studying and recording terrestrial magnetism since his early days in the Royal Navy, even before he fought with distinction at Trafalgar in 1805. He built the research station in Tasmania. It seems obvious that a stout 60-year-old must have been sent to command a science project, not lead an exploring mission to discover the Northwest passage.

The Canadian discoveries have drawn the attention of the world back to a region that last made headlines when Franklin's expedition disappeared. However, it is important to recognise that the costly, high profile exploration, discovery, archaeology and history, including the rediscovery of the Erebus and Terror, is rarely divorced from politics. Canadian interest in finding Franklin’s ships has far more to do with questions of Arctic sovereignty and national identity than historical or geographical curiosity. Franklin matters because he is the basis of Canada’s title to the Arctic, a title derived from British possession: the Royal Navy searched, named and mapped the region before the Canadian Confederation, burying several sailors in the permafrost for good measure. As Terror’s bombardment of Baltimore helped win a war that was fought to keep the United States out of Canada, it is fitting that her discovery should assist Canada to keep control of the Arctic archipelago – a control challenged by the United States. Some, however, maintain that the war of 1812 had no clear victor.

Over the years many theories have been advanced to explain the disaster that befell Franklin’s expedition, from lead poisoning to botulism, but the scientific consensus is that the men became scorbutic – they ran out of vitamin C once their lemon juice had been frozen, which destroyed its vitamin content. Food was running out, and it is likely that tuberculosis, which had killed three men in the winter of 1845–6, had attacked some of the other men.

Ultimately, locating the ships changes the narrative of the last days of the expedition and the way in which the disaster unfolded, but the big questions remain. Why was the expedition entrusted to Franklin who, by his own admission, was no longer fit for exploring duty? Why did the officers and men abandon their ice-bound ships in April 1848? Why were they stuck on the northwest coast of King William Island? Did they commit mass survival cannibalism? And above all what was the real purpose of this costly enterprise?

Andrew Lambert is Laughton Professor Naval History at Kings College, London and the author of Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (Faber London, 2010).

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here