Too far from shore—the fate of the Franklin expedition
– By Robert W. Park and Douglas R. Stenton –
The basic details are well-known: in May of 1845 two Royal Navy ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, departed Great Britain under the command of Sir John Franklin to attempt the transit of a Northwest Passage. Two years later they reported “All well” but 11 months after that, in April of 1848, the 129 sailors who had set out from Britain had been reduced to 105 survivors departing their ships dragging boats mounted on sleds across the ice and snow in a desperate attempt to escape the Arctic. At least 25 of those survivors would perish less than 100 kilometers from the ships, and the furthest any of the survivors are known to have travelled was around 350 kilometers. The tragic outcome of the Franklin expedition has captured and held the public’s imagination for almost 180 years and the continuing importance of the Franklin story is illustrated by the very public involvement of several government agencies and some of Canada’s industrial and media elite in the 21st century search for the shipwrecks, and by the fact that Canada’s Prime Minister reserved for himself the 2014 announcement of Parks Canada’s discovery of the Erebus.
Beyond the excitement of the discoveries of the wrecks of both ships, there are at least two reasons why the Franklin expedition still resonates. The first and probably the most pervasive is the idea that it remains a huge mystery. If you search Google for the co-occurrence of the terms “Franklin expedition” and “mystery” you come up with almost 80,000 hits. Calling it a mystery implies that it is not yet understood, or even that it is inexplicable. The second very common rationale, sometimes implicit, is that of course a British naval expedition attempting to sail through the Canadian Arctic Archipelago in wooden ships late in the period known as the ‘Little Ice Age,’ overwintering one or more times along the way, would inevitably end in disaster. Viewed this way, the Franklin expedition is not a mystery but rather a case study in Eurocentric hubris and incompetence in comparison with Inuit whose ancestors had inhabited that region successfully for millennia. As researchers who have spent most of our careers learning about those 4500 years of Inuit history in Arctic Canada, that latter perspective has some appeal. However, neither of these perspectives is really correct. The ultimate cause of the catastrophe is not a mystery because, although there are many interesting details we are still learning, the overall explanation seems quite clear and well understood. Further, the disaster was not inevitable—many comparably equipped and commanded British Navy expeditions in the decades before and immediately after the Franklin expedition proved that fact by overwintering and returning home with minimal mortality.
Our own particular interest in the Franklin expedition focuses on understanding the archaeological record created after they deserted the ships. However, in order to understand and learn from that archaeological record, we needed to research the health of the Franklin crews, which is what we focus on here. Much more information on this can be found in Park and Stenton (2019).
Mortality in the Royal Navy
The death of some members of the Franklin expedition over its planned three-year duration would have been expected. A statistical study of health in the entire Royal Navy between 1830 and 1836 (Troubridge, 1841) found that the average yearly death rate for that period from wounds, accidents, and illness was 1.38%. Six Royal Navy Arctic expeditions between 1819 and 1855 which utilized the same basic technologies and strategies as the Franklin expedition had an average annual mortality consistent with that—1.67%—with the highest being just 2.97%. Over three years—the length of time for which the Franklin expedition was provisioned—a cumulative mortality somewhere between 4.14% and 5.01% of its 129-man complement would therefore have been expectable, or five to seven deaths. The 100% mortality on the Franklin expedition in what was probably less than three and a half years is thus clearly extraordinary, but the distinctive timing of the deaths is significant. Three died in the first year (Beattie & Geiger, 1987) but the “All well” message written at the end of the second year suggests few subsequent deaths had occurred. Franklin himself died at the beginning of the third year and by the end of that year 20 more had died, so the cumulative mortality when the ships were deserted was already 18.6%. The remainder died during the trek southwards.
Taking all of that into account, what was different about the Franklin expedition that could account for such massive mortality? The difference or differences must be consistent with (a) a mortality rate over the first two years similar to that in other Arctic expeditions and in the Royal Navy generally, allowing them to write “All well” at the end of that period; and (b) a mortality rate in the third year far higher than that seen in other comparable Arctic expeditions, even ones that remained in the Arctic for several more years than Franklin’s.
Theories Concerning the Franklin Catastrophe
Many hypotheses have been advanced over the years to explain the Franklin catastrophe including diseases such as scurvy, tuberculosis, and trichinosis, or poisoning by lead, zinc, or botulism. Of these, lead poisoning (Beattie, 1985; Kowal et al., 1990) was the most promising but recent research showing high lead levels in Royal Navy sailors elsewhere, and no increase in lead over time in Franklin expedition sailors, has eliminated it as a primary factor (Millar et al., 2015; Swanston et al., 2018), and none of the other theories meet the criteria listed above (Park & Stenton, 2019). This brings us back to our central question: what was different about the Franklin expedition that could account for such massive mortality during its third year?
We have concluded that the one significant factor that does distinguish the Franklin expedition from previous and subsequent expeditions is wintering location. As each Arctic open-water sailing season came to an end the standard procedure was to overwinter close to shore. Indeed, Franklin’s orders instructed him to do this: “…you are to use your best endeavours to discover a sheltered and safe harbour, where the ships may be placed in security for the winter” (Belcher et al., 1855). The expedition did this at the end of the 1845 sailing season, wintering at Beechey Island. But in 1846 they did not, and in September Erebus and Terror were beset in Victoria Strait at least 20 kilometers from the nearest coast, King William Island. This was not immediately catastrophic, because nine months later the crews reported “All well,” undoubtedly anticipating that the summer break-up would soon free them to continue their journey. But the 1847 break-up never came, and the ships spent the expedition’s third year still locked in the ice far from land.
Too far from shore
The difference between wintering close to shore or 20 kilometers away turns out to be highly consequential. All British expeditions of this era set out with enough stored food to be self-sufficient for the duration of the time they anticipated spending in the Arctic, which was three years in the Franklin expedition’s case. However, all were also equipped to make, and assiduous in making, efforts to acquire game and fish from autumn to spring, while they were in harbour adjacent to land. Rules were established to provide an incentive for the hunters and to ensure that the resulting fresh food was distributed throughout the entire crew, and records show some expeditions acquiring thousands of pounds of meat and fish this way. Franklin had indicated that he intended to use every available opportunity to obtain game, and we know he did so during their first winter because hunting camps were later found at Beechey Island. But during their second and third winters, when the Erebus and Terror were beset at least 20 kilometers from the nearest coastline, the logistics of acquiring game or fish would have been extremely difficult. It would have been too dangerous to traverse the pack ice to King William Island until it had frozen solid, and by the time that had happened they would have been contending with dwindling hours of daylight, increasing cold, and a seasonal scarcity or absence of terrestrial game. Out on the sea ice near the ships there would have been few opportunities for hunting, apart from the occasional polar bear. There would have been ringed seals nearby, but the techniques used by Inuit to hunt them through their breathing holes would have been quite beyond the capabilities of the British sailors (M’Clintock, 1859).
For these reasons it is probable that the crews did not acquire significant quantities of fresh food throughout the autumn and winter of 1846-7. They clearly travelled to King William Island in the spring of 1847 since that is when they left the “All well” report there. However, the long distance between the ships and shore undoubtedly precluded sending out the numbers of hunting parties dispatched by other expeditions. That inference is supported by the fact that extensive archaeological surveys of the northwest coast of King William Island have found only one Franklin expedition campsite, and not the many hunting camps that might be expected had they been using the coast repeatedly during the entire time they were beset nearby: September 1846 to April 1848. Thus, after leaving Beechey Island, the Franklin crews ate a far higher proportion of stored food than expeditions which were able to hunt near their sheltered harbours. By the time the 105 survivors left the Erebus and Terror the crews had been cut off from significant fresh supplements to their stored food for around 21 months.
The Franklin expedition’s unique reliance on stored food suggests that a nutritional deficiency may lie at the root of the catastrophe. The most famous nutritional deficiency affecting the Royal Navy was ascorbic acid (vitamin C), whose lack produces the disease scurvy. However, the very limited number of fatalities from it on other expeditions would suggest that the lemon juice they all carried could be an adequately effective antiscorbutic, at least when combined with the additional ascorbic acid that they obtained from fresh game. But a less famous nutritional deficiency associated with stored food is likely more significant. The disease beriberi results from a deficiency in thiamine (vitamin B1). It produces a complicated range of symptoms but initially causes severe weakness and pain in the legs, to such an extent that walking may be difficult or impossible. Thiamine breaks down rapidly, so even stored food that started out with adequate quantities may have become deficient in it after storage in a ship’s hold (Cecil & Woodruff, 1962). Further, thiamine had not yet been discovered so the expeditions did not carry appropriate supplements like the lemon juice carried to avoid scurvy.
A vivid example of beriberi caused by stored food was documented in the early 20th century in poor Newfoundland fishing communities. Their winter diets consisted of little more than tea, white flour and biscuits, salt beef, salt pork, salt cod, margarine, molasses, and berries (Aykroyd, 1930), similar to the stored foods used by the Royal Navy. By late spring each year, after several months of consuming that diet, many Newfoundlanders developed the disease. Between 11 and 20 people died of it per year but the majority recovered by early summer due to the renewed consumption of thiamine via fresh foods. From this example it is clear that thiamine deficiency over just a few months can produce debilitating symptoms which can culminate in death if thiamine is not reintroduced to the diet.
Catastrophe in the third year
It is thus plausible that Royal Navy expeditions entered the Arctic with stored food supplies whose thiamine content soon deteriorated. But expeditions that were successful in hunting and fishing each autumn and spring were largely able to avoid the debilitating effects of beriberi whereas the crews of the Erebus and Terror, beset for almost two years far from the nearest hunting areas, would not have been able to supplement their stored supplies with fresh foodstuffs to any significant degree. The timing of the Franklin expedition mortality is consistent with the crews suffering from compounding nutritional deficiencies due to complete reliance on stored provisions commencing with their departure from Beechey Island. The effects of beriberi were probably not yet widely debilitating when the “All well” report was written almost a year later, but they undoubtedly contributed to the deaths that subsequently occurred during the winter of 1847-8. The known early symptoms of beriberi—weakness and pain in the legs, affecting the ability to walk—also provide a grim insight into the experience of the 105 who attempted to escape the Arctic by man-hauling boats on sleds in frigid Arctic spring weather. We know that two of the boats and at least 22 sailors were left behind less than 100 kilometers from the ships at a place later named Erebus Bay. Just 25 kilometers further the remains of another large group of sailors would be discovered by Inuit at a place later named Terror Bay. It may be that some of these sailors were still alive but could no longer walk, and their colleagues no longer had the strength to pull them on the sleds. Archaeological research has confirmed that these parties had firearms and lots of ammunition so if there had been game available, they would have been able to shoot it, but at that time of year there would have been little to hunt.
Thus, the ultimate cause of the catastrophe can be linked to wintering in the ice pack. We do not know why in September of 1846 Franklin allowed his ships to become frozen far out in Victoria Strait rather than following his orders to seek a safe harbour along one of the adjacent coastlines. Several scholars have speculated that it must have been inadvertent, the outcome of a failed gamble to traverse the strait ahead of the autumn freeze-up, perhaps under their cutting-edge steam power (Cyriax, 1939; Cookman, 2000). If that is the case, it is evocative that the only skeleton we have been able to identify so far is that of John Gregory, the engineer who was responsible for running Erebus’ steam engine and who was one of the 105 who later attempted to walk out of the Arctic (Stenton et al., 2021). But someday we may learn more details of what happened in September of 1846 if Parks Canada’s ongoing investigations of the wrecks of Erebus and Terror manage to recover legible ships’ logs or journals.
Robert W. Park is an Associate Dean in the University of Waterloo’s Faculty of Arts and a Professor in its Department of Anthropology. For four decades he has participated in archaeological fieldwork in Southern Ontario, Yukon, Northwest Territories, and especially Nunavut.
Douglas R. Stenton, CM, is the former (retired) Director of Heritage for the Government of Nunavut, and an Adjunct Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Waterloo. He has conducted archaeological fieldwork in what is now Nunavut since 1980 and has led investigations of the 1845 Franklin expedition since 2008.
The fieldwork that inspired this research was funded by the Government of Nunavut Department of Culture and Heritage, Nunavut Archaeology Program. We wish to thank the Inuit Heritage Trust and the Hamlet of Gjoa Haven for their support of our research, and the officers and crew of the Canadian Coast Guard Ship Sir Wilfrid Laurier for providing the outstanding logistical support that made it possible for us to explore so thoroughly the region where the Franklin catastrophe unfolded.
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