Andrew Lambert, professor of naval history at King’s College London, told History Extra the discovery of one of the two ships in the waters of Victoria Strait, just off King William Island in Canada, “will not help us to solve the mystery of what happened”.
Earlier this week Canada’s prime minister, Stephen Harper, announced that one of the two British explorer ships led by Franklin in 1845 to chart the North-West Passage in the Canadian Arctic – HMS Erebus and HMS Terror – had been found. Harper said it was unclear which ship had been found, but that photo evidence confirmed it was one of them.
A team of Canadian divers and archaeologists working on behalf of the Canadian government began searching for Franklin’s ships in 2008 as part of a strategy to assert Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. Expedition sonar images show the wreckage of a ship on the ocean floor.
The circumstances of the disappearance in 1845 of Franklin’s expedition have remained a mystery. Search parties looked for the crew until 1859, but found no trace of either ship.
Lambert said: “This is a wonderful piece of archaeology, and a red letter day for Canada, and Britain. These ships are the holy grail of Canadian archaeology.
“But sadly the ship, although a significant artefact, will not help us to solve the mystery of what happened to Franklin and his men. For that we need to recover the written record, and that is highly unlikely to have survived the passage of time on board a sunken ship.”
He added: “The location [of the wreckage] in Queen Maud Gulf suggests the ship had drifted south in the pack ice after Franklin’s surviving crew abandoned ship.
“It is upright, and shows signs of damage at the stern – perhaps crushed by ice – has lost its masts, and most of the deck planking.
“We may be able to see the steam engines. The other ship may be somewhere between Point Victory on the North-West coast of King William Island, and the spot where the wreckage has been found.
“Inuit testimony [that of indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and the United States] suggests that one ship sank not far from the shore.
“Other ships lost in the Arctic, the best known being the Breadalbane [a mid-19th-century merchant ship that was crushed by ice and sank in the Arctic], have survived in better condition, suggesting this ship was subjected to prolonged ice stress, and sank in much the same way as Ernest Shackleton’s Endurance.”