In May 1845, two British warships carrying more than 130 men set off from London for the Canadian Arctic, where they entered the fabled North-West Passage. Neither ship returned; nor did any of the men.


The fate of the expedition became the greatest maritime mystery of the 19th century, sparking many search-and-rescue missions and inspiring a library of theories about what had happened to the ships and their crews. A highly effective public-relations exercise preserved the heroic reputation of expedition leader Captain Sir John Franklin, modifying the stated purpose of the voyage: rather than cutting-edge scientific research, it was redefined as geographical curiosity.

Yet Franklin was 59 and obese; he had been selected to lead the expedition as a navigator and a scientist, not an explorer. A veteran of Arctic navigation, geomagnetic research and colonial government, he was a celebrity: a Fellow of the Royal Society and a bestselling travel writer.

Franklin’s ships, the 350-ton former bomb vessels HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were wooden sailing ships designed to carry mortars, reinforced to work in the ice, and equipped with second-hand steam engines driving screw propellers. Each carried a crew of nearly 70 men and food for three years; it was assumed that Franklin would complete his mission in that time.

Franklin remains a hero of travel – a man who created paths for others to follow

Once the ships left Greenland they passed from the human realm into a world of sea ice, white mountains, storms and darkness, where signs of life were limited to seals, whales and the occasional bear. Franklin’s route bypassed the game-rich areas where Inuit peoples hunted, and even in high summer the landscapes of Beechey Island and Victory Point were merely ice and rock – stark, glittering and grim.

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Who was Sir John Franklin?

An engraving of Sir John Franklin 1786 to 1847 Celebrated English navigator and arctic explorer
Sir John Franklin, celebrated English navigator and arctic explorer. (Michael Nolan/robertharding Getty Images)

John Franklin (1786–1847) was born at Spilsby, Lincolnshire. He joined the Royal Navy in 1800 and served at the battle of Copenhagen the following year. In 1802 he joined his cousin Matthew Flinders on a circumnavigation of the southern continent that Flinders named Australia, and began his life’s work: mastering terrestrial magnetism for navigation.

In 1805 Franklin fought at Trafalgar, where he was deafened by a gun blast, and later at New Orleans in 1815. To secure his promotion, in 1818 he travelled north to Svalbard on the first Arctic expeditions following the Napoleonic Wars, then commanded the famously punishing overland mission to the north coast of Canada (1819–22) – facing starvation, the crew resorted to eating lichen and even their own boots, with at least one accused of cannibalism. Franklin’s book about his experiences was a bestseller and, after completing a second expedition (1825–27), he was knighted in 1829 to become Captain Sir John Franklin, Fellow of the Royal Society, and a major celebrity.

Franklin commanded a frigate in the Greek War of Independence (1821–32). In 1837 he took up the post of lieutenant-governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania), where he worked to civilise the penal colony, bringing his scientific interests to the antipodes. The government wasn’t pleased with his tenure, and he may have accepted his final Arctic mission to restore his reputation.

Franklin remains a hero of travel by land, sea and ice – a man who created paths for others to follow, in a life dedicated to science and the service of the state.

Life in the high Arctic

Conditions on board were also grim. Locked in multi-year ice, the ships drifted slowly south to a soundtrack of creaking and grinding of stressed hulls and moving ice, pierced by the occasional crack of broken timber. In the winter, three months of permanent darkness, the men built deep banks of snow around the ships for insulation, only venturing outside to conduct key scientific work or to recover stores cached ashore.

Days and nights did not vary, and neither did the diet: tinned and salt meat, lemon juice, dried vegetables, rum and sugar. Even once the sun rose, the ships were so far away from any known settlement that there was little encouragement to explore. Reading, writing and the occasional amateur dramatic production helped pass the time. Men familiar with the routine were inured to the tedium; others learned to wait. Franklin’s leadership and experience were key to sustaining the crew’s morale. He had been here before, and survived.

Over the preceding 30 years the Royal Navy had made a series of voyages into the Canadian Arctic, often described as attempts to navigate the North-West Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. In reality, these costly expeditions had far more ambitious objectives than merely satisfying geographical curiosity, or establishing passages through a deadly, ice-choked labyrinth that would be of no commercial value.

Initially, these missions sought an explanation for the catastrophic weather patterns of 1816–17, which we now know were the results of the volcanic explosion of Mount Tambora on Sumbawa (now part of Indonesia). Scientists were also tasked with recording terrestrial magnetic data, to help determine whether a better understanding could aid navigation. In addition, their charts would set the Alaskan border with Russia as far west as possible, securing the fur-trade interests of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Those were the key agendas; the British government would not pay simply to locate a North-West Passage.

Magnetic research

Franklin’s task in 1845 was to reach magnetic north and conduct a nine-month series of observations of magnetic effects. The expedition was pushed by the Royal Society and the British Association for the Advancement of Science, which brought political pressure to bear on the government. If Franklin traversed the North-West Passage in the process, so much the better – but it was not essential.

Retracing Franklin’s journey is not easy. The written record stops in Baffin Bay, with the last official reports and private letters carried home by his supply ship, Barretto Junior. Thereafter all we have to work with is archaeology, a small scrap of paper and Inuit testimony.

Remains of the storehouse built on Beechey Island by the crew of HMS North Star in 1854 incase Franklin returned
The remains of the storehouse built on Beechey Island in 1854 by the crew of HMS North Star in case Franklin's expedition returned. (Rick Price / Getty Images)

Having paused in Disko Bay on the west coast of Greenland to take on supplies, in July 1845 Franklin’s ships sailed across Baffin Bay – where two whaling ships made the last reported sighting – and west into Lancaster Sound. Between here and the Beaufort Sea remained 200 miles of unknown territory: possibly sea, possibly land, but certainly covered in ice. Amid that unknown lay magnetic north, first located in 1831. Franklin probed possible routes to the north before overwintering at Beechey Island, where three sailors died from an aggressive strain of tuberculosis. The remaining 126 men had also been exposed to the bacteria, as well as possible lead poisoning from faulty food cans.

In the spring of 1846 Franklin headed south into Peel Sound. Here, on 12 September, his ships became stuck in dynamic multi-year ice floes west of King William Island. This much we know from a handwritten note found in 1859 by a later expedition. That note stated that Franklin died on 11 June 1847 – the cause remains unknown – along with several officers and men. With the ships locked in ice and slowly drifting south, by April 1848 food and lemon juice were running low and the crew were badly affected by scurvy (and probably tuberculosis). Second-in-command Francis Rawdon Crozier decided to abandon ship and march south to the nearest trading post – 1,200 miles away.

Rocky cliffs loom above the fjords of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Sir John Franklin's expedition faced harsh conditions in summer - and life-threatening cold and hunger in winter (Michael Nolan/robertharding Getty Images)
Rocky cliffs loom above the fjords of Baffin Island in the Canadian Arctic. Sir John Franklin's expedition faced harsh conditions in summer - and life-threatening cold and hunger in winter (Michael Nolan/robertharding Getty Images)

Crozier must have known it would be physically impossible to cover that distance with only the food they could pull on their sledges, and there is no game in the desolate heart of the Arctic. When food began to run out, sickly men were left behind at what became known as Erebus Bay and then Terror Bay; the skeletal record indicates large-scale cannibalism. The last survivors met an Inuit hunting party, who ended the parley when they observed that the white men were eating human flesh.

When food began to run out, sickly men were left behind… the skeletal record indicates large-scale cannibalism

There were no survivors. In 1854, after 13 search missions had failed to locate the expedition, news of the cannibalism reported by the Inuit reached Britain. Franklin’s widow refused to believe it, and sent her own ship to investigate. It found enough material to write a new narrative shorn of both cannibalism and magnetic science, focusing instead on heroic men who had laid down their lives to complete the North-West Passage.

route taken by Franklin on his last expedition in the Canadian Arctic
Illustration of the route taken by Franklin on his last expedition in the Canadian Arctic. (Illustration by Theresa Gribben)

This version of the story, rendered in bronze and granite on the memorial to Franklin erected at Waterloo Place in London in 1866, became the official one. It is dishonest and demeaning to Franklin and his men: they sailed for a higher purpose than mere geographical curiosity. Historians of science have forgotten them, because the science they served proved to be a dead end: the Earth’s magnetic core moves irregularly, and cannot be used as a navigational tool.

Far from being the bumbling old duffer of popular memory, John Franklin was a great scientist, navigator and naval officer. He reached places hitherto unseen by Europeans, and conducted cutting-edge research at the icy extremities of the Earth, part of the largest international science project of the age. He escaped the bounds of the known world, and the search for his expedition charted the Canadian Arctic.

For more than a century, the ultimate fate of Franklin’s expedition remained a mystery. Then, on 3 September 2016, the sunken remains of HMS Terror were located in Terror Bay off King William Island, two years after the Erebus was found a little to the south. The rediscovery of the Franklin ships is just the latest episode in the extraordinary story of these doomed voyagers.

Andrew Lambert is Laughton professor of naval history at King’s College London, and author of Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Navigation (Faber, 2010)


This article was taken from issue 1 of BBC World Histories magazine