The Northwest Passage search: behind the scenes of the expedition that found Franklin’s HMS Erebus

In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin led an expedition to the Arctic to navigate the Northwest Passage. His ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were lost in the snowy north, and all those involved in the expedition perished. In September 2014 - nearly 170 years after the ill-fated expedition - the wreck of Erebus was located in northern Canadian waters

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

The discovery is the subject of a new Channel 4 documentary, Hunt For The Arctic Ghost Ship, which airs on Tuesday 4 August at 9pm. Jonathan Wright, BBC History Magazine’s TV editor, interviewed the documentary’s executive producer, David Upshal, to find out more…

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Q: Can you tell us about the expedition you’ve been documenting?

A: The 2014 expedition (mounted by Canadian government agencies in association with the Arctic Research Foundation) was searching for the sixth consecutive year [for traces of Erebus and Terror]. None of the previous expeditions had found a thing. So to have exclusive access to the expedition that made the find was extraordinary – a real once-in-a-lifetime event.

Q: What was your reaction when you saw the first underwater footage of HMS Erebus?

A: Huge excitement. Almost disbelief. I don’t think anyone expected to find an intact ship under the sea after nearly 170 years.

Q: Does the wreck give any clues as to what happened?

A: The very position the ship has been found in rewrites history. How did it get there? It’s almost 100 miles south of the point where the ships were previously thought to have been abandoned. But it’s sitting inside such a dense network of islets and floating sea-ice that if it had drifted unmanned into that area, it would have been crushed to pieces. The only realistic answer is that it was navigated and steered there. And that means some of the crew either remained on the ship or returned to it.

Beyond the point of discovery, the Northwest Passage had pretty much already been navigated by failed attempts to get through the Arctic from the west. So if any of Franklin’s crew steered the Erebus to the point where it sank, they had succeeded in their mission – that is, to map out the uncharted waters that previous expeditions had been unable to penetrate. Which probably didn’t mean a whole lot to them at that stage because they had no chance of survival. But in historical terms, it means that the Northwest Passage was conquered half a century before [Roald] Amundsen [who sailed through the Northwest Passage in 1903–06].

Q: How difficult was the ship to access?

A: Amazingly, Erebus was found under just 11 metres of water! But it’s Arctic water that’s covered by ice for about 10 months of the year. Added to that is the fragility of anything that’s 170 years old, and covered in layers and layers of kelp… I can’t begin to guess at the logistics of the delicate process involved accessing the wreck – let alone safely retrieving its contents.

Q: What about Franklin’s men?

A: All we know for sure is that no one got out alive. The last real clue is a set of ‘white man’s footsteps’ that Inuit hunters [a group of culturally similar indigenous peoples inhabiting the Arctic regions of Greenland, Canada, and Alaska] saw in the snow near the Erebus before it sank. When the hunters went on board, the ship was deserted. How far the men who made those footsteps got, we may never know.

The Marchers

(Channel 4)

Q: What about HMS Terror?

A: According to the Inuit, the other ship was seen crushed by the ice near the location traditionally accepted as the ‘point of abandonment’. It is pretty much accepted that Terror has been reduced to debris, and the most that will ever be found are bits and pieces.

Q: What makes this story so fascinating, 170 years on?

A: The thing I really love about this story is that the discovery ends up being the result of marrying state-of-the-art modern technology with good old-fashioned oral history from the Inuit. It’s particularly satisfying to see the Inuit testimony vindicated in this way, because for years their accounts had been dismissed as being at best ‘folklore’ and ‘legend’; at worst, what Dickens described as the “the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilised people”.

At every step, modern forensic examinations of remains have totally proven their accounts. And now the Erebus has turned up in exactly the place the Inuit described seeing it sink, right down to their naming the area “a boat place”. But it took modern technology to get down there and uncover it.

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Hunt For The Arctic Ghost Ship airs on Channel 4 on Tuesday 4 August at 9pm. To find out more, click here.