Examination of the wrecks of ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ bring fresh hope of solving the riddle of the lost Franklin expedition
High above the Arctic Circle, beneath the freezing waters of the Canadian north, lie vital clues to a mystery which has captivated generations for almost 200 years. At the heart of the enduring mystery is Irishman Francis Crozier .
Crozier, who came from Banbridge, Co Down, was second-in-command of the tragic Franklin expedition sent north in 1845 to navigate the elusive Northwest Passage across the top of Canada, linking the Atlantic to the Pacific.
It was a quest which had defeated explorers for hundreds of years and the Franklin expedition was meant to be the final piece in the jigsaw. Instead, it turned into the biggest disaster in the history of exploration, with the loss of all 129 lives, including that of Francis Crozier.
Over the next few years, dozens of ships ventured to the ice in search of Crozier and his lost companions. Even after details of the disaster emerged, bands of hopeful adventurers continued travelling into the wilderness to look for fresh clues. Over the next 170 years, in fact, more enthusiasts went in search of the dead than ever went in search of the living.
Fragments of information, scattered bones and assorted relics left by the doomed men were found, and experts pieced together an outline of the tragic events. But much remained unanswered, including the mystery of what happened to the expedition’s ships, Erebus and Terror.
Crozier was captain of Terror and led the expedition after the death of commander Sir John Franklin. With the ships trapped in the ice, it was Crozier who took the decision to abandon them in 1848 and lead 100 survivors in a desperate bid to escape. All hands perished.
It was not until 2014 and 2016, when specialist search teams from Canada found Erebus and Terror respectively, submerged in cold shallow waters, that answers to the 170-year-old mystery were revealed.
Both ships were fully upright and in remarkably good condition. Erebus lies at a shallow depth of barely 11m (35ft), while Terror was discovered intact at 24m (80ft). Remote cameras captured a tranquil scene, with dinner plates and glasses stacked neatly, scientific instruments packed away and beds made. The windows in Crozier’s cabin were shut. All was shipshape.
Particular attention is being given to Crozier’s private quarters, from where he recorded the unfolding events and plotted his escape.
While the bacteria and worms typically found in warmer seas damage wooden ships, the cool Arctic waters, poor light and build-up of sediment are providing a convenient shield to preserve Erebus and Terror.
Intense speculation surrounds the contents of Crozier’s desk. Marine archaeologists are highly optimistic that the desk, which is fastened to floor and in good condition, holds vital logbooks, charts, diaries and even personal letters written by Crozier.
Helped by modern techniques, experts feel it will be possible to read documents recovered from the seafloor. Mid-19th century paper was of a higher quality than modern paper and, remarkable though it sounds, paper conservators believe it will be possible to decipher the records.
The task of investigating the wrecks has only just resumed after a delay caused by Covid, and it may take another 10 years to complete the recovery and examinations. In particular, it will help shine fresh light on the remarkable explorer, Crozier.
The story of Francis Crozier is an epic tale which extends far beyond the Franklin disaster. He who was born into a well-to-do family in Banbridge in 1796, joined the Navy at 13, survived the bloody Napoleonic Wars and became a prolific explorer. He made six journeys into the ice and was centre stage in the three great ocean-going quests of the 19th century – navigating the Northwest Passage, reaching the North Pole and mapping the Antarctic continent. He was among the few to explore both the Arctic and Antarctic.
Crozier’s supreme achievement was a mammoth four-year expedition between 1839 and 1843 to survey the unconquered Antarctic. Many of the famous geographical place names now familiar to devotees of later explorers like Tom Crean, Captain Scott or Ernest Shackleton – for example, Ross Sea, Mount Erebus and McMurdo Sound – were discovered by Crozier and his partner, James Clark Ross. The Worst Journey in the World, the classic Antarctic book, was named after a mission to Cape Crozier.
The Antarctic adventure was hugely significant for Crozier. First, his ships Erebus and Terror were the same vessels subsequently taken on the ill-fated Franklin expedition. He also found love.
During the voyage, Crozier and Ross travelled to Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania) where he fell in love with Sophy Cracroft, the niece of fellow explorer and governor of the island, John Franklin. However, Cracroft rejected Crozier’s repeated offers of marriage. “She liked the man but not the explorer,” a friend observed.
A lovelorn Crozier returned from the Antarctic to discover that Britain was putting together another attempt to find the Northwest Passage. Franklin was given command and Crozier agreed to serve as deputy. The suspicion is that Crozier only agreed to sail to impress Sophy and win her approval by returning with the prize of being first through the Northwest Passage.
The expedition, which left London in 1845 on a wave of national enthusiasm and optimism, carried 129 men and supplies for a minimum of three years. They disappeared and were never seen again.
Crozier’s last letters reveal an unhappy man, worried about Franklin’s leadership and fearing the ships might get trapped in the ice. His concerns were well placed.
Erebus and Terror were seized by the unforgiving ice in the complex Arctic waterways, and never released. Crozier abandoned the ships in 1848 and led the 100 survivors on a perilous overland march to reach remote outposts of civilisation. Crozier even left behind a brief note indicating the direction in which he was travelling.
The note, found years later, is the only written record of the tragic events. The most gruesome discovery was that of human bones showing cut marks, indicating acts of cannibalism among the desperate men.
Initially, few in Britain were worried about the explorers and it was not until 1848, three years after Erebus and Terror sailed, that rescue ships were despatched. Over the next decade, around 40 ships combed the vast Arctic labyrinth – an empty wilderness the size of Western Europe – in search of the missing men. Sadly, they looked everywhere but the right place.
In 1859, 14 years after the expedition’s departure, Crozier’s brief note was unearthed by a team led by Leopold McClintock from Dundalk. By a twist of fate, McClintock’s sister married a nephew of Crozier.
McClintock’s discovery sparked a renewed surge of interest in the expedition and a growing number of both official and unofficial groups went in search of clues. Canadian authorities joined the search in 2008. Using state-of-the-art ships, modern technology, and the invaluable assistance of local Inuit people, they closed in on the two wrecks.
After the stoppage for Covid, recovery and investigation work has now resumed. At the heart of the work is the simple wooden desk 80 feet below the ice which is likely to contain the vital expedition records written by Crozier.
The hope is that Francis Crozier may be waiting to reach out across the centuries to answer the questions that have mystified generations. Perhaps there is even a last letter to his lost love, Sophy Cracroft.
‘Icebound in the Arctic: The Mystery of Captain Francis Crozier and the Franklin Expedition’ by Michael Smith is out now. Michael will speak about Francis Crozier at the Immrama Festival of Travel Writing, Lismore, on June 17; lismore-immrama.com