The mythical North-West Passage
held the imagination of Britain for most
of the 19th century. At that time,
before the great canals of Panama and
Suez were built, trade with the
lucrative markets in Asia was perilous
and slow, with trade routes either
flowing past the Cape of Good Hope in
Africa, across to India, and thereby to
the Far East; or taking the dangerous
passage South around Cape Horn in South
America, and then across the Pacific.
What Britain sought was a shortcut: The
fabled North-West Passage, a sea-route
North past Canada, through to Alaska and
the lucrative markets of the Orient.
Expedition after expedition was sent. People were convinced a passage was there, with wealth and fame awaiting those who found it. Some even speculated that beyond the ice-walls there was a new polar ocean, waiting to be discovered...
Sir John Franklin was at this time one of the world's leading Arctic explorers. Although in his 50s, he agreed to lead another Arctic expedition. The Franklin Expedition consisted of two ships: H.M.S. Erebus and H.M.S Terror, both seasoned Arctic vessels, and both refitted with innovations such as propellers and steam-powered heating for the crew. The expedition set sail from Greenhithe, England on the morning of May 19, 1845, with a handpicked crew of 24 officers and 110 men. After supply stops in Scotland and Greenland, they set off to explore...and were never seen alive again.
The ships' fate was revealed a few years later when an expedition found the ships icebound and abandoned. Later expeditions, including autopsies carried out in the 1980s, shed clues on the demise of the Terror and Erebus. Corpses exhumed from the first year of the expedition showed highly elevated levels of lead; this, coupled with large numbers of unopened tin cans, lead scientists to conclude that the cans were improperly sealed, allowing lead to penetrate the food and, in many cases, for the food to rot.
Based on this, archaeologists pieced together a likely series of events: The crews of the ships became trapped in the ice, possibly for years. Their supplies tainted, they soon began to run short of food. Scurvy, lead poisoning, and hunger must have killed many; the remainder, their judgment clouded by their physical condition, set off towards Canada. In those terrible Arctic conditions it is believed that none survived.
This article was originally published in February 2007, and has been updated for the
December 2007 paperback release.
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