Telling the story of the most tragic and fatal Royal Navy expedition that ventured into the Arctic could have turned into a Victorian penny dreadful. Luckily, the curators of Death in the Ice had smarter things in mind.
The new exhibition at London’s National Maritime Museum (NMM) deftly captures the complexity of Sir John Franklin’s disastrous final polar expedition through multiple narratives, exposing the viewpoints of the players, the historical and scientific evidence – and the theories tying the findings together.
So what do we know about what happened to Franklin, his 128 men and their two ships when they disappeared in the Canadian Arctic 170 years ago?
In May 1845, two of the British Royal Navy’s finest, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, set sail from England in search of the fabled Northwest Passage, the route joining the Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
In July, the ships docked in the Whale Fish Islands, off the west coast of Greenland. The men sent what were to be their last letters, and hauled three years’ worth of provisions aboard. On 26 July, the vessels were seen by whalers off the coast of Baffin Island.
Then, nothing. No one expected to hear for a while, but with no word nor sightings for years, searches began.
Franklin, a veteran of the polar seas, had been on three previous Arctic voyages and had written bestselling accounts of his adventures. His wife Jane was a strong and adventurous personality herself, who had traveled widely, and her fortitude was to prove significant in the searches for the missing expedition.
Intensely human story
But we still don’t know exactly what happened after those last sightings, says one of the show’s curators, Karen Ryan from the Canadian Museum of History, which worked on the exhibition with the NMM and Parks Canada, in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust. For Ryan, it’s an intensely human story of 129 men “full of dreams, full of ambitions and full of hope… they had names, families that missed them”.
The discoveries by Parks Canada of HMS Erebus in September 2014 and HMS Terror in September 2016 – both of them submerged yet largely pristine – only add to the mystery.
Did the sailors perish from scurvy? From lead poisoning off the tin cans that contained their food? Did they get botulism from the meat? Or did they starve to death as they abandoned ship? Worst of all, had they become cannibals?
The first exhibit is a leather shoe found lying on the exposed deck of HMS Erebus, and displayed in a glass box set against a watery wall of undersea footage. It’s a smart shoe, clearly unsuited to the Arctic, but its unknown owner brought it anyway, improvising for the freezing conditions by stuffing it with seal fur. Traces of DNA have also been found in it, explained Marc-André Bernier, underwater archaeology manager at Parks Canada.
On the walls of a room resembling an officers’ mess are snippets of journal entries and the crew’s letters home, detailing life at sea. We learn of Saturday night merriment, of a library aboard HMS Terror boasting as many as 1200 volumes, and that the pet monkey aboard HMS Erebus was a fondly regarded nuisance.
There are explicit reminders too that this was an age of scientific exploration. Harry Goodsir, a scientist aboard HMS Erebus, published work on a new copepod species from the Arctic, says Ryan. And on display is equipment for research on the geomagnetic north pole.
The accounts are often painfully vivid. “Goodsir is catching the most extraordinary animals in a net, and is in ecstasies,” wrote Commander James Fitzjames of HMS Erebus and its crew in his journal. “Gore and Des Voeux are over the side, poking with nets and long poles, with cigars in their mouths, and Osmer is laughing.”
A major space is devoted to Inuit oral histories, which eventually played a big part in advancing the story. Their accounts of their sightings of ships and men, not to mention dismembered bones, helped British explorer John Rae piece together some of what had happened. For years, though, the Inuit reports were either discounted or not taken as seriously as other evidence. But in the end, they carried the day.
Then there is the social and cultural overlay. By the 1840s, polar exploration was refracted through everything, from literature (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) to wonderfully outlandish plates showing Arctic scenes of explorers meeting Inuits, their edges adorned with such improbable Artic creatures as tigers and lions.
The explorers were the celebrities of the age, as Staffordshire china figurines of Franklin and his wife illustrate. In fact, it was the tough-minded Jane who, troubled by the lack of sightings, forced many search missions. Between 1847 and 1880, more than 30 took place.
By 1854, Rae had made some progress, but in an age of polar heroes, the news he brought back to England was not welcome – especially the Inuit accounts that some of the crew had become cannibals.
These were furiously denied by Jane Franklin and Charles Dickens, who had written articles questioning the Inuit accounts that fuelled a very public debate. But thanks to Rae, an 1859 expedition found crucial evidence backing Inuit accounts at Victory Point on King William Island.
A handwritten note by one of the crew concluded “All well”, but scrawled in the margins is a later second note saying that the ships had been ice-bound since September 1846, and then abandoned in April 1848 as 105 men set off to find Back’s River. It said that 24 men had died, including Franklin.
What happened next is still unknown. But forensic scientists now have good clues, including tinned meat samples, which tested negative for botulism. Science seems to back the Inuit stories of finding human bones that looked suspiciously like they had been cut: about a quarter of the bones found have markings consistent with butchery; others seem to have been cracked open and boiled to extract marrow.
This is grisly, but clinical enough not to be too traumatic – unlike the sight of three sailors who died in the first winter and were known to be buried on Beechey Island.
Their bodies were exhumed in the 1980s, and now, in a separated-off room so the squeamish can avoid it, are three open caskets with superimposed images that look eerily real, as though you are staring into the faces of men who died 170 years ago, preserved from the day they were buried, clothes, facial grimaces and all. The effect is sobering.
Today, findings are coming in thick and fast from HMS Erebus – artifacts include the ship’s bell. And Death in the Icehas a small nod to the investigations of HMS Terror, discovered after the exhibition – two years in the making – had been finished.
The ships were found in a different location from where accounts suggested they would be. For Bernier, this reopens the whole interpretation: “What happened in between?” he asks.
In fact, the changed location suggests the men might have re-boarded the ships, then deserted them a second time after sailing some way. Bernier’s team has already completed extensive underwater archaeological work on HMS Erebus and is planning to send robots into the wreck soon. HMS Terror will doubtless yield more clues.
In the end, those who like their mysteries tied up neatly may leave the show dissatisfied. But for those intrigued by the twists and turns of multiple narratives, conflicting or confirming each other as they unfold, this epic more than delivers.