HMS Erebus-The Search For Answers Begins

The crew of HMS Intrepid search for Franklin in 1853--and also became trapped in the ice. Public domain
The crew of HMS Intrepid searched for Franklin in 1853–and also became trapped in the ice. Public domain

In an exclusive interview with the Archaeology Hour, Marc-Andre Bernier, Chief of the Archaeology Division of Parks Canada has announced the timetable for the historic dives beneath seven feet or more of arctic ice on the remains of Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated expedition ship the HMS Erebus. The first team for the project will be on-site later this week on April 4th to prepare for the investigation. “A national defense team will set up the camp starting on the 4th, “ said Bernier. “Our archaeologists Ryan Harris and Jonathan Moore will be there to get us close to the wreck itself – not right above it but close enough to make the diving operation easier. Then the rest of the team will arrive around April 10th and will work until the 17th or 18th.”

“We plan to continue the non-disturbance survey started when the ship was discovered last year,” Bernier told The Archaeology Hour. “We are still determining what our future methodology will be so this is still something of a pre-disturbance project with three phases. We will be examining the exterior of the hull, then the perimeter close to the hull and finally the inside of the hull. “The deck looks like it has been shaved  by the ice in places and some sections have been opened almost like a can opener. The rigging has been pushed off the sides a distance of some three or four meters. The inside of the hull will be accessible through some large openings. At this stage we plan to insert a laser device from 2G Robotics here in Canada. It will create a three dimensional image of the interior in a few minutes.”

The Parks Canada team hope to complete their surveys and photographic mapping of the site by the end of the month. “We do have another window in mid August to mid September when the ice cap melts—but conditions then would not be as good for underwater video and photography,” said Bernier.

Once a full understanding of the wrecksite has been developed the Parks Canada team will begin the process of removing artifacts and pieces of the wreckage. It is only then that the mystery of the final hours of the ill-fated expedition may be answered.

Sir John Franklin sailed from England on May 19th, 1845 with 134 men and two ships the Erebus and the Terror. The HMS Erebus was the ‘space shuttle‘ of its day—the most technologically advanced and well supplied vessel of discovery ever launched. The goal was to finally discover the Northwest passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, the shortest route from the rich trade sources of the far east to the factories and shops of England. The Erebus had both steam and sail power, a reinforced hull, seawater to drinkable water systems, heated cabins and three years of supplies that Franklin thought could be extended to seven years in an emergency. Included in the food supplies were over seven thousand pounds of tobacco and 200 gallons of wine and almost ten thousand pounds of chocolate. There was also a new invention that the British Navy thought would stave off scurvy and ‘debilitation” – eight thousand tins of canned meat and vegetables.

Two whaling ships were the last to see Franklin’s expedition as it sailed off into barely charted waters of Lancaster Sound of northern Canada — and on into the frozen wastelands of the supposed Northwest Passage. It seemed there was no way Franklin could fail. The ships, the men were never seen again. After 1847 the British Government and private sources sent further expeditions to find Franklin. Men died and ships sunk in the crushing grip of the Arctic winter ice, but still nothing at all was found of Franklin, his men or his two wonderfully equipped ships. Still later searches found tantalizing traces of the lost expedition, but nothing that told why such a well equipped and planned project would fail so spectacularly.

Some 140 years later archaeologists finally unearthed the burials of three men from the expedition on Beechey Island. William Braine, John Hartnell of the Erebus and John Torrington of the Terror had died of scurvy (vitamin C deficiency — and lead poisoning.) It may have been that the cans of tinned food laid waste to the men. When they left England, the seeds of disaster were already stored inside their ships.

“We still do not know what the final months and weeks of the expedition were like,” said Bernier.”From Inuit accounts we know that there were men aboard the ship but we do not know if they attempted an overland retreat, abandoned the idea and returned to the ship, then perhaps even left again. We do know that Inuits reported at least one corpse inside the ship before it sank.”

Multibeam image of HMS Erebus produced by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. The ship image is false-coloured using different palettes in order to highlight key features, depth and shape of the shipwreck located in Queen Maud Gulf. Image is generated with the ship’s bow facing south-east in direction. (Canadian Hydrographic Service)
Multibeam image of HMS Erebus produced by the Canadian Hydrographic Service. The ship image is false-coloured using different palettes in order to highlight key features, depth and shape of the shipwreck located in Queen Maud Gulf. Image is generated with the ship’s bow facing south-east in direction. (Canadian Hydrographic Service)

Several expeditions were sent find Franklin, or at least determine what had happened to him. It was learned that some of the crew had attempted to trek south, hauling a boat with them. Later searchers found traces of the boat and the bones of some of the men. Even so, the full story has yet to be revealed. Perhaps the hull of the Erebus, and the dead known to be in it, will finally speak.

As the archaeologists of Parks Canada probe the icy time capsule that is the wreck of the Erebus, the answers the world, and especially the English, have been waiting for since that fateful day in May of 1845 may at last be found.

The interview with Marc Bernier can be found at:

The archaeology hour podcast can be found at:

http://archaeologyhour.podomatic.com

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3 thoughts on “HMS Erebus-The Search For Answers Begins”

  1. The men buried on Beechey Island did not die of scury and lead poisoning but from lung infections, according to the autopsies performed on site.

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    1. Technically, this is true. It was the opinion of the pathologists that the lead poisoning debilitated the subjects so much that opportunistic disease (perhaps already present in the system) was able to take hold. Ultimately though, it was the lead poisoning that led to the deaths. See para 2, page 241 of “Frozen In Time” by Owen Beattie and John Geiger, Bloomsbury Press, 2004 ISBN: 0 7475 7727 7. I highly recommend this book.

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