The Franklin 1845 NW Passage expedition
On 1st April, at the Society’s new home at Huish Academy, Jeremy Michell, Senior Curator of Maritime Technologies at the National Maritime Museum, presented a fascinating insight into British expeditions to find a North West Passage through the Arctic, and the present day attempts to reconstruct what happened to Sir John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition.
He began by sketching the context of the times. There was pressure on the government of the day to make more use of the Navy – an expensive but skilled force – to survey the Arctic, where there were over 900 miles of unexplored sea routes. Russia had begun to explore the Arctic, and Britain wanted to assert its position and claim sovereignty first. The Canadian based Hudson’s Bay Company also wanted to map the area and exploit the beaver population for their pelts. For a time there was a monetary prize for finding a north-west route to the Pacific.
Sir John Franklin had led several land-based expeditions before he came to lead a ship-based exploration. Previous seaborne explorations under the command of Sir John Ross, Sir William Parry, and James Clark Ross (Sir John’s nephew) had succeeded in mapping and producing charts of much of the area, but without finding the elusive passage.
Thorough preparations for Franklin’s expedition included making special adaptations to the ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror and trialling them in the Antarctic before they set off from Greenhithe in Kent in May 1845. They were last seen by Europeans in Baffin Bay in July 1845.
With no news, searches were dispatched in 1848, but for over 5 years they brought back nothing. It wasn’t until Sir John Rae started interviewing Inuit people that the story of their tragedy began to emerge. His mention of the possibility of cannibalism caused a scandal which unfortunately overshadowed the detail of his report. However, the recent Canadian discovery of the wrecks of both ships has brought the story of Franklin’s expedition back to prominence, and the collaboration between Canadian and British museums promises to reveal even more of their sad story.
Jeremy’s use of archives, especially ships’ plans and contemporary letters; his encyclopaedic knowledge and his enthusiasm for the subject gave the audience a fascinating glimpse into the world of 18th and 19th century polar exploration, as well as into how modern museums research and conserve material that helps our understanding of our history.