This is my account of the lecture which Parks Canada’s Ryan Harris gave in December 2014 at the British Library about the finding of HMS Erebus, just off the coast of Adelaide Peninsular. The lecture was organised by the Eccles Centre for American Studies and supported with characteristic generosity by the Canadian High Commission. Ryan’s discussion was moderated by Robin McKee, Science Editor of The Observer.The auditorium was packed and, in a sign of the growing interest in the UK in anything Franklin, many people had had to be turned away.
Ryan explained that the Inuit people of Nunavut have always maintained that, while one of Franklin’s ship was wrecked off the west coast of King William Island, the other sank close to an island just off Adelaide Peninsular. The question has always been: exactly where is that ship? Ryan paid generous tribute to the people who have already searched in these areas yet found almost nothing that could be associated with the Franklin Expedition. Parks Canada have shown great commitment in pursuing a systematic long-term plan designed to locate the two ships, working with an increasing number of other parties, both Canadian public sector and private sector. But despite collecting a wealth of information about the region over the past six years, they had not been blessed with tremendously glamorous finds either – the drama of the 2012 search, for example, being the recovery of a toothbrush.
Until this summer.
This year treacherous ice in Victoria Strait forced Parks Canada to search further south than they had planned. Ryan described the mounting anticipation as the team gradually homed in on the Erebus. First Captain Andrew Sterling, one of the team’s helicopter pilots, found two artefacts on the shore. Examination on board ship that evening convinced the team that these two artefacts likely came from a Franklin ship, probably nearby. The following day – with ideal conditions – the team put their state-of-the art underwater scanners to use and started surveying the nearly sea-bed. Ryan showed us pictures of the equipment they use. A small metal ‘fish’ towed behind their vessel relays back up to a computer monitor on board a detailed image of the seabed below the ‘fish’. And anything lying on the seabed… Ryan and his colleagues have spent many, many hours staring at these screen watching as mile after featureless mile of sterile seabed passes before their eyes on these screens.
You could have heard a pin drop in the Hall as Ryan described how that morning, with Jonathan Moore at the screen and Ryan looking over his shoulder, the unmistakable image of a nineteenth century bomb vessel suddenly started to scroll across their screen. Ryan says he jabbed his finger at the screen and exclaimed, with what to me seems commendable restraint: “that’s it!” Ryan and Jon were the first people from outside the Arctic to see one of the Franklin ships since July 1845. It was clear immediately that the ship was in a remarkable state of preservation. Conditions are very good for preservation. Melting ice keeps the salinity of the water low and the temperature is extremely cold. Also, for nearly ten months of the year the ship is deep gloomy darkness, the result not just of the long dark Arctic winter but also the shroud of surface ice shielding it from what little sunlight there is. So, although there is a mantle of kelp over the ship, its timbers retain their sharp edges and some parts look almost as if they have just recently been immersed in the sea.
The temptation to explore immediately must have been strong. But geopolitics and the weather intervened. The team had to ensure that news of their sensational discovery did not leak out before Canada’s political leadership could announce it, and at the same time the weather closed in – never an unusual event in Nunavut.
It was not until 17th September that divers were able to descend on the Erebus, and it is fitting that Jonathan Moore and Ryan Harris were the first pair to descend. Altogether the teams, always of two divers, made seven descents on the Erebus over a period of two days. They have been able to bring back, and showed us, remarkable pictures from the ship. For example, the stern has been almost sheared off by ice and through this gap the divers were able to peer into the Great Cabin of the Erebus. Let us remember that it was here, in Franklin’s cabin, where Lt. Fairholme reported that “Sir John … receive(s) three of us at dinner every day… and instead of the formal parties these are in most ships, one really looks forward with the greatest pleasure to meeting him”. Visible in one of the photos was the leg and part of the stretcher of a table. Very likely this was the actual table at which Franklin and his officers dined. As Peter Carney observed to me afterwards ‘how many tables do you think they had on those ships’?
Other finds included the ship’s tiller, the 6-pounder cannons which the ship carried for signalling and a wealth of her fittings including a round hole in the upper deck reinforced with a copper gland which may have been for one of the vent pipes from her steam engine. At the stern can be seen the tracks along which the retractable propeller passed. There was no sign either of the propeller or of the chocks which were designed to fill the propeller well when the prop was not in use. Around the periphery of the ship were no less than six anchors which all appear to have been neatly stowed. The seven dives were, in Ryan Harris’s words ‘from beginning to end just endless discovery’. As is well known, the ship’s bell was clearly visible on the deck and the team took the rapid and wise decision to recover it for safe-keeping.
But what does the future hold for HMS Erebus? Ryan pointed out that if this is what we see on her exterior, there is likely to be a treasure-trove of information and artefacts inside. The Parks Canada team was able to look though some of the broken timbers of the upper deck and see along the main deck, where the bulk of the ship’s company lived, to the Fraser stove where food was prepared and ice was melted to make water. Examination of that will provide a wealth of information on the men’s health. It is perfectly possible that writing may survive in log-books, diaries and maps. Any of this has the capability to revolutionise our understanding of what happened on the Franklin Expedition.
The responsibility for capitalising on this treasure trove of information lies with the Parks Canada team, supported by their range of partners. It’s clear that they are already thinking extremely carefully about how to realise this. The very detailed survey which the team carried out in the summer will help them plan for next year’s campaign. And they plan for a major effort. For example, with suitable reinforcement it may be safe for divers to enter parts of the wreck. Intriguingly, each officer’s cabin was lit by a ‘Preston’s patent illuminator’ in its ceiling – a brass ring into which was screwed a glass lens. If the glass can be withdrawn, then the ‘illuminators’ may give direct access to the cabins, perhaps making it possible to recover and then conserve any written documents that can be identified. And then, perhaps, they can be read. Ryan speculated that perhaps one day Erebus might even be raised from the seabed and conserved ashore. What a sight she would be! But the cost would be huge and before that could happen there is literally years of work recovering the moveable and readable artefacts from inside her hull.
Even without further work, the information we already have throws major new light on the Franklin Expedition. It’s not certain yet whether the ship was sailed to its present location or simply drifted there. But (and this is PURELY my own speculation) it seems to me more likely that she was sailed there, rather than simply drifted. And while Parks Canada are very sensibly keeping secret the precise location, it does seem to be something like 100 nautical miles south of the point where the Erebus and Terror were so memorably ‘deserted’ in April 1848. If true, this would mean that the Erebus at least must have been re-manned in the summer or autumn of 1848, and reached her present location in the summer of 1849 or perhaps even later. Erebus was the flagship, and Franklin’s Expedition was a ship-borne voyage of exploration. The implication of this is that the Expedition lasted a lot longer, and travelled a lot further, than anyone could say for sure before. This does not alter its ultimate failure, and nor does it minimise the tragedy for the men, but it does make their achievement even more remarkable than we realised before. As Ryan observed, we can now see that the famous observation of Franklin’s great friend Sir John Richardson that ‘they forged the last link [in the north west passage] with their lives’ was closer to the truth than many people had realised. The Erebus apparently now lies only a few miles from the littoral waters along the north American continent where, as Franklin himself said in his last letter to Richardson, written on 7th July 1845, “our ships might safely go”.