Circumnavigation of Cornwallis Island in 1846?

The Franklin Expedition was last seen on either 29th or 31st July, 1845, when the tips of their ships’ masts were visible to Captain Martin of the whaler ‘Enterprise’ in the eastern reaches of Baffin Bay. Martin’s position then was 75 12′ N, 61 6′ W. From the Victory Point note we know they became beset off King William Island on 12th September, 1846, and from the graves at Beechey Island we know they over-wintered there in 1845-1846. Almost the only other significant information we have about what happened between these dates is given in this extract from the Victory Point note, and its duplicate also left on King William Island:

“HM Ships Erebus and Terror 28 of May 1847 Wintered in the Ice in Lat 70 5 N. Long 98 23 W Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island in Lat 74 43 28 N. Long. 91 39 15 W after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat. 77. and returned by the West side of Cornwallis Island.”

This has always been read to mean that in the summer and autumn of 1845 the Expedition sailed past Beechey Island, up Wellington Channel to 77N, and then back south and east via the west side of Cornwallis Island to overwinter 1845-6 back at Beechey Island. (From the graves there we know the ‘wintering’ there took place in 1845-6 and not 1846-7). Then in spring / summer 1846 it left Beechey Island and sailed west and then south towards the North American coastline before becoming beset. But this depends on whether we think Fitzjames intended “having wintered …at Beechey Island” to be a subjunctive clause or the start of a second sentence. The conventional interpretation

“HM Ships Erebus and Terror 28 of May 1847 Wintered in the Ice in Lat 70 5 N. Long 98 23 W. Having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island in Lat 74 43 28 N. Long. 91 39 15 W after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat. 77. and returned by the West side of Cornwallis Island.”

could equally read:

“HM Ships Erebus and Terror 28 of May 1847 Wintered in the Ice in Lat 70 5 N. Long 98 23 W, having wintered in 1846-7 at Beechey Island in Lat 74 43 28 N. Long. 91 39 15 W, after having ascended Wellington Channel to Lat. 77. and returned by the West side of Cornwallis Island.”

As far as I can tell from textual examination, either is possible. Which is more likely?

I make the distance from Martin’s position in Baffin Bay to the 77N position north of Cornwallis Island, then back to Beechey Island by the west of Cornwallis Island, to be about 850 nautical miles. If they made this voyage in 1845, the Expedition would have had to maintain an average speed of c.0.4 knots over the whole journey, or almost 750 metres per hour, 24 hours a day, even without stopping to take magnetic observations. By contrast their 1846 voyage, from Beechey Island to the position they became beset off King William Island, a distance of about 320 nautical miles, would only have required an average speed of 0.1 knots, or under 200 metres per hour.

But if in 1845 they only sailed from Martin’s position as far as Beechey Island, a distance of 440 nautical miles, their average speed would only have needed to have been c.0.2 knots, or 370 metres per hour. Then in 1846 they would have had to have sailed from Beechey Island north to 77N, then turned back and sailed south by the west of Cornwallis Island to the point where they became beset, which is a distance of just over 700 nautical miles. That would have required an average speed of c0.3 knots, or about 550 metres per hour. The conventional interpretation suggests they made an extremely fast voyage in 1845 and a very slow one in 1846. The alternative interpretation permits more consistency in their progress. There are a couple of logical arguments which suggest that the ‘alternative’ explanation may have some merit.

Sherard Osborn made an interesting comment about the assumed magnetic observatory at Cape Riley, which was close to their Beechey Island anchorage. The expedition was charged with taking very detailed magnetic observations on certain specific dates, which were called Term Dates. The idea was that on Term Dates, every magnetic observatory around the world would take readings at exactly the same time. Later, when all the readings could be analysed together, they would make possible retrospective global analysis of fluctuations in the Earth’s magnetism. The Term Date after the Expedition left Disko Island was 29th August, 1845. Osborne suggested the Expedition was very likely to have been at Cape Riley on 29th August, 1845, and if so there would have been very little time afterwards to make the long voyage to 77 degrees North and then back to Beechey Island before winter set in.

If the Expedition returned to Beechey Island in 1845 after ascended Wellington Channel to 77 degrees north, why did it do so by the west side of Cornwallis Island? This makes no sense when Beechey Island lay to the south and east of their position. Also, their maps did not show Cornwallis Island to be an island, so how could they have known that an unexplored channel to its south and west would lead them back where they wanted to go? But this route would makes sense if they made the ascent to 77N in 1846, as it would have allowed a much more direct route south to Peel Sound. There would have been time in 1845-6 for parties to have surveyed the area, and Peel Strait and the west of Cornwallis Island both lie within 100 nautical miles of Beechey Island. We know there were traces of sledging expeditions sent out from the Erebus and Terror in the snow and ice on the land around Beechey Island, but trails along the sea ice would not have survived.

The truth is that we don’t know which of these interpretations of the Victory Point note is correct, and we never will unless further written evidence comes to light. The only facts we know about what happened after the ships left Captain Dannet is that they overwintered 1845-6 at Beechey Island, became beset off King William Island on 12th September 1846 and before doing so attempted the North West Passage firstly to the north and then secondly to the south.