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No. 09, Franklin's Last Arctic Expedition

"Men of the High North, you who have known it;
You in whose hearts its splendors have abode;
Can you renounce it, can you disown it?
Can you forget, its glory and its goad?"

An Image of Terror in the Ice

While Franklin was carrying out his administrative duties in Tasmania (1836-43) arctic exploration was expanding. Traill:

"During his absence from the field of Arctic exploration, important additions had been made to his [Franklin's] own discoveries. That part of the north coast of the North American continent, which Franklin had not explored and took measurement was nearly closed. Two officers of the Hudson's Bay Company, Dease and Simpson (Thomas), in 1837, had carried out further explorations. What was then known in 1844 was that it would appear that there was indeed a North-West Passage; and that, with the right approach, a well equipped expedition, under suitable leadership, and in the right weather conditions - such a passage stood a good chance to be made."
So, the British government was, once again, in the mood to get back to Polar Exploration. On February 5th, 1845, Franklin was called to the office of a Lord who had the authority to finally authorise a new polar Expedition. No one was about to question Franklin's experience in leading such an expedition, but, of course, there was a question of his advancing years (he was then near 60 years of age). Everything was put on the scales and the decision was taken to appoint Franklin to lead this latest Polar Expedition.

Two ships were given to Franklin for his expedition.

"The ships selected were the Erebus and Terror [Pictured to the right]. Originally constructed for bomb vessels, they were enormously strong, their timbers being as massive as those of a seventy-four-gun ship. Moreover, they had been especially fortified for the Antarctica voyage, from which they had but recently returned. Before sailing for the discovery of the North-West Passage, screw propellers and very small engines were adapted to them, being just sufficient to propel them at the rate of three miles an hour in calm weather. They were commissioned and fitted out at Woolwich Dockyard, and sailed from the Thames, 19th May, 1845 ..."44
The Erebus was under the direct command of Franklin. The Terror was under the direct command of Francis Crozier, who was her captain when she was in the Antarctic. John Ross had carried out his explorations in the Southern and Antarctic Regions during the years 1839-43. Other noteworthy officers with Franklin, were: James Fitzjames (Franklin's second in command), Graham Gore and Charles F. Des Voeux. Each ship carried 67 officers and men.45 The ships were freighted with enough stores to last three years. Steam was just starting to appear in ships; so, the two ships were fitted out, as we have seen, with small, fifty horsepower steam engines; thus they were the first ships to go into the high north with screw propellers. From all reports the Erebus and the Terror were well-equipped for the age.

Taking his leave of his family and friends, Franklin departed from Greenwich, just down from London on the Thames. The two ships put into one of the last of the northern islands of Scotland, Stromness. From there he sent off a number of letters.46 The next we hear from Franklin is from the west coast of Greenland, Whalefish Island, Disco Bay. They were accompanied by two other ships, the Blazer and the Rattler (described as steam tugs).47 The squadron also included a transport; it seems that Franklin and the Admiralty were keen to send the Erebus and the Terror, once they got into the high latitudes, fully stocked and equipped. On leaving Whalefish, the transport was left behind so to sail back to England.48

As Franklin, in one of his last letters, wrote of the transport, just before he headed off into the higher latitudes: "We hope to get our portion from the transport this evening, and then we shall have on board three complete years of provisions and fuel." The ships would be heavy during the first of the voyage, and make for poor sailors, but would lighten up as the months and years passed by. And gradually, as Franklin pointed out, the two ships would be in good sailing trim and we will "have room to stretch out our limbs, which we have hardly room now to do, so perfectly full is very hole and corner."49

Here is an extract of Franklin's last letter to his wife, Jane, presumably, put on aboard the returning transport.

"Let me now assure you, my dearest Jane, that I am now amply provided with every requisite for my passage, and that I am entering on my voyage comforted with every hope of God's merciful guidance and protection, and that He will bless and comfort and protect you, my dearest, my very dear Eleanor, dear Sophy, and all my other relatives. Oh, how much I wish I could write to each of them to assure them of the happiness I feel in my officers, my crew, and my ship!"50
The very last contact that any European had with the Franklin Expedition was on July 26, 1845. It was a whaler, sailing in the Davis Strait which happened upon the Erebus and the Terror. This knowledge was published in a London Newspaper on October 27th.
"At 8 P.M. received on board ten of the chief officers of the expedition under the command of Captain Sir John Franklin, of the Terror and Erebus. Both ships' crews are all well, and in remarkable spirits, expecting to finish the operation in good time. They are made fast to a large iceberg, with a temporary observatory fixed upon it. They were in latitude 74"48', longitude 66"13' W."51
This last entry in the whaler's log, was the last information on Franklin that anyone was to hear for a number of years.

NEXT -- No. 10, The Search For Franklin


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Peter Landry
2015 (2018)