Little Bits of History

Heading North

Posted in History by patriciahysell on May 19, 2015
 John Franklin statue in his home town *

John Franklin statue in his home town *

May 19, 1845: Sir John Franklin sets out on his fourth and last Arctic expedition. Franklin was a renowned member of the Royal Navy. Between his third and fourth expedition, he was Lieutenant Governor of Van Diemen’s Land, now Tasmania. He had already been commanding officer for two arctic expeditions and was considered well equipped to undertake exploration of the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. For hundreds of years, it was hoped a navigable passageway could be found via the waters through and north of Canada, cutting short the trip from Europe to Asia, then necessitating a trip around South America. Franklin’s second trip had left less 300 miles of unexplored Arctic coastline.

Sir James Ross declined the offer of leading the expedition and it was offered to Franklin even though he was already 59 years old. Two ships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had already been employed on Arctic trips and they were upgraded for this trip, putting in steam engines and water distillation systems. There were internal heating systems for the crew’s comfort and there were over 1000 books to amuse the crew as they sailed. Also aboard were three years’ worth of conventionally preserved food. The two ships carried 24 officers and 110 men as they sailed from Greenhithe, England on this day. Before their final departure from Greenland, five men were discharged leaving a total of 129 men aboard.

Both ships were lost with all hands. For the next 150 years, their story was gathered piecemeal. The men wintered at Beechey Island in 1845-46 and three men died there. The ships were trapped in ice off King William Island in September 1846 and were never able to sail again. According to notes found by other officers, Franklin died on June 11, 1847. The crew was stranded and remained on the island for two years. Finally, on April 26, 1848 the last survivors began walking out heading toward the Back River on the Canadian mainland. By the time they opted to leave, nine officers and fifteen crew had already died. The rest died along their escape route – most while still on the island but some making it to the mainland. They were still hundreds of miles from any known outpost.

It has been surmised that the first three men to die had either contracted pneumonia or tuberculosis and their condition may have been exacerbated by lead poisoning. The source of the lead poisoning could have been due to the rapid and incorrect tinning of the food stores. The order was received only seven weeks before the ships sailed and there is speculation the badly soldered cans led to the problem. A second possibility is that the system used to distill water may have used lead pipes and their water supply was contaminated with the heavy metal. When the bodies were found, there was some evidence the survivors resorted to cannibalism. The expedition was lost to these causes as well as hypothermia, scurvy, and other diseases.

But the Arctic chart memorializes more than men of rank, power, blood or property. The real immortals, whose names are sprinkled throughout the Arctic on bays and bights, capes and channels, are those who dared and sometimes died so that the map might take form. – Pierre Berton

You may be disappointed if you fail, but you are doomed if you don’t try. – Beverly Sills

I always wanted to be an explorer, but — it seemed I was doomed to be nothing more than a very silly person. – Michael Palin

The apple cannot be stuck back on the Tree of Knowledge; once we begin to see, we are doomed and challenged to seek the strength to see more, not less. – Arthur Miller

Also on this day: Duty Calls – In 1780, the Dark Day arrived, bringing fear to many.
Fingerprints – In 1911, the first US conviction was brought on the basis of fingerprint evidence.
Longest Tunnel – In 1906, Simplon Tunnel began service.
Wilde About Douglas – In 1897, Oscar Wilde was released from jail.
What’s the Temperature? – In 1743, Jean-Pierre Christin published a paper on temperature.

* “Franklin Statue” by Richard Croft. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons –


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