Canadian expedition aims to locate HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

A Canadian expedition has been launched to locate the lost ships of Victorian explorer Sir John Franklin, more than 160 years after they vanished on a doomed mission to locate the North West Passage. Experts believe that climate change is melting polar ice at such a rate that the North West passage will soon become navigable to shipping.

Control of the region would be of strategic importance and highly lucrative. Charges to use the Suez canal are worth billions of pounds each year, and if the route became viable, much commerce might switch to the quicker northern route.

Canada is keen to assert her right to the area. Canadian Environment Minister John Baird said: ‘The Franklin Expedition is a key part of Canada’s history of Arctic exploration. As Canada is once again asserting ourselves and protecting our sovereignty in the High Arctic, this expedition will provide important new information and will add to the body of research on the fate of these ships.’

The last recorded sighting of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror was on July 26, 1845, two months after they had set sail from Greenhithe in Kent on a mission to chart the North West Passage. Their failure to make their intended destination of China sparked one of the longest rescue missions in maritime history, in the course of which the passage was finally located after centuries of failed efforts.

Of the Franklin expedition itself, however, only rumours of starvation, madness and cannibalism filtered back to London, based on the reports of Inuit people in the Arctic wastes north of Canada, who reported a group of white men trapped by the ice and slowly dying of hunger. In the 1980s the frozen bodies of two seamen and a petty officer in an ice-filled coffin were found.

There are doubts, though, whether the wrecks still exist. Seamen stranded by polar ice would use wood from the structure to build winter quarters in order to survive, rebuilding the ship in the spring. Franklin’s crew, however, may well have become so desperate that they could have used it for fuel.

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