John Franklin made three attempts to find the North-West Passage. His final voyage in 1845 in HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ended in tragedy for him and all his men.
By 1845 further explorations of the Arctic coastline had led to great optimism that finding and charting the final part of the North-West Passage – the seaway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – was now within reach. Explorer John Franklin, who had made two previous attempts to find it, was keen to claim the prize.
He sailed for the Arctic in May with the ships HMS Erebus and Terror. By previous standards the ships were powerful and luxurious, with heating systems and vast supplies of preserved foods. In late July, the two ships were seen by a whaler in Baffin Bay, waiting for ice to clear in Lancaster Sound and to begin their journey to the Bering Strait. It was the last time any of the 129 crewmen were ever seen alive.
Searching for Franklin
The loss of this British hero, and the efforts to find him, captured the public imagination. Over 30 expeditions searched for Franklin but with little success. In 1859, following clues gathered from Inuit by the explorer John Rae in 1854, an expedition led by Francis McClintock found relics and human remains on King William Island. It transpired that HMS Erebus and Terror had become stuck in the ice, on the brink of success in navigating the North-West Passage.
Among the items found were two standard Admiralty forms. In the margins of one was a handwritten message, which said the ships were deserted on 22 April 1848, having been stuck on ice since 12 September 1846: 105 officers and crew, under the command of Captain F. R. M. Crozier, had departed on foot for the Back River (or Back's Fish River as it was then called). John Franklin had died on 11 June 1847.
It is believed hunger, scurvy and lead poisoning, from the food cans taken on the voyage, led to the men dying on their journey. It is also believed that some of the men resorted to cannibalism. If any of the crew did make it to Back River, then they have the accolade of discovering the passage west through the Arctic, though this has never been proven.
Death in the Ice: The Shocking story of Franklin’s final expedition
Our major exhibition, opening 14 July, explores the mysterious fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew. On display for the first time, will be objects from the recently discovered wreck of the HMS Erebus. Can the latest discoveries shed light on one of history's most enduring mysteries?