It took Parks Canada archaeologists 15 minutes to locate HMS Investigator, the Franklin expedition search vessel abandoned in 1853 in the ice of Mercy Bay off Banks Island. What's remarkable is it took them even that long. Unlike HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the lost ships of the 1845-48 British Arctic Expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin, there is little mystery associated with the Investigator.
Marc-André Bernier, Parks Canada's head of underwater archaeology, declared of the find, "This is definitely of the utmost importance." Environment Minister Jim Prentice was on site to give official Government of Canada sanction for the stated importance, and to deliver additional superlatives. Certainly the opportunity to glimpse the hull of the sunken discovery vessel is exciting, especially since the crew of Investigator was arguably the first to complete the Northwest Passage. However, it is hard to see that, by confirming the wreck is where everyone thought it would be, we will add to our understanding of the fate of Investigator, or of exploration history more generally.
The Investigator's crew, with a couple of exceptions, survived, and the ship's captain, Robert McClure, produced an official account. Ship surgeon Alexander Armstrong also published an unofficial account, Personal narrative of the discovery of the north-west passage, and later produced an important medical study based on his Arctic travels. Still others recounted their experiences in published narratives. There is, in other words, a fairly exhaustive historical record associated with Investigator.
Ryan Harris, a senior marine archaeologist with Parks Canada, suggested that "in anthropological terms, this is the most important shipwreck in history .... This was the first contact with the Copper Inuit; it's a bit like finding a Columbus ship in the Arctic." The Columbus hyperbole aside, he's got it right. Metal and wood taken from Investigator had a major impact on the material culture of the traditional inhabitants of the Western Arctic. However, this has been the subject of research for more than a quarter-century. Clifford Hickey has published a series of significant studies demonstrating the contribution materials stripped from the abandoned Investigator had on cultural change among the area's people. It's unclear how viewing the hull will add to this.
Where real mystery does lurk is with the whereabouts of Erebus and Terror, and the possibility that discovery of either vessel might cast some light on the fate of Franklin. That is the next target of the Parks Canada researchers this summer, and the test of whether there is more taxpayer value here than an adventurous summer outing for Mr. Prentice.
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