On first glance, investing in the search for two ships that disappeared 164 years ago during Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition might seem a questionable idea in an era of fiscal restraint. But with much of the fieldwork already completed, and with the assistance of private funders, the federal government’s $275,000 contribution to the search for HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ships begins to make much more sense.
Not only does this mission, led by Parks Canada’s underwater archeology team, show the government’s commitment to the north and to uncovering a national historic site, it could also help Canada to assert its sovereignty in the Arctic.
If the Northwest Passage becomes a navigable sea route, what better way for Canada to claim it than to be engaged in scientific research there, and to establish a presence in those waters?
The wreckage of the lost ships is also an important Canadian narrative - one that has inspired songs, novels and poems, not to mention countless expeditions and search parties.
Franklin, a British explorer, and his 128 men left England in 1845 in search of a navigable route through the Northwest Passage between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The ships, stocked with provisions for three years, became trapped in ice near King William Island in 1846. Following the death of Franklin and 23 of his crew, the survivors made a misguided attempt to march south to a fur-trading post on the mainland. All ended up dying, and neither their bodies nor the ships were ever found.
Still, the expedition, as well as the subsequent search parties, helped cement Britain’s claim over the Arctic - a claim inherited by Canada.
Using sonar, airbourne technology and an underwater vehicle from the University of Victoria’s ocean technology lab, the mission will focus on the Victoria Strait/Alexandra Strait region, as well as the southern region of O’Reilly Island, in Nunavut. According to Inuit legend, this is where one of the ships was last seen. The team will also help the Canadian Hydrographic Service to map the Arctic sea floor.
This unfinished chapter in polar exploration has long captured imaginations. The discovery of the ships would shed new light on the cause of the untimely death of Franklin and his men, bringing closure to an enduring mystery, and greater profile to Canada’s north and its people.