The discovery of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition has left much unanswered, researchers say, and they're hoping the public and students can help solve the mystery.
The University of Victoria announced Monday that it will launch a cold-case website dedicated to the mid-19th-century Arctic shipwreck. The ship was discovered last September to much fanfare, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper calling it a "historic moment for Canada." The project will mark the first time the Franklin Expedition archive, consisting of about 125 original documents and 125 historical images, will be made available to the public.
John Lutz, an associate professor of history at the university, said the discovery of one of the ships hasn't quelled some of the questions – for instance, what happened to the other vessel, and did crew members actually resort to cannibalism?
The archive will form part of the Great Unsolved Mysteries in Canadian History website. The website – a University of Victoria project – has published 12 other mysteries since 1997, including the drowning death of famed artist Tom Thomson and the uncertainty over who discovered Klondike gold.
Prof. Lutz said he believes a number of factors likely led to the expedition's downfall.
He said crews "happened to hit a couple of cold winters" and were also hampered by their own hubris.
"They just thought they could go into the Arctic and they were the best equipped and the most scientifically advanced and how could it fail?" he said in an interview.
"They looked down with disdain at the Inuit people they met in Greenland and ultimately seem to have met when they abandoned their ships. These are people who knew how to live in the Arctic and survive when [Sir John] Franklin and his boat mates could not."
The Franklin Expedition archive will be uploaded on June 4, to coincide with the 170th anniversary of the British expedition's first day at sea.
"We're hoping it will encourage Canadians to delve into the Franklin Expedition mystery," Lyle Dick, the project's research director and a former president of the Canadian Historical Association, said in an interview. Mr. Dick also referred to the expedition as an important moment in Canadian history.
Prof. Lutz, 56, said the expedition has been an interest of his since he was a child. He said he previously believed some of the Inuit oral testimony was suspect, but is now less sure.
"It didn't coincide with some of the physical evidence," he said. "Now that we've discovered the ship way further south than anybody thought we were going to find it, a lot of that evidence is starting to make more sense than I and other researchers thought before."
Even if the website doesn't turn up new answers, Prof. Lutz said it will provide an exciting new way for the public and students to learn about the voyage. He said the dozen mysteries already on the website are read by approximately 2,500 students every day. He said the Franklin Expedition materials will be available in English and French, and instructional materials will also be available in Inuktitut.
The team that discovered the Franklin Expedition was led by Parks Canada. The agency had conducted six previous searches since 2008. Its discovery made headlines around the world.
The ship was identified as HMS Erebus, on which Sir Franklin himself had sailed. The whereabouts of the HMS Terror are still unknown. All 129 crew members on the expedition were killed.