Lost for 168 years, doomed Northwest Passage ship disovered

The HMS Terror disappeared during the infamous Franklin Expedition, along with its companion ship, the HMS Erebus. The ship had a long career, participating in the battle that inspired 'The Star-Spangled Banner.'

Parks Canada, via The Canadian Press/AP
This file image released by Parks Canada, on Sept. 9, 2014, shows a side-scan sonar image of the HMS Erebus, companion to HMS Terror, on the sea floor in northern Canada. (AP Photo/Parks Canada, via The Canadian Press)

In 1845, Sir John Franklin launched an expedition from England to chart the last unexplored waters of the elusive and dangerous Northwest Passage. The expedition set sail with two steam engine-equipped ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, with 129 crewmembers between them.

The ships, and the crew aboard them, were never seen by Europeans again.

The mysterious disappearance of the Erebus and the Terror has prompted poetry, books and plays about the doomed expedition that has captured the imagination of enthusiasts for nearly 170 years. But now an important piece of the puzzle of what happened to the Franklin crew has been found in the form of the HMS Terror, perfectly preserved in the cold waters of northern Canada.

"The Franklin exposition to the Northwest Passage has had a seminal role in the way we think about the North American Arctic," Adriana Craciun, a professor at University of California, Riverside and expert on Arctic exploration expeditions, tells The Christian Science Monitor. "It's most famous because it is the most terrible disaster in British exploration history."

The vessel was discovered by a research ship under the command of the Arctic Research Foundation. Adrian Schimnowski, the foundation’s operations director, told The Guardian that the vessel was in remarkable condition

“This vessel looks like it was buttoned down tight for winter and it sank,” he said. “Everything was shut. Even the windows are still intact. If you could lift this boat out of the water, and pump the water out, it would probably float.”

The HMS Terror was originally launched in 1813 as a bomb ship for the Royal Navy. Bomb ships were equipped with mortars as their main armament meant to shell fixed locations on the shore, rather than the conventional cannons used for combat with other ships.

In September 1814, during the War of 1812, the Terror participated in the bombardment of Fort McHenry. The "bombs bursting in air" during that battle inspired Francis Scott Key to write the poem "The Star-Spangled Banner," which would later be set to music to become the national anthem of the United States. 

"Those bombs could have very well been lobbed from the Terror," John Geiger, the president of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, told the Associated Press. "It's fundamental to the Star-Spangled Banner and the origins of the anthem of the United States. From a pure historical standpoint what an exciting find."

Eventually the ship was withdrawn from military service and refitted as an exploration vessel. After multiple expeditions, the ship was assigned to the Franklin expedition to the Northwest passage before it disappeared.

Dr. Craciun points out that the expedition, had it returned intact, would have been little more than a historical footnote. But its loss caused a sensation across Europe, elevating Franklin and his crew to posthumous hero status in England.

Little is known for certain about what actually happened to the expedition. The condition of the Terror suggests that the ship was shut down and cleaned out by its crew, indicating that the vessel was likely caught in the Arctic ice, The Guardian reports. The sailors then likely boarded the HMS Erebus and sailed south in a desperate and fruitless attempt to find less icy water. The Erebus was later abandoned and sank to the sea floor, where it remained undiscovered until 2014

Two years and a day after the discovery of the Erebus, the Arctic Research Crew vessel Martin Bergmann investigated a wreck in King William Island’s uncharted Terror Bay, lying in only 11 meters (36 feet) of water. After a week of investigating with a small, remotely-operated vehicle, they determined that the wreck was the Terror, 60 miles farther south than where historians had previously thought the ship met its end.

"We have successfully entered the mess hall, worked our way into a few cabins and found the food storage room with plates and one can on the shelves," Mr. Schimnowski told The Guardian. "We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer."

The crews of the Terror and Erebus likely survived for a while after abandoning their ships, with Inuit oral histories, which went largely ignored by Europeans for decades, telling stories of starving white men in the area as late as 1850, and legends of a wooden ship sinking nearby. A note dated April 25, 1848, which was found at Victory Point on King William Island and signed by the captains of the two ships, announced that the Terror and Erebus had been abandoned three days before, and the remaining crew were to "start on to-morrow 26th for Back’s Fish River," which led south to a Hudson Bay's Company fur trading posts, according to The Guardian. What happened to them after that is unknown.

Discovery of the wreck is largely thanks to a late-night conversation between Schimnowski and Sammy Kogvik, an Inuk and Canadian Ranger. Mr. Kogvik told Schimnowski that about seven years ago, he and a hunting partner had come across a large, mastlike wooden pole sticking out of the ice. Even though he had taken a picture with the mast, he lost his camera, and, not wanting people to doubt his story, chose to keep quiet about his discovery.

"We listened to Sammy's story on the bridge of the Bergmann and changed course to take a look," Schimnoski told the Associated Press.

The Bergmann crew found the ship to be in remarkably good condition, despite its wooden structure, thanks to the low temperatures that doomed the vessel to abandonment in the 19th century. In many parts of the ocean, sea worms and other creatures burrow into the wood of shipwrecks, quickly destroying the ship from the inside out before they can be discovered. Temperatures in the Arctic and Antarctic are too cold for these "termites of the sea." With rising temperatures in Earth's oceans, however, these sea worms may be advancing northward, according to the Smithsonian.

That's not the only thing that has changed along Franklin's original route.

In Franklin's day, the Northwest passage was cold and unforgiving towards explorers from Europe trying to find an ocean shortcut to Asia that would allow for the cheap transport of cargo and people to the continent. The first crossing of the passage entirely by sea was an expedition led by Roald Amundsen, from 1903 to 1906, though the first deep-draft ship to make the trip with a significant amount of cargo did not make the crossing until decades later. Today, however, climate change has allowed increasingly large cruise liners to make the trip through the passage as the ice that defeated the Terror and Erebus begins to melt, as the Monitor reported in August.

The Terror's discovery also raises questions about ownership of the wreck, since the Erebus and the Terror both launched from England and ended up in North America. There is increased debate about the ownership status of historically significant shipwrecks discovered in recent years, which will only be exacerbated by the Terror's discovery, Craciun says.

While historians and marine archeologists expect to find a many answers to questions about the Franklin Expedition on the Terror, the mystique of the failed mission is far from over, she adds.

"A mystery like this doesn't just exist out there as a real thing we seek, it's something that we create year after year, by writing novels, by writing new books and theories and conspiracies," Craciun says. "I don't think [the discovery of the Terror] will kill the mystery of the Franklin Expedition, because there's too much invested in endowing that expedition with so much significance."

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