Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition – National Maritime Museum

National Maritime MuseumIn 1845, a Royal Navy expedition commanded by Sir John Franklin to discover and chart the North West Passage set off on its journey. None of the 129 men on the expedition were ever seen alive again. Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story Of Franklin’s Final Expedition has been developed by the Canadian Museum of History (Gatineau, Canada), in partnership with Parks Canada Agency and with the National Maritime Museum, and in collaboration with the Government of Nunavut and the Inuit Heritage Trust.

The fate of Franklin’s expedition has been a mystery for over a century: despite numerous searches, many instigated by Franklin’s wife Jane, few traces were ever found. A handful of artefacts and some human remains have been discovered, but it is only in the last couple of years that the wrecks of the flagship, Erebus, and its companion vessel, Terror, have been discovered. The ultimate reason why the expedition ended in tragedy has never been established. Approaching the National Maritime Museum, you are confronted by a sea of flags; each one represents a man lost on the expedition.

The exhibition starts with an exploration of the Arctic environment and how Inuit peoples live and thrive in such harsh conditions. Centring the Inuit experience is important for two reasons – firstly because their way of life could have – but didn’t – inspire the various British expeditions that tried to survive in the Arctic in the nineteenth century, and secondly because Inuit testimony was frequently ignored when searchers were trying to find out what had happened to the crews of Erebus and Terror.

The exhibition continues with a look at life on board ship, the role of the different crew members, and brief biographies of key figures on the expedition. It explores the route the expedition took, past Beechey Island and round to King William Island, before the trail grew cold. The expedition spent several winters on the ice, in the dark and cold, with little food other than what they had brought with them from England.

Later the focus turns to the many search parties sent out by Lady Franklin and others, before the ships were finally given up for lost. I must say that to someone like me who knows this topic quite well, much of the exhibition up until now was already known to me, and I didn’t really learn anything new. The exciting part comes towards the end, when I got to view several artefacts, recently recovered from the wrecks, including the bell from Erebus, cast at the Whitechapel Foundry specially for the voyage. It’s still possible to read the date stamp on the side. Videos allow you to watch the divers at work underwater, exploring the wreckage of the ships.

No one really knows exactly why the crew all perished, but various theories are put forward: scurvy, lead poisoning, starvation, disease and more. Two crew members who died fairly early on in the journey have been exhumed, and the evidence in their case points to tuberculosis, but this probably did not infect the others on board. Evidence of cannibalism has been found, but it’s impossible to say for certain whether starving crew members killed and ate their fellows out of desperation, or only ate the flesh of those who had already died.

The exhibition is a fantastic introduction to the Franklin expedition for those who don’t know a great deal about it, and for those already fascinated by the topic it allows you to see some incredible artefacts. What will stick in my memory is the single shoe, preserved in the ice, from an unknown crew member – a poignant reminder of the expedition’s human cost.

Death in the Ice runs until 7 January at the National Maritime Museum

Flags marking the dead

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