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10Jan/120

Franklin’s lost expedition

Expeditions sound like great fun, which they are as long as the entire crew doesn't die of lead poisoning, scurvy and cannibalism.

Sir John Franklin sporting a pose that hasn't aged well

Franklin's lost expedition was a British voyage of Arctic exploration led by Captain Sir John Franklin that departed England in 1845. A Royal Navy officer and experienced explorer, Franklin had served on three previous Arctic expeditions, the latter two as commanding officer. His fourth and last, undertaken when he was 59, was meant to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. After a few early fatalities, the two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. The entire expedition complement, including Franklin and 128 men, was lost.

Pressed by Franklin's wife and others, the Admiralty launched a search for the missing expedition in 1848. Prompted in part by Franklin's fame and the Admiralty's offer of a finder's reward, many subsequent expeditions joined the hunt, which at one point in 1850 involved eleven British and two American ships. Several of these ships converged off the east coast of Beechey Island, where the first relics of the expedition were found, including the graves of three crewmen. In 1854, explorer John Rae, while surveying near the Canadian Arctic coast southeast of King William Island, acquired relics of and stories about the Franklin party from the Inuit. A search led by Francis Leopold McClintock in 1859 discovered a note left on King William Island with details about the expedition's fate. Searches continued through much of the 19th century.

In 1981, a team of scientists led by Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, began a series of scientific studies of the graves, bodies, and other physical evidence left by Franklin crew members on Beechey Island and King William Island. They concluded that the crew members whose graves had been found on Beechey Island most likely died of pneumonia and perhaps tuberculosis and that lead poisoning may have worsened their health, owing to badly soldered cans held in the ships' food stores. However, it was later suggested that the source of this lead may not have been tinned food, but the distilled water systems fitted to the expedition’s ships. Cut marks on human bones found on King William Island were seen as signs of cannibalism. The combined evidence of all studies suggested that hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning and disease including scurvy, along with general exposure to a hostile environment whilst lacking adequate clothing and nutrition, killed everyone on the expedition in the years following its last sighting by Europeans in 1845.

The Victorian media portrayed Franklin as a hero despite the expedition's failure and the reports of cannibalism. Songs were written about him, and statues of him in his home town, in London, and in Tasmania credit him with discovery of the Northwest Passage. Franklin's lost expedition has been the subject of many artistic works, including songs, verse, short stories, and novels, as well as television documentaries. [...read more]