What if Franklin sailed today?

A modern take on a fascinating piece of Canada’s history.

The ship’s bell from HMS Erebus, one of two ships from John Franklin’s 1845 expedition in search of a Northwest Passage. The shipwrecks were discovered recently in the Canadian Arctic after years of searching. Image via Parks Canada.

More than 170 years after the Franklin expedition sailed to its doom, the saga continues to intrigue and inspire. This summer, underwater archeologists conducted two Arctic dives to explore the wreckages of the Erebus and Terror in an ongoing quest to piece together what happened to the 129 officers and crew of John Franklin’s 1845 British Arctic expedition.

Britain announced this week it is transferring ownership of the two shipwrecks to Canada, and plans are in the works for what has been called “one of the largest and most complex archeological excavations ever to be mounted in Canada” next year. Meanwhile, a new museum display in London put many of the artifacts from the ill-fated expedition on view for the first time.

It’s a poignant piece of history. And there is more than one University of Alberta connection to the story. One of the most gripping discoveries came in 1984, when UAlberta anthropologist Owen Beattie and a crew, many of them UAlberta alumni and faculty, uncovered the graves of three well-preserved crew members on Beechey Island. The electrifying photo of John Torrington’s eyes staring from the grave created an international sensation.

Alumnus John Geiger collaborated with Beattie on the 1987 book Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, which has since been reissued in an updated edition. Geiger, now CEO of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society, remains fascinated with the saga.

As we reflect this year on prominent aspects of Canada’s history, the Franklin story continues to stand as one of the most compelling. In that light, we asked some UAlberta experts: What would be different if Franklin sailed today?

1: Ships

Franklin’s ships were equipped with state-of-the-art technology — for the time. The three-masted wooden Royal Navy warships were converted bomb vessels, modified with steam engines and screw propellers for power and speed and reinforced with iron plating to help push through the ice. The HMS Erebus was the larger of the two vessels at 32 metres long — half as long as an NHL hockey rink — and 8.7 metres wide.

Today’s icebreakers are made from steel and powered by diesel engines. The Canadian Coast Guard’s “light icebreaker” Sir Wilfrid Laurier, which had been involved in searches for the Franklin ships, is twice the width of the Erebus and almost three times the length. Included among the on-board safety features are emergency generators, helicopter landing pads and vehicle bays capable of carrying trucks, all-terrain vehicles and snowmobiles.

A sonar image of one of the shipwrecks. Image via Parks Canada.

2: Climate

Thanks to ships’ logs and explorers’ stories, we know that the sea ice in Franklin’s time was thick, plentiful and difficult to navigate. After their first winter camped near Beechey Island, in present-day Nunavut, the crew spent the winter of 1847 locked in ice along Victoria Strait. “There was a decade or so of extremely cold conditions around the time Franklin sailed,” says Paul Myers, a professor in UAlberta’s Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences. Despite all the iron-plated reinforcements, Franklin’s ships couldn’t find ice thin enough to break through, or gaps in the ice big enough to sail through, since the short summer never warmed enough to melt and crack the ice. Eventually, 105 surviving crew members set out across the ice in a desperate, but doomed, search for help.

Nowadays, climate change means the sea ice is thinner, less plentiful and there are more open areas, says Myers. In the 1970s, the average thickness of Arctic sea ice was 2.5 to three metres. The current average is about 1.5 metres — a drop of close to half over 40 years.

Perhaps today’s sea ice would have been more forgiving of an iron-plated hull.

3: Provisions

Franklin believed he was well prepared for the three-year expedition. The ships had a desalinator to provide fresh drinking water. Food stores included enough flour to fill a semi-trailer, plus salt beef and pork, tins of preserved meat, soup and vegetables, chocolate, lemon juice (to prevent scurvy), liquor, “wine for the sick” and 1,069 kilograms of tea. But when the ships were caught in the ice and Franklin’s men set out to find a Hudson Bay Company trading post and possible salvation, much of the food had to be left behind. Beattie found knife marks on human bones and other signs to indicate the starving sailors resorted to cannibalism in a vain attempt to survive, and other researchers have since found further evidence.

These days, anyone can get a supply of small, light, nutritional food pouches with a shelf life of up to 30 years at the nearest outdoor outfitters store. Plus, our modern nutritional knowledge means we aren’t plagued with 18th-century scourges such as lead poisoning and scurvy.

Ceramic plates discovered during the April 2015 dives. Image via Parks Canada.

4: Health

Though there was a surgeon among Franklin’s crew, there’s little that could have been done medically to save the crew from their fate, which included starvation. “The physically and emotionally horrific conditions and circumstances made their survival unlikely,” says Geiger.

But it has long been known that tuberculosis — a contagious disease that is now eminently treatable with modern antibiotics — was fatally making its way through the ranks.

Further, a study released in August by University of Michigan researchers suggests the disease may have developed into a complication known as Addison’s disease — an adrenal deficiency — that was also causing deaths among the crew.

5: Indigenous Peoples

Franklin’s expedition gave little regard to Indigenous peoples who’d been living on this “undiscovered” land for centuries.

Today, explorers and researchers are more likely to recognize the value in partnering and consulting with local communities. In fact, traditional Inuit knowledge and oral histories passed down through generations were integral to the discovery of the Erebus and Terror. “You’re going onto someone’s land, their home,” says Elaine Alexie, a northern community engagement officer in UAlberta’s Faculty of Native Studies.

There are countless stories of interaction between Inuit people and the starving, often delirious men who had left the ships. Food and shelter were offered and attempts to communicate occurred. Could the outcome have been different if the Europeans were better informed about the North’s Indigenous people and customs?

6: Communications

“The biggest difference today would be that they would be rescued almost immediately,” says Geiger.

Franklin’s mission was expected to last for three years, so no one in England realized the crew was in trouble or missing until 1848. “What a crushing emotional burden that all the people you love, you would never see them again and never communicate with them in any way,” says Geiger. Eventually, more than 30 Arctic expeditions joined in the search for the ships between 1848 and 1854. (Speaking of communications, Sir John Ross took along four carrier pigeons on his 1850 search for Franklin and promised to send them if he found the explorer, a newspaper reported at the time.)

Modern-day vessels are equipped with satellite communications, radar, sonar, a GPS system and more to keep sailors connected to life on land. In 2010, a Canadian cruise ship ran aground in the Arctic. Two days later, the Canadian Coast Guard’s icebreaker Amundsen rescued everyone on the ship.

So why, more than 150 years later, are we still enthralled by the story of the Franklin expedition?

“One of the great fascinations with that era of polar explorations is how different that world is from the one we live in,” says Geiger. “It’s hard to imagine when we’re driving around guided by our GPS, with the best medical treatment in the world, how relatively recently this happened.”


Franklin’s Packing List

  • 61,000 kg of flour
  • 29,000 kg of salt beef and pork
  • 16,700 kg of liquor
  • 8,000 tins of preserved meat, soup and vegetables
  • 4,200 kg of chocolate
  • 4,200 kg of lemon juice (to prevent scurvy)
  • 900 litres of “wine for the sick”
  • 1,069 kg of tea
  • 3,200 kg of tobacco

Source: Parks Canada


For almost as long as there’s been a Canada, there’s been a University of Alberta. Over the next year, in honour of Canada’s 150th anniversary, we’re proudly celebrating the people, achievements and ideas that contributed to the making of a confederation.

Originally published at ualberta.ca on October 28, 2017.

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