“Ah, for just one time, I would take the Northwest Passage
To find the hand of Franklin reaching for the Beaufort Sea
Tracing one warm line in a land so wild and savage
And make a northwest passage to the sea.”
The above lines are taken from Stan Rogers’ famous song about the Franklin Expedition entitled “Northwest Passage”. The song is about the infamous Sir John Franklin expedition to the Canadian Arctic in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage through the Arctic to the Orient.
If you watch the CBC nightly news program you know that the Canadian Government recently announced a new project to continue the search for the ill-fated 1845-46 Franklin Expedition vessels – ‘HMS Erebus’ and ‘HMS Terror’.
What do we actually know about this famous chapter in Canadian history?
The Franklin Expedition set out from England on May 19, 1845, on a mission to fund the Northwest Passage through the Canadian Arctic. Franklin had two Royal Navy ships, mentioned above, a crew of 135, and provisions for what was expected to be a three-year journey.
In August 1845, two European whaling ships had a chance meeting with the expedition as they waited to cross Baffin Bay to Lancaster Sound. This would be their last contact with the outside world.
A message found in a cairn on King William Island in 1859 said that Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847 and by the following spring another 24 crewmembers had perished. The rest of the crew was to leave on foot in April 1848 for a destination they would never reach.
One question that begs to be asked is why? Why after all those years are people in many parts of the world still fascinated with the Franklin expedition that seemed doomed to failure from the start?
The adventure has all the ingredients of a really good story. It has powerful characters such as John Franklin, the leader of the journey; it has a love story twist to it as Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin took up the effort to find out what happened to her husband and his crew in later years.
The story has the classic theme of man against nature as Franklin and his men were venturing into one of the most inhospitable and unforgiving regions on the planet at that time. Even to this day only a relatively small handful of humans have been in this region of the Arctic and, even now, it’s not a place for the faint of heart.
We desperately want to find the ships and to actually see where the two vessels met their tragic end.
People love adventure stories especially where people defy the odds and put themselves at terrible risk and in danger of losing their lives. The vast majority of people on the planet live pretty ordinary lives, and we relish stories about people who dared to be different, who defied the odds, challenged nature at its worst extremes and lived, or in Franklin’s case, didn’t live to tell the tale.
And above all, we love good mystery stories. We want to find the two vessels and determine why or how the crew actually died from the venture
As of last week, archaeologists on the 2012 search expedition had discovered some human remains they believed were from a member of the doomed crew but they had not found the two vessels.
Another question that might be asked is- why is the Canadian Government involved in this expedition?
In their official communications, federal officials say it’s because they are committed to promoting an understanding and awareness of Northern history and in preserving the heritage that unites us as Canadians. They add that the expedition has historical and cultural significance for local Inuit who speak of the ships in their oral history.
The officials also point out that the technologies being used will add to the chart the Canadian Artic and the se floor in that region of Canada.
Regardless if the Franklin ships are found, there is a lot of progress being made in mapping the sea floor in that region.
The point is that with global warming and the melting of the Arctic/Polar ice caps, other nations such as Russia may lay claim to lands Canadians now consider theirs. There may be a wealth of natural resources in the Arctic that we will want to claim as our own. So, a key reason for the expedition too, is to explore and chart the Arctic seabed.
Another verse in Roger’s song reads:
And if should be I come again to loved ones left at home
Put the journals on the mantle; shake the frost out of my bones
Making memories of the passage, only memories after all,
And hardships there, the hardest to recall.
And maybe that line “And if should be I come again to loved ones left at home” is what still haunts us about the Franklin Expedition. We know that Franklin never did return to his family and maybe we’re just seeking closure to the mystery after all those years. It’s like a chapter in our history that’s not quite finished, one that we’d like to complete for ourselves and for future generations.
Editor’s Note: The lines in the two verses from “Northwest Passage” were written by Stan Rogers and can be found at Fogarty’s Cove Music.