Reign of Queen Victoria - M. B. Synge

Sir John Franklin and the North-West Passage

Among the many famous names that shine out in this history of the Victorian age, none is more inspiring than that of the old Arctic explorer, Sir John Franklin, who perished in the attempt to find the North-west Passage.

Arctic exploration had been at a standstill since the days when Henry Hudson had perished in the Far North. But early in the century the old fascination asserted itself, and Britain resolved to fit out an expedition to discover a channel which was supposed to connect the Atlantic and the Pacific Oceans in the north-west of America.

Sir John Franklin


There was no lack of stout-hearted sailor-men ready to volunteer for the command, but the man chosen was Sir John Franklin, who had already greatly distinguished himself in Arctic exploration. He was an enthusiastic sailor; and when his chief the First Lord of the Admiralty suggested that was rather old for such an undertaking at the advanced age of sixty, Franklin exclaimed eagerly, "My lord, you have been misinformed; I am only fifty-nine."

This decided the matter, and there was no time lost in starting. Two ships, the Erebus  and Terror, but lately returned from the Arctic regions, were selected for the purpose, with a crew of 134 souls—23 officers and 111 men—provisioned for three years. All were in the highest possible spirits, full of zeal and enthusiasm, and resolved to end for ever the vexed question of a North-west Passage.

Franklin's ships


And so they passed from the shores of England into everlasting silence. A few brief but happy letters reached home during the next two months, and then there were no further tidings. Two years passed. Still there was no news from any member of the Franklin expedition. Anxiety deepened, and fears for their fate were whispered about.

In June 1848 Sir J. Ross, an old Arctic explorer, sailed from England in search of the missing ships. He actually sailed to within 300 miles of the Erebus and Terror, which had been deserted just four months before. But he neither saw nor heard anything of them or their crew, and he returned sadly with no news of the missing expedition. Rewards were offered both by the Government and Lady Franklin, until by the autumn of 1850 no less than fifteen ships were engaged in searching for Franklin and his crew, though all hopes of finding them alive had long since been given up. Three sailors' graves were found on Beechey Island in the Far North, and then silence fell till 1854.

Sir John Ross


Though nine years had now passed since the joyous start of Franklin and his crew, the interest was still intense, and a new expedition was fitted out under Captain McClintock, who brought home a good deal of information of the missing ships and crew. Piecing together the various odds and ends of news gleaned by those who had gone in search, we get the following harrowing story.

On June 1 the Erebus  and Terror  had reached the Orkney Islands. Boisterous winds carried them due west across the North Atlantic Ocean, till three weeks later they sighted Greenland, and rounded Cape Farewell for the north. Here they met their first ice, and were considerably delayed by icebergs, The ships pursued their solitary way through Baffin's Bay, Lancaster Sound, to Beechey Island, at which point the winter ice must have finally blocked them in. There they settled down to face the hardships of an Arctic winter, until the faint rays of the returning sun should appear on the distant hills, and small parties could venture forth in search of game and fresh food. If they were disappointed at the failure of the expedition to reach a more advanced point before seeking winter quarters, they realized that they had explored some 300 miles of new coastline, and that only about 230 miles lay between them and their great discovery. Leaving three graves on Beechey Island, and a record of their doings, they made their way onwards through the narrow channels now known as Peel Strait and Franklin Straits towards King William's Land.

But suddenly the ships were caught by a rigid bar of pack ice, and frozen into a solid mass. Here they were doomed to spend a second winter. It was an unexpected blow, but the long winter passed away, and hope returned with daylight. Yet so thick was the ice, that even the summer sun could not melt it.

It was May 1817, just two years since they had left England, when a small party set out to explore the coast of King William's Island. They reached Cape Victory, and went far enough to see in the distance the Pacific coast, which told them that their sufferings had not been in vain.

They deposited a record of their doings, which announced that Franklin was still commanding the expedition, and that all was well, and hurried back to the ships. But they found all was no longer well. The commander was no longer with them. On June 11 he passed away on the scene of his discoveries, still beset by the ice which he had fought so gallantly and so hopefully. Whether he lived to hear the news of his success we shall never know. He died in the faithful fulfilment of his duty, as many an Englishman had done before.

The ships now began very slowly to drift southwards, and soon they were beset by impenetrable barriers of ice. They had had no choice. A third winter must be spent on the ships.

It is terrible to think of the sufferings of the crews during this last winter. Starvation and disease did their work; officers and men died one by one, and the long dark winter, with its pitiless snows and hitter howling winds, brought no hope to the ice-bound men.

[Illustration] from Reign of Queen Victoria by M. B. Synge


We know there were still 105 survivors in April 1848, with provisions till the following July, for this was the date when they finally abandoned the two ships to make their way to Point Victory. There they left their last record, stating that they were starting for the Fish River.

They made their way with sledges along the coast line of King William's Island, where skeleton after skeleton told its dreary tale of suffering.

Forty white men had been seen by the Esquimaux about this time dragging sledges and a boat across the snow; they were very thin, and "they fell down and died as they walked along". Certain it is none of them reached the Great Fish River, for which they were making, for not a man of all that crew survived. Relics were discovered and brought back to England from time to time. Cooking-stoves were found, watches, blankets; there was a well-marked Bible, and a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.

To-day, amid the ice and snow and desolation of Beechey Island, are these words, engraved on a tablet:


and all their gallant officers and faithful companions who have suffered and perished in the cause of science and the service of their country


is erected near the spot where they passed their first Arctic winter and whence they issued forth to conquer difficulties or


to commemorate the grief of their admiring countrymen and friends and the anguish, subdued by faith, of her who has lost in the heroic leader of the expedition the most devoted and affectionate of husbands.

"And so He bringeth them unto the Haven where they would be."