There is something about a good historical mystery, especially when dogged determination eventually provides some resolution. It’s comforting to know that even if we don’t have answers now, we may find them at some point in the future.
A couple of weeks ago I watched a show on PBS NOVA called “Arctic Ghost Ship”. This is the story of an expedition which set out in 1845 to map the Northwest Passage and claim it for the British Empire. Sir John Franklin, a 59 year-old English explorer with experience in the Arctic, left with two Royal Navy ships specially modified to handle the icy water, food rations for three years, and 128 men. And disappeared.
The disappearance of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror and their crews is one of the great mysteries of exploration history. Historians have been trying for years to discover how far they traveled, why they failed and their ultimate fate.
In 1847, two years after the expedition began, Lady Jane Franklin became concerned when she had received no word from her husband. Between 1850 and 1875, the year of her death, Lady Franklin sponsored seven expeditions to find survivors or answers. Rescue missions from Britain and America were sent to find either the explorers or any records of their journey. The first clue, the graves of three sailors, was found in 1850. Those well-preserved bodies were exhumed in 1984 and were found to have high levels of lead, although that was not necessarily the cause of death.
In 1859 a single handwritten note was found in a stone cairn. The note was written on a standard Royal Navy template that was left in tubes to protect it from the conditions, and then left in a cairn. The template had been completed, and then a year later notes were added around the edges. The handwritten portion, written in 1847, stated that Franklin had died, along with nine officers and 15 sailors. During that summer the ice didn’t melt and they were stuck for another winter.
In 2014, using data gathered about the last known position of the ships, the Canadian government and assorted specialists narrowed the search area down to only hundreds of square miles of freezing water. They used an unmanned submersible to take images of the sea floor. I can’t even imagine how they must have felt to finally see the images of the ship that had been lost for almost 170 years.
Not everything is solved, of course. If nothing else, it will take years to explore and catalog the ship, the HMS Erebus, which was found with its hull intact under 36 feet of water. Really, really, really cold water.
What I find most interesting about this story is the combination of methods used to fill in some of the blanks of this historical mystery. Modern technology may have made it possible to actually find the ship beneath the water, but other vital components were the oral history tradition of the Inuit and good, old-fashioned historical research to piece together the clues found through the years.
We make heroes of our explorers, even those who “failed”. It’s easy to forget how much of the planet was (and is still) unexplored, and the amount of courage it must have taken to sail off into the unknown.
So what historical mystery would you like to solve? Or what shipwreck would you like to find?