Over 150 years ago, Sir John Franklin set out to search for the Northwest Passageway. He led a team of 149 crewmen to facilitate the expedition, which soon saw its tragic demise off the coast of King William Island, in Canada. The ship and its crew vanished, leading to several rescue investigations in the future.
In September 2014, Jonathan Moore, an underwater archaeologist working alongside Parks Canada, brought closure to the search for HMS Erebus. Moore visited UTM last Tuesday afternoon to discuss his discovery of the lost ship.
According to Moore, in 1845, Franklin set out with two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, from England to discover the Northwest Passage—a route connecting the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans.
For those who have forgotten high school history, Franklin’s expedition is one of the greatest losses of British-Canadian history. Despite several search efforts, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were nowhere to be located in the glacial areas of the arctic.
With help from Inuit records, researchers have been trying to solve the mystery behind the sinking of HMS Erebus. According to the local Inuit community, a ship—believed to be HMS Erebus—was discovered by an Inuit fisherman. When the Inuit returned to the site, the ship had been abandoned by its inhabitants. The Inuit began salvaging the ship but did not have a chance to complete their work, as the ship had drifted away.
In the fall of 2014, after the receding of glacial formations, an aerial photograph spotted remains at a spot close to where HMS Erebus was last seen by the Inuit community. Upon comparing the remains to features present on floorplan drawings of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the search team, including Moore, believed that they were looking at the remains of one of the two ships. They then proceeded to carry out a further underground investigation of the area.
HMS Erebus was originally designed to serve as a bomb vessel.
“It was the space shuttle of the day […] carrying three years’ worth of provisions,” Moore commented, explaining that the ship carried the latest technology of its time.
Sonar imagery then revealed that a wreck was present south of where the remains were discovered. As the image became clearer, Moore and his colleagues were elated and the two were able to positively identify the pile of metal engulfed in vegetation as belonging to the lost HMS Erebus.
The team dove 14 times—a total of 12 hours beneath the water—to discover that the boat was completely intact with weapons, tables, plates, and bed frames, with an extra addition of heavy reef growth.
Moore recalls that his “eyes pretty much popped out of [his] head underwater” as he retrieved a bell on the exterior of the ship dated to 1845. This was the moment that set his doubts to rest.
Moore believes that well-preserved features such as letters will provide insight into the nature of the abandonment of the ship. A letter written in 1859 on King William Island indicated that the ship and crew were travelling until 1846, when the ship was captured by ice. Franklin died a year later and the crew abandoned the ship in 1848.
It’s clear that there are still gaps in this tale: how did the ship drift southwards before sinking? What caused the ship to sink? Was anyone on the ship at the time of sinking? Did Inuit people rework the tools and weapons found on the ship?
Moore and his team are looking forward to answering these questions, increasing public awareness of HMS Erebus, and organizing the search for HMS Terror, which began its journey with HMS Erebus.