Captain Francis Crozier – Commander of HMS “Terror”; ca. 1845
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in 1796 into a wealthy family in the Irish linen town of Banbridge, County Down. His father, George Crozier, was a prominent solicitor who acted for Ireland’s most powerful land-owning families, and he was named after Francis Rawdon, the Earl of Moira.
In 1810, three months before his 14th birthday, Crozier enlisted in the Royal Navy and was immediately thrown into the Napoleonic wars. On one of his earliest voyages, his ship became lost in the Pacific Ocean and unexpectedly arrived at tiny Pitcairn Island, where the crew met the sole surviving mutineer from the Bounty.
After the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the Admiralty turned to exploration in an attempt to find work for its ranks of idle officers and to expand the British Empire. Arctic discovery was a key ambition during this energetic burst of exploration, which produced men such as Franklin, Parry, the Rosses and Crozier.
Crozier’s first polar expedition came in 1821, when he volunteered to join Parry’s attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage, a feat that had eluded sailors for centuries. They returned after two years without success, but Crozier went north again a year later when Parry took the vessels Fury and Hecla on another vain bid to locate the passage. Disaster was only narrowly averted when Fury was wrecked in Prince Regent Inlet, and the entire party limped home on board Hecla.
In 1827, Crozier joined Parry and James Clark Ross in an arduous slog to reach the North Pole. The party, dragging heavily laden boats, trekked for more than 1,000 kilometres, but advanced only 275 kilometres north because the remorseless drift of the pack ice carried them steadily south. It was akin to walking the wrong way up a fast-moving escalator, and the men survived thanks largely to the depots earlier laid down by the diligent Crozier. But the ‘furthest north’ record of 82° 45’ stood for almost half a century.
On successive journeys, Crozier demonstrated his reliability and an aptitude for the painstaking business of magnetic and astronomic readings. In 1827, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in 1843. His prominent sponsors included the astronomer Sir John Herschel and Sir Francis Beaufort, creator of the Beaufort scale and one of the co-founders of the Royal Geographical Society.
Crozier’s most accomplished feat was the mammoth four-year journey to Antarctica in Erebus and Terror with James Clark Ross, which arguably ranks as the 19th century’s most outstanding voyage of maritime discovery. He captained Terror and never lost a man – a rare achievement at the time.
Setting out in 1839, the Erebus and Terror expedition was the last great journey made under sail, penetrating the pack ice of the Southern Ocean and discovering vast tracts of the Antarctic continent. It also bequeathed many of the now familiar geographical names to the Heroic Age of Exploration, including Mount Erebus, Ross Island and McMurdo Sound. The Great Ice Barrier, where Scott’s party perished in 1912, was so named because it presented a barrier to Erebus and Terror (it was re-named the Ross Ice Shelf in the 1950s). And Cape Crozier, the windswept headland on Ross Island that was later immortalised by Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book on Scott’s expedition, The Worst Journey in the World, is now renowned for its emperor penguin colony.
However, the Antarctic journey took a heavy toll on both Crozier and Ross. On their return, witnesses were shocked at the way their hands trembled – the tremors so pronounced that they could hardly hold a glass.
Sadly, Crozier was also suffering from a broken heart. On the voyage south, the ships had stopped at the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), where Crozier fell deeply in love with Sophy Cracroft, the flirty niece of the old explorer Sir John Franklin, who had been appointed the island’s governor. His repeated proposals of marriage were rejected because Cracroft refused to become a captain’s wife. ‘She liked the man, but not the sailor,’ her aunt once confided.
Heartbroken and depressed, Crozier elected to head north again in 1845 when the Admiralty launched a fresh attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in Erebus and Terror. Although Crozier was the most experienced polar captain still serving, the Admiralty gave command of the expedition to Franklin, an overweight 59-year-old who hadn’t taken a ship into the ice for 27 years. It was a snub that hurt Crozier, and he probably should have chosen that moment to retire from exploration. But in a vain attempt to appeal to Cracroft, Crozier volunteered to travel as Franklin’s deputy and assume command of Terror.
In his last letter home, a melancholic Crozier wrote: ‘In truth I am sadly lonely.’ More pertinently, he was worried that the expedition had sailed too late in the season and also questioned Franklin’s leadership, writing that ‘[Franklin] is very decided in his own views but has not good judgement’.
Erebus and Terror crossed Baffin Bay during the summer of 1845 and entered the treacherous Arctic waterways of Lancaster Sound with 129 officers and men aboard. They were never to return.
Disaster struck in 1847, when the ships became trapped in the ice in Victoria Strait. Shortly after, Franklin died and command of the expedition passed to Crozier. The ships were abandoned in 1848, and it was Crozier who inherited the hopeless task of leading about 100 starving survivors in a forlorn retreat across the ice. Men fell dead in their tracks; years later, examination of their bones revealed that some had resorted to cannibalism in the struggle to survive.
Crozier’s death march ripples with historical significance. At one point, the survivors reached the narrow Simpson Strait that runs between King William Island and mainland Canada. Unknown to Crozier, the strait was the last piece of the jigsaw that – at that point – made up the Northwest Passage. A little over 50 years later, the Norwegian Amundsen navigated the strait during the first navigation of the passage and graciously flew his ship’s colours in salute.
According to native accounts, a few desperate souls from the Franklin expedition clung to life for several years after the ships were abandoned, but none managed to find a route to safety. Crozier, the imperturbable and experienced commander, is thought to have been among the last to succumb.
The preserved body of Royal Navy stoker John Torrington who died in 1846 during Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition in the Canadian Arctic; ca. 1984
Petty Officer John Shaw Torrington (1825 — 1 January 1846) was an explorer and Royal Navy stoker. He was part of an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, but died early in the trip and was buried on Beechey Island.
Torrington was a part of Sir John Franklin’s final expedition to find the Northwest Passage, a sea route to Asia, via the northern edge of North America. They set off from Greenhithe, England in two ships, the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, on 19 May 1845. The trip was expected to last about three years, so the ships were packed with provisions which included more than 136,000 pounds of flour, 3,684 gallons of high-proof alcohol and 33,000 pounds of tinned meat, soup and vegetables. However, after late July no one heard from or saw the crew again.
Since Torrington was one of the earlier of Franklin’s crew members to perish during the arctic expedition, he was buried in a tomb beneath approximately five feet of permafrost by his fellow men.
As a result of the subzero arctic temperatures, Torrington was preserved remarkably well with identifiable features including bright, pale blue eyes and skin that was still intact despite bruising and yellowing. A fellow crew member who had died around the same time and was buried next to Torrington also showed minimal signs of decomposition.
A full, four-hour autopsy was performed on Torrington’s body in 1984 with the permission of living descendants. The procedure was performed out in the open arctic air; it consisted of dissecting and sampling each of the body’s organs,bone examination, and extraction of hair, and nail samples for analysis. The autopsy team then re-dressed and re-buried the body in its arctic tomb.
Torrington had developed a fatal case of pneumonia prior to the disappearance of Franklin’s expedition. Bone tissue samples taken from the body in 1984 also revealed that Torrington had lead poisoning; a common condition of arctic explorers of the time due to early canned foods as a primary food source. Additionally, inspection of the lungs also indicated that Torrington was likely a cigarette smoker, a plausible theory as he came from an industrial region of Britain. The lead poisoning and history of smoking would have worsened the symptoms and severity of pneumonia thereby leading to Torrington’s demise around 1846.
Torrington’s body was bound with strips of cotton to hold the limbs together during preparation for burial:
The tinned wrought iron plaque nailed to the lid of John Torrington’s coffin. The inscription reads: ‘John Torrington dies January 1st 1846 aged 20 years’:
The coffin containing John Torrington. The arrow points true north:
Captain John Franklin’s ill-fated 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage.
The loss of Franklin and his men was a huge mystery, how could so many men and two state of the art ships just disappear? Search parties scoured the arctic (and in the process charted most of the up til then unexplored regions of the arctic archipeligo, and McClure even technically made it through the passage in his “search” for Franklin) for more than a decade before any real traces of the expedition turned up. Many other expeditions suffered and lost men in the same era of arctic exploration, but none disappeared completely! To this day, there’s a lot we don’t know about how such a well equipped and large expedition could fail so completely and quickly.
Here’s what we’ve found and what we know at this point: The ships spent their first winter at Beechey Island, and all seemed well. The next summer, they travelled south, and were frozen in near King William Island that Fall. They wintered here, and the next summer the ice failed to melt, trapping them for a second winter on King William Island. This alone is not out of the ordinary for arctic expeditions, many ships were frozen in for several years without a great loss of life.
In the summer between the first and second winters at King William Island, in 1847, the crew leave a note in a cairn on King William Island saying “all is well”. After the second winter stuck in the ice, the note is dug up and in the margins someone writes that 24 men have died, including Franklin, and that the crew is abandoning their ships and marching south towards the mainland of North America. It’s important to point out this second note contained several errors, but we’ll get to that.
The crew’s march is a death march, the local eskimo later report seeing dozens of white men dying in their tracks. Some men may have made it all the way to the mainland, but none survive. By the early 1850s it’s likely that all or almost all of the expedition is dead.
McClintock in 1859 finds the note in the cairn on King William Island, a single skeleton, and finally a life boat with two skeletons in it. The contents of the lifeboat add to the mystery- “a large amount of abandoned equipment, including boots, silk handkerchiefs, scented soap, sponges, slippers, hair combs, and many books, among them a copy of The Vicar of Wakefield.” The lifeboat was being man-hauled, but was pointing north, not south. A decade later Hall finds more graves and campsites, all on the King William Island. This is pretty much the extent of the evidence known up until contemporary scientific expeditions.
So, the mysteries- Scurvy, starvation, and cold had killed men on previous and subsequent expeditions, but many expeditions had survived much longer than Franklin’s without anything so catastrophic. In all, the Franklin’s men had spent only three winters in the arctic before abandoning their ships. They were equipped for five.
The mysterious contents of the lifeboat and the inconsistencies in the note point to a deteriorating mental situation. Why would dying men man-haul heavy books and silverware? Why was the boat facing north, were the men trying to return to the abandoned ships?
So, what could the ships tell us?
When scientific autopsies were conducted on the bodies on King William’s Island, it was found that lead poisoning contributed to the deaths of those men. It’s believed the solder on the tins of food was the source, but there are other theories- perhaps the ship’s water system was the source. The men also were suffering from TB and Pneumonia.
Finding the ships could finally help resolve the issue, for instance if there are more bodies on or near the ships then we know some men may have turned around from their march and made it back. Plus finding more bodies would inevitably help our understanding of what killed the men. We could also get more insight into why the men were carrying such strange items in their lifeboat, by seeing the things they chose not to take. And obviously examining more of the food tins, as well as the ship’s water system, might better explain the presence of lead.
More than anything, we don’t know exactly what the ships might tell us, but there’s so little we know as it is, it’d be amazing to find any new bits of evidence.
[*History got a little breaking news this morning that one of the ships of the lost Franklin Expedition has been discovered in the Canadian arctic.]