After their ship became frozen in ice, 28 men and Ernest Shackleton (the expedition leader) sailed the lifeboat to elephant island, an island no one had ever stepped foot on. Knowing they wouldn’t be rescued, Shackleton took 5 men to sail 800 miles to a whaling station to get help. The remaining men stayed on the island having to create shelter, procure food etc, and hope that the others would be able to send rescue. After four failed attempts because of heavy ice, all the men were finally rescued. The men had spent 4 and a half months stranded on the island.
Most of these men went straight into the meat grinder of WWI. Some were dead over the next few years.
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.
(A gripping account of Douglas Mawson’s 1912-13 Antarctic expedition. Unimaginable hardship in the cause of science. Mawson’s hair fell out, skin peeled off. He survived only by bathing his eyes in cocaine and eating his dogs)
This story reminds me of the time when it was about 30 degrees (F) and I had to walk about three blocks to get some chips. I made it, but on the way back, I actually pulled out liner gloves and put them under my regular gloves, as I had packed them in my coat, along with other provisions. Slipping more than once on the way, I had to bend my knees to keep from falling in the snow that was a record 2 inches deep. Unexpectedly high winds made the last block nearly impassable on the sidewalk and I actually had to revert to walking along the street, which had not yet been cleared — and it wouldn’t be clear for a whole day due to the demands of this unheard of weather phenomenon of 2 inches of snow in early December. When I finally arrived, the I found that many of the chips had been broken from the rigors of the journey. So, I can identify.