The discovery of one of Franklin’s lost ships has big implications for Canada’s efforts to establish its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage.
By Ken McGoogan
What does it mean? Why does it matter? Couldn’t that search money have been better spent in some other fashion? These are some of the questions turning up as a result of the discovery of one of the long-lost Franklin ships.
Those two vessels, the Erebus and the Terror, disappeared into the Arctic in 1845, under the captaincy of Sir John Franklin, never to be seen again. The search for
Franklin and his missing ships, most intensive in the 1850s, opened up the complex archipelago that is the Canadian Arctic.
In a surprising announcement on Tuesday, Prime Minister Stephen Harper declared that one of the ships has been found south of King William Island. The discovery prompted international headlines and has sent many experts reeling.
There are three main reasons why the news has had such a big impact. First, this discovery vindicates Inuit oral history. Second, it advances Canada’s claim, challenged by many countries, including the United States, for control of the Northwest Passage. Third, and most surprisingly, it suggests an amendment to, if not a whole new interpretation of, the fate of the Franklin expedition.
The Inuit testimony can be found in Dorothy Harley Eber’s book Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers. The author writes of contemporary Inuit who relayed traditional stories of a ship that sank off one of several Royal Geographical Society Islands — indeed, off Hat Island, which appears to be where the vessel was found. An Inuk woman told Eber that some of her relatives found pieces of a ship’s wreckage buried in the sand of that island.
The issue of ownership of the Northwest Passage has become increasingly important as a result of climate change. The imminent opening of the Passage to large ships, especially oil tankers, raises the question: who makes and enforces laws regarding environmental protection? The U.S. and other countries claim the Northwest Passage is an international strait.
This discovery enhances Canada’s contrary assertion, at least symbolically. We have demonstrated that we have enough control over these waters that we can locate a ship missing for almost 170 years. UNESCO is expected to declare the ship a World Heritage Site, which will strengthen Canada’s legal case for enforcing protection.
Finally, the location of the discovery — to the southwest of King William Island — suggests a possible amendment to the “standard version” of what happened to the Franklin expedition. According to the only written record ever found, Franklin died aboard ship, and then his men abandoned their vessel and fled south. Searchers and historians have long been troubled by the fact that a lifeboat discovered on the west coast of King William Island in 1859 was facing north.
This discovery suggests one possible explanation. The two ships got separated. If some men were aboard this newly found vessel when it started to go down, they might have abandoned it and dragged a lifeboat north to join their comrades, not realizing that the other ship had already been abandoned.
The discovered ship is located in relatively shallow waters. That means it is accessible to further exploration. Because the boilers on the Erebus and Terror were different in design, searchers will be able to identify which ship they have found. It is doubtful that any records will have survived. But the artifacts may tell a story. Already, as a symbol of Canada’s supremacy in the Northwest Passage, this discovery is proving invaluable.
Ken McGoogan, whose books include Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge, has contracted with Patrick Crean Editions/ Harper Collins Canada to write another book about polar exploration.
Read another article by Ken McGoogan from a past issue of Canada's History, formerly known as the Beaver, called Tragic Passage.