Through icy rain and mist, I could just make out the headstones of the graves on the bleak shores of Beechey Island. Grey rocks, grey mountains, grey mist; it was a lonely resting place, without even the comfort of vegetation.
Lying here are the remains of four men who died in the mid-19th Century. They weren’t famous in life, but their deaths sparked 165 years of searching for answers: whatever happened to the 129 men of the Franklin expedition?
Beechey Island sits off the southwest corner of Devon Island in the Canadian territory of Nunavut. The Inuit hamlet of Resolute Bay, with a population of about 200, is 90km away by boat; Toronto is 3,500km to the south. There’s not a lot in between.
Cruise ships going this far into the high Arctic have reinforced hulls in case they encounter ice. Our ship, an icebreaker called The Ocean Endeavour, was anchored just offshore of Beechey Island; a beacon of warmth and safety. About 150 of us had disembarked that morning and I watched the others scatter along the beach, some inspecting the graves and others the clusters of tiny Arctic poppies. My boots crunched over pebbles as I climbed up the slope towards the headstones. The discovery of these graves was the first clue of the expedition’s fate, and made Beechey Island one of the Arctic’s most famous sites.
Sir John Franklin, born in Lincolnshire, England, in 1786, served in the Royal Navy during the Napoleonic Wars, but turned his sights to the Arctic after Napoleon’s defeat. At 59, Franklin was older than the average commander and his record was marred by an earlier Arctic expedition in 1819 when 10 men died and others resorted to eating caribou droppings, their leather shoes and even each other.
But this voyage, the whole of England seemed to feel, would be different.
The goal was to complete, for the first time, the entirety of the Northwest Passage in the hope of finding an easier trade route to Asia across the North American continent. They were to sail to Baffin Bay between Greenland and Canada, head east through Lancaster Sound and then through to the Bering Strait off Alaska’s west coast.
Newspapers predicted they’d make it through the passage with ease and reported on their ample supply of tea, rum and 8,000 tins of preserved meat, vegetables and soup.
The team left London on 19 May 1845 with 24 officers and 110 men aboard two ships, HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror. After a brief stop in Scotland, they sailed to Disko Bay on Greenland’s west coast where the crew wrote what would be their final, optimistic letters home. But five men had already fallen ill and were sent home on supply ships. They couldn’t have known how lucky they were.
On 12 July, the remaining 129 men sailed for Canada, and two weeks later encountered two whaling ships in Baffin Bay, who later reported that both crews were in good spirits. Franklin and his men continued westwards. And then vanished.
Despite knowing how the story ended, I could imagine the excitement and fear that anyone embarking on such a voyage must have felt. The landscape here is both intimidating and intoxicating; perhaps that’s what drives explorers to risk so much.
Two years passed and an empty silence echoed from Canada’s north. Concern grew, and three relief parties were organised. They left in the spring of 1848 and returned the following year without finding a trace of the missing sailors.
In 1850, a fleet of search ships spotted a cairn on the shores of Beechey Island. Finally, they had a lead. The crew had spent the winter of 1845 on this island, leaving behind a stack of hundreds of tin cans that had once been filled with preserved meat. They also left three crew members –the first casualties of the expedition.
The headstones indicated that the first to perish was John Torrington, only 20 years old, on New Year’s Day 1846, with John Hartnell, age 25, just three days later. William Braine lived until 3 April. A fourth grave, added later, belongs to Thomas Morgan, an official investigator who died of scurvy in 1854 searching for the lost crew.
But Franklin’s men died mere months into their expedition – so what killed them so early in the voyage?
Between 1984 and 1986, a team of researchers lead by Owen Beattie, a now-retired anthropology professor at Canada’s University of Alberta, exhumed the three bodies, which were remarkably well preserved from being buried deep in the permafrost. They found evidence of high levels of lead in the men, which may have leached from the tinned food or from the ship’s system for fresh water.
In 2016, a team led by toxicologist Jennie Christensen re-analysed finger- and toe-nail samples from Hartnell and discovered a zinc deficiency, likely from not eating enough meat. This would have compromised his immune system and exacerbated other conditions like pneumonia or tuberculosis. The team concluded that lead, alongside malnutrition and overall poor health, contributed to their deaths.
Franklin and his entire crew were officially declared dead in 1854. That year, a surveyor, John Rae, encountered Inuit near Kugaaruk, Nunavut, 650km south of Beechey Island, who reported having seen 35 to 40 men struggling in the snow and had succumbed to the cold and starvation. Cut marks on the bodies made it clear that they’d resorted to cannibalism. On a scrawled note that was finally discovered in 1859 in a cairn on King William Island, 670km southwest of Beechey Island, searchers learned that Franklin himself had died there in 1847.
For the next 165 years, people continued to look for the remains of the men and the ships. The wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were only discovered in 2014 and 2016 respectively.
I scanned the beach with my binoculars and spotted a few tiny figures off in the distance, the official lookouts from the cruise ship watching out for polar bears that sometimes wander along this lonely spit. In the other direction, a stream of people in colourful rain jackets were making their way to the ruins of a supply depot known as Northumberland House just more than a kilometre down the beach. But I opted to stay behind to spend a few minutes with the dead.
Whispers of the fear and desperation these sailors must have felt drifted along the shores with the wind and rain. These three men were the first to die, so at least they were spared the extended suffering of their colleagues. I kneeled to snap some photos of the replica headstones – the originals now reside in the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife, Northwest Territories. Eventually I followed the rest of the group, careful not to step into any frost boils, the Arctic’s version of quicksand.
Northumberland House was built in 1854 by the crew of one of the search ships. With no trees available, they salvaged wood from a wrecked whaling vessel. It had been seven years since the last sighting of Franklin’s crew by the whaling ships back in Baffin Bay, but the building was optimistically stocked in case any of the lost men found their way back, as well as to help supply other search ships.
But 165 winters have taken their toll. The roof has long since disintegrated and the remaining upright walls cling to various states of decay. The coal barrels and cans of food with which it was once stocked are now rusted and scattered across the beach, and a number of monuments to Franklin and other explorers have been erected beside the depot’s remains.
The Zodiacs ferried us back to the ship and the promise of hot chocolate below deck. With the visitors gone, the beach settled back to its profound isolation. Standing at the stern in the cold drizzle as the ship chugged away, I left the island behind, but the men on the beach were there to stay, their gravestones disappearing into the mist.
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