October 3, 2018 – These are priceless artifacts recovered from one of the Royal Navy’s most famous – and ill-fated – expeditions.
One hundred and 70 years after they were last above the waves, everyday items from the wreck of HMS Erebus were brought to the surface during the first of many annual expeditions to the wreck.
Erebus and HMS Terror were lost during an attempt to find the fabled Northwest Passage – a route between the Atlantic and Pacific through the waters of northern Canada and the Arctic which saved ships sailing around perilous Cape Horn at the foot of the Americas.
The two vessels and their 130 crew, led by Rear Admiral Sir John Franklin, were last seen in 1845.
Both ships became trapped in ice off King William Island – about 3,000 kilometers from Toronto – and were abandoned by their crew, who spent two desolate winters there before striking south in the hope of reaching civilization. They never made it.
After more than a century and a half of searching, the wreck of Erebus was finally found in 2014 and Terror two years later.
This summer, historians, maritime archeologists and dignitaries returned to the site of the Erebus for a concerted study of the wreck by Parks Canada.
Items recovered include a pitcher and the roof of an artificial horizon from an officer’s cabin, numerous objects used in the rigging and some ‘fearnought’ – the protective layer between wooden decking.
Britain’s naval advisor to the High Commissioner in Ottawa Commander Neil Marriott became the first Briton to visit the wrecks – and the forbidding environment where their expedition came to a tragic end.
“Being the first Brit on the site of the Franklin wrecks and the first Royal Navy representative to hold items last touched by an HMS Erebus sailor over 170 years ago was something else – an indescribable emotion,” he said.
“I felt a really strong sensation of the teamwork and camaraderie the sailors must have had to allow them to survive for so long; without it they surely would have perished much sooner.”
The remains of Erebus and Terror were donated by the British to the Canadian government and the indigenous Inuit populace – they passed down accounts of the crew’s fate through generations and played a key role in helping 21st Century explorers.
This summer’s brief stint over the wrecks saw divers go down into the icy waters to assess the state of Erebus’ remains; the installation of two moorings for a support barge to conduct further exploration in years to come; and an updated side-scan sonar survey of the wreck.
The artifacts will now undergo conservation and study in a Canadian government laboratory before a decision is taken on their future.
It’s hoped the recovery of more items – thousands litter the remote seabed – and diaries or documents in particular will finally unravel the mystery of what happened to the ships and their crews.