I recently watched The Terror, a miniseries produced by Ridley Scott, which follows the fate of the John Franklin Expedition. While some aspects of the series are fantastical, the true events themselves are quite mysterious.

In 1840s Britain, trade with Asia was an important source of goods and income, but in order to reach the ports of India and China, ships would have to embark on an arduous journey, sailing around the bottom of Africa and up through the Indian Ocean. One proposed alternative to this was to send ships up into the Arctic Circle, where they could travel east through the Canadian Archipelago and arrive in Asia in much less time.

For decades the British had been mapping the Northern Canadian coastline, gradually improving their knowledge of the area with the ultimate goal of eventually finding the passage. By 1845, the British possessed a reasonably good understanding of the Canadian Archipelago, and John Barrow, the second secretary of the British Admiralty, who had been a driving force in finding the passage, was now 82 years old.

Wishing to have the passage discovered within his lifetime, Barrow commissioned an expedition to do just that. The Admiralty’s first choice to lead this expedition was Willam Edward Parry, who had led previous expeditions to attempt to find the Northwest passage. He declined, as he did not wish to re-enter the dangerous environment of the Arctic again.

Their second choice was James Clark Ross. Ross was a veteran of the polar regions, having accompanied both William Parry and his uncle John Ross on arctic expeditions, and leading one of his own to Antarctica from 1839 to 1841. Ross also refused the offer, as he had promised his wife he would not return to the Arctic.

The second and third choices of the Admiralty were Francis Crozier and James Fitzjames, both of whom accepted but were passed up for the position, Crozier because he was Irish and Fitzjames because he was young and lacked Arctic experience.

It was the fifth choice of the admiralty that would ultimately lead the expedition. Sir John Franklin was both an Arctic veteran and a member of the British upper class, fitting the criteria for expedition leader. Crozier became second in command, leading the ship Terror, and Fitzjames became third in command, sailing along with Franklin on the Erebus. The Terror had originally been used in the war of 1812 as a battleship, hence its menacing name. Erebus (a region of the Greek Underworld) was launched in 1826, and both had later been used by James Ross in his Antarctic expedition.

The ships were fitted with recycled train engines in addition to sails, to propel them if they lacked wind. However, because these engines were not designed specifically for maritime purposes, they proved more of a hindrance than a help as their weight made the ships slower.

The expedition set sail from Kent County, England, on May 19, 1845, and made its final stop before entering the wilderness of the Arctic in Disko Bay, Greenland, where five men were sent back with support ships because of illness. The last time the ships were seen by westerners was in July 1845, when whaling ships passed by the Erebus and Terror in Baffin Bay.

More on the Franklin Expedition next week.


On Thursday, Jan. 26, at 5 p.m., a potluck benefit dinner and campfire will be held at Liberty Community Hall, 3 Serenity Lane, for the family of the late Richard H. “Dickie” Emery Jr., beloved custodian at Walker School.

Residents should register their dogs by Jan. 31. Those who do not will incur a $25 late fee.