At the end of the 15th century the colonial powers of Europe started to search for the Northwest Passage, a hypothetical sea route across North America that they hoped would be a profitable corridor between east and west to rival the mediaeval ‘silk road’ trade routes that connected the Mediterranean region with India and China. Many expeditions were mounted over the next two hundred years during which the majority of the Canadian arctic was explored and mapped, but the Northwest Passage remained elusive.
In 1845, with only some 500 km of the Canadian coastal region still uncharted, the British sent two ships under the overall command of Captain Sir John Franklin on a new expedition, confident that the Northwest Passage would be found. Together the two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, carried 129 men and three years worth of provisions. Both ships had reinforced bows and were equipped with engines that drove a single propellor, enabling them to steam at 4 knots. They also had a primitive form of steam-powered central heating for the comfort of the crew. Franklin and his senior crew members were experienced polar explorers. No-one could say that the men were ill-equipped or ill-prepared.
The ships left England in May 1845 and were seen anchored in Baffin Bay in late July waiting for good conditions to continue their journey westward. Two years later, when no word had been heard from the explorers, Franklin’s wife, members of parliament and the British press urged the Admiralty to send out a search party. In the Spring of 1848 they sent three: one going north overland along the Mackenzie river to the coast, one by sea travelling west from the Atlantic and another sailing east from the Pacific. None of the search teams found any sign of Franklin, his crew or his ships.
The failure of the rescue missions only served to increase public interest in the fate of Franklin and his men. Ballads, including one called Lady Franklin’s Lament, became popular and many further privately-funded searches were made. In 1850 the remnants of a winter camp from 1845/6 were found on Beechey Island along with the graves of three of Franklin’s crew. Four years later John Rae, while surveying for the Hudson’s Bay Company, heard about a group of 35 – 40 white men who starved to death near the mouth of the Back River. Rae was able to buy from the local Inuit people artefacts later identified as belonging to members of Franklin’s expedition. Franklin and his men were officially declared ‘deceased in service’ on 31st March 1854.
Lady Franklin personally commissioned a further expedition. The schooner Fox, bought by public subscription and commanded by Francis McClintock, set sail from Aberdeen in August 1857. In May 1859 a sledge party sent out from the Fox found a cairn containing a piece of paper bearing two messages from the Franklin mission. The first was dated 28th May 1847. It noted that Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror had been stuck in ice off Beechey Island in the winter of 1845/6 and icebound again the following winter off King William Island. That first note ended “Sir John Franklin commanding the Expedition. All well.“. The second note, written in the margins of the first had an altogether more chilling message. Dated 25th April 1848 it reported that the two ships had been stuck in the ice for a year and a half. Twenty four of the officers and crew had died, including Franklin himself on 11th June 1847, and the ships had been abandoned three days earlier. The survivors planned to set out on foot the following day heading south towards the Back River.
Pentangle’s version of Lady Franklin’s Lament is called simply Lord Franklin. At first it seems to tell of a sailor who dreams about the Franklin expedition and its hardships. The last verse, though, is told from the perspective of the grieving Lady Franklin.
And now my burden it gives me pain
For my long lost Franklin I’d cross the main
Ten thousand pounds I would freely give
To say on earth that my Franklin do live
Lord Franklin was recorded for Pentangle’s 1970 album Cruel Sister. To a casual listener it sounds like a solo performance by John Renbourn – just a folk guitarist singing a sad song. But, in the background, Bert Jansch’s concertina wheezes ruefully, bringing to mind the chill winds and icy wastes of the artic. And, after a couple of verses, Jacqui McShee’s voice rises in the distance like the keening of herring gulls. There’s no bass and there are no drums. The landscape has no pulse; only the wind moves in this desolate place.
A number of scientific excavations took place in the twentieth century. These concluded that Franklin’s men died of hypothermia, malnutrition, lead poisoning and disease. In 2014 a sonar sweep discovered the wreck of HMS Erebus and just a few days ago, on 12th September 2016, another sonar research team announced the discovery of HMS Terror. The story of Lord Franklin’s ill-fated expedition has, finally, come to an end.