Big news in the nautical archaeology world — last week a team from Parks Canada discovered one of the ships of the famous Franklin Expedition of 1845-48. The expedition, that originally set out to find the fabled Northwest Passage across the top of the North American continent, vanished without a trace and became one of the enduring mysteries of maritime history.
The grisly and mysterious tale of two British ships that disappeared in the Arctic in 1845 has baffled generations and sparked one of history’s longest rescue searches. But now, more than 160 years later, Canadian divers have finally found the remains of one of the doomed Navy vessels. Legend has it that sailors on board the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, who were chosen by the explorer Sir John Franklin, resorted to cannibalism after the ships became ice-bound in the Victoria Strait in the Arctic territory of Nunavut. Search parties hunted for the crew until 1859, but no sign of either ship was discovered until now. However, tantalising clues have emerged over the years, including the bodies of three crewmen, discovered in the 1980s. The Franklin expedition’s mission to the fabled Northwest Passage had frustrated explorers for centuries and the sea crossing was only successfully made 58 years later, far further north. The original search expeditions in the 19th century helped open up parts of the Canadian Arctic for discovery. Canadian divers and archaeologists rekindled efforts to find the ships in 2008 as the government looked to assert its sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. Announcing the find, Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper said: “This is truly a historic moment for Canada. This has been a great Canadian story and mystery and the subject of scientists, historians, writers and singers, so I think we really have an important day in mapping the history of our country.” “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty,” he said. An image of the discovery shows the wooden vessel has remained largely intact, though the main mast has been sheared off. The ship was resting upright on the sea bed only 11 meters below the surface. Searchers used remotely operated underwater technology to find the ship on Sunday, although it remains unclear which of the two vessels it is. The discovery comes shortly after divers found an iron fitting from one of the boats. The myths surrounding the Franklin expedition have helped make the vessels among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology.
Good stuff. Nothing happens in a vacuum, of course, and the reality is that Parks Canada, the arm of the Canadian federal government that does historical archaeology work (similar to NPS or NOAA here in the U.S.), has gone through multiple rounds of deep budget cuts:
Over 80% of archaeologists and conservators at Parks Canada have lost their jobs, reducing the number of archaeologists and conservators at Parks Canada to twelve and eight respectively. The remaining twenty people are responsible for millions of artifacts and the archaeology at 218 national parks, historic sites and marine conservation areas, many of which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. As one Parks Canada Conservator noted, “At this moment there are more people employed in a single Tim Horton’s than are employed by Parks Canada nationally to preserve and care for millions of archaeological and historic objects in storage and on display.”
Many of Parks Canada’s remaining resources re-directed toward finding evidence of the Franklin Expedition — a worthy goal, for sure, but debatable given the severely-limited resources needed elsewhere. Harper’s reference to “Canada’s Arctic sovereignty” is very intentional, because his government is pushing hard for territorial claims in the Arctic for drilling. The discovery of one of Franklin’s ships, one that is older than the creation of Canada itself, provides a nice historical exclamation point for the prime minister’s scramble for Arctic oil and gas.
Still, it’s an amazing find, and kudos to the Parks Canada team that pulled it off.
Update: Here’s a Slate story from May that provides background on Harper’s specific interest in finding remains of the Franklin Expedition.