The Northwest Passage is a sea route through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways amidst the Canadian Arctic Archipelago, connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Sought by explorers for centuries as a possible trade route, it was first navigated by Roald Amundsen in 1903–1906. Before that it attracted an almost mythical significance as the link between Asia and the Americas and numerous attempts were made to map it. Perhaps the most famous (or rather infamous) of these was the ‘Lost Expedition’ of Sir John Franklin. This was a doomed British voyage of Arctic exploration which departed in 1845. Much-heralded at the time as the British Empire’s grand effort to explore one of the last frontiers of mankind, it ended in death, despair and darkness. Despite the expedition’s failure, the Victorian media nevertheless portrayed Franklin as a hero. It was only many years later that the horrific truth of what happened to Franklin and his men gradually began to emerge.
The purpose of the Franklin Expedition was to map out the fabled Northwest Passage, which had all sorts of romantic and symbolic associations. This desire arose from Victorian attempts to complete geographical knowledge of remote regions, to fulfill the historical goals of Elizabethan navigators and explorers such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake, as well as to Literature, in terms of its link to such stories involving polar settings and issues of survival as Mary Shelley’s Romantic novel Frankenstein (1818) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s literary ballad The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. In 1845 a lavishly equipped two-ship expedition led by Sir John Franklin sailed to the Canadian Arctic to chart the last unknown swaths of the Northwest Passage. Confidence was high, given there was less than 500 km (310 mi) of unexplored Arctic mainland coast by then. When the ships failed to return, relief expeditions and search parties explored the Canadian Arctic, which resulted in a thorough charting of the region along with a possible passage. In 1850, near the mouth of the Great Fish River, Inuit hunters discovered the bodies of 30 men and a number of graves. Since some of the bodies were mutilated, the natives believed that the white men had resorted to cannibalism.
Many artifacts from the expedition were found over the next century and a half, all of which started to give a better picture of what had happened to Franklin’s lost expedition. These included notes that the ships were ice-locked in 1846 near King William Island, about half way through the passage, unable to break free. It emerged that Franklin died in 1847 and Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier took over command. In 1848 the expedition abandoned ships and tried to escape south across the tundra by sledge. Although some of the crew may not have died until the early 1850s, no evidence has ever been found of any survivors. In 1853 John Rae received information from local Inuit about the fate of Franklin’s expedition, but his reports of mutilation and cannibalism were not welcomed. Starvation, exposure and scurvy were all preferred as explanations for the deaths. In 1981 Owen Beattie, an anthropologist from the University of Alberta, examined remains from sites associated with the expedition. This led to further investigations and the examination of tissue and bone from the frozen bodies of three seamen, John Torrington, William Braine and John Hartnell, exhumed from the permafrost of Beechey Island. Laboratory tests revealed high concentrations of lead in all three (the expedition carried 8,000 tins of food sealed with a lead-based solder). Another researcher has suggested botulism caused deaths among crew members. New evidence, confirming reports first made by John Rae in 1854 based on Inuit accounts, has shown that cannibalism was almost certainly a last resort for at least some of the crew.
For years after the loss of the Franklin Party, the Victorian media portrayed Franklin as a hero who led his men in the quest for the Northwest Passage. A statue of Franklin in his home town bears the inscription ‘Sir John Franklin – Discoverer of the North West Passage’, and statues of Franklin outside the Athenaeum in London and in Tasmania bear similar inscriptions. Although the expedition’s fate, including the possibility of cannibalism, was widely reported and debated, Franklin’s standing with the Victorian public was undiminished. The expedition has since been the subject of many artistic works, including songs, verse, short stories and novels, as well as plays such as The Frozen Deep, written by Wilkie Collins in the 1850s with assistance and production by Charles Dickens. The influence of the Franklin expedition on Canadian literature has been especially significant, indeed it is often spoken of as a sort of national myth of Canada. Among the best-known contemporary Franklin ballads is Northwest Passage by the late Ontario folksinger Stan Rogers (1981), which has been referred to as the unofficial Canadian national anthem. The most meaningful outcome of the Franklin expedition, however, was the mapping of several thousand miles of hitherto unsurveyed coastline by expeditions searching for Franklin’s lost ships and crew. At the same time, it largely quelled the Admiralty’s appetite for Arctic exploration. The navigation of the Northwest Passage in 1903–05 by Roald Amundsen with the Gjøa expedition effectively ended the centuries-long quest for the Northwest Passage, although the deeds of Franklin and his party live on in song, story and art to this day.