The Franklin Mystery

As Canada stakes its claim to the “New North,” the expedition’s lost wreckage has gone from Victorian fixation to strategic linchpin

Searching for the lost John Franklin Arctic expedition has been a popular and profitable industry since the explorer vanished in 1845. Seeking the Northwest Passage on behalf of the British Admiralty, Franklin, his ships Erebus and Terror, and his crew of 129 vanished in the Arctic Archipelago. They left behind only scattered debris and evidence of survivor cannibalism. Considered a mystery, Franklin’s spectacular failure assured his popularity for over a century. Now Franklin’s cause also enjoys increased public funding, as Parks Canada prepares to lead another multi-agency search for his ships this summer, their third search in four years.

Canada’s current Franklin searches appear to follow closely the previous 164 years of seeking and relic hunting, but this apparent continuity distracts from what is genuinely new. Searching for Franklin is no longer oriented back toward Britain and the Commonwealth, but into the future of the “New North.” The new value in locating Franklin’s ships is strategic and touristic, and could play a role in Canada’s larger efforts to regulate Northwest Passage waterways.

The Franklin Mystery

Lead poisoning, tuberculosis, scurvy, botulism and a host of conspiracy theories have all been offered up as solutions to what Victorians called the “Franklin Mystery.” In the 20th century, the Franklin expedition was scrutinized more critically by Canadians and Europeans, who rightly pointed out that the long-sought cause of the Franklin disaster was in fact multiple and mundane—a combination of hubris, poor preparation and technological inadequacies, endemic in the Admiralty’s Eurocentric approach to exploration. In short, Franklin’s was a “cultural” failure on the part of the British, as the early 20th-century Canadian anthropologist and explorer Vilhjalmur Stefansson concluded.

While Franklin’s high profile in popular culture is no mystery, the presence of his absent ships in 21st-century Arctic geopolitics is a curiosity: his missing ships now appear on modern maps of the Northwest Passage. In 1992, following an intensive period of Franklin searches in the 1980s led by Parks Canada, the Historic Sites and Monuments Board of Canada designated Franklin’s absent Erebus and Terror a national historic site. Canada then signed a memorandum of understanding with Great Britain in 1997, giving Canada the right to manage, salvage and preserve the British ships, relics and human remains. In 2006, HSMBC reaffirmed its historic designation of the absent ErebusTerror site, aware of the singular difficulties in so doing.

The “Erebus and Terror National Historic Site” appears today on maps of Victoria Strait west of King William Island, the ships’ approximate whereabouts. This is the only Canadian national historic site that, try as they might, tourists cannot visit. No debris field, no ship fragments, no memorial, no relics—only an abstract shape on maps of the Northwest Passage, delimiting a 200-metre radius around a vanishing point. Where and how to put a plaque? And what to inscribe on it? How to control access to the site? Standard questions in the management of any heritage site, in Franklin’s case they begin to invite extraordinary possibilities.

Canada Discovers Franklin

This newest effort to commemorate the absent Franklin follows a tradition beginning in 1850. The earliest Franklin searchers began returning to Britain from the Arctic with detritus from the ill-fated expedition: tin cans, chronometers, compasses, scraps of clothing, bibles, buttons, a handful of dubious bones. Many of these distressed objects were exhibited to fee-paying spectators as “Franklin Relics,” objects of devotion in a culture that had turned elaborate displays of grief into an art.

It is not surprising that British Victorians prized Franklin’s relics and ships as monuments to their age of high empire. What is remarkable is how the state-funded Canadian searches for Franklin from 1967 onward have incorporated these goals seemingly wholesale.

While Canada’s taking up the British mantle of waiting for Franklin and his ships appears to be an exercise in imperial nostalgia, it is in fact oriented toward the New North. The New North, writes geographer Laurence Smith in his book by that name, describes the rapidly changing circumpolar north as it transforms water-rich and energy-rich Arctic countries like Canada into emerging global powerhouses. For the Harper government, this has meant focusing on hydrocarbon development and a militarized approach to Arctic sovereignty and security.

In the Franklin searches, this shift signalling a new circumpolar outlook was visible in 2010, when Parks Canada located HMS Investigator (a Franklin search ship lost in 1853) and subsequently “thousands upon thousands—or hundreds of thousands—of artifacts,” to great fanfare. There is great potential commercial value in disaster relics, as recent interest in the auction of Titanic relics suggests. And as Canada’s decision this March allowing the repatriation of Amundsen’s Maud from Cambridge Bay to a new purpose-built museum in Norway shows, polar exploration heritage is potentially very lucrative. But the new value in locating Franklin’s ships is largely strategic. When, as minister for the environment, Jim Prentice declared the discovery of the Investigator to be “fundamental to Canadian sovereignty” in the Arctic, he indicated a major shift of priorities.

Project Franklin

To understand the new stakes involved in the search for Franklin, we need to look back at the government’s previous large-scale search, Project Franklin. This was the military’s centennial project in 1967, and it used the occasion to test military operations in the Arctic, an earlier version of Operation Nanook. Unusually, Project Franklin was a military exercise initiated and designed by a private citizen, an Ontario insurance broker and Franklin enthusiast named William MacKenzie. Among MacKenzie’s chief inspirations was a popular 1961 book, Island of the Lost. Written by Paul Fenimore Cooper (grandson of novelist James), Island of the Lost excised the revelations of British cannibalism that had been prominent in Victorian accounts and introduced a new generation of Canadians to a sanitized version of Franklin, hero of the True North.

It was this recently constructed and uncontroversial Franklin that would be overturned in the 1980s. Archaeological searches once again began to unearth evidence of the Franklin party’s “last resort” of cannibalism. The best-known 1980s searches, led by forensic anthropologist Owen Beattie, resulted in the publication of Frozen in Time: The Fate of the Franklin Expedition, the popular account by Beattie and John Geiger. This book made Canadians aware of what had been common knowledge for Victorians—that any celebration of the Franklin expedition had to come to grips with the uncomfortable reality of their ultimate “cultural” failure, cannibalism.

The current searches for Franklin operate in a different climate. The value of locating Franklin’s ships is higher than ever before, but so is the public awareness of the disastrous outcome and flawed goals of the expedition. The Franklin search has unexamined connections to pressing issues in Arctic sovereignty, heritage and energy exploration, which will play a role in any commemorative effort.

Erebus and Terror in the Northwest Passage

When Erebus or Terror is located, Canada could apply for a designation as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and could use this to bolster its attempt to regulate maritime traffic through the Northwest Passage waterways.

Specifically, Erebus and Terror may play a symbolic role in affirming the status of the Northwest Passage as a historic internal waterway. Under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, Canada maintains that the passage is a historic internal waterway, while the United States and other countries argue that it is an international strait, allowing foreign ships right of transit passage.

A leading legal authority on Arctic waters, Donat Pharand argues that Canada’s sovereign claim to the waters of the Arctic Archipelago (not to the islands themselves, the sovereignty of which is not in question) only began to be articulated in 1973. Moreover, this sovereignty was never based on historic claims (that is, claims made by British explorers such as Franklin) to actual waterways, and is instead best defended by the enforcement of straight baselines only established in 1986, after the crossing of the U.S. icebreaker Polar Sea. This school of thought has long argued for pragmatic, use-it-or-lose-it approaches to enforcing these contentious Arctic baselines, measures that have begun to be implemented by the Harper government1.

Franklin’s was the most famous 19th-century Arctic expedition, not because of its disastrous end, but because the dozens of ships searching for him mapped vast new areas of the Arctic Archipelago, and did so in highly publicized ways. As Pierre Berton concluded in The Arctic Grail: The Quest for the North West Passage and the North Pole, 1818–1909, “all this bumbling about in the ice streams seeking the lost Franklin party made it possible for Canada to claim the Arctic as its own.” Franklin is thus seen as the linchpin in Anglo-European Canada’s inheritance of the passage as historic internal waters, acquired from Britain when the latter ceded the archipelago to Canada in 1880.

More valuable than as a physical monument to historic waters, an ErebusTerror historic site could play a practical role as a World Heritage Site. For years Canada has considered proposing the Northwest Passage as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, based on its unique ecological significance. Locating an underwater archaeological site of such international cultural significance as Erebus and Terror could elevate the currently absent national site to a World Heritage Site. This in turn could help make a case for inscribing the entire Northwest Passage as Canada’s first World Heritage “mixed site” (combining cultural and natural value). This would grant Canada greater international and moral authority in regulating access through the passage.

In addition, Canada recently proposed designating the entrance to the passage, Lancaster Sound, a National Marine Conservation Area, a further measure designed to help regulate maritime traffic. As a focal point of such overlapping environmental, legal and cultural efforts, establishing an ErebusTerror World Heritage Site within the passage could help bolster Canada’s historic title to internal waters.

Erebus and Terror on the Energy Frontier

The potential value of the Erebus and Terror in strengthening Canadian control of the Northwest Passage is inseparable from two other factors not typically discussed in connection with Franklin’s Canadian legacy: energy exploration and aboriginal heritage. As a World Heritage Site, Erebus and Terror could play a role in helping limit offshore energy exploration, in the immediate environmentally and culturally significant zone. As such, the site may be particularly valuable in allowing Nunavut residents more say in energy exploration licensing, currently booming on land in the Kitikmeot region of Nunavut, which includes the Erebus-Terror area, but more controversial offshore (where exploration licences exist but no drilling has begun).

Marine World Heritage Sites require states’ conservation and environmental commitments, including no hydrocarbon extraction or exploration within the sites. This policy is increasingly difficult to enforce, however, when states might value energy extraction above the economic and environmental benefits conferred by World Heritage Site inscription. That is currently the case in the Belize Barrier Reef and Australia’s Ningaloo Reef, where recently oil companies have been licensed to drill close to the boundaries of these World Heritage Sites. As a result, such sites have been threatened with delisting by UNESCO, as has already happened in similar cases where oil drilling was licensed.

Norway faced a similar dilemma in 2011, when it weighed the benefits of nominating the Lofoten Islands as a World Heritage Site versus opening them up to oil drilling. As a World Heritage Site, the islands are predicted by some to attract as many as 50 percent more visitors. The complexities of Norwegian coalition politics postponed the question of drilling in Lofoten until 2013. Given the strength of big oil in Norway, the tourism value of this marine site is increasingly overshadowed by its hydrocarbon value.

As a World Heritage Site, Franklin’s Erebus and Terror could then conceivably be used by diverse constituencies. But using the site to resist drilling would be an ironic outcome, because the current Franklin search, like those of the 20th and 19th centuries, is connected to and partly financed by energy interests.

Precious minerals and energy were always top of the list of potential economic resources that Europeans like Franklin were directed to assess. In fact, Franklin’s first Arctic land expedition in 1819 produced one of the earliest geological assessments of the Alberta tar sands. Returning with Anglo-European knowledge (or ignorance) of the resources of these distant lands, explorers like Franklin made possible our 21st-century understanding of the Arctic as an energy frontier.

Regulating the Energy Frontier

There are further complications. A private Franklin search, backed by ProCom Marine and organized parallel to Park Canada’s search, proposed a side-beam sonar search near King William Island in 2009. ProCom’s “Finding Franklin” was denied a search permit by the Nunavut Impact Review Board as a Franklin search, because ProCom lacked archaeological expertise. But the search was reluctantly approved the following year when it was revised as “Polar North Project” to map the seabed in search of oil and gas.

Clearly the pastime of amateur Franklin relic hunting is officially at an end. Both the stakes of recovering Franklin’s ships and relics and the potential damage caused by amateur investigations are now at an all-time high. ProCom had intended searching for Franklin in the same region as Parks Canada planned to search in 2010, as had a second private search also turned down for a permit in 2011. Franklin enthusiasts complained that the government was protecting its own search and going against 164 years of tradition in private Franklin relic hunting. It probably was, and with good reason.

Since the 1980s, searching for Franklin has become the domain of big science, and with big science big oil is not far behind. In fact, the 1992 designation of Erebus and Terror as a National Historic Site was partly the result of the Canadian authorities’ unhappiness with the outcome of its previous collaborative search for Franklin’s search supply ship, the HMS Breadalbane, located in Lancaster Sound in 1981. The Breadalbane investigation became controversial following the unauthorized removal of the ship’s wheel from the wreck. Concerned about another imminent private search for Franklin’s ships in 1992, Parks Canada moved to declare the missing wrecks a national historic site to protect them.

The Breadalbane search combined academic and private sponsors, including two diving companies working with the petroleum industry. According to the New Scientist, “a spokesman for Canada’s Dome Petroleum said the information gathered by the expedition will have ‘industrial applications.’ Translation: oil pipelines.” Dome was active in seeking Arctic pipeline possibilities in the early 1980s, part of a two-decade–long boom in oil and gas exploration in the High Arctic initiated by the 1955 Canadian Geological Survey expedition “Operation Franklin.” Without Dome Petroleum’s help, the Breadalbane search would never had had access to a $250 million WASP diving system that made possible the discovery. The Breadalbane precedent showed a close partnership of Franklin heritage with oil and gas exploration interests, something we should expect to see with Erebus and Terror.

Franklin and Inuit heritage

We can expect that an Erebus-Terror historic site will reflect the new ethnically inclusive national narrative guiding the Historic Sites and Monuments Board. It also could be neatly folded into the Northern Strategy, by highlighting Inuit collaboration with Anglo-European searches, and the evolving significance of Franklin for Nunavummiut. Inuit oral accounts of encounters with Franklin’s men were critically important from the 1850s onward, although these were also the source of the earliest information about the expedition’s cannibalism.

Canadian searches saw renewed interest in Inuit accounts from the 1980s on, drawing on the research of David Woodman and more recently Dorothy Eber, whose books brought to a wide readership 170 years of Inuit knowledge of Franklin’s possible whereabouts, and of the interactions of British and Inuit along the passage.

These reassessments coincided with a major change taking place in Canadian heritage culture. It was in the 1990s, writes historian David Neufeld, that official commemoration of Canada’s national narrative began to incorporate aboriginal perspectives on their own terms, without placing them in the service of European explorers or subordinating indigenous histories to the teleology of nation building2.

Certainly we would expect that an Erebus-Terror site will make an effort to present its multiple histories as co-present, as the cooperation of Nunavut’s Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth is now required in archaeological investigations in that territory. This is already the case for the Franklin search ship HMS Investigator, located in the 2010 Franklin search and described hyperbolically by a Parks Canada archaeologist as the “the most important shipwreck in history,” because Investigator served as a contact zone between Copper Inuit and Europeans.

But this overdue acknowledgement of Inuit knowledge, and of Franklin’s impact on Inuit communities, is at odds with Franklin’s very presence in the Arctic, which had been driven by a reckless Anglocentrism. There is a danger that the current drive toward inclusiveness, while a welcome change from Victorian Anglocentrism, can function as a new form of appropriation. A case in point are the Harper government’s comprehensive efforts to strengthen Arctic sovereignty by placing great symbolic value on Inuit presence. In a 2006 speech in Iqaluit, Harper affirmed that “this is Nunavut—‘Our Land’—just as Yukon and the Northwest Territories and the entire Arctic Archipelago are ‘Our Land’.” Appropriating the literal meaning of Nunavut (our land), he subsumed in a stroke the Inuit claims of belonging in Nunavut within an inclusive but aggressively nationalist rhetoric of sovereignty.

Inuit occupancy of the Northwest Passage is a signal strength of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty. The Nunavut Land Claims Agreement of 1993 states that “Canada’s sovereignty over the waters of the arctic archipelago is supported by Inuit use and occupancy.” But according to Michael Byers in Who Owns the Arctic? Understanding Sovereignty Disputes in the North, “the plight of the Inuit undermines the credibility of Canada’s Northwest Passage claim, since it is not as if other countries are unaware of the hypocrisy of holding forward Inuit use and occupancy as a central component of our legal position while allowing the same people to suffer so badly.” Increasing Inuit control over and royalties from Nunavut’s natural resources would remedy this contradiction and benefit both Inuit and national interests, argues Byers. If Erebus and Terror similarly are to serve an inclusive Northern Strategy, it too must do more than comply with the requirement to consult with Inuit communities, and take shape with substantial Inuit input and more significant benefits to local people.

Victorian Britain celebrated the Franklin expedition, sought and exhibited its detritus, as part of a national narrative of Britain’s destined stewardship of the Northwest Passage. If Erebus and Terror are to be commemorated as a true contact zone, a point of convergence between Inuit and British histories, they should exceed Ottawa’s immediate policy needs, to avoid replicating this earlier colonial vision of the Northwest Passage.

How a site devoted to a failed British expedition, whose architects sought to demonstrate the superiority of British science over Inuit knowledge, will accommodate the complex entanglement of Inuit communities, on the one hand, and national interests on questions of Canadian Arctic sovereignty, on the other, will be the most interesting aspect of any Franklin discovery. In our era, museums and heritage sites are no longer “about something,” but are designed “for somebody,” to serve and engage with specific communities3. At the very least we will need a conversation about who is included in the Franklin expedition’s “community,” and with what geographic, temporal and cultural scales we should draw the contours of this community.

Conclusion: Waiting for Franklin

The closer we come to finding Franklin’s ships, the more singular the enterprise becomes. Aware of the uncomfortable emptiness of the two-decade–old Erebus-Terror National Historic Site, Canada is no longer merely searching for the missing ships: “We are continuing our search for an as yet undiscovered national historic site,” announced environment minister Peter Kent in June 2011. The difference between a lost ship and an undiscovered national historic site is significant. A lost ship is a material object, although it may be dispersed into so many pieces as to be undetectable; its fragmentary contents are meaningless without the multiple frameworks for making sense of them that have emerged over 170 years. Canada’s “undiscovered national historic site” is one such proposed interpretative tool, a governmental entity created 20 years ago. In re-conceiving its search as one fulfilling this self-created mandate, Canada seems to have subordinated the historic shipwrecks, in all their messy complexity, to a 21st-century vision that they should help legitimate the unfolding of Canada’s destined Arctic sovereignty.

Erebus and Terror will reveal much about Canada’s approaches to Arctic sovereignty, its commitments to Inuit communities and the converging interests in its Arctic energy frontier. But what will finding the ships reveal about the Franklin disaster? The Victorian Franklin searchers first encountering the debris, entangled with exposed and mutilated remains on King William Island, were shocked by the disorder and destruction. Their letters were filled with grief and disbelief as the mass media debated the mounting evidence of cannibalism. Their struggle to accommodate both these terrible truths and a need to remember these men as heroes remains moving and instructive.

Tragic heroes, bumbling fools, imperial villains, hungry Qallunaat (white people, in Inuktitut)—different generations have imagined and remembered the Franklin expedition through distinct vantage points. Within these multiple histories it is important to maintain the visibility of the destruction and terror and their nadir in cannibalism, which were central to the experience of Franklin’s men. Terror and destruction are the elements most at risk of being elided because they lack an immediate institutional purpose, and in fact undermine the often devotional value that the present places on the past.

When we complete such legendary voyages as Franklin’s, inscribe them on our modern maps and transform them into accessible tourism sites, we allow them an imagined closure. In Franklin’s case, we should also admit that a successful search represents a commitment to the completion of a disaster, not of a voyage of discovery, or of the unfolding of destined national borders.

Franklin’s is a dangerous legacy, and its waste and destruction should be part of Canada’s “as yet undiscovered national historic site.” By making this disaster useful, redeemable, knowable, heroic and accessible to visitors, we undo the most enlightening aspect of the Franklin disaster, which remains its tragic uselessness.

  1. These measures include extending environmental regulation (2009), expanding search and rescue capability (2011), commissioning new ice-strengthened ships (2008), expanding the Canadian Rangers (2007), commissioning the Canadian High Arctic Research Station and two new military sites (2007) and requiring foreign ships passing through the Northwest Passage to register with NORDREG (2010).  

  2. See David Neufeld’s “Parks Canada, the Commemoration of Canada and Northern Aboriginal Oral History,” published in Oral Histories and Public Memories, edited by Paula Hamilton and Linda Shopes (Temple University Press, 2008).  

  3. See Stephen Weil’s “From Being about Something to Being for Somebody: The Ongoing Transformation of the American Museum,” Daedalus 128.3 (1999): 229–58.