Pressing On or Turning Back, The Franklin Expedition (Part 1 of 2)

Whether to proceed in the face of adversity has confronted explorers since antiquity and was a real concern for 19th century Arctic explorers. The inability for explorers to predict adverse weather and/or ice conditions can lead to injurious and/or fatal outcomes. By their nature, these Arctic explorers pressed on where others would have never ventured. This blog briefly discusses two Arctic explorations and how their decisions to press forward or turn back lead to death or to saving the crew.

Part 1, the death and depravity of the legendary Franklin Expedition, has been documented by subsequent 19th century Arctic search and rescue expeditions and modern-day scientific investigators. In 1845, Sir John Franklin, an experienced British Navy, Arctic explorer, led the search for the Northwest Passage. The expedition, consisting of 129 crew members camped at Beechey Island for seven months, where they buried three crew members who died of tuberculosis. Once ice opened, they sailed south for King William Island where their ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, were caught in accumulating pack ice that poured in from McClintlock Channel.

FranklinexpeditionnoteCaught in ice, Franklin and his naval crew decided to press on for two winters from 1846 to 1848. From this point, the expedition was doomed as there was no turning back, at least by ship. When the heavy ice did not break up in 1848, the officers and crew realized they should have turned back years ago. On May 28th 1847, a note left by the crew indicated that they were “all well.” Franklin died on June 11th scarcely two weeks after the previous notation. When would it have been prudent to turn back? After the burial of three crew members on Beechey Island? As they approached the paralyzing ice north of King William Island?

After being trapped in ice for twenty months, the crew elected to turn back on foot, man-hauling one-ton sledge-rigged lifeboats across rough ice. This and other contributing factors lead to a catastrophic sequence of events that exacerbated crew illnesses, led to cannibalism, and the protracted deaths of the remaining ~100 crew members. The decision for Franklin and his crew to press on ended in disaster. If Franklin had avoided the ice south of Beechey Island or north of King William Island and turned back, this decision may have saved most of the crew and the ships. Such a decision, however, would have been out of character for Sir John Franklin, his naval officers, and ranks of British sailors.

This blog was originally posted on the New Bedford Whaling Museum “Arctic Visions” blog.

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