Ghost ships of the Arctic: Starvation, murder, cannibalism... and how the discovery of two British wrecks may solve one of the great mysteries of the sea
As a ‘whodunit’, it remains one of the greatest of all time, a British seafaring mystery with such enduring fascination that even after 170 years of rumour, allegation and speculation, it still fires imaginations.
What really did happen to Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin and the 129 sailors on the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror who set off to explore the Arctic in 1845 but who never returned home from that frozen wasteland?e
Precisely how, where and why they died has only ever been guessed at.
In command of the doomed was the 59-year-old Sir John Franklin (pictured), a much admired seaman who had fought at Trafalgar and sailed the Arctic three times before
This image depicts the HMS and Erebus and HMS Terror trapped in the ice during the expedition, although nobody lived to really know what happened
Marc-Andre Bernier setting a marine biology sampling quadrant on the port side hull of the Erebus
Over the years it has variously become a legendary tale of men fighting against starvation, sickness and extreme elements to stay alive, or a baffling story of unexplained death, with murky under-currents of possible murder, suicide and cannibalism.
At last, though, there has been a breakthrough, as a new exhibition, Death In The Ice, at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, London reveals.
In 2014 and 2016, the wrecks of Erebus and Terror were discovered in the depths and marine archaeologists have been examining them ever since. The exhibition reveals the preliminary findings — and the startling results call for a complete rethink of the saga of Sir John Franklin’s epic last voyage.
The ships and their crews went missing on a Royal Navy expedition to find and chart the last 900-mile section of the fabled North-West Passage — a sea route over the top of the world linking the North Atlantic to the Pacific via the Arctic Circle.
They were sailing into the unknown, trying to weave their way from Baffin Bay to the Bering Strait, between thousands of islands, large and small, where ice-covered land and frozen sea constantly merge and icebergs block the way.
John Rae (pictured), a Scottish explorer, returned with stories he heard from the Inuit. They told of having seen a ghostly party of sick, hungry and desperate qalunaaq (‘white men’) who walked across the ice until they dropped dead
Experts have used pioneering reconstruction techniques on skulls (pictured), believed to be of crew members, that were found back in 1993)
To add to their troubles, they experienced winters so severe that even the Inuit, the native inhabitants of the Canadian Arctic, thought them exceptional.
In command was the 59-year-old Franklin, a much admired seaman who had fought at Trafalgar and sailed the Arctic three times before.
But he had recently been a failure as governor of the British colony in Tasmania and, desperate to restore his reputation, volunteered to lead the expedition. The Admiralty was concerned about his age but gave him the nod anyway.
Erebus and Terror were, like Franklin, veterans of the ice, having survived previous expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic.
Their hulls were reinforced with iron sheeting to cope with the frozen seas, and had steam-driven propellers for when they were becalmed or in danger of becoming ice-bound.
The officers and men on board were the Navy’s finest, each one a volunteer for a voyage expected to last up to three years.
In May 1845 the ships left the Thames, sailing north. By July they were in Greenland, and in August their tall masts were spotted by whalers between Greenland and Canada, heading for the start of the North-West Passage.
After which, they were never seen or heard from again. So began the mystery.
For two years, the Admiralty did nothing, expressing its ‘unlimited confidence in the skills and resources of Sir John’. But family and friends were growing anxious, particularly Franklin’s wife, Jane, who lobbied for action.
Ships were finally dispatched to search from both eastern and western ends of the Passage.
In all, more than 30 search teams would be launched over the next decade — some out of altruism, others inspired by an Admiralty reward equivalent to £1.5million today for a successful rescue. But no traces of the ships were found.
Then in 1850, three graves were discovered on an island near the start of the Passage, yielding the frozen and intact bodies of two sailors and a Royal Marine private. But of the rest of the crews, there was no sign.
Their fate was by now a Victorian obsession, prompting endless debate, books, magazine articles and folk songs. Spiritualists joined in, claiming to have seen visions of the lost souls.
The HMS Erebus was found off the Canadian coast in 2014 after decades of searching
This bronze bell was recovered by Canadian divers in September 2014 from the wreck of the HMS Erebus
Then, in 1853 — eight years after the Erebus and Terror had set sail — significant new light was thrown on the plight of the crew.
John Rae, a Scottish explorer, returned with stories he heard from the Inuit. They told of having seen a ghostly party of sick, hungry and desperate qalunaaq (‘white men’) who walked across the ice until they dropped dead.
The Inuit said they had found many corpses, and cooking pots with body parts inside.
The obvious conclusion was that starving men had resorted to what Rae described as ‘the last dread alternative’ — cannibalism.
Rae’s discoveries were a massive shock to the British public, and an outraged Charles Dickens denounced the suggestion that British heroes had stooped so low as to eat each other in extremis.
The arguments raged on, but from Rae’s evidence, the men’s fate seemed certain. The Admiralty declared the members of the expedition ‘assumed dead’ and paid out the men’s wages to their relatives.
A picture of during a previous voyage, when shipwrecked while on the Flinders voyage exploring the coast of Australia in 1804
An officer's leather boot, recovered from the wreck of HMS Erebus in 2015, on display at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich
But Jane Franklin was having none of it — neither the money, nor the idea that all hope had gone. She protested that there might still be survivors, sustained by fish or seal or polar bear meat.
Some 12 years after the expedition went missing, she financed her own search mission by Arctic explorer, Leopold McClintock.
On King William Island, McClintock came across Inuit who had in their possession silver spoons and forks and other items from the Franklin expedition. They told him of how ships had been stranded in the ice nearby and of bodies in the snow.
McClintock and his team found three skeletons and a 28ft lifeboat lashed to a sledge, with an array of boots, towels and tobacco inside.
Most revealing of all, they came across a hand-written message inside a cairn with instructions that anyone finding it should forward it to the Admiralty. It gave the position of Erebus and Terror, referred to the ships and their crews wintering on the ice in 1845-46 and declared that ‘all [is] well’.
But, dated April 28, 1848, more scrawled text had been added that told a much bleaker story.
It explained that by now the ships had been stranded in this same place for 20 months; that Franklin was dead (and had been for almost a year), as were 23 other crew members; and that the remaining 105 ‘souls’ were abandoning the ships. The message was signed by James Fitzjames, captain of the Erebus, and Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror who, with Franklin dead, had become the faltering expedition’s commander.
Some 12 years after the expedition went missing, Jane Franklin financed her own search mission by Arctic explorer, Leopold McClintock (pictured)
A marine achaeologist studies the Erebus' bell at the foot of the ocean
McClintock raced back to London with his findings, establishing the narrative that was now to be generally accepted as the truth about the sad fate of Franklin’s expedition.
The ships had stranded in the ice to the north-west of King William Island and after three winters had run out of provisions.
The men were heroes who tried to save themselves by slogging across the ice to the other side of the island but one by one dropped from exhaustion, hunger, frostbite and sickness. The cannibalism allegations were set aside.
Here instead was a legend of British grit to be proud of — summed up in an iconic Victorian painting that today hangs in the National Maritime Museum depicting Franklin and his men dying in the snow.
What remained missing, though, were the actual ships. McClintock had been told where Erebus and Terror were but, assuming that no one was left on board, he had seen no point in finding them.
And in the following century and a half, their location remained unknown, assumed lost for ever.
Then in 2014, following an extensive search authorised by the Canadian government, HMS Erebus was pinpointed and two years later, Terror was found.
Experts believe this man, whose face has been reconstructed using his skull, was Ice Master James Reid of HMS Erebus
Today, the wrecks rest on the sea bed, upright and amazingly intact, awaiting further investigation by divers and marine archaeologists. Substantial relics have already been brought to the surface — the ship’s bell of Erebus, a six-pounder cannon, the gilded hilt of an officer’s sword, even willow-pattern china plates from the galley.
But perhaps most astonishing is that the ships were found more than a 100 miles from where their crews abandoned them.
It is possible that shifting sea-ice moved them from their original site. But there is also a strong chance that they may have sailed to their final locations. In which case, the abandoned ships must at some stage have been re-occupied by some of the crew.
Significantly, Terror appears to have been anchored — which could only have happened if there had been crew on board.
And if that’s true, the notion of Franklin’s men heroically remaining together as a disciplined British military unit trekking doggedly through blizzards until the very last man collapsed and died, is thrown up in the air.
HMS Terror may yet contain the answers everyone seeks. She sits in 150ft of water, her hatches closed and the glass windows apparently still intact. In such a closed, cold environment, documents may have been preserved
Perhaps the ship’s log or a diary is nestling there, sealed inside a water-tight container — something that could settle once and for all the long-running mystery of what exactly happened to the 129 lost souls who went out to find a passage through the ice and never came back.
New book reveals last words of doomed HMS Bounty's arrogant captain who'd sailed INTO the path of Hurricane Sandy
He was the captain who led his crew into eye of Superstorm Sandy, the biggest and most brutal hurricane in living memory.
But it was only just as the famed HMS Bounty was about to sink that Robin Walbridge finally admitted defeat, MailOnline can reveal.
In ‘The Gathering Wind’, a new book seen exclusively by MailOnline before its release next week, Walbridge called the crew of 15 below deck for one last speech in which he ordered them: 'Learn from this.'
In sharp contrast to his previous defiance, he shouted above the howling winds tearing the ship apart: ‘What went wrong? At what point did we lose control?’
Destruction: A new book has detailed the final moments of The HMS Bounty, a 180-foot sailboat, which submerged in the Atlantic Ocean during Hurricane Sandy approximately 90 miles southeast of Hatteras, North Carolina
Walbridge’s last, ominous words to them all were: ‘Get some rest while you can. You’re going to need it’.
The 180ft tall HMS Bounty, which was built for the 1962 Marlon Brando classic Mutiny on the Bounty, sank off the coast of North Carolina near Cape Hatteras early in the morning of Monday October 29th last year in an area known as the ‘Graveyard of the Atlantic’.
Two of the crew on the ship died; Walbridge, 63, and deckhand Claudene Christian, 42, a former University of Southern California song girl. Fourteen others survived. Afterwards grave concerns were raised about the entire expedition, the Coast Guard began an official inquiry and Christian’s family filed a $90 million lawsuit over her death.
Walbridge has been painted as an arrogant man who rode his luck one too many times - with fatal consequences. Critics say he should never have even set sail at all.
Sandy, a ‘Frankenstorm’ made up of two storm systems, would go on to affect some 60 million Americans as it tore up the East coast and grow to 1,100 miles wide with winds up to 110mph.
The streets of Manhattan flooded and knocked out the power for half of the island, some $68 billion of damage was caused in the US and at least 286 people were killed.
Dramatic: An image taken inside the helicopter shows the moment crew members were saved from the ship
Walbridge was aware of the warnings about Sandy because he got them on the ship’s computer - but still decided to go directly into its path.
He left New London, Connecticut on Thursday October 25th bound for St Petersburg, Florida on board the ship that he had captained for 17 years and was the love of his life.
It was a replica of the 1784 Royal Navy vessel which has also appeared in a string of Hollywood blockbusters including two Pirates of the Caribbean films.
But it was also not licensed to take the public out to sea and Walbridge had a reputation for bending the rules to keep it afloat with not enough money for extensive repairs.
Walbridge was apparently convinced that the hundreds of experts at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration were wrong and that the storm would not continue its path up the Eastern Coast of the US.
Instead he thought that it would come out into the Atlantic Ocean and he could creep round it to the West. He was wrong.
In one of her last communications before she died, Christian texted a friend in Florida: ‘Wow! Here we go... straight into Hurricane Sandy.’
Struggle: A footage still shows one of the crew of the Bounty being rescued from a life raft by the Coast Guard after the vessel sank after the captain went against forecasters' advice and sailed into the storm
The adventure of a lifetime for some of the crew who were young and loving the romance of sailing a tall ship was about to end.
Waves up to 30ft high - the size of two story houses - crashed over the vessel, sending deck hand Adam Prokosh, 27, flying between decks, dislocating his shoulder and breaking several ribs.
One wave propelled Walbridge into a table, leaving him badly hurt and lying on the floor in pain.
The wind ripped down several sails and at 6.30pm on Sunday October 28th the second generator failed meaning that they were unable to pump out the bilge water that swamped the lower decks in a matter of hours, meaning they were were adrift and taking on water in the middle of the storm.
The crew had already alerted the coast guard which sent a plane sent from North Carolina to track them down but the winds were so severe it would be sent up two hundred feet in a second, then go back down again a second later.
In 'The Gathering Wind' author Gregory A. Freeman writes that as it became apparent that the end was nigh, Walbridge called the crew to the navigation shack and ‘looked over them silently’.
Destroyed: An image taken in July 2010 shows the tall ship HMS Bounty sailing on Lake Erie off Cleveland
He told them: ‘Water bottles. Don’t forget to take your own water bottle with you….make sure there’s an EPIRB (emergency beacon) activated in each life raft….stay together’.
The book reads: ‘But then Walbridge got to what was really on his mind. He must have understood that his decision to set sail from New London was a mistake.
‘And Walbridge always taught his crew to learn from their mistakes. This was to be his last teachable moment for the crew of the Bounty.
‘He said: ‘I’d like everyone to brainstorm where we went wrong’. ‘How did we get here,’ Walbridge asked loudly, looking around the nav shack, still in command of his ship. ‘What went wrong? At what point did we lose control?’
‘There was only silence as Walbridge looked around the room. His crew watched him intently, but some had trouble meeting his gaze. They knew what Walbridge was saying to them.
'Learn from this,' Walbridge said more quietly.'
The book says that Walbridge looked weary in a way that they had never seen before. Walbridge then told them his final words as their captain: ‘Get some rest while you can. You’re going to need it in a couple of hours.’
'Arrogant': The late Captain Robin Walbridge, pictured working on the Bounty in 2011, 'recklessly ignored Sandy's size, scope and intensity', according to a lawsuit brought by the family of a victim.
Before the storm: Bosun Laura Groves and Chris Malloon work on the rigging in 2010 as the Bounty sailed between New Brunswick and Maine for a haul out. Two crew members died in the storm but 14 survived
The crew radioed the C-130 coast guard plane circling over head at 4.45am on Sunday October 25th to say the Bounty was capsizing.
Everyone got into a ‘Gumby’ suit, which is a large inflatable survival suit - then all hell broke loose when the Bounty suddenly turned on its side, sending everyone into the water.
New details: The final terrifying moments are detailed in the new book, out next week
The book recounts how the masts and rigging kept rising up in the water and crashing down on the sailors, hitting first mate John Svendsen and breaking his arm and cutting his face.
Every time the rest of the crew tried to swim away - which took a superhuman effort in their bulky Gumby suits - another rope would tangle onto them and try to suck them under.
Their suits were so heavy and their hands were so bulky inside them that it took 45 minutes to get the first person in the life raft by grabbing a rope to pull themselves up with their teeth.
Somehow 14 of the 16 on board made it to life rafts or clung on to wooden that was floating in the debris until the coastguard helicopter picked them all up.
Christian’s body was later found floating by another coastguard helicopter team.
Walbridge was never seen again, but soon after the recriminations began.
In February the Coast Guard held a week-long hearing in Portsmouth, Virginia into what happened. Its official report is due next year.
What came out left Christian’s family appalled.
Walbridge was apparently so keen to get to Florida on time because he had scheduled a meeting with a nonprofit organization dedicated to Down syndrome research, which might have helped bring in some money for the ship too.
The suggestion was that he and the ship’s owner, New York businessman Robert Hanse, were worried that if they missed the meeting the agreement would fall apart.
Team: Captain Walbridge (right) is pictured working with the other Bounty crew. Despite his apparently rash - and ultimately deadly - decisions, the crew has refused to say a bad word against the captain
During the hearing it also emerged that, whilst in dry dock before the trip, Walbridge refused to approve the removal of rotten wood on the boat because it would have cost a lot of money.
An unfortunate interview he gave emerged in which he bragged ‘we chase hurricanes’ and said that they gave the ship a ‘good ride’.
Walbridge also did not tell his crew the full extent of Sandy’s strength and when senior members raised concerns he told them not to worry.
No other tall ships were out of port during Sandy, and hardly any other vessels were even with more modern hulls made of steel.
Hanse refused to testify at the coast guard hearing and took the Fifth meaning nobody will ever know the full truth.
So Christian’s family’s lawsuit against him, Walbridge, the Bounty operating company and the crew alleging that the ship ended up in ‘the greatest mismatch between a vessel and a peril of the sea that would ever occur or could be imagined’.
The lawsuit states: ‘Captain Walbridge, who was focused on the rewards lying in St Petersburg, recklessly ignored Sandy's size, scope and intensity.
Crew: Chief mate John Svendsen at the helm of the Bounty in 2010. He was second in command on the Bounty and known for his calm authority
Working together: Third mate Dan Cleveland doing some maintenance on the rigging of the Bounty in 2011
‘He also grossly overestimated, to the point of recklessness, Bounty's seaworthiness and overestimated his professional seamanship and weather forecasting abilities to the point of arrogant hubris’.
Despite the overwhelming evidence that he put them in grave danger for no reason, Walbridge’s crew still somehow stood by him.
It is one of the most puzzling episodes of the whole tragedy, not least as they were being paid
just $100 a week for working 18-hour days.
Under questioning at the hearing Jess Hewitt, a 25-year-old qualified captain and crew member, refused to put the knife into Walbridge.
And when told by a lawyer for Christian’s family that nobody would say a bad word against him, her response was: ‘That’s awesome’.
Third mate Dan Cleveland, 25, was even more forthright in his defence of Walbridge.
‘The Gathering Wind’ reads: ‘If Walbridge were alive today and proposed sailing into another hurricane or storm, Cleveland would go with him because the outcome of the Bounty's last voyage was not inevitable.
Tragedy: As well as the captain, a woman died and other crew members suffered broken bones and injuries
‘The loss of the ship and two lives was the result of series of problems, he says, and that the sequence of events does not have to repeat itself. If just a few things had turned out differently, the Bounty would have made it through Hurricane Sandy, he insists.'
Speaking to MailOnline, Freeman said that in his assessment Walbridge did make a 'serious and tragic mistake'.
He thought that in time the crew will eventually 'come to the realization that Walbridge made tragic errors’, but that the camaraderie was so strong the couldn’t see it yet.
He said: 'It's hard to call for a mutiny because it's such a powerful word but in retrospect, I think the crew should have more forcefully told the captain that this was a bad idea, yes'.
Freeman, who has previously written a narrative non-fiction book about WWII soldiers, added that in those final moments Walbridge ‘realised that he had made this error’.
He said: 'I don't see him as the villain. Everyone agrees that he had an admirable career
on the sea until that point and he was considered a very fine captain'.
|INTO THE TEMPEST|
Around 1866 he returned to St Mary’s with his family and he was assisted in his photography by his sons Alexander and Herbert in the studio shed in the back garden of their home.