Welcome to my weekly series, Designing from Bones, where we use archaeology and the artifacts of human history to find and design stories. Join me today as we go in search of a missing explorer and his crew from the Victorian Era.
Gather near, my friends, as we step through the misty portal to the icy wastes of Northern Canada. The once elusive Northwest Passage and the secrets of its past await us.
Shadow and Terror
On May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin set sail from Greenhithe, England with 134 crew to conduct an Arctic survey mission along the northern coasts of Canada in search of the elusive Northwest Passage. Taking two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, both equipped with steam engines, water purification systems and solid provisions in lead-sealed cans, the voyage held considerable promise. Sir John Franklin was an experienced Arctic explorer with three previous surveys to his credit. Yet fate would not smile on these brave adventurers.
The names of the ships entrusted to Sir John bore the heavy weight of foreboding. Erebus is the Greek god of Shadow who transformed into a region of Hades in later tales. We all know what Terror stands for. Both of these things awaited Franklin and his ill-fated crew on their journey of exploration.
The Erebus and Terror were last seen in August of 1845 by a pair of whaling vessels in the Bay of Baffin which sits between Hudson Bay and Greenland. It would takes dozens of expeditions, advanced science, the tales of native Inuit tribesmen and 150 years to piece together the story of this journeys disaster and final days.
The winters in the far north of Canada are harsh and often allow for only a few weeks of ice free passage. Franklin and his crew wintered on Beechey Island from 1845-1846 waiting for this brief break in the weather. When this opening finally arrived it did not last long, for in September of 1846, both the Erebus and the Terror became trapped in ice off nearby King William Island and never sailed again. The crew was stranded in the Arctic wastes.
Over the course of the next three years, the entire crew would die attempting to reach the distant salvation of civilization that was hundreds of miles away. Some would die of pneumonia, others of tuberculosis, many of starvation, but contributing to all of these deaths was the presence of high lead content. The canned food that the crew relied on was poorly sealed and lead poisoning affected every member of the crew before the end. Added to this, the steam engines used for the ships were originally designed for trains and produced large quantities of contaminated water. The combination of these steampunk issues doomed the entire crew.
According to years of searching and a few scraps of written documentation left by the dwindling members of the crew, Sir John Franklin died on June 11, 1847 and his grave has never been found. What is ironic about Sir John’s death is that he was last on the list of Royal Admiralty candidates to command the mission. Famous explorers, inexperienced but promising captains, those deemed unworthy due to bearing Irish heritage, and those with promises to their wives to stay home had all either refused the mission or been passed over. Sir John paid their fate for them.
After the death of Sir John, the remaining crew headed south towards the Back River on the Canadian mainland. Most were doomed to die on King William Island with a final 30-40 starving to death along the northern Canadian coast. Cannibalism and scurvy ate away at their ranks throughout the closing days and their memory faded into the legends of the Inuit who could not assist the desperate men out of fear of aggression.
Sir John’s wife, Jane Griffin, pressed the Admiralty to search for her husband. A large reward was offered and dozens of searches launched that led to a full mapping of the region. When the Admiralty refused to look any longer, Lady Griffin paid for one final mission from her own wealth and the romantic hope of finding her lost love. All were in vain and no living member of the crew was ever discovered.
Designing from Bones
I’m sure by now that Steampunk authors can see the potential of this story and its elements for their genre. A tale worthy of the page.
What about the rest of us? The key lies in taking the factors and concept of Sir John Franklin’s mission and adjusting it to meet our needs.
Take Science-Fiction. What if Sir John’s mission was to survey a backwater planet outside the normal travels of future humanity? An unforeseen event makes his ships inoperable and the crew is forced to fend for themselves in a hostile environment with little to offer beyond what they carried with them. How will they struggle to survive? What atrocities and acts of human courage will appear on the stage as things grow increasingly desperate? Cannibalism? Messages scrawled on anything available as a final testament to life?
For Fantasy we need simply remove the steam and place our explorers in an area where magic becomes ineffective. Imagine the ships wizard suddenly faced with a loss of his powers or having them generate random and sometimes dangerous results.
The Inuit, like all tribal peoples, believe in spirits and mysticism. Make these phantoms the cause of the ship wrecks before psychically-stalking the crew to madness and destruction for invading their ancient and sacred grounds. Now we have Paranormal and/or Horror.
What if a chest of letters were found, written by the captain and crew, their words over the years to loved ones stored in the hopes of one day reaching those they would leave behind? A view of dwindling hopes kept flickering with fading visions of love and home. Is there a romance that will now go unrequited? Lady Jane Griffin-Franklin was the major factor behind the years long search for her husband and his crew. Hers is a powerful love story waiting to be explored.
There is far more to the story of Sir John Franklin and his crew then can be told in a single post. As such, I am providing a couple of links for those that would like to explore this subject more. A brief overview from Victorian Web. Martech Polar in association with international broadcasters did a documentary and a short series of posts on the Franklin Expedition. The National Maritime Museum provides an in-depth look at the Expedition.
Join me next Wednesday for another Designing from Bones when we’ll be visiting a few new arrivals at the Zoo Arcane.
If you’re looking for more great information and ideas on writing, check out my previous Designing from Bones entries.