Monday, September 12, 2016

HMS "Terror" found at last!

It's hard to overestimate the significance of this new and magnificent find: the second ship of Sir John Franklin's expedition, HMS "Terror," has been found. Initial images show her to be in far better condition than her sister ship, the "Erebus" (found by Parks Canada searchers in 2014), with her hatches battened, her bowsprit still in place, and many of the glass panes in her captain's cabin still intact. It's enough to warm the heart of any marine archaeologist -- or perhaps give them a heart attack! -- certainly a discovery that exceeds anyone's (mine included) wildest imaginings as to the vessel's state of preservation.

Initial accounts are short of precise details, and it's far too early to speculate as to exactly how this might revise our understanding of the final stages of the Franklin expedition. The ship-shape status of the vessel certainly indicates that she was left behind during a stage at which naval discipline and order were still intact. And yet, at the same time, we don't yet know the nature of the damage that brought her to the bottom. What we do see -- a vessel piloted to this location, and sunk within view of shore well to the south of the initial abandonment in 1848, vindicates the Inuit testimony as well as David C. Woodman's view that, based on said testimony, either or both ships must have been re-manned (I'd say both, at least for a time). Some press accounts speculate that after "Terror" was left here, the remaining sailors sailed further aboard "Erebus," but we don't yet have any clear timeline. The discovery of a "desk with open drawers," however, points the way to one possibility: some dated document -- almost any would do -- on board either vessel could sort things out in a jiffy. The far better state of preservation of "Terror" suggests that it would be the place to start.

The location is almost too ironic for words -- having the "Terror" found in Terror Bay seems, on the surface, even more bizarre than in the 2014 parody account on This Hour Has 22 Minutes, in which the fictitious "Inuit storyteller" Philip Ayarowaq, drily noted that “the elders tell of a ship of white men that was stuck in the ice off Queen Maud Gulf, or as we call it, ‘White Man’s Sinking Spot.’” How the ship could have escaped notice, so near to a shore where dozens of searchers passed for decades, is difficult to explain. Its presence there completes a weird symmetry, as on the opposite side of the Graham Gore Peninsula in Erebus Bay, the eponymous vessel was, at least for a time, anchored, though we now know it made it further south.

It's early days yet, though, and I think we should all work to avoid undue speculation -- a new discovery as significant as this one doesn't just add to the story, it casts unknown shadows in every direction. What we can say, with confidence, is that the Franklin mystery, far from being somehow solved, is once again made more complicated. Already there's talk of raising the "Terror" -- an idea which, though suggested by the seeming good state of the ship -- seems premature to me. All the Inuit I know on King William Island have hoped, over many years, for a find like this, not simply because it would vindicate their ancestors' stories or bring media attention -- but because it would bring economic growth, which is so sorely lacking in the North. Well before such a thing should be considered, we must ask, as with all such finds, what can we learn? And how can what we learn benefit those whose histories are as significantly linked to the "Terror" as they were to the "Erebus" -- the Inuit?


  1. What's your source on this? The Guardian, like everyone else?

  2. Beautifully written and in no time!! Thanks for this effort Russell, it must have been hard for you to find the time to write this while the Internet is burning with the news and your e-mail box must be about to explode!. Congrats, this must be a dream for you after al those long years studying and investigating, you really deserve having witnessed this.

  3. The announcement today of the discovery of HMS Terror in Terror Bay, is wonderful news. As readers of this blog will undoubtedly remember I recently put out my own theory that she would be found in Erebus Bay, just across the Gore Peninsula to the north. This is, of course, not the first time that my speculation has been shown to be incorrect about the course of the Franklin disaster, but I think that there are some details in the Inuit testimony used that are perhaps still relevant to this recent discovery:

    1. The ship seems to have been remanned. This is the main takeaway from the multiple stories of Inuit interaction with the Franklin crews. This is seemingly confirmed by the location (it is hard to see how ice could have taken the ship eastwards in Simpson Strait and conveniently deposited it, apparently at anchor, in Terror Bay.)

    2. The "friendly" leader was not Franklin - although it is still unproved that it was Crozier, I still believe the details of his self-declared autobiography are very suggestive.

    3. The ship was in sight of land. There is no reason to discount the stories of the "black men" or the idea of a shore gunpowder deposit on their face, it seems that the tales, which implied the west coast, were of an encampment location on the southern coast - a gloss that was later added by analysts but not inherent in the testimony itself.

    4. The ship was near a large shore encampment. I just picked the wrong one - but there is ample testimony that there was a large "hospital camp" in Terror Bay. In fact Terror Bay suits some stories better than Erebus Bay, the story of a large caribou hunt that left a blood trail "across the bay" is hard to reconcile with Erebus Bay which is so large as to not appear to be a bay at all to someone on shore (as I have been), but Terror Bay is quite obviously a bay. Also the "where the ship's boats usually landed" clue was associated with graves on a hill behind the camp, a feature that doesn't exist in Erebus Bay but does in Terror Bay. I have always assumed that there is some conflation of all of these stories, but preferred Erebus Bay on the basis that it seemed more likely from the normal drift/shore openings in the ice from a start at the 1848 abandonment position, and that the well-attested presence of the cannibalistic men at the Erebus Bay "boat place" poses a problem in light of the disciplined group (again attested by the orderly condition of the Terror wreck) to the south. All of this will call for renewed reconsideration of the implications, as always happens when new evidence emerges.

    The one element of the new discovery that is not in agreement with the Inuit testimony is the apparent good condition of the ship. There is no reported evidence for the violent nipping and sinking that the stories seemed to imply. Some hull damage may still appear on closer examination, but it seems that the demise of the Terror was at least as gentle as that of the Erebus, and will therefore, thankfully, allow even better examination and hopefully new discoveries to come.

    Watch this space.


  4. Had Terror been found before Erebus, the condition of the latter, excellent as it is, would have been disappointing.

  5. Thank you Russell and thank you David as well.

  6. Thank you, David for your analysis and intuitive + inductive prescience. To me the next biggest question is: where to restore and exhibit these ships? What has been done for the Mary Rose in Portsmouth and the Vasa ship in Sweden, are applicable examples of what can be done if politics, legal claims, and prejudices do not interfere with bringing to light one of the greatest maritime archaeological discoveries in North America. Bjarne Tokerud

  7. Thanks Russell for typing so quickly this morning!

  8. ABSOLUTELY FASCINATING!!! That's all I can say!!

  9. Absolutely stunning and wonderful news. How utterly ironic that HMS Terror would be found in Terror Bay.
    I’ve only within the past year become terribly interested in the fate of the Franklin Expedition. This summer I’ve been reading all of the books that I can get my hands on. I just recently completed both of Dave Goodman’s excellent books and am getting ready to read McClintock and Schwatka’s journal stories.
    As a retired career Army officer I’ve spent a great deal of time thinking on how I would have handled the situation confronting Crozier and Fitzjames in April of 1848. Before finding HMS Terror I couldn’t conceive what would have caused them to reman those ships after they had been abandoned. Clearly at least HMS Terror was sailed into Terror Bay.
    This find throws into the dust bin the conventional theory of the “death march” from Victory Point to Back’s Fish River. Clearly there is much, much, much more that happened to these men. Postulating theories on what circumstances changed that caused at least some of the men to return to the ships will keep me busy for some time.
    I hope that some records are found on one of these ships that can help fill in the gaps.
    Of course the weather conditions in that part of the world make diving time on these wrecks very short. Probably no more than two to four weeks out of the year. I fear it will be a long wait to get more information.

  10. More questions arise . Makes me realize how easy it is to miss things in the Arctic. And I wonder how far McClintock was from Terror when he went northwards past the sunken ship ? And were the masts still standing in 1859?

  11. Amazing! And to hear it has been found in such wonderful condition. I suppose that explains why so little debris was found. Was Captain Crozier misunderstood when he communicated with the Inuit hunters at Washington Bay? Why was there an understanding that the Terror was crushed to smithereens? I'll have to review David Woodman's book. A mystery solved but so many new questions. How many of you are tantalized knowing there is a desk with its drawers open and an unknown object sitting in one? Just... reach... out... and ... grab... it! Hopefully Captain Crozier left some sealed paper records in his cabin.

  12. This is wonderful news. It's so great to see that the Terror has been found. Such a great effort through the years Russell for both you and Dave.

  13. What a heart stopping moment to log in here and see those words "HMS Terror found". Incredible! Then to read that it is in such good condition. It was after reading the blog (actually while reading it) that the questions started forming in my mind. Wasn't this the ship that was crushed in the ice? Apparently not. How did it get that far and then the men starved marching eastward from Terror Bay? Given its location, can anyone doubt they found the passage? The Franklin narrative needs to be re-written...
    Plenty of time for questions, for now I'll just read and re-read all the news items about this wonderful find. I'll put aside fears of politics and artifact ownership for now, and just stare in amazement at the images of this ship! How I envy those who are now "on site"...and that line about a desk with open drawers just sounds too good to be true.
    Congratulations to all those involved in the search in so many capacities! A special acknowledgment to those on board the ship for having the ability to think outside the box and follow up on a local story! What a wonderful way for the "find" to take place!

  14. Thank you Russell for you very lucid and fascinating comment.
    I will have to re-read my McClintock great grandfather's book again. How ironic that the Terror came to rest in Terror Bay! McClintock named it that on his trek round King William Island. I'm SURE that it could not have been seen by McClintock as otherwise he would have mentioned it.

    Sylvia McClintock Wright