Wednesday, September 14, 2016

HMS Terror: What we know -- and what we don't

With the excitement around the discovery of HMS "Terror" -- a discovery yet to be fully confirmed by Parks Canada -- there's been all kinds of speculation in the press and online as to the meaning of this astonishing find. Scholars, such as myself, are as eager for new revelations as anyone else, but we've learned to practice caution, and to distinguish speculation from careful reasoning based on direct observation. Even then, what we see must be corroborated with what we know from other sources, be they ship's plans, historical documents, or (in this case) Inuit testimony. It's a process which doesn't happen overnight -- but of course the news must, and does.

None of this work has yet been done, but here we are, presented with dramatic images and video. Of course, the imagination is stirred by such sights: there is the deck upon which Crozier must have stood, the wheel where the helmsman would have executed his commands, and -- though we've no photo of it yet -- perhaps his desk, with something hidden in the recesses of a drawer. The remarkable state of the preservation of these things has led many to say the ship was found almost intact -- but that's not necessarily the case. The hull, particularly the keel, has yet to be properly examined by Parks Canada's marine archaeologists, and given the lateness of the season -- new ice is already forming in the shallow areas along the coast of King William Island -- that may have to wait until next year. In fact, it's not clear from the current reporting that Ryan Harris and his team have yet had access to the ship at all.

Some reports this morning speak of Parks Canada perhaps not having 'reached' the area, which is troubling. It appears that they were, at the time of the discovery, searching further north in the Victoria Strait; one would have expected that they would have been immediately alerted to the find, and could have arrived fairly quickly -- but the only video, the only descriptions we have so far are all from the crew of the Martin Bergmann. The video is narrated by almost every one of them -- including the ship's cook! -- but the context that a trained archaeologist could have provided is missing. The crew apparently deployed a ROV (remotely operated vehicle) and poked about all over, but the narrative of what they saw, like the discovery itself, remains uncorroborated.

There's been a claim that the "Terror" was listing to starboard -- then a statement that it was actually upright -- then a claim that she must have "gently slipped to the sea-bed." There's even speculation that her presence in Terror Bay is evidence that she was abandoned in an orderly manner so that the men could be moved to the "Erebus," which as we know made it further south. But we have absolutely no evidence for this; the hull has not been examined. I might mention at this point, the Franklin search ship HMS "Breadalbane," which was nipped by the ice and sank in scarcely twenty minutes -- and yet, strangely, when found by Joe MacInnis in 1981, she was similarly found erect on the sea-bed, her masts intact -- one of them still with a sail or two -- and the ship's wheel intact. It may in fact be the rapidity of the sinking which had the effect of preserving certain features; being found intact on the sea-floor, it would seem, is not necessarily evidence of having arrived there gently.

And there is another vital piece of evidence as to how HMS "Terror" sank -- the Inuit testimony which, in nearly every other case, has proven reliable. And the Inuit tell of a far more chaotic and sudden event, one in which a number of the crew were trapped in the vessel and drowned. In my next post, I'll give their account.


  1. Russell your post has put the brakes to my racing imagination regarding the Terror and what we "know". Enthusiasm can be a blessing and curse!
    In the back of my mind though I wondered how one explained the "known" bit about a ship sinking quickly, having been crushed in the ice, with the early descriptions of the ship. I was all too ready to believe it was a faulty translation of the search parties when they questioned the Inuit.
    I suppose that if she sunk quickly, Crozier himself could have gone down with the ship, much of the food supply, fuel for cooking, and even ammunition for their guns. I have tried to reconcile the story of the blood stained ice and the caribou hunt with them starving to death as they marched.
    I have to admit though, I'd rather ponder these questions knowing the Terror has been found, than to ponder these things wondering where she ended up.
    Could anyone have written a better mystery story given all the twists and turns in this plot?

  2. Russell, what is your take on the "mast" that was seen by the Inuit ranger a few years back and apparently led to the discovery? I find it hard to believe the ship's mast would still be poking out above the ice 160 odd years after it sank, without anyone noticing it sooner (I felt this was implied in a few articles I read). Maybe just a chance encounter with a mast-like log at the right place?

  3. I would be very interested to find out, from a reconstruction, based on the ship's dimensions - how far above the water , the three masts could have been when the ship settled on the bottom. So, if McClintock, Hall or Schwartka travelled along the shore on KWI...would the masts have been within the line of sight as determined by Woodman ?

  4. If it is indeed the Terror, it surely hints that at least her and possibly Erebus were both remanned. The cairn note accurately pinpoints the cairns latitude and longitude and therefore the original site of abandonment 5 leagues away must also be accepted as a given fact. This would push the survival period on a year or two, in line with the Inuit memories of visiting the ship/s.
    As for the masts jutting out of the water and being missed by every visitor to the area, well, it pretty much looks like that was the case however unlikely it sounds.
    The exploration season is so short its going to be a few years before we have a fuller picture, I can't wait.
    I know nothing about Caribou migration but surely you have to be at the right place at the right time to hunt them. I assumed the Caribou hunt was with Ross and his crew rather than Franklins' men

  5. So, 36 hours of blog reading, article reading anf Youtubing has left my walnut sized, fluff covered brain spinning. A mountain of questions and no idea who to ask so please forgive for posting some here and I apologise if some things are not too pc or backslappy.
    The boat full of "useless" possessions for surviving a long trek back towards civilisation. Maybe they were just protecting their things, stuff had been left behind at Beechey when presumably leads opened up suddenly and required a hasty departure. They now faced what looked like the imminent destruction or at least very long term freezing in of the ships, so it would make sense to get off everything of personal value. No matter how dumb it might seem in light of what was to happen.
    My non pc questions:
    There has been a lot of discussion about ownership, of the wrecks and artifacts. While I appreciate the Inuit wanting possession, presumably for display at Gjoa Haven, what infrastructure is there to support any tourism and could it be built without destroying what is left of the Inuit lifestyle? Also, just what tourists would be able to afford to get to there, I assume its out of reach of the pockets of Mr and Mrs average to get up there. Someone suggested raising and restoration along the lines of the Wasa or Mary Rose. No offence but there are things to do in Stokholm and Portsmouth after you've visited the museum.
    Final non pc point. To quote above "Let's listen to the Inuk" Millions of dollars and man hours have been spent in an inhospitable and dangerous region searching for both Erebus and Terror. It turns out the location of Terror had been known to someone for 7 years or so and he didnt tell anyone because he thought having lost his photographs it would bring bad luck to pass on his knowledge. Seriously?