The United Kingdom has declared that it will give Canada the two recovered shipwrecks of British explorer John Franklin as a gesture confirming its “long shared history and the closeness of our current bilateral relationship.” Franklin and his crew died in the 1840s while attempting to chart unnavigated areas of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.
Rear-Admiral Sir John Franklin left England in 1845 with the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. The ships got stuck in ice off King William Island, and Franklin and his 128 crewmen perished while attempting to walk south. For years, search parties, scientists, and others tried to find out what happened to the lost expedition. Over 100 years later, remains of the explorers were found on King William Island and Beechey Island.
It took 172 years before the ships were located in somewhat shallow Arctic waters to the south of King William Island. In 2014, a team of archaeologists found the HMS Erebus. In 2016, an Inuit man tipped off some researchers who found the HMS Terror.
It’s believed the crew who traveled to Beechey Island died of pneumonia and possibly tuberculosis. Their deaths may have been accelerated by lead poisoning from the ships’ distilled water systems. Those on King William Island died from hypothermia, starvation, lead poisoning, scurvy, and exposure. Researchers found cut marks on some of the bones, indicating cannibalism.
The wrecks were designated a historic site in 1992 even though they hadn’t yet been located. In 1997, Canadian and U.K. governments agreed that Canada would control the wrecks and their contents “whilst still remaining the property of the U.K.” The U.K. has since decided to transfer the ships’ ownership to Parks Canada.
British Defense Minister Michael Fallon explained in a statement: “This exceptional arrangement will recognize the historical significance of the Franklin expedition to the people of Canada, and will ensure that these wrecks and artifacts are conserved for future generations.”
Artefacts from the ships will be displayed in both Canadian and U.K. museums. The transfer of ownership will occur within the next few weeks.