|This satellite shot shows part of the Northwest Passage. Franklin died trying |
to navigate this arctic waterway, along with every member of his crew.
Image courtesy NASA
On May 19, 1845 Sir John Franklin, an experienced arctic explorer, set out on what would be his last voyage of discovery.
Leaving from Greenhithe, England, he commanded two ships, the Erebus and the Terror. His mission was to pass through and chart the Northwest Passage, the waterway which runs through arctic Canada, connecting the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific.
The unforgiving environment of the passage, strewn with ice packs and small islands, would doom his expedition, killing Franklin and every single member of his crew.
A message found in a cairn near Victory Point on King William Island says that his ships were frozen in ice for nearly a year and a half. Trapped in the arctic the crew began to die with Franklin himself passing away on June 11, 1847. At that point Captain Francis Crozier took over the expedition. He decided to try to save his remaining men by marching south across the ice and arctic tundra.
“Crozier must have been very desperate indeed to have made this decision,” writes William James Mills in his book Exploring Polar Frontiers.
Needless to say the plan failed with none of the crew surviving. Rescue expeditions and scientific surveys would find human remains on or near King William Island.
In the past, analysis of these remains has suggested that the crew members suffered from lead poisoning, a potentially deadly condition that may have caused them to engage in irrational behaviour. The crew could have gotten it through the tin cans that their food were stored in, they might also have gotten it from the water system on board.
It has also been suggested that the crew suffered from scurvy and tuberculosis, conditions that may have doomed many crew members who had been stuck in the ice for nearly 18 months. Cut marks on some of the bodies indicate that the men may have resorted to cannibalism.
New research on the skeleton of a Franklin Expedition crew member, now buried under the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich, sheds light on this fateful expedition.
In a paper set to be published in the Journal of Archaeological Science, a team of researchers led by Simon Mays, of English Heritage, show that this man did not suffer from scurvy or tuberculosis, two diseases that have been linked to the death of expedition members. They are also conducting tests for lead poisoning, results of which will be published in a future paper.
The skeleton was found in a shallow grave in 1869 by Charles Francis Hall, an American adventurer searching for remains of the expedition. He sent them back to England, being reinterred at the Naval College and identified as the remains of Henry Le Vesconte, a lieutenant on the expedition who was a native of Devon.
“That the body was accorded formal burial suggests that the death occurred before the final throes of the expedition when the dead seem to have been left unburied and, in some cases, cannibalised,” writes the team in their paper.
In 2009 renovations in the Painted Hall at the college meant that the skeleton had to be dug back up. This gave researchers a chance to re-examine it using modern scientific techniques.
They were able to use isotope tests to determine if the remains are that of Le Vesconte, something which they concluded is unlikely.
“The oxygen and strontium isotopic composition of dental enamel reflects the locale in which a person lived when the enamel was forming during childhood,” wrote May’s team in their paper. “The combination of strontium and oxygen isotopes still leave a large number of places to choose from and include major cities such as London, York and Edinburgh (however) it does preclude the western seaboard, most of southwest England,” the area where Devon is located.
The team cannot say for sure whom this skeleton belongs to. One possibility is that it may be the remains of HDS Goodsir, an assistant surgeon on the expedition. When the team reconstructed the face of the skeleton, by using its skull, the result was quite similar to his. The isotope analysis was also a match.
“HDS Goodsir was born and raised in Anstruther, Fife, eastern Scotland, a location which would provide strontium and oxygen isotopic ratios consistent with those found in dental enamel of our skeleton,” write the research team.
However it’s possible that other crew members could also be a match. The team cautioned that portraits of many of the expedition crew members do not exist and we cannot be certain that the skeleton is in fact that of the long-dead assistant surgeon. Ultimately we may never know who lies buried beneath the chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul at Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich.