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H.M.S. Intrepid, under the command of Irish explorer Sir Francis Leopold McClintock, is trapped in pack ice in Baffin Bay, circa 1853. McClintock is on his first mission to find the 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin, which disappeared during a search for the Northwest Passage. From a sketch by Commander May R.N. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Last Words Missing—The Mystery of Sir John Franklin and Polar History’s Greatest Catastphrophe

More than six decades before Scott reached the South Pole, Sir John Franklin led an expedition into the Canadian Arctic that would turn into the greatest catastrophe in polar history. Attempting the long-sought Northwest Passage, the hypothesized shortcut from Europe to Asia, Franklin set off from England in 1845 with two powerful steam-driven ships, the Erebus and the Terror, in charge of 128 officers and men. It was the strongest expedition ever launched in the Arctic, and the Admiralty was confident of success.

When the summers of 1846 and 1847 passed with no word from Franklin’s party, the Royal Navy launched a massive search. Over the following years, dozens of relief missions, both British and American, sailed and marched overland into the Canadian Arctic looking for clues. It was not until 1850 that one of these parties found the remains of Franklin’s first winter camp, along with the graves of three seamen, on the coast of Beechey Island. But that team found no written record of the expedition’s progress through the spring of 1846.

It was not until 1854 that a surveyor, doctor John Rae, met Inuit (Eskimo) near King William Island who carried artifacts from the doomed expedition and related grim stories about the demise of Franklin’s men. And it was not until 1859 that another explorer, Francis Leopold McClintock, found a single piece of paper enclosed in a tin container in a cairn on King William Island, on which was scrawled the sole surviving record of what happened to Franklin and his men.

That record is so maddeningly brief and vague that ever since, it has served as a Delphic riddle from which generations of historians have launched their wildly speculative narratives. On the piece of paper, James Fitzjames, captain of the Erebus, penned a few lines giving the latitude and longitude of the first overwintering, ending, “All well. Party consisting of 2 officers and 6 men left the Ships on Monday 24 May 1847.” A second entry, added almost a year later, curls around the margins of the paper. It reveals that the ships were abandoned on April 22, 1848, having first been frozen into the sea ice in September 1846, then closes, “Sir John Franklin died on 11 June 1847 and the total loss by deaths in the Expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.” A last postscript reads, “And start tomorrow 26th for Backs Fish River.”

Five years earlier, the Inuit had told John Rae that their brethren had watched the sailors slowly starve and die of scurvy on King William Island. (The Britishers refused to eat the fat and internal organs of seal and walrus that kept the Inuit healthy.) The natives further testified that in extremis, Franklin’s men had cannibalized each other.

England blamed the messenger: Rae was vilified in the newspapers. In high dudgeon, Charles Dickens accused the “lying savages,” whose testimony was “the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilised people,” of murdering the sailors and concocting the cannibalism story to cover their crime. No one wanted to believe that stalwart British citizens might resort to eating each other.

Over the century and a half since McClintock’s discovery of the note, many more Franklin relics and several graves and scattered bones have been found along the track of the men’s desperate retreat south from King William Island. Forensic study of the bones has proved beyond a doubt that the Inuit claim of extensive cannibalism was true. But not a single further note or diary page has come to light. And despite intensive underwater searches in recent years, no trace of the Erebus or Terror has yet been found.

Among the 129 men aboard the ships, probably all the officers and many of the men kept diaries. Some of them may also have written down a full account of their plight after the ships were locked in ice. Lady Jane Franklin, who knew the very shape and feel of her husband’s diary, offered a reward of £700 for its recovery.

What happened to all the records? Rae suggested that the Inuit, who had a superstitious fear of paper with writing on it, may have thrown them away or destroyed them. The last words of Franklin and his men, written on the wind, have vanished forever. Only the mystery remains.