For more than four hundred years, navigators sought a viable sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans along the northern coast of the American continent. In May 1845 the British Admiralty mounted an especially ambitious expedition in pursuit of the elusive Northwest Passage led by veteran Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin. Especially equipped to withstand ice, the two ships under his command, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, had recently returned from an Antarctic voyage headed by James Clark Ross.
Franklin's wife became deeply concerned when two years went by without any news of the expedition. Believing that Franklin was well-provisioned, the Admiralty waited a further year, however, before announcing a reward of £20,000 for the discovery of his party. This was an enticingly large sum in the mid-nineteenth century and thus many adventurers tried to locate the lost expedition.
The graves of three of Franklin's crew members were found on Beechey Island in the Wellington Channel in 1850. Four years later, while exploring the Boothia Peninsula, John Rae, a Scottish immigrant to Canada, learned from local Inuits that a large group of foreigners had starved to death in the late 1840s near the mouth of the Back River. Suggestions that Franklin's men had in their extremity resorted to cannibalism shocked and fascinated Victorian society.
Finally in 1859 an expedition sponsored by Lady Franklin discovered a document in a cairn on King William Island, dated April 25 1848 and written, not long before his death, by Franklin's second-in-command. It revealed that Erebus and Terror had been trapped in ice for two winters and that Franklin died on June 11, 1847. The surviving crew eventually abandoned the ships and attempted to trek overland towards the Back River. Ill-prepared for the freezing conditions and in poor health anyway, they all perished.
It is likely that an innovation in the Admiralty's provisions contributed to the men's demise. Franklin's ships were supplied with eight thousand tins of meat, vegetables and soup. Canned food was a new invention in the 1840s. Unfortunately the solder holding the tins together gave the crew lead poisoning.
A seasoned and hardy traveller in her own right, Lady Franklin (1791-1875, née Jane Griffin) was a popular figure in the Victorian era, renowned for her charm and generosity. She is particularly remembered for her efforts to ameliorate the conditions of female convicts during her husband's term as Lieutenant-Governor of Van Diemen's Land (now Tasmania) and for the journeys she made to remote parts of Australia. The Franklins visited New Zealand in 1843.
The reward poster shown here was donated to the Library by Sir George Grey. It was not until 1906 that Roald Amundsen navigated the Northwest Passage successfully.