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The Wrecks of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

Updated: Feb 22, 2022

Two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, left England in May 1845 in order to search for the North-West Passage - a vital sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans. Explorations of the Arctic coastline had led to great optimism that finding and charting the final part of the North-West Passage – the seaway linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans – was now within reach. The expedition was commanded by Captain Sir John Franklin, a seasoned polar explorer , who had made two previous attempts to find it, and he was keen to claim the prize. By previous standards the Erebus and Terror were powerful and luxurious, with heating systems and vast supplies of preserved foods. In late July, the two ships were seen by a whaler in Baffin Bay, waiting for ice to clear in Lancaster Sound and to begin their journey to the Bering Strait. However, his final journey to the Arctic would end in tragedy. Both ships were lost, and all 129 men on board perished. It is the worst disaster in the history of British polar exploration. After two years without receiving any communication from Franklin’s mission, the Admiralty sent out a search party but without success. A total of 39 missions were sent to the Arctic but it wasn’t until the 1850s that evidence of what befell the men began to emerge. The exact circumstances of their deaths remain a mystery to this day.

François Etienne Musin (1820-1888) - HMS 'Erebus' in the Ice, 1846 - BHC3325 - Royal Museums Greenwich
François Etienne Musin (1820-1888) - HMS 'Erebus' in the Ice, 1846 - BHC3325 - Royal Museums Greenwich

What happened to Erebus and Terror?

Franklin’s two naval vessels sailed up the Wellington Channel before turning south toward Beechey Island, where they would spend the winter. In the spring, they sailed south down Peel Sound but, off the northernmost point of King William Island, were trapped by the ice flow down the McClintock Channel. In the spring of 1847, a party from the expedition travelled across the ice to Point Victory on shore and deposited a written record of their progress. It is thought they reached Cape Herschel on the south coast of the island, filling in the unexplored part of the North-West Passage. Sir John Franklin died in June that year. Still trapped in the ice, Erebus and Terror drifted south until Captain Crozier ordered their abandonment in April 1848. Weakened by starvation and scurvy, the 105 surviving men headed south for the Great Fish River. Most died on the march along the west coast of King William Island.

Victory Point Note (1847-1848) - National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

In 1859 the sole piece of paper that revealed anything about what happened was discovered. It is often known as the Victory Point Note. In the margins of this standard Admiralty form was a handwritten message, which said the ships had been deserted on 22 April 1848, having been stuck in the ice since 12 September 1846. 105 officers and crew under the command of Captain F. R. M. Crozier had departed on foot for the Back River (or Back's Fish River as it was then called). The note confirmed that John Franklin had died on 11 June 1847.

What Happened To The Crew Of Erebus and Terror?

In 1981, a team of scientists led by Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta, began a series of scientific studies of the graves, bodies, and other physical evidence left by Franklin crew members on Beechey Island and King William Island. They concluded that the crew members whose graves had been found on Beechey Island most likely died of pneumonia and perhaps tuberculosis and that lead poisoning from badly-soldered cans was also a likely factor. Cut marks on human bones found on King William Island were seen as signs of cannibalism. The combined evidence of all studies suggested that cold, starvation, lead poisoning, and disease including scurvy killed everyone on Franklin's last expedition.

A ship plan of HMS Terror showing the alterations required for Franklin's North West Passage expedition (ZAZ5672, © National Maritime Museum)
A ship plan of HMS Terror showing the alterations required for Franklin's North West Passage expedition - ZAZ5672 - National Maritime Museum

Discovering The Wrecks of Erebus and Terror

In 2014 and 2016, the wrecks of HMS Erebus and Terror were finally discovered, shedding new light on the much-debated fate of Franklin's final expedition. Further dives conducted by underwater archaeologists from Parks Canada in collaboration with the Inuit Heritage Trust have revealed even more fascinating finds.

In 2014, the shipwreck of HMS Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada in collaboration with Inuit communities. This and the following discovery of HMS Terror in 2016 marked two of the most important archaeological finds in recent history. The project is one of the largest, most complex underwater archeological undertakings in Canadian history, and the sites continue to be investigated.

Fresh evidence from the shipwrecks discovered in 2014 and 2016 has offered fresh insight, while novels, TV series and archaeological investigations have all attempted to shed light on the crew's final moments.

The Terror by BBC: Inspired by the true story, The Terror centres on Captain Sir John Franklin, and his crew’s lost Royal Navy expedition to the Arctic in 1845 to discover the Northwest Passage.



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