The HMS Terror, a British Navy ship, turned out to be aptly titled. The horrors that took place on this vessel and its sister ship, along with its eventual demise, became one of Great Britain’s biggest mysteries. How could they have disappeared into thin air, without a trace of a shipwreck? And what happened to everyone on board? The mystery went unsolved — until one day, one man’s bizarre memory changed everything.
A Wild Goose Chase
The ten men on board the English ships were essentially on a wild goose chase. They were looking for the remains of a ship that seemed to have disappeared completely over 170 years before. And they were far from being the only search team that had ever set out to look for the ship.
Over the years, hundreds of search parties had taken up the mission, only to later give up with all hopes lost. And just as this crew was about to give up their own search, a blip came across their radar. That blip would soon uncover the secrets of one of Britain’s most fascinating and enduring mysteries.
A Bad Reputation
Over 100 years before the discovery took place, in 1845, one Sir John Franklin was experiencing some issues with his reputation. In fact, it had never been worse: his time as governor of the island off the coast of southern Australia now known as Tasmania was an epic fail. He suffered a political defeat and removal from office.
With his career prospects left badly bruised, he returned to England. His wife, Lady Jane Franklin, knew something drastic had to happen to turn his fate around. Sir John had already completed three exploratory missions to the Arctic, and became a somewhat famous explorer for it. So Lady Franklin came up with an idea.
The Beginnings of A Tragedy
Sir John was already known for being somewhat of a hero when it came to exploration in the name of the English crown. At one point, he was even referred to as “the man who ate his boots,” because, well, he survived on his own shoe leather during a particularly tough Arctic expedition. Joining his fourth mission would be just what he needed to fix his reputation.
So when Sir Franklin did exactly that, and volunteered to be the captain for a new exploration party set to head across the Northwest Passage. But his mission to rebuild his good name would turn out to be a deadly one. And soon, everyone would indeed know Sir Franklin’s name — but for much more gruesome reasons.
The Beginning Of The End
On this new mission, the now-Captain Franklin and his crew would be exploring the Northwest Passage, the sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans that weaved around icy landmasses at the very tip of Canada. The trip to the northern wastelands was expected to be perilous, and Captain Franklin and his 129 crew members would be facing tough conditions.
On May 19, 1845, British Royal Navy ships HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail towards the Northwest Passage. By July of that same year, two British whaling vessels reported to have seen the ships near Greenland. As it would turn out, these were the last people to have seen the Navy ships before they completely disappeared without a trace.
Something Is Terribly Wrong
The Northwest Passage expedition was set to take a long time, as long as a few years, but back in London, Lady Franklin knew that something was wrong. She began contacting government officials, even renting an apartment in London in order to stay close to those in power that could help her cause.
According to experts, officials repeatedly told Lady Franklin that her husband’s ship had “enough food for three years. So we don’t need to worry until at least 1848.” For that duration, Lady Franklin was forced to just wait helplessly. And it would take even longer than three years before anyone else would share her concern about the Navy ship that had gone astray.
A Full-Scale Search Begins
As it turns out, Lady Franklin was right. Something was terribly wrong with the two ships. But the 1848 deadline came and went without any action from the British government. Nonetheless, Lady Franklin was not about to give up on her efforts to locate the missing ships. She wrote letters to everyone she could think of, including to then-U.S. President Zachary Taylor.
Finally, in 1850, the British government took action. A full five years after Captain Franklin and his 129 Navy crew members left for their expedition, the British Royal Navy began a full-scale search for the two missing ships. And soon enough, the search parties would come across a grisly discovery.
Finding Their First Clue
The British Royal Navy went full steam ahead on their search, which would soon be dubbed “the longest, broadest and most expensive search for two lost ships in maritime history.” But the same year that the search began, the Navy already was able to find evidence that something gruesome had occurred.
In 1850, the Navy located the remains of three people. The corpses were found in the northern Arctic region, frozen over time. Quickly, the British Royal Navy was able to confirm that the bodies belonged to three of the crew members aboard the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus. But no boat was found. And it would be nine full years before any other clues surfaced.
Terror On HMS
In 1859, the British Royal Navy found yet another clue about what had happened to the sailors aboard the doomed exploration ships. On King William Island along the Northwest Passage, a note was found stashed deep within the crack of a rock. It was the only written evidence ever recovered explaining what happened aboard the HMS Terror.
The note included a handwritten message. It was signed by Captain Franklin himself, and included the date of April 1847. The text stated that the two ships had been trapped in ice on the Victoria Strait and abandoned by some crew members. Captain Franklin wrote reassuringly “all well.” But the second note showed that was definitely far from the case.
A Second Note
Search parties found a second note on the same island, this time relaying a terrifying message. This one was dated May 1848, over a full year after the first had been written. According to this letter, Captain Franklin had died on June 11, 1847, just months after he had written the first note that was found.
It continued, “the total loss by deaths in the expedition has been to this date 9 officers and 15 men.” Whoever left the note gave search parties one more hint about what had happened. The surviving sailors had trekked across the Arctic to a fur-trading post, over 100 long miles away. But none of them would reach their destination.
Piecing Together the Puzzle
From these few scant clues, those searching for the sailors were able to piece together clues about what happened. It seemed that some of the crew members had passed away while still on the ship, whereas others died as they tried to make their way to land. But the more clues that surfaced, the more questions came along with them.
Why had crew members died on such a well-stocked boat? And why did crew members decide to abandon ship and face the unknown dangers on land? Temperatures at that time had dipped to minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit. But when it came to answering how some of the crew members managed to survive, the hints that would come pointed to something even darker than anyone had imagined.
Did Crew Members Turn to Cannibalism?
While search parties would ultimately continue to look for the missing Navy sailors for decades, medical professionals were carefully examining the bodies that were found across the island. A century and a half later, in the 1980s and 1990s, examiners found some gruesome evidence that confirmed what some had long suspected.
King William Island was not a suitable landscape for most game and fish. But cuts that were found on the bones of the remaining corpses suggested that some of the sailors may have been forced to turn to cannibalism to survive. Evidence reportedly mounted to support this theory, as more signs of slashes and carvings painted a horrifying picture. And there were further details about to emerge.
Revamping The Search
Shortly after the corpses and notes were found, and long after the men aboard the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus set sail, all 130 people aboard the ships were declared dead. “It sets up an extraordinary mystery,” one expert said to National Geographic. “How can 129 sailors of the Royal Navy all perish?”
In 2008, new efforts set out to solve this extraordinary mystery. Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper was hoping to “assert Canadian sovereignty” in the Arctic region. And as a part of that mission, he wanted to finally help find the shipwreck and solve one of the biggest mysteries in polar exploration.
A Shocking Discovery
It had been 169 years since anyone had reportedly seen the HMS Terror and HMS Erebus — besides the perished crew members themselves, of course. But in 2014, after hundreds of people had spent hundreds of years looking for the British Royal Navy ships, search parties at long last discovered the resting place of the HMS Erebus.
The shipwreck was located in the Victoria Strait, near King William Island and the remains of the fallen sailors. For years, it had rested in a grave that was just a mere 35 feet below the water’s surface. But after the search team had found the missing ship, they found themselves shocked by what they were able to recover.
Exploring HMS Erebus
Surprisingly, the HMS Erebus was left in amazing condition, considering that it had been rotting underwater for nearly 170 years. The only part of the ship that had fully broken was the front stern, and decades upon decades of waves and weather had left pieces of the ship and various artifacts scattered around the site.
For search teams, finding this ship was a totally new discovery. But for the local indigenous population, known as the Inuit, the tale of the sunken wooden ship had been retold for so long that almost everyone had heard as Inuit folklore. So when search teams heard an Inuit tale of an additional sunken ship, they were intrigued, and decided they’d follow the lead.
A Strange Story Leads To Another Discovery
It had been two years since the HMS Erebus was uncovered, yet there was still no sign of the boat’s sister ship, the HMS Terror. Searches continued to probe around the Canadian Arctic, trying to locate the last piece of the puzzle in hopes of solving the massive mystery.
In 2016, a small ship known as Martin Bergmann, or The Bergmann for short, was launched with only 10 members aboard. As the craft was on its way to meet with the Canadian Coast Guard to help with search efforts, one crew member would ultimately provide more information than any other source could. And his strange tale was about to lead to a discovery of historical proportions.
A Plot Twist In The Mystery
Sammy Kogvik was 49 years old when he began working as a crew member aboard The Bergmann. A member of the Inuit nation, he was a local in the region the craft was exploring. It was only Kogvik’s first day on the ship, but he quickly began chatting with the ship’s director, Adrian Schimnowski, recalling a story from his past.
The story, Kogvik said, could well turn out to have absolutely nothing to do with the missing ship, but he felt that it just might help. Six years prior, he had been on a snowmobile trip with a friend, on their way to go fishing. But when they reached the water, he’d noticed something that was out of the ordinary.
Something Strange In The Water
Kogvik said that he and his fishing buddy had reached a patch of ice when they saw a large piece of wood jutting straight up out of it, breaking the surface. He wandered onto the ice to get a closer look, and ultimately took a picture of himself hugging the strange wooden object.
But on the way home, he realized that he had dropped his camera and, therefore, he’d lost the pictures he had taken with the object. To Kogvik, this was a bad omen, caused by the spirits of the men who had died on the island. He decided to keep the discovery a secret, until that day on The Bergmann, where he at least broke his silence.
Deciding To Take A Detour
Kogvik thought that it would be a long shot to believe that this wooden object, hidden in plain sight, could actually solve the mystery. But, surprisingly, Schimnowski was more convinced. He knew that Inuit lore had led to the discovery of the HMS Erebus, so he was not about to dismiss Kogvik’s story so easily.
Instead, Schimnowski decided to follow the lead and investigate. Rather than heading straight for the Canadian Coast Guard’s meeting point, The Bergmann took a detour on the way. Kogvik’s story could lead the boat to find nothing at all, but in the best case scenario, a discovery of a ship’s remains could mean closing the case on an ages-old mystery.
Something Comes Across The Radar
Schimnowski and his 10-man crew, all aboard the research ship, ultimately made the detour and began to explore. Hopes were not too high, especially considering that Kogvik’s discovery had taken place a full six years before the crew of The Bergmann found themselves traversing the same waters. But then, digital imaging on the ship picked up a strange silhouette.
Using depth-sounding technology, monitors revealed the grainy image of what seemed to be a ship, deep in the water. Daniel McIsaac, a 23-year-old researcher who was on The Bergmann later described the moment. “Everyone was up in the wheelhouse by that point in awe, really,” he said.
Could This Really Be It?
For years, experts had been trying to predict exactly where the HMS Terror had sunk. All of them thought that they had a pretty good idea of where they would ultimately find the shipwreck. The research involved a great deal of mapping, including pinpointing the spot where they were pretty positive that the ship had been crushed by ice all those years ago.
Yet The Bergmann was a full 96 kilometers — or 60 miles — south of where all the experts had said that the ship would have sunk. The whole thing was puzzling for Schimnowski. Could the image on the ship’s radar actually be the remains of the HMS Terror? Or had they stumbled upon something else entirely?
The Big Discovery
For the next week, the team used modern technology to explore the shipwreck found 80 feet below the water’s surface. And fairly quickly, Schimnowski and the other researchers were able to confirm that they had been successful. At last, they had finally discovered the HMS Terror, more than 170 years after it had slipped into its watery grave.
Despite the vessel’s age, and how long it had stayed underwater, the ship was in nearly perfect condition. “This vessel looks like it was buttoned down tight for winter and it sank,” Schimnowski said in an interview, “If you could lift this boat out of the water, and pump the water out, it would probably still float.” Inside the wreck, the team was left even more awestruck.
Finally A Full Picture
The metal sheeting that was supporting the hull of the ship was still intact, but now it was covered in sea kelp. However, seeing that was just the beginning. Glass window panes located at the stern of the ship were still intact, standing strong despite the water pressure surrounding it.
Beds and desks still sat where they once had over 170 years before. One researcher later described the scene, remarking that “not only are the furniture and cabinets in place, drawers are closed and many are buried in silt, encapsulating objects and documents in the best possible condition.” As robots went from room to room, more clues about what happened in this shipwreck were uncovered.
A Look Inside The Mess Hall
One of the largest rooms on the ship was the mess hall, where all 129 crew members gathered to eat their meals. That room was also kept in almost perfect condition. Once the team successfully entered the mess hall, they could not believe what they saw.
A researcher later told The Guardian that “we worked our way into a few cabins and found the food storage room with plates and one can of food on the shelves.” The team also found two wine bottles, tables, and empty shelves. But the most promising discoveries would come when they reached the cabin that had once belonged to the ship’s captain himself.
Touring The Captain’s Cabin
Down on the lower deck, robots began sending images of the captain’s cabin to the crew above water. This room was by far one of the best preserved, and contained within it some of the most promising discoveries of the entire expedition. And the biggest lead came from the captain’s cabinets.
Researchers found a map left inside the closed cabinet drawers, along with other documents. “Each drawer and other enclosed space will be a treasure trove of unprecedented information on the fate of the Franklin Expedition,” one researcher proclaimed. But could one of these well-preserved documents actually solve the mysteries of the HMS Terror?
Hopeful For The Future
The discovery of the HMS Terror led to a treasure trove of answers, but it also generated even more questions. For example, how did these two ships end up sinking so far from each other? One theory was that crew members from the HMS Terror closed up and abandoned ship, boarded the HMS Erebus, and tried to sail to safety. But evidence suggested that some might have tried to return to the HMS Terror.
Still, no one is certain. It will take years to fully excavate the HMS Terror, as this project is one of the largest archaeological explorations in Canada’s history. Researchers hope that people may start to get some answers that will finally paint a clear picture of what exactly happened during one of the most tragic events in British Naval history.
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