In the 19th century, the British Navy determined to solve the puzzle of the Northwest Passage. The promise of a shorter route between Europe and the beckoning markets of the East proved irresistible, even if the ice-choked polar waters of the Arctic Archipelago had thwarted expedition after expedition. The most legendary of these ended disastrously when 128 men of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, under the command of Sir John Franklin, sailed from England in 1845 and were never seen again.
The fate of Franklin and his crew vexed the Victorians and has bedeviled subsequent generations. In the engrossing “Ice Ghosts: The Epic Hunt for the Franklin Expedition,” veteran journalist Paul Watson (“Where War Lives’’) weaves together history and his own reportage as he chronicles the decades-long search for answers that culminated in the electrifying discoveries of the intact wrecks of the Erebus in 2014 and the Terror in 2016.
It’s an incredible yarn with twists and turns, near misses, false leads, ignored facts, cultural misunderstandings and, yes, ghosts. What we know now about the expedition — that the ships became hopelessly trapped in ice off King William Island in 1846, that Franklin died the following year of unknown causes, and that the surviving crew abandoned their vessels in 1848 and trekked southward — took years to assemble.
The Admiralty dithered about where to begin looking for Franklin, and search parties in turn became stuck in the ice. What information was gathered was dark and gruesome and told of starving men who resorted to “the last dread alternative”: cannibalism. Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, subsidized several missions, one of which, in 1859, turned up the only written record detailing the crew’s decision to leave the ships. Others found skeletal remains scattered on the shoreline of King William Island. Even clairvoyants weighed in with speculations.
Still much of what happened remains shrouded in mystery: Why did the men leave behind heavily laden ships only to starve? How did Franklin die? Some have speculated that the men were suffering from lead poisoning or botulism from their tinned food stores. An entire Franklin industry — Franklinologists are an obsessive and querulous lot — has arisen around these and other questions.
Watson does a good job detailing the expedition and the swirl of theories around it. He also tracks dozens of characters, both historical and contemporary: civil servants, politicians, hydrographers, scientists, marine archaeologists, ice experts, and amateur explorers whose work collectively led to the recent discoveries.
He is especially good on Inuit accounts of the expedition, which provided vital clues to the whereabouts of the wrecks. We meet Louie Kamookak, who has made his life work finding Franklin’s grave, an as yet unrealized goal. His great-grandmother told him stories of scavenging with her father and finding metal objects Kamookak later deduced as Franklin artifacts.
Inuit stories, passed down through generations, of sick, hungry ice-bound qalunaaq — white men — had for decades been dismissed as untrustworthy. “[T]he arrogant disregard for Inuit knowledge prolonged efforts to find out what happened to Sir John Franklin and the men he led to their deaths,” Watson observes. The author shows how the gradual acceptance of Inuit testimony, along with advances in underwater archaeology and other maritime protocols, led to a sustained effort by the Canadian government and a foundation bankrolled by tech billionaire Jim Balsillie to locate the craft.
The effort was partly propagandistic, Watson notes, a way for then Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper to assert Canadian sovereignty over frozen Arctic waters opening up due to global warming. Bureaucratic infighting slowed things, but the mission leaders, helped by further discoveries of Royal Navy-stamped rigging and gear, narrowed in on the King William Island’s bays and waters to the south. (Watson was aboard a Canadian icebreaker in 2014 for the Erebus find.) A tip from an Inuk member of the military reserve, about a mast sticking up through the ice, led to the location of the Terror last year.
As always with any Franklin findings, the discoveries sparked more inquiries. Both ships lay to the south of where they were abandoned, and Watson speculates that remaining crew returned and sailed one or both out of their icy snare. Whatever the case, the secrets of the Franklin expedition taunt us still, and await further answers.
The Epic Hunt for the Lost Franklin Expedition
By Paul Watson
Norton, 384 pp., $27.95
Matthew Price is a regular contributor to the Globe.