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HMS Erebus shipwreck in Arctic yields amazing artifacts

Epaulets from a lieutenant’s uniform recovered from the H.M.S. Erebus.Credit...Parks Canada Agency

PortandTerminal.com, February 22, 2020

A treasure trove of artifacts was recovered from the H.M.S. Erebus, which set off from England in 1845 with its sister ship, the H.M.S. Terror before both vanished.

HALIFAX, NOVA SCOTIA – Approximately 350 artifacts have been recovered from the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of two 19th-century Royal Navy ships involved in a doomed expedition to locate the Northwest Passage in the first half of the 19th century.

Officials in Canada unveiled the items this week, which include epaulets from a lieutenant’s uniform, ceramic dishes, a hairbrush, and a pencil case. Sealing wax, still bearing a fingerprint, that is believed to belong to Edmund Hoar, the captain’s steward, was also found.

A glass decanter recovered from a shipwreck
A decanter, thought to have been used for brandy or port, was found in the officers’ mess on HMS Erebus. (Parks Canada)
Sealing wax recovered from the pantry (storage room) of the captain’s steward on HMS Erebus. The wax, which was used to seal letters and envelopes, is marked “Extra Fine London.” (Parks Canada)
The remains of an old wooden pencil case found on a shipwreck
The pencil case was discovered in a drawer in what is believed to be the Captain’s Steward’s pantry. (Parks Canada)

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror

Drawing of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror ships, as shown in the Illustrated London News published on May 24, 1845
HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, shown in the Illustrated London News published on May 24, 1845, left England that year under the command of Sir John Franklin in the search of the Northwest Passage. (Illustrated London News/Getty Images)

The HMS Erebus and its sister ship, HMS Terror, vanished after setting out from England with a combined crew of 130 men more than 170 years ago. They were searching for the Northwest passage across the Canadian Arctic in an expedition led by Sir John Franklin. The last time the two vessels were seen by Europeans was when they entered Baffin Bay in August 1845. 

It was learned that in 1846, after the expedition sailed into Canada’s Arctic Archipelago, both ships became jammed in ice off King William Island.

Painting showing an icebound sailing ship, abandoned by its crew who are shown dragging supplies across ice loaded onto smaller craft
After both ships had become icebound they were abandoned by their crews, totalling about 105 men by that point in the expedition. None survived

After the sea froze around the ships and Captain Franklin died suddenly in June 1847, the remaining expedition members decided that their best chance of survival was to trek hundreds of miles across the frozen ground in search of civilization

All 105 of the remaining crew eventually died during the trek from a variety of causes, including hypothermia, scurvy, and starvation.

Painting Sir John Franklin's Men Dying by Their Boat During the North-West Passage Expedition, Painting by W. Thomas Smith (1865–1936)
Sir John Franklin’s Men Dying by Their Boat During the North-West Passage Expedition, Painting by W. Thomas Smith (1865–1936)

Rumors that the crew resorted to cannibalism have swirled around the doomed expedition since the 19th century.  Those rumors arose in 1854 from interviews with local Inuits who told stories of finding piles of human bones, cracked in half, perhaps in an attempt by desperate men to get at the nourishing marrow contained in them. In the 1980s and 1990s, researchers recovered remains of the crew on King William Island. Knife marks adorned the bones, backing up those early accounts by the Inuit. 

Finding the wrecks

The wreck of the HMS Erebus ship, shown here in an image created by side-scan sonar
The wreck of the HMS Erebus, shown here in an image created by side-scan sonar, was discovered in 2014

The disappearance of the ships has captivated historians and scientists and prompted dozens of search missions over nearly two centuries.

More than 30 expeditions searched for clues in the two decades after the two ships’ disappearance, resulting in the extensive mapping of the region and completing the route through the Northwest Passage. 

The sunken wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered by the Canadian Victoria Strait expedition in September 2014 helped enormously by a local historian, Louie Kamookak, who had collected Inuit oral histories related to the wreck, as well as working with the written records.

Underwater photo of ceramic blue and white plate on a wooden rack on shipwreck
Plates and other everyday items were found on the well-preserved wreck of the HMS Terror. These items give researchers invaluable insight into everyday life on a ship of discovery 170 years ago. Photo: Parks Canada

The wreck of the HMS Terror was finally found in “pristine condition” in 2016. Like its sister ship the HMS Erebus, finding the Terror was greatly assisted by the local Inuit people.

The wreck of the Terror is in such good condition that glass panes are still in three of four tall windows in the stern cabin where the ship’s commander, Captain Francis Crozier, slept and worked.

Watch: Tour inside the wreck of the HMS Terror

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