HMS Terror

by Don Friedman on December 8, 2016

HMS Erebus and HMS Terror:


A few months back, a mystery that began in 1848 was solved. In 1845, Captain Sir John Franklin of the British navy led an expedition to the northernmost reaches of North America in an effort to map the middle (and, at that time, untraversed) portion of the Northwest Passage. Franklin, his crew of 128 other men, and their ships, disappeared. It took three years for a search expedition to begin, in part because art exploration was always a multi-year process and it wasn’t immediately obvious that the expedition had been lost. By the late 1850s, it was known that the entire crew had died, largely as the result of malnutrition, disease, and poor planning for the extreme environmental conditions.

Erebus was found in 2014 and Terror this year. Terror, over 200 years old and submerged for almost 170 years, is in a “perfectly preserved” condition. It’s kind of depressing, in a way: we struggle to preserve buildings that receive regular maintenance, and a ship abandoned in 1848 is intact. On the other hand, the resilience of organic material – wood and cloth – is highlighted by the survival. After so long the human toll has become part of history, while the recent discovery of the ships emphasizes the technical aspects of the tragedy.

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