The Franklin Expedition and Arctic Sovereignty

Canadian History in the News: The past is always a part of the present. This blog series looks at current events and stories that have a Canadian history element to them and I offer my opinion on the subject.

What does it take to solve a 169 year old mystery?

Apparently 6 years and the determination bolster claims to the Arctic.

A sonar image of one of two vessels from Captain Sir John Franklin’s doomed expedition.
Source: Parks Canada.

On September 9th, one of the two ships from the ill-fated Franklin Northwest Passage expedition was located around 11 meters below the surface in Queen Maud Gulf, Nunavut. While this is possibly the beginning of the end of the 19th century mystery, the modern implications of the discovery are worth noting. But first, let’s take a step back.

Captain Sir John Franklin

Captain Sir John Franklin was a British naval officer, colonial governor, and Arctic explorer who had been part of three previous expeditions to map the unknown coastline of what would become the Canadian Arctic. In 1845 however, he and 128 men saw the shores of England for the last time and set sail on a doomed exhibition to find the elusive Northwest Passage. In 1846, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island. Trapped, sailors either abandoned ship or died waiting for the ice to melt. Franklin himself died (of currently unknown causes) abroad the HMS Erebus. All those who tried to journey to safety died as well, which makes Franklin’s expedition the largest tragedy in the history of Arctic exploration.

Source: National Post

Several expeditions were commissioned in the hopes of locating missing expedition. All were unsuccessful, only written messages by the crew and Inuit eye-witness accounts were discovered. The Inuit who lived nearby gave reports on the sinking, where they had last seen one of the vessels, and sightings of the sailors who had abandoned ship. The sides of the ships had been crushed by ice and so when the ice finally melted, the ships sunk. (There are some accounts that detail how some Inuit cut holes into the side of one of the ship’s for wood and items on board and that’s what caused the ship to sink). Either way, the ships were lost and the Canadian mystery that would fuel debate, literature, songs, and artwork over the next 169 years was born.

Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) by Edwin Henry Landseer

Modern Implications?

19th Century Time Capsule
The shipwreck is reported to be largely intact. With letters, food, and possibly the body of Captain Franklin (if the shipwreck is the HMS Erebus) preserved, the various theories in regards to what really happened. For example, in 1981, the University of Alberta began a study of the graves of crew members who abandoned ship and concluded that lead poisoning in their food or water filtration system may have been a factor. Also, undoubtedly this discovery will significantly add to the work of Canadian marine historians and 19th century scholars for years to come.

The Battle for Arctic Sovereignty
Marine archeologists and Canadian history buffs aside, no one was more thrilled about the discovery than the Harper government, who had commissioned 6 missions since 2008 to solve the enduring Canadian mystery. “Franklin’s ships are an important part of Canadian history,” Harper said in his statement. “Given that his expeditions, which took place nearly 200 years ago, laid the foundations of Canada’s Arctic sovereignty.”

To summarize the mess that is Arctic sovereignty: Under international law, no one currently owns the North Pole/surrounding region, but the Canadian government claims that the area falls within our jurisdiction. Slightly closer to home, most other countries also do not recognize Canada’s sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. Rather, they are believed to be international waterways.

Haters to the left, a good chunk of the Northwest Passage is ours. Other parts + the North Pole, not so much…

Yes, Franklin’s ships are an important part of our history. The various searches for the doomed expedition led to the mapping of several thousand kilometers of previously unsurveyed coastline and therefore were crucial in expanding our collective geographical knowledge. However, I am having trouble seeing how this adds to the argument of Canadian Arctic sovereignty. Even if we ignore the fact that Franklin and his crew members were British citizens and that the Dominion of Canada had yet to be formed, arguing that we have longstanding history in an area will not change the minds of nay-saying nations. “But we were here first!” and “we have a history of development in this area!” is not going to matter much if the region is as rich in oil and natural gas as it is believed to be. While I am interested in finding out what happened to the Franklin expedition, it is kind of disappointing that all this time and money was spent on solving a mystery that is not really going to add to our Arctic claims. You’re going to need something more substantial than a shipwreck or two, guys.

Maybe after solving this mystery the Canadian government can focus its attention on a more recent one. *Cough* A public inquiry into the 1200+ missing and/or murdered Indigenous women. *Cough*

Alexander, Doug, Bloomberg News, “Franklin expedition ship, lost in Arctic Canada since 1845, found at last.” Accessed from:

Barrera, Jorge, APTN National News, “PMO downplayed rich Inuit link to discovered Franklin ship.” Accessed from:

Howard, Brian Clark, National Geographic, “Arctic Shipwreck Found After 170 Years, Solving “Great Mystery.” Accessed from:




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