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Arctic Shipwreck Confirmed As Doomed Cannibal Explorers

The story of the ill-fated Franklin Expedition remains one of the most mysterious in the history of maritime exploration. Two British Royal Navy ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, left England in 1845 for an exploratory sailing expedition through the Canadian arctic. Soon after reaching the icy waters of the Northwest Passage in 1845, the ships became icebound. No word was heard nor trace of the ships found until later expeditions discovered evidence enabling them to piece together the grisly end to the entire 129-man crew.

An 1878 engraving of the doomed voyage.

An 1878 engraving of the doomed voyage.

Their ships would remain undiscovered for the next 170 years. The Erebus was discovered in 2014 by Canadian parks workers who were able to recover the ship’s bell, but the fate of the Erebus’ sister ship remained unknown. Now, the story of the Franklin Expedition might get a little more complete thanks to the discovery of the long-lost HMS Terror.

The Terror's helm was found nearly intact.

The Terror’s helm was found nearly intact.

According to Radio Canada International (RCI), the Arctic Research Foundation and Canadian Royal Navy discovered HMS Terror on September 3, 2016 after being led to the wreck by an Inuk crew member familiar with the remote arctic landscape. The ship was found in Terror Bay (coincidentally) near the remote King William Island in Canada’s far north. Researchers still cannot explain why Terror was found 100 kilometers (60 miles) north of where HMS Erebus was discovered.

The upper deck of the Terror has become covered in silt and marine life, making exploration difficult.

The upper deck of the Terror has become covered in silt and marine life, making exploration difficult.

Ryan Harris, underwater archeologist with Parks Canada, told RCI that the ship’s location adds to the mystery of the doomed Franklin Expedition:

Obviously the first question is how did get through Alexander Strait? Was it indeed remanned at some point as what appear to be the case with Erebus?

Based on notes and anecdotes from local Inuit tribes, explorers and historians have been able to piece together the last months of the stranded crew’s fate. After exhausting their ships of supplies, the men tried to establish camps on nearby islands in September 1846, but began dying of starvation and disease. Reports and eyewitness accounts given by local Inuit communities revealed that the crew might have resorted to cannibalism in their desperate state. According to accounts Inuits gave a British search party in 1848, butchered corpses and cookware containing human remains were found on islands not far from the shipwrecks. One explorer, John Rae, gathered these Inuit accounts in a letter sent to his patron lords in England:

From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource – cannibalism – as a means of prolonging existence.

How widespread this cannibalism might have been or at what point it began remains unknown. A desperate attempt to walk towards civilization took the lives of the remaining men in April 1848.