Nobody knows for sure why exactly the H.M.S. Terror sank. Weirder still, the ship itself appears perfectly intact even after nearly two centuries below 80 feet of Arctic water.
Sir John Franklin’s doomed 1845 expedition to find the Northwest Passage left two ships called the H.M.S. Terror and Erebus at the bottom of the ocean, but not before the crews suffered lead poison and botulism — and cannibalized each other before freezing to death.
Now, one of those ships is getting a closer look. According to National Geographic, Parks Canada archaeologists recently used underwater drones to explore the wreck of the aptly named H.M.S. Terror. Discovered in 2016 off King William Island in the Canadian north, the ship and its contents have not yet been properly studied until now, 174 years after it sank.
The ship was quite an impressive vehicle and according to Canadian Geographic, was initally built as a bomb vessel and participated in multiple skirmishes in the War of 1812.
It was reinforced with substantial iron plating to crush the Arctic ice and was designed to absorb and distribute impacts across its decks.
“The ship is amazingly intact,” said lead archaeologist Ryan Harris. “You look at it and find it hard to believe this is a 170-year-old shipwreck. You just don’t see this kind of thing very often.”
The joint effort on behalf of Parks Canada and Inuit saw a team conduct seven dives earlier this month. Remotely-operated drones were inserted into the ship through openings like the main hatchway, crew cabins’ skylights, the officers’ mess hall, and the captain’s stateroom.
“We were able to explore 20 cabins and compartments, going from room to room,” said Harris. “The doors were all eerily wide open.”
The results are stunningly clear and serve as the first photographic record of what the H.M.S. Terror looked like from within. The story of this ill-fated expedition, of course, was far more grueling than these photos would indicate.
The H.M.S. Terror Sets Sail
In May 1845, accomplished Arctic explorer and officer of the English Royal Navy, Sir John Franklin, was handed control of two modern ships — Erebus and H.M.S. Terror. His orders were to explore the mysterious Northwest Passage, which adventurers hadn’t yet managed to pinpoint at the time.
The cost of the expedition was of no import. The Brits were desperate to find this shortcut to the Pacific before the Russians did.
The two ships were equipped with robust, iron-layered hulls and steam engines, the best scientific equipment available, and food sufficient for three years in the Arctic.
134 men boarded the ships, though five were discharged in the first three months and sent home. There were 32,000 pounds of preserved meat, 1,000 pounds of raisins, and 58,000 gallons of pickles aboard.
After stops in Scotland’s Orkney Islands and Greenland, the two ships set course for Arctic Canada.
The very last time anyone saw both the Erebus and H.M.S. Terror was in late July 1845. Two whaling vessels saw the ships cross from Greenland to Canada’s Baffin Island. After that, nobody ever saw them again.
The Last Days Aboard The H.M.S. Terror
What happened after the H.M.S. Terror was seen headed for Baffin Island largely remains a mystery, though most researchers would agree that both ships became stranded in ice in the mid-Canadian Arctic’s Victoria Sound.
Enough graves and human remains from the wrecks have been discovered that researchers have cobbled together a feasible explanation for what exactly went wrong aboard the H.M.S. Terror and Erebus.
First, in 1850 on an uninhabited bit of land named Beechey island, three graves from 1846 were discovered by American and British search parties. In 1854, Scottish explorer John Rae met Inuits in Pelly Bay that possessed some of the belongings of the Franklin crew.
The Inuits also told Rae that there were piles of human bones scattered around the area. Many of these skeletal remains were cracked in half — marking the first hint that Franklin’s men likely resorted to cannibalism before succumbing to the elements.
Then, in the 1980s and 1990s, researchers discovered knife marks on skeletal remains found on King William Island. This all but confirmed that the final days of the Franklin expedition saw crew members dismember their peers — before eating them and extracting their bone marrow.
When anthropologist Owen Beattie exhumed one of the bodies buried on Beechey Island in 1984, he found a pristinely preserved member of the expedition named John Torrington frozen stiff.
The 20-year-old died on Jan. 1, 1846, and was buried in five feet of permafrost for nearly 140 years.
Torrington’s milky-blue eyes are still open and an autopsy revealed neither wounds nor trauma. Experts found that his body was kept warm after he died, likely by a crew still capable enough to conduct a proper burial.
His 88-pound body suggests he was extremely malnourished in the weeks before his death.
More importantly, the autopsy showed deadly levels of lead in his system which likely killed him before a lack of food did. Researchers believe the poorly canned food supply to be at fault, which likely affected all 129 of Franklin’s men on some level.
The three corpses on Beechey Island — John Torrington, John Hartnell, and William Braine — remain buried there to this day.
The Research Continues
The Erebus was discovered in 36 feet of water off King William Island in 2014, while the H.M.S. Terror was located two years later in a bay 45 miles away in 80 feet of water.
Why the ships sank or why they were found in such disparate locations is a riddle modern-day researchers hope to solve.
“There’s no obvious reason for Terror to have sunk,” said Ryan. “It wasn’t crushed by ice, and there’s no breach in the hull. Yet it appears to have sunk swiftly and suddenly and settled gently to the bottom. What happened?”
According to a note dated April 1848 which was found under a cairn, the two ships had been locked in ice for a year and a half.
Written by Francis Crozier who had taken command of the Terror by then, the note stated that 24 men were already dead, including Franklin, and that all survivors planned to walk to a remote fur-trading outpost hundreds of miles away. None of them made it.
For Ryan, though there’s an abundance of confusing evidence and a frustrating lack of data, the mystery of the H.M.S. Terror‘s sinking — and what exactly occurred before then — is one that can and will be answered.
“One way or another, I feel confident we’ll get to the bottom of the story.”
Frozen in time, the bowels of the H.M.S. Terror appear as if untouched by nearly two centuries in the dark depths of the Arctic Archipelago.
Plates and glasses are still shelved. Beds and desks are in position. Scientific instruments remain in their proper cases.
While it’s too early to tell, the team did encounter evidence in the form of sediment covering much of the interior that objects such as journals, charts, and photographs might be miraculously preserved.
“Those blankets of sediment, together with the cold water and darkness, create a near-perfect anaerobic environment that’s ideal for preserving delicate organics such as textiles or paper,” said Harris.
“There is a very high probability of finding clothing or documents, some of them possibly even still legible. Rolled or folded charts in the captain’s map cupboard, for example, could well have survived.”
As if peering into the mysterious centuries-old shipwreck wasn’t itself eerie enough, the team noticed that the only closed door on the ship was the captain’s room.
“I’d love to know what’s in there,” mused Harris.
After learning about the exploration aboard the H.M.S. Terror, read about the oldest-ever bracelet found alongside an extinct human species. Then, learn these ancient South American combs that were used for a pretty disgusting purpose.