Historical tug of war: The ever-changing narrative of the lost Franklin expedition – North

Few shipwreck tales have seen as much sea-change as that of the HMS Erebus.

The tug of war over how Franklin history is told is almost as rich and strange as the story itself.

“There is a set of facts. Those men all died,” says Adriana Craciun, a Boston University professor who has written extensively on portrayals of the doomed expedition.

“But there’s never just one Franklin disaster.”

Sir John Franklin led an ultimately doomed expedition in the mid-1840s to find the Northwest Passage. (Hutton Archive/Getty Images)

Franklin’s ships, Erebus and Terror, set out from England in 1845 with 129 men to search for the Northwest Passage, but they never returned.

A message found in 1859 by a search vessel said both ships were trapped in ice in late 1846 and remained so for about 18 months.

It added that in April 1848, 105 survivors headed out on foot. None survived.

19th-century heroes

After it became clear the expedition had gone badly wrong, 19th-century Victorians painted Franklin and his men as heroes, says Craciun.

“They were martyrs to science.”

Searchers, such as John Rae, who brought back unsavoury tales of cannibalism were harshly criticized.

Rae suffered significant harm to his career for suggesting British gentlemen would stoop so low.

In the next century, the narrative gradually changed. Franklin became an example of imperial arrogance by refusing to learn from the local people, suffering and dying miserably as a result.

A political cause

As the new millennium arrived, Franklin morphed again, into avatar of Canadian Arctic sovereignty.

“At a time when international interest in the Arctic region is growing, finding this Franklin ship bolsters Canada’s claim to Arctic sovereignty,” said then-prime minister Stephen Harper in 2014 after the Erebus was located.

Harper called Franklin “a great Canadian story” and said the ship’s discovery was “a great day in mapping the history of our country.”

Archeologists Bob Park, left, and Doug…

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