At sp!ked, Alexander Adams tries to put the Franklin Expedition into a context we can understand:
In May 1845, two Royal Navy ships, HMS Terror and Erebus, embarked from London on a voyage with ambitious aims. The mission would forge a passage through the partially mapped channels of northern Canada and pioneer the Northwest Passage. This route from Greenland to Alaska via the icy channels on the Arctic Circle would open new trading routes and allow vessels to forgo the dangerous and lengthy passage around Cape Horn. The attempt would use new technology pioneered in Britain — coal-fired engines powering propeller screws for locomotion, and tinned food.
The Admiralty decided on a large party in two ships under the command of Arctic veteran Sir John Franklin. Hostile conditions, the use of new technology, and — critically — operating beyond immediate assistance of the few trading forts and whaling stations to the south, meant the expedition was the equivalent of a Victorian-era moon landing. If men, supplies, technology, knowhow or leadership failed, then deaths could be expected. However, experience suggested that if the attempt met insurmountable obstacles there was a fair chance of retreating with only minor casualties, if leadership was decisive enough.
For the purposes of communication, the expedition was supplied with watertight brass tubes to hold written messages, to be left behind in coastal cairns. Provisions for three years were supplied, as it was expected that two overwinterings, locked in sea ice, would have to be borne. Without coal and food depoted ahead, and without a supply ship following the next season, the Admiralty’s plan left Franklin perilously reliant on his own resources.
It became plain, as search parties brought back the few clues, that 129 officers and men had died in the greatest single disaster in Arctic exploration. A rough outline became clear. All had started well but the ships had been woefully underpowered by their engines and relied on their sails. Much of the tinned food — produced by a contractor who was the lowest bidder — turned out to be rotten. A later expedition, using identical tins, discovered that much of their provisions were inedible. Some tins of meat included bone, which reduced the edible content to half of what it should have been. Loose beads of solder may have caused lead poisoning and inadequate preparation of tinned food may have given rise to cases of botulism. Franklin’s ships became beset during their second and third summers, rendering them prey to tidal movements in ice and leaving men dangerously short of supplies. Their margin for survival had been cut to a bare minimum, as evidence of a terse note (the only one ever found) demonstrates. The message said that Franklin had died and survivors were abandoning the ships to head south with rowing boats. It was an impossibly long journey for starving men. (One of those boats — with skeletons — was discovered.)