09/09/2014 05:33 EDT | Updated 11/09/2014 05:59 EST

Ill-fated Franklin expedition enduring tale of misery, death in Canada's Arctic

OTTAWA - The ill-starred Franklin expedition was a quest for the Northwest Passage, the Holy Grail of Arctic exploration for three centuries. It ended in suffering, misery and death and has haunted Canadian imaginations for almost 170 years.

The saga resurfaced in dramatic fashion Tuesday when Prime Minister Stephen Harper revealed one of Franklin's ships has been found, heralding the beginning of the end of one of Canada's greatest mysteries.

The Northwest Passage intrigued mariners since the 16th century, when Martin Frobisher, John Davis and William Baffin made tentative forays north. A northern sea route would have shaved months from voyages to the Orient by avoiding the long southern loop around either Cape Horn or the Cape of Good Hope.

In 1845, the British Admiralty decided to dispatch the biggest and best-equipped expedition ever. They gave the command to Sir John Franklin, a naval officer who as a young man had mapped hundreds of miles of the Canadian Arctic coastline.

He was 59 at the time, old for this sort of adventure. But he was a tough man. On his first Arctic expedition, he and his men were reduced to boiling their boots and eating them along with lichen scraped off rocks. He had survived the great Battle of Trafalgar in 1805.

Franklin had two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. They were small vessels of 372 and 325 tons, respectively, just over 30 metres long and eight metres across. They were specially strengthened for the ice and were each fitted with a 20-horsepower steam engine.

Jammed to the gunwales with provisions for three years, they left England in May 1845. At the end of July, they were seen by whaling ships off the west coast of Greenland. Then, they turned west and sailed into legend.

"The modern equivalent to this, because it's going to last as long, I predict, is Malaysia Flight 370, which completely disappears," said Ian MacLaren, a history and classics professor at the University of Alberta.

"That's what happened to the Franklin expedition in terms of the perspective of Victorian Britain."

The 129 men aboard the ships would spend three winters in the Arctic, crammed into the claustrophobic lower decks of their ships. The left 65 or 67 men living in a space less than 30 metres long, nine metres wide and perhaps two metres high with little privacy and no chance to wash clothing or bodies.

"By modern standards, the level of crowding would have been impossible for us either to conceive or accept," MacLaren, saying the stench alone must have been overpowering.

There were amenities, including hundreds of books, various games and a hand organ for each ship.

But the hardships were always there. Men had to go out into the bitter cold and darkness to chop away ice and shovel snow from the decks. There were housekeeping chores and the ships likely suffered damage from the ice as the ordeal went on, which would have needed repairs.

The whole time, the two ships would have creaked and groaned as the ice pressed in, making sleep difficult.

Rations consisted of hard biscuit, oatmeal, salt beef and pork, dried vegetables, chocolate and preserved foodstuffs in cans, a relatively new invention at the time. There was the traditional daily issue of rum. Whale oil lights illuminated the gloom, while dwindling supplies of coal were burned for cooking and heating.

The only communication from the expedition that survived was a paper tucked in a cairn on King William Island and found by an 1859 search mission. The first message, dated May 1847, said the two ships had wintered in the ice and were continuing. Franklin and the crew were well.

The second note, scribbled around the margin of the paper a year later, was more dire. It said Franklin died June 11, 1847. The ships had been locked in ice since September 1846 and the crews abandoned ship on April 22, 1848. They were planning to head south for the mainland.

By this time, the note said, nine officers and 15 men of the original complement had died. It didn't say how.

Theories abound for the disaster. Some blamed poisoning from lead solder, used to seal the food containers. Others suggest poor canning methods left the food contaminated with botulism.

MacLaren said there is a simpler explanation for the disaster; bad weather and unusual ice conditions.

"I attribute it more to the search for the Northwest Passage during a mini-Ice Age, which we all know occurred during the middle decades of the 19th century."

Relief expeditions found other relics, including bodies. One boat was found with two bodies in it and a clutter of useless baggage, including silver plates and spoons and a copy of the novel, The Vicar of Wakefield. It appears the last survivors did reach the mainland, only to die at a spot later named Starvation Cove.

John Rae, an explorer who walked thousands of miles in the 1850s searching for the lost expedition, brought back artifacts and disturbing Inuit tales of cannibalism among the survivors. That caused a furor at the time, but subsequent forensic studies on bones from the expedition found evidence that the flesh had been cut away, presumably for consumption.

MacLaren accepts the cannibalism as a fact.

"That's a question you can put to rest at this point. It did happen."

But he has another question. What happened to Franklin himself? He died almost a year before desperation forced the crews to abandon ship.

"The mystery around that one is how was he buried?" MacLaren asked. "It's been quite properly suggested that someone of his rank should have been buried on land, but no one's found a grave. Burying someone at sea, given that the sea is choked in ice wouldn't have been easy to do.

"Regardless of the discovery of his ship, it's questionable that we'll ever know the answer to that one."