A Great Arctic Expedition
To the north of the fur-traders' country lay the icy Arctic regions. Since the days, when Henry Hudson had perished among the ice and snow of the far north, Arctic exploration had been at a stand-still; till early in the nineteenth century, the old fascination seized upon men once more. The search had been by no means confined to Englishmen. Men of other nations had been at work. The Behring Sea was named by a Russian of that name: one of the most famous voyages was made by an American.
Parry, the Champion of the North, and Ross had both made great discoveries in the frozen regions of the north, but no one had found the north-west passage. One—Sir John Franklin—who had already distinguished himself in Arctic exploration, was now selected to command two ships, in order to solve the mystery once and for all.
"I might find a good excuse for not letting you go, Sir John, in the rumour that informs me, you are sixty years of age," the First Lord of the Admiralty had said, when discussing the subject with him.
"No, no, my lord," cried the old explorer with enthusiasm; "I am only fifty-nine."
Two stoutly-built ships, the Erebus and Terror, were selected for the service, and with a crew of 129 men and officers, Sir John Franklin left England for the last time on May 19, 1845. They were all in the highest spirits, fully resolved to set at rest for ever the vexed question, of a north-west passage. A last farewell was waved from the shore, and the Erebus and Terror disappeared from view and were never seen again.
Two years passed away, and no tidings reached England from the Franklin expedition. The ships were provisioned for three years. But the year 1847 passed in silence, giving rise to anxiety. Then a large reward was offered by Lady Franklin to any one, who should bring information of the missing ships. In the summer of 1848, an old Arctic explorer started forth to try and discover the fate of Franklin. He was actually within 300 miles of the Erebus and Terror four months after they had been abandoned, but he returned with no tidings.
Other ships followed. Larger rewards were offered. America took up the search, but all was in vain, public anxiety increased, as ship after ship returned without bringing any news.
It was not till 1854, nine years after the expedition had started, that traces were found of the missing men. An Eskimo was found with a gold cap-band round his head. He was asked where it came from.
"From the place where the dead white men were," he answered.
Pressed for further news, the Eskimo said that four years ago, forty white men had been seen, dragging a boat and sledges over the ice, near King William's Land, their ships having been crushed by the ice. They had found the dead bodies of thirty men, they said; evidently the survivors were too exhausted to bury them.
This information was received with the greatest interest in England. Still the fate of the expedition was undecided. At last Lady Franklin herself fitted out a new expedition. She bought a steam yacht, called the Fox, and gave the command of it to Captain M'Clintock, who had already seen service in the Polar seas.
On July 1, 1857, the Fox sailed with a crew of twenty-five. At the end of the month, she arrived off the coast of Greenland, passed through Davis Straits and Baffin Bay to Melville Bay, where, in attempting to cross over to Lancaster Sound, she was stopped by ice. By the middle of August, the little Fox was firmly frozen into the ice. For 242 days, she drifted hopelessly southward, until April came and relieved her from her icy fetters. Through Lancaster Sound she now bravely steamed, to Beechey Island, where stood the lonely graves of three sailors, from the Erebus and Terror. Here Franklin must have spent his first winter, and M'Clintock erected a memorial, sent out by Lady Franklin, bearing the touching words: "And so He bringeth them unto the haven, where they would be."
Then M'Clintock sailed on through the Barrow Straits, steering south; but the summer was all too short, and the winter of 1858, found the Fox ice-bound in Bellot Straits. The long dreary days were spent in making preparations for sledge expeditions in the spring. By the middle of February, there was enough light for M'Clintock to start off in a sledge, drawn by dogs, along the western shores of a peninsula of North America, called Boothia, after its discoverer Sir Felix Booth.
For fourteen days the explorers travelled over the frozen snow, without meeting a living soul. They were growing disheartened, when they discovered four Eskimo following them. Seeing a naval button on one of them, they at once asked where it came from.
"It came," said the Eskimo, "from some white people, who were starved upon an island in a river."
At last they were on the trace of the lost expedition. That night, they slept in a snow-hut built by the Eskimo, and next morning numbers of natives assembled, bearing relics belonging to the dead men. There were silver spoons, buttons, knives, and sundry other things. They also said, that a ship with three masts had been crushed by the ice near King William's Sound. Further discoveries were soon made. In another Eskimo village, they found silver plate bearing the crest and initials of Sir John Franklin. The natives said there was a wreck some five days' journey off.
"Many of the white men," they said, "dropped by the way as they went to the Great Fish river: some were buried and some were not."
One day, the explorers came upon a human skeleton, lying on its face, half buried in the snow, showing that the Eskimos were right. "They fell down and died as they walked along."
And now their reward was at hand. Hidden in a cairn of stones was a blue ship's paper; it was weather-stained and ragged, but it revealed at last the secret of Franklin's expedition,—that secret, for which the whole world had been waiting for ten long years.
The first record was cheery enough. In 1846, all was going well with Sir John Franklin in command. But round the margin of the paper, another story was written in another hand. Two years had passed: Sir John Franklin was dead, the Erebus and Terror, beset with ice for two years, had been abandoned, nine officers and fifteen men had died. The survivors were starting for the Great Fish river. That was all.
Many more relics were collected. There were cooking-stoves, watches, blankets, naval instruments, there was a well-marked Bible and a copy of 'The Vicar of Wakefield,'—all these were carefully brought back to England.
But, amid all the tragedy and pathos of the lost expedition, stands out the cheering news of success. Franklin had discovered the North-West Passage, though he had not accomplished it in his ships. He had supplied the missing link, and with him lies the glory of the discovery.
M'Clintock now hastened to England with his great news. And England put up a national memorial to the "great navigator and his brave companions, who sacrificed their lives in completing the discovery of the North-West Passage."