The wrecks of two famous Royal Navy ships that were lost on a doomed Arctic mission to locate the Northwest Passage have sparked talk of a modern “curse.”
Last seen in the 1840s while under the command of Sir John Franklin, the fate of the “vanished” HMS Erebus and HMS Terror remained a mystery for almost 170 years.
The wreck of the Erebus was finally located in 2014, amid much fanfare, and the Terror was found two years later. The ships, which were among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology, are the subject of multiple songs, poems and novels.
What happened to most of the ships’ crew members, however, is still unknown.
Franklin and 128 handpicked officers and men had set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, the long-sought shortcut to Asia that supposedly ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the harsh, ice-choked Arctic.
Experts believe that the ships were lost in 1848 after they became locked in the ice near King William Island and that the crews abandoned them in a hopeless bid to reach safety. Inuit lore tells of “white men who were starving” as late as the winter of 1850 on Royal Geographical Society Island in the north Canadian territory of Nunavut.
CBC News recently used Canada’s Access to Information Act to obtain the minutes of a meeting that took place last summer between officials, including Parks Canada staff, representatives of the Nunavut government, and Inuit heritage groups.
CBC reports that some residents of Gjoa Haven, a remote hamlet near the wrecks, had linked a spate of deaths in the community to undersea search teams examining the ships’ final resting places. “They feel the wrecks are cursed and should not be disturbed,” said a Parks Canada official, according to the minutes of the meeting.
The meeting was held prior to a Canadian government minister’s visit to Gjoa Haven.
Officials reportedly said no human remains were discovered in the wrecks.
The local community treats the wreck sites with reverence.
In 2015, a local Inuit historian blessed the site of the Erebus wreck with sand taken from Gjoa Haven that was sprinkled over the sea, according to CBC. A similar blessing was performed over the wreck of the Erebus last summer. The blessing, which was also led by Inuit from Gjoa Haven, took place after a string of six tragic deaths that occurred in the community over just two weeks in August.
Both wrecks have been designated as historic sites by the Canadian government and a Parks Canada permit is required to access them.
The fate of the sailors and Royal Marines on the Franklin expedition continues to captivate historians.
The ships’ crews all perished in the wastes of the Canadian Arctic and the bodies of most of the expedition members have never been recovered. However, a handful of graves have been found and the remains examined.
One theory suggests that lead poisoning from shoddily canned food and the ships’ water filtration system helped doom the expedition. However, research published last year in the journal Plos One challenges this notion. After analyzing bone and dental remains of crew members and comparing them to samples from a Royal Navy cemetery in the Caribbean, the researchers concluded that many of the crew were likely victims of starvation.
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