On May 19, 1845, two iron-reinforced juggernauts, the 340-ton HMS Terror and 370-ton HMS Erebus, set out from Greenhithe, England to defeat the Arctic. In grand Victorian style, the ships boasted a well-appointed library, an organ, a seemingly inexhaustible supply of tinned food, and a British admiralty’s conception of itself as lord, not just of the constellation of nations, but of the natural world as well. Led by naval officer John Franklin, the expedition’s aim was to subdue nature—to bring even the otherworldly grandeur of the Arctic under the heel of the Empire. Alas, the tins were poisoned with lead, the ships were crippled by ice, and the crew of 129 men—deranged by lead poisoning and starvation—became cannibals hopelessly wandering a stark, and almost featureless, icy wilderness. Everyone died.

Last week, a team from the Arctic Research Foundation discovered the wreck of the HMS Terror at the bottom of the (coincidentally named) Terror Bay, in the Canadian high Arctic. The announcement comes two years after Parks Canada announced that it found the HMS Erebus, just across the Queen Maud Gulf, to the south. While bodies and artifacts from the Franklin expedition have been found over the years, the discovery of the Terror ends more than a century and a half of speculation on the fate of the lost expedition. It also brings to a belated conclusion an unusually bleak chapter in the history of human exploration: the search for a trade route from the Atlantic to the Pacific via Canada, or as it is more commonly known, the Northwest Passage.

If Franklin’s lost expedition was the most spectacular failure in the quest for a shortcut over North America, it capped what had been centuries-long catalog of doomed voyages into the unknown. Lured by the riches of the “East” and unaware of that a proper continent stood in their way, the Passage beckoned centuries’ worth of European explorers to an icy end.

Some of the earliest expeditions were the wretched voyages of the Englishman Martin Frobisher, who did just about everything wrong in pursuit of the Passage. After reaching the Arctic in 1576 and losing five of his men under mysterious circumstances, he suspected the local Inuit in their disappearance. Frobisher’s improvisational response, which included kidnapping Inuit and—in later expeditions—killing them, made for increasingly dark jaunts to the North. But despite his misadventures, Frobisher kept returning to the high latitudes, having secured funding by discovering what he thought was gold on Canada’s Baffin Island. Frobisher’s final trip in search of the Passage was a catastrophe, with the fleet encountering “such peril that it was wonderful to behold,” and the ships “so fast shut up” by the ice “that they were fain to submit themselves  ...  to the mercy of the unmerciful ice.” The expedition hobbled back to England where Frobisher’s gold was eventually revealed to be fool’s gold, and Frobisher the fool.

Then there was the 16th century voyage of Sir Humphrey Gilbert, which claimed more than 100 lives, but left the legacy of Gilbert’s memorable, if gnomic, last words before he was swallowed by the ocean: “We are as near to heaven by sea as by land!”

In 1611, Henry Hudson led an especially miserable voyage over Canada in search of the Northwest Passage. It was so miserable, in fact, a mutiny ensued. As one crewmember explained, “he would rather be hanged at home than starved abroad.” Hudson was forced by the crew into a dinghy, in which he floated away into the arctic wastes, never to be seen again. It was small consolation that the enormous bay in which he drifted to his death, the Hudson, would later be named after him.

In 1719, the Hudson Bay Company director and British senior citizen James Knight pushed off in search of the Northwest Passage. Like Hudson, he too was never heard from again.

Perhaps no journey epitomized the hardship of Arctic exploration more than the “black winter” of Danish explorer Jens Munk. As recounted in Farley Mowat’s classic on the subject, Ordeal by Ice, the expedition stands out for its gloom, even by the gruesome standards of the genre. Munk left Europe with 64 men to find a route through the arctic. After enduring a scorbutic winter in Hudson Bay in 1619, he came back with three men. As Munk describes his personal hell:

“On Easter Day, died Anders Aroust and Jens the cooper ... I was myself quite miserable and abandoned by all the world. And in the night died Hans Bendtsen. The next day died my servant Olluff Andersen who during seven years had served me faithfully and well, and after him died Peter Amundsen ... May 4th. By this day many others had died ... And on this day died Anders Marstrand and Morten Marstrand who had both been long ill ... On [May 11th] died Jens Jorgensen the carpenter, and Suend Marstrand. And God knows what misery we suffered before we got their bodies buried ... On the 16th died the new skipper Jens Hendrichsen, and on the 19th died Erich Hansen Li ... He had dug many graves for others, but now there was nobody who could dig his, and he had to remain unburied ... During these days when we were lying in bed, so altogether bad, there died Peder Nyborg, carpenter, Knud Lauritzen Skudenes, and Jorgen, the cook’s boy, all of whom remained on the steerage, for there was nobody that could bury their bodies or throw them overboard.”

The modern equivalent of the search for the Northwest Passage would be an international space program in which ships routinely exploded upon reaching space, or disappeared into the heavens altogether, taking with them the lives of hundreds of explorers. And it was a program that lasted for centuries.

When it was John Franklin’s turn to etch his name in this roster of arctic disaster he was no noob: a previous harrowing expedition in search of the Passage had earned him the oddly specific nickname “the man who ate his boots.” But the style of expedition Franklin came to represent—what modern British explorer Benedict Allen has described as “the siege, where you took your world with you and set about defeating the place”—was one of the last of its kind. Like the many doomed voyages that came before, Franklin’s ships quickly encountered what British explorer James Clark Ross described as the unforgiving solidity of ice, “not less solid than if it were a land of granite  ...  meetings as mountains in motion would meet, with the noise of thunder.”

The HMS Erebus, one of two ships from Sir John Franklin's doomed Arctic expedition.
(Reuters)

When British search parties looking for Franklin in the years after his disappearance encountered Inuit with tales of a forsaken crew living as desperate cannibals entirely unprepared for life off their ships, it scandalized British society. But the scarred bones of the men recovered in the years since have borne out this grisly scenario.

For more than a century and a half the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror have lain in icy, seaweed-spangled repose at the bottom of the straits of the Canadian Archipelago. It’s now known that they were overwhelmed by ice, in what ice cores revealed to have been an unusually cold stretch, even by the standards of northern Canada. But today the discovery of the Erebus and Terror takes place in the context of a rapidly warming arctic.

Much has been made of this new, looming chapter for the Northwest Passage, as ice gives way to newly navigable shipping channels and a bonanza of oil, gas and mineral wealth. Former Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper even made the intent of his government’s search for Franklin’s ships explicit, as an exercise in realpolitik: the wrecks, as archeological treasures, booster Canada’s territorial claims on the thawing region.

But there are fossils far older than Victorian shipwrecks strewn across the Canadian Arctic. As far north as Ellesmere Island, above the Arctic Circle paleontologists have recovered the remains of Eocene swamp forests, when the Northwest Passage was filled, not with narwhals and reindeer, but with alligators and flying lemurs. It was a sweltering time in earth’s history when carbon dioxide reached levels achievable in the coming decades under business-as-usual emissions scenarios.

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When the Northwest Passage was finally traversed in 1905 it was by a Norwegian, Roald Amundsen, in a boat almost a-tenth the size of Franklin’s behemoths. Amundsen is the most accomplished polar explorer of all time, but his exploits have long been overshadowed by the more melodramatic, if unsuccessful, adventures of the British. By comparison, Amundsen’s expeditions largely unfold with a sort of boring competence. When the Norwegian later became the first to reach the South Pole as well, even that feat was largely overshadowed by the more exciting but altogether disastrous expedition of Robert Falcon Scott. Scott left behind a haunting farewell note and a trail of bodies along the path to the South Pole. His men exemplified grit in the face of unspeakable hardship and, in doing so, captured the world’s imagination. Amundsen, on the other hand made it to the South Pole and back easily—even jettisoning food on the return trip. The world shrugged at his accomplishment. “Adventure,” he wrote, “is just bad planning.”

Part of his technical revolution, one that made Amundsen’s expeditions over the Arctic and deep into the Antarctic so boringly successful, was an obvious one. Rather than patronize or even antagonize the Inuit, Amundsen spent years learning from those who knew the most about survival in the most inhospitable places on earth. He adopted their clothes, their hunting techniques and absorbed just about everything else they had to teach. After centuries of lavish, European disaster at the poles, Amundsen put aside the pretenses of the other expeditions and availed himself to those with the most well-worn and specialized knowledge of the Arctic. And with his modest but navigable ships—vessels that could evade dangerous ice floes rather than take them head-on—he approached the awesome power of nature, not with a desire to master it, but to submit humbly, flexibly and to adapt. As the Far North sheds its ice, and the changes of the coming centuries match those seen only in geological time, may we approach the unknown more in the spirit of Amundsen than Franklin.