Unprecedented images of the wreckage of a ship engulfed 170 years ago in the Arctic


An engraving of HMS Terror, exploring the Northwest Passage in 1845. – MARY EVANS / SIPA

More than 170 years after HMS Terror disappeared in the Arctic off Canada, unpublished images of the wreckage were released this Wednesday. The British ship still has a well-preserved interior, which could enlighten a new day this mythical expedition.

The HMS Terror is one of two ships on John Franklin's expedition. The English explorer left Britain in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage, which connects the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans with the Arctic. Surprised by the cold, the 129 sailors were trapped one and a half years in the ice before dying of hunger, cold and lead poisoning.

Almost intact elements

The circumstances of this tragedy have remained unclear since. The first ship, HMS Erebus, was found in 2014 and the HMS Terror in 2016 in the same area. The images, taken by the divers and the submarine robot of the Parks Canada Agency reveal intact artifacts of life on the ship.

"We had the impression (…) that it was a ship recently abandoned by its crew, seeming to have escaped the passage of time," said archaeological project director Ryan Harris in a statement. During 48 dives, including 7 with the robot, "in water near 0 ° C or lower," the team obtained images of more than 90% of the boat's lower deck.

The captain's apartments, still a mystery

The boat was found upright on its keel at the bottom of the sea, the propeller still in place, the anchor lifted, and the roof windows uncovered. All these elements suggest a quick abandonment of the ship, according to Ryan Harris. The sediments that covered the captain's room allowed the preservation of his office, in which the researchers hope to find scientific instruments and maps.

Only the captain's personal quarters remain inaccessible due to a closed door. The researchers hope to find written and sealed documents that cold water and sediments may have preserved. "The writings could shed light on what happened, the chronology of events, when the boats broke up and how they got to where they were abandoned," said Ryan Harris.

All thanks to the Inuit

A boat sponsored by John Franklin's widow, Lady Jane, had found a message in 1859 on King William Island that shed light on some of the mystery. The document explained that the explorer and his 23 crew members had died on 11 June 1847 under unknown circumstances. In 1848, 105 survivors reportedly abandoned the ships on foot to reach the mainland by ice. None survived.

Archaeological research was conducted in partnership with Inuit organizations. Their oral testimonies, transmitted from generation to generation, made it possible to locate the wrecks. Inuit communities will be the first to see the artifacts of the Terror, of which they are legally co-owners.

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