The chapel at the Old Royal Naval College in Greenwich is an idyllic place of stunning marble work, painting, and architecture. To step into its hallowed halls is to be taken back in time in a blaze of Romanesque white, blue, and gold. Dizzying geometric figures and paintings dance above in flurries of color. But one solemn, stark piece of art stands out among all the gilded beauty.
To the direct right in the chapel’s vestibule is a quiet reminder of one of the darkest, most tragic moments in maritime history.
In the spring of 1845, Sir John Franklin, a famed Arctic explorer, set forth with a crew of 129 men aboard the two revamped warships, the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror. Their goal was to set out for the Northwest Passage in the Arctic, to map the final stretch that would finally connect the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans.
The ships were thought to be well-equipped to handle the notoriously treacherous journey; reinforced metal plating in the hulls, central heating, a retractable propeller, and a repurposed coal-powered locomotive engine were all the pinnacle of early Victorian technology. To add to that, over 8,000 cans of tinned food were loaded onto the ships in anticipation of when the ships would inevitably be caught in the winter pack ice.
At first, the expedition seemed to be assured of success, with a well-chosen crew, two sturdy ships, and a seasoned captain at the helm of the flagship. The two ships set sail from England, were seen once past Greenland, and were never seen again.
Two years passed before it started to become clear that something wasn’t right and search parties were finally sent out. Unsurprisingly, one of the most vocal advocates of the search effort was Sir John Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin. Several ships were sent out in an attempt to find the lost expedition, but they returned with very little information.
Only one location even hinted to the fate of the sailors; a row of three graves on Beechey Island in modern-day northern Nunavut. It was clear that something had gone wrong even in the early months of the expedition, as all three young men had died early in the year of 1846.
Search efforts continued, throwing up a few clues at a time. In 1859, a mission discovered skeletons and written account of the expedition up to 1848. Slowly and steadily, the horrendous fates of the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror came to light. Local Inuit testimony combined with the observations of the search parties began to paint a mortifying picture of the sailors stranded in the ice, forced to leave on foot when the realization set in that the ships were not going to move again.
Archaeological digs and surveys found further evidence of ravaging illness, the possibility of lead poisoning from the canned food and the water piping, and the most horrifying of all, distinct signs of cannibalism. The sailors were stranded hundreds, if not thousands of miles away from any trading post, and one by one, over the course of three years, they succumbed to the harshness of the Arctic. Sir Franklin is thought to have died in 1847.
The wreckage of the Erebus was found in 2014, and the Terror two years later, in 2016, in almost intact condition.
This quiet memorial in the College chapel is a grim reminder of this chapter in exploration history. It serves to remember the lives of all the men lost over the course of the expedition, as well as a solemn testimony to the unyielding power of nature at its most vicious.