By K. Joseph Spears

The Royal Navy’s 1845 Franklin Expedition to chart the Northwest Passage and to find a possible route to the Orient captured the world’s imagination. Naval Captain’s Sir John Franklin led the unsuccessful expedition which lost its two ships and crews after becoming icebound. It took until the 21st century to locate one of the expedition’s vessels HMS Erebus by a Parks Canada research team supported by other government agencies and private foundations this past summer. Parks Canada had been doggedly working at this for over eight years. While a replica bell of HMS Erebus is making the rounds in Canada’s major museums, the Vancouver Maritime Museum (VMM) and its supporters have been busy at work overseas.

An equally important Franklin recovery was made recently in London, England, without any government assistance. VMM was able to obtain many of the original search records of the groups that went looking for the lost expedition, and the charting that the search teams developed in the decades-long search for Franklin. These records and charts are of a historical significance at least equal to the finding of HMS Erebus’ final resting place and the ship’s bell. It is a fitting addition to Canada’s Arctic heritage.

The Antony Sessions family secured these materials at an auction in London in the fall of 2014. The original manuscripts, maps and charts and search and rescue expedition logs have been brought back to Canada, and serve a useful foundation on which to base continuing historical research on the Arctic. In a complex, uncertain future there is much to be learned from the past. These records go hand-in-hand with the underwater shipwreck.

The Franklin library donation includes, among other items: 1829 Presentation volumes of Sir John Franklin’s “Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea”; six Franklin Search Charts (1852-1855) with the first known chart showing the location and details of the Northwest Passage route, as discovered by Captain McClure and HMS Investigator (1853); Volumes of official correspondence, reports, books, fonds, and related material; an 1852 Broadside (red ink on linen) that describes Captain Austin’s expedition in search of Sir John Franklin on HMS Intrepid, Resolute and Assistance. The material will build on the expansive Arctic material already held by the museum. “We are ecstatic about receiving this material,” says Ken Burton, Executive Director. “And we’re anxious to weave it into our already impressive collection of Arctic research material.” A permanent Franklin Exhibit is in the planning stages.

Given the fact that much of the Arctic remains uncharted, and that only 10 per cent is mapped to modern hydrographic standards, charts from the subsequent search for the Franklin Expedition led to much of the cartography work in the Canadian Arctic. They are invaluable from a historical standpoint and provide an understanding of the thinking at the time, and the efforts that were undertaken to find the missing men. When it comes to the Canadian Arctic, we need to take traditional knowledge and combine it with the latest in technology. It is a lesson we need to constantly relearn.

VMM, a National historic site, is home to RCMP vessel St. Roch which was the first successful Canadian ship to transit the Northwest Passage. VMM has one of the best Arctic map and book collections in the world. It rivals the Scott Polar Institute at Cambridge University in England. With this addition, it will really have one of the premier Arctic collections in the world.

Hopefully with the still undiscovered HMS Terror being found this summer, and with this remarkable collection, Canada needs to move forward with an Arctic Museum for Arctic scholarship which would serve as great legacy for its Arctic Council chairmanship. VMM will be opening a major Franklin exhibit on May 8, 2015 showcasing these national artifacts of international significance. By looking at the past we can learn waypoints into the future.

K. Joseph Spears is a former trustee of the Vancouver Maritime Museum and has researched at Scott Polar Institute.