Ship lost on arctic voyage is discovered 170 years later

HMS Erebus
HMS Erebus

The discovery of a legendary long-lost naval expedition, largely commanded by a Banbridge man, is a major turn-up for the Province, according to one expert.

The vessel vanished in the 1840s while part of a two-ship mission, of which Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier had been one of the senior leaders.

Historian Jason Diamond said the discovery off the Canadian coast is hugely significant – adding that artefacts from the wreck could end up being brought to Northern Ireland.

The ship is understood to be either the HMS Erebus or HMS Terror, both of which were abandoned after becoming stuck in ice somewhere in the Arctic while trying to negotiate the north-west passage.

Their mission had set off in 1845, and Mr Diamond said the ships were last sighted by whalers in July that year.

Much of what is known about the rest comes from scattered evidence – which crucially includes a note left in a man-made cairn stating the crew abandoned ship in 1848.

A stone statue currently stands in Banbridge in honour of Francis Crozier, with the image facing north-west in memory of the event.

He had gone on to take full command of the struggling expedition after the previous head, Sir John Franklin, died.

When reports of the find emerged this week Mr Diamond, who has been Banbridge District Council heritage officer for more than 12 years, said: “When I heard the news, I thought: ‘Wow! It’s absolutely fantastic’.

“But they [the media] never mentioned Crozier, unfortunately.

“He was sort of overshadowed by Franklin, but it was Crozier that ended up heading the expedition.

“It’s very exciting, and I’m looking forward to seeing some of the artefacts they get up off the bed as well.

“It’s very important – not just for Banbridge, but for Northern Ireland.”

Asked if they could bring recorded items back to Banbridge to be examined and displayed, he said it would be a great idea, and he would hopefully be writing to the Canadian authorities to request this.

One of the things which has long been supposed is that lead poisoning could have affected the crew.

It was thought solder in the cans of tinned food – and in pipes on board – could have weakened the men.

However, given the circumstances in which the sailors found themselves, Mr Diamond said they had been “pretty much doomed”.

He said in its day the North-west Passage was as valued as the Panama Canal is today.

The route has been essentially unnavigable throughout history, but global warming and thinning ice is increasingly opening the route to sea traffic.