The exploits and disappearance of Banbridge-born Polar explorer Francis Crozier has intrigued generations for 170 years and last week a presentation outlining fresh evidence proved so popular, it had to be relocated.
The lecture delivered by Ryan Harris, the senior underwater archaeologist who discovered the lost wreckage of one of the two ships (the Erebus) on the ill-fated final expedition to the Arctic, revealed Crozier may have found the Northwest Passage.
He also revealed that a further dive to the Erebus is planned for next month, when they hope to try a live video feed allowing people to experience the exploration in real time.
Banbridge Council has expressed its gratitude to Iveagh Movie Theatre who stepped in at short notice when the Old Town Hall could not accommodate the number of people interested in the lecture, and a spokesperson for the council said demand and interest was very high.
“Around 180 people attended the talk with some travelling from as far as Dublin and Wicklow, and feedback was very positive,” said the spokesperson. “We were also delighted to welcome the Canadian Deputy High Commissioner, Alan Kesse, on the evening.”
Locating the wreckage of Erebus is a major breakthrough in the search for clues to the loss of the expedition, which under the leadership of 60-years old Sir John Franklin, left London in 1846 with 129 men and two well-stocked ships, Erebus and Terror. However, Franklin was dead within two years and command passed to the hands of Crozier.
It was Crozier who led the attempt to escape from the clutches of the ice. All 129 men perished, leaving behind only a few skeletons and piles of discarded equipment. According to legend, Crozier was among the last to die, still struggling to lead his men to safety. His body has never been found.
During next month’s dive, the team hope to be able to identify archaeologically whether the ship was re-manned as this would prove the crew must have seen a navigable route through the Northwest Passage.
“If they were on board this ship they would have known that they had done it,” said Mr Harris.
The expedition’s disappearance became one of the great mysteries of the Victorian exploration era.
Experts believe the ships were lost when they became locked in the ice near King William Island and that the crews abandoned them in a hopeless bid to reach safety.
Reports at the time from local Inuits said the men, desperate for food, resorted to cannibalism before they died.
In 1997 the bones of crew discovered on King William Island were found to have cut marks consistent with the men having been cut up and eaten.
The Canadian government began searching for Franklin’s ships in 2008 in a dispute over the sovereignty of an area made more viable as a trading route because of global warming increasing ice melt.
“We are dovetailing our interest with the military which has sovereignty considerations,” said Mr Harris.
The divers will be seeking answers to some intriguing questions.
Mr Harris said: “Did the discipline breakdown, at what point did it occur to people to try it alone? Were there officers at the end?
“The Inuit reported that there were tins of unopened food on board and analysis could shed light on whether the men were poisoned by tainted meat.”
The archaeologist also questioned whether there was any coal left or were they burning furniture.
Mr Harris’s team of 19 divers will be establishing a camp in the ice over the site and diving through it.
They will have to bore through six feet of ice, a process taking half a day, and travel down to the wreck 11 metres below the surface.
“There is a distinct possibility of written records on the ship, there is a very good chance that we will find the records, maybe only fragments.”
The Erebus was discovered last September after wreckage was found on a nearby island.
“You could not help feel this overwhelming sense of privilege, it is a hallowed place, where these men spent their last desperate hours suffering incredible privations and making the ultimate sacrifice,” said Mr Harris of the find.
They found a table leg which may have been from Franklin’s cabin and also saw a tiller, anchors and a glass prism used to distribute light over an officer’s writing desk, possibly in Franklin’s bedchamber.
“If the entire ship is a time capsule each cabin is distinct and offers a time capsule representing the shipboard life of an individual, their personal possessions and perhaps journals they may have kept on board,” he said.
They also discovered the exit flue for a cabin stove where officers would have eaten, attempting to escape the biting cold and endless darkness of the polar north, as well as a mast, rigging and a brass cannon was lying on the sea floor nearby.
The marine archaeologist said raising the ship would not be a straightforward undertaking. It would be expensive and difficult to treat all the timbers, and although doable he said ‘generally we would prefer to leave this wreck on the sea floor’.