There was no precious cargo to be recovered; the original expedition was freighted only with expectation, itself based on dubious evidence. ‘Proof’ of open water at the top of the world, which would allow swift trade routes to the East, included Dutch harpoons found in whales killed in the Strait of Tartary – but a Royal Navy that had just helped defeat Napoleon was eager for further glory, and believed little beyond its capabilities. When all 128 men went missing, it became an international cause célèbre, orchestrated by Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane, who refused to give up hope of recovering her husband even when official forces dragged their feet; making a direct appeal to the then US President, and, with the aid of a newly instigated mass-circulation press hungry for copy, drumming up public support for rescue efforts. Success eluded her, but the legends grew.
Journalist Paul Watson’s account of the modern hunt is equally fascinating. He was on the Victoria Strait Expedition, a government-led quest to find the two shipwrecks – there’s no bigger chain of islands than the Arctic archipelago – and which itself faced serious obstacles, chief among them the annual closing up of the Arctic ice and the drying up of the money. His tale is a celebration of human doggedness, the big breakthrough coming with an Inuit researcher’s investigation of local tradition and oral history. With its locations glorying in names like Terror Bay and Skull Island, it makes for a grand old-fashioned adventure yarn.