Bermondsey sailor joined doomed Arctic expedition that led to death in the ice
"Their deaths are shrouded in mystery and several theories have been put forward"
It was over 170 years ago that Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition set sail from England in search of the North-West Passage, writes Becky Morton…
HMS Erebus and HMS Terror were ultimately abandoned after becoming stuck in heavy sea ice and none of the 129 men on board would return. Search parties continued to look for the ships for 11 years after they disappeared and the mystery surrounding the fate of the crew has fascinated the Victorians and historians alike.
Among those on board was John Cowie, born in Bermondsey in the early 19th century.
A new exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, Death in the Ice, seeks to answer some of the questions about what exactly happened to those men on their fateful journey. Jeremy Michell, a curator at the museum, helped to research the background of the voyage and its crew for the exhibition.
Snippets of the crew members’ lives can be found in ship records and other documents like censuses. John Cowie was born in Bermondsey but moved to Chatham in Kent, where he married Eliza Sarah Cowie in 1838. He was in his early 30s when he joined Franklin’s expedition as an “able-bodied seaman”, indicating he had previous naval experience. He also worked as a stoker on the ship, shovelling coal into the engine.
The crew came from all over the country but the majority, like Cowie, came from Kent and Greater London as areas like Woolwich and Chatham had significant naval bases. The average age of sailors on the ship was 28 and most came from a working-class background.
“Life was often more comfortable at sea than on land for someone from a poor family. At least in the navy they were clothed, paid and fed daily,” said Jeremy.
But there were also many dangers. Records show Cowie had his name tattooed on his arm, which many historians believe was to ensure sailors could be identified if killed in battle.
The exact date of Cowie’s death is uncertain as it is not known whether he was among the nine officers and 15 men who died before the ships were abandoned or those who survived long enough to reach land.
Their deaths are shrouded in mystery and several theories have been put forward. Post-mortems on the bodies of the first three crew members to die, which were perfectly preserved in permafrost, showed high lead levels suggesting they may have died from lead poisoning from tinned supplies or the plumbing system.
Other possible causes include botulism, a bacterial infection which may have been caused by undercooked meats as fuel supplies ran low, or scurvy, which would have kicked in when the ships were abandoned and food supplies were scarce.
Many were likely to have died from starvation and the extreme conditions. There is also evidence of cannibalism amongst the men from marks left on bodies which resemble the teeth of humans rather than animals.
Despite more than 40 expeditions to find the doomed ships it wasn’t until 2014 that HMS Erebus was discovered off the coast of Canada, followed by the discovery of HMS Terror last year. Dozens of artefacts have been recovered from the wreckages, preserved deep down in the icy water. Many of these objects are on display at the Death in the Ice exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, returned to London for the first time since the ships set sail in 1845.
Much of HMS Terror, which is in even better condition than Erebus, is yet to be excavated, but archaeologists hope it will uncover more clues about the fate of the expedition, perhaps in the form of documents or journals. But for now many of the details remain a mystery.
“The discoveries have raised more questions than answers,” said Jeremy. “We still don’t know exactly what happened to the ships or how the crew died. The next few years could bring some exciting findings.”
Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition is at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich until January 7, 2018.