The footage is eerie, a plunge through a dim world of lush seaweed, the underwater forests of the treeless Arctic. Objects swim into view: a bell, a small fish, a stovepipe, the barnacled bow of the ship itself. One of the discoverers said, “We spotted two wine bottles, tables and empty shelving. Found a desk with open drawers with something in the back corner of the drawer.” This ship, the Terror, sank sometime after 1848 and was found in 2016. It’s easy to see the discovery as something far away and long ago, but there is another story to be told about the ship’s role in the scramble for the Arctic, which continues to shape the geopolitics of the world.
The Terror and its sister ship, the Erebus, set out from Greenhithe, a village on the Thames downstream from London, on May 19, 1845. The expedition was headed by John Franklin, an explorer who hoped to find the Northwest Passage, a short route between the Atlantic and the Pacific that would benefit trade and assert British dominance in the far north.
The ships were equipped with monogrammed silverware and three years’ worth of food, including half a ton of mustard, a dozen tons of sugar, 9,450 pounds of chocolate, and a mountain of canned goods, as well as a sizable library and 2,700 pounds of candles, and were piled with coal to burn.
They sailed up the west coast of Greenland. From there, they proceeded into the tangle of islands at North America’s frigid end. It was not unusual for ships to get locked into the ice over winter and then sail on after the thaw, but somehow the Terror and the Erebus never got loose. Things went wrong, and then wronger, though we don’t know much about how and why.