The tragic story of HMS Terror, led by a pioneering Ulsterman

Morning View
Morning View

The story that we report today on pages two and three is one of the most dramatic mysteries in modern history.

The fates of HMS Terror and HMS Erebus gripped Victorian Britain, after the two ships disappeared in the Canadian Arctic 170 years ago.

The year in which they set sail to chart the Northwest Passage, 1845, was a time of rapid technological advance: railways were in their infancy, as was photography. Steam ships had begun to appear. The world, which had been largely unknown 350 years previously, was beginning to seem conquerable.

At the helm of this expedition was a Co Down man, Francis Crozier, just junior to the overall leader Sir John Franklin.

The exact fate of the boats is not known, because they never returned, and their location was also unknown until now.

Even Francis Crozier’s date of death is uncertain.

Newspapers such as this one (which were flourishing as the number of affluent, literate people grew rapidly in the early industrial age) were intrigued by the fate of the boats. They would never find out, because the main search was called off 14 years after the expedition set sail, and Erebus was only discovered in 2014, HMS Terror days ago.

In a tragic, doomed bid to escape the frozen wasteland, the survivors walked south towards the Canadian mainland.

It is a tale of bravery, and of desperation – some of the recovered bodies had cut marks consistent with cannibalism.

But ultimately it is a hopeful story of the pioneering spirit in which Britain, including Ulstermen such as Crozier, once played the leading global role.

The discovery of the two ships is an indication of how much more there is to find about the planet, and our past.

We do not know what shipwrecks or documents or fossils will one day be uncovered in locations around the world, enlarging our sense of the endlessly fascinating human affairs on which this newspaper has reported for almost 300 years.