Although new pieces of the puzzle emerge every year, Sir John Franklin’s doomed Arctic expedition to discover the Northwest Passage remains largely shrouded in mystery and continues to intrigue academics and amateur sleuths all over the world. A fictional account of the voyage, adapted for television and airing now on AMC, has stoked renewed interest in the mystery, and on Thursday, Britain officially gifted the wrecks of the HMS Erebus and Terror and their contents to Canada, meaning work to uncover their secrets can continue for years to come.
The timing couldn't be better for Canadians curious to know more: the Canadian Museum of History in Gatineau, Quebec recently launched an exhibition on Franklin and his lost ships. Death in the Ice – The Mystery of the Franklin Expedition, which runs until September 30, brings together Inuit oral testimonies and more than 200 historical artifacts, including the only written firsthand account of the desertion of the Erebus and Terror, and part of the helm of the Erebus.
Death in the Ice also reveals a surprising detail about the expedition: it wasn’t just men who sailed into the Arctic’s unrelenting grip.
Dr. Karen Ryan is the curator of the exhibition. She says that along with the crew members, a cat, a dog and a monkey travelled aboard Erebus. The animals “are also a part of the story,” she says.
Seafaring pets were a common fixture aboard Naval and merchant ships throughout the 18th and 19th centuries. Ship’s monkeys were not unheard of, and were usually brought aboard for entertainment. Cats were recruited for their expert mousing skills, and dogs for their companionship. A tiger-striped tabby cat named Mrs. Chippy famously sailed with the crew of the Endurance on Sir Ernest Shackleton’s trans-Antarctic expedition. To this day, a bronze statue of the cat can be found on the headstone of Henry McNeish, a carpenter on the ship.
Meet the animals who sailed on Erebus:
Prior to departure, Sir John’s wife, Lady Franklin, presented the crew with an elderly Newfoundland dog named Neptune. The slow-moving dog was cherished by all on the Erebus, and made frequent appearances in Franklin’s letters home.
A monkey named Jacko was another gift from Lady Franklin. The crew made clothes for the little monkey, and dressed her up for entertainment. Sir Franklin noted in his letters that Jacko was a notorious thief, but the men found her so amusing that they didn’t mind her cunning ways.
A cat also came along for the expedition. The unnamed feline was more of a necessity than a pet, as it was charged with catching rats.