Francis Crozier, Arctic Hero

John Hagan investigates the ill-fated final voyage of the polar explorer, Banbridge's most famous son

The monument of Francis Crozier, Northern Ireland’s greatest ever polar explorer, stands proudly opposite Avonmore House in Banbridge, County Down, where he was born. Snapping around his feet are the polar bears said to have taken his life.

Late in 2014, sonar images captured by a team of Canadian marine surveyors shed light on a longstanding mystery involving Crozier, surely Ireland's most intrepid explorer. Thanks to this breakthrough, the final resting place of one of the two ships (Erebus or Terror) on Crozier’s ill-fated Northwest Passage exploration of 1845 was found.

This discovery provides us with an opportunity to investigate the background to the Royal Navy’s greatest ever polar exploration disaster and Crozier’s role in it. Captain Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier met his death in 1848 in search of the legendary Northwest Passage – this lucrative shortcut between the Atlantic and the Pacific had long been an obsession of Europe’s seafaring powers.

During the previous 20 years, for example, England’s Sir John Barrow, Second Secretary of the Admiralty, had dispatched no less than eight Royal Navy expeditions without success. In 1845, amidst mounting competition from other nations and commercial interests, Barrow commissioned another attempt. It was the largest, best-equipped polar expedition ever mounted.

The two ships requisitioned for the purpose, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, were the most technologically advanced vessels on the planet. Their bows and bottoms were specially reinforced, internal heating systems were installed, and each had sophisticated retractable screw propellers. They carried their own desalinators and were lavishly provisioned with a recent innovation: canned food.

The nation’s most renowned Arctic adventurer of the time, Sir John Franklin, led the handpicked crew of 129 sailors – it was the Apollo programme of its day. Yet, it was ultimately lost without trace, and is today generally acknowledged as the worst disaster in the history of polar exploration.

Crozier was a dedicated sailor. He first went to sea at the age of 13 and worked his way through navy rankings from cabin boy to captain. He sailed in all kind of ships, in war and peace time, across the oceans and seas of the world.

In 1819, aged 22, he made his first expedition in search of the Passage as midshipman with Captain William Parry. By the time of the Franklin Expedition, he had made six trips, two as second in command exploring both the Arctic and Antarctic. He was a true ‘blue water man’, with more experience sailing amongst polar ice than any man then alive.

There is little doubt that, given his knowledge and experience, Crozier should have been offered command of the 1845 voyage, and yet he was passed over for Franklin. His background was, seemingly, the principal impediment. For a start, Crozier was 'dreadful Irish', and to make matters worse, he was Presbyterian, not a member of the Church of Ireland.

He may have been ‘an officer’, but he was certainly, in the eyes of his peers, not ‘a gentleman’ – not the sort of person brother officers would ask to the club. He was considered as rough as the country he came from, crudely educated and with none of the required social graces of the day. It seemed his station in life was to follow, not to lead.

Just before the expedition sailed, Crozier learned that his offer of marriage to Sophia Cracroft, Franklin’s niece, was rebuffed. It was an omen for the voyage, perhaps, and Crozier sailed in a melancholy frame of mind, even telling fellow officers that he didn’t expect to return.

On May 19, 1845, the two vessels were farewelled at Greenhithe, London, with all due pomp and ceremony. Watched by an enthusiastic cheering crowd of some 10,000, Erebus, Terror and their elite crews departed. Six weeks later, the ships reached Disco Bay in Greenland, where they offloaded supplies. On July 12 they struck west across Baffin Bay, and on July 26 were last sighted by two Arctic whalers.

The next two years were to see the expedition entombed in darkness for 19 months by monstrous ice packs pouring off the North Pole like avalanches. Temperatures of 50-60 below zero cracked bolts and fastenings like rifle shots. Blizzards, lasting for weeks on end, buried Erebus and Terror in 20-foot snowdrifts.

Life in this frozen prison was brutal. Each sailor had a space 14 inches wide for his hammock, and despite the ‘heating system’, quarters were damp and bedding, often shared with rats, continually froze in the numbing cold. Rations were in short supply, while the incessant grinding of ice against the hull, and the shrieking of the polar wind in the top decking and masts completed the torment. Isolation, loneliness, privation and fear were unremitting.

The twin spectres of debilitation and death stalked the officers and crew. On June 11, 1847, Sir John Franklin died and Crozier assumed leadership of the beleaguered expedition. During the following ten months, the body count mounted. With stores dangerously low and no apparent thaw imminent, Crozier decided to abandon ships and attempt to reach the Hudson’s Bay Company outpost on Great Slave Lake on foot.

Accompanied by the remaining 104 survivors, he set out on the 900 mile trek across the inhospitable ice desert. Blinded by snow glare, numbed with cold, dehydrated and tortured by hunger, the emaciated men moved painfully southwards on gangrenous and frost bitten feet. Starvation, scurvy and exposure continued to decimate the remnants of the company.

In order to save the living, Crozier was forced to make a nauseating decision: to cannibalise the dead. Remains subsequently found along the route of this ‘death march’ attest to intentional dismemberation of corpses. The remains of the expedition were later discovered on Montreal Island, near the mouth of the Back’s River, some 600 miles north east of their intended goal.

The expedition may have foundered, but the courage and camaraderie of the crew seemingly remained resolute in face of the most horrific Arctic conditions and depravations. It is rumoured that Crozier survived and spent his remaining days amongst the nomadic Chipewyan herders of northern Canada, though this has never been confirmed.

Certainly his previous forays into the polar regions endowed him with the necessary knowledge and endurance skills to have done so. Like those indigenous people, Crozier was a wanderer, an ‘outsider’ amongst his own. Perhaps he may have found contentment and acceptance for what he was among them, rather than discrimination based on his Irish birth and social background.