Canada sought £20,000 British reward for finding Franklin Expedition after 164 years

An enterprising Ottawa bureaucrat hoped last year’s successful discovery of the HMS Erebus might make eligible for a 164-year-old reward of £20,000 issued by the British Admiralty.

In 1850 — just as the legendary search for the lost was ramping up — posters were tacked up around London promising a £20,000 reward “to any Party or Parties who … shall discover and effectually relieve the Crews of Her Majesty’s Ships ‘Erebus and Terror.’”

Federal bureaucrats spotted a photo of the poster in the Toronto Sun the day after the Erebus’ discovery, and quickly sent word to London about the potential of £20,000 with Canada’s name on it.

“On Sept 10, 2014 the Canadian High Commission in London was asked to enquire to British authorities about the reward,” said Raymond Rivet, a spokesman for the Privy Council Office, writing in an email to the National Post.

Matthew Sherwood for National Post)Matthew Sherwood for National Post)A 3D printed replica of the bell from the HMS Erebus, one of two ships from the Franklin Expedition, is unveiled at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto on Thursday, Dec. 18, 2014.

Since the 100+ members of the Franklin Expedition were all dead, it would be hard for Canada to claim that it had been able to “effectually relieve” anybody. However, the poster also contained a promise of £10,000 to anybody who “by the virtue of his or their efforts first succeed in ascertaining their fate.”

The £10,000 was quite a sum then, equivalent to about $850,000 today.

But a century and a half of inflation have winnowed its value down to only $20,000 — about 0.7% of the total cost of the $2.8-million Parks Canada expedition to find the Erebus.

Soon after Canada’s High Commission was put on the case, however, British historians informed them the money was long since claimed.

“The High Commission was informed by the curator of the Royal Museums that the reward for information ascertaining the fate of the expedition had been paid to a Mr. John Rae in 1854,” said Rivet.

National Maritime MuseumNational Maritime MuseumA 19th century painting by Francois Etienne shows the HMS Erebus in the ice.

John Rae, of course, is the Scottish doctor who travelled to the Arctic in search of Franklin and learned from the Inuit that the surviving members of the expedition had been driven to cannibalism during a failed attempt to walk to British North America.

Rae’s receipt of the £10,000 award was controversial for the time, and was opposed by figures such as John Franklin’s widow, who claimed the Inuit accounts were unreliable.

Regardless, it’s not a guarantee that the Admiralty would have paid out the reward given that the United Kingdom has already given Canada the Erebus itself.

Although both ships comprising the expedition were originally Royal Navy property, the wrecks and their contents were handed over to Canada as part of a 1997 memorandum of understanding.

About Tristin Hopper