LONDON (AP) — Britain announced Monday it will give Canada the shipwrecks of British explorer John Franklin, who perished with his crew while trying to chart the Northwest Passage through the Arctic in the 1840s.
The HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror were found in 2014 and 2016 about 30 miles (48 kilometers) apart near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic, some 1,200 miles (2,000 kilometers) northwest of Toronto.
Under an agreement between the two countries, the wrecks were the property of Britain although Canada had custody and control of them. The U.K. Ministry of Defense said Monday it would transfer ownership to Parks Canada, but retain a small sample of artifacts.
British Defense Secretary Michael Fallon said the arrangement “will ensure that these wrecks and artifacts are conserved for future generations.”
Franklin and 128 hand-picked men set out in 1845 to find the passage — a shortcut to Asia that supposedly ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific by way of the Arctic. All of them died, making the voyage the worst tragedy in the history of Arctic exploration.
Historians believe the ships got trapped in thick ice in 1846, and Franklin and some other crew members died in the ensuing months. The survivors apparently abandoned the two ships in April 1848 in a hopeless bid to reach safety overland. Inuit lore tells of “white men who were starving” in the area as late as the winter of 1850.
Dozens of searches by the British and Americans in the 1800s failed to locate the wrecks, and some of those expeditions ended in tragedy, too. The ships were among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology.
Canada announced in 2008 that it would look for the ships and poured millions of dollars into the ultimately successful search.
The Terror was discovered in 24 meters (26 yards) of water in Terror Bay, west of the community of Gjoa Haven, right where an Inuit hunter said it was.
Canada’s government said Monday it recognizes the invaluable contributions of Inuit in helping find the wrecks. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna said the ships would be co-owned with the local indigenous. There are no plans to raise the ships.
“We will continue to work with our Inuit partners on the protection and presentation of the two wreck sites and artifacts for generations to come,” McKenna said in a statement.
Associated Press writer Rob Gillies in Toronto contributed to this report.