Terror in the Arctic? Ownership of Franklin’s “lost expedition”

Posted on: September 22, 2014 by

Reports this month of an important maritime discovery as news outlets announce the likely find of a Devon-built explorer ship which it is thought was lost under the Arctic sea 160 years ago.

The expedition of British Arctic explorer Sir John Franklin holds near mythic status in Canada, mystique underscored by reference to his expedition as “Franklin’s lost expedition”.

The expedition’s vessels, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, each over 100 feet long, are known to have disappeared at around the same time in the late 1840s. It is thought that Franklin and 128 officers and men vanished in the fabled and ill-fated voyage begun in 1845 to find the much vaunted Northwest Passage, a possible lucrative trade route through the Arctic Ocean, along the northern coast of North America via waterways through the Canadian Arctic. It is thought that in 1848 as Erebus and Terror encountered the frozen wastes of the Arctic they became trapped in ice off King William Island.

Franklin’s disappearance sparked a large rescue search which ran from 1848 to 1859 which is said to have resulted in the discovery of the Northwest Passage. Franklin and the ships’ entire complement were lost.

In 2008, Canada announced a fresh effort to find Sir John’s ships. Whilst undoubtedly a voyage of historic importance, it is thought that the effort has important diplomatic consequences as Canada seeks to assert sovereignty over the Northwest Passage. The 2013 Speech from the Throne, promised to “work with renewed determination and an expanded team” to find the wrecks.

Hailing the discovery, said to have been found using a remotely operated underwater vehicle, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper called this a “truly historic” moment for Canada which had solved one of Canada’s “greatest mysteries”. Reports indicate that the evidence shows that the discovered wreck is one of the pair but it is not clear which one.

It is reported that the wreck was located in Canadian territorial waters off Victoria Strait, in Queen Maud Gulf, just off King William Island in Canada’s Arctic. As a matter of international law, ownership vests in the UK as the vessel was a State navy vessel.

That said, it is believed that in 1997 the UK government agreed to hand over the custody and care of the wrecks to the Canadian government if they were found. It is not clear whether this agreement simply gifts the wrecks and anything salved to the Canadian people or whether it entails some form of shared beneficial ownership of the contents. There is, of course, shared historic interest in the wrecks and their contents on both sides of the Atlantic.

Time will tell as the next stages of the recovery take place but, in this case at least, complex questions of ownership seem to be less a priority than the resolution of a long-standing mystery. Standing back, however, this discovery raises again the issue of the appropriate role for national governments in relation to historic wreck sites and, in particular, to the role of bilateral agreements.

As a footnote, Canada is not a State Party to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection of the Underwater Cultural Heritage so its requirements will not apply here.