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Five interesting facts about the HMS Terror

The second of Sir John Franklin's doomed ships has been located in the Canadian Arctic. Here are five things you may not have known about the HMS Terror.

  • Sep 12, 2016
  • 564 words
  • 3 minutes
An engraving by George Back showing HMS Terror on its side in ice circa 1937 Expand Image

The likely discovery of the wreck of HMS Terror off Nunavut’s King William Island, almost two years to the day since the discovery of its sister ship, Erebus, marks the start of an exciting new chapter in the nearly 170-year-old saga of the lost Franklin expedition. Further exploration of the ship’s remains may finally provide conclusive answers to long-standing questions about the expedition’s fate, including whether a group of surviving crew members re-manned Terror and sailed south in a desperate bid for rescue.

Here is what we know about this remarkable vessel so far:

It saw action in the War of 1812 — and inspired an anthem

While perhaps best known for its polar voyages, Terror was built to be a bomb vessel and took part in several skirmishes in the War of 1812, including the Battle of Baltimore in September 1814. The resistence of Baltimore’s Fort McHenry during bombardment by Terror and the Royal Navy during this battle inspired a poem by Francis Scott Key that later served as the basis for “The Star-Spangled Banner,” the American national anthem. 

It was already a veteran of polar exploration

By the time Franklin took command of the HMS Terror in 1845, the ship had already survived two polar expeditions, albeit barely: during George Back’s 1836 expedition to the Arctic, Terror became trapped in ice for 10 months and sustained such heavy damage that it nearly sank on the return voyage across the Atlantic. It was repaired and sent to Antarctica with Sir James Clark Ross from 1839-43 along with the HMS Erebus before undergoing extensive modification for what would be its last journey to the Arctic.

Geographic features at both poles bear its name

Terror’s polar legacy lives on in the names of geographical features in both the Arctic and Antarctic. Ross named the two highest volcanic peaks on Antarctica’s Ross Island after his trusty ships. Mount Terror rises to a peak elevation of 3,262 metres — appropriately, just slightly smaller than its neighbour to the west, Mount Erebus. Terror‘s final Arctic resting place (provided analysis confirms the ship’s identity) is — perhaps not coincidentally — Terror Bay, on the southwestern shore of King William Island. 

It was supposed to be ready for anything

Both Terror and Erebus were reinforced fore and aft with thick iron plating to protect them from the crushing force of the Arctic pack ice, and had cross-planked decks, a design feature intended to absorb and distribute impacts across a wider area. The ships were also the first in the Royal Navy to be equipped with steam-powered engines and screw propellers, which could drive the vessels at speeds of up to 7.5 kilometres per hour. As history shows, these modifications weren’t enough to save the ships and their occupants from an icy grave, but further study of the wrecks is needed to understand exactly what went wrong. 

It was fully stocked for crew comfort

Because Terror was originally built to serve in a military capacity, it had ample storage space belowdecks for everything the 128 expedition members might need over the planned three-year voyage. Between them Erebus and Terror carried 24 tons of meat, 35 tons of flour, nearly two tons of tobacco, 8,000 tins of preserves and no less than 7,560 litres of liquor. Terror also boasted an on-board library with 1,200 volumes, and a stove that could circulate warm air to each of the ship’s berths through a series of ducts.


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