What was the real motivation of the Franklin Expedition?
Ages 16-18

MysteryQuest 43

What was the real motivation of the Franklin Expedition?

Author: James Miles

Editor: Warren Woytuck, Ruth Sandwell

Series Editor: Roland Case


A critical thinking challenge for students, ages 16-18

Return to top of page

In 1845 Britain sent two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, under the command of Sir John Franklin to the Canadian Arctic in search of a Northwest Passage. Despite their sailing expertise, the entire party of 129 men and their ships disappeared and never returned. What motivated the British government to send this expedition on such a risky voyage? The Admiralty's Sailing Orders (Instructions) to Franklin provided an extensive list of objectives, some related to the discovery of the Northwest Passage, while others were related to science and specifically to geomagnetic observations. In addition to the objectives of the British government, Captain Sir John Franklin may have had his own motivations for the expedition, while the officers on board, including Commander James Fitzjames, may have had other reasons for being involved in the expedition.

For explorers or historians searching for Franklin, determining the actual motivations of the expedition may reveal more about its fate. Did a focus on discovering the magnetic pole lead Franklin's party to become stuck in the ice-congested waters of Victoria Strait? Did a preoccupation with personal ambition and fame play a role in the disaster? What were the real motivations behind the Franklin Expedition?

Return to top of page

This MysteryQuest invites you to investigate the motivations behind the Franklin Expedition. You will investigate the motivations of three participants in the expedition: Captain Sir John Franklin, Commander James Fitzjames, and the British government and Admiralty. You will then rank each participant's motivations. Finally, you will determine which motivation was most influential in guiding the Franklin Expedition.

Return to top of page

STEP 1: Learn about the Franklin Expedition

In 1845 Sir John Franklin led an expedition of two ships and 128 men in hopes of finding the Northwest Passage to Asia, but also to better understand geomagnetic science by locating magnetic north. The disappearance of the ship and subsequent searches further intensified the mystery around the Franklin Expedition.

Begin your investigation by learning more about the expedition, its purposes, its ultimate fate and the attempts to locate the remnants by reading the following documents.

STEP 2: Look for evidence of motivations

Your next task is to identify the motivations of each participant involved in the expedition. It is very likely that Captain Sir John Franklin, Commander James Fitzjames, and the British government and Admiralty had different underlying reasons or motives for being involved in the expedition. These motivations may have included the desire to:

  • acquire new geographical and scientific information (for example, discovering information about the location of magnetic north);
  • gain personal prestige, fame or wealth (for example, an individual might be motivated by a desire to make money or become famous);
  • increase national prestige, wealth, resources or land (for example, claiming land for the British Empire);
  • experience an adventure

Using the chart Exploring motivations (Activity Sheet 3) as a guide, examine the primary sources in Evidence in the case. Record any details that may reveal each participant's motivations.

For example, in a letter from James Fitzjames to Edward Sabine, Fitzjames discusses various scientific instruments onboard in great detail, referring to one as a "beautiful instrument." This evidence may suggest that Fitzjames had a great interest in scientific observations, revealing a plausible motive for his involvement in the expedition. It is important to note that some motives will be obvious while other motives may require you to draw inferences.

As you read the documents, look for motivations and related evidence in light of three factors.
1) Alignment with needs and wants: does this motivation match what the participant may have needed or wanted?
2) Alignment with actions and words: does this motivation match the actions and words of the participant?
3) Alignment with values and beliefs: does the motivation match the values and beliefs of the participant?

Complete the activity sheet by noting any evidence about each of these participants and their motives drawn from all the suggested documents, remembering that each participant may have had more than one motivation, and that the participants may not have shared the same motivations.

STEP 3: Rank the participants' motivations

After you have identified potential motivations for each of these participants, use the Ranking motivations (Activity Sheet 4) activity sheet to create bar graphs to visually represent the relative importance of the motivations to each participant. For example, if you think the evidence suggests that Franklin was twice as motivated to gain wealth than to gain knowledge or seek adventure, the bar graph for Franklin would show motivation being twice as large as the two other motivations. After creating a bar graph for each participant, provide a brief justification for your rankings in the space provided. Do not complete the bar graph for the Overall Ranking for the Franklin Expedition at this time.

STEP 4: Identify the real motivation of the Franklin Expedition

Now that you have determined the motivations of key participants, you are ready to identify the real motivation for the expedition. Although Sir John Franklin was captain, it does not necessarily mean that his motives were the most important or influential. You will also need to consider the British government and Admiralty, who approved and funded the expedition, as well as other important officers on board, in particular, Commander James Fitzjames, who was in charge of recruitment and staffing the expedition.

Using the far right-hand column of the Ranking motivations (Activity Sheet 4) activity sheet, create a bar graph to rank the motivations for the Franklin Expedition. When creating this bar graph, consider the following factors:

  • Which participant was in a position to advance his or their motivations?
  • Which motivation played the greatest role in the daily activities of the expedition?
  • Which motivation was successful or achieved?

After ranking the motivations, use the space below the chart to describe the real motivation of the Franklin Expedition.

STEP 5: Defend your conclusions

To conclude, write a newspaper editorial to reveal the real motivation and how it may have influenced the fate of the expedition. The editorial could potentially be written as if it were written in 1854 when a search expedition led by John Rae found artifacts and heard stories of cannibalism. Alternatively, it could be set in the context of 1859 when another expedition led by McClintock and Hobson discovered a cairn containing Franklin's last communication and confirmation of his death on June 11, 1847.

You may wish to use the primary documents on the fate of Franklin Expedition found in Evidence in the case to further your understanding of the time period in which your editorial will be set. This new information might help shape how you approach the editorial. Use Planning a newspaper editorial (Activity Sheet 5) to plan your writing.

Your newspaper editorial should:

  • be clearly and well written;
  • take into account the worldview of the time period you are writing about;
  • draw on at least four pieces of primary source evidence;
  • provide a convincing or plausible explanation of the motivations you have concluded are most important or influential.

Return to top of page

Assessment rubric 1, Assessing the rankings may be used to evaluate the ranking of motivations.
Assessment rubric 2, Assessing the evidence and conclusions may be used to evaluate how well you were able to identify relevant evidence from the documents and draw plausible conclusions about the strength of the motivations behind the Franklin Expedition.

Return to top of page

  • Have a structured debate with your classmates in which you present your conclusions on the real motivations of the Franklin Expedition. Be careful to present your evidence and meet the criteria of plausible motivations outlined in the MysteryQuest.
  • Consider what evidence would be needed to know the real motivation of the Franklin Expedition.
  • What is the real motivation behind the contemporary interest in the Franklin Expedition today?

Return to top of page

Activity Sheet 1: Introducing the participants
Activity Sheet 2: Exploring the motivations behind Franklin's last voyage
Activity Sheet 3: Exploring motivations
Activity Sheet 4: Ranking motivations
Activity Sheet 5: Planning a newspaper editorial
Assessment Rubric 1: Assessing the rankings
Assessment Rubric 2: Assessing the evidence and conclusions

Return to top of page

Primary sources

HMS Erebus in Ice, Francois Musin, Nineteenth century
Instructions addressed to Captain Sir John Franklin, 5 May 1845
Departure of the Erebus and Terror on the Arctic expedition, London News, 1845
Sir John Franklin opinion to Lord Haddington, 1845
Sir John Ross opinion to Lord Haddington, 1845
Sir Edward Parry opinion to Lord Haddington, 1845
James Fitzjames to Edward Sabine, 3 June 1845
James Fitzjames to Edward Sabine, 11 July 1845
Sir John Richardson's letter to the Times, 1855
The Fate of John Franklin, John Rae, 1854
The Arctic Expedition (Initial Account of Dr. Rae's Findings), 1854
British Adventure, Illustrated London News,1849

Secondary sources

The Mysteries of Franklin's Last Voyage
Northwest Passage
Franklin's Voyage from England to the Arctic