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Captain Crozier’s Chest

Alison Sofield, Volunteer Collections

Every now and then an object appears that is so fascinating the more you find out about it the more you want to know. A very unprepossessing, very battered, little wooden sea chest is one such item. Whangarei Museum is indeed fortunate to have this item in its collection, donated to the Museum by H.V.C Acheson in 1972.


The sea chest once belonged to Captain Francis Rawdon Crozier, who was an officer in the Royal Navy and a polar explorer who took part in six expeditions to both the Antarctic and Arctic regions. He was born in Northern Ireland in 1796, and joined the Royal Navy at the age of 13, and as a midshipman sailed on an expedition to find the Northwest Passage, long seen as a much quicker and shorter route to the Middle East than round Cape Horn. The ice and the harsh conditions of the region meant lives were lost and ships were either sunk or turned back. In 1826 Crozier, now a lieutenant, was once more a member of an expedition this time trying to reach the North Pole to pinpoint the magnetic pole but alas with no success.


In 1839, Crozier now Commander of HMS “Terror” was part of a three-year expedition to explore the Antarctic. 


Crozier was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1843 in recognition of his outstanding work on magnetism.


Such amazing adventures, real “Boys Own Annual” stuff but there was much more to come.


In 1845 Captain Crozier joined Sir John Franklin on his expedition to seek the elusive North West Passage. Crozier again commanded the “Terror”, along with its sister ship the ‘Erebus”. These wooden sailing ships had their hulls reinforced to be able to withstand the pressures of the ice and steam heating was laid throughout the cabins. Large amounts of tinned food were on board. The tinned food was later to prove fatal as the welding on the tins contained lead. Bodies later recovered after many years preserved in the ice showed signs of lead poisoning. 


Nothing was heard of the expedition for three years. No alarms were raised at this stage but gradually there was pressure for search parties to go back to area where the boats were last seen by whalers and perhaps rescue the 139 men who had set out with such high hopes. The Government of the day offered large rewards for both rescue and recovery. In 1850 the Admiralty sent rescue ships with replacement provisions and found the first traces of the expedition, the abandoned winter quarters and the bodies of 3 crewmen who had died in in early 1846. Lady Franklin, wife of the expedition leader funded further attempts to find Franklin and his men but with no sign of either the men or ships, further expeditions were called off.  However, the Admiralty did make one final effort in 1852 but the search parties returned to England empty handed.


It seemed as though the fate of Franklin’s expedition as well as that of Captain Crozier would remain a mystery forever. 


Most of the northern coast of North America had been mapped by this time except for one remote area to the northwest. John Rae, working at the time, land mapping for the Hudson Bay Company came across a group of Inuits, native to the region who spoke of seeing groups of white men travelling south, and many corpses had been found. There was evidence of cannibalism among the white men and the Inuits also showed Rae items which had belonged to the members of the expedition. When this news finally reached England it was generally accepted that all the men were dead but the tales of cannibalism could not possibly be true, after all these men were British!!!


Lady Franklin managed to fund another ship to look for the ‘Terror and the ‘Erebus in 1859, 14 years after the ill-fated ships set sail. The is expedition found many artefacts including boats on sledges from the two missing ships as well as stone cairns with written messages signed by Captain Crozier giving only sparse details of what happened. 


Various expeditions throughout the 20th century turned up more items of interest and as the interaction between the remote Inuits and Americans became more established Inuit oral history threw light on the fate of the missing ships.  In fact the ships had drifted on icefloes to end up 400 miles apart. Native oral history talked about masts poking through the ice and miraculously it was these recollections that led to the discovery of “Terror” and” Erebus “preserved in the ice in 2014 and 16.


Much remains to be discovered when these ship’s secrets are eventually revealed. The greatest tragedy of all that with global warming the North West passage is no longer iced up and ships may pass through unhindered.


Returning back to Captain Crozier’s sea chest which must have accompanied Crozier on many of his expeditions, what tales could it tell. Did it go with him to the Antarctic?  Did he take it on an earlier voyage to the Arctic? 


His descendants brought the chest to New Zealand where it ended up in Whangarei, so it must have had great significance for them.


If you would like to find out more about Franklin’s expedition, read Gillian Hutchinson’s well illustrated book, “Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition – Lost and Found” available from Whangarei Central Library.