The HMS Terror suffered a horrific fate. No surprise there. Its demise was so great, though, that it ranks among the worst ever suffered by the Royal Navy. And its ultimate fate remained unconfirmed until this past week when the wreck was found, resting on the ocean floor, 168 years after it perished during the ill-fated Franklin Expedition.
Along with the HMS Erebus, the Terror was supposed to traverse the Northwest Passage. The evidence shows, however, the ice trapped the ships, and both crews perished trying to make their way south across the floes. (There is evidence of cannibalism during that doomed journey, something attested to by Inuit oral traditions.)
The voyage had begun well enough. The vessels had been fitted for the harsh environment after a rather auspicious exploration of the coast of Antarctica. There they had discovered the Ross Ice Shelf, and in honor of their mission, two Antarctic features were named for them Mounts Erebus & Terror, on Ross Island.
Upon their return to London, iron plate was added to their hulls and coal-fueled steam engines were installed.
Sadly, the Arctic proved less hospitable, and their entrance into Baffin Bay in August 1845 marked the final time either ship was seen until now. An extensive search at the time proved futile. Their respective discoveries are announced here, and here.
Around 130 men abandoned the ships when they became icebound. Some of their bones were recovered from King William Island. The sad story has been recited in many places, including this article which was written when the wreck of the Erebus was discovered.
As in the Antarctic, here too the ships were honored by having natural features named after them. Fittingly, Erebus Bay and Terror Bay hug the west coast of King William Island, just north of which marked the estimated position where the ships were abandoned.
Read on, and learn something quite interesting about the names of these two ill-fated ships.
I have written about the importance of names in the past.*
There are a variety of conventions for christening ships. Some result in creative names, but others are quite mundane. In the United States, with plenty of exceptions, the contemporary patterns for naming ships vary by their type of class. For example:
Aircraft Carriers – are now named after Presidents
Amphibious Assault Ships – early Ships or USMC Battles
Ballistic Missile Submarines – States
Fast Attack Submarines – Cities
Cruisers – Past Battles
Frigates – Navy, Marine or Coast Guard Heroes
Patrol Boats – Weather Phenomena like Squall, Monsoon and Cyclone
Of course, like everything else in the United States, the naming of ships is prone to becoming politicized, as this entertaining article reveals.
Other nations have followed comparable christening patterns throughout recent centuries. Grouping similarly functioning vessels with particular themes makes sense. That way if you encountered a ship named Blue Dwarf or Yellow Dwarf, you could make a well educated guess that the vessel was a mining ship, and part of the Jupiter Mining conglomerate.
I suppose even garbage scows are named in some logical fashion, perhaps after politicians?
Unsurprisingly, in addition to battles, heroes, and major cities, aquatic life has been a common feature. Thus pre-Soviet Russian subs were named things like Walrus or Shark (albeit, in Cyrillic).
The Royal Navy shared an affinity for marine life, and Dolphin was a popular example. There were no fewer than a dozen ships, thus named, although some were fairly modest (including a convict ship used in the first have of the nineteenth century).
I actually possess the altar rail from the ship’s chapel in the HMS Dolphin that was commissioned in 1882. But that’s a sea tale for another day . . .
C.S. Lewis christened a ship of his own. He even included its name in the title of the Chronicle of Narnia which describes its quest: The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The ship herself was modest, but marked a new age of Narnia exploration.
The name of the ship was Dawn Treader. She was only a little bit of a thing compared with one of our ships, or even with the cogs, dromonds, carracks and galleons which Narnia had owned when Lucy and Edmund had reigned there under Peter as the High King, for nearly all navigation had died out in the reigns of Caspian’s ancestors. . . .
But now Caspian had begun to teach the Narnians to be sea-faring folk once more, and the Dawn Treader was the finest ship he had built yet.
She was so small that, forward of the mast, there was hardly any deck room between the central hatch and the ship’s boat on one side and the hen-coop (Lucy fed the hens) on the other.
But she was a beauty of her kind, a “lady” as sailors say, her lines perfect, her colors pure, and every spar and rope and pin lovingly made.
In his Middle Earth sagas, J.R.R. Tolkien includes the names of a number of ships.
Eärrámë – Sea Wing
Númerrámar – Sunset Wings
Palarran – Far-Wanderer
Vingilótë – Foam Flower
Hirilondë – Haven Finder
Entulessë – Return (sailed by Vëantur during the Númenórean’s return to Middle Earth)
The Inklings appear to have given the decision of naming their ships the attention the activity merits.
More about the HMS Terror and the HMS Erebus
The name of the HMS Terror was, of course, not chosen to jinx its future. It was thus named to instill fear in those it opposed. This was natural, since it was originally commissioned as a warship, as was the Erebus. In fact, the two vessels were the same exact type of warship.
So, how might “Terror” and “Erebus,” the mythological Greek deity of darkness, who shared his name with an abode of the dead? It becomes clearer when we learn that both of the ships originally served as “bomb ships.” Like later battleships, these vessels were designed to rain fire from the sky—something terrifying to stationary garrisons.
The names of some of their sister ships whose mortars fired upon enemies of the British Empire included Thunder, Vesuvius, and Hecla (the Icelandic volcano).
The HMS Terror actually saw combat, prior to its conversion to peaceful pursuits. Amazingly, it was among the bomb ships—accompanied by the Volcano, Meteor, Devastation and Aetna—during the Battle of Baltimore in the War of 1812. Thus, the Terror is also memorialized in the national anthem of the United States: “the bombs bursting in air.”
Curiously, the predecessor of the HMS Erebus we have been discussing, a “rocket vessel” with the same name, inspired the lyrics “by the rocket’s red glare,” at the same historic battle.
* The importance of naming has led me to address the subject from a number of angles through the years.