Who Owns the Erebus and Terror Wrecks?

After the discovery of John Franklin’s lost ships in 2014 and 2016, an international controversy developed over ownership. Who owns the wrecks of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, and the artifacts on them? Where should the artifacts be exhibited? What about control of the Arctic waters surrounding the remains of the famous ships? Competing claims for jurisdiction soon emerged from the governments of Great Britain, Canada, and Nunavut.

In 1992, the Government of Canada had designated the undiscovered remains of the two shipwrecks as a national historic site.

According to international maritime law, military shipwrecks are the property of the country that launches an expedition. Since the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror belonged to the Royal Navy, Great Britain claimed ownership of the two vessels before they were discovered. However, the situation was complicated by the fact that in 1997, Great Britain agreed to transfer ownership of the yet unfound shipwrecks to Canada. Some artifacts of outstanding significance were to be transferred to Great Britain, and gold was to be shared equally. Though the two countries arranged an MOU, the agreement was considered to be non-binding.

What about ownership claims by the Inuit? Franklin’s ships disappeared in the Arctic in a territory established as Nunavut in April 1999. By the terms of the Nunavut Land Claims Agreement Act, the Inuit were to have ownership of all archaeological sites and artifacts within the boundaries of Nunavut. Once the wrecks of the Franklin ships were found, the Government of Nunavut claimed ownership.

After the shipwrecks were discovered, the Parks Canada agency (representing the Government of Canada) undertook negotiations with Great Britain and Nunavut. Discussions continue regarding what will happen to the shipwrecks, how and where their stories will be told, and who will preserve the undersea treasures.

Articles in Newspapers

Government Documents

Sunken ship