TORONTO — One of two British explorer ships that vanished in the Arctic nearly 170 years ago during a search for the fabled Northwest Passage has been found, Canada’s prime minister announced Tuesday in a discovery that could unlock one of history’s biggest mysteries and swell Canadian pride.

Last seen in the 1840s while under the command of Sir John Franklin, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror have long been among the most sought-after prizes in marine archaeology and the subject of songs, poems and novels.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper’s office said the well-preserved wreck of one of the vessels was found Sunday 11 yards below the surface with the help of a remotely operated underwater vehicle. Harper said that it is unclear which ship it is, but that sonar images yielded enough information to confirm it is one of Franklin’s.

“This is truly a historic moment for Canada,” said Harper, who was beaming, uncharacteristically. “This has been a great Canadian story and mystery and the subject of scientists, historians, writers and singers, so I think we really have an important day in mapping the history of our country.”

Franklin and 128 hand-picked officers and men had set out in 1846 to find the Northwest Passage, the long-sought shortcut to Asia that supposedly ran from the Atlantic to the Pacific via the harsh, ice-choked Arctic.

Historians believe the ships were lost in 1848 after they became locked in the ice near King William Island and the crews abandoned them in a hopeless bid to reach safety. Inuit lore tells of “white men who were starving” as late as the winter of 1850 on the Royal Geographical Society Island.

Dozens of searches by the British and Americans in the 1800s failed to locate the wrecks.

Canada announced in 2008 that it would look for the ships, and Harper’s government has poured millions into the venture, with the prime minister himself taking part.


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