Led by Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), an expedition to discover a viable North-West Passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific left the port of London in May, 1845. Franklin, who joined the British Navy at the age of fourteen, had participated in the battles of Copenhagen (1801) and Trafalgar (1805) during the Napoleonic Warsand later served as Governor of Tasmania from 1834 to 1845. He is chiefly remembered, however, for his journeys of arctic exploration in 1818 and 1845. During this second expedition Franklin commanded the Royal Navy vessels Erebus and Terror, and the last communication with Franklin's fleet took place in July 1845. After his ships became locked in the ice of a frozen Victoria Strait in 1846, Franklin froze to death, leaving 105 survivors to attempt a lengthy journey with sledges overland to a Hudson's Bay fort at Back's River.
For three years, nothing further was heard from the lost Franklin expedition. In 1848 searches began in earnest when a reward of £10,000 was posted. In 1848, Dr. John Rae (1813-98), an employee of the Hudson's Bay Company, accompanied Sir John Richardson of the Royal Navy in search of either news, the survivors, or the remains of the polar expedition. In 1853-54, Rae searched King William's Land. In October, 1854, Dr. Rae encountered Inuit hunters, from whom he acquired artifacts from the Franklin expedition from Inuit hunters, who recounted a strange tale of dementia and cannibalism in the Canadian arctic. Rae, concluding that the expedition's members had perished from scurvy and hunger, and had resorted to cannibalism, conveyed the Eskimos' report to the British Admiralty.
Since young Charles Dickens was fascinated by stories of South Sea exploration in general and the Bounty mutiny in particular, probably through his favourite juvenile reading, the Terrific Register, it is likely that Dickens had thoroughly immersed himself in the literature of exploration long before he came to write his two-part article on the Franklin expedition. While he did not accuse of Rae of lying, he totally rejected the notion that these emissaries of European civilisation would have stooped to so barbaric an act, even to preserve themselves. Rather, Dickens attacked the veracity of the Eskimo witnesses, who, he suspected, were embellishing their account to suit their European auditors.
The notion that the Arctic wastes had been so cold as to freeze the capability of someone like Franklin to feel and express his moral sentiments was unacceptable. Attracted in his fiction to embodiments of evil, to destroyers and engorgers, Dickens often located the sources of such depravity in social pressures and deformation. Other times he admitted the insufficiency of such an explanation. He preferred, though, to explain human nature in the terms of eighteenth-century moral philosophy: Human beings are innately good; their goodness resides in their natural moral sentiments (Kaplan, p. 353).
In Frozen in Time: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition (1988), Owen Beattie and John Geiger conclude that knife marks on some of the bones provide physical evidence to support the tales of cannibalism which the Inuit told to Dr. John Rae in the spring of 1854:
Fracture lines also indicated that the skull [found at Booth Point, King William's Land] had been forcibly broken; the face, including both jaws and all the teeth, was missing. Evidence that the body had been intentionally dismembered was further supported by the selective parts of the skeleton found: the head, arms, and legs. Besides the face, most of the skeleton was missing, including the twenty-four ribs, sternum (breastbone), all twenty-four vertebrae of the back, the two clavicles (collar bones) and two scapulas (shoulder blades). [p. 59]
Beattie and Geiger believe that the last survivors in the summer of 1848 were attempting to make the 1,500 kilometre trip from the mouth of the Back River to a Hudson's Bay fort on the eastern shore of Great Slave Lake. Exhausted, suffering from lead poisoning in varying degrees, falling prey to symptoms of advanced scurvy, and with few natural food sources available, they hit upon the plan of cannibalizing the trunk of a body, consuming the meatier parts immediately, and carrying the head, arms, and legs as they traveled south across the still ice-covered Simpson Strait.
- The Text of Dickens's "The Lost Arctic Voyagers"
- The Franklin Expedition: 1845-1859
- The Search for the North-West Passage: 1497-1845
- Reading and Discussion Questions
Beattie, Owen, and John Geiger. Frozen in Time: Unlocking the Secrets of the Franklin Expedition. Place?: 1988.
Dikens, Charles. "The Lost Arctic Voyagers." Household Words. (2 and 9 December 1854): -393.
Kaplan, Fred. Dickens, A Biography. New York: William Morrow, 1988.
Last modified 8 July 2004
Last modified 8 June 2007