The disastrous Franklin Expedition to find a Northwest Passage through Arctic waters to China and India was long understood — one might add marketed — by most Victorians, including Dickens, as an instance of a tragic, heroic failure in the service of nation and empire, a perfect exemplar of British attempts to dominate the natural world and many of the peoples who happened, however inconveniently, to inhabit it. And in several senses the Franklin Expedition was that perfect exemplar, though hardly in the way that the Victorian public and Mrs Franklin believed.

Franklin's two ships famously brought along many of the delights of Western civilization, as least as understood by a British Victorian gentleman, such as Franklin. They also brought with them canned rations, and one cause of the disaster might have been, as Professor Owen Beattie of the University of Alberta argued several decades ago, lead poisoning — something strongly suggested by high levels of lead found in one of the corpses. If that was the case, then the Franklin disaster turns out to be a double instance of what happens when then-cutting edge Western technology encounters a region of the natural world to which it is not suited. As historians of polar exploration have long noted, later successful explorers recognized that they had much to learn from the Inuit, who lived in these harsh, bitterly cold places of the earth. Using common sense (which, alas, often seems quite uncommon), Roald Amundsen, Robert E. Peary, and other later polar explorers adopted Inuit clothing, igloos, and means of transportation — sleds drawn by dogs. Franklin, in contrast, clearly believed that these supposedly lesser races and lesser societies had nothing to teach a Victorian gentleman.

Unfortunately, that's not the only way in which the Franklin expedition exposed the rot at the core of the idealized views of British exploration and British imperialism. Douglas-Fairhurst correctly points out that the status of the lost men as heroes of nation and empire derived less from what they had accomplished than from what their contemporaries took them to represent. The British public fervently believed that Franklin and his men had “demonstrated that no environment was hostile enough to destroy the toughest fibres of his moral being, such as courage, duty, and loving. In sacrificing themselves for the great good, they had discovered a greater idea of goodness.”

The problem with this heart-warming version of Franklin's last expedition is that it bears little relation to what actually happened. “From conception to motto,” argues Andrew Lambert in his revisionist biography, “the monument in [in Waterloo Place] was a lie.” The truth was far nastier.

Later expeditions of would-be rescuers discovered bodies in parts cut by steel-edged tools. “Despite some nervous attempts to blame the local Inuit population, not least by Dickens in a shrilly racist article published in Household Words, the evidence was clear . . . the survivors had turned to cannibalism.” And the evidence was pretty grisly: “The fingers were defleshed, the larger bones were cracked open to get at the marrow, and the skulls of the skeletons were missing, indicating that they had been carried away, a grotesque form of takeaway.“ Between 40 and 50 of the original 127 members of the expedition were eaten by their companions. As Douglas-Fairhurst astutely points out, this supposedly heroic polar expedition ended up as “a real-life version of Heart of Darkness.”

Related Materials


Douglas-Fairhurst, Robert. “Terror to Terror: How heroic lies replaced hideous reality after the Arctic death of Sir John Franklin.” Times Literary Supplement. (13 November 2009): 3-4.

Lambert, Andrew. Franklin: Tragic Hero of Polar Exploration. London: Faber, 2009.

Dickens, Charles. "The Lost Arctic Voyagers." Household Words, 2 December 1854.

"Lead solder big factor in deaths of explorers." Victoria Times-Colonist . 1 February 1990. B9.

Content last modified 27 March 2002