The Lost Arctic Voyagers [Part 1 of 2] (1854 December 2)


DR. RAE may be considered to have established, by the mute but solemn testimony of the relics he has brought home, that SIR JOHN FRANKLIN and his party are no more. But there is one passage in his melancholy report, some examination into the probabilities and improbabilities of which, we hope will tend to the consolation of those who take the nearest and dearest interest in the fate of that unfortunate expedition, by leading to the conclusion that there is no reason whatever to believe, that any of its members prolonged their existence by the dreadful expedient of eating the bodies of their dead companions. Quite apart from the very loose and unreliable nature of the Esquimaux representations (on which it would be necessary to receive with great caution, even the commonest and most natural occurrence), we believe we shall show, that close analogy and the mass of experience are decidedly against the reception of any such statement, and that it is in the highest improbable that such men as the officers and crews of the two lost ships would, or could, in any extremity of hunger, alleviate the pains of starvation by this horrible means.

Before preceeding to the discussion, we will premise that we find no fault with Dr. Rae, and that we thoroughly acquit him of any trace of blame. He has himself openly explained, that his duty demanded that he should make a faithful report, to the Hudson's Bay Company or the Admiralty, of every circumstance stated to him ; that he did so, as he was bound to do, without any reservation ; and that his report was made public by the Admiralty : not by him. It is quite clear that if it were an ill-considered proceeding to disseminate this painful idea on the worst of evidence, Dr. Rae is not responsible for it. It is not material to the question that Dr. Rae believes in the alleged cannibalism ; he does so merely "on the substance of information obtained at various times and various sources," which is before us all. At the same time, we will most readily concede that he has all the rights to defend his opinion which his high reputation as a skilful and intrepid traveller of great experience in the Arctic Regions — combined with his manly, conscientious and modest personal character — can possibly invest him with. Of the propriety of his immediate return to England with the intelligence he had got together, we are fully convinced. As a man of sense and humanity, he perceived that the first and greatest account to which it could be turned, was, the prevention of the useless hazard of valuable lives ; and no-one could better know in how much hazard all lives are placed that follow Franklin's track, than he who has made eight visits to the Arctic shores. With these remarks we can release Dr. Rae from this inquiry, proud of him as an Englishman, and happy in his safe return home to well-earned rest.

The following is the passage in the report to which we invite attention: "Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of famine); some were in a tent or tents ; others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter ; and several layers scattered about in different directions. Of those found on the island, one was supposed to have been an officer, as he had a telescope, strapped over his shoulders, and his double-barrelled gun lay underneath him. From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource — cannibalism — as a means of prolonging existence... None of the Esquimaux with whom I conversed had seen the 'whites,' nor had they ever been at the place where the bodies were found, but had their information from those who had been there, and who had seen the party when travelling."

We have stated our belief that the extreme improbability of this inference as to the last resource, can be rested, first on close analogy, and secondly, on broad general grounds, quite apart from the improbabilities and incoherencies of the Esquimaux evidence : which is itself given, at the very best, at second-hand. More than this, we presume it to have been given at second-hand through an interpreter ; and he was, in all probability, imperfectly acquainted with the language he translated to the white man. We believe that few (if any) Esquimaux tribes speak one common dialect ; and Franklin's only experience of his interpreters in his former voyage was, that they and the Esquimaux they encountered understood each other "tolerably" — an expression which he frequently uses in his book, with the evident intention of showing that their communication was not altogether satisfactory. But, even making the very large admission that Dr. Rae's interpreter perfectly understood what he was told, there yet remains the question of whether he could render it into language of corresponding weight and value. We recommend any reader who does not perceive the difficulty of doing so and the skill required, even when a copious and elegant European language is in question, to turn to the accounts of the trial of Queen Caroline, and to observe the constant discussions that arose — sometimes, very important — in reference to the worth in English, of words used by the Italian witnesses. There still remains another consideration, and a grave one, which is, that ninety-nine interpreters out of a hundred, whether savage, half-savage, or wholly civilized, interpreting to a person of superior station and attainments, will be under a strong temptation to exaggerate. This temptation will always be strongest, precisely where the person interpreted to is seen to be the most excited and impressed by what he hears ; for, in proportion as he is moved, the interpreter's importance is increased. We have ourself had an opportunity of inquiring whether any part of this awful information, the unsatisfactory result of "various times and various sources," was conveyed by gestures. It was so, and the gesture described to us as often repeated — that of the informant setting his mouth to his own arm — would quite as well describe a man having opened one of his own veins, and drunk of the stream that flowed from it. If it be inferred that the officer who lay upon his double-barrelled gun, defended his life to the last against ravenous seamen, under the boat or elsewhere, and that he died in so doing, how came his body to be found? That was not-eaten, or even mutilated, according to the description. Neither were the bodies, buried in the frozen earth, disturbed ; and is it not likely that if any bodies were resorted to as food, those the most removed from recent life and companionship would have been the first? Was there any fuel in that desolate place for cooking "the contents of the kettles"? If none, would the little flame of the spirit-lamp the travellers may have had with them, have sufficed for such a purpose? If not, would the kettles have been defiled for that purpose at all? "Some of the corpses," Dr. Rae adds, in a letter to the Times, "had been sadly mutilated, and had been stripped by those who had the misery to survive them, and who were found wrapped in two or three suits of clothes." Had there been no bears thereabout, to mutilate those bodies ; no wolves, no foxes? Most probably the scurvy, known to be the dreadfullest scourge of Europeans in those latitudes, broke out among the party. Virulent as it would inevitably be under such circumstances, it would of itself cause dreadful disfigurement - woeful mutilation — but, more than that, it would not only soon annihilate the desire to eat (especially to eat flesh of any kind), but would annihilate the power. Lastly, no man can, with any show of reason, undertake to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves. It is impossible to form an estimate of the character of any race of savages, from their deferential behaviour to the white man while he is strong. The mistake has been made again and again ; and the moment the white man has appeared in the new aspect of being weaker than the savage, the savage has changed and sprung upon him. There are pious persons, who, in their practice, with a strange inconsistency, claim for every child born to civilization all innate depravity, and for every savage born to the woods and wilds all innate virtue. We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous and cruel ; and we have yet to learn what knowledge the white man — lost, houseless, shipless, apparently forgotten by his race, plainly famine-stricken, weak, frozen, helpless, and dying — has of the gentleness of the Esquimaux nature.


Now, this was Franklin's case. He had passed through the ordeal we have described. He was the Chief of that expedition, and he was the Chief of this. In this, he commanded a body of picked English seamen of the first class ; in that, he and his three officers had but one English seaman to rely on ; the rest of the men being Canadian voyagers and Indians. His Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea in 1819-22, is one of the most explicit and enthralling in the whole literature of Voyage and Travel. The facts are acted and suffered before the reader's eyes, in the description of FRANKLIN, RICHARDSON, and BACK : three of the greatest names in the history of heroic endurance.

See how they gradually sink into the depths of misery.

"I was reduced," says Franklin, long before the worst came, "almost to the skin and bone, and, like the rest of the party, suffered from degrees of cold that would have been disregarded whilst in health and vigour." "I set out with the intention of going to Saint Germain, to hasten his operations (making a canoe), but though he was only three quarters of a mile distant, I spent three hours in a vain attempt to reach him, my strength being unequal to the labour of wading through the deep snow; and I returned quite exhausted, and much shaken by the numerous falls I had got. My associates were all in the same debilitated state. The voyagers were somewhat stronger than ourselves, but more indisposed to exertion, on account of their despondency. The sensation of hunger was no longer felt by any of us, yet we were scarcely able to converse upon any other subject, than the pleasures of eating." "We had a small quantity of this weed (tripe de roche, and always the cause of miserable illness to some of them) in the evening, and the rest of our supper was made up of scraps of roasted leather. The distance walked to-day was six miles." "Previous to setting out, the whole party ate the remains of their old shoes, and whatever scraps of leather they had, to strengthen their stomachs for the fatigue of the day's journey." "Not being able to find any tripe de roche, we drank an infusion of the Labrador tea-plant, and ate a few morsels of burnt leather for supper." "We were unable to raise the tent, and found its weight too great to carry it on ; we therefore cut it up, and took a part of the canvass for a cover." Thus growing weaker and weaker every day, they reached, at last, Fort Enterprise, a lonely and desolate hut, where Richardson — then Dr. Richardson, now Sir John — and Hepburn, the English seaman, from whom they had been parted, rejoined them. "We were all shocked at beholding the emaciated countenances of the Doctor and Hepburn, as they strongly evidenced their extremely debilitated state. The alteration in our appearance was equally distressing to them, for, since the swellings had subsided, we were little more than skin and bone. The Doctor particularly remarked the sepulchral tone of our voices, which he requested us to make more cheerful, if possible, quite unconscious that his own partook of the same key." "In the afternoon Peltier was so much exhausted, that he sat up with difficulty, and looked piteously ; at length he slided from his stool upon the bed, as we supposed to sleep, and in this composed state he remained upwards of two hours without our apprehending any danger. We were then alarmed by hearing a rattling in his throat, and on the Doctor's examining him he was found to be speechless. He died in the course of the night. Semandré sat up the greater part of the day, and even assisted in pounding some bones ; but, on witnessing the melancholy state of Peltier, he became very low, and began to complain of cold, and stiffness of the joints. Being unable to keep up a sufficient fire to warm him, we laid him down, and covered him with several blankets. He did not, however, appear to get better, and I deeply lament to add, he also died before daylight. We removed the bodies of the deceased into the opposite part of the house, but our united strength was inadequate to the task of interring them, or even carrying them down to the river." "The severe shock occasioned by the sudden dissolution of our two companions, rendered us very melancholy. Adam (one of the interpreters) became low and despondent ; a change which we lamented the more, as we perceived he had been gaining strength and spirits for the two preceding days. I was particularly distressed by the thought that the labour of collecting wood must now devolve upon Dr. Richardson and Hepburn, and that my debility would disable me from affording them any material assistance ; indeed both of them most kindly urged me not to make the attempt. I found it necessary, in their absence, to remain constantly near Adam and to converse with him, in order to prevent his reflecting on our condition, and to keep up his spirits as far as possible. I also lay by his side at night." "The Doctor and Hepburn were getting much weaker, and the limbs of the latter were now greatly swelled. They came into the house frequently in the course of the day to rest themselves, and when once seated were unable to rise without the help of another, or of a stick. Adam was for the most part in the same low state as yesterday, but sometimes he surprised us by getting up and walking with an appearance of increased strength. His looks were now wild and ghastly, and his conversation was often incoherent." "I may here remark, that owing to our loss of flesh, the hardness of the floor, from which we were only protected by a blanket, produced soreness over the body, and especially those parts on which the weight rested in lying ; yet to turn ourselves for relief was a matter of toil and difficulty. However, during this period, and indeed all along after the acute pains of hunger, which lasted but a short time, had subsided, we generally enjoyed the comfort of a few hours' sleep. The dreams which for the most part but not always accompanied it, were usually (though not invariably) of a pleasant character, being very often about the enjoyments of feasting. In the daytime, we fell into the practice of conversing on common and light subjects, although we sometimes discoursed, with seriousness and earnestness, on topics connected with religion. We generally avoided speaking, directly, of our present sufferings, or even of the prospect of relief. I observed, that in proportion as our strength decayed, our minds exhibited symptoms of weakness, evinced by a kind of unreasonable pettishness with each other. Each of us thought the other weaker in intellect than himself, and more in need of advice and assistance. So trifling a circumstance as a change of place, recommended by one as being warmer and more comfortable, and refused by the other from a dread of motion, frequently called forth fretful expressions, which were no sooner uttered than atoned for, to be repeated, perhaps, in the course of a few minutes. The same thing often occurred when we endeavoured to assist each other in carrying wood to the fire ; none of us were willing to receive assistance, although the task was disproportioned to our strength. On one of these occasions, Hepburn was so convinced of this waywardness, that he exclaimed, 'Dear me, if we are spared to return to England, I wonder if we shall recover our understandings!'"

Surely it must be comforting to the relatives and friends of Franklin and his brave companions in later dangers, now at rest, to reflect upon this manly and touching narrative ; to consider that at the time it so affectingly describes, and all the weaknesses of which it so truthfully depicts, the bodies of the dead lay within reach, preserved by the cold, but unmutilated ; and to know it for an established truth, that the sufferers had passed the bitterness of hunger and were then dying passively.

They knew the end they were approaching very well, as Franklin's account of the arrival of their deliverance next day shows. "Adam had passed a restless night, being disquieted by gloomy apprehensions of approaching death, which we tried in vain to dispel. He was so low in the morning as to be scarcely able to speak. I remained in bed by his side, to cheer him as much as possible. The Doctor and Hepburn went to cut wood. They had hardly begun their labour, when they were amazed at hearing the report of a musket. They could scarcely believe that there was really any one near, until they heard a shout, and immediately espied three Indians close to the house. Adam and I heard the latter noise, and I was fearful that a part of the house had fallen upon one of my companions ; a disaster which had in fact been thought not unlikely. My alarm was only momentary. Dr. Richardson came in to communicate the joyful intelligence that relief had arrived. He and myself immediately addressed thanksgiving to the throne of mercy for this deliverance, but poor Adam was in so low a state that he could scarcely comprehend the information. When the Indians entered, he attempted to rise, but sank down again. But for this seasonable interposition of Providence, his existence must have terminated in a few hours, and that of the rest probably in not many days."

But, in the preceding trials and privations of that expedition, there was one man, MICHEL, an Iroquois hunter, who did conceive the horrible idea of subsisting on the bodies of the stragglers, if not even murdering the weakest with the express design of eating them— which is pretty certain. This man planned and executed his wolfish devices at a time when Sir John Richardson and Hepburn were afoot with him every day ; when, though their sufferings were very great, they had not fallen into the weakened state of mind we have just read of ; and when the mere difference between his bodily robustness and the emaciation of the rest of the party — to say nothing of his mysterious absences and returns — might have engendered suspicion. Yet, so far off was the unnatural thought of cannibalism from their minds, and from that of Mr. HOOD, another officer who accompanied them — though they were all then suffering the pangs of hunger, and were sinking every hour — that no suspicion of the truth dawned upon them, until the same hunter shot Mr. Hood dead as he sat by a fire. It was after the commission of that crime, when he had become an object of horror and distrust, and seemed to be going savagely mad, that circumstances began to piece themselves together in the minds of the two survivors, suggesting a guilt so monstrously unlikely to both of them that it had never flashed upon the thoughts of either until they knew the wretch to be a murderer. To be rid of his presence, and freed from the danger that at length they perceived it to be fraught with, Sir John Richardson, nobly assuming the responsibility he would not allow a man of commoner station to bear, shot this devil through the head — to the infinite joy of all the generations of readers who will honour him in his admirable narrative of that transaction.

The words in which Sir John Richardson mentions this Michel, after the earth is rid of him, are extremely important to our purpose, as almost describing the broad general ground towards which we now approach. "His principles, unsupported by a belief in the divine truths of Christianity, were unable to withstand the pressure of severe distress. His countrymen, the Iroquois, are generally Christians, but he was totally uninstructed, and ignorant of the duties inculcated by Christianity ; and from his long residence in the Indian country, seems to have imbibed, or retained, the rules of conduct which the southern Indians prescribe to themselves."

Heaven forbid that we, sheltered and fed, and considering this question at our own warm hearth, should audaciously set limits to any extremity of desperate distress! It is in reverence for the brave and enterprising, in admiration for the great spirits who can endure even until the end, in love for their names, and in tenderness for their memory, that we think of the specks, once ardent men, "scattered about in different directions" on the waste of ice and snow, and plead for their lightest ashes. Our last claim in their behalf and honour, against the vague babble of savages, is, that the instances in which this "last resource" so easily received, has been permitted to interpose between life and death, are few and exceptional ; whereas the instances in which the sufferings of hunger have been borne until the pain was past, are very many. Also, and as the citadel of the position, that the better educated the man, the better disciplined the habits, the more reflective and religious the tone of thought, the more gigantically improbable the "last resource" becomes.

Beseeching the reader always to bear in mind that the lost Arctic voyagers were carefully selected for the service, and that each was in his condition no doubt far above the average, we will test the Esquimaux kettle-stories by some of the most trying and famous cases of hunger and exposure on record.

This, however, we must reserve for another and concluding chapter next week.

Page images (5)

About this document ...

  • Written by: Charles Dickens
  • Published in: Household Words
  • Publication issue: 245
  • Date: 1854 December 2
  • Page(s): 361-365
Sunken ship