Dr. Rae's Report on Franklin in Charles Dickens' "Household Words" (30 December 1854)

Saturday, December 30, 1854.

DR. RAE'S communication to us on the subject of his Report, which was begun last week, resumes and concludes as follows :

When the Esquimaux have an object to gain, they will not hesitate to tell a falsehood, but they cannot lie with a good grace ; "they cannot lie like truth," as civilised men do. Their fabrications are so silly and ridiculous, and it is so easy to make them contradict themselves by a slight cross-questioning, that the falsehood is easily discovered. I could give a number of instances of this, but shall confine myself to two.

When Sir John Richardson descended the McKenzie in 1848, a great number of Esquimaux came off in their canoes ; they told us that on an island to which they pointed, a number of white people had been living for some time ; that they had been living there all winter, and that we ought to land to see them. Their story was altogether so incredible, that we could not have a moment's doubt or difficulty in tracing its object. They wished to get us on shore in order to have a better opportunity of pillaging our boats, as they did those of Sir John Franklin ; for it must be remembered that the Esquimaux at the McKenzie and to the westward are different from any of those to the eastward. The former, notwithstanding the frequent efforts of the Hudson's Bay Company to effect a peace, are at constant war with the Louchoux Indians, and consequently with the "white men," as they think the latter, by supplying guns and ammunition to the Louchoux, are their allies.

Another instance excited much interest in England when it was first made known here. It was reported to Captain McClure by an Esquimaux [sic], that one of a party of white men had been killed by one of his tribe near Point Warren. That the white men built a house there, but nobody knew how they came, as they had no boat; and that they went inland. When asked "when this took place?" the reply was, that "it might be last year or when I was a child."

How any one could place any faith in such a report as this, I am at a loss to discover. Any man at all acquainted with the native character, would in a moment set down this tale at its proper value ; at least Sir John Richardson and I did - and the first is high authority. Indeed, throughout the whole of Captain or Commander McClure's communication with the natives in the neighbourhood of the McKenzie, he appears to have been admirably imposed upon by them. Let us again get at a fact or two.

He is told by a chief that the Esquimaux go so far to the westward to trade, instead of to the McKenzie "because at the latter place, the white man had given the Indians very bad water, which killed many and made others foolish (drunk), and that they would not have any such water. From this it evidently appears that the Company lose annually many valuable skins, which find their way to the Colvill [sic] instead of to the McKenzie."

Let us quietly examine the above statements. It is well known that since the McKenzie has been discovered, ardent spirits have not been admitted within the district, for the natives. At the present, and for many years back spirits or wines have not been allowed to enter the McKenzie of its neighbouring district of Athabasca, as allowances for either officers or men in the Hudson's Bay Company's service, so that the natives might not have it to say that we took for ourselves what we would not give to them. We do not know, nor do I think that there are, any Russian trading posts on the Colvill [sic]. The true reason that these Esquimaux do not trade with the Hudson's Bay Company is, that the former are constantly at war with the Louchoux. Frequent attempts have been made to effect a reconciliation between these tribes, but hitherto without success.

Captain McClure tells us that the Esquimaux informed him that "they had no communication with any person belonging to the Great River" (McKenzie) ; yet, strange to say, he intrusts the very despatches in which this is mentioned, to natives of the same tribe, and indulges the hope that his "letter may reach the Hudson's Bay Company this year," (one thousand eight hundred and fifty). In another case, Captain McClure mentions that he gave a gun and ammunition to an Esquimaux [sic] chief, to deliver a despatch into the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company. In any case, prepayment is acknowledged to be a bad plan, but worst of all in that of a savage with whom you are unacquainted, and on whom you have no hold. Had the pay depended on the performance of the service, the despatch might have had some chance of reaching its destination.

I have had some opportunities of studying Esquimaux character ; and, from what I have seen, I consider them superior to all the tribes of red men in America. In their domestic relationship they show a bright example to the most civilised people. They are dutiful sons and daughters, kind brothers and sisters, and most affectionate parents. So well is the first of these qualities understood among them, that a large family is considered wealth by a father and mother - for, the latter well know that they will be carefully tended by their offspring, well clothed and fed, whilst a scrap of skin or a morsel of food is to be obtained, as long as a spark of life remains ; and, after death, that their bodies will be properly placed either on or under the ground according to the usage of the tribe.

I do not stand alone in the high opinion I have formed of the Esquimaux character. At the Hudson's Bay Company's establishments of Fort George on the east, and Churchill on the west, coast of Hudson's Bay, where the Esquimaux visit, they are looked upon in an equally favourable light. The Moravian missionaries on the Labrador coast find the Esquimaux honest and trustworthy, and employ them constantly and almost exclusively as domestic servants. The report of the residents in the Danish settlements on the west shores of Greenland, is no less favourable ; and although I have no special authority for saying so, I believe that Captain Perring's opinions are similar. During the two winters I passed at Repulse Bay, I had men with me who had been, at some time of their lives, in all parts of the Hudson's Bay Company's territories. These men assured me that they had never seen Indians so decorous, obliging, unobtrusive, orderly, and friendly, as the Esquimaux.

Oh! some one may remark, perhaps they have some private reason for this.

Now, my men had not any "private reason" for saying so. I firmly believe, and can almost positively assert, that no case of improper intercourse took place between them and the natives of Repulse Bay during the two seasons I remained there - which is more, I suspect, than most of the commanders of parties to the Arctic Sea can truthfully affirm. A number of instances (principally shipwrecks), are brought forward to show that cannibalism has not been usually resorted to in cases of extreme want ; that it is the exception, not the rule. Yet not one of those properly represent the probable position of Sir John Franklin's party. In all the cases above alluded to, the parties suffering were deprived of water as well as of food. We all know that when any one suffers from two painful sensations, but painful in different degrees, the more severe of the two prevents the lesser from being felt.

Thirst causes a far more painful sensation than hunger, and consequently, whilst the first remains unappeased, the pangs of the other are very slightly, if at all, felt. In the case of Franklin's party, their thirst could be easily assuaged, and consequently the pangs of hunger would be felt more intensely. Even Franklin's former disastrous journey (from the narrative of which large extracts have been made) is not a parallel case. In it the suffering party had generally something or other every few days to allay the craving of hunger. They had pieces of old leather, tripe de roche, and an infusion of the tea-plant. Unfortunately, near the mouth of Back's Fish River, there are none of the above named plants, - nothing but a barren waste with scarcely a blade of grass upon it. Much stress is laid on the moral character and the admirable discipline of the crews of Sir John Franklin's ships. What their state of discipline may have been I cannot say, but their conduct at the very last British port they entered was not such as to make those who knew it, consider them very deserving of the high eulogium passed upon them in Household Words. Nor can we say that the men, in extreme cases of privation, would maintain that state of subordination so requisite in all cases, but more especially during danger and difficulty.

We have, I am sorry to say, but too many recent instances of disagreement and differences among the officers employed on the Arctic service. It is well known in naval circles that, in one vessel which has not yet arrived from the north, there will be two or three courts martial as soon as she reaches home. To place much dependence on the obedience and good conduct of the comparatively uneducated seamen, if exposed to the utmost extremes of distress, when their superiors, without having any such excuse, have forgotten themselves on a point of such vital importance, would be very unreasonable. Besides, seamen generally consider themselves, when they have lost their ship and set foot on shore, as being freed from the strict discipline to which they would readily submit themselves when on board.

As these observations have already attained a much greater length than I at first anticipate, I shall refrain from mentioning, as I intended, one or two instances of persons fully as well educated as the generality of picked seamen usually are, and brought up as Christians, having, in cases of extreme want, had recourse to the "last resource," as a means of maintaining life.

I am aware of the difficulties I have to encounter in replying to the article on the "Lost Arctic Voyagers." That the author of that article is a writer of very great ability and practice, and that he makes the best use of both to prove his opinions, is very evident. Besides, he takes the popular view of the question, which is a great point in his favour. To oppose this, I have nothing but a small amount of practical knowledge of the question at issue, with a few facts to support my views and opinions ; but, I can only throw them together in a very imperfect and unconnected form, as I have little experience in writing, and, like many men who have led a wandering and stirring life, have a great dislike to it. It is seldom that a man can do well what is disagreeable to him.

That my opinions remain exactly the same as they were when my report to the Admiralty was written, may be inferred from all I have now stated.

That twenty or twenty-five Esquimaux could, for two months together, continue to repeat the same story without variation in any material point, and adhere firmly to it, in spite of all sorts of cross-questioning, is to me the clearest proof that the information they gave me was founded on fact.

That the "white men" were not murdered by the natives, but that they died of starvation, is, to my mind, equally beyond a doubt.

In conclusion, let me remark, that I fully appreciate the kind, courteous, and flattering manner in which my name is mentioned by the writer on the subject of the lost Arctic Voyagers.

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About this document ...

  • Written by: John Rae
  • Published in: Household Words
  • Publication volume: 10
  • Publication issue: 249
  • Date: 30 December 1854
  • Page(s): 457-459
Sunken ship