In 1845 the Franklin Expedition sailed from England as the jewel of British polar enterprise. With 129 men and two steam-powered, hull-reinforced ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, the Franklin Expedition promised to deliver on the centuries-long search for the Northwest Passage.
Sir John Franklin, expedition commander, was one of the toughest, most experienced veterans of the fleet. A previous overland expedition to the polar sea had brought him to the edge of starvation and fame back in England as “The Man Who Ate His Own Boots.”
Thus it was surprising when Franklin did not return from the Arctic in 1846 or 1847. In 1848, with still no word, the Admiralty sent a series of expeditions to look for him, focusing on the northern coast of America and islands off its shores. They found no sign of the expedition. Lack of news deepened the mystery surrounding the lost expedition and fueled public interest.
In 1850, the discovery of Franklin’s winter camp on Beechey Island gave hope to those that thought the expedition had traveled further west (or perhaps North into the Polar Sea) and was still intact.
But Dr. John Rae, of the Hudson Bay Company, had grisly news to report in his dispatch to the Admiralty on 29 July 1854:
During my journey over ice and snow this spring…I met with Esquimaux in Pelly Bay, from one of whom I learned that a party of “white men” (Kabloonas) had perished from want of food some distance to the westward… 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.
Rae’s report touched off a furor in Britain. Charles Dickens, editor of Household Words, could not believe that Franklins’ men would have resorted to such behavior, even on the verge of death. Instead, he advanced the theory that the Inuit had probably set upon the dying party themselves.
To the modern reader, the idea of eating human flesh for reasons of survival seems understandable if rather unpalatable. Why, then, was Dickens so outraged? Thirty years later, Americans would express similar outrage when the New York Times revealed evidence of cannibalism during the Greely Expedition to Lady Franklin Bay (1881-1884).
Of all of the behaviors associated with savagery in the 19th century, none carried the same freight as cannibalism. Since Columbus returned to Europe in 1493 with reports about the man-eating propensities of the Caribes, Europeans viewed cannibalism as a marker of human societies at the lowest rung of civilization. (Even the name cannibalism is indelibly tied to the native peoples of the Americas since it derives from “Canibes,” a variant of Caribes, which is the etymological root of Caribbean).
When Abraham Ortelius published the world’s first commerical atlas in 1580, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum (Theater of the World), he included a frontispiece with goddesses for each of the known continents. As Europe sits preeminant at the top of the columns, flanked by the “semi-civilized” societies of Asia and Africa, America reclines naked at the bottom, holding an arrow and cradling a human head.
Maps of the New World showed figures of cannibals with the frequency of mountains and palm trees, even though few of these scenes were based upon eyewitness reports.
Cannibalism gave New World narratives of exploration a bit of spice. But more importantly, it confirmed an idea that was already widespread: that Europeans existed on a different level of civilization and that the occasional injustices of European colonization still represented a step forward for the “savage peoples” of the Americas.
As the 19th century witnessed an increasing number of accounts of white explorers caught eating their own kind, the dissonance was sometimes too much. Dickens remains convinced that Franklin’s men had fallen prey to some other fate. And as for the decimated, half-eaten corpses of the Greely Expedition? After quick discussion with the Secretary of the Navy, Greely informed the press that the bodies had been used as “bait” for capturing shrimp.