Time to Eat the Dogs

A Podcast About Science, History, and Exploration

On Cannibalism

Sir John Franklin

Sir John Franklin

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.”

H.M.S. Erebus

H.M.S. Erebus

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.

Remains of the Franklin Party, King Williams Island, 1945

Remains of the Franklin Party, King Williams Island, 1945

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.

Frontispiece, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Abraham Ortelius, 1580

Frontispiece, Theatrum Orbis Terrarum, Abraham Ortelius, 1580

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.

Cannibals, detail of Diego Gutiérrez, Americae sive qvarta e orbis parties nova et exactissima description, 1562

Cannibals, detail of Diego Gutiérrez, Americae sive qvarta e orbis parties nova et exactissima description, 1562

Cannibals in Brazil, Hans Staden, 1557

Cannibals in Brazil, Hans Staden, 1557

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.


  Charles Thrasher wrote @

There’s a curious disconnect between attitudes ashore and at sea where the unwritten law had always been that cannibalism was acceptable for shipwrecked sailors in extremis. Typically lots were drawn to determine who should be sacrificed. The curious case of Regina v. Dudley and Stephens was brought by the Crown against the crew of the yacht Mignonette specifically to replace the law of the sea with case law. The surviving crew of the Migonette simply killed their weakest member who was already near death from drinking sea water.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Good point Charles. It makes me think about Nat Philbrick’s book Heart of the Sea, where he lays out the broad tolerance for cannibalism among sea-faring communities. Perhaps in the case of Franklin and Greely, the threshold of behavior was higher because they were seen as national figures. Or perhaps its a factor of who the public critics were. I doubt that many came from sea-faring communities.

  Eric wrote @

Bait for the shrimp. I love it! We sure can get illogical about our survival and food.

I recall a tale (how accurate=?) of a group of British officers who survived a shipwreck in Newfoundland (?) sometime in the 1600’s. They starved to death on the island they were on, even though the area was chock full of lobster, crab and snail. It was implied that the officers knew the inverts were there, but it was unseemly for men of their class and station to eat lobster and snails.

Are you familiar with this story? I believe I heard it from a marine historian in connection to a historical marine ecology lecture.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

Eric, I’ve never heard of this. But it does have all the makings of a British-explorers-doing-it-the-British-Way tale…though usually these were tied to the 19th century rather than the 17th century. Let me know if you find out any more about it.

  Russell Potter wrote @

Eric, you must be thinking of the voyage of Robert Hore in 1536. The sad result of his voyage is described in detail by Hakluyt; as paraphrased at the American Journeys website, “Robert Hore, thirty “gentlemen,” and two crews totaling ninety sailors embarked in two vessels from Gravesend in April 1536. After a difficult voyage of two months that carried them far enough north to see icebergs, they finally reached Cape Breton in Canada. Already low on supplies, they replenished their stock from islands of seabirds in the Gulf of St. Lawrence. While one ship sailed off to fish, the other attempted to find a hospitable landing point on the Labrador Coast. Unfortunately, their initial encounters with the local peoples were unpromising; attempts to find a village simply drove the Indian inhabitants into hiding. The crew failed to find even enough food to sustain themselves, and as their food supply dwindled they scavenged for “herbs” and roots on the mainland. A small party who went ashore to look for food returned only one survivor. He confessed that the group had been reduced to killing and eating their comrades, and as the sole survivor he persuaded other starving crewmembers to follow his example. The captain admonished the sailor, but cannibalism appeared to be the only solution to their problem. The crew had already drawn lots to see who would be murdered and eaten to prevent the others from starving when a French ship arrived in sight. The English seized it and set sail for home, arriving at Cornwall in October 1536.”

Not sure where the idea comes, though, that they ought to have turned to lobsters and snails — lobsters would have required special traps and rigs to catch, and snails, though perhaps abundant, might have done little better for them than brine shrimp did for Greely’s party centuries later — the postponement, rather than the prevention, of starvation.

  Asia on Top « Time to Eat the Dogs wrote @

[…] European conquests in Asia and America in the early 16th century did much to boost European self confidence.  (See for example, Abraham Ortelius’s frontispiece for his 1580 Atlas in my post on cannibalism) […]

  Chris Valade wrote @

Cannibalism among Franklin crew members occurred at or near McClintock’s Boat Place, in Erebus bay, King William Island. (The site located by Barry Ranford in 1992). The 40 pounds of chocolate in the sledge mounted boat found by Hobson and McClintock here is puzzling. The chocolate doesn’t fit in with a party that has resorted to cannibalism. It can be seen with the Greely Expedition and with the Donner Party that starving people tend to boil and chew leather before eating their own dead.

Franklin scholars have pointed out that “chocolate is not food.” Still, I would expect the chocolate found in Erebus Bay to have been eaten as the food supplies were rationed out. This would be prior to the remaining survivors turning to the last resource.

There are a number of ways to explain the 40 pounds of chocolate. The men in the boat could have belonged to a party that came later. The chocolate could, somehow, have gone undiscovered (unlikely in my opinion).

  Requiem for Franklin on a G String « raincoaster wrote @

[…] only Franklin had toted a pair of these along on his fatal expedition, perhaps things might have gone very differently. While Gizmodo says there is no word on whether […]

  Anonymous wrote @

this is really good stuff

  charit vinswyth wrote @

The idea that “doing things the English way” would have prevented the Franklin survivors from hunting efficiently is frequently aired. In fact, the problem was more likely that even supremely efficient hunters like the Inuit would have had a hard time supporting a party as numerous as that of the Franklin survivors. Inuit bands in the area did suffer from starvation.

As for cannibalism, I’ve always wondered if one reason why the Scott party (I’m going in the other direction, I know) was so intent on having their bodies found was a reluctance for there to be any mystery about their deaths or about to what “last resorts” they might have been driven. Just a thought. If nothing else, Scott and his men knew the history of polar exploration and were certainly aware of the shadow over the Franklin expedition that Rae created and Dickens tried to dispel. I do think that in the end, Scott would have eaten dogs, if he’d had them. But then, if he’d had dogs, he might not have had to eat them. Or at least, not all of them.

  Michael Robinson wrote @

@Charit You may be right about the Franklin party. Perhaps we are too quick to attribute failure to stuffy British ideas about travel rather than the conditions that they found themselves in. Still, I can’t help but think that if 120 Inuit were together in the Arctic they would have spread out and found other resources. But even there, perhaps the parallels don’t work since Franklin’s men were outfitted for a particular mode of shipboard life and that, once faced with disaster, were eager to escape the Arctic rather than try to survive in it. Still I think your point stands: we need to be careful in our attributions of blame.

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