Franklin’s Cannibals

It seems like something out of a science fiction horror film, doesn’t it? Unfortunately, it’s a true story. The Franklin Expedition set sail in 1845, only to have all 129 men die off in a horrendous fashion. Some died from starvation, some possibly died from scurvy or lead poisoning or other diseases. In 1848, the crew, now already reduced to 105 men, abandoned The Erebus and The Terror. They began the arduous and treacherous journey across the Arctic in hopes of being rescued. As the crew continued to die off, the remaining alive men resorted to cannibalism.

Cannibalism is not unheard of in dire situations. Take a look at the Donner Party, for example. The Donner Party was a group of American Pioneers who were traveling West, but ended up becoming stranded in the Sierra Nevadas during the winter and resorted to cannibalism of those who had already died from disease or starvation. So it is not surprising that a similar situation arose within the Franklin Expedition.

One account from 1869 remembers one body’s hands were cut off while others “had their flesh cut off as if some one or other had cut it off to eat.” Evidence of decapitation is consistent but not conclusive on some of the remains. In addition, defleshing marks found on the recovered remains from an archaeological dig on King William Island in the 1990s support this notion of cannibalism. In 1992, bones cut to expose the marrow were discovered. Approximately one quarter of the recovered remains of Franklin’s men have these cut marks, indicating cannibalism.

To make the situation even more traumatic, this cannibalism was not desperate. It was methodical. Evidence shows that brains, hands, anything that was edible – was scavenged in an attempt to stay alive. These allegations of cannibalism were largely ignored by the English public as Englishmen did not eat other Englishmen. It was too horrific to accept. Most of these cannibalism allegations stemmed from Inuit accounts, so the idea that Inuits were so different from Englishmen allowed them to be ignored. They were simply discredited because the sources weren’t deemed “credible.”  Instead, English society upheld Franklin as a hero, and erected bronze statues in his honor. Accepting the fact that the crew of the Franklin Expedition resorted to cannibalism meant accepting the fact that men will return to their true animalistic nature. As much as the English tried to ignore this fact, it could not be covered up. The Franklin Expedition did resort to cannibalism, and it was gruesome.

2 thoughts on “Franklin’s Cannibals

  1. “Englishmen did not eat other Englishmen.” That’s not a sentence you expect to read, and though it may be thought of as slightly funny now, just over one hundred and fifty years later, it is actually an incredibly sad and scary idea. As you said, the cannibalism was methodical, and every edible part of the body was consumed. These men were not performing some ritual to honor some god; no, they were dying and were eating each other to stay alive for a little bit longer. I can’t imagine being in a situation that desperate, where my only source of food is the flesh of my fellow shipmates.

    That is the odd thing, though. The accounts of cannibalism witnessed were by the Inuits, who never had any actual face-to-face dealings with the men from the Erebus and the Terror. Why? Was the idea of asking for help from the indigenous population so foreign to these sailors that it never even crossed their minds? Did they perhaps hold the notion that the Inuits were some savage people who would perhaps as soon eat them as help them? (A little ironic, I know.) Or perhaps the lead poisoning had addled their brains so far that it wasn’t even an option.

    Whatever the case may be, it’s possible that one or more of them could have survived had they asked the Inuits for help. What a sad end the entire crew came to, especially when you think of the possibilities of some of them being saved.

  2. Like you I found the recounts of the Franklin expedition extremely interesting. Not only to Englishmen, but also really to all humans in general, cannibalism is not accepted in society. The act of eating another human is disgusting and dishonorable, but when faced with the situation they were in, the men really had no choice. With no food and no drink there is very limited options that one can choose. The easily could have decided that a much more acceptable way to die would be to simply starve to death, but when faced with ones own demise you tend to do whatever it takes to survive. When studying the outcome of this expedition we see that truly the men had more options than just death or cannibalism. It would have been very easy if they had just reached out to the locals for help. Why they never did this is truly a mystery, maybe they feared the locals, or maybe they didn’t even think that there could be locals living there. The fact remains that they turned to cannibalism in an effort to preserve themselves. What I would like to learn more about is if they actually picked out the weakest link of the group while he was still alive, or if they waited for one to fall to the elements before eating them. It would be far more gruesome and would push the expedition into an even darker shadow is if the men had actually eaten one another alive. The only true upside to the expedition itself, and not the searches that were performed after, is that the Franklin expedition is a perfect example of what a human will do when cornered with no means to escape except through the unthinkable.

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