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The Lost Arctic Voyagers [i]

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Author Charles Dickens
Genres Cross-genre i
Prose: Digest; Review i
Prose: Essay i
Prose: Leading Article i
Subjects Arctic Regions; Arctic Regions—Description and Travel; Arctic Regions—Discovery and Exploration; Antarctica; Antarctica—Description and Travel; Antarctica—Discovery and Exploration
Explorers and Exploration; Wilderness Survival; Survival; Adventure and Adventurers
Food; Cooking; Gastronomy; Alcohol; Bars (Drinking Establishments); Restaurants; Dinners and Dining
Gender Identity; Women; Men; Femininity; Masculinity
Health; Diseases; Personal Injuries; Hygiene; Cleanliness—Fiction
National Characteristics; Nationalism
Race; Racism; Ethnicity; Anthropology; Ethnography
Other Details
Printed : 2/12/1854
Journal : Household Words
Volume : Volume X
Magazine : No. 245
Office Book Notes
Views : 531

Fifty-nine-year-old Sir John Franklin set out on his third voyage of Arctic exploration in May 1845, in command of 129 officers and men in two ships, the Terror and the Erebus.

This expedition was financed by the Admiralty and the object was to find the North-West Passage. The ships were last seen in late July 1845 in northern Baffin Bay, and when nothing further had been heard about the expedition by 1849 public anxiety in Britain became acute. Franklin, who had fought with Nelson at Trafalgar, was the very model of a British naval hero and it was felt that the honour of the nation was implicated in his survival and that of his men. Forster's The Examiner commented on 15 December 1849:

We cannot but think it possible that some of the crews may survive. More than two years have elapsed beyond the time to which they were victualled, but they must have been aware of their position sufficiently early to provide in some sort against it. The seas, and shores, and ice, had stores to furnish. We see how the ignorant and helpless Esquimaux exist in regions not much to the south of them. We have seen in Russia what civilised men may struggle through. With their ships for homes, with their intelligence and zeal, with their implements and agencies of help, it seems scarcely possible that the whole hundred and twenty-six men, the flower of our navy, can have sunk entirely hopeless under their difficulties, and perished already.

Britain was bound to continue search for 'these gallant men' so long as there was any rational hope of their survival. Many expeditions were sent in seach of the missing explorers from 1847 onwards but it was not until 1850 that the first traces of them were found, the site of their first winter quarters and the 'scrupulously neat' graves of three of the men (see Quarterly Review, Vol. 92 [March 1853], pp. 386-421). Finally came news that put a grim end to all hope. Dr Rae, the Orkney-born Chief Factor of the Hudson's Bay Company, stated in a report to the Admiralty, published in The Times on 23 October 1854, that he had learned, while on a surveying expedition in the Arctic five months earlier, that some Eskimos (Inuit) had, in the spring of 1850, met with a party of about forty white men in a starving condition, attempting to make their way south, and sold them some seal-meat; returning later to the same area, the Inuit had found the men's bodies and other remains, implements and personal items, some of which came into Rae's hands and were brought home by him. The sailors had, he said, suffered a fate 'as terrible as the imagination can conceive', and his report included the following deeply shocking sentence: '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 that last resource—cannibalism—as a means of prolonging existence' (The Times, 23 October 1854, p. 7a). Rae was a highly respected and much-experienced Polar explorer so his report could not be brushed aside, however distressing and disconcerting some of its details. The Times commented (24 October 1854, p. 6c). 'We dare not trust ourselves to dwell upon the horrors which obscured the dying hours of so many noble-hearted men. All honour to their memory!', but two days later sought to impugn Rae's Inuit informants: 'Like all savages, they are liars, and certainly would not scruple at the utterance of any falsehood which might ... shield them from the vengeance of the white man' (26 October 1854, third leader). But the idea that the Inuit might have killed the white men was almost as unthinkable as the idea of cannibalism itself: it was deemed 'a violent improbability' that 'a band of [well-armed] English sailors' should have let themselves 'be quietly murdered while there was a finger among them which could pull a trigger', or that they should have 'suffered the savages to depart from their hands without securing or compelling the service of a sufficient number of guides'.

Dickens, who had had since childhood a strong horrified fascination with the subject of cannibalism (see, for example, his story of the cannibalistic escaped prisoner in 'The Long Voyage') had also a long-standing interest in Polar exploration reflected in several articles in HW (see I. R. Stone, '"Instruction and Entertainment": Items of Polar Interest in Charles Dickens' Household Words', Polar Record, Vol. 24 [1988], pp. 246-248; and his '"The contents of the kettles": Charles Dickens, John Rae and Cannibalism on the 1845 Franklin Expedition', The Dickensian, Vol. 82 [1987], pp. 7-16). A recent HW piece by Henry Morley entitled 'Unspotted Snow' (12 November 1853) had presented the history of Arctic exploration  as being 'stainless as the Arctic snows, clean to the core as an ice mountain' and ended on a note of thankfulness that

we have one unspotted place upon this globe of ours; a Pole that, as it fetches truth out of a needle, so surely also gets all that is right-headed and right-hearted from the sailor whom the needle guides.

It is hardly surprising that Dickens reacted even more strongly than The Times against Rae's imputation of cannibalism to Franklin's men. He rejected it in a letter to his friend the Hon. Mrs. Watson on 1 November 1854. After citing Franklin's coming near to death by starvation on his 1819-1822 expedition without the thought of cannibalism even crossing his mind or that of any of his crew in similar plight, Dickens continues

In famous cases of Shipwreck, it is very rare indeed that any person of humanizing education or refinement, resorts to this dreadful means of prolonging life. In open boats, the coarsest and commonest men of the shipwrecked party have done such things; but I don't remember more than one instance in which an officer has overcome the loathing that the idea had inspired. Dr Rae talks about their cooking these remains too [which Rae does not, in fact, do anywhere though the mention of kettles may perhaps be considered to imply cooking]. I should like to know where the fuel came from. [Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 456].

On 20 November Dickens wrote to Wills:

It has occurred to me that I am rather strong on Voyages and Cannibalism, and might do an interesting little paper for next No. on that part of Dr Rae's report; taking the arguments against its probabilities. Can you get me a newspaper cutting containing his report? [Pilgrim, Vol. VII, p. 470].

The result was a paper so long that it had to be split into two instalments.

Literary allusions

  • 'valley of the shadow of Death': from John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress (1678);
  • 'Mr Prescott ... history': from the History of the Conquest of Mexico (Vol. 1 [1843], pp. 84-85);
  • 'Robinson Crusoe': hero of Defoe's novel (1719);
  • 'Arabian Nights': see the Fourth Voyage of Sinbad the Sailor.

Author: Michael Slater; © J. M. Dent/Orion Publishing Group, Dickens' Journalism Volume III: 'Gone Astray' and Other Papers from Household Words, 1851-1859, 1998.

DJO gratefully acknowledges permission to reproduce this material.

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