Monday, 7 June 2010

Englishmen on Ice a la carte (Part 12) The Last Resource - Dr Rae's Unspeakable Discovery

After his expedition of 1845 to find the chimerical Northwest Passage (a fondly wished for but non-existent trade route across the top of Canada) had vanished without trace , 14 expeditions to find John Franklin were launched between 1847 and 1854 , four financed by Lady Franklin herself...which resulted, among other things, in her being sued by her own family for blowing the inheritance on a quite possibly guilt induced fantasy. She, after all, had been instrumental in getting her corpulent, elderly husband the job in the first place, as you can read in previous entries.

You can see a picture of him above, (courtesy of the good people at the National Maritime Museum) just before the expedition set off. Not looking too well, is he?

In 1854 Franklin was finally declared dead by the admiralty...Polar exploration had fallen out of fashion...besides there was the Crimean War to contend with any minute.
But that same year, news of Franklin's fate appeared out of nowhere, or rather, through the unexpected agency of Orcadian Dr John Rae, who had gone out mapping King William Island for the Hudson Bay Company, who came back to Britain in 1854 with the first physical evidence of the expedition found since the finding of three graves on Beechey Island some years before:

, A spoon, buttons, a matchbox...and a medal, awarded to Franklin by the Royal Hanoverian Guelphic Order.

These items are now in the collections of the National Maritime Museum and images of some of the items in their collection of artefacts found by Rae and other expeditions to search for Franklin are shown here. Rae wrote a letter to the Times about the objects and the testimony he had collected.

Rae also reported confidentially to the Admiralty, though as a Hudson Bay Company employee he had no need to. He had a terrible story to tell:

"In the spring, four winters past, a party of white men, amounting to about 40, were seen travelling southward over the ice and dragging a boat with them by some Esquimaux who were killing seals near the north shore of King William's Land, which is a large island. At a later date the same season the bodies of some thirty persons were discovered on the continent and five on an island near it....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".

To Rae's horror, the Admiralty leaked the story. A confirmation that it wasn't worth looking any further was perhaps just what they were looking for...And all hell broke loose.

Furious denunciations of this mere trader were issued by the great and the good, most notably including Charles Dickens, who wrote in his weekly journal that the story could not be true of Englishman, and that Rae himself was suspect for believing the accounts given him by "natives", and not investigating himself.

..."We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous and cruel" Dickens wrote.

He devoted two lengthy articles in Household Words in December 1854 to denouncing Orcadians and Northern savages in general, quoting at length, interestingly, from Franklin's own memoir of the disasterous 1818-21 overland expedition (see previous posts) to prove that if Englishmen didn't eat each other then...

(it was only a Canadian trapper called Michel who did murder two people and eat one of them)

...then it was morally impossible to believe such nonsense now!

He also directed and starred in a play hastily written by Wilkie Collins called 'The Frozen Deep', a tale of Arctic suffering and ultimate self-sacrifice and moral redemption, performed in his own house, and later revived in a Royal Command Performance for the Queen, who clearly shared his distaste for these accusations of cannibalism.

(That was how he met Ellen Ternan, in fact, as a little added piquancy for Dickens lovers, of whom I'm one)

Theatricals and scandal aside, Rae's report had closed the case for the Admiralty...they weren't going to send out any more ships if all they were going to find was evidence of failure, madness and degradation.So who could save England's reputation now?

All images shown in this blog entry are © National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

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