Monday, 7 June 2010

Part Thirteen of Englishmen on Ice - Dr Rae - Arctic CSI

As we saw in the last post, Charles Dickens disapproved of Dr John Rae, the trader who returned to Britainfrom Canada with news of John Franklin's doomed expedition to find the Northwest Passage.

He did, however, in the wake of his denunciations, allow the good doctor a right of reply. So, in January 1855, he printed Rae's account of what he'd found, and what he'd been told, in full. Bit of a long post this, but I think it’s worth quoting at some length Rae's account, as it now follows, seems admirably clear to me, and lacking in prejudice towards the Inuits, although, perhaps for that very reason, it was introduced by Dickens as:

"A very unsatisfactory document on which to found such strong conclusions as it takes for granted"

Rae's narrative is pretty harrowing. April, he tells us, he meets up with "natives" and this is his entry for the next day:

"We were joined by another of the natives who had been absent seal hunting yesterday: but being anxious to see us had visited our snow house early this morning and then followed our track. This man was very communicative, and on putting the usual questions as to his having seen white men before, or any ships or boats, he replied in the negative; but said that a party of kabloonans had died of starvation a long distance to the West of where we then were, and beyond a large river. He stated that he did not know the exact place - that he had never been there and that he could not accompany us so far."

Franklin’s fate was obviously the Talk of the Sweat is another quote from Rae’s report:

"The substance of the information then and subsequently obtained from various sources was to the following effect. In the spring, four winters past, (1850) whilst some Esquimaux families were killing seals near the northern shore of a large island, named in Arrowsmith's charts King William's Land, about forty white men were seen travelling in company southward over the ice and dragging a boat and sledges with them. They were passing along the west shore of the above named island. None of the party could speak the Esquimaux language so well as to be understood; but by signs the natives were led to believe that the ship or ships had been crushed by ice, and that they were then going to where they expected to find deer to shoot...From the appearance of the men, all of whom, with the exception of an officer, were hauling on the drag ropes of the sledge and were looking thin - they were then supposed to be getting short of provisions; and they purchased a small seal, or piece of seal from the natives. The officer was described as being a tall, stout, middle aged man.

At a later date, the same season, but previous to the disruption of the ice, the corpses of some thirty persons, and some gravers were discovered on the continent, and five dead bodies on an island near it, about a long day's journey to the north west of the mouth of a large stream which can be no other than Back's ‘Great Fish River’ (named by the Esquimaux Oot-koo-hi-ca-lik...of those seen on the island, it was supposed that one was that of an officer (chief) as he had a telescope strapped over his shoulders, and his double barreled gun lay underneath him...

From the mutilated state of many of the bodies, and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life.."

"A few of the unfortunate men must have survived until the arrival of the wild fowl (say until the end of May) as shots were heard, and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event.

There must have been a number of telescopes, guns, watches, compasses etc all of which seem to have been broken up as I saw pieces of these different articles with the natives - and I purchased as many as possible, together with some silver spoons and forks, an order of merit in the form of a star, and a small silver plate engraved "Sir John Franklin, KCH"

None of the Esquimaux with whom I had communication saw the white men, either when living or after death, nor had they been at the place where the corpses had been found, but had their information from natives who had been there, and who had seen the party when travelling over the ice. From what I could learn, there is no reason to suspect that any violence had been offered to the sufferers by the natives."

Thus ends the first of many attempts to reconstruct the story of the disaster, as it were, forensically.

However credible and humane I find this account, (and however revealing it is that Dickens published nothing further on the matter, taking part in theatricals aside) , it's patent credibility did nothing to diminish the intensity with which Lady Franklin now determined to have one last go at clearing her husband's name, and attaching to it the glory which her own guilt in the matter, I think, had decided it deserved.

It was going to be down to Lady Franklin herself to save the story, and send out a new expedition that would return with the heroic narrative she needed. Of noble sacrifice, and above all, of success. And this, as you'll see in the next few entries, with the collaboration of John Murray, inter alia, is exactly what she did.

These formidable Victorian ladies!

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