“The Lies of Savages”. Inuit, Victorians and Cannibalism in the Aftermath of the Franklin Expedition

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2016

20 Pages, Grade: 1,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. The Facts

3. The Ideal Englishman

4. Cannibals and Savages

5. Analysis

6. Conclusion

Works Cited

1. Introduction

This paper is concerned with the aftermath of the both failed and famous Franklin expedition of 1845, more specifically, the reaction of the public and those closely involved in the search. One central point of offence in the aftermath were allegations of cannibalism, which were strongly denied by central public figures, such as Lady Jane Franklin, Franklin’s (widowed) wife and Charles Dickens. Likewise, newspapers reporting on the events expressed doubts about the true nature of these claims which originated from the hearsay evidence of several Inuit tribesmen. These reports were later confirmed by later search expeditions and ultimately by forensic evidence in the late eighties. But that seamen and especially officers of the Royal Navy - including famous war hero and explorer John Franklin - had resorted to cannibalism, seemed unthinkable to the British. So the Victorians chose to ignore or deny the accusations (cf. Marlow 651). And even today it can be observed that the British media - unlike German media - omit information about cannibalism in articles regarding new findings of the expedition (cf. Watson; joe/boe/pat). The question is, why. Why did the accusations stir up Victorian society? And what role played the media in the aftermath?

For its investigation, this essay first recapitulates the events of the Franklin expedition and the search (Chapter 2), which has been covered in great detail by many authors of different backgrounds (cf. Lambert; Brandt; McGoogan[1] ). The paper then focuses on the Victorian values and ideas of British people of the mid-19th century (Chapter 3). Of central interest will be the Victorian idea of a “true Englishman” and how Sir John Franklin, the central figure of the expedition, was perceived by the public. What were he and other officers expected to do in dire circumstances and what certainly not? And what did the British think of non-English and non-white people such as the indigenous Inuit?

Using the previously gained knowledge, Chapter 5 will then analyse newspaper articles to interpret to what degree the accusations were or were not taken seriously and what role British perception of the Inuit and cannibalism played in that regard. Of interest will also be if the media always was a willing participant in the battle for the image of the Englishman or if there were inconsistencies and to what degree media’s argumentation may have been influenced by government policy.

2. The Facts

As it was mentioned in the introduction, the events after 1845 and its context have been covered quite well. After the end of the Napoleonic wars, the British enjoyed a time of relative security and stability. Thus, the navy tried to find new challenges and purposes. It found these in arctic exploration. (cf. Lambert 10; Holland) The Franklin Expedition consisted of two ships, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, which were manned by a total of 129 seamen and officers. An already aged (see fig. 1) John Franklin, who had not been the first choice of the admiralty, was given command after other explorers had lobbied for his placement. (cf. Lambert 152; Alexander 204) The expedition sought not only to seek the Northwest Passage but also to complete geomagnetic experiments that were ultimately based on Alexander von Humboldt’s research (cf. Lambert 61-72; 148-51). In fact, Lambert argues that geomagnetic experiments were the “primary purpose of the 1845 expedition” (90).

To ensure the mission’s success and increase their mobility in the ice, the ships were outfitted with new steam engines and their hull was reinforced with iron (cf. Lambert 153-4; McGoogan 81). By modern standards, however, the expedition lacked a sense of disaster management (cf. Lambert 179-83): A rescue or resupply plan had not been devised. No ships were prepared in standby to leave if they were required. In addition, the crew was not equipped for longer overland travel: The sledges contained on the boat were heavy, decreasing their viability for travel on foot (cf. Lambert 342). Also, the size and objectives of the mission (scientific observations and the discovery of the Northwest Passage) of the party did not allow for light travel (cf. Lambert 340). Franklin himself doubted his capabilities to travel overland (he had led land expeditions in the early twenties) already in 1828 (cf. Lambert 55). And until 1846, no European had ever camped in the High Arctic without the help of native tribes or ample supplies of food (cf. McGoogan 63). Also, even the arctic-proven Inuit did not hunt in the area west of King William Island because there was no wildlife (cf. Lambert 340). So if the expedition’s ships were to get stuck in the ice indefinitely, the chances of survival would be slim.

After moving out on 19 May 1845, the expedition was last spotted (by westerners) at the end of July 1845 by a whaler. Afterwards, there had been no further life signs (cf. Richards; Lambert 166). Many expeditions, both public and private, were sent out to search for Franklin. However, the majority of these were not successful in obtaining any important information. Public expeditions were less effective, resulting in more lives and ships lost (cf. Karpoff 72-3; Beattie 167-9). With no apparent idea where to look for, the search was as difficult as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Finally, in 1854, a small expedition led by Dr John Rae found a significant lead on what had happened to the Franklin expedition. In contrast to other expeditioners who had failed to provide clues on the Franklin expedition’s whereabouts, Rae had mainly travelled on foot and with a small team. An able and experienced outdoorsman, explorer and doctor he had studied the natives’ way of life and travel to survive in the arctic and had no objections talking to them or employing them as guides. (cf. Richards; Lambert 340; McGoogan 63-78; Loosmore 207) After he had purchased items left behind by the expedition and collected statements from the Inuit, he concluded that all members of the expedition had perished and that some of them had resorted to cannibalism: “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” (Lambert 247; McGoogan 208). These words, not intended for the public (they were part of a report to the admiralty), placed Rae centre stage and unleashed a Victorian outrage of proportions that Rae certainly had not desired nor anticipated (cf. Lambert 247-8; Richards; McGoogan 201,208). While the descriptions must have already been gruesome for the Victorians, the full details of the events were even more gruesome as it is evident in Lambert:

We don't know when it started or who took the decision, but sometime in May 1848 British sailors . . . began butchering and eating their comrades. . . . These men were hungry and they did not waste anything. They cracked open the larger bones to extract the marrow. . . . After the heads were done, they scavenged for scraps . . . , stripping off every last remnant with the grim efficiency of a meat-recovery machine. (1)

After the revelations of Rae, a fierce media battle ensued and Jane Franklin received the support of Charles Dickens, who discredited Rae for not double checking what he had heard from the Inuit (cf. Lambert 250-2). The admiralty already had removed the crew from the Navy's roster in 1853 and did not want to spend any more resources on further expeditions, especially after a war with Russia had broken out in March 1854 (cf. Lambert 243; McGoogan 240-3). This, however, did not stop Lady Franklin from organising her own privately funded expeditions. One of these turned out to be a success and restored her husband's honour in 1859: Captain Leopold McClintock found written evidence of the Franklin expedition stating that Franklin had died in June 1847 (before the situation deteriorated) and that the surviving 105 members left the two ships southwards on 25 April 1848 in direction of Back's Fish River after they had been stuck in the ice since September 1846 (cf. McClintock 255-61; Lambert 341; Beattie 35-8; McGoogan 243-4). Another five-year search expedition by Collinson, who came back in 1855, might have even found Franklin’s ships then if he had been better prepared: Collinson’s party met Inuit who drew a map of the area which included an abandoned ship, but the party lacked interpreters to question the Inuit and ascertain the situation (cf. Lambert 228-9). Collinson also found a piece of door frame that very likely stemmed from Franklin’s ships and came as close as 70 miles to them (cf. Lambert 238).

The tragedy of the Franklin expedition is certainly the utter helplessness of the expedition after they had been trapped in the ice and the inability of the search and rescue parties to find and help them. The desperate survivors had long resorted to cannibalism and died before any party reached them. After having wintered for 1.5 years the scurvy-weakened expedition (cf. Lambert 342-3) went south and suffered an icy death in their obviously futile and hopeless attempt to move a thousand miles pulling heavy sledges that had been packed with boats and equipment but with only barely enough food to cover about two-fifths of the journey (cf. Lambert 339-42). Lead poisoning may also have weakened the men, but the severity of the effects are disputed; it certainly cannot serve as the sole explanation of the expedition's failure (cf. Beattie 162; Lambert 343-4). As the HMS Erebus (2014) and Terror (2016) were found more southwards than they had been thought of (cf. Watson), it seems that part of the crew had changed their plans and tried to set sails again. However, these new findings will yet have to be analysed (to exclude other factors like e.g. currents) and they do not change the well-proven instances of cannibalism (cf. Lambert 344-9) that happened when the expedition travelled southwards.

3. The Ideal Englishman

Of central interest in an investigation of the outrage over the Franklin expedition should be the question why the outrage over the cannibalism was so severe. For this, Chauncey Loomis offers a good explanation:

The Franklin Expedition was not simply carrying the Union Jack into the Arctic; it was carrying Western man's faith in his power to prevail on earth. If Franklin could find and navigate a Northwest Passage after almost three centuries of failures, Western man would seem somehow to demonstrate his capacity to conquer Nature at its most mysterious and intimidating. (104-5)

By reverting what Loomis said - imagining a total failure of the expedition, with all lives and material lost and some even resorting to cannibalism - what then? Would it not show th at “Western man's faith” had failed, that his quest was inevitably doomed? And would the reports of cannibalism - if true - not forever taint the honour of Franklin and his “gallant comrades”? To a Victorian then, the events must have been unthinkable, especially when such a great hero as Franklin had led the expedition.

Franklin was not just any member of Britain’s elite. He was considered a war hero as he had taken part in the Napoleonic wars and even saw the Battle of Trafalgar while serving on the HMS Bellerophon. He was a famous (yet technically maybe less successful) explorer who gained massive recognition after he published his narrative of his Arctic expedition of 1819-22. He was taught the art of sea navigation by Matthew Flinders, who himself had been trained by famous explorer and admiral, James Cook. (cf. Lambert 27-34; Holland) In a speech by Sir Roderick Murchison, the Vice-President of the Royal Geographic Society, his historical renown is especially evident. In it, Murchison proposes that a memorial should be built for Franklin right at Trafalgar Square, “so that his earliest services under the immortal Nelson may be blended with the nation’s recognition of his Arctic fame” (“Presentation of the Gold Medals” 115). To the Victorians then, Franklin was a living legend. If a hero such as Franklin lowered himself to cannibalism, there would be "no hope that a normal Englishman would not choose to survive at whatever costs" (Marlow 652).

And it was not only the honour of Franklin which was being threatened. In fact, as it was an official public expedition that enlisted men of the Royal Navy such as Francis Crozier, other officers and seamen, the image of the royal navy and Englishmen in general was under attack. And with the image of the Empire’s elite and sailors threatened, this would also pose a danger to the empire itself: The British Empire was fuelled by a feeling of cultural and racial superiority (cf. Samson 122; Wasson 170; B. Porter 229; A. Porter 22-3). And it was especially the “definition of races . . . [that] held enormous potential for justifying rule, generating unity, and for establishing practices of political or administrative exclusion” (A. Porter 22). The Victorian state thus had a strong interest in keeping the image of the English as flawless and superior to other “races”. Also, Franklin and the accompanying officers represented the government as members of the upper classes. The upper classes were the most fervent believers of imperialism and in key positions of power, either on the British Isles or in the colonies (cf. Bernard 228). If it was true that representatives of the Empire had resorted to cannibalism or had allowed it happen, it would have seriously undermined the British claim of superiority and damaged the empire’s reputation at home, in the colonies and in other nations. The news itself certainly was shocking to contemporaries. The biographer Hendrik van Loon reported that his father had forever remembered “the shock of horror that… swept across the civilized world” (van Loon qtd. in McGoogan 208) when the news of cannibalism reached him. As McGoogan puts it:

This was the mid-nineteenth century, after all. Great Britain was the world’s reigning superpower, the heart of a global empire. As a nation, it showed a keen interest in what happened around the world and an unshakable conviction of its own superiority and invincibility. (208)

Clearly, a claim of superiority of the English people could hardly be sustained if the expedition, whose members were considered to be part of the "Anglo-Saxon race", had resorted to cannibalism. But even if the allegations should have proven to be untrue at a later point, the pure accusations already had their effect on the mid-1850 Europeans as it is visible in the experience of van Loon’s father. And for this reason, the Victorian media and those closely involved in Franklin’s cause (Jane Franklin, Charles Dickens) united to the expedition’s defence. A third variable in the equation are the expectations of society. Both religious reasons and the worldly expectations of society required the English to do good deeds, an aim which was exemplified in the actions and life of Queen Victoria. While religious reasons were reinforced by the Christian evangelical revival, non-religious people were also expected to adhere to a certain code of conduct. (cf. Arnstein 90-1) This need stemmed from ideas of the Age of Enlightenment that humans, “when left to their own devices, were fundamentally well-intentioned” (Arnstein 91). British society was thus held together by a “common set of moral standards” (Arnstein 98). Cannibalism clearly broke that set of standards and those committing to it would have no place in Victorian society.

To conclude, there are three elements that were looked at in this chapter, explaining why the allegations of cannibalism were met with such strong disdain. Firstly, the “heroic ideal” of revered John Franklin. Secondly, the role of Franklin and the officers as representatives of the government and of Imperial authority, requiring them to be culturally and morally superior to those “savages” subjugated by the empire or living in isolation. Thirdly, the expectations of both faith and society to do “good deeds” and adhere to a common set of moral standards. It is now from the “why” over the accusations of cannibalism that I will seek to determine how cannibalism and the Inuit themselves were perceived by the Victorians. To be able to that, the reception of cannibalism in literature and the image of the “savage”, a term used by Victorians for (“uncivilized”) non-white people, needs to be analysed.

4. Cannibals and Savages

In this chapter, I will firstly examine the discourse about cannibalism that existed in Victorian times and secondly, the discourse about non-white “uncivilized” people. This will provide the background for Chapter 5, in which newspapers articles from the time of Rae’s discovery (1854) will be analysed.

Cannibalism was hardly an unknown theme to the British. Tales of strange and flesh-eating men were already present in the 14th-century Travels of Sir John Mandeville and likely influenced 16th-century explorer Martin Frobisher, who even brought an Inuit for “public display” back to England after one of his voyages (cf. Brandt 54). Later then, the image of the cannibal who could be tamed was introduced with Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe. Crusoe “saves” a cannibal by restraining him from committing further cannibalism; the ex-cannibal then shows gratitude to Crusoe for “having helped” him. (cf. Brantlinger 2) Defoe’s ideas were reiterated in later works and established specific themes (cf. Brantlinger 14):

. . . cannibalism is the absolute nadir of human behaviour; it is practiced by black or brown savages but not by white Christians, who are horrified by it; cannibals need to be saved from themselves . . . ; if they can’t all be tamed, it is still worth taming just one, both because a soul will be saved and because a tame cannibal will be a thoroughly grateful servant to his master. (Brantlinger 2-3)

So cannibalism clearly was attributed to non-white, “uncivilized” people. Interestingly enough, Victorian England was not free from cannibalism, albeit the British had a different kind of hunger in mind. Malthus’ theory of population already implied the idea of “a possible universal cannibalism” (Marlow 648) and Carlyle used the theory to describe how poor people in debt were “eaten” by their creditors (cf. Marlow 650). As Marlow argues, Dickens early interest in cannibalism turned around to face another fear after Rae’s discovery in 1854: That of committing cannibalism, which may explain his strong defence of Franklin (622). After his defence of Franklin in the Frozen Deep against “real cannibalism”, he argued in his later works that the “English cannibalism” (Marlow 666) created by capitalism was not natural. Its origin was negative and “energy and willpower marked not cannibalism but its opposite, heroism” (Marlow 666).

It is clear that cannibalism was seen by the Victorians as an absolutely abhorrent practice. It broke the boundaries that held society together and the standards that the Victorians chose to live by (Chapter 3). When it was used to describe situations in England, it was used in a metaphorical way to highlight social issues. In its literal meaning, however, it was only attributed to non-white people, also known to the Victorians as "savages", such as the native tribes of the Fiji islands (cf. Brantlinger 29).

But what was thought about these non-white people; "savages" living in "uncivilized" territories? 18th-century ideas included that "savages" may improve their own "inferior" situation, but that they would still be limited by their biology. This limitation would originate from living in non-moderate regions such as the arctic or the tropics and thus have a natural origin (cf. Brantlinger 5). These ideas were not original, for Aristotle already propagated in the 4th century BC the idea of barbarian races that were inferior to the Greek people and thus could be subjugated (cf. Geulen 20-1). By contrast, a European who explored and survived the arctic would be considered as having "sterling qualities" (Hill 124). The romantic age (1790-1830) then refined the idea that racial differences had a natural origin: Coleridge combined the biblical genesis with racial ideas: According to him, all races had degenerated and while the Caucasian race was affected the least by this, races living in remote areas like the aborigines were affected the most. (cf. Brantlinger 6) The idea of “backward races” (Brantlinger 5) was then later picked up again following Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (cf. Brantlinger 5). Following these thoughts, one can be certain that the Inuit, who were living in near isolation in one of the most remote areas of the world, were not looked kindly upon by the Victorians. If it was the word of an Inuit against the word of an Englishmen, the Inuit’s words - if considered at all - would certainly not be given equal consideration.

Not limited to works of fiction or theoretical discourses about society, cannibalism also had happened during Franklin’s disastrous first arctic expedition of 1819-22 in which ten voyageurs died. It is alleged that a half Iroquois, Michel, killed some of the members of the expedition after the party had split up. He then cooked the meat for his own and other party members’ consumption; the surviving members were possibly unaware of the true nature of the meat. However, the perpetrator was killed by the surviving expedition members after he had killed an ailing voyageur. (cf. Lambert 31-3) To a Victorian the half-Iroquois nature of Michel would certainly easily serve as an explanation on why he would resort to cannibalism: Not being a "full white man", he was still considered part "savage" and thus easily succumbed to eating human flesh in the time of great crisis. By his nature, he was not able to show Dickens "energy and willpower" and suppress his urge to eat. However, the same rationale could hardly be applied to the crew of the HMS Erebus and Terror. When cannibalism was only attributed to "savage" people, the "idea" that officers and crewmen of the Royal Navy had resorted to eating human flesh, could not be allowed to spread. The supposed cultural and racial superiority of the British people needed to stay intact to uphold the integrity of the Empire (Chapter 3). And the Victorian media, a vital tool in shaping public opinion which was considered the "fourth estate of the realm" (Black 226), would play a vital role in this.


[1] While McGoogan’s biography of Dr Rae does not meet strict academic standards, it offers an interesting and unique view on the topic by concentrating on the life of Dr Rae and not on Franklin or his wife (in contrast to many other works). It also uses information from Rae’s unpublished autobiography.

Excerpt out of 20 pages


“The Lies of Savages”. Inuit, Victorians and Cannibalism in the Aftermath of the Franklin Expedition
Bielefeld University  (Fakultät für Linguistik und Literaturwissenschaft: Anglistik)
Modulprüfung (Profilmodul 2 – British Studies)
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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cannibalism, Inuit, Victorians, expedition, The Times, Arctic, Franklin, Rae, Englishman, imperialism, savage, racism, Victorian dogma, Esquimaux, Eskimo, media
Quote paper
Gernot Meyer (Author), 2016, “The Lies of Savages”. Inuit, Victorians and Cannibalism in the Aftermath of the Franklin Expedition, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/354797


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