On October 23, 1854, The Times of London outraged its readers by printing an account from the fur-trade doctor and Arctic explorer John Rae. Rae had recently returned from one of his treks across the frozen wastes of northern Canada and wished to report that he had solved the mystery which had puzzled most of England for the past several years: what had happened to Capt. John Franklin, his ships and crew? Franklin's expedition had been seen last in 1845 sailing confidently into the mouth of the Northwest Passage in search of a way through to the other side. Since that time hundreds of rescuers in dozens of ships had been scouring the Arctic in search of the missing men.
Rae reported that Franklin and his men were dead, starved and frozen to death on the ice-covered northern shores. But most readers of The Times must have suspected that already. What really made them gag on their morning tea was Rae's claim that according to Inuit informants the sailors, before they died, had been reduced to the "last recourse", what Charles Dickens called "the most dreadful of crimes". In plain language, they had eaten one another.
Now jump forward in time to June 8, 1994. On the front page of the Globe and Mail newspaper here in Canada we find almost exactly the same story. One hundred and forty years later, a Hamilton archaeologist claims to have found proof that some of Franklin's men indulged a taste in human flesh. She has recovered human bones from the Arctic with tell-tale markings that could only have been made by knives. "Old bones unlock grim Franklin secret" is the Globe's headline.
But there is no secret. The main outlines of this story have been known for 140 years. Seldom has the Globe given so much prominence to such old news.
The Globe's enthusiasm for tales of cannibalism is not exceptional. The Franklin expedition and its ghoulish finale have long been fodder for popular historians. Recently the stream of books and articles has swollen to a flood. Expensive expeditions have been mounted to disinter mummified corpses from their Arctic graves. Academic reputations are at stake. Even Pierre Berton has devoted most of one of his popular histories to the subject. Now I hear that CBC News is gearing up to do a documentary report on the Franklin expedition this fall.
It is not hard to see why 19th-century Britons were obsessed by Franklin. Here was a group of brave British seamen giving up their lives in an attempt to prove that England was the greatest naval power in the world. The dead men were martyrs to the twin ideals of imperialism and scientific rationalism. Add to that a grieving widow, Lady Jane Franklin, determined to discover the fate of her husband, and a ten thousand pound reward for whoever solved the puzzle, and you have all the ingredients of Victorian melodrama.
John Rae collected the ten thousand pounds, but he was vilified by the public for revealing the Inuit accounts of cannibalism. English gentlemen did not eat each other, it was as simple as that. The Inuit were lying; indeed, they probably slaughtered and ate the marooned men themselves. So went the argument. After all, the whole point of these expeditions to distant parts of the globe was to prove Europeans were superior to the people who lived there. Going native, either by admitting that natives were better informed about how to survive in their own environments, or by descending to the "last recourse", was simply not how the Master Race behaved.
So the obsession with Franklin's disappearance at the time is easy to understand. Less obvious is why the story continues to hold such fascination. We know that the search for the North West Passage was a fruitless make-work project for a British navy with too many men with too little to do. We no longer believe in the Imperial Enterprise. Why do we not treat Franklin with the same indifference we treat most of our history?
I suppose one reason is the allure of the unsolved mystery. Until every detail is explained, every body accounted for, anything is possible. We are all suckers for the supermarket tabloids approach to history. DESCENDANTS OF FRANKLIN FOUND LIVING WITH ISOLATED INUIT TRIBE! LOST SAILING SHIPS FOUND FLOATING IN PRISON OF ICE. FRANKLIN'S BODY PRESERVED IN BUNK!
We also tell the story over and over again, I think, because it offers such a good opportunity to be morally superior to the past. What a flood of sarcasm has been heaped on these poor sailors. To us Franklin and his crew exemplify stupidity, not heroism. They died of self-inflicted wounds.
They blundered into the Arctic without any idea where they were going, or what to do when they got there. If only they hadn't been too pigheaded to put themselves into the hands of the local Inuit, they would have survived.
Unlike the Victorians, we do not go into denial at the suggestion of cannibalism. Quite the contrary, we go out of our way to prove it actually happened. But our motives are surely much the same. Our Victorian ancestors wanted to be morally superior to the "savages"; we want to be morally superior to our Victorian ancestors. To them, Franklin's men would have been letting down the side by becoming cannibals. To us, they are failures for not becoming Inuit. Either way we blame the victims.
Increasingly history seems to be all about scoring points, all about finding the moral high ground retroactively. Couldn't we just feel sorry for the Franklin sailors, sorry enough to leave their bones alone?