Was Britain's greatest Arctic explorer a victim of cannibals?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
One of the greatest Arctic explorers in British history might have met the most ignoble end of all; eaten by Eskimos or, worse, his fellow adventurers.

The 150th anniversary of the death of Sir John Franklin was marked at ceremonies in London yesterday amid many fine words about "arguably Brit- ain's greatest explorer of the Arctic".

But questions remain about the fate of Sir John and his crew as they struggled in vain to walk 1,000 miles out of the Arctic Circle. Canadian researchers have concluded from marks on skeletons found at Starvation Bay - 230 miles from where the 129 officers and men abandoned their ice- stricken ships - that the dwindling band resorted to cannibalism.

The Royal Navy has always rejected this slur on its men. But an alternative explanation for the scars, that the retreating crew was finished off by Eskimos armed with snow knives, is unacceptable to the Canadians. Political correctness forbids them thinking the Inuit people capable of such barbarism.

The guests at yesterday's ceremonies, including descendants of Franklin, who proved his mettle as a midshipman at the Battle of Trafalgar, his officers and crew, were not about to conduct an inquest. Major Anthony Gell, Franklin's great-great grandson laid a wreath at his forebear's memorial in Westminster Abbey and the party took a boat down the Thames to the Royal Naval College chapel at Greenwich. But there will be speculation on the side.

Ralph Lloyd-Jones, a librarian and Franklin expert, believes Sir John was simply a product of his heroic time - a man who "did not turn back when things went wrong" and suffered the consequences. Born in Spilsby, Lincolnshire, he entered the Navy at 14, earned an almost legendary reputation as a bold explorer, and died, aged 61, before the grim trek south began.

Once off their ships, Erebus and Terror, there was simply not enough for the sailors to survive on, tough characters though they undoubtedly were. On an earlier overland venture to the Canadian Arctic led by Franklin, temperatures plunged to minus 50C and the party was reduced to eating lichen, leather from their clothes and boiled bones from exhumed carcasses.

The fateful expedition was an early example of great British failures in polar exploration, extending though Scott's tragic trip to the South Pole to recent unsuccessful bids at a solo crossings of Antarctica.

Franklin's ships became ice-bound 100 miles short of the elusive passage between the Atlant- ic and Pacific oceans, later "discovered" by Roald Amundsen, the Norwegian who beat Captain Scott to the South Pole.

Mr Lloyd-Jones finds the Canadians' cannibalism theory less plausible than murder by Inuits, who would certainly have felt threatened by a large group of aliens. In 1859, an Admiralty search party found a ship's boat mounted on sledge runners. It contained two skeletons and two loaded shotguns were propped against the side.

Around 40 expeditions have been made to try and unravel the grim story of Franklin's last expedition - the early ones were sent by Lady Franklin who refused to accept her husband was dead - but they, like Sir John, have found the Arctic reluctant to yield its secrets.

Comments