Letter: Polar explorer's fatal encounter

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The Independent Online
Sir: Regarding your article on the fate of Sir John Franklin ("Was Britain's greatest Arctic explorer a victim of cannibals?", 12 June) may I point out that there is not a single shred of evidence to support the stories of cannibalism.

Such evidence as remains to us points clearly to an attack by the local tribe of Netsilik Eskimos. They were feared as the most aggressive of the tribes in the area where the tragedy occurred, and they had access to metal for weapons. At the site of the massacre many used percussion caps have been found, and bones have been found with marks showing that they had been hacked (particularly the hand and finger bones). The bodies had clearly been mutilated following the practice of the Eskimos at that time and parts of the skeleton of a teenage boy have been found that could not have belonged to one of the seamen.

Most of the native accounts were, at best, second hand and fanciful. The only first-hand accounts talked of hands being "sawed" off - the only possible consequence for frost-bitten hands that had turned gangrenous. It is a very unlikely cannibal that would have looked for sustenance in the flesh on hands.

The story of cannibalism was started by a Hudson's Bay employee who had a particular hatred for the Royal Navy, who based it upon current Eskimo tales of their own people and the contemporary stories of cannibalism among a wagon train that wintered in the Rocky Mountains, and whose employers did not want their monopoly challenged by further exploration in the area.

E C COLEMAN

Bishop Norton, Lincolnshire

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