Don’t Judge Franklin Expedition for Cannibalism

Franklin’s lost expedition was a British voyage of Arctic exploration led by Captain Sir John Franklin that departed England in 1845. A Royal Navy officer and experienced explorer, Franklin had served on three previous Arctic expeditions, the latter two as commanding officer. His fourth and last, undertaken when he was 59, was meant to traverse the last unnavigated section of the Northwest Passage. After a few early fatalities, the two ships became icebound in Victoria Strait near King William Island in the Canadian Arctic. The entire expedition complement, including Franklin and 128 men, was lost. (Wikipedia)

We’ve known for a long time that Captain Sir John Franklin’s ill-fate Arctic expedition ultimately resorted to cannibalism. Knife-scarred bones discovered in the 80’s and 90’s confirmed Inuit accounts of Englishmen harvesting the bodies of their comrades for meat.

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Recently-discovered evidence shows that the some bones were also boiled to extract marrow, considered “late-stage” cannibalism designed to extract every possible calorie.

It makes for a good headline, like “Family Wants to Know: Did Cannibals Eat Uncle Henry?” (NY Post) and “Gristly End to a British Naval Expedition: Crew Boiled Bones of the Dead” (Ancient Origins).

Take a moment to look past the horror and graphic details. Some years ago, I decided to make a list of every account of cannibalism at sea on record, a practice that occurred throughout history with some regularity among lifeboat-trapped shipwreck survivors. It didn’t take long for patterns to emerge; and the instances inevitably fell into one of four distinct categories.

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The first (and worst) is predatory cannibalism. This is when person or persons are attacked, killed and subsequently eaten. The most commonly-cited example of this is the Raft of the Medusa, an infamous 1810 incident where 151 persons were crowded upon a makeshift raft made from a shipwrecked French frigate and abandoned to the sea. Drunkenness and fighting broke out, and the survivors resorted to cannibalism within days.

The next category is exploitative cannibalism. Perhaps a starving crew drew lots or collectively decided on the sickest (or otherwise least-likely to survive) among them–but in practice, the knife fell to the lowest-ranked among them. Slaves were killed for food on the ship Peggy in 1765 and Tyger in 1768. Eating cabin boys became nothing less than a seafaring culinary tradition in the 19th century. Instances included the Francis Spaight of 1836 (famously retold in Jack London’s “When Gods Laugh,” the Euxine in 1874, and most notably the Mignonette in 1883. In that final case, three men stranded on a lifeboat decided to kill and eat the cabin boy.

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A starving, desperate crew had to be made of strong stuff indeed to ignore the lifesaving potential of their crewmen, especially when those comrades died of natural causes. This brings us to the next category; scavenge cannibalism. The most famous example of this is the book and movie Alive, which centered around the survival of a Uruguayan rugby team after they were stranded by a plane crash high in the Andes mountains in 1972. (After much debate, the survivors ate their frozen friends to survive.) Out of options, and with dead on hand, this was a common course of action.

The final category is self-sacrificial cannibalism. In 1809, twenty-one men escaped the sinking Negociator for the ships’ longboat. After two months, only three survived. The three drew lots and the unlucky man selected. The doomed man gallantly cut his own wrists, bled out, and was eaten. In a weirder 1750 example, the selected man asked to be butchered alive so that he might eat his own flesh; but was refused the proposition and murdered. Even so, the man in the second example consented to his own death, in order that his crewmen might be saved.

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The truth is, we don’t know exactly what happened in the final months of the Franklin expedition. And until we do, we must give these brave men the benefit of the doubt. Rather than portraying the event as grisly or titillating, we have every reason to believe these men died (and in some cases, were eaten) with the same camaraderie, courage, self-sacrifice, honor and spirit of exploration with which they lived.

Taylor Zajonc | Author, Historian & Shipwreck Expert

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