It has long been believed by travelers to the north that a man can be reborn there with a greater sense of clarity and vision; he can see himself and the world in a way that embraces the wild as the true home for personal transformation. This belief is not so different from what many of the explorers actually acknowledged; American Elisha Kent Kane recorded in his journal while searching for Franklin that "An iceberg is one of God's own buildings, preaching its lessons of humility to the miniature structures of man." But could a man like Francis Crozier, who so carefully recorded his location and intentions and assumption of command in a cairn left for rescuers, be expected to abandon his sense of duty out of a personal need for freedom? Could any officer in the British navy do this unless suffering from severe psychological trauma? Simmons cannot say but he does slyly offer up the possibility for why Crozier would want to abandon all aspects of his Englishness; he suggests that members of the crew were hunting and eating each other to stay alive.
Evidence of cannibalism in the expedition was first brought forward by John Rae, an explorer with the Hudson's Bay Company who was widely acknowledged to have a more intimate understanding of Inuit ways and language than any other British explorer. When he arrived in England in 1854 after a long march across much of northwestern Canada, he presented a report to the Admiralty that included numerous recent interactions with the Inuit, many of whom had in their possessions items from the Terror and Erebus. The Inuit told Rae of trading with a group of white men who were traveling south and pulling sledges and communicated that their ship had been lost. The Inuit also revealed the discovery of various graves and bodies found in tents. The further north Rae and his companions traveled in the region Franklin's men were suspected to frequent, the more artifacts he found, including a teaspoon with Crozier's initials, silver forks bearing the initials of the assistant surgeon from the Terror and a round silver plate inscribed "Sir John Franklin, K.C.B." among many other objects. While this news was sad and the relics only cemented his conclusions that there were no survivors, Rae's casual statements about cannibalism blew apart everything else in his report. In recounting the story from one Inuit hunter, Rae recorded:
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 dread alternative resource — cannibalism — as means of prolonging existence.
To say that Lady Jane was furious or the Admiralty shocked by this statement does not begin to describe their reactions. To protect her husband's reputation, Lady Jane immediately set about doing everything she could to discredit Rae and ruin his career. In this respect she enlisted none other than author Charles Dickens to make her case for a more acceptable explanation of what happened. As Sandler recounts, Dickens chose to write an article on the matter in the weekly journal Household Words:
Lastly, no man can, with any show of reason undertake to affirm that this sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux themselves. . . .We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel; and we have yet to learn what knowledge the white man — lost, houseless, shipless, apparently forgotten by his race, plainly famine–stricken, weak, frozen, helpless and dying — has of the gentleness of Esquimaux nature."
So Englishmen = good, Inuit = bad
Although some in the Admiralty agreed with Rae, acknowledging that in severe circumstances no one could know what men would do to survive, in the end, even though he surveyed close to ten thousand miles of Arctic coastline and did it all for English honor, he was, as Sandler records, ". . .the only major nineteenth–century British explorer never to receive a knighthood." Some truths are evidently best left unspoken.
Dan Simmons did not have a backlash to worry about, however, and planned acts of cannibalism serve as a major subplot in The Terror. In his scenario for what took place as the survivors tried to make their way south to the Great Fish River (which Crozier stated as their destination in his final note placed in that cairn on April 25, 1848), the group quickly degenerated into factions, one behind Crozier and the surviving officers and the other behind a group of seaman who were determined to survive whatever the cost. It is clear as the single group splits apart that one is hoping to take some weaker shipmates along, for food. This results in the following insanity:
He had shot Strickland to feed Seeley.
He had shot Dunn to feed Brown.
He had shot Gibson to feed Jerry.
He had shot Best to feed Smith.
He had shot Morfin to feed Orren. . .or perhaps it had been the other way
Simmons weaves a new history for the doomed expedition in his novel, showing that many men, even Dickens' "flower of the trained adventurous spirit of the English Navy," will fall to unimaginable levels of horror to survive. In his story it is not just cannibalism to survive though, but cannibalism as a way of life; it is murder first and meal afterwards.
One can almost certainly hear Lady Jane screaming with outrage from beyond the grave.
Simmons of course is writing a novel and his goal is to both entertain and occasionally terrify; something he does accomplish with aplomb. It is hard to read The Terror however if you recognize the officers and crew more as historic figures than characters for an author's vision of polar fright. The monsters Simmons portrays in his book were real men who died in agony and were mourned by family and friends who thought they were leaving simply for adventure, not catastrophe. Now in this 21st century novel they exist as caricatures of themselves; beasts who carved each other up in an insane gamble to just win more time even after giving up on any chance of rescue or escape. As to why the real survivors were never able to befriend the Inuit, who might have saved them, there is no clear answer (although Simmons has some thoughts on that score as well). The irony that men like John Rae or William Scoresby, men long deemed less deserving for exploration's glory by the Admiralty, could have saved them was likely not lost on at least the officers. They would have known by the end all that they should have learned before leaving England, and how vital so much of the knowledge was that their superiors had so casually dismissed.
Ultimately, the expedition likely failed for multiple reasons. After an extended period trapped on the ice, scurvy was most certainly a factor, as was lead poisoning caused by the tinned foods that were bought in bulk from the lowest contract bidder — a company that did not use the proven methods of sealing and protecting the food. (This was verified by modern testing of the bodies of three crew members who died and were carefully buried early on when Franklin was still alive and the expedition still viable.)
More significantly than those factors, however was Barrow's insistence that if their primary path south through Barrow Strait was closed due to ice, Franklin was to turn north for the Open Polar Sea. These instructions, based on finding safe waters that did not exist, confounded the rescue parties for years. The southern route was apparently not blocked when Franklin arrived, but in years after it was — and so the British consistently turned north, neglecting the wisdom of Scoresby yet again who knew that just because a route was blocked one season did not mean it was blocked the year before. His practical knowledge could not stand up against the infallibility of the Royal Navy or its officers, who were convinced that what they believed was always right. The public supported this belief until the end, always desperate for their military to be right; always determined for their government not to let them down.
Such habits die hard, even in modern times.
The brutal and senseless reality though is that somewhere on the ice, the officers and men of the Erebus and Terror died slowly and painfully for all that they were expected to know but were never taught. Truly, they never had a chance.
There is still the possibility that somewhere in the Arctic a cairn will be found with a last message from Crozier or a last diary from Franklin or one of the other officers that will explain how the situation degraded so badly. Even now this would not be unheard of; in 1871 a legible letter by William Barents was found — it had been written in 1595. Hope springs eternal among polar historians that someday Sir John Franklin will speak from the grave and explain what went wrong. It will likely not be nearly as sexy and exciting as Dan Simmons' interpretation, but riveting nonetheless. Franklin's story, as Sandler shows so well in Resolute, is that of the birth of legends and the death of myths; the final undeniable proof that in the Arctic it is those who live there that will always and only understand it.
Would that it didn't take so many dead Englishmen to learn that truth.