Monday, 2 December 2019

Cannibalism: Charles Dickens v. Dr. John Rae, Part 1.

I noticed recently that we were approaching the anniversary of the publication of the dispute between Rae and Dickens on the subject of the reports of cannibalism which Rae had obtained from the Inuit.

My purpose here is simply to post these lengthy articles on the same dates in the calendar that they were originally published and invite the public to read them and try to imagine what impressions would have been formed in the minds of the readership of 165 years ago.

The transcription is from


No. 245                   Saturday, December 2, 1854                   Page 361


DR. RAE may be considered to have established,
by the mute but solemn testimony
of the relics he has brought home, that
SIR JOHN FRANKLIN and his party are no
more. But, there is one passage in his
melancholy report, some examination into the
probabilities and improbabilities of which, we
hope will tend to the consolation of those who
take the nearest and dearest interest in the fate
of that unfortunate expedition, by leading to
the conclusion that there is no reason whatever
to believe, that any of its members prolonged
their existence by the dreadful expedient of
eating the bodies of their dead companions.
Quite apart from the very loose and
unreliable nature of the Esquimaux representations
(on which it would be necessary to
receive with great caution, even the commonest
and most natural occurrence), we believe we
shall show, that close analogy and the mass
of experience are decidedly against the reception
of any such statement, and that it is in the
highest degree improbable that such men as the
officers and crews of the two lost ships would,
or could, in any extremity of hunger, alleviate
the pains of starvation by this horrible means.

Before proceeding to the discussion, we will
premise that we find no fault with Dr. Rae,
and that we thoroughly acquit him of any
trace of blame. He has himself openly
explained, that his duty demanded that he
should make a faithful report, to the Hudson's
Bay Company or the Admiralty, of every
circumstance stated to him; that he did so, as
he was bound to do, without any reservation;
and that his report was made public by the
Admiralty: not by him. It is quite clear that
if it were an ill-considered proceeding to
disseminate this painful idea on the worst of
evidence, Dr. Rae is not responsible for it. It
is not material to the question that Dr. Rae
believes in the alleged cannibalism; he does
so, merely "on the substance of information
obtained at various times and various
sources," which is before us all. At the same
time, we will most readily concede that he has
all the rights to defend his opinion which his
high reputation as a skilful and intrepid
traveller of great experience in the Arctic
Regions—combined with his manly,
conscientious, and modest personal character—can

possibly invest him with. Of the propriety
of his immediate return to England with the
intelligence he had got together, we are fully
convinced. As a man of sense and humanity,
he perceived that the first and greatest
account to which it could be turned, was, the
prevention of the useless hazard of valuable
lives; and no one could better know in how
much hazard all lives are placed that follow
Franklin's track, than he who had made eight
visits to the Arctic shores. With these remarks
we can release Dr. Rae from this inquiry,
proud of him as an Englishman, and happy
in his safe return home to well-earned rest.

The following is the passage in the report
to which we invite attention: "Some of the
bodies had been buried (probably those of the
first victims of famine); some were in a tent
or tents; others under the boat, which had
been turned over to form a shelter; and
several lay scattered about in different directions.
Of those found on the island, one was
supposed to have been an officer, as he had a
telescope, strapped over his shoulders, and his
double-barrelled gun lay underneath him.
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 resource—cannibalism
—as a means of prolonging existence . . . .
None of the Esquimaux with whom I
conversed had seen the ' whites,' nor had they
ever been at the place where the bodies were
found, but had their information from those
who had been there, and who had seen the
party when travelling."

We have stated our belief that the extreme
improbability of this inference as to the
last resource, can be rested, first on close
analogy, and secondly, on broad general
grounds, quite apart from the improbabilities
and incoherencies of the Esquimaux evidence:
which is itself given, at the very best, at
second-hand. More than this, we presume it
to have been given at second-hand through
an interpreter; and he was, in all probability,
imperfectly acquainted with the language he
translated to the white man. We believe that
few (if any) Esquimaux tribes speak one
common dialect; and Franklin's own
experience of his interpreters in his former voyage
was, that they and the Esquimaux they
encountered understood each other "tolerably"

  —an expression which he frequently uses in
his book, with the evident intention of
showing that their communication was not
altogether satisfactory. But, even making the
very large admission that Dr. Rae's interpreter
perfectly understood what he was told,
there yet remains the question whether he
could render it into language of corresponding
weight and value. We recommend any
reader who does not perceive the difficulty of
doing so and the skill required, even when a
copious and elegant European language is in
question, to turn to the accounts of the trial
of Queen Caroline, and to observe the constant
discussions that arose—sometimes, very
important—in reference to the worth in English,
of words used by the Italian witnesses. There
still remains another consideration, and a
grave one, which is, that ninety-nine interpreters
out of a hundred, whether savage, half-savage,
or wholly civilised, interpreting to a
person of superior station and attainments, will
be under a strong temptation to exaggerate.
This temptation will always be strongest,
precisely where the person interpreted to is
seen to be the most excited and impressed
by what he hears; for, in proportion as he is
moved, the interpreter's importance is
increased. We have ourself had an
opportunity of inquiring whether any part of this
awful information, the unsatisfactory result
of "various times and various sources," was
conveyed by gestures. It was so, and the
gesture described to us as often repeated—
that of the informant setting his mouth to
his own arm—would quite as well describe a
man having opened one of his veins, and
drunk of the stream that flowed from it. If
it be inferred that the officer who lay upon
his double-barrelled gun, defended his life to the
last against ravenous seamen, under the boat
or elsewhere, and that he died in so doing,
how came his body to be found? That was
not eaten, or even mutilated, according to the
description. Neither were the bodies, buried
in the frozen earth, disturbed; and is it not
likely that if any bodies were resorted to as
food, those the most removed from recent life
and companionship would have been the first?
Was there any fuel in that desolate place for
cooking " the contents of the kettles"? If
none, would the little flame of the spirit-lamp
the travellers may have had with them, have
sufficed for such a purpose? If not, would
the kettles have been defiled for that purpose
at all? "Some of the corpses," Dr. Rae
adds, in a letter to the Times, "had been
sadly mutilated, and had been stripped by
those who had the misery to survive them,
and who were found wrapped in two or three
suits of clothes."Had there been no bears
thereabout, to mutilate those bodies; no
wolves, no foxes? Most probably the scurvy,
known to be the dreadfullest scourge of
Europeans in those latitudes, broke out
among the party. Virulent as it would
inevitably be under such circumstances, it
would of itself cause dreadful disfigurement—
woeful mutilation—but, more than that,
it would not only soon annihilate the desire
to eat (especially to eat flesh of any kind),
but would annihilate the power. 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. It
is impossible to form an estimate of the
character of any race of savages, from their
deferential behaviour to the white man while
he is strong. The mistake has been made
again and again; and the moment the white
man has appeared in the new aspect of being
weaker than the savage, the savage has
changed and sprung upon him. There are
pious persons who, in their practice, with a
strange inconsistency, claim for every child
born to civilisation all innate depravity, and
for every savage born to the woods and wilds
all innate virtue. 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.

Leaving, as we purposed, this part of the
subject with a glance, let us put a supposititious

If a little band of British naval officers,
educated and trained exactly like the officers
of this ill-fated expedition, had, on a former
occasion, in command of a party of men
vastly inferior to the crews of these two ships,
penetrated to the same regions, and been
exposed to the rigours of the same climate;
if they had undergone such fatigue, exposure,
and disaster, that scarcely power remained
to them to crawl, and they tottered and fell
many times in a journey of a few yards; if
they could not bear the contemplation of
their "filth and wretchedness, each other's
emaciated figures, ghastly countenances,
dilated eyeballs, and sepulchral voices"; if
they had eaten their shoes, such outer clothes
as they could part with and not perish of
cold, the scraps of acrid marrow yet
remaining in the dried and whitened spines
of dead wolves; if they had wasted away to
skeletons, on such fare, and on bits of putrid
skin, and bits of hide, and the covers of guns,
and pounded bones; if they had passed
through all the pangs of famine, had reached
that point of starvation where there is little
or no pain left, and had descended so far into
the valley of the shadow of Death, that they
lay down side by side, calmly and even cheerfully
awaiting their release from this world;
if they had suffered such dire extremity, and
yet lay where the bodies of their dead
companions lay unburied, within a few paces of
them; and yet never dreamed at the last
gasp of resorting to this said "last resource;"
would it not be strong presumptive evidence
against an incoherent Esquimaux story,

collected at "various times" as it wandered from
"various sources"? But, if the leader of that
party were the leader of this very party too;
if Franklin himself had undergone those
dreadful trials, and had been restored to
health and strength, and had been—not for
days and months alone, but years—the Chief
of this very expedition, infusing into it, as
such a man necessarily must, the force of his
character and discipline, patience and fortitude;
would there not be a still greater and
stronger moral improbability to set against
the wild tales of a herd of savages?

Now, this was Franklin's case. He had
passed through the ordeal we have described.
He was the Chief of that expedition, and he
was the Chief of this. In this, he
commanded a body of picked English seamen of
the first class; in that, he and his three
officers had but one English seaman to rely on;
the rest of the men being Canadian voyagers
and Indians. His Narrative of a Journey to
the Shores of the Polar Sea in 1819-22, is one
of the most explicit and enthralling in the
whole literature of Voyage and Travel. The
facts are acted and suffered before the reader's
eyes, in the descriptions of FRANKLIN,
RICHARDSON, and BACK: three of the greatest
names in the history of heroic endurance.

See how they gradually sink into the depths
of misery.

"I was reduced," says Franklin, long
before the worst came, "almost to skin and
bone, and, like the rest of the party,
suffered from degrees of cold that would have
been disregarded whilst in health and
vigour." " I set out with the intention of
going to Saint Germain, to hasten his
operations (making a canoe), but though he was
only three quarters of a mile distant, I spent
three hours in a vain attempt to reach him,
my strength being unequal to the labour of
wading through the deep snow; and I
returned quite exhausted, and much shaken by
the numerous falls I had got. My associates
were all in the same debilitated state. The
voyagers were somewhat stronger than
ourselves, but more indisposed to exertion, on
account of their despondency. The sensation
of hunger was no longer felt by any of us,
yet we were scarcely able to converse upon
any other subject than the pleasures of
eating.'' " We had a small quantity of this
weed (tripe de roche, and always the cause of
miserable illness to some of them) in the
evening, and the rest of our supper was made
up of scraps of roasted leather. The distance
walked to-day was six miles." ''Previous
to setting out, the whole party ate the
remains of their old shoes, and whatever scraps
of leather they had, to strengthen their
stomachs for  the fatigue of the day's journey."
"Not being able to find any tripe de roche,
we drank an infusion of the Labrador
tea-plant, and ate a few morsels of burnt leather
for supper.'' " We were unable to raise the
tent, and found its weight too great to carry
it on; we therefore cut it up, and took a part
of the canvass for a cover.'' Thus growing
weaker and weaker every day, they reached,
at last, Fort Enterprise, a lonely and desolate
hut, where Richardson—then Dr. Richardson,
now Sir John—and Hepburn, the English
seaman, from whom they had been parted,
rejoined them. " We were all shocked at
beholding the emaciated countenances of the
Doctor and Hepburn, as they strongly
evidenced their extremely debilitated state. The
alteration in our appearance was equally
distressing to them, for, since the swellings had
subsided, we were little more than skin and
bone. The Doctor particularly remarked the
sepulchral tone of our voices, which he requested
us to make more cheerful, if possible, quite
unconscious that his own partook of the same
key." "In the afternoon Peltier was so
much exhausted, that he sat up with
difficulty, and looked piteously; at length he
slided from his stool upon the bed, as we
supposed to sleep, and in this composed state he
remained upwards of two hours without
our apprehending any danger. We were
then alarmed by hearing a rattling in his
throat, and on the Doctor's examining him
he was found to be speechless. He died in
the course of the night. Semandré sat up the
greater part of the day, and even assisted in
pounding some bones; but, on witnessing the
melancholy state of Peltier, he became very
low, and began to complain of cold, and stiffness
of the joints. Being unable to keep up
a sufficient fire to warm him, we laid him
down, and covered him with several blankets.
He did not, however, appear to get better,
and I deeply lament to add, he also died
before daylight. We removed the bodies of the
deceased into the opposite part of the house,
but our united strength was inadequate to the
task of interring them, or even carrying them
down to the river." "The severe shock
occasioned by the sudden dissolution of our two
companions, rendered us very melancholy.
Adam (one of the interpreters) became low and
despondent; a change which we lamented the
more, as we perceived he had been gaining
strength and spirits for the two preceding days.
I was particularly distressed by the thought
that the labour of collecting wood must now
devolve upon Dr. Richardson and Hepburn, and
that my debility would disable me from affording
them any material assistance; indeed both
of them most kindly urged me not to make the
attempt. I found it necessary, in their absence,
to remain constantly near Adam and to
converse with him, in order to prevent his reflecting
on our condition, and to keep up his spirits
as far as possible. I also lay by his side at
night." "The Doctor and Hepburn were
getting much weaker, and the limbs of the
latter were now greatly swelled. They came
into the house frequently in the course of the
day to rest themselves, and when once seated
were unable to rise without the help of one
another, or of a stick. Adam was for the

most part in the same low state as yesterday,
but sometimes he surprised us by getting up
and walking with an appearance of increased
strength. His looks were now wild and
ghastly, and his conversation was often
incoherent." "I may here remark, that owing
to our loss of flesh, the hardness of the floor,
from which we were only protected by a
blanket, produced soreness over the body,
and especially those parts on which the
weight rested in lying; yet to turn ourselves
for relief was a matter of toil and difficulty.
However, during this period, and indeed all
along after the acute pains of hunger, which
lasted but a short time, had subsided, we
generally enjoyed the comfort of a few hours'
sleep. The dreams which for the most part
but not always accompanied it, were usually
(though not invariably) of a pleasant
character, being very often about the enjoyments
of feasting. In the daytime, we fell into the
practice of conversing on common and light
subjects, although we sometimes discoursed,
with seriousness and earnestness, on topics
connected with religion. We generally avoided
speaking, directly, of our present sufferings,
or even of the prospect of relief. I observed,
that in proportion as our strength decayed,
our minds exhibited symptoms of weakness,
evinced by a kind of unreasonable pettishness
with each other. Each of us thought
the other weaker in intellect than himself,
and more in need of advice and assistance.
So trifling a circumstance as a change of
place, recommended by one as being warmer
and more comfortable, and refused by the
other from a dread of motion, frequently
called forth fretful expressions, which were
no sooner uttered than atoned for, to be
repeated, perhaps, in the course of a few
minutes. The same thing often occurred when
we endeavoured to assist each other in carrying
wood to the fire; none of us were willing
to receive assistance, although the task was
disproportioned to our strength. On one of these
occasions, Hepburn was so convinced of this
waywardness, that he exclaimed, 'Dear me, if
we are spared to return to England, I wonder
if we shall recover our understandings!'"

Surely it must be comforting to the
relatives and friends of Franklin and his brave
companions in later dangers, now at rest, to
reflect upon this manly and touching narrative;
to consider that at the time it so
affectingly describes, and all the weaknesses of
which it so truthfully depicts, the bodies of
the dead lay within reach, preserved by
the cold, but unmutilated; and to know it
for an established truth, that the sufferers
had passed the bitterness of hunger and were
then dying passively.

They knew the end they were approaching
very well, as Franklin's account of the arrival
of their deliverance next day, shows. "Adam
had passed a restless night, being disquieted
by gloomy apprehensions of approaching
death, which we tried in vain to dispel. He
was so low in the morning as to be scarcely
able to speak. I remained in bed by his
side, to cheer him as much as possible. The
Doctor and Hepburn went to cut wood.
They had hardly begun their labour, when
they were amazed at hearing the report of a
musket. They could scarcely believe that
there was really any one near, until they
heard a shout, and immediately espied three
Indians close to the house. Adam and I
heard the latter noise, and I was fearful that
a part of the house had fallen upon one of my
companions; a disaster which had in fact
been thought not unlikely. My alarm was
only momentary. Dr. Richardson came in
to communicate the joyful intelligence that
relief had arrived. He and myself
immediately addressed thanksgiving to the throne
of mercy for this deliverance, but poor Adam
was in so low a state that he could scarcely
comprehend the information. When the
Indians entered, he attempted to rise, but
sank down again. But for this seasonable
interposition of Providence, his existence
must have terminated in a few hours, and
that of the rest probably in not many days."

But, in the preceding trials and privations
of that expedition, there was one man,
MICHEL, an Iroquois hunter, who did
conceive the horrible idea of subsisting on the
bodies of the stragglers, if not of even
murdering the weakest with the express design
of eating them—which is pretty certain.
This man planned and executed his wolfish
devices at a time when Sir John Richardson
and Hepburn were afoot with him every
day; when, though their sufferings were
very great, they had not fallen into the weakened
state of mind we have just read of; and
when the mere difference between his bodily
robustness and the emaciation of the rest of
the party—to say nothing of his mysterious
absences and returns—might have engendered
suspicion. Yet, so far off was the
unnatural thought of cannibalism from their
minds, and from that of Mr. HOOD, another
officer who accompanied them—though they
were all then suffering the pangs of hunger,
and were sinking every hour—that no
suspicion of the truth dawned upon one of them,
until the same hunter shot Mr. Hood dead
as he sat by a fire. It was after the
commission of that crime, when he had become an
object of horror and distrust, and seemed to
be going savagely mad, that circumstances
began to piece themselves together in the
minds of the two survivors, suggesting a
guilt so monstrously unlikely to both of them
that it had never flashed upon the thoughts of
either until they knew the wretch to be a
murderer. To be rid of his presence, and
freed from the danger they at length
perceived it to be fraught with, Sir John
Richardson, nobly assuming the responsibility
he would not allow a man of commoner
station to bear, shot this devil through the
head—to the infinite joy of all the generations

of readers who will honour him in his
admirable narrative of that transaction.

The words in which Sir John Richardson
mentions this Michel, after the earth is rid
of him, are extremely important to our
purpose, as almost describing the broad general
ground towards which we now approach.
"His principles, unsupported by a belief in
the divine truths of Christianity, were unable
to withstand the pressure of severe distress.
His countrymen, the Iroquois, are generally
Christians, but he was totally uninstructed,
and ignorant of the duties inculcated by
Christianity; and from his long residence in
the Indian country, seems to have imbibed,
or retained, the rules of conduct which the
southern Indians prescribe to themselves."

Heaven forbid that we, sheltered and fed,
and considering this question at our own
warm hearth, should audaciously set limits
to any extremity of desperate distress! It
is in reverence for the brave and enterprising,
in admiration for the great spirits who can
endure even unto the end, in love for their
names, and in tenderness for their memory,
that we think of the specks, once ardent
men, "scattered about in different directions"
on the waste of ice and snow, and plead for
their lightest ashes. Our last claim in their
behalf and honour, against the vague babble
of savages, is, that the instances in which this
"last resource" so easily received, has been
permitted to interpose between life and
death, are few and exceptional; whereas
the instances in which the sufferings of
hunger have been borne until the pain was
past, are very many. Also, and as the citadel
of the position, that the better educated the
man, the better disciplined the habits, the
more reflective and religious the tone of
thought, the more gigantically improbable
the "last resource" becomes.

Beseeching the reader always to bear in
mind that the lost Arctic voyagers were
carefully selected for the service, and that
each was in his condition no doubt far above
the average, we will test the Esquimaux kettle-stories
by some of the most trying and famous
cases of hunger and exposure on record.

This, however, we must reserve for
another and concluding chapter next week.


  1. Took a while to read this, even magnifying the words on my iPad. Try reading it in the original size newspaper font! Newspaper type was tiny in those days.

    I wonder why Dickens thought that the ships' men were "carefully selected for the service" and in condition "far above average"?


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