Monday 30 December 2019

Cannibalism: Charles Dickens v. Dr. John Rae, Part 4.

The concluding installment of the exchange between Charles Dickens and Dr John Rae was published 165 years ago today. Your comments are welcome below or on the Facebook group Remembering the Franklin Expedition.

Transcription and original page images at


No. 248                      Saturday, December 30, 1854                    457


DR. RAE'S communication to us on the
subject of his Report, which was begun last
week, resumes and concludes as follows:

When the Esquimaux have an object to
gain, they will not hesitate to tell a falsehood,
but they cannot lie with a good grace;
"they cannot lie like truth," as civilised men
do. Their fabrications are so silly and
ridiculous, and it is so easy to make them
contradict themselves by a slight cross-
questioning, that the falsehood is easily
discovered. I could give a number of instances
of this, but shall confine myself to two.

When Sir John Richardson descended the
M‘Kenzie in 1848, a great number of Esquimaux
came off in their canoes ; they told us
that on an island to which they pointed, a
number of white people had been living for
some time ; that they had been living there
all winter, and that we ought to land to see
them. Their story was altogether so incredible,
that we could not have a moment's
doubt or difficulty in tracing its object. They
wished to get us on shore in order to have a
better opportunity of pillaging our boats, as
they did those of Sir John Franklin; for it
must be remembered that the Esquimaux at
the M‘Kenzie and to the westward are
different from any of those to the eastward.
The former, notwithstanding the frequent
efforts of the Hudson's Bay Company to
effect a peace, are at constant war with the
Louchoux Indians, and consequently with
the "white men," as they think the latter,
by supplying guns and ammunition to the
Louchoux, are their allies.

Another instance excited much interest
in England when it was first made known
here. It was reported to Captain M‘Clure
by an Esquimaux, that one of a party of
white men had been killed by one of his
tribe near Point Warren. That the white
men built a house there, but nobody knew
how they came, as they had no boat; and
that they went inland. When asked "when
this took place?" the reply was, that "it
might be last year or when I was a child."

How any one could place any faith in such
a report as this, I am at a loss to discover.
Any man at all acquainted with the native
character, would in a moment set down this
tale at its proper value; at least Sir John Rich-
ardson and I did—and the first is high autho-
rity. Indeed, throughout the whole of Captain
or Commander M‘Clure's communication
with the natives in the neighbourhood of the
M‘Kenzie, he appears to have been admirably
imposed upon by them. Let us again get at
a fact or two.

He is told by a chief that the Esquimaux
go so far to the westward to trade, instead of
to the M‘Kenzie, "because, at the latter
place, the white man had given the Indians
very bad water, which killed many and made
others foolish (drunk), and that they would
not have any such water. From this it
evidently appears that the Company lose
annually many valuable skins, which find
their way to the Colvill instead of to the

Let us quietly examine the above
statements. It is well known that since the
M‘Kenzie has been discovered, ardent spirits
have not been admitted within the district, for
the natives. At present, and for many years
back spirits or wines have not been allowed to
enter the M‘Kenzie or its neighbouring
district of Athabasca, as allowances for either
officers or men in the Hudson's Bay
Company's service, so that the natives might not
have it to say that we took for ourselves
what we would not give to them. We do not
know, nor do I think that there are, any
Russian trading posts on the Colvill. The true
reason that these Esquimaux do not trade
with the Hudson's Bay Company is, that the
former are constantly at war with the
Louchoux. Frequent attempts have been made to
effect a reconciliation between these tribes,
but hitherto without success.

Captain M‘Clure tells us that the Esquimaux
informed him that "they had no communication
with any person belonging to the
Great River" (M‘Kenzie); yet, strange to say,
he intrusts the very despatches in which this
is mentioned, to natives of the same tribe,
and indulges the hope that his "letter may
reach the Hudson's Bay Company this year,"
(one thousand eight hundred and fifty). In
another case, Captain M‘Clure mentions
that he gave a gun and ammunition to an
Esquimaux chief, to deliver a despatch into
the hands of the Hudson's Bay Company. In
any case, prepayment is acknowledged to be

a bad plan, but worst of all in that of a
savage with whom you are unacquainted, and
on whom you have no hold. Had the pay
depended upon the performance of the
service, the despatch might have had some
chance of reaching its destination.

I have had some opportunities of studying
Esquimaux character; and, from what I have
seen, I consider them superior to all the tribes
of red men in America. In their domestic
relationship they show a bright example to
the most civilised people. They are dutiful
sons and daughters, kind brothers and sisters,
and most affectionate parents. So well is the
first of these qualities understood among
them, that a large family is considered wealth
by a father and mother—for, the latter well
know that they will be carefully tended by
their offspring, well clothed and fed, whilst a
scrap of skin or a morsel of food is to be
obtained, as long as a spark of life remains;
and, after death, that their bodies will be
properly placed either on or under the ground,
according to the usage of the tribe.

I do not stand alone in the high opinion I
have formed of the Esquimaux character.
At the Hudson's Bay Company's establishments
of Fort George on the east, and
Churchill on the west, coast of Hudson's
Bay, where the Esquimaux visit, they are
looked upon in an equally favourable light.
The Moravian missionaries on the Labrador
coast find the Esquimaux honest and
trustworthy, and employ them constantly
and almost exclusively as domestic servants.
The report of the residents in the Danish
settlements on the west shores of Greenland,
is no less favourable; and although I have no
special authority for saying so, I believe
that Captain Perring's opinions are similar.
During the two winters I passed at Repulse
Bay, I had men with me who had been, at
some time of their lives, in all parts of the
Hudson's Bay Company's territories. These
men assured me that they had never seen
Indians so decorous, obliging, unobtrusive,
orderly, and friendly, as the Esquimaux.

Oh! some one may remark, perhaps they
have some private reason for this.

Now, my men had not any "private reason"
for saying so. I firmly believe, and can
almost positively assert, that no case of
improper intercourse took place between them
and the natives of Repulse Buy during the
two seasons I remained there—which is more,
I suspect, than most of the commanders of
parties to the Arctic Sea can truthfully affirm.
A number of instances (principally
shipwrecks), are brought forward to show that
cannibalism has not been usually resorted to
in cases of extreme want; that it is the exception,
not the rule. Yet not one of those
properly represent the probable position of Sir
John Franklin's party. In all the cases
above alluded to, the parties suffering were
deprived of water as well as of food. We all
know that when any one suffers from two
painful sensations, but painful in different
degrees, the more severe of the two prevents
the lesser from being felt.

Thirst causes a far more painful sensation
than hunger, and consequently, whilst the
first remains unappeased, the pangs of the
other are very slightly, if at all, felt. In
the case of Franklin's party, their thirst
could be easily assuaged, and consequently
the pangs of hunger would be felt the more
intensely. Even Franklin's former disastrous
journey (from the narrative of which large
extracts have been made) is not a parallel case.
In it the suffering party had generally
something or other every few days to allay
the cravings of hunger. They had pieces of
old leather, tripe de roche, and an infusion of
the tea-plant. Unfortunately, near the mouth
of Back's Fish River, there are none of
the above named plants,—nothing but a
barren waste with scarcely a blade of
grass upon it. Much stress is laid on the
moral character and the admirable discipline
of the crews of Sir John Franklin's ships.
What their state of discipline may have
been I cannot say, but their conduct at the
very last British port they entered was not
such as to make those who knew it, consider
them very deserving of the high eulogium
passed upon them in Household Words.
Nor can we say that the men, in extreme
cases of privation, would maintain that state
of subordination so requisite in all cases,
but more especially during danger and

We have, I am sorry to say, but too many
recent instances of disagreement and differences
among the officers employed on the
Arctic service. It is well known in naval
circles that, in one vessel which has not yet
arrived from the north, there will be two
or three courts martial as soon as she reaches
home. To place much dependence on the
obedience and good conduct of the comparatively
uneducated seamen, if exposed to the
utmost extremes of distress, when their
superiors, without having any such excuse,
have forgotten themselves on a point of such
vital importance, would be very unreasonable.
Besides, seamen generally consider
themselves, when they have lost their ship
and set foot on shore, as being freed from
that strict discipline to which they would
readily submit themselves when on board.

As these observations have already attained
a much greater length than I at first anticipated,
I shall refrain from mentioning, as I
intended, one or two instances of persons fully
as well educated as the generality of picked
seamen usually are, and brought up as
Christians, having, in cases of extreme want,
had recourse to the "last resource," as a
means of maintaining life.

I am aware of the difficulties I have to
encounter in replying to the article on the
"Lost Arctic Voyagers." That the author
of that article is a writer of very great ability

and practice, and that he makes the best
use of both to prove his opinions, is very
evident. Besides, he takes the popular view of
the question, which is a great point in his favour.
To oppose this, I have nothing but a small
amount of practical knowledge of the question
at issue, with a few facts to support my
views and opinions; but, I can only throw
them together in a very imperfect and
unconnected form, as I have little experience in
writing, and, like many men who have led a
wandering and stirring life, have a great
dislike to it. It is seldom that a man can do
well what is disagreeable to him.

That my opinions remain exactly the same
as they were when my report to the Admiralty
was written, may be inferred from all I
have now stated.

That twenty or twenty-five Esquimaux
could, for two months together, continue to
repeat the same story without variation in
any material point, and adhere firmly to it, in
spite of all sorts of cross-questioning, is to me
the clearest proof that the information they
gave me was founded on fact.

That the " white men" were not
murdered by the natives, but that they died of
starvation, is, to my mind, equally beyond a

In conclusion, let me remark, that I fully
appreciate the kind, courteous, and flattering
manner in which my name is mentioned by
the writer on the subject of the lost Arctic


  1. Rae talks about one vessel which, as of December 30,1854, had not yet arrived from the North and about two or three court martials which would be forthcoming. Could it be - and I am speculating here - that Rae was talking about Collinson ?

  2. Collinson was on his long voyage home at this time but presumably sent dispatches via Panama.


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