Monday 23 December 2019

Cannibalism: Charles Dickens v. Dr. John Rae, Part 3.

After a gap of two weeks: John Rae's reply.

Transcription and original page images at


No. 248                      Saturday, December 23, 1854                    433


WE have received the following communication
from DR. RAE. It can have no
better commendation to the attention of our
readers than the mention of his name:—

Observing, in the numbers of this journal
dated the second and ninth of this month, a
very ably-written article on the lost Arctic
voyagers, in which an attempt is made to
prove that Sir John Franklin's ill-fated
party did not die of starvation, but were
murdered by the Esquimaux; and consequently
that they were not driven to the last
dread alternative as a means of protracting
life, permit me to make a few remarks in
support of my information on this painful subject
—information received by me with the
utmost caution, and not one material point of
which was published to the world without
my having some good reason to support it.

First, as regards my interpreter. To compare
either Augustus or Ouligback (who
accompanied Sir John Franklin and Sir John
Richardson in their overland journeys) with
William Ouligback, my interpreter, would be
very unfair to the latter. Neither of the
first two could make themselves understood
in the English language, and did not very perfectly
comprehend the dialect of the natives of
the coast westward of the Coppermine River.

William Ouligback speaks English fluently;
and, perhaps, more correctly than one half of
the lower classes in England or Scotland.

As I could not, from my ignorance of
the Esquimaux tongue, test William Ouligback's
qualifications, I resorted to the only
means of doing so I possessed. There is
an old servant of the company at Churchill,
an honest, trustworthy man, who has acquired
a very fair knowledge of both the
Esquimaux character and the Esquimaux
language. This man informed me that young
Ouligback could be perfectly relied on; that
he would tell the Esquimaux exactly what
was said, and give the Esquimaux reply with
equal correctness; that when he had any
personal object to gain, he would not scruple
to tell a falsehood to attain it, but in such a
case the untruth was easily discovered by a
little cross-questioning. This description I
found perfectly true.

Again: the natives of Repulse Bay speak
precisely the same language as those of
Churchill, where young Ouligback was
brought up.

The objection offered that my information
was received second-hand, I consider much
in favour of its correctness. Had it been
obtained from the natives who had seen the
dead bodies of our countrymen, I should have
doubted all they told me, however plausible
their tale might have appeared; because had
they, as they usually do, deposited any property
under stones in the neighbourhood,
they would have had a very excellent cause
for attempting to mislead me.

That ninety-nine out of a hundred interpreters
are under a strong temptation
to exaggerate, may be true. If so, my
interpreter is the exception, as he did not
like to talk more than he could possibly
help. No doubt had I offered him a premium
for using his tongue freely he might
have done so; but not even the shadow of a
hope of a reward was held out.

It is said that part of the information
regarding cannibalism was conveyed to me
by gestures. This is another palpable mistake,
which is likely to mislead. I stated
in one of my letters to the Times that the
natives had preceded me to Repulse Bay;
and, by signs, had made my men left in
charge of the property there (none of whom
spoke a word of Esquimaux) comprehend
what I had already learnt through the interpreter.

I do not infer that the officer who lay upon
his double-barrelled gun defended his life to
the last against ravenous seamen; but that
he was a brave, cool man, in the full possession
of his mental faculties to the last; that
he lay down in this position as a precaution,
and, alas! was never able to rise again; and
that he was among the last, if not the very
last, of the survivors.

The question is asked, was there any fuel
in that desolate place for cooking the contents
of the kettles? I have already mentioned
in a letter to the Times how fuel
might have been obtained. I shall repeat
my opinion with additions:—When the
Esquimaux were talking with me on the
subject of the discovery of the men, boats,
tents, &c., several of them remarked that

it was curious no sledges were found at
the place. I replied that the boat was
likely fitted with sledge-runners that screwed
on to it. The natives answered, that sledges
were noticed with the party of whites
when alive, and that their tracks on the ice
and snow were seen near the place where
the bodies were found. My answer then
was, That they must have burnt them for
fuel; and I have no doubt but that the kegs
or cases containing the ball and shot must
have shared the same fate.

Had there been no bears thereabouts to
mutilate those bodies—no wolves, no foxes? is
asked; but it is a well-known fact that, from instinct,
neither bears, wolves, nor foxes, nor that
more ravenous of all, the glutton or wolverine,
unless on the verge of starvation, will touch
a dead human body; and the carnivorous
quadrupeds near the Arctic sea are seldom
driven to that extremity.

Quoting again from the article on the lost
Arctic voyagers. "Lastly, no man can with
any show of reason undertake to affirm that
the sad remnant of Franklin's gallant band
were not set upon and slain by the Esquimaux

This is a question which like many
others is much more easily asked than
answered; yet I will give my reasons
for not thinking, even for a moment,
that some thirty or forty of the bravest
class of one of the bravest nations in the
world, even when reduced to the most
wretched condition, and having firearms and
ammunition in their hands, could be
overcome by a party of savages equal in
number to themselves. I say equal in number,
because the Esquimaux to the eastward
of the Coppermine, seldom, if ever, collect
together in greater force than thirty men,
owing to the difficulty of obtaining the
means of subsistence. When Sir John Ross
wintered three years in Prince Regent's
Inlet, the very tribe of Esquimaux who
saw Sir John Franklin's party were
constantly or almost constantly in the
neighbourhood. In the several springs he
passed there, parties of his men were travelling
in various directions; yet no violence was
offered to them, although there was an immense
advantage to be gained by the savages
in obtaining possession of the vessels and their

In eighteen hundred and forty-six-seven
I and a party of twelve persons wintered at
Repulse Bay. In the spring my men were
divided and scattered in all directions; yet
no violence was offered, although we were
surrounded by native families, among whom
there were at least thirty men. By murdering
us they would have put themselves in
possession of boats and a quantity of cutlery
of great value to them. In the same spring,
when perfectly alone and unarmed, except
with a common clasp knife, which could
have been of no use, I met on the ice four
Esquimaux armed with spear and bow and
arrow. I went up to them, made them
shake hands; and, after exchanging a few
words and signs, left them. In this case
no violence was used; although I had a
box of astronomical instruments on my back,
which might have excited their cupidity.
Last spring, I, with seven men, was almost
in constant communication with a party
four times our number. The savages
made no attempt to harm us. Yet wood,
saws, daggers, and knives were extremely
scarce with them, and by getting possession
of our boat, its masts and oars, and the
remainder of our property, they would have
been independent for years.

What appears to me the most conclusive
reason for believing the Esquimaux report, is
this: the natives of Repulse Bay, although
they visit and communicate for mutual advantage
with those further west, both dislike
and fear their neighbours, and not without
cause; as they have behaved treacherously
to them on one or two occasions. So
far do they carry this dislike, that they
endeavoured, by every means in their power,
to stimulate me to shoot several visitors to
Repulse Bay, from Pelly Bay, and from near
Sir John Ross's wintering station in Prince
Regent's Inlet.

Now, is it likely that, had they possessed
such a powerful argument to excite—as they
expected to do—my anger and revenge as the
murder of my countrymen, would they not
have made use of it by acquainting me with
the whole circumstances, if they had any such
to report?

Again, what possible motive could the
Esquimaux have for inventing such an awful
tale as that which appeared in my report to
the secretary of the Admiralty. Alas! these
poor people know too well what starvation is,
in its utmost extremes, to be mistaken on
such a point. Although these uneducated
savages—who seem to be looked upon by
those who know them not, as little better
than brutes—resort to the "last resource"
only when driven to it by the most dire
necessity. They will starve for days before
they will even sacrifice their dogs to satisfy
the cravings of their appetites.

One or two facts are worth a hundred
theories on any subject. On meeting some
old acquaintances among the natives at
Repulse Bay, last spring, I naturally enquired
about others that I had seen there in eighteen
hundred and forty-six and forty-seven.
The reply was, that many of them had died
of starvation since I left, and some from a
disease which, by description, resembled influenza.
Among the party that died of
starvation was one man whom I well knew
—Shi-makeck—and for whom I enquired by
name. I learnt that this man, rather than
endure the terrible spectacle of his children
pining away in his presence, went out and
strangled himself. Another, equally well

known to me, being unable, I suppose, to
support the panics of hunger, stripped
off his clothes, and exposed himself to
cold, until he was frozen to death. In
several instances, on this occasion, cannibalism
had been resorted to, and two
women were pointed out to me as having had
recourse to this "last resource." It may be,
I have only the words of "babbling and false
savages who are, without exception, in heart,
covetous, treacherous, and cruel," in support
of what I say.

Let us enquire slightly into that want of
truthfulness so frequently and indiscriminately
charged against savages in general,
and the Esquimaux in particular:—When
that most distinguished of Arctic navigators—
Sir Edward Parry—wintered at
Winter Island, not Winter Harbour, and at
Igloolik, in the Straits of the Fury and
Hecla, he met many of the very tribe of
Esquimaux that I saw at Repulse Bay.
From these Sir Edward received information
and tracings of the coast west of Melville
Peninsula, surrounding a bay named by the

This Esquimaux tracing or delineation of
coast was entered in the charts in dotted
lines, until my survey of eighteen hundred
and forty-seven showed that, in all material
points, the accounts given by the natives
were perfectly correct. When Sir John Ross
wintered three years in Prince Regent's
Inlet, the natives drew charts of the coast
line to the southward of his position, and
informed him that, in that direction, there
was no water communication leading to the
western sea.

Sir John Ross's statements, founded on
those of the natives were not believed at the
Admiralty, nor my own, in eighteen hundred
and forty-seven, although I saw the land all
the way, and in which I was supported by
Esquimaux information. The authorities at
the Admiralty would still have Boothia an
Island. Last spring I proved beyond the
possibility of a doubt, the correctness of my
former report, and consequently the truthfulness
of the Esquimaux; for, where parties of
high standing at home would insist on having
nothing but salt water, I travelled over a
neck of land or isthmus only sixty miles broad.

On conversing with the natives about the
different parties of whites, and the ships and
boats they had seen, they described so perfectly
the personal appearance of Sir John
Ross and Sir James Ross—although the men
spoken with had not seen these gentlemen—
that any one acquainted with these officers
could have recognised them. The natives on
one point set me right, when they thought I
had made a mistake. I told them that the
two chiefs (Sir J. and Sir J. C. Ross) and
their men had all got home safe to their own
country. They immediately remarked, "that
this was not true, for some of the men had
died at the place where the vessel was left."
I, of course, alluded only to that portion of
the party who had got away from Regent's
Inlet in safety. It must be remembered that
this circumstance occurred upwards of twenty
years ago, and consequently is an instance of
correctness of memory and truthfulness that
would be considered surprising among people
in an advanced state of civilisation.

The peculiarities of the Great Fish River,
and of the coast near its mouth, has been so
minutely described by Sir George Back, and
so beautifully illustrated by his admirable
drawings, that they can easily be understood
by any one. The Esquimaux details on this
subject agreed perfectly with those of Sir
George Back: the river was desciibed as full
of falls and rapids, and that many Esquimaux
dwelt on or near its banks. They described
the land about a long day's journey (which,
with dogs and sledges, is from thirty-five to
forty miles) to the north-west of the
mouth of the river, as low and flat, without
hills of any kind, agreeing in every particular
with the descriptions of Sir George Back and

They told me that the top of the cairn
erected by Dease and Simpson at the Castor
and Pollux River had fallen down. This I
found to be true; and afterwards, on asking
them in which direction it had fallen, they
said towards the east. True again. I showed
two men, who said they had been along the
coast which I had traced, my rough draft of
a chart. They immediately comprehended
the whole; examined and recognised the
several points, islands, &c., laid down upon
it; gave me their Esquimaux names, showed
me where they had had "caches;" which I
actually saw.

Another Esquimaux, on learning that we
had opened a "cache," in which we found a
number of wings and heads of geese which
had lain long there, and were perfectly denuded
of flesh, said that the "cache"
belonged to him. Thinking that he was
stating a falsehood so as to obtain some
reward for having interfered with his property,
I produced my chart, and told him to
show me the island, among a number of
similar ones all small, on which his "cache"
was; he, without a moment's hesitation,
pointed to the right island.

Having dwelt thus much on the trustworthiness
of the Esquimaux, I shall next
touch on their disposition and aptitude to
falsehood; but this I must defer for the

We will merely append, as a commentary
on the opinion of our esteemed friend,
DR. RAE, relative to the probabilities of the
Esquimaux besetting a forlorn and weak
party, the speciality of whose condition that
people are quite shrewd enough to have perceived;
an extract from Sir John Barrow's
account of Franklin's and Richardson's second

''Thus far all went on well; but an accident
happened while the crowd was pressing
round the boats, which was productive of
unforeseen and very annoying consequences:

"'A kaiyack being overset by one of the
Lion's oars, its owner was plunged into the
water with his head in the mud, and apparently
in danger of being drowned. We
instantly extricated him from his unpleasant
situation, and took him into the boat until
the water could be thrown out of his
kaiyack; and Augustus, seeing him shivering
with cold, wrapped him up in his own
great coat. At first he was exceedingly
angry, but soon became reconciled to his
situation; and, looking about, discovered that
we had many bales, and other articles in the
boat, which had been concealed from the
people in the kaiyacks, by the coverings
being carefully spread over all. He soon
began to ask for everything he saw, and
expressed much displeasure on our refusing
to comply with his demands; he also, we
afterwards learned, excited the cupidity of
others by his account of the inexhaustible
riches in the Lion, and several of the younger
men endeavoured to get into both our boats,
but we resisted all their attempts.'

"They continued, however, to press, and
made many efforts to get into the boats,
while the water had ebbed so far that it was
not knee-deep at the boats, and the younger
men, waiting in crowds around them, tried to
steal everything they could reach. The Reliance
being afloat, was dragged by the
crowd towards the shore, when Franklin
directed the crew of the Lion (which was
aground and immoveable) to endeavour to
follow her, but the boat remained fast until
the Esquimaux lent their aid and dragged
her after the Reliance. One of the Lion's
men perceived that the man who was upset
had a pistol under his shirt, which it was
discovered had been stolen from Lieutenant
Back, and the thief, seeing it to be noticed,
leaped out of the boat and joined his countrymen,
carrying with him the great coat which
Augustus had lent him.

"'Two of the most powerful men, jumping
on board at the same time, seized me by the
wrists and forced me to sit between them;
and as I shook them loose two or three times,
a third Esquimaux took his station in front
to catch my arm whenever I attempted to
lift my gun, or the broad dagger which hung
by my side. The whole way to the shore they
kept repeating the word 'teyma,' beating
gently on my left breast with their hands,
and pressing mine against their breasts. As
we neared the beach, two oomiaks, full of
women, arrived, and the 'teymas' and vociferation
were redoubled. The Reliance was
first brought to the shore, and the Lion close
to her a few seconds afterwards. The three
men who held me now leaped ashore, and
those who remained in their canoes, taking
them out of the water, carried them to a
little distance. A numerous party then
drawing their knives, and stripping themselves
to the waist, ran to the Reliance, and
having first hauled her as far up as they
could, began a regular pillage, handing the
articles to the women, who, ranged in a row
behind, quickly conveyed them out of sight.'

"In short, after a furious contest, when
knives were brandished in a most threatening
manner, several of the men's clothes cut
through, and the buttons of others torn from
their coats, Lieutenant Back ordered his
people to seize and level their muskets, but
not to fire till the word was given. This had
the desired effect, the whole crowd taking to
their heels and hiding themselves behind the
drift-timber on the beach. Captain Franklin
still thought it best to temporise so long as
the boats were lying aground, for armed as
the Esquimaux were with long knives, bows,
arrows, and spears, fire-arms could not have
been used with advantage against so numerous
a host; Franklin, indeed, states his conviction,
'considering the state of excitement to
which they had worked themselves, that the
first blood which his party might unfortunately
have shed, would instantly have been
revenged by the sacrifice of all their lives.'

"As soon as the boats were afloat and
making to a secure anchorage, seven or eight
of the natives walked along the beach, entered
into conversation with Augustus, and
invited him to a conference on shore. 'I was
unwilling to let him go,' says Franklin, 'but
the brave little fellow entreated so earnestly
that I would suffer him to land and reprove
the Esquimaux for their conduct, that I at
length consented.' On his return, being desired
to tell what he had said to them, 'he
had told them,' he said—

"'Your conduct has been very bad, and
unlike that of all other Esquimaux. Some of
you even stole from me, your countryman
but that I do not mind,—I only regret that
you should have treated in this violent
manner the white people, who came solely to
do you kindness. My tribe were in the same
unhappy state in which you now are, before
the white people came to Churchill, but at
present they are supplied with everything
they need, and you see that I am well
clothed; I get all that I want, and am very
comfortable. You cannot expect, after the
transactions of this day, that these people
will ever bring goods to your country again,
unless you show your contrition by restoring
the stolen goods. The white people love the
Esquimaux, and wish to show them the same
kindness that they bestow upon the Indians.
Do not deceive yourselves, and suppose they are
afraid of you; I tell you they are not; and
that it is entirely owing to their humanity
that many of you were not killed to-day; for
they have all guns, with which they can
destroy you either when near or at a distance.
I also have a gun, and can assure
you, that if a white man had fallen, I would

have been the first to have revenged his

"The language of course is that of Franklin,
who however gives it as the purport of
Augustus's speech, and adds, 'his veracity is
beyond all question with the party.' 'We
could perceive,' says Franklin, 'by the shouts
of applause, with which they filled the pauses
in his language, that they assented to his
arguments;' [that is, to his representation of
the superior power of those white men]; 'and
he told us they had expressed great sorrow
for having given so much cause of offence.'
He said, moreover, that they pleaded ignorance,
having never before seen white men;
that they had seen so many fine things
entirely new to them, that they could not
resist the temptation of stealing; they promised
never to do the like again; and gave
a proof of their sincerity by restoring the
articles that had been stolen. And thus
in an amicable manner was the affray concluded."


  1. The wording used by Rae to describe factual events with the Inuit is so much better than that of Dickens ! Rae refers to an officer who laid on his double barreled gun.

    Kind of makes me think about the double barreled gun found with a skeleton in the Boat Place by McClintock. Was it only officers who handled such weapons ?

  2. Apprecciate this blog post


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