The eight or nine pallid, lurching figures, groaning and moaning in a manner unlike anything remotely human, were terrifyingly alien to what would one day be the Canadian territory of Nunavut. Their eyes were blank, vacant, staring. Their skin was blue, and they were unable to speak in anything resembling human speech.
Later, huddled in an igloo with other women, children and an old man of her tribe, an Inuit woman recalled her encounter with these dead things.
“They are not Inuit. They are not human.” she said to her gathered fellows. The men of the tribe were away on a seal hunting expedition, and the crunching footsteps of the creatures were coming closer and closer and closer.
Everyone huddled together, mothers holding their children tight to them. In moments, the things would be upon them.
The footsteps stopped, just outside the igloo.
The old man, knowing it was his duty, rose from the igloo floor and ventured out of the doorway.
He saw one of the dead men touching the outside of the igloo, curiosity evident on its face. It did not seem to react as the old man made his way towards it, and did not object to being touched. The old man recoiled nonetheless; the skin was cold to the touch. Surely, this was a corpse risen from the ice. What living, breathing human had flesh that cold?
Though it sounds like an encounter with zombies or Game of Thrones‘s White Walkers, what the Inuit people had been found by were British sailors. These eight or nine men, more dead than alive, were the last survivors of the ill-fated expedition of Sir John Franklin. By the time they reached the Inuit igloo, women and children huddling inside, they had faced true disaster. Their captain was dead. Their ship was locked in ice, never to move again. They were hundreds and hundreds of miles from the nearest fur or whaling post that provide some small sanctuary. Their clothes were inadequate to protect them against the harsh Arctic weather. Their food had long since run out, and they had resorted to eating the bodies of their dead crewmates.
The white men were brought inside the igloo, where the women attempted to comfort them. But their efforts failed. The sailors remained timid and untalkative. Despite obvious starvation, they refused all food offered to them, spitting out pieces of cooked seal and throwing away soup. When the Inuit offered to trade, they jealously clung to their meagre belongings.
When the men of the tribe returned from their hunt, they built a separate igloo for the strangers, complete with three dead seals for food and a fire for cooking. The Inuit waited until the white men were silent and sleeping, then they quietly packed up their essential belongings and fled across the ice.
Several months later, a group of the Inuit returned to recover what they had been forced to leave behind in their hurried flight. They decided to investigate the final fate of the white men. Inside the igloo that had been built for them, the Inuit found three untouched seal carcasses, and the bodies of nine men. The human bodies had obviously been subject to cannibalism.
Stories like this occur frequently among Inuit cultures in the far north of Canada. All native groups in the Americas encountered Europeans differently. Some, like the Aztecs and the Incas, encountered steel-clad conquerors. Peoples like the Powhatan and the Oneida encountered civilians, colonising the New World. The Cheyenne and the Hopi were faced with an expansionist mixture of conquerors and colonisers, determined to see the United States sprawl across North America from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific.
The Inuit, due to their remote, isolated location in the middle of a bitterly cold wasteland, tended not to encounter well-fed or well-dressed Europeans. Instead, their first brushes with white men were usually as a result of Arctic expeditions gone horribly, tragically wrong.
It is no surprise that the accounts of these meetings between Inuit and white man read like something from a horror novel. By the time the sailors of Franklin’s Expedition reached the Inuit they were maddened by desperation, riddled with diseases like scurvy and botulism, sickened further by lead poisoning, and very likely suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
On one occasion, a group of Inuit hunters discovered two sailors who had been spending days sleeping inside the carcasses of seals. The hunters took these men back to their tribe, where they were told of other white men seen by other Inuit groups. Many of these white men had been seen carrying and eating human flesh.
The shock and scandal that the horror of the Franklin Expedition brought to Victorian Britain was unprecedented. The British people had always imagined that if their sailors were ever to die in the course of their duty, it would be with true British dignity and resolve. Sixty years later, when the Antarctic expedition of Robert Falcon Scott met a similar fate, the public got what it wanted. Recovery expeditions found Scott’s men frozen to death, and alongside their bodies letters and testimonies filled with flowery language and glorification of Britain and her empire.
But there was no such final consolation for the public regarding the Franklin Expedition. When John Rae led an expedition in 1854 to find out what happened to Franklin and his men, he confirmed the testimony of the Inuit that the expedition had fallen into madness and cannibalism. This was immediately repudiated by the British public, including by Charles Dickens. Dickens strongly rejected Rae’s version of events as “believing the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilised people, with domesticity of blood and blubber”. Dickens went further, guiding (read: interfering) playwright Wilkie Collins in the writing of The Frozen Deep, which glorified the sacrifice of Franklin and his men.
Ultimately, the Inuit faced the same fate as the white men who so terrified them. Brought by the sailors, an outbreak of influenza ravaged the native population. Social norms broke down and food ran desperately short. Inuit men personally known to John Rae chose suicide over watching their friends and family starve to death. The Inuit ate their dog teams, so vital to their way of life, in order to avoid starvation. In the end, the Inuit turned to cannibalism. All of this prompted Rae to respond to Dickens’s harshness about the Inuit with the words:
“These poor people know all too well what starvation is, in its utmost extremes, to be mistaken on such a point as this.”
Featured image: Portrait of Sir John Franklin