The Magazine

Frozen in Time

An Arctic death in pursuit of glory—and truth.

Mar 15, 2010, Vol. 15, No. 25 • By ZACHARY BENNETT
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The Gates of Hell

Sir John Franklin’s Tragic Quest
for the Northwest Passage
by Andrew Lambert
Yale, 456 pp., $32.50

As is often the case with revisionist histories, this one demystifies and demythologizes its subject, the ill-fated British expedition to the Arctic led by a naval captain, Sir John Franklin. That Andrew Lambert intends to challenge the conventional version of the Franklin expedition is clear from the outset. He begins his prologue with this arresting sentence, which surely would have shocked the civilized sensibilities of mid-Victorian Britain: “We don’t know when it started, or who took the decision, but some time in May 1848 British sailors from HMS Erebus and HMS Terror began butchering and eating their comrades.”

Lambert thus asserts as fact what has, in the past, been considered arguable: that the crew of the Franklin expedition, stranded in the Arctic, engaged in cannibalism. The controversy surrounding this claim, according to Lambert, derives from the simple fact Victorian Britons did not want to imagine their fellow Englishmen as cannibals, and so ignored the evidence. Today, along with human bones which show evidence of being cut by knives, and accounts of the Inuit who encountered the crew (both of which were known and ignored by contemporaries who trekked to the Arctic in search of Franklin), there is forensic science to support the claim. But while this is undoubtedly the most gripping aspect of The Gates of Hell, cannibalism accounts for only a small part of Lambert’s history. It is, nonetheless, an important part of his thesis; namely, that, for a variety of reasons, chiefly a love of patriotic heroism, the “history” of the Franklin expedition was untrue from its first draft. Lambert seeks to correct the record.

A teenaged John Franklin joined the Royal Navy in 1800 when seafaring and science were a common enterprise. At the root of this phenomenon was the Prussian Alexander von Humboldt, who sought a comprehensive scientific understanding of the natural world based on empirical observation. Humboldt’s vision of science united with exploration caught the British imagination, including that of the young midshipman John Franklin. His early naval service was a combination of warfare with Napoleonic France and naval science—specifically geomagnetism, studying compass deviation. Franklin became enthralled with the Arctic while serving on (and leading) expeditions from 1818 through the mid-1820s, and the exoticism of the Arctic—along with Franklin’s unquestioned leadership gifts, which ensured success in the face of brutal conditions—made him a national hero and, thanks to his observations on magnetism, a leading figure in British science as well. After service in the Mediterranean, and a stint as lieutenant-governor of the penal colony that is now Tasmania in Australia, Franklin was dispatched in 1845, at the age of 59, on a final Arctic voyage.

Advertised as a mission to complete the Northwest Passage, it had a primarily scientific purpose. Lambert contends that the British government well knew that there was no economically useful Northwest Passage across the North American continent, and would not have risked two naval vessels and a crew of 129 men to complete it. In any event, Franklin and his crew failed to return. Evidence from the expedition discovered later suggests that the ships became trapped by ice, stranding Franklin and his crew miles from the fresh food needed to survive. (On the question of cannibalism, Franklin was neither a consumer nor consumed; records left by the crew indicate that he died before any cannibalism occurred.) Many probably died of scurvy induced by a lack of nourishment and an insufficient supply of lemon juice. 

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