David Blackburn

Coming in 2011: The man who ate his boots

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The history of British exploration is dominated by heroic failure. Robert Falcon Scott: defeated and died. George Mallory: probably defeated and died. Those two are the greatest, or at least the most famous of our imperial adventurers; the Victorian hero Captain Sir John Franklin is more obscure, though no less heroic.

Prior to the construction of the Suez Canal, British seaborne commerce searched for a fast route to the East, preferably through the Arctic Circle. The hunt for the elusive Northwest Passage became a national obsession; the subject, even, of Coleridge’s Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.  Expeditions became more frequent after the Napoleonic Wars. In 1845, the 59-year-old Franklin led a Royal Navy frigate in the most audicious attempt. He sailed into the desolate wastes north west of Lake Hudson and disappeared.

The admiralty took 2 years to decide that Franklin and his crew were lost. Despite 3 separate rescue missions, no trace of Franklin was found until 1850, when Inuits discovered the carcass of a navy frigate, 30 mummified bodies and numerous graves etched crudely into the snow-riven tundra. Diaries found on the dead recorded the crew’s long years of privation, desperation and thwarted attempts to reach safety to the south. Expiration was neither quick nor dignified. Several of the mummified corpses had been mutilated and residue from human bone was found in cooking pots on the camp adjacent to the ship: the last survivors had resorted to cannibalism The Victorian public resented being upset over its breakfast marmalade, so the Franklin expedition's true fate was supressed.  

Anthony Brandt, the books editor at National Geographic Adventure magazine, is the latest popular historian to retell this tragic story of imperial hubris.