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Perilous position of HMS 'Terror', Captain Back, in the arctic regions in the summer of 1837, by William Smith.

Researchers discover a grisly end to a British naval expedition: Crew boiled bones of the dead

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The 1845 Franklin expedition aimed to discover a sea-route through the Canadian Arctic. It consisted of two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror . In command was Sir John Franklin who had previously commanded two other Arctic expeditions. Scientists have known for a while that the voyage most likely ended up with some form of cannibalism being practiced among the ship’s crew. However, the full extent of this has now been revealed. The sailors didn’t just prise the flesh off the bones of their crewmates, they also cracked open the bones in order to extract the marrow. However, the investigation has not yet been able to discover why the expedition culminated in such a grisly ending.

“Being a polar explorer in the 19th century British Navy was a surprisingly safe occupation” study author Simon Mays told Live Science . “You'd expect a 1 percent mortality rate.” Simon is an archaeologist employed by Historic England , a British publicly-funded organisation that helps to preserve the UK’s historic environment, including buildings, monuments and other historic sites. 

Captain Sir John Franklin, 1845 photo.

Captain Sir John Franklin, 1845 photo. ( Public Domain )

The ships were well provisioned with enough food on board to last between five and seven years and other Arctic expeditions had concluded successfully. 1845 was a year characterised by a low level of ice, enabling the crews to sail their ships past Baffin Bay, Greenland. They then sailed through a number of islands in the Canadian Archipelago, searching for the fabled Northwest Passage. The ocean froze, an occurrence that the crews had expected and provisioned for, hence the large amount of food in each of the cargo holds. In fact, the expedition had prepared itself to be frozen in for several winters, not just one.

However, the heavy sea ice remained in place during the summers as well and so the ships remained trapped for several years. The last communication sent from the ships was dated April 25 th 1848, consisting of a note stating that 24 men had already died.

Note found by Francis Leopold McClintock’s Expedition team in a cairn on King William Island in 1859, detailing the fate of the Franklin Expedition.

Note found by Francis Leopold McClintock’s Expedition team in a cairn on King William Island in 1859, detailing the fate of the Franklin Expedition. (Public Domain)

For some unknown reason, the crews then abandoned ship. They attempted to trek 1,000 miles (1,609 kilometers) to the nearest Hudson’s Bay trading post, following the Back River which was laden with fish. However, this required cutting through the thick sea ice meaning that the fishing attempts went badly. This was why even the wandering Inuit people kept away from the area. 

“You aren't going to feed a group that size by knocking holes in the ice,” Mays said.

The crew members simply disappeared. Not one of them had reached the outpost. In fact, they hadn’t completed even of the fifth of the journey there, and so had perished en route. At least one of them, Able Seaman John Hartnell , has been found buried in the permafrost on Beechey Island.

In 1854, a Canadian mapmaker heard reports from the Inuit concerning incidences of cannibalism. The evidence for this grew steadily over the next 150 years as more remains of the stricken crew members were discovered by scientists. Furthermore, many of the bones had visible cut marks on them, suggesting that knives had been used to cut the flesh away.

A study published online on June 18th in the Journal of Osteoarchaeology reveals the full story. Simon Mays and his colleague Owen Beattie, an anthropologist at the University of Alberta in Canada, have examined 35 bones from two locations: Booth Point and Erebus Bay. They have found evidence on the bones of breakage and ‘pot polishing’ which occurs when the ends of bones rub against the side of a pot in which they are being boiled. This usually happens when starving people try to extract the bone marrow. The bones in question, two leg bones, had been boiled in a pot for at least 20 minutes , the researchers concluded. Another piece of bone had been carved to form a crude spoon .

Side-scan sonar images of the first ship found from the Franklin Expedition, HMS Erebus.

Side-scan sonar images of the first ship found from the Franklin Expedition, HMS Erebus. Credit: © Parks Canada

According to Anne Keenleyside, a bioarchaeologist at Trent University in Canada, these findings are consistent with the reports from the Inuit who described piles of fractured human bone.

The investigation has still not been able to answer the fundamental question as to why so many of the crew died before they left the ships and why they decided to do so. It is possible they might have been suffering from scurvy, caused by Vitamin C deficiency, or that they went mad from lead poisoning from pieces of shot in birds they might have tried to shoot down.

Two new postage stamps have been produced in Nova Scotia to commemorate the Franklin Expedition, with artwork by artist Michael Little, and at least one documentary has been produced about the trip. The bell of the Erebus was recently recovered from the seabed.

Graves of seamen of John Franklin Expedition from 1845 on Beechey Island, Nunavut, Canada. Buried are three members of the expedition, as well as Thomas Morgan of HMS Investigator who died in 1853 during a research mission, and another unidentified grave.

Graves of seamen of John Franklin Expedition from 1845 on Beechey Island, Nunavut, Canada. Buried are three members of the expedition, as well as Thomas Morgan of HMS Investigator who died in 1853 during a research mission, and another unidentified grave. (Ansgar Walk/ CC BY-SA 2.5 )

Featured Image: Perilous position of HMS 'Terror', Captain Back, in the arctic regions in the summer of 1837, by William Smith. Credit: National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

By Robin Whitlock

Comments

IronicLyricist's picture

clive cussler wrote a damn good book about their fate too

infinitesimal waveparticles comprise what we call home the earth
manipulatable by thought ability supressed in humans since birth

I believe it had been established many years ago that the excess lead was caused by a flawed solder process in their canned provisions.

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