Cannibalism, Poison and Terrible Murders: The Eerie Legend of the Expedition Lost in the Arctic

In 1845, two of the best ships of the British Royan Navy set sail in search of the Northwest Passage, the fastest route between Europe and Asia. He never heard from them again and is now inspired by his story “The Terror”, the new AMC series

In recent weeks, is triumphing throughout the world The Terror, the new AMC series produced by Ridley Scott and starring Ciarán Hinds, Jared Harris, Tobias Menzies and Ian Hart. A historical drama that many see similarities with other titles such as “The Walking Dead” or “Lost”, but that has much less fiction than it seems.

Because “The Terror” is based on a true story. In the tragedy in which, 173 years ago now, two of the best ships of the Royal Navy of the United Kingdom intervened: the RMS Erebus and the RMS Terror. On May 19, 1845, both ships, equipped with the best technology, departed from the British port of Greenhithe in search of the Northwest Passage, a faster link between the Atlantic and the Pacific in the middle of the Arctic Ocean that would allow navigators a faster travel between Europe and Asia. If this route is found, they would avoid having to cross Cape Horn, between South America and Chile, or through the Cape of Good Hope, in southern Africa. I try, therefore, to look for a new faster way to cross to the other side of the planet.

Finding the Northwest Passage was a former British ambition, so 129 men set off in pursuit, led by veteran Captain John Franklin and by commanders Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror; and James Fitzjames, the visible head of the Erebus. Franklin had travelled three times to the Arctic, in search of that route. Of the first, in 1818, he became so fascinated that he tried again a year later, now as commander-in-chief. His expedition, however, ended in tragedy. They were trapped in the Arctic until 1822 when they were rescued. Only nine returned alive from the twenty who had left and the most convoluted theories claim that those who lived, did so at the cost of devouring the flesh and fat of the bodies of their dead comrades.

Franklin, in fact, had to gobble his shotgun case, his belt, his leather pants and even his shoes. Moreover, on his return to England, he became known as “the man who ate his boots”. In spite of its failure, three years later it returned to lead a new expedition to the Arctic, that returned without finding the step. The Navy, this way, did not trust him too much to put him in charge of the new expedition. Nor Sir John Barrow, second secretary of the Admiralty and promoter of British travel to the Arctic. In his list of possible captains, there were up to five navigators ahead of Franklin, including Crozier and Fitzjames, but he could not get away with it and the one known as the Franklin Expedition departed in May 1845 in search of that Northwest Passage. But he never came back.

Caught with no way out

Few things are known with certainty about all the legends that surround what happened on that trip aboard the Erebus and the Terror, beyond the chilling premonition that hides the name of this second ship. The contact with both ships was soon lost and the stories of the Inuit – the Eskimos of the region – were, for more than a century, the most conclusive clue to discover what happened with Franklin and his 128 officers. Stories of the most controversial, which are based on the certainty that both ships were stranded in the Victoria Strait, near King William Island, in the coldest part of Canada. A place where, today, the highest temperature is -10ºC in full sunlight.

The theories about what could happen with those 129 bodies are very varied. Some explain that all men, who were officially killed by the Government of the United Kingdom in March 1854, nine years after leaving, died of pathologies such as scurvy, tuberculosis, hunger, lack of zinc, pneumonia. or Addison’s disease. However, everything seems to indicate that what happened was much more and that, with the passage of time, the navigators resorted, as had the survivors of that team that had led by Franklin in 1819, to cannibalism. They even tell Inuit stories, there were several who murdered and decapitated their own companions to suck their brains and feed on their meats.

What happened with the Franklin Expedition has inspired all kinds of stories, songs, poems and folktales. Also novels like “The Terror”, by Dan Simmons and on which the AMC series is based, radio programs, documentaries, and even a special of “Cuarto Milenio”, the program that Íker Jiménez conducts in Cuatro. «They found 400 bones from eleven different bodies and 25% of them had remains of cannibalism. They suffered mirage and follies. There were even expeditionaries who were mistaken routes because of the effects provoked by the hallucinations, “commented Jiménez himself in his space. “Many of the bodies found had knives in their bones, a sign that they would have fed on them,” he added.

The last time the boats were seen by a European team was in August 1845, when they were sighted by two whalers, the Prince of Wales and the Enterprise. One of the main problems encountered by the expeditionary was in the most basic aspect: food and water. Before leaving, the government asked a supplier to hurry up nearly 8,000 cans of preserves. They were ready in time, but “they were done in a very careless way, causing lead to drip into the can like melted wax,” as Owen Beattie, a professor of anthropology at the University of Alberta and the head of a university, explained in 1987. a team of scientists displaced in 1981 to the dinner to try to discern what happened with Franklin and his group. The system of water conduction of both ships, in addition, connected the supply for human consumption with one of the motors, reason why the water was contaminated by the leader of the machines and the officials began to be intoxicated each time that they wanted to drink.

Lead, a key factor

Those high doses of lead present in both water and canned food cans were perhaps the biggest handicaps faced by members of Franklin’s team. “Many died poisoned by the lethal alloy of food cans, which they ingested chronically and caused colic and diarrhea,” explained several experts in “Fourth Millennium.” “That lead accumulated in the bones and gums and resulted in the expedition began to stop wanting to eat. They had chocolate, but they did not want it, “they continued. Several of the found bodies, in fact, appeared next to untouched cans of food, although the medical examinations discerned that they had died of hunger. They preferred to die of hunger to have to suffer the pain of eating poisoned food, the journalist Carmen Porter, visible head with Jiménez of “Fourth millennium”, pointed out in the program.

The problems with the basic supplies were those that, it seems, led Franklin’s men “into madness.” “The navigators began to get sick. They had to eat lichens, which gave them terrible diarrhea and they had to burn boats so they could stay alive. ” For this reason, one of them, as Porter explained, “took the step” and “began to murder his companions and eat his flesh.” Cannibalistic theories were denied by the British Government and by such renowned personalities as the writer Charles Dickens. However, they were finally surrendered to the evidence.

Two years after Franklin and his team marched to the Arctic, Captain Franklin’s wife, Lady Jane Franklin, promoted several initiatives for the Admiralty to launch new expeditions to find the lost team. Supported by the British Parliament, the first rescue trips were made in the spring of 1848, although they could not find anything. Two years later, in 1850, they found the tombs of John Torrington, John Hartnell and William Braine, whose bodies were especially well preserved. The autopsy, performed more than a hundred years later, in 1984 by Beattie’s team, revealed that Torrington, 20, died of pneumonia aggravated by the large amounts of lead found in his lungs. His corpse, however, is one of the best-preserved bodies in history and was the source of inspiration for the song “The Frozen Men” by the American singer-songwriter James Taylor, winner of five Grammys.

Four years after the discovery of the three corpses, “National Geographic”, the doctor and explorer John Rae, who was part of that first rescue trip in 1848, found the remains of several men, including Captain Crozier. Some Inuit, in addition, assured him that they had recently seen “a group of forty white men dragging a boat” to the Rio Back, where there was a small trading post and where they hoped to be able to contact someone. As they told him, these men, very thin, emaciated and toothless, were “impelled to anthropophagy” and survived at the expense of “eating the deceased”, as attested by “the contents of several pots”, in the words of the Inuit. Other stories, moreover, spoke about the existence of a superhuman creature, “with large claws, fangs and a supernatural size,” which devoured many of the expeditionaries, including Lieutenant Graham Gore, one of the strong men of the Erebus.

Where are the others?

Five years later, in April 1859, another team found on a mound of stones a document signed by Crozier and Fitzjames that contained several messages. Among them, one dated April 25, 1848, which stated that Captain Franklin had died on June 11 of the previous year, as well as that there were 105 men alive, who had left Erebus and Terror three days before and were marching on foot towards the River Back, now led by Crozier, in a message that was little more than an epitaph of death. A year earlier, they had written the first text, signed by Franklin himself and indicating that the situation was under control. “All good,” he simply said. Two weeks later, the captain died, as indicated by the engraving signed by Crozier and Fitzjames. “The captains (Fitzjames and Crozier) signed a document, in which they claim that, in 1847, Franklin died suddenly, but they do not say where it is. They say that many men have died, but that they will try to find a way out, “they said about the document in” Cuarto Milenio. ”

The Terror, the AMC series that is inspired by the real story of the Franklin Expedition

Beyond that, it is unknown what could happen with full certainty. With the body of Crozier found in 1854, it is not known that it was Fitzjames and the rest of the survivors who had marched in search of the River Back. And that the British Government sent about forty expeditions in search of survivors, in which came Lady Jane Franklin herself. Many, even, never managed to return. In September 2014, four years ago, the wreck of Erebus was found on the ocean floor. Two years later, the Terror appeared, very close. The two had parts of the burned deck, an unequivocal sign that the officers tried to warm themselves with the skeletons of both ships.

“They are ghosts of ice frozen in time,” he said in his program Iker Jimenez, about the members of the failed expedition. However, what has happened to the more than one hundred bodies that have never been found? Tobias Menzies, the actor who plays James Fitzjames in «The Terror», also try to explain it to him. “More than a legend, this series is about human terror. It is interesting to see how such a large group of people had to try to survive in such a small space, how they managed to create a society under such extreme conditions. And to a society, they mark their behaviours… that in those circumstances, they became uncontrollable. Taken to the extreme, men become beasts, “Menzies explained to ABC. The body of his character, like so many others, has never been found.

It was more than fifty years after the disappearance of the Franklin Expedition when the longed-for Northwest Passage was discovered: between 1903 and 1906 by the Norwegian navigator Roald Amundsen. As long as you do not take into account the latest theory emerged in relation to the exact place where they found, at the bottom of the sea, the wrecks of Erebus and Terror, very close to the exact location of the pass and not so much of the Straits Victoria, where they ran aground. “It is unlikely that the ice dragged them,” said John Geiger, director of the Royal Canadian Geographical Society. With all this, think: what if a group of those survivors who were marching towards the Rio Back turned around, managed to get back to the ships, get rid of the ice and find the Northwest Passage before disappearing forever? What if it was they, and not Amundsen, who managed to find, with their last forces, the fastest route between Asia and Europe?