On May 19, 1845, Sir John Franklin and crew boarded the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror on their ill-fated quest to discover the Northwest Passage. Nearly three years later, trapped in the ice off King William Island, the ships were abandoned. With many men, including Franklin, having already succumbed to death, the decision was made to seek salvation afoot.
Very little contemporaneous reporting is available of the time between the crew’s departure and their deaths. A great deal of what is known has been provided by search crews and the oral history of the Inuit. The consensus is that, after leaving the ships, the men plunged into madness and cannibalism. The events that lead to that end remained, until now, largely undocumented.
Over one hundred years after the skeleton of an officer buried on King William Island was identified as Lieutenant Henry Le Vesconte, that same skeleton was, through the modern study of forensics, re-identified as Harry Goodsir - the assistant surgeon and scientist of the Erebus. More recently, however, there was a new discovery. Near the site of Goodsir’s grave a journal, believed to have belonged to the scientist, was found. The document, reprinted here, provides insight into the journey, the struggles, and, ultimately, the failure of the crew in their quest to reach civilization again.
Arctic sun …
the glare of winter
April 22, 1848
Crozier directed us to abandon ship. A part of me does not agree with the order. The cabins provide cover and a reasonable place to cook and sleep. The sick, increasing in number and plagued with scurvy, will not get healthy trekking through an Arctic desert of snow.
Yet the thought of another winter here is hard to bear. It appears that the ice will not loosen, and many have died already. Perhaps the decision to leave for Back River is for the best.
I am glum with little hope. Civilization, however, will not to be found in the hull of the Erebus. I must accept the Captain’s decision, and prepare to brave this godforsaken land of ice and wind. Surely, more shall perish, but we have no alternatives in seeking our salvation.
Let God-Almighty help us now!
lodged in ice
April 24, 1848
With disappointment bordering on despair we stop to rest tonight. Our lack of progress has been disheartening. Fresh falling snow reduced visibility and weakened our foothold on the ice. We fought the winds, bitter and strong, in struggling to pull the sledges. It is difficult to gauge how far we travelled, but my guess is we’ve made no more than 9 miles.
The tent is cold but provides solace from the wind. I peel off my gloves, examine my bluish fingertips. Reaching Back River seems like an impossible task. Even if we do, our journey will have only begun. Fort Resolution, the closest site of English men, is another 1000 miles away.
A gust of wind pulls back the flap of the tent. I peek out at the whiteness of the ground, the air, and the sky. The enormous world grows bigger set against our isolation.
poor men gather
April 25, 1848
Crozier reassigned the men into smaller groups. While we will continue to travel as one unit, each of the groups will be responsible for a sledge along with the welfare of its members. The eight men to whom I am bound are second master Collins, Reddington, Watson, Rigden, Hoar, Aylmore, Pocock, and Murray. While none of the men are well, Reddington, Pocock and Murray are especially sick. Each has begun to suffer the delusions that are attendant in the later stages of scurvy.
Collins assumes the lead of our group and assigns each man his tasks. Among other things, he places me in service of the very ill. However, without proper medicines or the opportunity for the sick to stay warm and rest, there is little I can do to help. The demands of the journey will prove too much for them to bear.
As we start out for the day, I gaze inland across the ice. In the distance, through the morning mist, are two Esquimaux men. I watch them with interest, and more than a little envy. How easily these savages manage this impossible land.
I shade my eyes
to my fate
April 27, 1848
We traced the shore for any sign of geese, duck, or ptarmigan. The wind was cool - stirring the light snow and disrupting our vision.
At one point, I approached Pocock and asked him to check the bay ahead. He burst into tears, sobbing loud enough for the other men to turn and look. I tried to console him. Although I cradled his head in my arms, he continued to wail like I wasn’t there at all.
May 5, 1848
Tragedy struck today. While hiking south along the shoreline, Murray claimed to hear a duck. He started walking towards the sea. Others called after him but he would not listen. Pursuing the sound, he marched out further on the thinning ice.
A handful of men and I followed him. He kept a surprisingly brisk pace. There was a crack as Murray’s step punctured the ice and his right leg slipped thigh deep in freezing water.
Tossing a rope, we were able to pull him back to the thicker ice and return to the waiting crew. Murray, unfortunately, was unable to get warm. He died of hypothermia early in the evening.
away from the group
May 12, 1848
The sledge was full. Lifeboats, pickaxes, cooking stoves, ironworks, slippers, shower curtains, china, and scented soaps were included amongst its wares. Many of these objects should have been left on the Erebus. As it were, teams of men were left to pull loads that weighed north of a thousand pounds.
Hauling the sledge wore on the men. As we trudged through the snow into the wind, Pocock could barely remain upright. I told him to lie on the sledge. With fewer men left to pull a heavier load, our progress slowed considerably. We completed the day's journey, but Pocock died along the way. The men, already exhausted, set about digging an icy grave.
room for hope
May 17, 1848
Wild game continues to be scarce and our tins are running low. The men, with nothing else to eat, pick at their meals. Every bite is taken reluctantly. It’s as though the food, mouthful by mouthful, is pulling its consumers closer to death.
I, likewise, no longer relish my meals. Dipping my spoon into the tin, I stir its cold beef and feel the utensil scrape the lead soldering. I remember formal dinners, the gaiety and celebration with which food was attended. Melancholia overwhelms me.
the wind becomes
May 20, 1848
When Collins called for our group to stop, Reddington slumped exhausted on the sledge. I melted snow for him to drink. Setting the cup to his lips, the water trickled onto his cheeks and over his beard. He looked with empty eyes to the nothing in the distance.
Preparing to feed him, I opened a can but was shocked by its contents. There, instead of food, was a human hand! Crooked and arthritic, the fingers had been twisted and broken to fit inside. What cruelty! Could it be expected we would eat our own kind?
I looked away and back again. The can had nothing but tomatoes. Feeding Reddington, I shuddered at the strength of my delusion.
a seaman slips through
May 27, 1848
The winds blew strong and the weight of our sledges was burdensome and crippling. We were not far into the day’s journey when our progress was halted by Franklin’s reappearance. Resurrected, he was a large and looming figure. He stood at least 10 feet tall, and looked down upon us with anger. Glaring at the men, he pointed back at our northern route. “The ships!” he bellowed. Before speaking again, he became a cloud and started to snow. When the weather cleared, an Esquimaux was standing in Franklin’s place. Looking through us, the native examined something distant on the sea. His interest waned and he hiked away - gradually disappearing into morning mist.
Startled from sleep, I was sweating and breathing heavily. Restless and feverish, Franklin remained strong on my mind. While dreams, I know, are but imaginative tricks, some do not easily pass. Throughout the day, I kept my eyes peeled - certain our former captain would join us again.
the men drift away
May 29, 1848
The last of the food was eaten today. I am very concerned. This sparse environment has provided almost nothing by way of game. Increasingly debilitated, we have even less strength with which to try and hunt.
A silence has fallen over the men. As long as there were provisions, there was hope. Even more than the environment, hopelessness crushes the spirit. There is little on our minds but death.
Quietly, I think of the prayers I haven’t said in years. I wonder if the Arctic is too desolate for God. I vaguely remember the parable of the landowner and the payment he provided to those who signed on late.
a ptarmigan flies
out of sight
June 2, 1848
Our daily treks have become exceptionally difficult. Our numbers have dwindled. All of the men, including myself, are starving and weakened by scurvy. Ploughing on as best we can, we are lucky to cover a few miles a day.
Crossing the ice, I see an Esquimaux man in the distance. He stands at ease, the wind ruffling the fur of his parka. Had we their strength, I am certain we would reach Back River. Instead, one by one, the English silently perish.
Lost in my thoughts, I also lose my footing. I fall face first, hard onto the ice. It takes me a long time to recover, to stand and support myself. I look to the spot the Esquimaux stood, but he is there no longer. Following our crew, I place one heavy foot before the other.
the Arctic howl
of my stomach
June 6, 1848
The wind and snow blew strong today - a blizzard like we hadn’t seen in weeks. Weakened and sick, the icy air cut gaps between us. Before long, our group was scattered. Although we fought to stay together, me, Collins, Rigden, and Reddington were all who remained.
When the blizzard finally ceased, only God knew where we were. There was no trace of other men. The sledge, with our tools and gear, was gone. While we were all ill, exhausted, and starving, Reddington was teetering on his very last legs. I could not imagine him surviving the night.
the life that dies
June 7, 1848
Reddington passed away. He simply lies on the ice. Even with tools, we wouldn’t have the strength to bury him. Either way, we haven’t the strength to care. With our backs turned to the corpse, Reddington’s a memory. Our stomachs growl.
with a knife
June 8, 1848
Rigden and I are struggling to maintain our senses. We are both suffering delusions. I, for one, have heard wild game, mistaken rocks for cans of food, and sought to re-board the ship. Starving and ravaged by scurvy, the visions are stronger than my ability to fight them.
But Collins simply sits. He stares at Reddington’s corpse as if expecting it to rise. Motionless, he appears nearly dead himself. Yet there is something in his eyes, something that reflects thought and intent. He’s fighting. But for what? Reddington? Life?
Of the three of us, Collins is the furthest gone. Despite my delusions, I still know there is nothing we can do to fend off death.
Arctic pool …
I peer into
June 9, 1848
Collins rose and walked to the corpse. Withdrawing his knife, he grabbed Reddington’s pants and cut a slit that ran the length of the buttocks. With a quick rip, he tore the pants back - leaving the dead man’s bottom exposed. Collins stabbed Reddington, carving out a piece of him. He bit into the flesh and started to eat.
Knife in hand, I approached Collins. He paid me no notice whatsoever. Blood trickled over his beard as he gazed into the distance.
I turned to Reddington’s remains. There was a red gap where his flesh was cut away. Otherwise, he was just as he had been; completely unaware of what had happened.
I could not remember when I last ate. Whatever words floated in my conscience could no longer be heard over by my belly’s hungry roar.
Arctic chill ...
a glimmer of frost
on his flesh
Contemporary Haibun Online, January 2019