Inuit Evidence in a British Court, Part I

Taissumani: 2008-02-15

By Kenn Harper

John Franklin and the crews of his ships Erebus and Terror left England in 1845 on the most famous expedition in Arctic history. They never returned and the fate of the two ships has never been resolved.

On May 15, 1845, only five days before the ships departed England, the mate of the Erebus, Lt. Edward Couch, made his will. In the event of his death, his estate was to go to his father, Capt. James Couch.

No-one knows when or precisely where the unfortunate Edward Couch died. Somewhere in the Canadian Arctic he drew his last breath. But back home in England, four and a half years after he bid his son farewell, James Couch passed away in January 1850.

In 1854, the executor of Edward Couch's estate, a Mr. Ommaney, obtained probate of his will. The esoteric question the Court had to decide was this – Had the father, James Couch, survived his son? Or had the son, Edward Couch, predeceased the father somewhere in the vastness of the Canadian Arctic? The Court had to decide a question of survivorship: Who had died first?

Strangely enough, information provided indirectly by Canadian Inuit was crucial in the Court's difficult decision.

An affidavit of an Arctic explorer was presented as the sole evidence. Dr. John Rae had been involved in the search for Franklin, and provided the following statement:

"I arrived at Repulse Bay, in the Arctic Regions, in the month of August, 1853, and while engaged on such last-mentioned expedition, I, in the spring and summer of the year 1854, met with a party of the Esquimaux Tribe, who had in their possession and from whom I purchased and brought with me to this country, on my return thereto in the month of October, 1854, various articles which have … been identified … as belonging to or as having belonged to the said Sir John Franklin and some of the officers under him…"

Rae's affidavit went on to explain that he had obtained information from the Inuit he met in 1854 that in the spring of 1850, another party of Inuit hunting near King William Island had encountered a party of about 40 white men travelling southward over the ice, dragging a boat and sledges with them.

The white men could not speak Inuktitut, but through signs had communicated to the Inuit that their ships had been crushed by ice. The men, who could only be from Sir John Franklin's expedition, were thin and short of provisions, and obtained some seal meat from the Inuit.

Later that spring, the same group of Inuit discovered on the mainland of North America the bodies of about 30 white men and some graves, and five more dead bodies on a nearby island. Rae's affidavit stated that "some at least of such white men must have survived until the arrival of wild fowl at the said places where such dead bodies were found, as the reports of the firing off of guns were heard by such party of other Esquimaux people, and the fresh bones and feathers of wild geese were noticed by them to be there."

Rae knew from his experience that wild geese would not reach the region until late May or early June. He continued: "… so that the fresh bones and feathers of such geese, mentioned, by the said Esquimauxs, as having been seen where such dead bodies were said to have been found … lead me to conclude, that some of the white men survived until at least the latter end of the month of May or the beginning of the month of June, in the year 1850."

So some of the white men of Franklin's doomed party had survived until late spring of 1850. The question was – Was Edward Couch among those survivors?

On the answer to that question hung the fate of the estate of Edward Couch.

Next week – the Court's decision.

Taissumani recounts a specific event of historic interest. Kenn Harper is a historian, writer and linguist who lives in Iqaluit. Feedback? Send your comments and questions to

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