John Rae Defends the Inuit

Taissumani: 2008-11-21

By Kenn Harper

Last week I wrote about Charles Dickens's scurrilous comments about the Inuit and his suggestion that they had murdered some of the men of the missing Franklin expedition, and that, if indeed there had been cannibalism, it had been at the hands of the Inuit.

Two weeks later, John Rae, the explorer who had first told England about the Inuit revelations of the fate of the missing explorers, responded to Dickens's magazine, Household Words. He defended his earlier statements and stuck by his friends, the Inuit.

Rae refuted Dickens's suggestion that the Inuit had murdered Franklin's men because they realized they were in a weakened condition or outnumbered, and therefore vulnerable. He related his own personal experience among the Inuit:

"In eighteen hundred and forty-six-seven I and a party of twelve persons wintered at Repulse Bay. In the spring my men were divided and scattered in all directions; yet no violence was offered, although we were surrounded by native families, among whom there were at least thirty men. By murdering us they would have put themselves in possession of boats and a quantity of cutlery of great value to them… Last spring, I, with seven men, was almost in constant communication with a party four times our number. The savages made no attempt to harm us. Yet wood, saws, daggers, and knives were extremely scarce with them, and by getting possession of our boat, its masts and oars, and the remainder of our property, they would have been independent for years."

Rae pointed out that the Inuit of Repulse Bay were not on friendly terms with their neighbours to the west, from whom the second-hand reports of the fate of Franklin's men had come. In fact, on occasion they had urged Rae to shoot several visitors from Pelly Bay which, of course, Rae had refused to do. If the Inuit who initially reported the death of Franklin's men had murdered them, would not the Inuit whom Rae visited have reported that to him, in the hope that the Scotsman might take some revenge upon them?

No, the Inuit had told Rae the truth. And he asked, rhetorically, "Again, what possible motive could the Esquimaux have for inventing such an awful tale as that which appeared in my report to the secretary of the Admiralty."

That report was a tale of cannibalism. He explained: "Alas! These poor people know too well what starvation is, in its utmost extremes, to be mistaken on such a point."

The Inuit, he wrote, "resort to the ‘last resource' only when driven to it by the most dire necessity. They will starve for days before they will even sacrifice their dogs to satisfy the cravings of their appetites."

Rae felt that Inuit were not above lying when they had something to gain from it – a pretty universal trait – but that "they cannot lie like truth, as civilised men do. Their fabrications are so silly and ridiculous, and it is so easy to make them contradict themselves by a slight cross-questioning, that the falsehood is easily discovered."

Overall he considered the Inuit to be "dutiful sons and daughters, kind brothers and sisters, and most affectionate parents." Moreover, he felt that most of those who interacted with the Inuit, whether they be Hudson's Bay Co. employees like himself, or missionaries, shared the same high opinion. This was a way of putting down Dickens, whom he called "a writer of great ability and practice," for it was obvious that Dickens had never met an Inuk.

In concluding his lengthy letter to Household Words, John Rae was unwavering in his defence of the Inuit story:

"That my opinions remain exactly the same as they were when my report to the Admiralty was written, may be inferred from all I have now stated.

"That twenty or twenty-five Esquimaux could, for two months together, continue to repeat the same story without variation in any material point, and adhere firmly to it, in spite of all sorts of cross questioning, is to me the clearest proof that the information they gave me was founded on fact.

"That the ‘white men' were not murdered by the natives, but that they died of starvation is, to my mind, equally beyond a doubt."

Next week : John Rae and His Interpreter.

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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