Reports of Franklin's Fate Reach Cumberland Sound

Taissumani: 2008-05-23

By Kenn Harper

The disappearance of the expedition led by Sir John Franklin, which left England in 1845 and never returned, resulted in a huge search effort, both public and private.

Finally, in 1854 Dr. John Rae of the Hudson's Bay Company brought news of Inuit reports of the death of a number of white men in the Central Arctic in the spring of 1850. The reports smacked of cannibalism, that the white men who had lived the longest had eaten their fellows as they had fallen.

Into the controversy waded a man who revelled in the unwieldy name of Lieutenant Bedford Clapperton Trevelyan Pim, a lieutenant in the Royal Navy and a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. Pim had had experience on Franklin search expeditions, and whole-heartedly joined the cannibalism controversy.

In a pamphlet that he published in 1857, under the title, An Earnest Appeal to the British Public on Behalf of the Missing Arctic Expedition, Pim denigrated Rae's report, poo-pooed the possibility of cannibalism as something that good Englishmen would not resort to, and suggested that there was every possibility that the members of the expedition were still alive. He insisted that "not a particle of evidence exists to prove the death of even one man since the ships left Beechey Island."

But perhaps the most interesting information contained in Pim's screed is not his opinions and the opinions of others he mounted to support his own, but information on how far afield information on the Franklin tragedy had apparently spread among Inuit.

Pim reprints a report from a newspaper, the Lincoln ­Mercury, that the story that had reached John Rae in 1854 also reached William Penny's whaling station in Cumberland Sound the same year. Inexplicably, the report states that the cannibalism part of the report "was contradicted."

Inuit told Penny that a large party of white men had been seen some years previously in a large round tent, where they lived upon caribou, which were abundant in the area. One of the Inuit in Cumberland Sound, a man name Toutoo, told Penny that some Inuit had sneaked into the tent and stolen some valuables. Penny believed that Toutoo himself had seen the articles he described.

But Toutoo's information may have been unreliable for on another occasion, under the influence of some brandy, he said that the white men had been murdered. The next day, after being berated by his sister, Toutoo retracted his statement, saying that "it was the brandy which spoke, and not himself."

Penny also reported that when the Inuit of Cape Searle heard of the fate of the white men in the Central Arctic, eight sleds left the cape, south of Broughton Island, and travelled west in hope of finding valuables from the site of the Franklin tragedy.

This, if true, would be an incredible journey. The men would have to travel overland through the pass to Cumberland Sound, cross the sound, then travel by Netilling Lake and the Kuujjuaq River to Foxe Basin, and finally head north and west to eventually reach an area past Repulse Bay.

There is no other report of Inuit from Cumberland Sound having any knowledge of the Franklin disaster but that does not rule it out, for Cumberland Sound was off the beaten path for explorers.

It was frequented by whalers, a secretive lot, who committed little to paper. If true, it shows that Inuit oral reports spread quickly from camp to camp, reaching areas far removed from their origin, and that Inuit were prepared to travel vast distances to secure what they viewed as desirable goods.

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 [email protected].

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