Edwin Landseer’s oil painting Man Proposes, God Disposes (1864) luridly expresses how Sir John Franklin’s contemporaries felt about his doomed expedition to discover the Northwest Passage. Two polar bears hunch in the wreckage of a vessel strewn across the ice. One sinks its teeth into a tattered Red Ensign; the other rises from feeding on a sailor’s whitened rib cage. Landseer’s desolate scene is otherwise devoid of people: the bears are the agents and only witnesses of God’s judgment on hubris.
In reality, the slow death of Franklin and his crew took place under the eyes of Indigenous communities in what became Nunavut. Less than a decade after his disappearance in 1845, Inuit had brought to the explorer John Rae relics from the expedition, along with reports of cannibalized corpses. Franklin’s widow and her ally Charles Dickens fiercely rebutted their testimony, but as the historian Ken McGoogan insists in his new book, Inuit remained integral to the search for Franklin thereafter. In 2014 and 2016, Parks Canada finally located the wrecks of his ships, where traditional knowledge said they had been: just offshore of King William Island.
Searching for Franklin argues that new light is shed on the nineteenth-century explorer when his career is set against an Indigenous Arctic. As a biographer of Rae and Lady Franklin, McGoogan is a respected authority on Sir John. Yet his impatience with conventional forms of historical writing has led him to write a confusingly structured book, one as mazy as the routes its subjects explored.
McGoogan’s “creative non-fiction” constantly jump‑cuts among three different timelines. (Readers will get some assistance in reorienting themselves from the book’s three introductory maps.) The first story, which scaffolds the whole, is a memoir of McGoogan’s own involvement with the Arctic. Its evocation of his friendship with the late Louie Kamookak, a leading Inuit historian and fellow Franklin nut, is moving enough, but its tales of daredevil visits to remote cairns and of the author’s stints as an expert on Arctic cruises employ a gassy prose reminiscent of the travel pages of the Globe and Mail.
This account is in abrupt contrast to a second set of chapters, which dutifully survey the hunt for Franklin since Rae’s time and culminate in a conjectural reconstruction of the expedition’s last days. McGoogan explains how greater trust in oral traditions has generated breakthroughs in historical understanding. A logbook entry cached by Franklin’s men at Victory Point in April 1848 and found by Captain Leopold McClintock in 1859 recorded that their leader had died on board ship a year earlier. It also noted their resolution to abandon their vessels and trek over the ice to the mainland. This text delighted McClintock’s paymaster, Lady Franklin, because it established that her husband had perished before any cannibalistic nastiness on that final march south. Yet historians who have collected manifold Inuit tales of encounters with Franklin’s sailors now see that the page described what they hoped to do rather than what they did. Most probably returned to their forsaken ships, before wasting away in a more protracted fashion. Forensic analysis of corpses found near the sunken Erebus and Terror has confirmed Inuit suggestions that they had fed their fellow sailors.
The timeline of the expedition’s collapse is now as clear as it will ever be, even if searches for its written records or Franklin’s grave have been will‑o’‑the‑wisps. Yet the reasons for Franklin’s fate remain mysterious. Explorers before and after him survived getting locked in sea ice. Why had his men died aboard ships that were heated and stocked with tinned food? Perhaps water pipes or those tins dealt a fatal dose of lead poisoning? Recorded levels in found corpses do not seem to have been high enough. Perhaps botulism lurked in the tins? Eating their contents did not do Inuit who later foraged from the stranded ships any harm. McGoogan rightly discounts such speculations but then offers his own. The problem was not polar bears eating men, as Landseer imagined, but the opposite. The meat of polar bears can be infested with parasites absorbed from the seals that they hunt. If people cook it poorly before eating it, they will be infected too. Perhaps a polar bear diet had caused a wave of trichinosis.
This is a plausible suggestion for the slow demise of Franklin’s men, but where is the evidence for it? McGoogan adduces Jens Munk’s 1619 expedition from Denmark, which was all but wiped out by a mysterious sickness in the Arctic, not long after many of its men had eaten lightly cooked polar bear. Munk recorded their agonizing symptoms, which a medical friend of McGoogan’s confirms are compatible with trichinosis. The captain, who also ate the bear, survived. Ah — but his portion had been “roasted.” The surgeon perished. Well, perhaps he had dined not with the captain but with the crew. The need for such haggling means the episode is hardly a solid precedent for the claim that trichinosis killed off the bulk of Franklin’s men. We lack direct evidence that the latter had eaten polar bear. Here, McGoogan whips out a “smoking gun,” but it dates from an expedition in the 1820s, when Franklin and his officers ignored the warnings of Indigenous guides and dined off bear paws — with no ill effects. Had they even come from a polar bear? One source says it was “white,” another a “grizzly.” The gun is too cold to smoke.
Woven up with the memoir and the dubious theorizing is the third and best element of the book: a yarn. McGoogan tells the story of youngish Lieutenant Franklin’s overland expedition from York Factory, in northeastern Manitoba, to the southern coastline of the Arctic in 1819–21. His aim is to establish the rigidity of Franklin’s character as a factor in his later disappearance. But the narrative, which is fluently imagined from contemporary sources, is itself a gripping tale of endurance. Franklin’s party stumble through icy rivers, are devoured by voracious mosquitoes, and brave the ocean in disintegrating canoes. On returning to base, only an increasingly horrible diet holds off starvation: rancid pork, rotten pemmican, cached deer meat seething with worms, tripe de roche (boiled yet bowel-loosening lichens), old leather moccasins, and perhaps even slices from the body of a dead colleague.
These horrors make pleasantly riveting reading. But McGoogan also uses Arctic exploration to illustrate the tense mixture of powers and cultures then operative in British North America. The baffling confidence of Franklin and his fellow officers reflected their standing as veterans who were desperate to escape peacetime redundancy. They had come through pitched sea battles against Napoleon and witnessed the bombardment of Copenhagen and Washington. They were also men of science, conscious of representing a technologically advanced global power. Franklin addressed the Yellowknife Dene chief Akaitcho — a power player himself, who had clashed violently with his Dogrib and Inuit neighbours — as an emissary of the “greatest chief in the world.” When he reached the coastline, he dubbed it Coronation Bay in honour of George IV. Yet sovereignty splintered in the wilderness. Franklin could not stir beyond Hudson Bay without assistance from the two companies that stood in for British power there: the Hudson’s Bay Company and the North West Company. He found their officials preoccupied by their turf war with each other and grudging with supplies. They amply returned the contempt the navy felt for their raggedy forts.
Franklin’s reluctance to listen to his French Canadian porters or to his Dene helpers was his greatest and most symptomatic failing. He had pressed on with surveying the coast, despite warnings that it would be fatal to linger at such latitudes with winter coming. Even worse, he credited his survival to his fortitude and God’s providence rather than to gifts of food from Dene scouts. McGoogan is hardly the first writer to condemn Franklin (Margaret Atwood dubbed him a “dope”), but he claims to break new ground by setting the man’s mulishness down to his evangelical Protestantism. Franklin, whose baggage bulged with Bibles, looked down on heathens and took from scripture the fatal lesson that he could always count on a timely miracle when in extremis. Yet McGoogan’s “new answers” rely on a crude reading of evangelicals. Many were deeply attentive to Indigenous minds — because they craved their conversion. Few expected God to make abrupt, direct interventions in his world, for he expressed his will through laws. And they were, above all, always on guard against the kind of excessive pride whose consequences Landseer — though no evangelical — would so mordantly depict.
Michael Ledger-Lomas is a historian of religion in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and a visiting fellow at King’s College, London.