Charles Dickens, Dr John Rae, and the Mystery of the Franklin Expedition

Updated on December 19, 2017
Jacqueline Stamp profile image

Jacqueline researches the literature and social history of the Victorian era with particular interest in the 1840s-50s.

Charles Dickens
Charles Dickens | Source

The Lost Arctic Voyagers, Part 1

On December 2, 1854, Charles Dickens published the first of three articles entitled "The Lost Arctic Voyagers" (Dickens, 1854 i) in his weekly journal Household Words. Having previously published various articles, short-stories, and poems about Arctic exploration and landscapes, these latest manuscripts were inspired by some devastating news regarding the fate of the Franklin expedition; a real-life mystery that had gripped the nation for some years.

Sir John Franklin had sailed from Greenhithe in Kent in May 1845 with 134 men aboard his ships Terror and Erebus. Five men left the ships when they made their last land-stop as Stromness in Scotland, and the remaining 129 men, were last seen by whaling crews off the Arctic coast at Baffin’s Bay in July 1845. The ships were well fortified against the Arctic weather and icy conditions, and they carried three-years’ worth of provisions, so it was not until the beginning of 1848 that concerns for their welfare were raised and, eventually, search expeditions were sent to look for them.

No trace was found for several years—in fact, the ships themselves were not discovered until 2014 and 2016 respectively—but in 1854, Scotsman Dr. John Rae stumbled across some evidence of the crews’ demise.

Rae was an inveterate explorer, familiar with the customs and communities of people resident in the Arctic regions, and an experienced Arctic surveyor employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company. On finding the Franklin-related evidence, however, he forsook his surveying work in order to help resolve the mystery surrounding the missing crews and prevent any further unnecessary loss of life that might result from continued search expeditions.

On his return to London, in October 1854, Rae immediately submitted a report of what he had found to the Admiralty, and they, in turn, submitted it to The Times newspaper for publication.

Unfortunately for Rae, his report was published complete with his assertion that:

“. . . from the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource—cannibalism—as a means of prolonging existence” (Rae, 1854).

This statement caused outrage in Britain: it was “a horrific idea for the British public and its much-vaunted faith in the valour and high honour of its soldiers and sailors” (Slater, 2011, p. 381) and Dickens was among Rae’s strongest critics.

Dr. John Rae
Dr. John Rae | Source

The Lost Arctic Voyagers, Part 2

Stirred, like many of his countrymen, by a strong aversion to the very thought of cannibalism Dickens was, by his own admission, “from childhood fascinated by tales of [it]” (Shaw, 2012, p. 118). Therefore, in part two of "The Lost Arctic Voyagers" (Dickens, 1854 ii), he was able to relate more than a dozen instances of marooned adventurers faced with the decision of whether or not to resort to cannibalism. In each case, he ably demonstrated his belief that only the lowest, meanest, most despicable classes of society would resort to such behaviour, and thus he upheld the honour and reputation of British Naval Officers in contradiction to Rae’s evidence.

The week after Dickens published part two of "The Lost Arctic Voyagers," he published Thomas Kibble Hervey’s poem "The Wreck of 'The Arctic'." In this, Hervey dubs the Arctic “a name of doom” (Hervey, 1854, p. 420) and evokes a failing region where every aspect of nature is weakened, and not only life but light, and therefore hope itself, is lost. His readers must surely have read this as a eulogy for those eponymous "lost Arctic voyagers."

The Lost Arctic Voyagers, part 3

Part three of ‘The Lost Arctic Voyagers’ (Dickens & Rae, 1854) appeared in the following week’s edition of Household Words, demonstrating Dickens’s determination to keep this issue at the forefront of his readers’ minds. This time he allowed Rae to contribute to the article in an attempt to defend his claims and refute Dickens’s rhetoric. However, Dickens concluded the article by quoting “the language … of Franklin” (Dickens & Rae, 1854, p. 437) and thus confounding with reverence and affection for the lost hero any impact that Rae’s logical counter-arguments may have had on his readers.

Dickens went on to support Sir John Franklin’s widow – Jane, Lady Franklin, – in her fight to redeem the reputation of her late husband, and to collaborate with Wilkie Collins in writing, producing, directing and starring in the play The Frozen Deep (Collins & Dickens, 1966)

Franklin is today represented in statues and memorials from London to Hobart, and is recognised as the discoverer of the fabled Northwest Passage.

Extensive research into this story, which was the subject of my Master’s degree dissertation, has led me to research further into the effects of images and imagery of the Arctic in the long-19th-century. If you want to know how I'm getting on, there is a link on my profile page that will take you to my research blog.

Statue of Sir John Franklin, Waterloo Place, London
Statue of Sir John Franklin, Waterloo Place, London | Source

Works Cited

Collins, W. & Dickens, C., 1966. The Frozen Deep. In: R. L. Brannon, ed. Under the Management of Mr Charles Dickens: His production of The Frozen Deep. New York: Cornell University Press, pp. 91-160.

Dickens, C., 1854 ii. 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers (ii)' in Household Words Vol. X pp 385-393. [Online]
Available at: http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-x/page-385.html
[Accessed 11 July 2016].

Dickens, C., 1854 i. 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers (i)' in Household Words Vol. X pp 361-365. [Online]
Available at: http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-x/page-361.html
[Accessed 25 March 2016].

Dickens, C. & Rae, J., 1854. 'The Lost Arctic Voyagers (iii)' in Household Words Vol. X pp 433-437. [Online]
Available at: http://www.djo.org.uk/household-words/volume-x/page-433.html
[Accessed 11 July 2016].

Hervey, T. K., 1854. 'The Wreck of 'The Arctic'' in Household Words Vol. X pp 420-421. [Online]
Available at: www.djo.org.uk
[Accessed 4 July 2016].

Rae, J., 1854. 'The Arctic Expedition' on The Times Digital Archive [London]. [Online]
Available at: http://find.galegroup.com.chain.kent.ac.uk/ttda/newspaperRetrieve.do?scale=0.75&sort=DateDescend&docLevel=FASCIMILE&prodId=TTDA&tabID=T003&searchId=R2&resultListType=RESULT_LIST&currentPosition=4&qrySerId=Locale%28en%2C%2C%29%3AFQE%3D%28tx%2CNone%2C8%29jo
[Accessed 30 May 2016].

Shaw, M., 2012. The Doctor and the Cannibals. The Dickensian, 108(2), pp. 117-125.

Slater, M., 2011. Charles Dickens. New Haven and London: Yale University Press.

© 2017 Jacqueline Stamp

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