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Historic England Research Sheds New Light on Franklin Expedition

The 1845 British naval expedition to map the Northwest Passage ended in disaster, with none of the crew returning alive from the Canadian Arctic. Nineteenth century Inuit testimony described cannibalism among the men, but Victorian society could not accept this. Our Human Skeletal Biologist, Simon Mays, has uncovered new evidence to suggest the Inuit were right.

In May 1845, two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, set out from England on a Royal Navy expedition to the Arctic. The ships were under the command of Sir John Franklin. The voyage was to map the route of the Northwest Passage, the sea-way connecting the north Atlantic with the Pacific via the Canadian Arctic. A note, left in a canister on King William Island from May 1847, said all was well. By April 1848 a second note in the same place suggested 24 men - out of a total of 129 - had died, the remainder had deserted the ships and set off overland to find safety. 

The ships on the Franklin Expedition
An illustration of HMS Erebus and HMS Terror taken from Daten der Weltgeschichte

Inuit testimony

In 1850 the Admiralty offered a £20,000 reward to those who could find the ships. Dr John Rae, a Scottish explorer who was mapping the region in 1854, tried to find out what had happened to the men. Inuit spoke to Rae of cannibalism among Franklin’s men where they described the men cooking in big pots. When the story broke in England in 1854, it provoked scandal. Many accepted cannibalism was born out of tragic necessity, but others felt that it was unproven, rejected the possibility outright, or else simply chose to ignore the evidence. Among them was Charles Dickens who publicly denied the men could be capable of such practices.

Uncovering the truth

In the 1990s scientists went to King William Island to collect bones from the Franklin mission. Studies of these bones showed cut marks suggesting cannibalism and it was widely accepted Rae’s reports were correct. At this stage there was only proof of first-stage cannibalism, where the flesh is eaten. The truth about the Franklin mission had been uncovered but not the details. Closer examination of the bones by Historic England has revealed more.


35 bones from the Franklin mission have been re-examined. These bones show evidence of breakage and polishing, referred to as pot polish. This suggests the bones were heated in water to extract the marrow and used to scrape what nutrients were left from the pot. This is the first evidence of end-stage cannibalism among members of the expedition. These men were desperate for food and did everything they could to survive. This, alongside 19th century Inuit testimony, sheds new and tragic light on the expedition members in the final throes of the Franklin voyage.

Next steps

Read more about our work in human osteoarchaeology


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