Sailors resorted to cannibalism during 1845 Arctic expedition, bone study proves

© Lucas Jackson
Fighting to stave of cold and starvation, Royal Navy sailors boiled and ate the flesh and bones of their fallen comrades in a bid to survive Sir John Franklin’s fateful Victorian expedition, a new study confirms.

The outcome of expedition, in which two ships and all 129 men were lost, scandalized Victorian society when a later explorer, Dr. John Rae, reported to the Admiralty in 1854 that indigenous Inuit people had told him the sailor’s mysterious fate was “as terrible as the imagination can conceive.

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,” he reported upon finding the bodies.

Now a study involving the Historic England organization has confirmed the rumors of cannibalism by examining the bones of the dead.

Experts found evidence of them being stripped of flesh, boiled and cracked open to get to the nutritious marrow.

Other bones were used as utensils by the starving men to scrape pots for the last scummy dregs of their dead comrades.

In cannibalism the process goes through stages,” Simon Mays, an archaeologist from Historic England, told the Times on Wednesday.

First, you cut off all the obviously meaty bits and eat them, but as time goes on you expend more energy in getting calories out of the body. The final thing you need to do is to boil up the bones to liberate the marrow inside.

People have boiled bones for soup for many years. They were essentially doing that. As you heat them up, the marrow and fat come out and form a scum,” he explained.

The expedition set out with two well provisioned ships named HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in search of the North West Passage through the Arctic.

A decade after the men and vessels disappeared, Rae was attacked in the press and by families of those lost for his chilling revelations.

The brother of one sailor said it would have been better for Rae to say nothing than “have given us a story which … pains the feelings of many.”

Meanwhile, famed author Charles Dickens said “the chatter of a gross handful of uncivilized people, with a domesticity of blood and blubber” was a slur against the Royal Navy.