Sir John Franklin is one of the famous explorers who went in search of the North-West Passage. His first voyage in 1819 includes a tale of cannibalism. 

Franklin commanded three expeditions to find the North-West Passage - the seaway through the Arctic, linking the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans - two on foot and one with the naval vessels the Erebus and Terror.

Franklin's first overland expedition, 1819-22

The British Admiralty sent Franklin to map the north coast of America, reached by Samuel Hearne in 1771. His mission was to chart the coast east from the mouth of Coppermine River as far as the north-west corner of Hudson Bay. On 21 July 1819, 20 men started eastward in two canoes, tracking the coast and reaching Turnagain Point on Kent peninsula. With supplies running low, Franklin decided to end the voyage. The canoes had not fared well, preventing a return by water, and so the expedition headed inland.

The expedition splits

The journey quickly deteriorated into a horrific ordeal. The expedition split into three sections. One, led by George Back went in search of a group of Indians who had previously supplied the party with food. Robert Hood, a mapmaker, was too weak to continue and two other expedition members, John Hepburn and John Richardson, stayed with him. Franklin led a third group on towards Fort Enterprise, where he hoped to find supplies. This forward party soon split up. Four men, finding it too difficult to continue, opted to return and join Hood, Hepburn and Richardson, but only one of them arrived, Michel Teroahauté.

Suspected cannibalism

It is reported that Teroahauté arrived bearing fresh meat, which Richardson concluded was the flesh of Teroahauté’s lost companions. One day, when Teroahauté was left alone with Hood, a shot was heard. Hood was found with a bullet in his head. Teroahauté claimed Hood had committed suicide but Richardson, thinking Teroahauté a cannibalistic murderer, did not believe him. With Hood dead, the three remaining men headed for Fort Enterprise, with Richardson ever fearful that Teroahauté would murder them and eat their corpses. To stop this from happening, he shot Teroahauté.

A British hero

Richardson and Hepburn reached Fort Enterprise in late October, finding Franklin and three other members of the expedition on the brink of death. They had found no provisions and were surviving on a broth of old deerskins, bones, and lichen. Franklin’s account of the expedition also famously recounted the party eating their leather shoes. Salvation came when George Back arrived with the Indians and the food he had set out to find. Of the 20 men who formed the expedition, 11 had died.

The voyage had been ill planned and poorly executed, but Franklin had shown extraordinary fortitude in the face of adversity. He became a British hero and set about planning a return to the North American arctic. Even the illness of his wife of two years, the poet Eleanor Anne Porden, could not prevent him from a return to Arctic in 1825. She died while he was away.

Franklin's second overland expedition, 1825-27

Franklin and Richardson’s second expedition was more successful. This time the party reached the North American coast at the mouth of the Mackenzie River, splitting into two. Franklin was to head west to meet Captain Beechey, in command of HMS Blossom, who had been ordered to reach Icy Cape. Meanwhile Richardson headed east, arriving at the mouth of the Coppermine River.

Poor conditions meant Franklin failed to reach the Blossom. Nevertheless, the expedition was heralded as a tour de force of Arctic exploration. Between them, Franklin and Richardson had charted over 1000 miles of the North American coast.

Read about Franklin's final fateful expedition

Death in the ice - Franklin exhibition opens 14 July 2017

Franklin death in the ice season promo imaage

Discover the shocking story of Franklin's final expedition at the National Maritime Museum's major new exhibition exploring this unsolved mystery. 

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Visit the Death in the ice exhibition page