Doomed Arctic Expedition Came As Close To A Real-Life Zombie Invasion Humanity Will Ever Get

Le HMS Terror coincé dans les glaces de l’Arctique lors de l’expédition Franklin, en 1845. - Illustration: API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images) (Getty Images)
Le HMS Terror coincé dans les glaces de l’Arctique lors de l’expédition Franklin, en 1845. - Illustration: API/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images) (Getty Images)

I am fascinated by both Antarctic and Arctic exploration; no where else on Earth wants humans dead quite like our planet’s poles, but folks still manage to eek out an existence in both places. While human populations in Antarctica are limited to visiting researchers, people have been living in the frozen North for quite a while. For the locals in the Arctic this used to mean they’d get the opportunity to means encounterfool-hardy European explorers in desperate situations.

While reading up on the disastrous 1845 Franklin expedition, I came across an old story from the National Post about what the Inuit people experienced when the starving, half-mad crew finally abandoned their giant stranded sailing ships in the ice to search for salvation.

When the HMS Terror and Erebus first launched in 1845, most of the passage was completely mapped, they just needed to find the last leg of the route. The ships poked around the Arctic Ocean for a year and a half while the crew of 134, under the leadership of Sir John Franklin, searched for the Northwest Passage—a nearly mythical route that would allow Europeans to navigate to the Pacific without going all the way around the South American content or the traditional route around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa. When incredibly thick ice trapped the crews of the HMS Terror and Erebus in September of 1845, no one panicked.


When the ice failed to thaw that summer, there was still little reason to panic. The ships were provisioned for three years thanks to a new technology—canned food. By April 1848, however, Sir Franklin was dead, and the remaining crew abandoned their ships to walk an impossible 800 miles to the nearest Whaling station. Their supposedly long-lasting provisions were tainted by faulty lead soldering. This led to food spoiling, increasing the risk of botulism and a dearth in provisions that were meant to last three years. What didn’t spoil was made toxic by the lead soldering. Scurvy was also setting in by the time the crew began walking, attempting to cross all of King William Island—a barren place made up of nothing more than ice and gravel.

Once spotted by Inuit people, most of whom had heard of Europeans but had never seen a white person before, the crew was like a real-life zombie apocalypse. It was so jarring that Inuit people still tell the tale today nearly 180 years later, according to the Post:

Inuit nomads had come across streams of men that “didn’t seem to be right.” Maddened by scurvy, botulism or desperation, they were raving in a language the Inuit couldn’t understand. In one case, hunters came across two Franklin Expedition survivors who had been sleeping for days in the hollowed-out corpses of seals.

“They were unrecognizable they were so dirty,” Lena Kingmiatook, a resident of Taloyoak, told Eber.

Mark Tootiak, a stepson of Nicholas Qayutinuaq, related a story to Eber of a group of Inuit who had an early encounter with a small and “hairy” group of Franklin Expedition men evacuating south.

“Later … these Inuit heard that people had seen more white people, a lot more white people, dying,” he said. “They were seen carrying human meat.”

Even Eber’s translator, the late Tommy Anguttitauruq, recounted a goose hunting trip in which he had stumbled upon a Franklin Expedition skeleton still carrying a clay pipe.

By 1850, coves and beaches around King William Island were littered with the disturbing remnants of their advance: Scraps of clothing and camps still littered with their dead occupants. Decades later, researchers would confirm the Inuit accounts of cannibalism when they found bleached human bones with their flesh hacked clean.

“I’ve never in all my life seen any kind of spirit — I’ve heard the sounds they make, but I’ve never seen them with my own eyes,” said the old man who had gone out to investigate the Franklin survivors who had straggled into his camp that day on King William Island.

Shuffling, pale creatures who were cold to the touch, seemed to be shuffling around while unconscious and were eating each other? Yup, sounds like zombies to me. To the credit of the Inuits that encountered some of the survivors, they did their best to help while also being totally terrified. The Inuits left three seals for them to eat, built the desperate men an Igloo and a fire...and then got the hell out of there as soon as they could. Who could blame them? When the Inuits returned months later, they found the remains of a horror show:

The Inuit had left in such a hurry that they had abandoned several belongings. When a small party went back to the camp to retrieve them, they found an igloo filled with corpses.

The seals were untouched. Instead, the men had eaten each other.

It would cause a scandal in the U.K. when the first evidence returned of what had befallen Franklin’s men.

The Brits would launch rescue missions in 1848—far too late to save the doomed crew. It would not be until a decade later when Scottish explorer John Rae returned from a trip to the Arctic in 1854, that the public had some word of the extent of the Franklin expedition’s suffering. At the mention of cannibalism, however, people discredited the testimony of the local Inuit tribes, choosing to believe that honorable British men could never stoop to eating each other. Modern evidence confirms these upright British explorers did indeed resort to eating each other in their final moments, Smithsonian Magazine explains:

And now, a new analysis of 35 bones by anthropologists Simon Mays and Owen Beattie suggests that the men did indeed eat one another. The bones they analyzed showed signs of breakage and heating—thus, the crewmembers likely cooked them to extract the marrow. Mays and Beattie published their results June 18 in the International Journal of Osteology.

In 2014, explorers located the remains of the HMS Erebus, with the Terror’s wreckage found two years later just off the coast of King William Island. The site of the Terror was located thanks to, you guessed it, an Inuit fisherman who spotted part of the mast sticking out of the gravel on the coast of the island.

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