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Polar Bears explain the Fate of Franklin


What happened to the Franklin Expedition? Researchers have been debating that since 1847, two years after Sir John Franklin disappeared into the Arctic with 128 men. From the note found at Victory Point on King William Island, we know that in April 1848, 105 men left the two ice-locked ships. The note tells us that already, nine officers and fifteen seamen had died. That represents 37 per cent of officers and 14 per cent of crew members. Historians have wondered: why such disportionate numbers?
Researchers have spent vast amounts of time and energy inquiring into the deaths of the first three sailors to die, whose graves remain on Beechey Island. Did lead poisoning kill them? Botulism? Zinc deficiency leading to tuberculosis? But wait. Maybe those three early deaths were anomalies. Perhaps the nine officers and twelve other sailors died as a result of some accident or injury. Some have wondered if the dead men ingested something that others did not.
But nobody, to my knowledge, has publicly invoked the calamitous Munk expedition of the early 1600s, which lost sixty-two men out of sixty-five. In 1619-20, while seeking the Northwest Passage, the Danish-Norwegian explorer Jens Munk wintered in two ships at present-day Churchill, Manitoba. In Dead Reckoning, drawing on Munk’s journal, I detail the unprecedented miseries that ensued. During my research, I had turned up an article by Delbert Young published 44 years ago in the Beaver magazine (“Killer on the ‘Unicorn,’" Winter, 1973). It blamed the catastrophe on poorly cooked or raw polar-bear meat.
Soon after reaching Churchill in September 1619, Munk reported that at every high tide, white beluga whales entered the estuary of the river. His men caught one and dragged it ashore. Next day, a “large white bear” turned up to feed on the whale. Munk shot and killed it. His men relished the bear meat. Munk had ordered the cook “just to boil it slightly, and then to keep it in vinegar for a night.” But he had the meat for his own table roasted, and wrote that “it was of good taste and did not disagree with us.”
As Delbert Young observes, Churchill sits at the heart of polar bear country. Probably, after that first occasion, the sailors consumed more polar-bear meat. During his long career, Munk had seen men die of scurvy and knew how to treat that disease. He noted that it attacked some of his sailors, loosening their teeth and bruising their skin. But when men began to die in great numbers, he was baffled. This went beyond anything he had seen. His chief cook died early in January, and from then on “violent sickness . . . prevailed more and more.”
After a wide-ranging analysis, Young points to trichinosis as the probable killer —a parasitical disease, unidentified until the twentieth century, which is endemic in polar bears. Infected meat, undercooked, deposits embryo larvae in a person’s stomach. These tiny parasites embed themselves in the intestines. They reproduce, enter the bloodstream and, within weeks, encyst themselves in muscle tissue throughout the body. They cause the terrible symptoms Munk describes and, left untreated, can culminate in death four to six weeks after ingestion.
So, back to the Franklin expedition. Could trichinosis, induced by eating raw polar-bear meat, have killed those nine officers and dozen seamen? And galvanized the remaining men into abandoning the ships? And rendered many of them so sick that they could hardly think straight or walk. And made the faces of some look black, so that they had to be quarantined into a separate tent?
In recent years, while visiting Beechey Island with Adventure Canada, more than once my fellow voyagers and I have been driven off by polar bears. We retreat into the zodiacs at first sign of approach. In that same situation, how would Franklin’s men have responded? They would have killed those curious bears and eaten them -- perhaps bringing some of the meat onto the ships. That undercooked polar-bear meat, unevenly distributed among officers and crew, might well have led to the lopsided fatality statistics . . . and to all the rest.
So, anyway, I suggest in Dead Reckoning. Within the next few years, Parks Canada will almost certainly turn up some decisive evidence -- written records or human remains or both -- as divers investigate the Erebus and Terror. Until then, my money is on polar-bear-meat-induced trichinosis.
Ken McGoogan
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Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.