While exploring the Canadian north, Sir John Franklin waited too long before turning back. Gale force winds blew as he and his crew, twenty men in all, marched in sub-zero temperatures through snow and over jagged ice subsisting only on the fish and game they could kill.
Soon, too weak to hunt, they ate boiled moss and lichen and, finally, their old shoes and rawhide moccasins. Leaving the weakest members of his party at a sheltered spot, Franklin pushed on to Fort Enterprise, finding to his horror that it was empty and no provision had been made for him.
Skeletal, his strength failing, Franklin was saved by the timely arrival of Indians bearing food, though eleven of his party died. Arriving back in London in 1822, Franklin wrote up his adventures and was feted as a true hero of the British Empire.
In 1845, when he was 58-years-old, the Admiralty chose Franklin to lead an ambitious expedition to scout for the Northwest Passage. Of the 129-man crew, not one returned, with shocking evidence of cannibalism in the last days.
More ships and men were lost in rescue missions sent to find Franklin than in his original expedition. I spoke with Anthony Brandt, author of “The Man Who Ate His Boots” (Alfred A. Knopf), on the following topics:
1. British Superiority
2. Wonders of the East
3. Myth of the Open Sea
4. Human Bones in Cooking Pots
5. Inuit Survivors
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(Lewis Lapham is the founder of Lapham’s Quarterly and the former editor of Harper’s Magazine. He hosts “The World in Time” interview series for Bloomberg News.)
To contact the writer on the story: Lewis Lapham in New York at firstname.lastname@example.org.