Friday, August 22, 2008


Yet another attempt is under way to try and establish what
happened to the Franklin expedition, which set out from
England in 1845 to find a transcontinental passage
through the myriad waterways of the Canadian Arctic. The
two ships Erebus and Terror never returned, and all 129
men aboard vanished; only the frozen bodies of two sailors
were eventually found. Subsequent investigations—and
there have been many—suggest that the expedition was ill
prepared to weather the winters in those parts, and that
when the ice began to swallow their ships they lacked the
resources to survive. A scrap of paper found in a cairn in
1859 indicates that about 100 of the crew tried to trek to a
Hudson’s Bay Company fur-trading post 800 miles south,
but none made it; evidence of cannibalism has since come
to light. Somewhere out there in the frozen north—possibly
to be disclosed in the plenitude of time by global warming
—lie more clues to the mystery.

From a European point of view it’s a haunting story, as one
can hear in the plaintive Victorian song “Lord Franklin”
(“In Baffin Bay, where the whalefish blow,/the fate of
Franklin no man may know”), and one made even more
evocative by the report that five years after Franklin’s ships
vanished, sailors off the coast of Newfoundland—thousands
of miles east of the expedition’s last known base—saw the
hulks of two sailing ships identical to the Erebus and Terror
wedged frozen inside a huge ice-floe floating out to sea.

We of European descent love to have our imaginations
fired by such historical tales of heroic British navigators
and explorers fighting their way through uncharted seas,
trackless deserts or deepest jungle, often perishing in the
attempt to “discover” something. The truth is that what
they were looking for had often been discovered already,
only by peoples whose achievements were somehow not
considered to be part of the official record. While the
Franklin survivors were blundering south, dying one by
one, tribes of Inuit and American Indians were getting on
with their lives in the same latitudes, to which they had long
adapted. The Englishmen, as Scott Cookman writes in his
book Ice Blink, had no idea how to build igloos, use dogs or
hunt seal efficiently—and in any case would not have
deigned to let “savages” show them how. To the Inuit, these
clumsy, ill-clad aliens must have seemed to be touched by
madness. Inuit eyewitnesses interviewed several years later
said the men they met (and gave seal meat to) were carrying
human skulls and bones.

Similarly—to go to the other end of the temperature scale—
with David Livingstone in what you still sometimes hear
people, inexcusably, call “darkest Africa.” People of my first
postwar generation grew up indoctrinated with imagery of
this doughty Scottish missionary discovering vast tracts of
central Africa, and “civilizing” them, virtually all by himself,
when in fact he was surrounded at all times by villagers,
farmers, hunters, tribespeople living their lives in a
perfectly self-sufficient way. In the European historical
record for a long time afterwards, these people, even though
they nursed and helped Livingstone—indeed, he would have
got seriously lost without them—generally figured as

Again, we mythologize Burke and Wills for their fateful
journey across the Australian interior, so unsuited for the
job that they starved and exhausted themselves to death—
while Aboriginal tribes in the same areas had no problem
feeding and sustaining themselves. It was an Aboriginal
tribe, in fact, that took in and nursed back to health John
King, the sole survivor of the Burke-Wills party, when he
was at death’s door. And of course New Zealand history, as
we have usually had it told to us, tends to be far more full
of Pakeha feats and finds, even when the intrepid pioneers
were traversing country already well known to Maori.

Another example of Eurocentrism, in a completely different
field, is the work (in India in the late 19th century) of the
British physician Sir Ronald Ross in fighting malaria: it was
he who is generally credited with establishing the link
between malaria and mosquitoes; indeed, he won the Nobel
Prize for Medicine for his “discovery” in 1902. Certainly
Ross deserved much of the credit for that, writes Amitav
Ghosh in The Calcutta Chromosome, “but in effect much
that he 'proved' was already well known amongst common
folk in India and Africa. Ross's Memoirs clearly show that
he used folk knowledge in advancing his work.”

Moreover, says Ghosh, it was an Indian assistant who
pointed out the final crucial stages of development in the
malaria parasite. But did Ross ever credit such people?
"Forget it: he didn't even know their surnames.”


Anonymous said...

Hi Denis,

I am very much enjoying 'Opposable Thumb', and find myself deeply envious of your prolificness (if there is such a word).

I just tried to send you an email at your ihug address, but it is returned as 'user unknown'.

Could you possibly drop me a line to let me know your new email address?

David Haywood,

Anonymous said...

the burke/wills story is actually amazing. these pompous asses trekked out into no-where and as you pointed out, starved to death surrounded by people and food.

apparently they noticed the locals eating a particular plant, so they started to copy them.

naturally the plants were full of strychnine that the aborginal people removed in the cooking. but burke and wills were determined to do it their own way...