In the opening scene of AMC’s The Terror, two men searching for the missing ships, The Terror and The Erebus, are told by an Inuit man that the people on the ships were basically the victims of an Inuit death god in the form of a supernaturally large and invincible polar bear.
This is obviously not true — the death god was on the other side of the island at the time — but it is true that much of what anyone knows about the Franklin Expedition comes from stories passed down orally from the Inuit, who were witnesses to some of what transpired. In fact, the discovery of the two ships this decade bolstered many of the accounts passed down by the Inuit people.
The ships got stuck in ice about 20 miles from King William Island, and the crew members — at least at one point - left the ship and walked to the island and attempted to hike to the Canadian mainland. Here’s a pretty good map of the scene via Canadian Geographic:
I am absolutely fascinated by the history of this Franklin Expedition, and frankly, I find the death god in The Terror to be a distraction, especially when there were so many other interesting — and real — factors responsible for the deaths of 129 crewmembers. What I’m most interested in, however, is why the Inuit people did not aid the crew members, most of whom died from botulism, scurvy, and exposure, and many were the victims of cannibalism. The Inuit, meanwhile, lived on King William, and obviously knew how to survive the harsh conditions. Why didn’t they help?
The answer lies in the accounts that historian Dorothy Eber received from Inuit, who have been telling the stories about these men for generations. Basically, the Europeans from the ships came upon the Inuit people during the last days of their life, after they’d already lost their minds. The Inuit, who had never seen Europeans before, were terrified of what was basically a group of barely-alive zombies.
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.”
But the true horror of the encounter wouldn’t be revealed until several months later.
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.
Classic white people.
Ultimately, the reason why the Inuit didn’t help more is because they weren’t given an opportunity to do so: The white men rejected their offers; there was an obvious language barrier; and Inuit were rightfully terrified of deranged men they’d never seen, some of who had slept inside of hollowed-out seals.
And also, because the Inuit had obviously cursed them with their death God.