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Schwatka's Search   By: (1838-1900)

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On the 25th of September, 1880, the leading English newspaper published the following words:

"Lieutenant Schwatka has now resolved the last doubts that could have been felt about the fate of the Franklin expedition. He has traced the one untraced ship to its grave beyond the ocean, and cleared the reputation of a harmless people from an undeserved reproach. He has given to the unburied bones of the crews probably the only safeguard against desecration by wandering wild beasts and heedless Esquimaux Which that frozen land allowed. He has brought home for reverent sepulture, in a kindlier soil, the one body which bore transport. Over the rest he has set up monuments to emphasize the undying memory of their sufferings and their exploit. He has gathered tokens by which friends and relatives may identify their dead, and revisit in imagination the spots in which the ashes lie. Lastly, he has carried home with him material evidence to complete the annals of Arctic exploration."

The record of Schwatka's expedition is written in these pages. Much of it has already been published in detached letters by the 'New York Herald', which engaged the author to act as its correspondent during the journey. Other hands than his have reduced it to its present shape, for his restless energy has again driven him toward the North, and has enlisted him among the crew of the 'Rodgers', which is seeking the lost 'Jeannette'. Beyond a mere concatenation of the chapters it has been nowhere altered with a view to literary effect or sensational color. The notes from which it is drawn were made from day to day; and if critics find in it facts which are either improbable or unpalatable, they may, at least, have the satisfaction of knowing that it is a faithful narrative of carefully sifted evidence.

This needs to be said because the statements of the writer have already been questioned in one or two details. He says that the party experienced such cold weather as was almost without precedent in Arctic travel, the temperature falling to seventy one degrees below zero. He says that the party killed more than five hundred reindeer, besides musk oxen, bears, walrus, and seal, in regions where Rae and McClintock could scarcely find game at all, and where the crews of the 'Erebus' and 'Terror' starved to death. He says that of the last survivors of Franklin's party the majority were officers, arguing that the watches and silver relics found with their skeletons go far to prove their rank. These statements have been doubted. The accuracy of the thermometers being questioned, they were tested and found to be curiously exact. The facilities for procuring game were assisted by the use of improved weapons; and besides, as Sir Leopold McClintock has justly shown, it was merely a tradition, not an ascertained fact, that these sub arctic regions were destitute of animal life. The method by which the official position of the bodies was determined is indisputably open to objection. "Watches and silver relics," writes Vice admiral Sir George Richards, "do not necessarily indicate a corresponding number of officers. Such light valuable articles would naturally be taken by the survivors."

But the point which has provoked more criticism than all the rest is the native evidence that the distressed crews were in the last resort reduced to cannibalism. This is set down just as it was heard, being worth neither more nor less than any testimony on an event which happened so many years ago. Between the risk of giving pain to living relatives, and the reproach of having suppressed essential parts of the story, no traveller should hesitate for an instant. Dr. John Rae, the veteran of Franklin search parties, writes to the author in the following words: "As my name is mentioned in connection with the subject of cannibalism, I must state that when I came home in 1854 I felt bound to report in as condensed a form as possible all the information given us by the Esquimaux, including the most painful part... Continue reading book >>

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