Disdain for the Inuit won’t fly in Canada when Franklin exhibition moves to Ottawa

The disdain for the Inuit is palpable . . . and worrisome. We can only hope that the people bringing this project to Canada are planning major revisions. Yes, I have laid hands on a copy of Sir John Franklin’s Erebus and Terror Expedition / Lost and Found by Gillian Hutchinson (Bloomsbury). It grows out of and presumably reflects the current Death in the Ice exhibition at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich — an extravaganza that moves to Ottawa and the Canadian Museum of History on March 2, 2018.

The book is well-written, beautifully illustrated, professionally produced. But also it is disappointing, above all in its disregard for the crucial Inuit contribution to Arctic exploration generally, and to the search for the lost ships in particular. [See NEWSFLASH at bottom.]

The book serves up the same old, same old, rehashing what I call the “official” or “orthodox” history of Arctic exploration — the Royal Navy version of events, with its familiar roll call of personalities.

This movie invariably begins around 1818. It features such naval officers as Edward Parry, John Richardson, John Ross, John Richardson, James Clark Ross, and George Back. And of course it stars that well-meaning bungler Sir John Franklin as the tragic, windblown Arctic hero.

The author deals with John Rae and his inconvenient truth-telling in a cursory aside and, while admitting that Charles Dickens created a “racist fiction” about the Inuit, approves of his holding the fort until yet another Royal Navy man, Leopold McClintock, could distract people from the intolerable business of cannibalism.

Hutchinson summarizes Franklin’s two overland expeditions without crediting Akaitcho and Tattanoeuck, who saved his life on the first and second respectively. She treats those American searchers Charles Frances Hall and Frederick Schwatka without so much as mentioning the Inuit who were absolutely necessary to their achievements: Tookoolito, Ebierbing, and Tulugaq. And what of John Sakheouse, William Ouligbuck, Louie Kamookak, Sammy Kogvik. The list goes on and on.

Here, too, we discern the decades-old yearning to make a success of the Franklin expedition. Hey, maybe some of his men trekked to the mouth of the Mackenzie River, and then we could argue that they achieved a Passage? Sigh.

Anyway, here we see, yet once more, what drove me to write Dead Reckoning: The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage. And given that the Canadian Museum of History is on record as promising to explore “the critical role played by the Inuit,” I am reasonably confident that it will undertake a major overhaul before bringing this show before a Canadian public.

[Painting above by John Sakheouse / Hans Zachaeus]

[NEWSFLASH: One of my field agents writes to inform me that, although marketed as a tie-in to the exhibition, Hutchinson’s book was planned and executed by a different branch of the National Maritime Museum. Neither the UK nor the Canadian curator of the show became aware of the book until late in the day. The British show proper opens with a section on the importance of the Inuit in the Franklin story, and the Canadian show promises to be still more emphatic about this. Says I: Glad to hear it!]


  1. Gillian Hutchinson on February 1, 2022 at 5:15 pm

    Response from Gillian Hutchinson

    The Canadian History Museum exhibition now showing at Greenwich is presented from the point of view of Inuit for whom the Arctic is home, not the unexplored wilderness that it was for the ill-adapted British explorers. It is very exciting, immersive and thought-provoking and we have been privileged to have this preview before it opens in Gatineau in March.

    My book, written to accompany the Greenwich show, is written from a British perspective (I am not qualified to write with any authority about Inuit experience of the Arctic) but I absolutely do not regard Inuit with disdain. I believe I make it clear that successive British expeditions would not have survived without Inuit help, that they provided nearly all the information about the fate of the Erebus and Terror expedition, and that the ships would not have been found without Inuit saying where they were. My extremely compressed narrative is light on names but I must correct you – Tookoolito, Ebierbing (p 139) and Sammy Kogvik (p 161) are named. It is a total misreading that I “approve” of Dickens’ racist fiction – I most certainly do not.

    Anyway, I look forward to reading your new book Ken to find out about Inuit lives in far more detail.

    All the best

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