A Tale of Cannibalism | Watch Passage on NFB.ca
If you want to watch a movie this weekend, I’ve got a doozy of a recommendation for you.
Passage is an excellent documentary by John Walker on the sinking of ships during the Franklin expedition, which had set out in 1845 in search of the Northwest Passage in the Arctic.
The film presents a tragic, disturbing tale about a crew who, faced with the inescapable fate of dying of hunger, committed acts of cannibalism. Englishman eating Englishman?! Impossible, you might say. Unthinkable! But… is it?
In 1845, the British Navy, obsessed by the discovery of the famous Northwest Passage—a route that would open the gateway to the Orient—launched yet another Arctic expedition. Captain John Franklin took command of two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, with 128 crew members, 340 tons of rations and stores aboard. Cargo that could allow them to survive for three years. But two years later, the Erebus and the Terror showed no more signs of life. The worst was feared.
John Rae, a young Scottish doctor who was an experienced Arctic explorer working for the Hudson’s Bay Company, found artefacts from the expedition and gathered eye-witness accounts from the Inuit in the region.
Those eye-witnesses confirmed that the ships had sunk and that all of the crew members and their captain had died. But the tale he brought back to London would have a bigger impact than the news of Captain Franklin’s tragic failure.
Passage, John Walker, provided by the National Film Board of Canada
Rae’s report was intended only for the English Navy, but unfortunately it found its way into the pages of the London Times. The report revealed that certain crew members, driven by a desperate instinct for survival, had committed acts of cannibalism.
Obviously, the news hit an emotional sore spot and created a scandal. That a good English Christian in the Victorian era would commit or even conceive of such an act was impossible! However, Rae’s report is supported by multiple accounts from trusted sources. Rae had been dealing closely with the Inuit for years – so closely that he’d even adopted their lifestyle during his many trips to the Arctic. These were solid eye-witness accounts, and they were difficult to refute.
In the years that follow, Lady Franklin, widow of the captain, and the famous author Charles Dickens would try to discredit Rae’s report and put forward, without any proof, the thesis that the crew members’ death could be explained by a savage, sly and cruel attack by the people known as the Eskimos. And if there were acts of cannibalism, they were committed by these savages and not by the English.
Passage is an extraordinary film. It brilliantly recounts an unknown part of the famous sinking, a defining story of the Arctic exploration that we are just beginning to understand. New discoveries concerning the wreck of Erebus were in the headlines as recently as last September.
With a skillful mix of documentary and fiction, this film weaves together interviews, historical re-enactments, and behind-the-scenes footage. The result is an eye-opening introduction to a fascinating, unknown, and highly disturbing story – the truth of which some historians still deny.
Quite simply, this film is a must-see!