Canada's History : 2020-08-01

TRADING POST : 41 : 41

TRADING POST

career, Munk had seen men die of scurvy, and he knew how to treat that disease. He noted that it attacked some of his sailors, loosening their teeth and bruising their skin. But when men began to die in great numbers, he was baffled. Their illness went far beyond anything he had seen. His chief cook died early in January, and from then on “violent sickness ... prevailed more and more.” After a wide-ranging analysis, Young identified trichinosi­s as the probable killer — a parasitica­l disease that is endemic in polar bears. Infected meat, undercooke­d, deposits embryonic larvae in a person’s stomach. These tiny parasites embed themselves in the intestines. They reproduce, enter the bloodstrea­m, and, within weeks, encyst themselves in muscle tissue throughout the body. They cause the terrible symptoms Munk describes and, left untreated, can culminate in death four to six weeks after ingestion. So, back to the Franklin expedition. Could trichinosi­s, induced by eating raw polar bear meat, have killed those nine officers and twelve seamen? And could it have galvanized the remaining men into abandoning the ships? Could it have rendered many of them so sick that they could hardly walk straight and have made the faces of some look black, so that they had to be quarantine­d in a separate tent? All of this accords with Inuit testimony. In recent years, while visiting Beechey Island with Adventure Canada, I and my fellow voyagers have been driven off by polar bears. Rather than fire guns into the air, we retreat into the Zodiacs at the first sign of the bears’ approach. Faced with that same situation, Franklin’s men would have responded differentl­y. They would have shot those bears and eaten them. It’s true that, by the mid-nineteenth century, some sailors might have heard that polar bear meat could be dangerous. But can anyone doubt that the men of the Franklin expedition, subsisting on short rations and desperate for a change of diet, would have eaten it anyway? Like Munk’s men, they would not have seen terrible and baffling symptoms arise until later. In my view, undercooke­d polar bear meat, unevenly distribute­d among officers and crew, led not only to those lopsided fatality statistics but to the flight from the ships and, ultimately, the destructio­n of the expedition. Within the next two or three years, those underwater archaeolog­ists from Parks Canada will almost certainly turn up decisive evidence — written records, or human remains, or both — as they investigat­e the and the Do not be surprised if they determine that the sailors ate uncooked polar bear meat and fell victim to trichinosi­s. Erebus Terror. 41 AUGUST–SEPTEMBER 2020