‘Man Who Ate His Boots’ An Arctic Tragedy (NPR)

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April 17, 2010

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Sir John FranklinThe Man Who Ate His Boots is the tragic tale of British explorers and their numerous failed attempts to find an Arctic sea passage connecting Europe to Asia. The search for the Northwest Passage captivated the British imagination and sent many men to their deaths. Host Guy Raz speaks with author Anthony Brandt about his new book as well as its most famous character, Sir John Franklin, whose final disastrous expedition ended in cannibalism.

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GUY RAZ, host:

If you’ve ever read Mary Shelly’s “Frankenstein,” you’ll recall that early scene when Captain Walton’s ship becomes trapped in Arctic Sea ice. The crew had been trying to reach the North Pole when a mysterious ghost-like monster appears in the distance.

Well, Ms. Shelly was writing during a period in British history when the country was gripped by the race to find Northwest Passage. Napoleon had just been defeated:

Mr. ANTHONY BRANDT (Author, “The Man Who Ate His Boots”): The world was England’s to conquer. If the ice was impenetrable, if the odds were impossible, no matter. They were Englishmen, members of a superior race, the children of destiny.

RAZ: That’s Anthony Brandt reading from his new book, “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” It’s about Britain’s obsessive search to find a sea passage through the Arctic that could connect Europe to Asia.

The most famous and tragic expedition was led by Sir John Franklin. In 1845, he led two ships and 129 men through the ice-covered waterways above the Canadian mainland. Not one man survived.

For that story, we’re joined by Anthony Brandt. He’s in our New York bureau. Welcome to the program.

Mr. BRANDT: Well, thank you.

RAZ: Before we talk about the famous Franklin expedition of 1845, set the scene for us. I mean, how much did this quest to find a northwest passage capture the imagination of the British public in the early 19th century?

Mr. BRANDT: Well, it was an old quest that had been going on for 300 years, or nearly 300 years by that time. And the public was very enthusiastic that it was being renewed after the Napoleonic wars. The country was feeling good about itself. This had been a historic mission that the English had assigned themselves to do many centuries before. They felt it was their time and that nothing could stop them.

RAZ: There were a series of these expeditions, and about at least 15 of them until 1845 when Britain’s admiralty decides to sponsor a new expedition, again, to find the Northwest Passage. John Franklin is tapped to lead this expedition but he was the last choice, right?

Mr. BRANDT: He was the last choice. He was 59 years old. He had no business doing this again but he was trying to save his reputation.

RAZ: I mean, he had already been on a few of these expeditions before.

Mr. BRANDT: Right.

RAZ: And he wasn’t sort of a hero out of central casting. He was described as, quote, “looking something like a stuffed bear.”

Mr. BRANDT: Yes. He was pudgy. He said if he had to walk around on the ice, he probably wasn’t the person to do it. But all he had to do was stay on ship and direct things.

RAZ: So, the journey starts out okay but what happens sort of a few weeks in?

Mr. BRANDT: They left Baffin Bay in August, I think, of 1845. They headed into Lancaster Sound and nobody saw them after that. Not a word came out. They disappeared for three years. And in 1848, the admiral team got worried and said we got to look for them and find them. Eleven years they searched for them.

What they found eventually was a single piece of paper describing up to a certain point what had happened. They had gotten trapped in the ice after their first year unable to move. The ice was slowly taking them, drifting them south at the rate of about 14, 15 miles a month, maybe not even that fast. And it was clearly polar ice, thick ice, and there was no way out. They had been trapped there for two years.

RAZ: And most of the crew survives for these two years. The survivors do abandon the ships and eventually, everybody died. They had plenty of food. Why didn’t they survive?

Mr. BRANDT: It’s not fresh food and scurvy was the scourge of all sea voyages at the time. You need vitamin C on a daily basis. It only comes in fresh food, and they took enormous quantities of lemon juice. But after six months, nine months a year, lemon juice loses the vitamin C. It’s a fragile chemical and it kind of disintegrates.

So, by the end of two years, usually 18 months, scurvy will appear. And unless you have fresh meat or fresh vegetables, it will very rapidly start killing people.

RAZ: And there’s evidence that suggests that the crewmembers who eventually left the ship actually had to eat the others who died.

Mr. BRANDT: Well, what they did when they left the ships was they did some peculiar things. They dragged boats with them filled with their silverware and with odd – with tons of clothing that they didn’t need. You wonder if they had sort of lost their reason at some point. But the evidence of cannibalism is irrefutable. At some point, they started eating their dead. There are many, many bones that survive with saw marks on them. And the only reason you cut into a bone with a saw is so that you can put the limb or whatever it is into a pot and cook it.

And there was a huge controversy when evidence came back that they had resorted to cannibalism. The English were very, very upset about that.

RAZ: Anthony Brandt, the Passage wasn’t navigated until 1903 when the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, did it. Now, of course, you can do it as a tourist in an icebreaker. And in fact, in 2007, for the first time in recorded history, there was almost no sea ice in the Passage at all, which seems like a kind of a fitting epilogue to the story that you tell.

Mr. BRANDT: You have to imagine ice that’s 40 feet thick. That’s as thick as a four-story building is tall. That’s thick. And if you had seen it, you would never believe that it would never melt. Now, it melts.

RAZ: That’s Anthony Brandt. His new book is called “The Man Who Ate His Boots.” It charts the history of the search for the famed Northwest Passage.

Anthony Brandt, thank you so much.

Mr. BRANDT: It’s my pleasure.

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