Tales of the Doomed Franklin Expedition Long Ignored the Inuit Side, But “The Terror” Flips the Script
In 1845, Arctic veteran Sir John Franklin departed Britain in command of two ships, the HMS Terror and Erebus, to seek the fabled Northwest Passage in the Arctic. They were last seen by Europeans in Baffin Bay, off the coast of Greenland. Then both ships disappeared, seemingly swallowed by the ice and never heard from again, at least not from the explorers themselves.
Those looking for the true story, however, have almost always had access to one primary source: Inuit oral histories, more specifically the accounts of the Netsilik Inuit. As early as 1854, just six years after the expedition was declared lost, a Hudson’s Bay fur trader named John Rae talked to Inuk men he met about the fate of the Expedition.
The Inuit told Rae stories of meeting starving men, and gave him relics of the Franklin Expedition to back up their story. But when Rae brought tales of cannibalism and suffering back to England, he was subject to “a smear campaign initiated by Lady Jane Franklin, the explorer’s scandalized widow, supported by racist writings from the likes of Charles Dickens,” writes Rae biographer Ken McGoogan. In British lore, Franklin and his crew became martyrs to science, good Christian men who suffered a cruel fate at the hands of Mother Nature. Later historians framed Franklin as a hubristic imperialist, and more recently the Canadian government has used Franklin as an argument for Arctic sovereignty.
Inuit stories were marginalized time and time again, until the ships were found in 2014 and 2016 by a coalition that included archaeologists and local historian Louie Kamookak, an expert in Netsilik oral history of the expedition. The sunken wrecks were located deep in the Canadian Arctic, near the Inuit community of Gjoa Haven.
More recent interpretations of the Franklin expedition have included the Inuit, with a planned interpretive center in Gjoa Haven and a government contract out to record oral histories about the expedition. It’s a welcome change, centering the Inuit in their own story and interrogating how the Franklin expedition affected them, rather than the other way around.
Given these different kinds of historical record and the usual temporal and financial constraints of television, it’s striking to see a prestige television drama approach a moment in history with as much care and mindful inclusion as the executive producers of AMC’s “The Terror” are attempting to do. In this new series that attempts its own interpretation of the doomed expedition, the showrunners are also striving to make the Inuit portions of the show as real–or realer–than the English ones and respect the Netsilik Inuit who met Franklin and passed down their stories.