The Man Who Ate His Boots: Sir John Franklin

Most of us are familiar with the scene in the movie “The Gold Rush” where Charlie Chaplin cooks and eats his shoes to avoid starvation. Well, did you know that this scene, which is one of the most famous movie scenes in the world, actually happened on a sea exploration as well? Let’s take a look at the story of Sir John Franklin, who is considered to be one of the greatest geographical explorers in history!

A Pathway Between England and China: The Northwest Passage

The 17th century is full of important discoveries for the navies of many countries. The British navy is at the forefront of these navies. For Britain, which had colonies in many parts of the world, it was vital to keep a strong sea connection with these regions. Therefore, the ships had to be strengthened and new alternative routes had to be found. The biggest goal of the British Navy at that time was to find an alternative route that would reduce the distance between them and China.
Research has shown that a passage, that was very likely to be located in Northern Canada, near the Arctic, could shorten the travel distance between China and the UK. This yet-to-be-discovered passage was named the Northwest Passage, and the necessary expeditions were launched to find it. The last of these expeditions was the expedition that was led by Sir John Franklin, who had led expeditions in the Polar regions many times before.

A Shoe-Eating Struggle for Survival

Sir John Franklin was a veteran who led expeditions in the Arctic many times during his career. One of these experiences caused him to experience the event shown in Charlie Chaplin’s movie.
Franklin was chosen to lead the Coppermine expedition in 1819 to explore Canada’s Northern Coastline and sailed as the captain of the crew. Unfortunately, the conditions in the region were extremely harsh and brutal. Moreover, the completion of an expedition took at least 2-3 years. When Franklin and his crew were left alone in these exploration areas close to the Pole, it would take two years, at best, for someone to come to their aid. Franklin had hoped that local fur traders and residents would come to their aid when needed, but things didn’t go as planned.

Captain Sir John Franklin, National Portrait Gallery

The crew had run out of food, and it was impossible to replace them with new products. Thus, hunger began to appear. In addition to hunger, scurvy, which is the fearful nightmare of many sailors, was beginning to show itself. (If you want to learn more about Captain Cook, you can check out our article “The Seafarer Who Wrote His Name in Golden Letters in World History: Captain Cook”!) Since the food stock was completely depleted over the course of time and no one has arrived yet, the crew had to eat the lichens, which are symbiotic groups of mushrooms and algae. But this was not enough to cope with hunger.
According to reports, there was at least one murder and even cannibalism among the crew. In the face of this terrible situation, Sir John Franklin, who was about to die of starvation, survived by eating his boots made of leather, in addition to lichens. Franklin was rescued in 1821 and returned to England with what was left of his crew. Newspapers nicknamed Franklin “The Man Who Ate His Boots” after hearing what happened during the expedition.

Second Chances Aren’t Always a Good Idea

Sir Franklin, who survived despite these difficult conditions, was chosen as the chief captain of a new 2-ship expedition to be sailed in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage, even though he was not the first choice. The purpose of these two ships, the Erebus and the Terror , was to find the passage and make a detailed map of the area. But the captains Sir John Franklin, Francis Crozier, and their 129-men-crew never returned.

33 John Franklin Stock Photos, Pictures & Royalty-Free Images - iStock

During one of the search and rescue expeditions, he found 3 skeletons of the crew. According to the expedition book found next to these skeletons and what the Eskimos told, the ships were stuck between the glaciers in 1846 and Franklin died in June 1847. The remaining crew had abandoned the ships and tried to survive on foot, but none were successful.

A Discovery A Few Kilometers Away From Death

In 1850, another expedition was organized under the leadership of Robert McClure to search for Franklin and his crew. The expedition found no evidence about Franklin and the crew but discovered the Northwest Passage, for which Franklin had disappeared. Franklin’s ships had stuck in the ice just a few kilometers from the passage and had failed. The discovery is attributed to Franklin, although McClure was the first to confirm the existence of the Passage.
The ships that got lost during the Expedition were discovered many years later. The wreck of Erebus which was under the command of Franklin was found on September 2, 2014, and the wreck of Terror which was under the command of Francis Crozier was found by researchers on September 3, 2016.

They forged the last links with their lives': Sir John Franklin's men dying by their boat during the North-West Passage expedition | Royal Museums Greenwich

The actual causes of death and burials of Franklin and his crew have not yet been found. However, Franklin, who is considered to be one of the greatest geographical explorers in history, is immortalized as the “Man Who Ate His Boots“.

References and Future Readings

Britannica, The Editors of Encyclopaedia. “Sir John Franklin”. Encyclopedia
Britannica, 7 Jun. 2022, Accessed 13 September 2022.

The life of Sir John Franklin, R.N, Traill, Henry Duff, 1842-1900,

The proofreading has been done by Asu Pelin Akköse and Mete Esencan.

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Asu Pelin Akköse

Hello everyone! My name is Asu Pelin Akkose. I am a graduate student at METU Chemistry Department. All my life, my favorite thing to do has been to read and learn. I have always thought that researching, learning and sharing knowledge is the best part of life. I am very happy to share with you the taste of learning new information through OkButWhy!

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