- Food and Culture in Narratives of the Canadian North
In the last months of 1826, British newspaper readers were shocked and titillated by the terrible story of James Sanger, who had been making his living over the previous year by displaying what he claimed were two “Esquimaux” children brought to England by William Parry.1 He had, in fact, bought the children, either from their down-and-out father or from their maternal aunt (newspaper accounts are not consistent) and had then beaten and terrorized them into demonstrating their supposed “Esquimaux” culture in what would be the most efficient way possible for an English audience of the day: declining what their eager viewers would consider palatable food, they ate raw meat instead. These abused children provide, most obviously and most poignantly, a glimpse of the extreme vulnerability of those at the margins of early nineteenth-century British society. Yet the ways in which the villainous Mr. Sanger foregrounds and exploits contemporary prurient fascination with the food culture of what is now the Canadian north is also worth attention. Presenting members of other cultures as being willing [End Page 204] to eat what British readers would not recognize as food was a fairly usual method of implying British cultural superiority in early nineteenth-century travel and exploration literature,2 and it was a trope that, as Sanger’s story illustrates, translated easily into popular culture. Even so, while exploration narratives established the heroism and desperation of the explorers in part by depicting them as driven to eat whatever was necessary to keep themselves alive,3 the willingness to consume something other than what the average British reader would consume as food turns out to be a deeply unreliable marker of any supposed division between “self ” and “other.”
Sanger’s assumption that his countrymen would be fascinated by the spectacle of “Esquimaux” meals would have been shaped in part by prior visits by Inuit to England, most famously that of the family who accompanied the fur trader George Cartwright when he travelled back to London from Labrador in 1772 and who (according to an article published in the Caledonian Mercury on 10 August 1774) attracted crowds to watch them as they supposedly ate tallow candles for breakfast. A more immediate context for fascination with the food of the Canadian north would, however, have been provided by a very different source: John Franklin’s account of his desperate attempt to stay alive while travelling back from the shores of the Arctic Ocean in the autumn of 1821. Decades before Franklin vanished into the Arctic on his final expedition, A Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea (1823) had made him a celebrity. And part of what set this book apart from the vast quantity of other material on polar expeditions that was being published around that time4 was its vivid, graphic account of Franklin’s increasingly painful quest to find anything resembling food to keep himself and his party alive as winter set in. Failing in most of their attempts to fish or hunt game, they scrounged what few late berries they could find, scraped lichen from rocks, scavenged carrion bones and scraps of sinew and hide, and, when all else failed, boiled their own leather boots for soup. Here, eating something not quite recognizable as food takes on a completely different meaning from that which Sanger created through his spectacle of the miserably exploited children. Rather than using unpalatable food to evoke “savagery,” Franklin presents his grimly meagre diet as a form of heroism, implying that he and his party demonstrate grit, resilience, and ingenuity by scraping together sufficient calories to survive their journey across an unwelcoming land.
Inevitably, however, ideas of heroic endurance become a little more complicated as one looks more closely at what and how the party ate. The most obvious complication comes in a delicately evasive reference to cannibalism, which apparently contributed to the survival of some of the weaker members of the expedition. According to John Richardson, the party’s doctor, he and two of the junior British officers were able to regain enough strength to continue the trek only after...