Richard King: Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

Author Stefansson, Vilhjalmur, 1879-1962

Richard King

EA-Biography (George M. Douglas)

RICHARD KING, M.D. 1811(?) - 1876

Richard King, Arctic traveler and ethnologist, was born about 1811. He received his medical education at Guy's and St. Thomas's Hospitals, becoming M.R.C.S. on June 29th and L.A.S. August 16th, 1832. In the follow– ing year he received the honorary degree of M.D. "from New York." His considerable importance in the history of the Arctic is due, apart from his ethnological studies, to the valuable work he did when associated with Captain George Back, R.N., on the expedition to the Great Fish River in 1833-35, and later to the soundness of his views on methods of arctic exploration. He has the further distinction that, almost alone among the arctic authorities of the day and in the face of Admiralty indifference to his claims for attention, he maintained the true view that the Franklin Expedition, or traces of it, would be found, at or near the mouth of the Great Fish River.
In 1832 King was appointed surgeon and naturalist to the expedition under Back, the primary object of which was a search for Captain John Ross who, three years previously, had sailed in the Victory on an attempt to discover a North West Passage by way of Prince Regent Inlet, and of whom nothing had since been heard.
A plan for such an expedition had been submitted to the government by Dr. John Richardson. On their refusal to consider it, Richardson withdrew

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from the affair, a matter for regret, for he had greatly distinguished himself on former land expeditions. Whereupon George Ross, brother of the missing Captain John Ross, succeeded in obtaining private help to finance an expedition according to Richardson's plan. Back offered to conduct it, and, on the condition that Back was appointed, the Government agreed to contribute ^ £ ^ 2,000 toward the fund.
Rudyard Kipling's satiric verse well describes this preference for the naval officer over the civilian scientist:-
"By the Laws of the Family Circle 'tis written in letters of Brass That only a Colonel from Chatham can manage a Railway of State"
The assistance of the Hudson's Bay Company was all-important to the success of the expedition. Their advice, their help in granting supplies, boats, men, and, above all, the loan of the services of Alexander Roderick McLeod, one of their most experienced officers, were all essential help without which the expedition would have got nowhere.
Captain Back was also given a commission as Commander in the Hudson's Bay Company and, finally, to give him additional authority in dealing with his men, the expedition was taken under the direction of the Government through the Colonial Office. Thus was Back's path made easy for him to an unusual degree; everything combined to give him powers on land as absolute as though he had been the captain of a naval warship at sea; and he conducted himself as though such were indeed the case.
This wide authority conferred on Back was unnecessary, and did not contribute to the achievements of the expedition. It was varin to attempt to impose it on the Indians, who might have been more helpful in supplying the needs of the expedition had they been treated merely according to the long established practices of the Hudson's Bay Company. Back failed to

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avail himself fully of the local knowledge of the Indians, as shown by the difficult route he chose on his first trip to Artillery Lake, and this in spite of the efforts of the Indians to inform him of a better one.
Back's arbitrary authority was distinctly unfortunate for King. The traditions of the Royal Naval Service could not tolerate anyone on board a ship of war as being almost, even if not quite, equal to the Captain. At that time there was indeed justification for this attitude on a ship at sea, but none on a land expedition. The wide outlook of the civilian scientist and the narrowing disciplines of Royal Naval practice was fraught with risks of strained personal relations. Such risks never occurred with Franklin and Richardson; and, under the leadership of another Franklin, King might well have proved another Richardson.
Geographical exploration of the arctic coast was a secondary object of the expedition. This coast line was unknown between Point Turnagain, the furthest point eastward reached by Franklin in 1820, and Repulse Bay. The Great Fish River, known vaguely by Indian report, was supposed to discharge into the Arctic Sea within an area where traces of Ross migh be found, and therefore chosen as a route which might attain both objectives of the expedition.
Back and King traveled by way of New York, Montreal, and the Ottawa and Great Lakes route to Cumberland House. Back proceeded with a light party to prosecute the first necessary steps of his explorations; and to discover the Great Fish River, and the best route to it. King was left in charge of the main party in two boats carrying the heavy supplies, with instructions to proceed to the eastern extremity of Great Slave Lake, which had been agreed on as the best place for the establishment of the expedition's base and winter quarters.

EA-Biog. Douglass Richard King, M.D.

While Back was traveling rapidly ahead with a light canoe, King was bringing the heavy supplies in what Back describes, in a letter to John Barrow, as "Two heavily loaded batteaux." The relations between Back and King were at that time quite friendly, though somewhat condescending on Back's part. He adds to King's heavy load along the route. At Ile la Crosse on July 17th he leaves directions for King to bring along 20 bags more or pemmican, a weight of nearly a ton, besides provision for his men as far as Chipweyan. "You will also take Four dogs, strong, and not too old. They will give you some trouble, but never mind." King had asked Back for a canoe, for which he had real need as help with his "Two heavily loaded Batteaux." Back concludes the letter quoted above with a "P.S. You will not require a canoe and in truth we cannot afford one." On August 10th, from Res^Res^olution, Back writes to him as "My dear King," and complains of the difficulty he is having in making the Indians under– stand what he wants. The Indians might have complained with equal reason that they were having difficulties in making Back understand what they were trying to tell him. He also writes, "You must also, my good friend, inconvenience yourself with Seven more dogs, two of which I am informed are so wild that on going ashore it would be prudent to tie their forelegs to their necks or else they may desert." He tells King of his intention to winter at the east end of Great Slave Lake, and expects King to get there in a week — a somewhat over-optimistic estimate to expect King to do this with his two heavily loaded batteaus. It took Back eight days to reach the Hoarfrost River with his light canoe. At each point Kind finds more load to bring along — "Lime in a barrel," Barrels of Tar," "Packages for the Expedition," at Chipewyan, "Two Canoes," for "By this means we shall

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have three canoes at our wintering grounds and they will always be useful."
During his first season Back discovered the head waters of the Great Fish River and a route by which to reach it, by way of Artillery, Clinton– Colden, and Aylmer Lakes. He returned to the agreed location of the winter quarters on September 7th, to find the work of constructing the houses had made good progress under McLeod's direction. It is worth notice that on returning from Artillery Lake Back rejected the easy portage route by a chain of lakes to the southeast of the discharge of Artillery Lake. The half-breed Indian La Prise had tried to tell him of this at Resolution. McLeod had heard ot this route, and had expected that Back would use it on his return. It is strange that nothing was done to explore this route during the next six months, for knowledge of it would have saved much [: ] heavy labor. Warburton Pike was the first white traveler to use this route in 1890 and it has since been known as Pike's Portage.
"Fort Reliance" was the name given to the base of the expedition of 1833-35. The first winter spent there was a severe one, with much starva– tion among the Indians. Two boats were built on Artillery Lake in the early spring of 1834. Before they started on their journey to the coast, news was received of Ross's safe return to England. The rapid forwarding of the packet containing this news by the officers of the Hudson's Bay Company at the different posts is one of the dramatic stories of the North. It was fortunate for Ross that he did not require the aid of Back's expedi– tion, for they could not have reached within several hundred miles of him.
After receiving the news of the safe return of Ross, the primary object of the expedition no longer existed and the secondary one of exploration assumed principal place. Back changed his plans to secure the best results.

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He selected the best of his men, discharged the unwanted hands, and discarded one of the two boats that had been built on Artillery Lake. Back, King, and the chosen crew for one boat left Reliance on their journey to the coast on June 7th, 1834.
Back and King both wrote books describing the country and events of the expedition. King's book is an admirable complement to Back's; in some ways it is a more reliable account, as Back was prone to exaggerations of the character of the country, of the difficulties of the route, and of the hardships of their winter life. King shows a more sympathetic attitude and better understanding of the Indians than Back does. Fifteen years later, when Back's was the voice of authority on the direction of the Franklin Search, his exaggerated ideas of the difficulties of access to the arctic coast by the Great Fish River were fatal to the dispatch of an expedition by that route.
The difficulties and complexities of the route proved greater than they had expected and were no doubt aggravated by the exceptional severity of the winter of 1833-34. Their exploration was limited to the mapping of the Great Fish River and the deep bay on the arctic coast into which that river discharges. While only a limited knowledge respecting the arctic coast line was gained, the exploration of the country between the east end of Great Slave Lake and the sea to the north was of great importance.
The relations between Back and King seem to have been fairly, but only fairly, satisfactory until the second winter, when Back became more and more domineering. In March of 1835, when winter had nearly passed and spring travel was at its best, Back decided to leave Reliance for eastern Canada and England, traveling light and with the best equipment available. King was left with the arduous task of bringing out the men and the heavy

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equipment. A division of the party had been necessary on entering the country, but no such necessity existed when they were returning. Back's action in leaving King is open to criticism. Such scant explanation as Back gives for his action has little real weight, for even granting a necessity for the parties to leave Canada by different routes Back should ^ at least ^ have stayed with his men until he had seen them safely across Great Slave Lake and up the rivers to the Methye Portage.
At the moment of his departure Back handed King a letter written in curt and peremptory language. Part of his instructions ordered King to "Make over to the Co's" (H.B. Company's) "stores the two boats and the whatever surplus goods may remain belonging to it" ( sic ). Back left before King had time to read the letter or to remonstrate; for Back knew full well that these orders were impossible to carry out. The two boats referred to were those in which King had brought the men and supplies into the country. One of these was at the narrows a hundred miles west of Reliance; the other was buried under eight feet of ice on the bank of the river near Reliance. It had been there all winter because in the previous autumn the strength of the party had been inadequate to haul it up to safety on the shore. One of Back's instructions to King may cause a smile, even while it reveals the domineering character of the man. King was directed to "Inspect the account book of Mr. Mcleod before you separate so as to be able to explain anything that I may not comprehend." This was peculiarly Back's own job, not King's, and Back was with McLeod until the time he left.
It was impossible to recover the boats, as Back was well aware. King showed ability and good judgment in meeting the situation. The boat which had been built on Artillery Lake, and used on the journey to the sea, had

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been left near the outlet of that lake on their return journey; it was too heavy to transport over the portage. King burned this boat to recover the ironwork necessary for building a new boat on the Slave River. The whole party, with the remaining stores and the ironwork of the boat left Reliance on the ice of the lake on April 14th. The weight was so great that they had to relay the load along part of the way, but, by the end of May, King had got the entire party safely across the lake and a new boat had been built on the Slave River. The manner in which this work was carried out proves King to have been a determined and resourceful northern traveler.
King had additional reason for resentment at Back's capricious instruc– tions regarding the surplus stock of pemmican. He had directed King to take this stock with him from Great Slave Lake (where it was needed at Resolution) and deliver it three hundred miles up the rivers to a post where there was a surplus, directions which caused King much unnecessary labor and the Hudson's Bay Company inconvenience. Back's restrictions on King's collection of natural history specimens were arbitrary, petty, and acutely annoying to King in his capacity of naturalist; as well as disappointing to Dr. Richardson, the naturalist of Franklin's expeditions, who had counted on King to fill some gaps to his collection. On his return to London, King was subjected to further uncalled-for annoyance by having his journals and specimens held for an unduly long time, and even then many papers and valuable specimens were not returned to him at all.
King's experience in the country inspired him with a strong urge to return to the North and resume the exploration of the arctic coast from the points where he and Back had been obliged to return. He immediately addressed

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a proposal to the Government for continuing the work, but after a lapse of some months was informed it was "Not their intention to promote further discoveries in the Arctic Regions." King then attempted to interest the general public in his scheme and induce them to subscribe the funds neces– sary for its execution, but the support he received was inadequate.
While in the North, King had heard from the Indians of a route to the Great Fish River by way of Athabaska Lake and by the lakes and rivers to the north of that lake communicating with the Thelon River. He proposed to descend the Thelon to a point on its banks described by the Indians as well wooded and abounding in game. Here King proposed to build his winter quarters in the spring to proceed overland to the Great Fish River, a dis– tance described by the Indians as only a short one. Such a route does exist, but it is an extremely complicated and difficult one, and the Thelon and the Great Fish River are not close together at the place where King proposed to make his winter quarters. Tyrrell discovered the woods on the Thelon River sixty years later; in those same woods in 1927 the English traveler John Hornby and his two companions met their death by starvation.
Back had heard to this route, and had discussed it with the best informed of the Hudson's Bay Company's men when planning the expedition in 1832. On their advice, and from his own general knowledge of the country gained through his former experiences with Franklin, Back rejected any idea of attempting to use this route. It was evident that the route, even if possible, must of necessity be a very difficult one, on account of the elevation of the country through which it passed, the absence of navigable rivers, and the long and difficult portages that would certainly prove necessary.

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In spite of the weight of well-informed opinion, King proposed to use this Athabaska route in his plans for further exploration. It became a regular obsession with him, and inevitably condemned at once any proposal he made. Moreover the Hudson's Bay Company had already made plans for re– sumption of the exploration of the arctic coast and in 1836 sent in an expedition under Dease and Simpson. Great Bear Lake was wisely chosen as the base for this expedition. The winter quarters were established at its northeastern extremity; the route chasm for continuing exploration eastward beyond the point attained by Franklin in 1820 was by way of the Dease River, the Dismal Lakes, and the Coppermine River. The junior officer, Thomas Simpson, was the real leader. Simpson was one of the greatest travelers the North has ever seen, and under his intelligent and energetic leadership a survey was made right past the bay into which the Great Fish River discharges. Mon ^ t ^ real Island, on which a cache had been placed by King in 1834, was visited. This visit of Simpson's to King's cache did not receive from the Admiralty the attention it deserved, nor was its significance recognized by them. It should have made them aware that Montreal Island was a definite spot for records to be placed by any parties in the Arctic, precisely similar to the part played by Parry's Rock on Melville Islands where records deposited led to the final rescue of McClure and his men.
King's plans for further exploration of the arctic coast having failed and the particular work he had proposed having been accomplished by Simpson, he turned his attention to his professional and ethnological work. He established the Ethnological Society in 1842, of which Society he became the first secretary.
The resumption of interest in polar exploration and the hope of finding a north west passage resulted in the dispatch of two vessels under

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Sir John Franklin to that end. King felt very strongly that this explora– tion could be undertaken better and more economically by a land party and by way of the Great Fish River, rather than by heavy and cumbersom ships. He presented a plan for conducting such an expedition and proffered his services in charge of it. It is not surprising that the Admiralty rejected King's offer, for it could not have secured the knowledge sought. On May 19, 1845, Franklin, with the two best equipped vessels that hitherto had ever entered the Arctic, sailed from England.
The return of the expedition to England, or at least some news of it, should have been received by 1847. In 1847 there was real anxiety concern– ing them and the first search expeditions were sent out, one by sea and one by land. The sea expedition was wisely planned and instructed, it was then the proper course to pursue, and it was the last and almost the only piece of wisdom to be shown by the Admiralty and their advisers on the entire Franklin search. The land expedition under Sir John Richardson was badly directly; the search was ably conducted along the arctic coasts but much too far to the west. Then was the time King's advice should have been considered and a land expedition sent at once to the mouth of the Great Fish River and Montreal Island, the most likely place to find traces of the missing men. It was not necessary to adopt King's suggested route by Athabaska Lake; this was an inessential detail. If the Admiralty doubted King's qualifications as a suitable leader there were other capable men to put in charge. The main point was that the mouth of the Great Fish River was the most likely place to look for traces of Franklin and his men, and a land expedition should have been dispatched at once to that place by either the Great Bear Lake and the Coppermine, or preferably by Back's route

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of 1833-35. For survivors of the Franklin Expedition might have been met on their way up the Great Fish River from the sea, which was the route they were certain to attempt. By 1849 it was probably too late to save any lives, but how different our knowledge of Franklin's Expedition might have been had the Admiralty listened to King and the voice of common sense.
Both were scorned and rejected. The Admiralty plunged into one polar sea search after another, each more costly than the preceding, and each repeating the mistake of looking for Franklin everywhere but in the direction he was most likely to be found. Every newspaper of weight in the country, including such organs as the Observer , the Spectator , and the Naval and Military Gazette , supported King and his views. The louder the voice of public opinion became the more fatuous the Arctic Council showed itself in its obstinacy of error. Here are the carefully expressed opinions of the principal members of that Council as to Franklin's probate movements and the places where traces of him might be found.
Sir Francis Beaufort . "Locked in the archipelago west of Melville Island."
Sir Edward Parry . "Franklin went up Wellington Channel."
Sir John Richardson . "Did not think that Sir John Franklin would attempt the route of the Great Fish River under any circum– stances."
Sir James Ross. "Could not conceive any position in which the Franklin Expedition could be placed from which they would make for the Great Fish River."
Sir George Back. "Requested the Secretary of the Admiralty to Impress on My Lords of the Commission that I wholly reject all and every idea of any attempts of Sir John Franklin to send boats or detachments over the ice to any part of the mainland in the vicinity of the Great Fish River." (Italics Back's.)
Rear Admiral Beechey "I am of the opinion that nothing should be neglected in the direction of the northern coast of America for

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it seems to me almost certain that Sir John Franklin has abandoned his ships and made for the continent."
This strange infatuation which possessed the Council seems difficult to comprehend. Beechey alone was free from it. Back's violently dogmatic and wholly unjustifiable statement seems inspired by hatred and contempt of King. The men comprising the Arctic Searching Council were the most distinguished and experienced authorities on arctic exploration. How could they have been so wrong as a group? King's persistence about the Great Fish River being the reasonable place to look for traces of the missing expedi– tion was evidently highly irritating to them, and the manner in which the press of the country supported King seems to have driven them into an un– exampled aberration of judgment.
The name "Richard King" appears on the Naval List as "Asst. Surgeon" in H.M.S. Resolute of the Austin Expedition of 1850. This is not the same Richard King of this notice.
In 1853 King's contention that traces of the Franklin Expedition might be found at the Great Fish River was proven to be correct. The first relics of the Franklin Expedition were obtained by Dr. Rae from a party of Eskimos he met with in the course of his survey westward from Repulse Bay, and when nearing the Castor and Pollux River, Thomas Simpson's farthest point east– ward in 1839. These Eskimos had heard, from another band of natives hunting farther to the west, that many white men had died near the mouth of the Great Fish River.
It seems incredible now that Rae failed to investigate and confirm the Eskimo account; it is one of the many inexplicable follies connected with the Franklin Search. Raw was well aware of the importance of the

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subject. A few years previously he had spent two years in a vain search of the arctic coasts farther to the west. Now, within a couple of days' journey of Montreal Island, a spot where bodies and probably records of the missing men might be found, he turned back on completing his survey to the mouth of the Castor and Pollux River. Rae was under no real pressure of time, as he later said. He had plenty of food, it was the best traveling and hunting time of the arctic year. Yet with a solution within his easy reach he failed to grasp it. Furthermore, he brought back a story of cannibalism among the Franklin survivors. Rae had no Eskimo interpreter, the story was based on easily misconstrued pantomime by the Eskimos, and acquired by them at second hand.
When Rae returned to England with this story and relics of the missing men, the fact that they had reached the Great Fish River, instead of bringing King the respect his opinions deserved, brought him fresh obloquy. Rae's failure to verify the Eskimo report, and especially in publishing on such weakk grounds the story of cannibalism, raised a storm of protest and criticism in the English press. King was Rae's severest critic, and with unassailable reasons. Rae's defense was weak and unconvincing. The report Rae made to the Admiralty, and that to the Hudson's Bay Company, of which he was an ^ ^ officer, acting under their instructions, conflicted in some important points, which King was quick to point out. Further, King castigated Rae for his indecent haste in claiming the reward offered for news of Franklin survivors, charging that this was the reason for Rae's hasty return, and Rae's statement that he did not know about the reward until after his return to England was false.
It was King's hour of triumph, though it proved barren of credit.

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Now his insistence on the Great Fish River and Montreal Island as being the place where Franklin and his men should be sought had been proven right and the experienced naval men of the Council flagrantly and fatally wrong. These men had expended vast sums and directed prodigious efforts in looking for Franklin in unlikely places. Now when it was known that some of these men had struggled to the mainland at the Great Fish River, only to die there of starvation, they did nothing about it. The Crimean War was claiming the attention of the public and the appalling blundering in that war eclipsed even that of the Franklin Search. The Admiralty's concern was to get the whole Franklin affair, in the latter stages of which they had played so sorry a part, wound up; and, it was hoped, forgotten.
The men of the Franklin Expedition were officially declared dead, and Rae got the reward for news of their deaths. It was left to Franklin's widow to defray the cost of the expedition which brought back the only known Franklin record and an account of the various traces wherefrom the main events of the tragedy could be inferred.
Did Back, Chairman of the Arctic Searching Council, after ridiculing King's suggestions and condemning them by the weight of authority, apolo– gize to King and admit his error as publicly as he had proclaimed it? If so, there is no record of his having done this.
Back lived to be full of years and honor, justly deserved for many achievements in his early career. King died in obscurity in 1876, a poor, disappointed, and embittered man.
"Then said I "Wisdom is better than strength nevertheless the poor man's wisdom is despised and his words are not heard."
George M. Douglas
INSERT for Biography of RICHARD KING by George M. Douglas (see Douglas letter to ORW of October 16, 1951, with enclosure to Scott Polar Research Institute)
Some editing of this and the full ms. will be required.
In those days relations between a naval captain, used to naval shipboard discipline, and a civilian scientist were fraught with difficulty. Even in so notable a case as Captain Cook such strain is apparent, and when Joseph Banks proposed to accompany Cook on his second voyage Cook made it so plain to Banks that he could not enjoy the same privileges he had received on the first voyage that Banks declined to go and another naturalist was appointed.
Long after the voyage of the Beagle , Darwin wrote of FitzRoy, captain of that ship, as follows:
"The difficulty of living on good terms with the Captain of a Man of War is much increased by its being almost mutinous to answer him as one would answer anyone else; and by the awe in which he is held, or was held in my time, by all on board. I remember hearing a curious instance of this in the case of the purser of the Adventure, the ship which sailed with the Beagle on the first voyage. The purser was in a store in Rio de Janeiro purchasing rum for the ship's company, and a little gentleman in plain clothes walked in. The purser said to him, 'Now Sir, be so kind as to taste this rum and give me your opinion on it.' The gentleman did as he was asked, and soon left the store. The Store-keeper asked the purser whether he knew that he had been speaking to the Captain of a Line of Battle Ship which had just come into the harbour. The poor purser was struck dumb with horror, and let the glass of spirits drop from his hand on the floor, and immediately went on board, and no persuasion, as an officer of the Adventure assured me, could make him go on shore again for fear of meeting the Captain after his dreadful act of familiarity."

Insert for sketch of Richard King [: NSE ]

Back could never forget that he was in charge of a Land expedition and not on board a Royal Naval Ship of War, and he appeared to have exacted from his associates on shore that extreme deference he was accustomed to on board ship. Since the conduct of the expedition was in fact wholly dependent on the help and good will of the Hudson's Bay Company and its experienced officers, this attitude of Back's did not contribute to efficient use of local knowledge and to good will from his aids. Even the local know– ledge of the country possessed by the Indians was despised by Back, and this failure to take advantage of local knowledge was shown by the most difficult routes chosen in getting form Great Slave Lake to Artillery Lake. It is evident, for instance, that McLeod, the Hudson's Bay Company Factor who was the mainstay of Back's party, knew about the easy portage to Artillery from Great Slave Lake, a matter wherein Back had wilfully ignored Indian know– ledge and advice. This contributed greatly to the difficulties experienced by Back's parties, not only on the first journeys between those lakes, but even more on the subsequent operations of boat building, etc.
Perhaps also reinstate from p. 5 of Douglas's original manuscript the following paragraph:
Back certainly shows himself in a bad light as regards his treatment of King. "Quos laeserunt et oderunt" — "whom they have injured they also hate."