John Rae Forgotten Hero of Arctic Exploration
- Lectures and events
- Publication Date
- Ken McGoogan
Born in Orkney in 1813, John Rae grew up hunting and fishing. He trained in Edinburgh as a doctor, sailed with the Hudson’s Bay Company, and became an outstanding Arctic traveller. In 1854, Rae was mapping the Arctic coastline, slogging overland through snow and ice, when he discovered a strait that proved to be the final link in the Northwest Passage. Returning to camp, he encountered Inuit hunters who informed him that the long-lost, two-ship expedition of Sir John Franklin had ended in disaster and cannibalism. Rae acquired relics. He brought the tragic news to London, where his report scandalised Victorian England and prompted Charles Dickens to join Lady Franklin in a ferocious campaign to discredit him. Rae fought back, but historians and map-makers ignored his achievements, and he remained the only major explorer never to receive a knighthood.
Ken McGoogan is the Canadian author of fifteen books, including Flight of the Highlanders, Dead Reckoning, 50 Canadians Who Changed the World, How the Scots Invented Canada, and four biographical narratives focusing on northern exploration and published internationally: Fatal Passage (John Rae), Ancient Mariner (Samuel Hearne), Lady Franklin’s Revenge (Jane Franklin), and Race to the Polar Sea (Elisha Kent Kane).
Ken McGoogan started his story about the heroics of John Rae by taking his audience back to Rae’s origins on Orkney, 200 years ago in 1813. The reason he was so excited by Rae’s achievements, he explained, was that he went on from his island origins to become one of the greatest figures of 19th-Century exploration.
There are two main reasons for Rae’s place in history, and they involved his role in solving two of the greatest mysteries of the age. First, Rae discovered the final link in the fabled Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific; secondly, he discovered the fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition to find that passage in 1845.
But there were two very different Raes at work at the time. One image captures Rae as a Scottish gentleman; the other portrays Rae in the garb of native North Americans, wearing Cree leggings and Inuit footwear. With Rae, the latter image was quite deliberate, as he wanted to be identified with native peoples. This was one of the distinctive things that set him apart from other explorers of the time.
Rae’s future as an explorer is explained by his childhood on Orkney, where his father was the Factor for the Hudson’s Bay Company’s station at Stromness. Orkney was the last port of call for the HBC sailing ships heading across the Atlantic to Canada. It was where they picked up water and sustenance for the long voyage. They couldn’t get any more until they reached Disko Bay in Greenland, so Orkney was an important stop in the supply line.
Rae’s father was at the centre of this business and many Orcadians decided to take jobs with the company. They were hardy, tough and disciplined men and were company mainstays for many decades. Rae grew up on Orkney, hunting and sailing, but he also trained as a doctor between 1829 and 1833 in Edinburgh. When he was 19, however, he decided to begin his medical career by taking a job aboard an HBC ship as the ship’s doctor. Sailing into Hudson’s Bay, his ship was trapped by the ice and Rae’s special qualities began to emerge. He and the crew lived on the ship while held up and Rae found out he was not only useful as a doctor but also as a hunter.
The ship eventually arrived at the HBC post at Moose Factory, Ontario, and the people he worked with there also began to realise how extraordinary he was. He was a bundle of energy with great stamina, who proved himself time and time again as a great outdoorsman. When the Factor at Moose Bay asked him so stay on, and realising that the HBC life suited him well, Rae let the ship sail on without him.
He had decided that he did not just want to be a doctor, but when he did put his medical training into practice it was for the natives as well. On one occasion, he put on his snow shoes and walked 105 miles in two days to tend to a patient. It led to him becoming known as a superhuman figure. His contemporaries referred to him as the greatest snow-shoe walker of his age and he also became known for the hunting prowess that stemmed from his childhood. What set him apart, however, was his willingness to learn and use native hunting techniques for animals such as caribou. His best friend at the time was a Cree hunter, which revealed his very egalitarian attitude to those around him.
At the time, George Simpson was running the HBC in Canada. He was known as a real “little emperor”, McGoogan said, and when he arrived at Moose Factory on his way around the trading posts, he arrived in a native canoe wearing a top hat and preceded by a bagpiper. Rae laid down a challenge, saying an Orkney crew could out-row the natives in a race. A bet was placed and the following year, when Simpson returned, Rae had built his boat and trained his crew. They set off around a nearby island and the Orkney crew won handsomely. Simpson became aware that everything that was being said about Rae was true.
The company at this time was itself trying to find the Northwest Passage to further its own trading interests. The Royal Navy was attempting to find it in large sailing ships such as the ones that transported Franklin and his ill-fated crew. Rae, however, figured that it might be better to make the attempt in smaller boats. He decided to take an expedition of 12 men in two boats and winter above the Arctic Circle, a feat that had never been done before. Simpson agreed, but only after Rae had polished his surveying and navigational skills. In winter 1846/47 Rae and his team set off for Repulse Bay, on the east coast of the Canadian mainland, where they became the first explorers to overwinter above the Arctic Circle. As well as being the leader, he was the main hunter, learning travel and survival techniques from the local Inuit. He learned how to make his sleds run faster, how to build igloos so he could travel further and stay out on the ice for longer periods and how to live off the land.
Later in 1847, Rae returned to HBC headquarters in England, at the time when concern was mounting about the expedition led by Franklin. It had departed two years earlier to find the missing links in the Northwest Passage along the Canadian coast that Franklin had charted earlier. But nothing had been heard of Franklin and his men for two years and he was supposed to be back. The Arctic Council – part of the Royal Navy – determined to find out what had happened and despatched an expedition under the command of Sir Charles Richardson. Looking for an effective second-in-command, Richardson read about Rae’s feats in The Times. He said that he had found his man.
Rae joined the search with Richardson in 1848 and various expeditions took place over the next three years, mapping the land and the islands north of the Arctic Circle. Franklin and his men were believed to be somewhere north of the mainland coastline in an unknown area called Victoria Land.
In 1851, Rae mapped Victoria Land, setting off in his small boats once the sea ice had melted. A piece of timber from what was thought to be from one of Franklin’s ships was found and taken back to London. In 1854, Rae went back to the Arctic to resume the research. By that time, he was an ice expert and, finding “young” ice – ice that forms every year and then melts – he reasoned that the area he was in (now known as Rae’s Strait) was the final link in the Northwest Passage that remained to be found.
While out on the ice, Rae met a group of Inuit hunters and they stopped to talk. Rae noticed an interesting cap band that one of them was wearing. Asked where they got it from, they told him it was from a place where more than 30 white men had starved to death. Rae decided to continue his exploration but told the Inuit that he would pay for any artefacts they could bring to him. When he met them again they brought some of Franklin’s personal possessions. They also told him what had happened to the final survivors, including evidence that some of them had resorted to cannibalism in their final days.
That wasn’t enough for Rae, McGoogan said. He checked their story again and again through the best native interpreter in the area. Eventually satisfied they were telling the truth about what had happened to the Franklin expedition, he returned to London to submit his report to the HBC.
Back in London, Rae came up against his most implacable foe, Lady Jane Franklin, the wife of Sir John, who was deeply offended by news that her husband and his team of British sailors might have resorted to eating human flesh. Although Rae had not intended that part of his report to be made public, it emerged in an interview published in The Times.
Lady Franklin, a formidable character in her own right, then enlisted the literary might of Charles Dickens to produce several articles repudiating Rae’s evidence. Even though Rae would eventually be vindicated, the combined forces of Lady Franklin and Dickens were enough to deny Rae the knighthood he richly deserved for not only finding the truth about her husband’s fate, but also the final link in the Northwest Passage. It was only 50 years later, when the Norwegian explorer Amundsen became the first to sail Rae’s Strait, that Rae was finally vindicated.
After his Arctic explorations ended, Rae settled back in Orkney with his Canadian wife in a house that is now a B&B. Later, while still pursuing a life of exploration and surveying in America, Rae moved to a house in Kensington in London, where there is a plaque that records that this was one of his residences.
In the Arctic, however, there are few tangible reminders of Rae’s role in opening up the whole region. McGoogan said he was determined to correct that and, in 1999, he went out to Gjoa Haven, where Amundsen’s ship was berthed in 1904, and from there on through Rae’s Strait to a location where a cairn was built to mark Rae’s presence in the area. He took with him a plaque that he attached to the cairn, which was still there when he returned 13 years later in 2012. His aim now is to establish the cairn as a viable destination for the ships that now ply the Northwest Passage and an area that is now not so difficult to reach as it once was. Although Rae has not been forgotten on Orkney – the islands are commemorating the 200th anniversary of his birth this year – his story deserves to be more widely known and his feats more widely appreciated.
Can you tell us more about the artefacts and the conclusions drawn from them?
There were various spoons and more cap bands. There was cutlery with Franklin’s crest on and there was a spoon belonging to a man called Hickey, who was one of the crew. Some of them will be on display in Orkney in September. Lady Franklin was in denial about her husband’s death for many years, but after 1854, when these artefacts were brought back, even she was convinced.
What was the evidence of cannibalism?
It was eventually forensically established by scientists. The hard evidence at the time was mainly what Rae was told by the Inuits. But Dickens wrote long screeds repudiating Rae’s evidence even though Rae said he had the best interpreter available and they went over and over the story. The detail was overwhelming and later Charles Francis Hall, another explorer, backed up the Inuit story. Lady Franklin also sent her own explorer, but although he heard the same, his findings were never reported.
Lady Franklin had a statue erected in London with a plaque claiming her husband discovered the Northwest Passage. Shouldn’t there be another plaque saying, “well not quite!”
There should be, yes. Lady Franklin was a very good spin doctor. She wanted a Franklin statue in Trafalgar Square next to Nelson. Only after that was turned down did she settle for Westminster Abbey. It was supposed to be just a bust of her husband but actually it’s a large statue.
What happened to Franklin’s ships?
There were two ships. One was abandoned and the crews, aboard the other, started to run out of food. Some died and the second ship, stuck in the ice, was also abandoned and the men started out overland to find help. They were dragging small boats with items such as plates aboard! They went so far but then turned back and they started dying. One explorer later found pots with body parts in them. The last man was found with a rifle under him. They were on Beechey Island at first. That’s where three men died. They then sailed on and got stuck in the ice in 1847. They abandoned ship in 1849, but some accounts say some of them were still alive in 1850.
Is there a reason why they might have become mentally unstable?
One theory is that they were suffering from lead poisoning. The water faucet on the ship was riddled with lead and their food may also have had a high lead content.
What type of ships use the Northwest Passage now?
The 19th-Century explorers talked about huge masses of ice in the area. When you go to the same area now, in the same months, there is more and more open water. There are quite a few ships that go through the passage now, from small cruise ships to ones that can carry 3000 passengers. The real concern, however, is oil tankers. An oil spill in the Arctic would be devastating and the Canadian government is trying to control this.
Why did Lady Franklin not send someone herself to look for her husband?
She sent lots of people. She was virtually in charge of Arctic exploration at the time. It was just that John Rae didn’t resolve the mystery to her satisfaction. Eventually, the Royal Navy had the Crimean War to fight and they turned their attentions elsewhere.
What happened after he returned with the unwelcome news about Franklin?
He got money to build a ship and attempted to sail it through Rae’s Strait. Not only did he discover the potential link, he also wanted to prove the link existed. But he made the attempt too late in the season and his ship got stuck in the ice. That ended his Arctic dream. He later led an expedition through the Rockies and then moved to London. He wrote about exploring the ice and the Inuit and contributed to the scientific societies of the day. He lived a rich life and had a happy marriage. When he died he was taken home to Orkney.