Dr. John Rae, surgeon, fur trader, author, explorer and surveyor of Canada's northern coastline, was born in Orkney on the 30th of September, 1813.
John Rae was, without doubt, the most outstanding of the 19th Century Arctic explorers, however, he remains somewhat of an unsung hero. In four expeditions to the Canadian Arctic, he explored and mapped over 1700 miles of coastline and it was Dr. John Rae, not Sir John Franklin, who discovered the route of the fabled Northwest Passage. He was a controversial figure and his individualism did not endear him to the establishment, particulary his having ‘gone native’, which was seen as a disgrace. Nevertheless, his character, ability, achievements, legendary powers of endurance and his capacity for leadership single him out as one of the greatest explorers of all time. Latterly, he has been recognised as the foremost authority of his time in cold climate survival and travel techniques. Some of the greatest Arctic explorers, men such as Roald Amundsen, have since acknowledged their debt to Rae’s innovations.
The secret of his success was that he was willing to learn and adopt the ways of the indigenous Arctic peoples, such as the Cree Indians and the Inuit, in order to live off the country. He learned vital survival skills such as how to ice the runners of a sled, construct igloos, combat snow-blindness, hunt caribou, seals and waterfowl, and how to store and preserve the meat. He also acquired expertise in making warm and waterproof clothing from animal skins and using snowshoes. Tales of his exploits are legendary as when he walked twelve hundred miles on snowshoes, from Red River Colony to Sault Ste. Marie, in two months and, instead of losing weight, he gained two pounds. That feat earned him the nickname ‘Aglooka’ – ‘he who takes long strides’ – from the Inuit and he was described by a Hudson’s Bay Company clerk as “the best and ablest snow-shoe walker not only in the Hudson Bay Territory but also of the age.”
John Rae was born on the 30th of September, 1813, at the Hall o’ Clestrain in the parish of Orphir, in the Orkney Islands. In 1829, he went to Edinburgh to study medicine and qualified as a licentiate of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh in April, 1833. In the summer of that year, Dr. John Rae was appointed surgeon to the Hudson’s Bay Company ship ‘Prince of Wales’ and sailed to James Bay at the southern end of Hudson Bay. During an enforced stop, due to the early onset of the winter ice floes, Rae relished the harsh conditions, of which he said, “thinking from what I saw that I should like the wild sort of life to be found in the Hudson’s Bay Company’s service.” The Chief Factor recommended Rae to the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company and as result, instead of returning to Orkney, Rae became resident surgeon at Moose Factory, where he remained for ten years.
Rae took part in three searches for the Franklin Expedition, which had disappeared in 1845 whilst trying to find the Northwest Passage. In fact, on an earlier expedition, Rae was actually within one hundred and fifty miles of the Franklin expedition’s two ships, H.M.S. ‘Erebus’ and H.M.S. ‘Terror’, but at that time, he was unaware of their desperate plight. In 1851, Rae found the first evidence of Franklin's presence when he found two pieces of wood in Parker Bay that probably came from one of Franklin’s ships. However, it wasn’t until 1854 that Rae gained conclusive evidence of the fate of Franklin and his men. Arriving at Pelly Bay in April with his two boats and twelve men, Rae met an Inuk who told him about a party of about forty white men who, “four winters past”, had perished from starvation. Some time after seeing the men, the Inuit hunting party had discovered thirty dead bodies and a number of graves. Rae did not actually visit the site of the lost expedition, saying that the Inuit were reluctant to make the ten or twelve day trek. Instead, he relied on their accounts and spent two months with them going over and over the details. He was able to identify the site as being in the vicinity of the Montreal Islands at the mouth of the Great Fish River. He also purchased from the Inuit several items that had belonged to members of the lost expedition. Those included inscribed silverware and Franklin’s ‘Order of Merit’. His investigation proved beyond doubt that all one hundred and thirty-four members of the Franklin Expedition had died.
Tragic as that fact was, there was more to come, which caused a sensation in Victorian Britain. Rae reported that “Some of the bodies had been buried (probably those of the first victims of famine); some were in a tent or tents; others under the boat, which had been turned over to form a shelter, and several lay scattered about in different directions.” He went on to add, “From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative.” The ‘establishment’ immediately condemned Rae's account and his integrity was called into question. He was labelled an opportunist who relied on the dubious words of “unreliable savages” and criticised right, left and centre, but he stuck to his guns and defended the credibility of his Inuits. His most vitriolic critic was Franklin’s wife, who could be forgiven for grief, but not for her attitude towards Rae. With the help of Charles Dickens, her systematic campaign denied Rae any credit and his place in history. According to Dickens, it was unthinkable that the English Navy “would or could in any extremity of hunger, alleviate that pain of starvation by this horrible means.” Later on, Rae was vindicated, when an 1859 expedition, led by Francis Leopold McClintock, found Lieutenant Crozier’s cairn at Point Victory on King William Island. Subsequent expeditions and modern analysis of the skeletons of some of the last survivors also proved beyond doubt that the bodies had been cut up using knives and that the men had undoubtedly resorted to cannibalism.
Frankly, it’s a crime that Franklin remains in memoriam outside the Admiralty and inside Westminster Abbey, lauded as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage. Rae Strait, named after its true discoverer, was the final piece of the Northwest Passage puzzle, which the stubborn Royal Navy refused to acknowledge until Roald Amundsen made it through the ice in the early 1900s and confirmed the fact beyond doubt. Franklin and his officers were posthumously knighted, but Rae alone of all the major explorers of the era has never been granted such honour. In contrast, his fellow Scot and contemporary, David Livingstone, was knighted and buried with full imperial honours in Westminster Abbey. Rae died in London on the 22nd of July, 1893, and was quietly buried in the churchyard of St. Magnus’ Cathedral in Kirkwall. Today, if you pay a visit to the Orkneys, within the Cathedral you will see a striking memorial to this heroic explorer.
If you want to read more about Rae, try this excellent biography by Ken McGoogan - Fatal Passage.