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Navigation News - Letter to the Editor - Dr. John Rae

Posted By Administration, 04 March 2019

Editor of Navigation News,

‘Lady Jane Franklin – The Indomitable Woman of Naval Heroism’ Navigation News, August 2018

It was somewhat surprising and disappointing to find in an article about Lady Jane Franklin and the missing Franklin expedition, that John Rae, Arctic explorer and Hudson Bay Company doctor was not even mentioned. Yet he played such a crucial role in the story. It was he who in 1854 finally discovered the fate of Franklin and his men. Without John Rae, despite all the pronouncements of Lady Jane Franklin, the many naval searches and intense public speculation, the fate of the Franklin expedition and the Victorian mystery of the century would have continued unsolved.

Sir John Franklin with two ships and 129 men in the best ever equipped expedition had departed from Orkney in 1845 with great expectations and national pride to find the legendary North West Passage - and had then vanished. By the end of 1847 with no news of the ships having entered the Bering Sea, the Admiralty was becoming concerned. Awards were offered and in what became the largest search and rescue effort in history up to that time, thirty six expeditions with over fifty ships searched the High Arctic for seven years but all to no avail.

Dr. John Rae, medical Officer with the Hudson Bay Company and already a growing legend in Arctic exploration, was called on by the Admiralty and Lady Franklin to lead land-based search expeditions. A Scot from Orkney, Rae had learned from the Inuit and Cree how to adapt and survive in the Arctic. An expert shot, he could cover prodigious distances on snow-shoe and from his Orkney upbringing was skilled in small boat sailing. He travelled fast and light, used igloos and hunted as he went.

Between 1847 and ’54, John Rae led four overland search expeditions each consisting of a small party of hardened and picked Hudson Bay men. As a measure of the esteem in which he was held, he was encouraged by such messages as from Lady Franklin “---it has been the custom of many people to throw upon you everything that others have failed to accomplish” : from Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort –“I cannot let the mail go without first telling you how intently all eyes are fixed upon you.” and from Sir George Simpson of the Hudson Bay Company “I urge you to go further north, the manner and direction of any search being left to your discretion and judgment.”
At last in April 1854, after 7 years of searching in which he had travelled well over 10,000 miles by foot and snowshoe, dogsled or small boat and charted around 1,750 miles of new coastline, Rae had found the answer as to the fate of Franklin. At Cape Pelly on the east coast of Boothia, -- he had came across a lone Inuit hunter who was wearing a gold naval hat band. He told Rae that “four winters before, other Inuit had found 40 to 50 white men starved to death 10 to 12 days walk away. The hat he was wearing was proof.” Three weeks later he met other Inuit with further information and relics including a small silver plate stamped ‘Sir John Franklin’ to confirm their information. White men had been seen travelling south over the ice dragging a boat and sledges passing along the west shore of the island which Rae reckoned to be Prince William Island. The following Spring when the Inuit visited a river further south to fish – reckoned to be Fish River – they found 30 corpses some in a tent, some in a boat. They also found evidence of cannibalism!
John Rae desperately wanted to search further and confirm this but could not. He had one man with severe frostbite whom he had to get back south for medical attention. In addition, he would have to wait many months before conditions were suitable again for overland travel. Finally he felt he had to report back to London to stop further search ships heading north in a dangerous and fruitless search. Rae had also made another significant discovery, though this at the time seemed of secondary importance and was somewhat overlooked. On his final expedition in April 1854 while exploring the west coast of Boothia, on an area stretching west to King William Island which had been charted as land, Rae found what he recognized to be fresh sea ice and very different from the rougher and impenetrable old pack ice impossible to sail through at any time. This he knew would be open water in the summer. With open water to north and south, he realized that at last the final link in the North West Passage had been located between Boothia and King William Island.
Rae returned to London with a detailed and confidential report to the Admiralty and the Hudson Bay Company reporting the cannibalism story as it had been reported to him. “From the mutilated state of the bodies and the contents of the kettles it is evident that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resort as a means of prolonging existence.” In a separate letter to the Times he made no mention of cannibalism. He was shocked therefore when the report to the Admiralty was leaked to the Press.

The news that some of Franklin’s crew had resorted to survival cannibalism horrified Victorian Britain and the world.
The document damned Rae in the eyes of the Establishment. Lurid images appeared in the Press and Rae’s integrity was called into question. How dare this man who dressed like and mixed with the natives suggest that men of the Royal Navy could indulge in cannibalism – and more to the point not verify it.

Particularly virulent was an outraged Lady Jane Franklin. Always formidable and driven she sought to glorify the memory of her husband and crew, but became jealous and embittered. Having earlier championed John Rae and begged for his support, she turned on him. How dare John Rae, a fur trader who had gone native, accuse Sir John Franklin and the Royal Navy of cannibalism! Why had Rae failed to visit the area with the reporting Inuit? She also strongly opposed the Admiralty reward to Rae as first to return with information about the missing expedition In her campaign of hate she engaged the energies and skill of Charles Dickens, the most influential writer of the Age. Dickens launched an attack against the Inuit whom he regarded as “ a gross handful of uncivilized people, with a domesticity of blood and blubber” who were “ covetous, treacherous and cruel “ and accused them of murder and cannibalism. “It would be impossible that the British Navy would or could in any extremity of hunger alleviate the pain of starvation by this horrible means”
Rae was also betrayed by his fellow explorer, Leopold Mclintock who in 1856 had been hired by Lady Franklin to search around Prince William Island in the ‘Fox’. Before he set sail, John Rae had pointed out to him where, according to the Inuit, the remains of the last of Franklin’s men were located. The Arctic Fox, as McLintock became known, later claimed credit for his discoveries and never acknowledged Rae’s huge contribution to his success. Nor did he ever confirm or make mention of cannibalism and he shunned Rae in public. John Rae was ostracized by Victorian society and probably because of this he was the only Arctic explorer of the time not to be knighted, though arguably he was the greatest.

As well as severely maligning John Rae, Lady Franklin was also a purveyor of ‘Fake News’. She wrongly claimed that Franklin had discovered the fabled and long sought after North West Passage. A statue initiated and funded by Lady Franklin now stands in London’s Waterloo Place to commemorate this, bearing the inscription ‘FRANKLIN – to the great Arctic navigator and his brave companions who sacrificed their lives in completing the discovery of the North West Passage’ It is now known that ‘Erebus’ and ‘Terror’ had been crushed in the ice and had sunk in a channel of permanent impenetrable flow ice far from open water and nowhere near the North West Passage. The fact that it had been Dr. John Rae and not her husband who completed the discovery of the North West Passage undoubtedly had further infuriated Lady Franklin.
The nasty and vindictive campaigns led by Lady Jane Franklin and Charles Dickens sought to destroy John Rae. But Rae refused to back down. He stood by his report on the fate of the Franklin expedition. Further vindication of John Rae came in the 1980s and 90s from osteo-archaeologists examining human bones recovered from Franklin Expedition sites on King William Island which confirmed cannibalism. It was not until 1906 that the North West Passage was confirmed when Roald Amundsen, the great Polar explorer followed John Rae’s chart to sail through the Rae strait, the final link in the North West Passage. Amundsen held Rae in the highest regard. He wrote of him “John Rae deserves the very highest credit for his Arctic exploration. He discovered the Rae Strait through which in all probability is the only navigable route round the north coast of America and the only passage free from destructive ice”

Having been ignored, vilified and forgotten by Victorian society, Dr. John Rae is now honoured and remembered.
In July 2014, a motion was introduced to the UK Parliament which recognized his discoveries and acknowledged that Rae and not Franklin was the first to discover the North West Passage. In October of the same year a memorial plaque was unveiled in Westminster Abbey to his honour. The Scottish Secretary of State announced then “at last John Rae has been granted the proper recognition he deserves, up there with the foremost of explorers, and not just in Orkney or Canada where already he is revered but also here in the heart of the British Establishment”
More recently, to further celebrate his achievements the Royal Incorporation of Chartered Surveyors has honoured John Rae with a posthumous Diploma and will be sponsoring the ‘Arctic Return Expedition’ through the North West Passage in March 2019. In addition the John Rae Society have proposed that John Rae be commemorated next year with a bust in the Hall for Heroes at the 150th anniversary of the Wallace National Monument in Stirling.

It is hoped that Alexa Price will appreciate the full story surrounding Lady Jane Franklin. To present a more balanced account for her PhD thesis, Ms Price perhaps should also consider the darker aspects of Lady Jane’s persona.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Ken Stewart MD Ed. FRCSEd. FRCOG MB ChB Ed
Colin Whimster MA (Cantab)

Tags:  Arctic Exploration  Franklin Expedition  John Rae  Lady Jane Franklin  Navigation News 

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