This article first appeared in the September issue of iScot Magazine.
By Fiona Grahame Images By Martin Laird
Known to the Inuit people as Long Strider, Dr John Rae should be famed for his exploits not only as a hero of the Victorian Age but also today and yet this Orkney born Arctic explorer was vilified in his own time.
As an explorer of the Canadian Arctic North during a mini Ice Age John Rae:-
- Mapped around 1,750 miles of Arctic coast either on foot or in small boats
- Explored the Gulf of Boothia discovering that it was a peninsula and not an island
- Discovered that King William Land was not a peninsula but an island
- Discovered what became known as the Rae Strait: the last link in a navigable Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Oceans, successfully used by the Norwegian Roald Amundsen in 1903-06
- Surveyed the route for a telegraph link from Britain to Canada, via Iceland and Greenland
- Surveyed the Red River to Victoria for a telegraph link from America to Russia
Unfortunately for Rae he also discovered what happened to the ill fated voyage of Sir John Franklyn whose two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror set sail from England in 1845 to discover the North West Passage and were never heard of again. The loss of 129 men was the worst disaster for the Royal Navy’s Polar Expeditions.
Like many Orcadians Rae was working for the Hudson Bay Company as a medical doctor. His early days growing up near Stromness at the Hall of Clestrain where he loved being out of doors produced a hardy, clever man.
He therefore took to exploring the landscape around him adopting the ways of the native Inuit Peoples.
Commissioned to look for traces of what happened to the Franklin expedition he collected from the native people of the region various artefacts including: a wooden fragment around which was wound a small piece of red string used by the Royal Navy, a strip of golden cloth worn across the chest of one of the Inuit men, watches, a compass and silver cutlery with initials and crests carved into them. Rae meticulously recorded everything he was able to accumulate and in time many of the items were returned to the families of the crew.
His investigations, however, also led him to suggest that many of the men, trapped in dreadful conditions and unable to cope had resorted to cannibalism. It was this shocking revelation that was to result in the combined efforts of Lady Franklin and super star author of the day Charles Dickens vilifying Rae. In a mastery of the writer’s craft Charles Dickens used his fortnightly publication ‘Household Words’ to do a number on Rae which left his reputation in shreds. Franklin was declared a Victorian hero as having discovered the North West Passage which now with the discovery of both wrecked ships is known to be completely wrong. Indeed it was Dr John Rae who first mapped the only navigable route from East to West.
In 1992, archaeologists found over 3oo human bones on King William Island. From cuts on the bones it looked as if Rae’s suggestion of cannibalism amongst survivors was correct. The contents of kettles also backed up this claim with human bones which showed signs of ‘pot polish’. Many of the sailors were photographed before they departed on the voyage and computer reconstruction of a skull tentatively linked it to one of the images . Teeth are now also being analysed from the remains of skulls found and used to find any surviving family members.
Dr John Rae died in London on 22nd July 1893. He was buried in the cemetery of St Magnus Cathedral Kirkwall, Orkney and within the cathedral there is a large memorial to him.
Inside Westminster Abbey is a memorial to the Victorian ‘hero’ Sir John Franklin. The lengthy inscription includes the claim: “The Beloved Chief of the Gallant Crews who Perished with him in Completing the Discovery of the North West Passage.” In 2014 a memorial stone was placed beside it in the floor it says simply: “John Rae 1813-1893 Arctic Explorer”.
Which goes to show who needs factual evidence when you have Charles Dickens writing your history?