As I write this I am watching Ray Mears’ Northern Wilderness, season 1 episode 4 which features an unsung Orcandian hero. I feel so strongly about the fate of John Rae that I want to share his story here with you. I really can’t do justice to the legacy of John Rae but I hope by the time you reach the end of this article you will be inspired to learn more about him and the Franklin Expedition.
John Rae was born in Hall of Clestrain in Orkney in 1813. The survival skills he learned growing up in Orkney, the final supply stop and launching site for arctic explorers, made him perfectly suited to arctic exploration.
After qualifying as a surgeon, Rae signed up for his first arctic expedition with the Hudson Bay Company. It became clear very early on that Rae took a completely original approach to exploring the savage and inhospitable landscape.
Armed with an endless supply of stamina and the ability to adapt to any circumstance, John Rae explored and mapped more of the Canadian Arctic Archipelago than many thought possible. Averaging 50 miles a day, every day, walking across snow drifts, through blizzards, freezing temperatures, ranging from -10 to +10 degrees in the summer and -40 to 0 degrees in the winter. All while pulling a canoe full of survival gear, food and everything else he could to aid his survival over several hundred miles of uncharted territory.
Rae ventured north many times, each time spending years in these conditions, so naturally when the Franklin expedition went missing, he was approached to find them.
Sir John Franklin took 2 ships, the Erebus and Terror to the arctic in search of the Northwest Passage, the last link in connecting the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans through a sea route through the Arctic Ocean. This small passage was vital for trade routes and many hardened and experienced arctic explorers were sent out in search of it. Sadly Franklin was not one of them, not to speak ill of the dead but through the clever behind the scenes manipulations of Franklin’s wife Jane, he was promoted through military ranks and seen by his commanders as as a good fit for the next Northwest Passage search.
Having never ventured even as far north as Orkney, Franklin was grossly ill-prepared for the conditions he would find in the arctic. Like many before him, his men suffered from scurvy, a deficiency in vitamin C. Due to the lack of proper seals, their tins of fresh fruit, which were intended to prevent scurvy spoiled.
Franklin, wisely tried to remain on board Erebus and Terror for as long as possible but as was often the case, he found himself and his ships at a dead end, the ice quickly closing in, trapping them. He had no choice but to venture out on foot and use the survival skills, he didn’t have, to find the missing link in our maps. Neither he, nor any of his crew were ever heard from again.
John Rae, in his unorthodox method of exploration, consulted with the local Inuits, learned their skills and traded goods and news. It was through these Inuits that Rae discovered that the Franklin expedition had starved to death and in a state of utter desperation, resorted to cannibalism. Rae, while in search of Franklin’s men inadvertantly found the Northwest passage. Franklin’s men were close but not close enough.
He was faced with the difficult decision of going to the Franklin exposition and seeing their fate for himself or reporting back on their fate. He chose the latter.
He should have returned to England as a hero, instead he was publicly shamed, his reputation destroyed beyond repair by the very same manipulations Jane Franklin used to send her 61 year old husband to his death, even employing Charles Dickens to help spread her lies.
Cannibalism was not what upstanding English gentry did when sailing valiantly out to sea, Jane manipulated history to make her husband the hero who bravely gave his life to bring us the knowledge of the Northwest Passage’s location and claim that John Rae was simply jealous of her husband’s achievements and was trying to claim Franklin’s success as his own.
It has been over 100 years and yet history still has not given John Rae the recognition he deserves, sure the Northwest Passage has been named the Rae Straight, it has been proved and acknowledged that he did find the passage and he was right about the Franklin expedition but his contributions are still widely unknown. I myself had never heard of John Rae or even Franklin but it is clear Orcadians and now me hold John Rae in our hearts as a man in an entirely different league. He has been honoured in Stromness with a life-size sculpture, made by North Ronaldsay’s local artist and native islander Ian Scott and Rae’s childhood home is to be restored and turned into a museum. In Orkney, John Rae will always be a hero and we will never allow his legacy to fade.
I encourage all of you to learn more about this incredible man through Fatal Passage, Lady Jane Franklin ‘s Revenge both by Ken McGoogan, and Frozen in Time:The Fate of the Franklin Expedition by Owen Beattie