An occasional series on eminent Scots unjustly ignored or forgotten
Dr John Rae was an outstanding explorer. And it’s him I want to concentrate on to demonstrate how the power of the British Establishment, embodied in a handful of public figures, can alter historical fact, dent achievement, and destroy careers and reputations.
Holding essays down to between one and two thousand words does not allow much space for complicated plotting, consequently this rendering of Rae’s stature and the concerted attacks on his character by Lady Jane Franklin is necessarily abbreviated commensurate with telling the tale.
However, I add a short bibliography at the end for readers stimulated to find out more about an extraordinary Scotsman.
John Rae, the man
John Rae was born in Orkney in 1813. He trained as a surgeon at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, was greatly respected as both medical man and explorer, yet died almost penniless in London in 1893. There is a reason he died in a garret almost forgotten. His achievements and judgement was trashed by the British Establishment.
In between times he helped alter the world map as far as northern Canada and the islands are concerned, and contribute immensely to our understanding of the Esquimaux tribes. That was too much for those who presumed celebrity belonged to them, and by God’s law, was always English.
Manly men who liked to do manly things born in Orkney at that time were certain to attract the attention of the Hudson’s Bay company, Orkney a chief recruiting post for men of strong disposition used to the rugged life.
Orkney lies further north than Fort Churchill, outpost of the then fur trade on the shores of Canada’s Hudson Bay. Stromness Harbour was the place to stock up with provisions and water, await a fair wind, and make for Hudson’s Bay.
It was only natural a man of Rae’s self-sufficient temperament and thirst for adventure would become an eager employee.
Rae proved to be an exceptional explorer often taking on mapping duties exploring miles of snow-covered coastline on his own. And he learned the Esquimaux ways, their language and customs, how to make snowshoes, how to build an igloo, how to catch fish and game and cook it. His skills were second-to-none. He dressed as Inuit, and strong as an ox could walk a 100 miles in a few days.
Discovering the Northwest Passage
But his biggest achievement was discovering the Northwest Passage, that is, the last route through the myriad of islands that litter the ocean in that inhospitable part of the world.
The search for the Northwest Passage to avoid the arduous journey around the Horn of Africa was almost a continuous search for many centuries, but in the last decade before its discovery most hope and faith to find the route was placed in the rotund figure of English Royal Navy Officer, Captain Sir John Franklin. Sorrowfully, Franklin’s expedition was doomed to failure. He and his entire crew disappeared.
Rae made it his personal task to find them. Indeed, he was commissioned by the Admiralty to find Franklin. He tried three times, doing what others failed to do, asking local Esquimaux to bring him any knowledge they had of Anglo travellers lost.
On the third try he found evidence they had all perished in the freezing wilds, some of the group splitting and going a separate way from others. Worse, among the mummified bodies of the last of the group Rae found irrefutable evidence some had resorted to cannibalism to eke out survival a few fearful days more. Rae put all this in his journal, transcribed in a full report to the Royal Society of London.
Behind every successful man there is a woman, goes the saying. In Franklin’s case behind every unsuccessful man there is an over-ambitious, pushy wife. Lady Jane Franklin was well-known for interfering in her husband’s administration work, censoring his incoming letters, and giving him lessons in statecraft.
They lived in Tasmania, then called Van Diemen’s Land, a penal colony over which Sir John was lieutenant-governor. In 1843, Sir John, derided as a victim of petticoat domination, was censored for incompetence, and ordered to return to England.
A wife’s ambition
On returning Lady Jane learned that the Lords of the Admiralty were looking for someone who, she thought, would be lauded as a great hero in the most glorious expedition of England’s seafaring history, the Arctic, destined to discover the Northwest Passage. Her husband was almost sixty years old and grossly overweight. She ignored reality and his fast expanding corpulence. Her husband would become a national hero, and she the consort remembered forever.
Sir John was at the bottom of the list of candidates, but Lady Jane got him to the top, mostly by rubbishing the achievements of the other candidates. In 1845, he set sail in two ships for a place in the history books, but not as Lady Jane hoped.
Two years later, when it was plain he was not going to reappear trailing tales of glory, and a map of the Northwest route, Lady Jane added £3,000 to the reward money offered by the Admiralty for anybody who could locate and bring home her husband and crew.
The best laid schemes of mice and women. John Rae was commissioned to look for Franklin. Nine years later all hell broke loose when Rae arrived with his shocking report. Lady Jane had assumed the role of professional widow, her husband’s death confirmed on seeing ‘the melancholy proofs of my husband’s demise, a broken chronometer, a small silver plate, his name engraved upon it, and several spoons that bore his crest.”
But as for cannibalism, how dare that nasty upstart of an Orkneyman, a mere fur trader, suggest cannibalism and taint the good name of her husband.
Lady Franklin was intent on revenge!
A wife’s revenge
Recovering from her trauma, Lady Jane set about destroying Rae’s character, his (generally) accepted discovery of the Northwest Passage and the Rae Straits that led to it. Her campaign was going to leave no prisoners.
She denigrated and defiled Rae to her elite friends, earls, landed gentry, knights, lords and leading politicians. She encountered some disbelief, after all, Rae was not without his admirers, and a long illustrious history of scientific exploration.
The Dickens of a job
So, she enlisted the help of the day’s most elevated literary celebrity, a great writer, immensely popular and influential – Charles Dickens.
Born a year before Rae, Dickens already had some of his best work published: Oliver Twist, A Christmas Carol, David Copperfield. The poor loved him, not only for his stories and characters based on people he had met, but because he was an ardent social reformer. Lady Jane knew people from all classes would listen to Dickens. And they did.
Like many of his imperialist times, Dickens was prone to racism. Of a dark-skinned London-born citizen he said, “He is not a foreign-grown savage, he is the ordinary home-made article. Dirty, ugly, disagreeable to all the senses, in body a common creature of the common streets.”
To some degree his intolerance helped give Dickens confidence to denigrate ‘lesser mortals’, prejudices handy when blasting the reliability of the Esquimaux who brought evidence to Rae. Scotland was a not a place that much interested Dickens, in fact, it is difficult to find a Scots character in any of his novels. Nevertheless, he was given the freedom of Edinburgh and wrote admiringly of the city.
Once under the spell of Lady Jane, Dickens succumbed to her intimidating charm. She was furious cannibalism was ever mentioned. Dickens agreed.
Spinning the narrative
Dickens was not so stupid as to embark on a wholesale condemnation of Rae. He knew to praise the man. He acknowledged Rae had a duty to report what he had learned and seen. Instead, in a lengthy leading article in the Household Words, he chooses to slam the Admiralty for publishing unedited extracts from Rae’s report to the Royal Society. Dickens dismisses the allegations without denigrating Rae but condemns his conclusions.
“There is no reason to believe that any of its members [the Franklin expedition] prolonged their existence by the dreadful expedient of eating the bodies of their dead companions. Quite apart from the very loose and unreliable nature of the Esquimaux representations, we shall how …that it is in the highest degree improbable that such men and the officers and crew of the two lost ships, would, or could, in the extremity of hunger, alleviate the pains of starvation by these horrible means.”
Dickens goes on to exonerate Rae as if he was guilty of some accusation or other. “We can release Dr Rae from this inquiry, proud of him as an Englishman, and happy in his safe return home for a well-earned rest.” [My emphasis.]
Dickens the racist
Dickens challenges almost all the evidence laid out by Rae in his report, stating Rae’s evidence useless because of its “third-hand nature, given through an interpreter.” No mention of Rae ability to speak the local language is mentioned. Esquimaux are depicted as heathen, ready to say anything for a the trade of a fur pelt, trinkets, or some whisky. “We believe every savage to be in their heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel, and have yet to learn of any tenderness in their nature”.
Dickens goes on to suggest the Inuit murdered Franklin and his crew and concocted a story of cannibalism to hide their guilt. He did so despite the Hudson Bay company backing Rae’s findings to the hilt.
In the British tradition of heroic English failures Franklin’s journey was commemorated by several geographic names, including two islands in Antarctica and Greenland, Franklin Sound north of Tasmania and Franklin Strait in Arctic Canada. His wife has given name to Lady Franklinfjord in Svalbard.
Rae never stopped fighting to correct his reputation.
He is buried in his homeland, Orkney.
Signs of cannibalism
In 1986, corpses of Franklins men were found in permafrost, mutilated, showing all the signs of cannibalism. Dickens was wrong. Forensic science proved it.
And so Franklin, not Rae, was given the honour of being the man who discovered the Northwest Passage, Rae demoted to a naïve traveller, awarded only £8,000 of a £20,000 reward, and left to anonymity in his last years. He died almost impoverished and forgotten. In time of course, everything Rae had detailed proved to be absolutely correct.
Rae’s findings were vindicated.
It was not until a few years ago that some brave people took this miscarriage of history to Westminster demanding Rae be given his rightful place in history, that he be given proper recognition as the true ‘Discoverer of the Northwest Passage,’ and that that title be removed from Franklin’s tomb.
A man at one with the Inuit people
Here is an example of how the British establishment takes care of its own, how in doing so it contrives to find scapegoats, deals in sophistry, illuminates its racism, it prejudices, and its delusional self-image as civilisers of the rest of us.
As testament to the kind of man John Rae was, I leave the last word to him.
“I have had some opportunities of studying the Esquimaux character; and from what I have seen, I consider them superior to all the tribes of the red men in America. In their domestic relationship they show a bright example to the most civilised of people. They are dutiful sons and daughters, kind brothers and sisters, and most affectionate parents.”
Reading: “No Ordinary Journey” National Museum of Scotland “Fatal Passage” Ken McGoogan Bantam Books “The Arctic Journals of John Rae” Touchwood Editions “Passage” film by John Walker, DVD – Film Board of Canada “The Northwest Passage” paintings and prints by Royal Academician Dr Barbara Rae
NOTE: Documentary broadcast August 2015
In a recent documentary shown on Channel Four Television, the narrator discussed the discovery of Franklin’s sunken flagship, Erebus, but did not mention Rae once, yet quoted from his journals several times. Without offering a shred of evidence, it even implied Franklin actually managed to discover the Northwest Passage. How could he – without a ship, and one found sunk in the opposite direction from his destination?
In September 2014, the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, announced that the wreck of HMS Erebus, one of the two ships from Franklin’s voyage, had been found. HMS Terror was discover in September 2016, and again no report mentioned Rae.
By coincidence news of the discovery of some bodies of Franklin’s crew appeared in UK newspapers a day after this essay was published – every newspaper omitted the name of Dr John Rae.