Written by Jo Woolf, RSGS Writer-in-Residence

In 1857, if the inhabitants of Hamilton, Ontario, were in need of medical treatment there was at least one resident whom they could consult with a degree of confidence. John Rae, Orkneyman and seasoned wilderness traveller, had qualified as a surgeon in Edinburgh in 1832, aged only 19; he had seen virtually all the ailments and injuries that were likely to afflict people in the inhospitable environment of the Arctic. It didn’t matter too much if he punctuated his advice with snippets of vivid memory that came to him, like a flash, from his days of trekking for thousands of miles across frozen wastes, or if he suddenly barked an Inuit command to a team of imaginary huskies whose leash he could feel in his hands.

John Rae - portrait by Stephen Pearce (1853)

John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain, Orphir, on 30th September 1813. His father, also called John, was Orkney’s chief representative for the Hudson’s Bay Company, recruiting tenants, clerks and traders for new settlements in Rupert’s Land, a vast area that comprised a large portion of modern-day Canada as well as fragments of northern US states. Every year, the HBC’s ships would visit Stromness for supplies and to draw water from Login’s Well, a tradition that dates back to the 17th century. The young John was excited by their arrival, and impatient to make the journey himself; he had to watch his two older brothers, William and Richard, set sail for Rupert’s Land before he himself was old enough to go.  In 1833, when he finally sailed out of Stromness, he was a newly qualified surgeon;  he was also an accomplished game hunter, fisherman, sailor, horserider and rock climber, revelling in the outdoors and proud of his own fitness. Although he had much to learn, he already possessed the most important skills that would serve him all his life.

Moose Factory in 1854  

It was while Rae was posted at Moose Factory, an HBC settlement on James Bay (the south-eastern spur of Hudson’s Bay), that he was selected by the HBC’s Governor in Chief, Sir George Simpson, to survey a large part of the north coast, which at that time was largely unmapped. First, Rae needed to learn the skills of surveying; and to do that he had to undertake a gruelling six-week journey on foot and by canoe to the Red River Settlement, south of Lake Winnipeg, in order to find a tutor. But his tutor was gravely ill, and died within a few weeks of Rae’s arrival; undaunted, in the depths of winter he embarked on a second trek of 1,200 miles to Sault Sainte Marie on Lake Superior and from there to Toronto, where he found a substitute teacher. Having already covered more ground than many explorers would cover in a lifetime, Rae was ready to embark on his first official expedition.

Back in England, the search for the fabled Northwest Passage was a long-standing obsession with explorers, all of whom were keen to find a navigable link across the top of North America to the Pacific Ocean. The veteran explorer Sir John Franklin set sail from Greenhithe in May 1845, in command of two ships: the Erebus and Terror. At 59 years of age he was an affable but unlikely veteran of polar exploration; he spent his last night on British soil in Stromness, as the guest of John Rae’s sister, Marion, and her husband, Dr John Hamilton. From there, Franklin proceeded to Greenland where the ships’ companies took on last-minute provisions and sent final letters home. The two distinctive vessels, with their black-painted hulls, were last seen by whalers in Baffin Bay on 26th July 1845. Then there was silence.

Erebus and Terror had served for 4 years in the Antarctic under Sir James Clark Ross.   This painting by John Wilson Carmichael shows them in the Southern Ocean.

At first, the lack of news was not necessarily worrying. No one knew how long it would take to find and navigate the Northwest Passage; earlier mariners, including Sir John Ross and Sir William Parry, had survived winters trapped in Arctic ice, and Franklin’s men thought themselves well prepared for the extreme cold and perpetual darkness. The ships had their own heating systems and plenty of entertainments including a vast library of books. When the sea froze, they would stretch a canvas over the decks and await the return of the sun. The officers and crew, numbering 129 men in all, had sufficient food to last them for at least three years, and some believed that they may be away for six or seven. But the ships never made it through to the west. Erebus and Terror became trapped in permanent sea ice to the north-west of King William Island, and meanwhile disease or starvation – or both – forced some of the men to set off overland. The awful truth, which would remain hidden from the world for almost ten years, is that all of them perished and some of them resorted to cannibalism in a desperate attempt to survive. In 1848, when the British Admiralty decided to send out search parties, among the first people tasked with discovering their fate was John Rae.

By that time, Rae had already undertaken a number of long and gruelling survey expeditions into the Arctic. The climate and the landscape were unforgiving, but he was in his element. Travelling light, with a small team of men, he could live largely off the land and cover extraordinary distances on foot. From the native people, he had learned how to construct snow-houses and discovered that they were, in fact, much warmer than stone-built ones. He had become acquainted with the customs of the Inuit people and begun to understand their nature; some of them he hired as guides and interpreters. He had learned, from speaking to them, that their traditional stories sometimes sounded fanciful but that they always held some truth. 

All this experience stood Rae in good stead when he joined forces with Sir John Richardson, a Scottish naval surgeon, in an attempt to discover the whereabouts of Franklin and his men, and to assist any possible survivors. Travelling by land and river, they took with them a party of about 20 men and four boats. They spent the winter at Fort Confidence on the shore of Great Bear Lake, exploring the Mackenzie and Coppermine Rivers in search of clues. But they were too far west, and they found nothing. When Richardson returned to England, Rae continued the search for several more years; and meanwhile, back in England, Lady Franklin, Sir John’s wife, refused to admit that her husband could be dead. Using her formidable network of contacts and her equally formidable powers of persuasion, she coerced every available explorer and mariner into scouring the Canadian Arctic in search of the truth. To John Rae, she wrote: “We have the utmost confidence… in your energy, ability and perseverance, to do what few other men could accomplish…”

In the spring of 1854, Rae reached the coastline of Boothia. A few decades earlier, this region had been named by Sir John Ross in honour of Felix Booth, the wealthy gin distiller; it was previously thought to be an island, but Rae proved that it was, in fact, a peninsula. Standing on its western shore, he gazed across the sea towards King William Island and realised that he was looking at the final piece in the geographical jigsaw – the vital ‘missing link’ in the Northwest Passage. This stretch of water, later named Rae Strait, would be used by Roald Amundsen in his ship, Gjoa, during his first successful navigation of the Northwest Passage from 1903 to 1906. 

On the eastern side of Boothia, at Pelly Bay, a different kind of revelation awaited Rae. Here, he and his men built a snow hut for shelter. Seeing some human tracks, Rae sent a couple of his men, an Ojibwa named Mistegan and an Inuit named Ouligbuck, to investigate. Eight hours later, they returned with a dozen Inuit men, women and children. They had items to sell, which caught Rae’s attention, including a silver fork and spoon. The latter had the initials ‘F R M C’ roughly scratched on it. Not knowing the full name of Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, the Captain of the Terror, Rae was interested but still puzzled.

A few weeks later, at Repulse Bay, which lay about 160 miles to the south-east, Rae was no longer in any doubt. Some Inuit families arrived at his camp; not only did they have identifiable relics, including a silver plate engraved with Franklin’s name, but they had stories to tell. Using Ouligbuck as an interpreter, Rae listened intently. Four years ago, Inuit hunters on King William Island had encountered some white men – ‘kabloonas’ – dragging a boat and some sledges southwards. They communicated, through signs, that they were in search of deer. Their leader was a tall, stout man with a telescope strapped over his shoulder. They bought some seal meat from the Inuit, and then headed east, towards Back’s Great Fish River. But obviously they didn’t make it: when the Inuit returned the next spring, they discovered about 30 bodies. There were unmistakeable signs of cannibalism. Certain that both the Inuit and his interpreter were telling the truth, Rae now had the unenviable task of breaking this news to the world.

By then, it was too late in the year to travel north again and see the evidence for himself. Rae therefore resolved to return to England with what news he had. He composed a formal report about his findings, and on his homeward voyage he also wrote a letter for publication in The Times. While the letter omitted any mention of cannibalism, the report contained full details. In London, Rae handed his report and the relics in person to Sir James Graham, First Lord of the Admiralty. The next day, The Times published his letter; and he was dismayed to see that it had also published his full report. Now, the world knew; and so did Lady Franklin, who would read about the fate of her husband in the morning paper. John Rae had fulfilled her expectations in the worst possible way. Decades later, a noted biographer recalled the “shock of horror that… spread across the civilized world.” Outraged Victorians, who preferred their heroes pristine and god-like, were forced to consider the unthinkable. The scandal, amounting almost to disgrace, far outweighed the tragedy.

Lady Franklin by Thomas Bock (1838)

Rae could not avoid an interview with Lady Franklin. He presented himself at her London house, and explained that it was never his wish to expose the graphic details to the world. But in the eyes of his hostess, who had still not given up her husband as lost, there was no excuse and no forgiveness. Their meeting was brief. Rae, having spent much of his life in the Arctic, may have underestimated Lady Franklin’s power of influence. Within a few months, he was made fully aware of it.

Furious at the perceived insult to her husband and his men, Lady Franklin turned to her friends and allies for assistance. Rae’s report could not be true, so every effort must be made to discredit it as quickly as possible. She called on Charles Dickens, by then a highly popular author, to lend a hand, and he was delighted to oblige. Shortly afterwards, an article by Dickens appeared in his weekly magazine, ‘Household Words’. After acknowledging Rae to be a skilful, intrepid and experienced Arctic traveller, Dickens masterfully proceeded to pull his story to shreds. The Inuit testimony was probably incoherent, and the interpreter mistaken; moreover, the evidence itself may have been misconstrued, and the bodies had been mutilated by wild animals. The Inuit, he asserted, were a race of savages, “covetous, treacherous, and cruel…”  He even insinuated that they were capable of murder.

Rae responded, of course, but by then the damage was done. The relatives and friends of missing crew members began to lend their voices to Lady Franklin’s protest. While Rae received the promised reward of £10,000 from the Admiralty for bringing back substantial news of Franklin’s expedition, he could not take back his words. It did not help that he was a man of action, whose style of writing was blunt and unflinching. He was ‘telling it like it is’ in the wrong century entirely.

The time would come when other searchers for Franklin, among them Sir Leopold McClintock and the American explorer Charles Francis Hall, would find the bodies of some of Franklin’s men and corroborate Rae’s story with physical evidence and more Inuit accounts. Lady Franklin, once she had accepted that her husband was indeed lost, turned a deaf ear and focused her attention on establishing his reputation as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage. So strong was her influence that she did succeed, at least temporarily. On Franklin’s statue in Waterloo Place, London, erected in 1866, the inscription composed by Sir John Richardson claims that “they forged the last link with their lives.” Did they? We know that Rae made the geographical connection. Modern-day historians have pointed out that some of the bodies were discovered in territory that was not yet mapped, in between the two known stretches of coastline.

This map from 1854 shows the areas explored by Rae (marked with a red line).  It is obvious just how close he came to King William Island (far right), across Victoria Strait.   Bad weather prevented him from going further.  We now know that the ships were abandoned off the NW tip of King William Island in 1848.  

After his undeserved notoriety, Rae might have been forgiven for seeking a quiet life in his homeland of Orkney. But he was still only 41. For a couple of years he lived with his brothers in Hamilton, Ontario, and with his prize money from the British Admiralty he commissioned a ship, the Iceberg, which was intended for polar exploration. The ship, however, was lost at sea in 1857. In 1860 he married Catherine Thompson, a young woman of Irish descent whom he met in Toronto. Never one to sit by the fire in his slippers, he devoted himself to more surveying work in the Arctic; one of his missions was to aid the Atlantic Telegraph Company in planning a link between Scotland, Iceland, Greenland and Labrador. On 22nd July 1893, at the age of 79, he died at his home in 4 Addison Gardens, London. His widow brought his body back to Orkney, where he was buried in St Magnus’ Cathedral. The name of John Rae was largely forgotten by history, but today he is rightly celebrated as one of Scotland’s most accomplished explorers.

John Rae 

Connections with RSGS

While John Rae received the Founder’s Medal of the Royal Geographical Society in London in 1852, for his work in surveying Boothia, most of his eventful life was lived before RSGS came into being in 1884. However, Rae was a member of RSGS from 1885 onwards, and in 1886 one of his papers, on a proposed new route via Hudson’s Bay to the prairie lands of Canada, was published in the RSGS Scottish Geographical Magazine. In 1895 the RSGS held a 50-year commemoration of the Franklin expedition, assembling a large and tantalising number of artefacts, either from the expedition itself or from the Arctic in general, which were loaned by museums and private individuals across Scotland. Today, many artefacts from the expedition are held by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.

Ongoing research

The story of the lost Franklin expedition and the subsequent search missions is complex and fascinating. Many details about the fate of the expedition itself are still shrouded in mystery. Investigations continue, aided by Inuit historians and spurred on by the exciting discovery of the two shipwrecks: Erebus in 2014, and Terror in 2016. They may hold vital clues about the last movements of their men. In August 2019, Parks Canada released film footage of the interior of Terror, taken by a remote-controlled camera. The video offers a glimpse into cabins, now eerily empty, while in a store-room glass jars still stand on the shelves and blue-patterned plates are stacked in a dining room. The archaeological work will probably take years… but what secrets will they find? 

Hall of Clestrain in Orkney, Rae’s birthplace. 2019 marks the 250th anniversary of its completion.

Quotes & further reading:

‘Fatal Passage’ by Ken McGoogan; ‘Ice Ghosts’ by Paul Watson; ‘Lady Franklin’s Revenge’ by Ken McGoogan.

The John Rae Society https://www.johnraesociety.com/

Parks Canada - history of Franklin expedition https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/nu/epaveswrecks/culture/histoire-history 

Parks Canada - footage from ‘Terror’ https://www.pc.gc.ca/en/lhn-nhs/nu/epaveswrecks/culture/archeologie-archeology/explore/2019/ete-summer-2019

National Maritime Museum https://www.rmg.co.uk/discover/explore/john-Franklin-Final-north-west-passage-expedition-1845

Canadian Mysteries https://www.canadianmysteries.ca/sites/franklin/home/homeIntro_en.htm

Royal Canadian Geographical Society https://www.canadiangeographic.ca/topic/franklin-expedition