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Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae

John Rae was a Scottish-Canadian explorer who solved the mystery of the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin, but instead of being revered as a hero, he was slandered and ridiculed in England. His story reveals much about the class hierarchy in Britain, and the irrelevance of this system in Canada.

Dr Rae was born in 1813, in the Orkney Islands of northern Scotland. He grew up with boats, sailing, fishing, and hunting. He went to medical school in Edinburgh, and was trained as a medical doctor. After school he was hired by the Hudson's Bay Company (HBC), to move to Canada, as had his two older brothers, and many Orcadian men previously.

HBC preferred to hire men from the Orkneys, as they were self reliant and hard working.  Dr Rae's two older brothers lived in Canada and worked for HBC.

Rae went by ship into Hudson's Bay, but the ship arrived too late in the season, and became frozen in the ice. Rae was able to hunt and make shelters, and most of the men survived the winter.

When spring finally arrived, they went on to Moose Factory (trading post), where Dr Rae would spend the next ten years. He became adept at hunting, trapping, and living off the land. He was especially known for his canoe and snowshoeing skills, and could cover a greater distance in a shorter time than other men.

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Dr Rae was recruited by the head of HBC to join the search for the lost expedition of Sir John Franklin. Franklin headed an expedition in 1845, planning to cross the Northwest Passage of Arctic Canada, with two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, on a five year mission. Franklin and his men all perished, and were never heard from again. Britain sent dozens of ships over 20+ years to search for evidence of their fate. Franklin's widow, who was herself an aristocrat, promoted Sir John as a national hero and martyr, and pushed the British government to continue sending search parties long after the Navy had decided the men had all died many years prior.

Dr Rae's first search party traveled by ship to Repulse Bay, in Hudson's Bay, then overland to Boothia. He was able to establish that Boothia is a peninsula, not an island.

Dr Rae's crew were from various backgrounds: Scotsmen, Orcadians, Indians, Inuit, and French voyageurs. These men were all proficient at wilderness survival skills, hunting, canoeing, snowshoeing, and worked well together. They were efficient, respected each other, and knew how hard it was to survive in the Canadian Arctic. Some of Rae's later expeditions included English sailors and soldiers, who had a poor attitude, wouldn't carry heavy loads, and made poor time. These men came from the lower class of an aristocratic society, and felt exploited, and wouldn't do anything they didn't have to. The Scotsmen had a more egalitarian ideal, and didn't expect that anything would get done by itself.

Rae's second expedition went further west, down the Mackenzie River, and then east along the Arctic Seas shore, and south again up the Coppermine River, to a fort where they wintered. The third trip went down the Coppermine River to the Arctic Sea, across the ice to Wollaston Land, which proved to be the same as Victoria Island. Rae and his men then sailed east in two small boats, and found the channel between Victoria Island and King William Island. This waterway was named Victoria Channel, and was found to be filled with ice all year, as this is a funnel for ice from farther north which is pushed south by wind and currents. In fact, Franklin's ships had been crushed in the ice in this channel. But Rae did not find any evidence of Franklin's lost ships on this trip.

Rae's fourth expedition did find evidence of the fate of Franklin's men, and made other important geographic discoveries. This time he went north with his carefully selected best men. They went by ship in Hudson's Bay to Repulse Bay, and followed his previous route to Boothia. He confirmed that Boothia is a peninsula, by exploring its east coast, as this fact had been disputed. He then crossed the peninsula and explored the west coast side. The ice here was thin, in what is now called Rae's Strait, not thick sea ice like in Victoria Channel. He concluded that Rae's Strait was the final link in the Northwest Passage. He also established that King William Land is an Island. These geographic facts were proven out by Roald Amundsen in the first crossing of the Northwest Passage 1903-06.

Dr Rae met Inuit near King William Island who told stories of two ships which had been crushed in the ice years earlier. The survivors had dragged the lifeboats south, but had starved to death. Rae was unable to travel to those locations, as it was getting late in the season. He did purchase many artifacts from the Inuit, such as uniforms, silverware, and an engraved silver plate. Most disturbingly the Inuit had found the mutilated corpses of the white men, and human flesh in cooking pots.

Dr Rae returned from Canada to England, where he reported his findings. Victorian aristocrats were scandalized by the news of cannibalism, and refused to believe that starving Englishmen were capable of such a vile act. Rae was slandered by Lady Franklin and her allies in the press, among them Charles Dickens.

Franklin Expedition Artifacts in the Fram Museum

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Dr Rae's findings were confirmed by Capt Leopold McClintock, as well as much later, Roald Amundsen. There are relics of the Franklin expedition in the Fram museum, brought back by Amundsen from his Gjoahavn base camp on King William Island, such as a silver table knife lashed to a bone handle, which had been used as a spear or harpoon by the Inuit.

Dr Rae returned to Canada, and lived in Hamilton, Ontario, near his two brothers, for the rest of his life. His reputation in England had been destroyed by Lady Franklin's aristocratic friends. But history has confirmed his findings about Sir Johns lost expedition, also the geographic discoveries and their significance.

Amundsen's route in his crossing of the Northwest Passage followed thru Rae's Strait, rather than Victoria Channel, based on Rae's discoveries.

The stories of John Franklin and John Rae illustrate much about the English class hierarchy, which was irrelevant in the Canadian Arctic, compared to Scottish egalitarianism, which excelled in this harsh environment.


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