Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Dr. John Rae

Every few months -- partly due to Ken McGoogan's book and John Walker's film -- I hear afresh about the injustice done to Dr. John Rae, the man officially credited with first "ascertaining the fate" of Sir John Franklin and his men. Today, my Google alerts drew my attention to a lovely blog that goes by the name of Shambles Manor, where a fresh tribute to Dr. Rae has been posted. It seems it may well be time to set the record straight, the more so as -- these days at least -- there seems to be little room in the "blogosphere" for any nuanced differences of opinion.

So let me be quite frank and direct: I feel that Dr. John Rae is one of the greatest explorers ever to travel the eastern Arctic, and a man of absolutely unquestionable integrity. That he is not given greater credit for his actions, and the testimony he brought home to the Admiralty, is a lasting stain upon that institution, and represents a loss to the integrity of British Arctic exploration history. Dr. Rae deserves far greater laurels than he has generally been given, and by the by, his birthplace ought to be restored and deserves to be a Scottish, as well as a British, national landmark.

But that said: Dr. Rae did not "discover" the Northwest Passage. He himself would never have made such a claim. He did indeed map a stretch of water -- the "Rae Strait" as it is justly named in his honour -- which constituted the last unmapped bit of the particular "Northwest Passage" as it was navigated many decades later by the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen. Sir John Franklin, believing in the maps of (that other most notable Scot) James Clark Ross, did not believe that there was a Passage through this area, and indeed had he tried to take his enormous "bomb" vessels that way, they would have certainly run aground (Amundsen's Gjøa, which drew less than 1/3 the amount of water of Franklin's ex-warships, did run aground, and had to jettison much cargo in order to make it through). Anyone who wishes to consult the historical record in this regard can readily do so -- Dr. Rae's own writings, and Amundsen's, describe this bit of territory quite ably.

Ken McGoogan feels that, since Rae mapped this section, he ought to be acclaimed the "discoverer" of the Passage. But this neglects two hard facts: 1) There is more than one Passage, depending on ice conditions and what sort of ship one has -- the Rae/Amundsen section is but one option among many; and 2) What was called for in terms of the Northwest Passage in the nineteenth century was not its "discovery" but its "navigation" -- one had to pass through it. McClure had a sort of claim to this, though part of his passage was on foot, and he was only able to complete it thanks to the help of other crews of other vessels; Amundsen had, and has, an indisputable claim. Other ships -- most notably the "Manhattan" in 1969 -- plowed their way through without taking this route, traversing ice that would have been utterly impassible to Franklin or any other nineteenth-century voyager.

Mr Carmichael, the MP for Orkney and Shetland, has in the past expressed his desire to have any memorials to Franklin -- such as that at Westminster Abbey -- removed in favor of Rae. But this would not serve justice; Rae himself was always effusive in his praise and empathy for Franklin and his men, and he never made such a claim in his life. There is no contradiction in honoring Franklin and Rae -- indeed, there is only a history of mutual regard, and enormous achievement on the part of both men in the face of danger. Let us honor Dr. Rae more -- and yet let us honor Sir John Franklin no less. I would gladly support the addition of a memorial to Dr. Rae at Westminster, but the idea of carting off the existing one to Franklin makes no sense.


  1. Well said, Professor! Although actually I feel a lot of the blame for the shabby treatment of Rae should be laid at the feet of Lady Franklin, in the face of whom the Admiralty always seemed completely spineless.

    People need to consider just why cannibalism was so horrifying to the Victorian mind (not that it's a particularly attractive to the twenty-first century one either). I suggest one reason was the prevailing belief in the physical resurrection at the Second Coming. Franklin and Lady Franklin were ardent Anglicans with an unshakeable belief in the literal truth of both the Old and New Testament. They both held absolutely to the ‘sure and certain hope’, as the Anglican prayer-book puts it, of the physical resurrection of the body. Which is of course only possible if your mortal remains are left to nature.

    To Lady Franklin, the members of the Expedition were shipmates of Sir John’s in his role as Captain and leader, but they were also parishioners of his in his parallel role as spiritual head of the Expedition. He and she took is role as spiritual leader very seriously. For the members of the Expedition who died and were respectfully buried, as the three at Beechey island were, Sir John had clearly done his spiritual duty. Their mortal remains lay there, and do so still, awaiting the Last Post and physical resurrection at the time of the Second Coming. But the members of the Expedition whose remains were cannibalised were physically incorporated into the remains of other members, and this compromised their prospect of a future physical resurrection. It was one thing for Lady Franklin to accept that her husband had failed in his temporal mission in not completing the North West Passage and being responsible for the death of all his men. It was a completely separate matter, and in a way a more serious one, for her to admit publicly that Franklin had failed in his spiritual duty also. I would suggest that the reason why her reaction to the news Rae brought back was so disproportionate was that, by refusing their shipmates the opportunity of redemption, it showed that some of Franklin’s men had turned from the teachings of the Bible. This was a huge blow to the posthumous reputation of Franklin as spiritual leader.

    This is not remotely to condone the way she reacted and the slandering and abusing of the Inuit, Rae and anyone else associated with this. It is just to explain WHY cannibalism was for her far, far more than just a dietary matter.

    Her reaction was very different to that of William Coningham, James Fitzjames’ great friend. It’s clear from his statements that he considered Rae an accurate reporter of what had happened and an expert in the Arctic, in sharp contrast to the Admiralty for whom Coningham seems to have had little respect.

    But then Coningham was an atheist.

  2. I think it is very good for Rae's reputation to be resurrected as it has, but one claim of a slight on him that I have never fully understood is the claim that he should have been knighted for his exploration.

    His expeditions were, if I am not mistaken, all undertaken on behalf of the Hudson's Bay Company and he had never served the Crown directly. Are there other examples of private explorers who were knighted?

    It seems to me that the decision of not knighting Captain Francis Crozier was more egregious. The Admiralty clearly did not have a great regard for him and even in the famous Arctic Council painting you see Franklin and Fitzjames portraits above and behind the Council, but not his. But even with Crozier, has there been a second in command in the Admiralty, one who never commanded his own expedition even though he captained several ships, who was knighted? I just don't know.

  3. William and Ted, thanks for your posts.

    As to the cannibalism, Lady Jane's private correspondence suggests that she was willing to give somewhat more credit to Rae's report than she was willing to publicly say. She blamed him as much for making his report public as for its contents, and although she later learned from Rae and others that his report had been published without his consent, she was no longer in a forgiving mood. Her Ladyship's own religious views were decidedly milder than her husband's, and I don't think that Anglicans necessarily held any more fervent beliefs about bodily resurrection than those of other faiths. Catholics, indeed, would have held far stronger convictions about this than most Protestants; there are some lovely medieval illustrations of body parts rising out of the mouths of fishes and serpents and ascending to heaven to meet up with their fellows!

    Rae's lack of a knighthood might have had something to do with the private, commercial nature of his service -- but there were indeed examples of private explorers receiving knighthoods, John Ross prominent among them (though he *had* been RN on his earlier voyage).

    As for Crozier, I don't think there's a mystery there -- seconds simply did not receive knighthoods, even if, in a two-ship expedition, they were captain of one of them.

  4. Thank you for the clarification Russell.

    I think that Ross was leading a Royal Navy expedition AND was commander of two ships and many men, makes his knighting different than Rae's. But what about someone like Hillary? I know his Everest climb was approved and funded by the British, which makes it a little bit different than Rae, but was it formally a British expedition like the Northwest Passage seekers?

    I imagine class had much to do with it as well, and who was lobbying on your behalf for the knighthood. On that account as well, Rae and Crozier had no chance.

  5. Interesting post and comments. I myself don't think it was just Lady Franklin who was upset about Rae's Cannibalism stories, which from all the available evidence seem to be nothing more than fact. It appears that the entire Victorian society of Britain was appalled. For example I recently read for the first time the hard to obtain book by Richard Cyriax about the Franklin Expedition; perhaps I missed it but I could not find a mention of cannibalism in it! And that was in 1939! So I rather doubt the shameful treatment of Rae was entirely or even largely due to Lady Franklin. She was just one voice in a huge chorus of denunciation. As for the Admirality being spineless in relation to Lady Franklin. Well since they over her vehement and in my opinion quite sound objections terminated the search for Franklin and the fate of its crews. I doubt they were spineless. Of course Lady Franklin's sponsorship / funding of the Fox expedition and its huge success in finding out the fate of Franklin's crews, is proof that she was right. Finally she was in many ways a smart, sensible individual whose ideas if they had been followed earlier whould likely have lead to finding the fate of Franklin earlier.

    I also agree that this whole thing about "discovering" the North West passage is a bit of game. One could just as well state that the Inuit did.

    About bodily resurrection well having been raised a Catholic I can tell you that yes literaly I was taught that at the second coming our bodies would be physically reanimated and united with our spirits / souls. However I was also taught that cannibalism in extremis was not a mortal sin or even a venial one if the alternative is death. In fact some Catholic theologians argued that not to engage in cannibalism and live but let yourself die of starvation was a form of suicide and therefore a real mortal sin! The logic was the same as allowing for killing someone in self defence. The idea that cannibalism could thwart or screwup the resurrection of the dead at the last judgement was regarded as a blasphemous denial of God's power at least among Catholic theologians.

  6. Hello Russell,dont know how long you are in the UK for but this Sunday night at 8 o'clock (15 Nov)on BBC 2 there is a programme called Northern Widerness on. The programme is going to cover the exploits of Dr John Rae.

  7. Bill, thanks for the tip -- I'm back home now, but will see if I can locate a version of this ... I've had luck in the past with finding torrents of UK programmes ....

  8. JOhn Rae was certainly fantastic and his deed desserve much. I agree with Russel Potter that the discovery of the north-west passage is the result of the work of many. For instance the first European to have realized a route through the arctic must have been somebody in the franklin expedition if they connected to Simpson Cairn. If one requires a discovery to be reported then probably McClure would have been first when he realized from the mouth of Prince of whales strait that an expense of water separated him from Melville Island. That was in 1852 if I recall well and must have been before Rae identified King Williams Island as an Island. So although I would agree that Rae was great and should be recognized it seems to be stretching history to claim that he discovered the north-west passage.