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.