Canadian Researchers Uncover Remains Of Tragic Arctic Expedition

Arctic
“Man Proposes, God Disposes” by Edwin Henry Landseer, 1864. Wikimedia Commons.

A few days ago we talked about the story of Dr. John Rae, a nearly forgotten Arctic explorer who in 1854 went in search of the missing Franklin Expedition. This was a Royal Navy expedition that set out in 1845 to find the Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific through the frozen arctic north of Canada. Rae talked with the local Inuit people and heard the survivors had all died, some resorting to cannibalism before they succumbed to the elements. The public was so shocked that they turned their ire against Rae, whose career was all but ruined.

Now a Canadian research team is investigating the site to try to find out more about what happened. It’s known that the expedition involved two ships, the HMS Erebus and the HMS Terror, and that they came to grief near King William Island in September 1846, where they got trapped in the ice hundreds of miles form the nearest town.

The crew tried walking out, but none made it more than 40 miles. All 129 officers and crew died.

A Canadian team, led by Parks Canada has made five expeditions to find traces of this tragedy. They’ve been focusing their efforts on King William Island, where this year they found some 200 artifacts and human bones. They also scanned 486 square kilometers of seafloor with sidescan sonar in the hopes of finding one of their ships preserved in the frigid waters, but they had no luck.

The artifacts have been brought back to a lab to be studied. They’ve already found evidence that some of the metal objects were reused by the local Inuit. The bones will be returned to the site and given a proper burial next year.

Arctic Explorer Gets Belated Recognition

arctic
Wikimedia Commons

When I took my family to the Orkney Islands of Scotland last year I saw this curious memorial in St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall. It’s for an Arctic explorer named John Rae. While the name struck a bell, I knew virtually nothing about him.

Most people don’t, and that’s a shame. Rae grew up in the rugged Orkney Islands in the 19th century. Although he trained as a doctor, the wilderness was his true love. He got work with the Hudson’s Bay Company, which owned large swatches of land in northern Canada and made millions off of the fur trade. Rae set off to Canada to work as a surgeon for the company, spending ten years at the remote outpost of Moose Factory.

Rae soon distinguished himself by spending large amounts of time with the Cree and Inuit, learning their languages and customs and gaining their respect for his ability to endure the tough conditions of the Canadians north.

When the Franklin Expedition, a Royal Navy group that was searching for the Northwest Passage connecting the Atlantic and Pacific, went missing in 1845, Rae was the man that was called upon to find them. He spent several years trying to track them down. In the course of his search he mapped many previously uncharted regions and found the Northwest Passage, the very thing the Franklin Expedition had failed to do.

In 1854 he learned from the Inuit that several years before, the last of the Franklin Expedition had died of starvation. The remaining survivors had resorted to cannibalism before they, too, succumbed. The site of the tragedy was deep in the back country and the Inuit refused to take him there.

When Rae filed his report, he was immediately criticized for not checking on the natives’ story himself and for daring to suggest that members of the Royal Navy would eat each other. His reputation was ruined. Even though another expedition did go to the site and concluded that there was strong evidence that the Franklin Expedition had resorted to cannibalism, the damage had been done. Rae died all but forgotten in 1893. Of all the great explorers from the Victorian era, he is the only one not to have been given a knighthood.

Now the Arctic explorer has been given some belated recognition with a new statue in Stromness, not far from where the local Hudson’s Bay Company office used to be. It was unveiled on the 200th anniversary of his birth.

You can learn more about the adventures of Dr. John Rae in this excellent article.