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.