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Fri 13 December 2019
John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain, in Orkney, in 1813. Considered by many to be the greatest Arctic Explorer of all time, Rae was denied his place in history as Victorian Society attempted to conceal the horrific truth about what had happened to Sir John Franklin’s ill–fated 1845 expedition to find the legendary North-West Passage across the top of North America.

Dr John Rae (1813-1893)Almost 60 years of age, Franklin had been a poor choice to lead this Royal Navy expedition. On an earlier Arctic Expedition he had lost 11 men out of 20 and in 1836 he had been censured for incompetence and recalled from his position as Governor of Tasmania. When this, second, expedition failed to return, his wife used her considerable wealth to finance one search party after another but it was to be almost eight years before the story of what dreadful fate had befallen her husband would to be known.

Rae had been employed by the Hudson’s Bay Company as a medical doctor and had established a formidable reputation as he travelled vast distances through the Arctic wilderness. Recognising his potential, the company asked him to map out unexplored territories and, in 1847, he was the immediate choice as a guide when a search expedition was mounted to find out what had happened to Franklin. Four expeditions and 23000 miles later they were no nearer in finding the truth although Rae did discover the legendary North–West Passage for which Franklin had searched in vain.

Then, in 1854 while on a mapping expedition in a remote area away from the search area, Rae heard the terrible story from native Inuit people with whom he had built up an affinity. Trapped by the ice and with no food, the men of the Royal Navy had resorted to cannibalism. Any doubts as to what had happened were dispelled when the Inuits brought Rae a kettle full of human bones, many bearing the indisputable marks of knives and saws.

The Admiralty attempted to hush up Rae’s confidential report but, when it appeared in the Times, Victorian England was outraged and Rae was ostracised. Credit for discovering the North-West Passage was given to Franklin, who received a posthumous knighthood and a memorial in Westminster Abbey while a Royal Navy Captain who had discreetly confirmed Rae’s findings was rewarded for his silence by being made an admiral. It was left to Rae’s fellow Orcadians to erect a monument in St Magnus Cathedral celebrating the Arctic hero who lies in the churchyard behind.

Now, modern day explorers have recognised Rae’s great discovery by erecting a plaque commemorating his achievement on a hillside overlooking a 15 mile stretch of water deep in the Canadian Arctic, the final link in the North-West Passage.


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