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Ignored Explorer
By Margaret Black

Fatal Passage: The Story of John Rae, the Arctic Hero Time Forgot
By Ken McGoogan

Carroll & Graf, 328 pages, $26

A hundred years after his exploits, the media are again celebrating the heroic explorer Ernest Shackleton simply because he managed to get his men and himself back from Antarctica alive. In 19th-century England, apparently it was sufficient for heroes to face terrifying natural odds; it made no difference to the British public that their explorers often were ill-prepared, willfully ignorant of the problems they faced, or blinded by an ideology of their own natural superiority. Indeed, such drawbacks seem to have enhanced their reputations.

Since Shackleton actually was the leader of a poorly conceived PR adventure that failed utterly, it’s worth reflecting for a moment on competence and common sense. In Fatal Passage, Ken McGoogan sets the record straight with regard to a supremely competent, commonsensical man, John Rae, who was arguably the greatest Arctic explorer of the 19th century. He was also, the author tells us, “victimized by powerful contemporaries and shamefully wronged by history.” This was, in large part, because he valued the skill and intelligence of the natives he encountered, employed the practices he learned from them, planned expeditions carefully and knowledgeably, and stuck to his schedule even when that meant turning back before achieving his goal. He traveled light, wearing Inuit apparel, and was accompanied by a very small contingent of handpicked, experienced comrades. His group fed themselves almost entirely on what they could shoot, trap or net; Rae, a fantastic hunter, supplied most of the game. In polite English circles, such an approach smacked of “going native.” It was a variety of cheating. True Englishmen preserved polite amenities, ate meals off plates, wore civilized clothing, and deferred to rank.

John Rae was born in 1813 in chill, windswept Orkney off northern Scotland. He became a doctor, and at age 20 shipped out to the wilds of northern Canada to serve the Hudson’s Bay Company. From childhood he had sailed small craft in violent seas, become a crack shot, and developed the capacity to tramp for miles without fatigue. All his life he seemed preternaturally indifferent to cold.

When his ship to Hudson Bay became blocked by early pack ice, the crew and passengers were forced to winter on Charlton Island, a desolate abandoned fur-storage depot. They fitted out minimal shelter using sails and spars from the ship, and most settled in to drink and grouse away the winter. But Rae wrote that he “enjoyed the situation immensely.” He relished being able to snowshoe and delighted in hunting all the unfamiliar game. Despite Rae’s efforts, scurvy killed both the ship’s captain and the first mate, but he managed to save the others when, early in the spring, he found cranberries. During that winter he abstained from alcohol, saving his ration to use medicinally. But he quickly came to realize that alcohol was highly detrimental to anyone trying to survive in severe cold. Rae also was a nonsmoker, which doubtless helped account for his remarkable endurance. He once snowshoed more than a hundred miles in two days—to see a patient, no less.

Over the years, Rae mapped a good deal of Canada’s northern coast for the Hudson’s Bay Company. This inevitably involved him in the quest for the Northwest Passage, the coveted navigable water route between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans that everyone firmly believed must exist north of the American continent. The Royal Navy, arch rival to the Hudson’s Bay Company in this search, also was pursuing discovery of the Passage because they wanted to occupy the men who were no longer fighting Napoleon.

Of the many expeditions the Navy sent out, none was more prestigious or more publicized than that led by Sir John Franklin, who sailed off with two ships and more than a hundred men in 1845 and disappeared. Numerous search missions failed to locate survivors or any traces of what had happened. In 1854, Rae, on an expedition where he discovered the final navigable link in the Northwest Passage (proven correct in 1903 when Norwegian Roald Amundsen sailed it), was joined by a group of Inuit, who, like him, were forced to winter in the aptly named Repulse Bay. These natives carried artifacts indisputably belonging to the Franklin expedition, and they told a grisly story of dead white men who clearly had engaged in cannibalism. Conditions made it impossible for Rae (or anyone else) to investigate the site for another year, so instead he returned to England with the artifacts and gave the Admiralty what he believed was a confidential report. But the cannibalism leaked out, horrifying the entire nation. Lady Franklin was furious and set about to destroy Rae for daring to insinuate such horrors. Charles Dickens, an outspoken racist (“We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel . . .”) and Lady Franklin’s ally, produced an imaginative magazine article accusing Inuit villains of attacking and eating the sorely weakened Englishmen.

Rae’s career was not completely wrecked, but alone among the great British explorers, he was never knighted. People even denied him the honor of discovering the final link of the Northwest Passage. History is regularly skewed away from what actually happened by what is perceived to have happened, asserts McGoogan, and Rae clearly was not a man of his time. Unlike most Victorian Englishmen, he valued any person—man or woman—of skill and intelligence, regardless of his race or background. He preferred a job done well to one that satisfied conventional norms. He was also, according to the author, “the most cost-efficient explorer who ever lived.” His first Arctic trip cost only one-tenth as much as an average naval expedition, despite the fact that he paid his men generous bonuses.

Exciting, informative and infuriating, McGoogan’s book can also be very funny. Rae’s prolonged search for a spouse, and his ultimate reward—feisty young Kate Thompson—will warm the heart of the chilliest skeptic. Excellent maps and contemporary lithographs clarify where everyone went and how. It’s a great read.

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