To Touch the Hand of Franklin

Franklin warned the folks at home that they might not hear from him for a while.

On October 22, 1854, after a treacherous Atlantic crossing during which his ship, the Prince Rupert, narrowly survived pack ice and a vicious storm that ripped apart four of its sails, Arctic explorer Dr. John Rae arrived in England. He bore in his hand a letter that he had written at sea to the editor of the London Times. In it he described how he had solved the greatest mystery of the Age of Exploration: the fate of Sir John Franklin’s lost expedition. The Arctic explorers of the 19th century stood at the frontiers of the known world. The dream of finding a Northwest Passage was by then 500 years old. Numerous explorers such as James Clark Ross and William Parry had made enormous strides in exploring the Arctic coast, but the passage still eluded them. In 1844 the British Admiralty decided to authorize one last attempt to find the passage. It organized the largest and best equipped expedition ever to venture into the Arctic and chose Sir John Franklin to lead it. The expedition put in at Disco, Greenland, and after passing some whalers in Baffin Bay disappeared without a trace.

Franklin warned the folks at home that they might not hear from him for a while. When no news of the expedition was heard for three years both the Admiralty and Lady Franklin launched the greatest rescue mission in history. Some of the finest captains in the navy spent years searching but found no sign of Franklin in the trackless wasteland.

The tolerant attitude of Scottish explorer John Rae towards the Inuit helped him to solve the mystery of the disappearance of Sir John Franklin (courtesy National Archives of Canada / C148483).

There were aspects to John Rae’s character that determined that he would be the one to solve the mystery. Rae was born in 1813 and raised in Orkney, the remote group of islands that lie north of Scotland. The skills he learned as a boy in this spare environment proved essential in his phenomenal success as an Arctic explorer. When wars with France made the English Channel dangerous, vessels followed a safer route north of Scotland. They would stop in the fine harbour of Stromness in the Orkneys to stock up on water and by the early 1700s they began recruiting Orcadians for Hudson’s Bay Company service. By the end of the century three out of four people working in Canada for the HBC were from the Orkneys.

Rae spent his youth, genially alone or with the family Newfoundland, boating, shooting and fishing. Self-sufficiency was bred into Rae and he built up the physical endurance that made for him traveling in Arctic Canada “nothing out of the ordinary.”

Rae was 20 years old when he sailed from Stromness as a surgeon on the HBC supply ship. He spent 10 years as the surgeon at Moose Bay, spending most of his time learning local customs. In 1846 he was chosen to undertake the final stage of surveying the Arctic coast. He spent 15 months in the Arctic largely living off the land. Rae made no secret of the fact that he preferred the company of the Inuit to his English colleagues and he gained their respect and trust. On these travels Rae added the last missing pieces of the extraordinarily complex jigsaw of islands, isthmuses and straits that had befuddled the explorers before him.

In 1853-54 Rae undertook his fourth and last Arctic journey. He hoped to uncover Franklin’s fate and to claim the £20,000 reward. Near Pelly Bay, on the east side of the Boothia Peninsula, he met a solitary Inuit who gave him the first news of Franklin. The man told him that 35-40 Kabloonans (white men) had starved to death west of a large river at a place some 10 to 12 days away. Rae questioned other Inuit in the area and learned that a group of Inuit had last seen 40 men traveling south over the ice and that later that season they had seen their graves. Rae bought some articles which the Inuit had collected, including a silver plate marked with the name of Franklin himself.

From his early life, Rae accepted people as people, regardless of their race, an attitude generations ahead of its time. This was the reason that he believed their reports. Many in the British Admiralty, as well as Lady Franklin, were outraged that Rae took the word of the Inuit. Victorian Britain could not accept that Franklin had failed, and the evidence that his men had been reduced to cannibalism, was unpalatable.

Even when it was proven later that the Inuit reports were accurate, the Admiralty only reluctantly agreed to pay Rae part of the reward money.

John Rae gave over 30 years of his life to exploring and documenting northern Canada. He was a remarkable man, determined and idiosyncratic, who contributed greatly to our knowledge of the geography and ethnography of one of the world’s last frontiers.

James H. Marsh is Editor in Chief of The Canadian Encyclopedia.

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