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Dr John Rae, Arctic Explorer

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John Rae was an Arctic explorer without peer in the 19th Century. He discovered the route of the fabled Northwest Passage and mapped much of the Canadian Arctic. So why is it that his name is so little known today?

Rae was a victim of his era. An unconventional man living in Victorian times, at the peak of the British Empire, was always going to run the risk of vilification. Unfortunately for him, he became embroiled in one of the greatest dramas of the mid-19th Century, when he discovered the fate of the Franklin Expedition and in so doing made enemies of some of the most respected people in Britain. This Entry is written with the hope of putting that record straight.

Preparation for the Arctic

John Rae was born in Orkney in 1813. His childhood was relatively carefree, thanks to his father's income as a factor1 and then as the Orkney agent of the Hudson's Bay Company. He obtained a good education and had time to fish, hunt, trek and climb: 'roughing it' as he put it. The skills, stamina and sense of adventure that he developed in childhood stood him in good stead as an adult.

He often accompanied his father to Stromness, where the ships of the Hudson's Bay Company stopped off for final supplies and crew before crossing the Atlantic. Two of his older brothers joined the Company and it is no surprise that a young man with a spirit such as Rae's would follow in their footsteps.

At the age of 19, Rae graduated from medical school in Edinburgh and took up the post of surgeon on board the Hudson's Bay Company's ship Prince of Wales, setting sail for Moose Factory in Canada in 1833. The trip was to take a year, but ran into early thick pack ice in southern Hudson Bay on its return voyage and the crew spent the winter in the Arctic.

During their enforced stop there Rae proved himself to be a gifted surgeon, treating the sailors with skill and humanity. He was also able to adapt to the harsh conditions with remarkable ease. The Chief Factor on board the ship recommended Rae to the Governor of the Hudson's Bay Company, Sir George Simpson. As as result Rae did not return to Orkney the following summer, but became resident surgeon at Moose Factory and stayed there for ten years.

Surviving the Arctic

Rae relished his life at Moose Factory. He was unusual in that he chose to get to know and learn survival skills from the native people, the Cree Indians. From them he acquired expertise in making and using snowshoes, in tracking and killing caribou, seals and waterfowl, and in making warm and waterproof clothing from animal skins. He also learnt how to construct and maintain a sled, to construct shelters and to avoid snow-blindness. In essence he learnt how to survive the worst conditions that the Arctic had to offer.

As significant as these practical skills was the fact that he came to respect and to trust the native people. This, more than anything else, set him apart from his contemporaries.

This is not to say that Rae spurned new technology. Far from it. At Moose Factory he experimented with raising a balloon to test atmospheric conditions using heat from the sun and on every expedition that he made, his gun, his sextant and his watch were with him. He also helped to pioneer the use of the inflatable boat; the Halkett India Rubber Cloth Boat.

Sir George Simpson became a friend and admirer of Rae, recognising in him a remarkable athlete, humanitarian and adventurer. In 1845 Simpson promoted Rae to be in charge of the entire district of Moose Factory. Unofficially he asked Rae to do what no European had yet managed: to survey the complete Arctic coast of Rupert's Land. Over the following two years, Rae mastered the use of the sextant and taught himself surveying techniques, in readiness for the expeditions to come.

In 1846 he set off from York Factory with ten men, two boats and minimal provisions. It was the first of four remarkable expeditions, in which Rae not only charted over 1,100 miles2 of coastline3 but he survived in igloos while hunting for food using native peoples' techniques. No European Arctic expedition to date had survived so well.

In 1852, when a new fort was established on Great Slave Lake, it was named Fort Rae after the Chief Factor of Moose Factory. The small community of Rae, one of the few memorials to Dr John Rae, is now a part of the principal community of the polity of Tlicho.

Discovery of the Northwest Passage

Rae's primary goal was to provide the Hudson's Bay Company with accurate maps. However, given that the Northwest Passage was one of the great 19th Century obsessions, it was inevitable that an explorer in the Canadian Arctic would have at least half an eye on discovering the route. Once found, it was believed that trade ships would be able to sail between the Atlantic and the Pacific without having to risk the treacherous waters of the Cape of Good Hope or Cape Horn. In this respect, John Rae was no different from most of his peers.

As early as 1843 Rae was discussing the Passage with Simpson and his 1846 expedition proved that no passage existed in the area of the Gulf of Boothia and Boothia Felix. He continued to map and explore this part of the Arctic and finally, in 1854, his fourth expedition saw him return to the Boothia Peninsula to complete the survey of the continental north coast. He discovered that King William Land was in fact an island and that the stretch of water separating it from the mainland, now known as Rae Strait, was the final piece of the Northwest Passage jigsaw. Rae was unable to navigate through the Strait and it was not until Roald Amundsen made it through the ice in the early 1900s that Rae's discovery was confirmed beyond any doubt.

Discovery of the Fate of Franklin

Sadly for John Rae, his 1854 expedition was also the one on which he discovered what had happened to the Franklin Expedition, which had left Britain in 1845 to search for the Northwest Passage. Rae's geographical discovery was subsequently completely subsumed in the furore caused by his discovery of the outcome of Franklin and his men.

The search for Franklin and his two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, began in 1848 after three years of silence. Both the Admiralty and Franklin's wife, Lady Franklin, invested considerable effort and money into ensuring that the hunt for the Franklin Expedition was the next great national obsession. Several ships left Britain to search for Franklin, spurred on by the promise of financial rewards and the fame that would come with success.

It is worth noting that during his 1846 expedition, John Rae came within 150 miles4 of the ice-beset Franklin ships. One can speculate about the very different, and much happier, outcome for all concerned had he actually stumbled across them.

In 1848 Rae joined forces with John Richardson on an unsuccessful search for Franklin. Then in 1851, while he was attempting to cross Victoria Strait to King William Island, Rae found the first evidence of Franklin's presence in the area: two pieces of wood which proved to have originated from one of the ships.

In 1854 Rae was on the Boothia Peninsula when he came across Inuit hunters who told him of sightings of 35 to 40 white men dragging a boat and sledges south along the west coast of King William Island, four winters previously. Some time5 after seeing the white men, the hunters discovered 30 dead bodies in tents and under a boat and some graves. Most were on the mainland and five were on an island northwest of Great Fish River. The Inuit believed that they had died of starvation.

Rae spent two months with the Inuit, going over and over their information, asking detailed questions and acquiring from them a number of artefacts that can only have belonged to Franklin and his men, including cutlery, watches and a medal belonging to Franklin himself. It proved beyond doubt, to Rae at least, that all the members of the Franklin Expedition were dead.

From the Inuit accounts, Rae also obtained information that was to cause a sensation in Britain.

From the mutilated state of many of the bodies and the contents of the kettles, it is evident that our wretched Countrymen had been driven to the last dread alternative - cannibalism - as a means of prolonging existence.

Rather than risk another winter in the Arctic looking for the bodies of Franklin's men and to save potential loss of life from other ships searching for Franklin in the wrong parts of the Arctic, Rae decided to travel to Britain to impart his grim news to the Admiralty. At this stage he had no idea that there was a reward for such information and true to his nature when he received it, he shared it with the rest of the 1854 expedition.


Rae arrived in Britain and published his report in late 1854. Unfortunately, Rae was soon labelled an 'opportunist' who relied on the dubious words of 'unreliable native savages'. It was put about that he dressed like the natives, adopted their uncivilised ways and even lived with them: not something that a real gentleman would do. Above all, British society refused point blank to believe that men of the Royal Navy would or could in any extremity of hunger, alleviate that pain of starvation by this horrible means namely cannibalism6.

Who was it who orchestrated such attacks on John Rae? None other than the grieving wife of John Franklin, Lady Franklin. She exerted great efforts and used all her social connections to glorify the memory of her husband; even asserting that it was he who discovered the route of the Northwest Passage, without any evidence whatsoever. In the process of putting her husband's name firmly into the history books, she coordinated a systematic campaign to discredit Dr John Rae utterly. Fortunately for Lady Franklin she had friends as influential as Charles Dickens, who helped to raise Sir John onto a pedestal which he did not deserve.

After Franklin

In spite of great pressure, Rae refused to retract one word of his report. Such was the success of Lady Franklin's campaign that he barely rates a mention in most history books about the 19th Century today.

There is no record of the personal impact that the onslaught had upon Rae. However, he retired from the Hudson's Bay Company very soon afterwards, in 1856. He continued to live, travel and explore in the Canadian Arctic and spent the last decade of his life contributing to scientific discussion and debate in London. He published articles and gave talks throughout the rest of his life, extolling the advantages of learning from local people how to live from the land. He criticised the Royal Navy in particular, and the British Government in general, for sending men into unfamiliar and extreme conditions with only a stiff upper lip and a belief that they alone were civilised.

The contributions that Rae made to exploration, science and to understanding native peoples did not go entirely unrewarded. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1880 and received Honorary Doctorates from both Edinburgh and McGill Universities. He was, however, one of the very few pre-eminent Arctic explorers not to be awarded a Knighthood.

Dr John Rae died at the age of 80 in 1893, a decade before Amundsen successfully navigated the Northwest Passage through Rae Strait. His body was taken home to Orkney where he was buried with great ceremony in St Magnus Cathedral. His remains are marked by a simple gravestone in the grounds and in the nave of the Cathedral is a stone memorial to one of Orkney's most remarkable sons. He lies on his side, wearing his Arctic clothes, his gun by his side and a blanket thrown over his sleeping form.

A Hero

John Rae was a hero in every sense. He displayed extraordinary physical bravery during his expeditions as well as showing an admirable trust in other people, whether from his own culture or not. Perhaps he would have earned the plaudits he deserved during his lifetime had he not had the honesty and strength of character to stand by the word of his Inuit friends. Such principled behaviour and such extraordinary feats of exploration should no longer go unrecognised.

1An estate manager.21,800km.3Most of which he and his men walked using snowshoes.4240km.5Presumably months, if not years.6Modern analysis of the skeletons has proved beyond doubt that the bodies were cut up using knives, presumably to be eaten.

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