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Cannibalism and cover-up: Why history spurned Orkney's John Rae

DR JOHN Rae solved two great mysteries of 19th-century Arctic exploration yet his findings and accomplishments were written out of history books because of what he said. Even in death – on 22 July 1893 – Rae's obituary written by the Royal Geographical Society was a short and grudging effort.

The Orcadian-born explorer discovered the legendary Northwest Passage and revealed the horrifying fate of an expedition led by Sir John Franklin. However Rae was denied official recognition for his achievement and castigated for telling the unpalatable truth - that sailors in the Royal Navy's ill-fated Franklin expedition had resorted to cannibalism.

"Putting forward his views, as he did, with point and insistence," said the obituary, "Dr Rae's remarks were unwelcome to naval authorities."

In the mid-19th century, what had been revealed was a threat to the very foundations of colonial enterprise. It could not be allowed, especially since Rae, a doctor with the Hudson's Bay Company in Canada, had already caused offence in establishment circles by being the first European explorer to see the logic in "going native".

During the early 1840s Rae had led four major Arctic expeditions, travelling more than 23,000 miles, and when the Admiralty sent Sir John Richardson to investigate the disappearance of the 1845 Franklin expedition, Rae's skills proved too invaluable to ignore. By the summer of 1847, nothing had been heard of Franklin and his 128 men, and by 1852 the search had become a national obsession.

From the archive

The Fate of Sir John Franklin

The Scotsman

25 October 1854

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It was Rae who eventually found the answer two years later, while on a mapping expedition across Canada's remote Boothia Peninsula. Franklin had been trying to find a channel on the north-west side of King William Island in his attempt to find the highly prized Northwest Passage. He and his crew abandoned ship after becoming ice-bound and eventually perished in the Arctic wastelands.

Meanwhile, hundreds of miles south-east of the expedition, Rae had found the sought-after channel that linked the sea trading route across North America. Between the Gulf of Boothia and King William Island, the Hudson Bay Company surgeon had noted how the ice floating in the channel was "young", not the impenetrable polar cap pack ice that flowed down Victoria Strait on the north-west side of the island. This showed the inner, protected channel would be navigable when Victoria Strait was not.

It was Rae's affinity with the native peoples that led to the discovery of Franklin's fate. Inuit nomads told Rae of finding the bodies of white men to the north, and knowing souvenirs would have been taken, he bartered for them and was eventually given naval clothing, monogrammed ship's cutlery and a kettle.

The kettle contained evidence of what Rae described in his 1854 Report to the Admiralty as "the dreadful end to which my fellow countrymen had been driven."

Victorian society was outraged. Lady Jane Franklin set out to blacken Rae's name and even elicited the support of novelist Charles Dickens who castigated the Orkney explorer in a letter to The Times for daring to suggest that British naval officers would "resort to native practices".

Rae was ostracised and his mapping of thousands of miles of Arctic territory was credited to Capt Richard Collinson of the Royal Navy.

When the bodies were finally recovered, the official story was that the sailors' deaths were from knife fights with natives.

The Polar Research Institute – which recently studied the remains – verified that 92 out of 400 bones had deep cut marks caused by knives.

Commenting on the institute's findings, Bryce Wilson, retired Orkney Museums officer, says:

"The mutilated bones were limb bones, and in a fight people stab at the body not hack at the arms and legs. One femur was cleanly sawn through, and natives in these remote areas only had bone tools – no saws or knives."

Wilson denounces the Franklin expedition as an historical fraud.

"He was nowhere near it and his campaign was, in reality, an ill-conceived disaster that achieved absolutely nothing. John Rae is the real hero, the real discoverer."

Not according to history books, even though Rae was vindicated by Roald Amundsen in 1903, when the Norwegian explorer sailed through what he logged as Rae Strait to complete the first East-West passage across the top of North America.

Even today, naval officers query Rae's findings, and the man who succeeded in finding the Northwest Passage lies buried in an unassuming Orkney grave, denied the knighthood and marble bust in Westminster Abbey that were the unjust deserts of Franklin, the man who failed.

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