Born in Orkney in 1813, John Rae seemed groomed for the outdoors. Growing up in an affluent household on the island, he had a voracious appetite for adventure: sailing, hunting, fishing and trekking were among his boyhood hobbies.
After graduating from the University of Edinburgh in medicine, he became a surgeon on a ship belonging to the Hudson’s Bay Company which set out for Canada. This proved to be a life-altering trip: he spent the next decade in the country after accepting a surgeon’s post in Moose Factory.
While working with the community, he gained a great understanding of the harsh environment through the Inuit people, who taught him valuable survival skills and how to live off the land. What he learned made him more self-reliant than most other explorers in the Victorian era, and such was his skill at using showshoes that he was given the nickname “Aglooka”. meaning he who takes great strides. This closeness with the local population ultimately proved to be his undoing.
By the 1840s, he was regularly dispatched on expeditions to map Canada’s coastline. His involvement in the search for the 1845 expedition of Sir John Franklin, who was searching for the Northwest Passage linking Atlantic and Pacific oceans, resulted in a discovery that would scandalise the British establishment.
Though he successfully mapped the Northwest Passage during his search for the Franklin expedition, his report on the fate of its 134-man crew overshadowed his achievements. He wrote that the surviving crew had resorted to cannibalism. His account was based on the testimony of Inuits who had seen a group of white men drag boats and sledges some years ago. He also acquired items from them that could have only belonged to the doomed expedition. Later, he spoke to other Inuits who said around 30 bodies had been found.
He wrote: “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.”
The report was widely condemned and discredited, chiefly because the Victorian establishment believed that the testimonies of the Inuits were unreliable. Rae’s failure to visit the site enraged the establishment further - none more so than Lady Jane Franklin, who sought to dismantle Rae’s achievements and martyr her late husband. Even novelist Charles Dickens sought to attack Rae, writing a letter to the Times newspaper objecting to his report, and the possibility that Royal Navy officers would resort to eating their own.
Lady Franklin’s campaign to lionise her late husband was overwhelmingly successful - Captain Richard Collinson of the Royal Navy was credited with Rae’s work of mapping thousands of miles of Arctic land. However, efforts to restore Rae’s reputation begun in the early 20th century, when Norwegian Roald Admunsen referred to the Northwest Passage as the “Rae Strait”. More official recognition for his monumental achievements have come slowly, but a monument to Rae is about to be established in Westminster Abbey.