Our speaker Nigel Barraclough first heard of the Franklin expedition in the 1970s but his interest in John Rae dates from his visit to Stromness in 2017.
The 1.5 million square miles of the Hudson Bay watershed, or Rupert’s Land, occupies 15% of North America, while Hudson Bay itself occupies some 0.47 million square miles, greater than Spain, France and the United Kingdom put together, making the journey to find the Northwest Passage one of the most ambitious and difficult in the history of exploration.
The Hudson’s Bay Company was established in 1670 by Royal Charter. Once the world’s largest landowner, its role was like that of the East India Company: to trade and explore passage through to the East, although it is now mainly a retail company.
John Rae, arctic traveller, doctor and trained surveyor, was famed for his physical stamina, his hunting and sailing skills, his use of native survival methods and his ability to travel long distances, sometimes as much as 70 miles a day, in extreme cold with little equipment while living off the land. This earned him the nickname Aglooka (the man with the long stride). He surveyed 1,750 miles of unexplored territory and led four major expeditions over 23,000 miles, proving in the process that Boothia was a peninsula and that King William Land was an island, thus providing ice-free passage from the North Atlantic to the Pacific.
From 1846 to 1847 he explored the northwest of Hudson Bay, and in 1854 he obtained information from the Inuit about the fate of the Franklin Expedition which had disappeared in 1848. The Franklin Expedition consisted of 129 officers and men, sailing in two ships, the Erebus and the Terror, with supplies for three years. In 1847 nine officers and 15 men had died and by 1848 the ships had been abandoned as survivors tried to make their way from King William Island towards the mainland.
In 1854 John Rae discovered three graves dated 1846 on Beechey Island. Local Inuits there were found with possessions belonging to Franklin’s crew and they showed Rae a pile of human bones some distance from their settlement. Many of the bones had been cracked in half, suggesting that the crew had resorted to cannibalism while on shore.
Rae was awarded £10,000 for finding evidence of the fate of Franklin’s expedition. He was elected to the Royal Society and in 1852 received the Founder’s Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society. He married Catherine Thompson in 1860 and settled in Chislehurst. In later life he continued to walk long distances and died in 1893 aged 79. He is buried in St Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall.
John Rae remains an unsung hero, as explorers such as Robert McClure and Leopold McClintock both claimed to be the first to have sailed through the passage. Nonetheless, Roald Amundsen in 1903 openly acknowledged the debt owed to Rae for opening up the Northwest Passage.