Today, it has been unveiled a plaque honouring Dr John Rae, the explorer, "The greatest Arctic explorer of them all", said some people, the "Peerless Rae" said others, "The forgotten", "The vilifed" think others.
|Dr. John Rae|
By Beatriz Garrido Ponce
And yes, it is true, he was forgotten, he was criticized and he was never forgiven by some people, and the things remained in that way for ages. But, like the history of the discovering of the Northwest Passage continues demonstrating us, recent chains of unexpected events will shift the course of the waters and this "status quo" could be changed after all.
The waters would be again in movement after the melting of the ice of the frozen waters of the merits and credits deserved for this great man. It wasn´t till "Fatal Passage" by Ken McGoogan was published that a truly movement to recover the image of Rae began to fill the minds of those who have been always interested in some way or other in the fate of the Franklin expedition. A movement which even has been given form of a Society, The John Rae Society.
John Rae is being now, surely while I am writing, forgiven for something that he did not do. Rae, had the dubious pleasure of being the first on discovering the fate of the Franklin expedition during his expedition of 1854. His sin was discovering something that anybody in Britain actually wanted to know and he bore news the world was not prepared to understand. He was criticized for telling the world that the men of the Franklin expedition had resorted to Canibalism to prolong their existence, he was blamed for believing the Inuit, who told him all those incredible and awful stories, and he was pursued for not having gone to King William Island when he had the chance to corroborate all that madness.
He was blamed in the same way that Apsley Cherry-Garrard would be attacked after the last Scott´s expedition. Thousands of voices cried and never forgave Cherry-Garrard for not pressing harder, for not reaching the place where Scott was staying inside his tent, thousands of voices cried and never forgave Rae for not reaching King William Island and not verifying the stories which were told him by the Inuit in 1854.
The sad truth and real pity, though he was never criticised for it, was that he was really close to find some decisive clues during his expedition of 1851, if not eventually a member of the Franklin expedition still alive, when he repeatedly tried to cross Victoria Strait towards King William Island, thing that unfortunately never happened.
|King William Island and Surroundings|
Now that one of the ships of the Franklin expedition has been found, exactly where the Inuit said it would be found, it is clearer than anytime, that the Rae´s sources were highly reliable, that it wasn´t necessary to travel to King William Island to check all those testimonies, that he took the good decisions and did the correct thing.
It is almost ironic than within the same month these two events have taken place. Three if we consider that Scotland had a Referendum and voted No to the independece. The world should recognise this, the Inuit, were right, the ship was where it was supposed to be, and that Rae, was right too, the Franklin expedition ended as the Inuit told him, as forensic analisys of the bones found, revealed time after. And one have to wonder (thinking bad) if this homage would have been canceled if Scotland would have said yes.
But, the truth, is that Rae is going to be forgiven for something he didn´t actually do. He discovered the sad end of Franklin and his men but he never pretended to unveil the darkest details of what was told him. His news traveled fastest than him and reached the newspapers in Britain before he could do anything against it. Even Dickens conceded him that it was the Admiralty´s fault.
|Charles Dickens circa 1860|
It is tempting to think that Rae could have intentionally delivered this information to spread the image of how futile were the old fashioned ways of the Royal Navy of performing Arctic expeditions, though this I find this very unlikely, and the history says that it was the Admiralty which finally delivered those news to the general public. Who knows, perhaps there was a mole in that hole...
The mortal duel performed by Rae and his archenemy Dickens, the armed wing of Lady Franklin, lasted years and there were no winners, but there was a loser. Rae´s image received damaged to the core and he spent the rest of his life trying to justify his actions. Interestingly, Rae, applied a similar treatment to Charles Francis Hall, this is a fact not very well known which I have learnt reading "Strangers Among us" by Woodman. Rae tried to discredit all the Inuit´s stories told to Hall.
But that duel was condemned to last from his death to these days. The credit for the discovery of the last link for the Northwest Passage has been discussed, is being discussed now and will be discussed perhaps forever. Rae discovered one of the last pieces of the puzzle, Rae´s strait, a detour which Amundsen took during the first sailed crossing of the passage, a key piece.
Rae not only played the role of Cherry-Garrard in the sense of being the target of the wrath of the media but also acted as a sort of Amundsen. To me, Rae was one of the first man on practicing a modern way to explore, a sportive way of exploration. He performed astonishing trecks alone in the coldest months of the winter in a way that now only the best prepared sportsman can do. He learned the way to live off the land frome the Inuit and knew well how to travel fast on the snow as Amundsen knew too.
By Beatriz Garrido Ponce
John Rae´s revenge is not that he could be proclaimed as the first on discovering the last link of the Northwest Passage, to me his revenge is that he can be proclaimed an authentic and modern explorer, revolutionary for his time, a resortful man who really had chances to survive in that enviroment. The comparison betwen Amundsen and Scott at this point is inevitably. That is to me his real revenge that he should be considered as a real explorer even compared with the current standards.
Acnowledgements: Special thanks to my friend Beatriz Garrido Ponce for giving me this wonderful portraits of John Rae and Roald Amundsen which were painted by her. My interest about the Franklin Expedition has present me with a lot of friends all over the world, some of who I have the inmense pleasure to meet in person. She is one of them, Thanks Bea!.
Thanks also to Ken McGoogan for serving me as inspiration as the title of this post.