Thursday, January 17, 2008

Fatal Passage

The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin

Author Ken McGoogan claims that John Rae solved the two most celebrated Arctic mysteries of the 19th century – the fate of Franklin and the discovery of the Northwest Passage. Yet he was deprived of those distinctions by the conniving of Lady Franklin and the short-sightedness of historians.

Rae was awarded the prize for being the first to bring back news of the Franklin expedition’s fate, yet historians have generally credited Leopold McClintock with that discovery. They also have agreed that Franklin and his men found the Northwest Passage -– “forging the last link with their lives,” as Franklin’s old friend and travelling companion, Sir John Richardson, put it. The problem is, that passage is not navigable. It was Rae who discovered that King William Land is not joined to Boothia Peninsula. The strait that separates them, and which now bears his name, was used by the first ships to navigate the Northwest Passage, Roald Amundsen’s Gjoa, and the RCMP's St. Roch.

Rae was, says McGoogan, “a post-colonial figure in a colonial age,” a person that we in the 21st century find more palatable than Franklin and his ilk. Not only was Rae endowed with almost superhuman endurance (he once snowshoed 75 miles in a single day), but he favoured living off the land, and employed native clothing and survival techniques. This was in direct opposition to the methods employed by the British Admiralty, which sent out expensive unwieldy expeditions, and frowned upon “going native.” Furthermore, Rae was a superb hunter who supplied the majority of the meat for his men on all his expeditions. He also esteemed the native men he travelled with, and defended them against English prejudice, as typified by Charles Dickens, who savaged the Inuit in Household Words.

Fatal Passage also upsets another cherished apple cart in portraying Lady Franklin as spiteful and manipulative. She “orchestrated the beatification of her dead husband,” which McGoogan terms an “historic fraud." He is the first, I believe, to describe Lady Franklin in such unflattering terms. Before then she had been portrayed as a saintly figure -- a model of wifely devotion, indomitable in her crusade to coerce the British Admiralty in not abandoning the search for Franklin.

Fatal Passage, then, is an ably written and well researched page-turner about a remarkable man. My only complaint is the Epilogue, in which the author inserts himself into the story by describing his own voyage to Boothia Peninsula to place a plaque in honour of John Rae. Rudy Wiebe did something similar in his Franklin-inspired novel, A Discovery of Strangers, when in the Acknowledgments he described building a cairn to house a record of his own canoe trip in the NWT.

While I find such actions self-aggrandizing, they do attest to the never-waning appeal of the Franklin mythos. Today, 150 years after Franklin disappeared, people are still looking for him. New books appear every year about Franklin or some of his buddies. Here are a representative few that have appeared since the turn of the century.

2000 - Ice Blink: The Tragic Fate of Sir John Franklin’s Lost Polar Expedition by Scott Cookson (botulism blamed for the expedition's failure)

2001 - The Franklin Conspiracy: Coverup, Betrayal, and the Astonishing Secret Behind the Lost Arctic Expedition by Jeffrey Blair Latta (weird history)

2002 - Deadly Winter: The Life of Sir John Franklin by Martyn Beardsley (biography)

2003 - Franklin’s Passage by David Solway (poetry)

2004 - The Arctic Fox: Francis Leopold McClintock, Discoverer of the Fate of Franklin by David Murphy (biography)

2005 - Lady Franklin’s Revenge: A True Story of Ambition, Obsession and the Remaking of Arctic History by Ken McGoogan (biography)

2006 - Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing? by Michael Smith (biography)

2007 - The Terror by Dan Simmons (horror)

2008 - Tracing the Connected Narrative: Arctic Exploration in British Print Culture, 1818-1860 by Janice Cavell (history)

Rae's Arctic Journeys

1846-47 – Rae and 10 men left York Factory and travelled by boat to Repulse Bay, then explored the base of the Gulf of Boothia from Fury and Hecla Strait to the east shore of Boothia Peninsula. Unknown to anyone at the time, Franklin’s ships were beset on the other side of Boothia.

1848 – Rae and Richardson formed one of the search parties sent out to search for Franklin. They travelled down the Mackenzie River, then east along the Arctic coast to the Coppermine River, and wintered at Fort Confidence on Great Bear Lake. Rae spent 1849 in Fort Simpson, then returned to Fort Confidence in 1850 in preparation for another search for Franklin.

1851 – Rae left Fort Confidence and travelled the southern expanse of Victoria Island, and the bottom of Coronation Gulf as far as the Kent Peninsula. On the east shore of Victoria, he found a few pieces of wood that likely came from Franklin’s ships. Once again he was maddeningly close to Franklin. Three times he attempted to cross Victoria Strait to King William Island, but was prevented by the same ice jam that had beset Franklin’s ships.

1853-54 – Rae retraced much of his first expedition on behalf of the HBC, in an attempt to discover the final link in the Northwest Passage. This time he travelled to the west side of Boothia Peninsula, meeting Inuit from whom he purchased artifacts belonging to Franklin and his men, and recording stories about their demise.

Websites: Ken McGoogan, The Fate of Franklin