Britain to debate Arctic explorer’s image makeover

You gotta love a national news service when a superb story turns up in newspapers across the country — like this one, say, by Randy Boswell of Canwest, which surfaced in the Montreal Gazette and The Vancouver Sun and probably a few other places.

By Randy Boswell
Canwest News Service

A Canadian writer’s decade-long campaign to restore the reputation of an unsung Arctic explorer has finally reached the British House of Commons, inspiring a Scottish MP’s bid to rewrite the history engraved on the hallowed walls of Westminster Abbey.

Fatal Passage, an award-winning 2001 book by Toronto author Ken McGoogan, argued that scholars and British officialdom had largely overlooked the 19th-century achievements of John Rae, a Scottish-born Hudson’s Bay Company employee who, in 1854, discovered the grim fate of the lost Franklin Expedition.

Rae’s search also led to him finding the last link in the fabled Northwest Passage — the very sea route through Canada’s Arctic islands, which Sir John Franklin had been seeking when he perished with his 129-man crew in the late 1840s.

But Rae also created a storm of outrage in Britain by reporting that members of Franklin’s crew cannibalized the dead in a desperate — though ultimately ill-fated — attempt to survive their ordeal. Rae’s suggestion, McGoogan has argued, led to his virtual erasure from the pages of history, as posthumous glory was heaped on Franklin, and other explorers were given credit for Rae’s achievements.

Now, Orkney and Shetland MP Alistair Carmichael is urging the U.K. Parliament to officially recognize Rae as the true discoverer of the passage. And he wants the country to correct the claims in two high-profile, “inaccurate” historical markers paying tribute to the Englishman Franklin: one inside the abbey and the other near the headquarters of the British Admiralty.

[To read the whole article, click on the title.]


  1. Russell Potter on February 1, 2022 at 5:20 pm

    It is remarkable how much of a row can still be raised, the more so when old nationalist feelings are stirred! If it has the effect of getting people to recall and rethink the history of the Passage, so much the better, but it’s unfortunate that the rightful recognition of Rae comes with a demand that Franklin’s memorials be denounced. Whether Franklin’s men did or did not reach a point connecting with the furthest eastward survey (Simpson’s) is not entirely certain one way or the other, although Inuit evidence of the presence of Franklin’s men on the far southwestern coast of King William Island as well as on the Adelaide peninsula makes it at least likely. Rae’s survey of the strait which bears his name does indeed constitute an alternative route through the NW passage, and one more navigable for ships — and yet Rae did not himself navigate it, and regarded his job — of conducting a survey — as his primary task, not exploration per se.

    The attempt to pit Rae against Franklin in the name of Scottish national feeling is, I believe, an injustice to both men. Neither would, I feel, have wished to slight the other, and both have a significant portion of the discoverer’s laurels.

  2. Bonnieupnorth on February 1, 2022 at 5:20 pm

    Ken….just a quick hello! We met at the lit fest in Edmonton and you signed your book!

    Love these connections through northern bloggers.

    Am on a work stint currently in Gjoa Haven,

    Take care, Bonnie

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