Why John Rae and NOT Sir John Franklin

So folks are (still!) debating the accomplishments of John Franklin and John Rae over at Russell Potter’s blog, where I have been driven to offer the following thoughts . . . .:http://visionsnorth.blogspot.ca/2012/09/a-navigable-northwest-passage.html

Greetings, Russell.
Nicely done. But we do not yet see eye to eye.
agree, I think, that John Rae discovered Rae Strait. We agree that
Victoria Channel, running to the west of King William Island, was
perennially blocked by ice in the mid-19th century. We agree that
Amundsen sailed through Rae Strait when he became the first to navigate
the Northwest Passage. And that he did it in the Gjoa, which had a draft
of just over 10 feet.

You mention the size of the Terror. But what of Franklin’s lead vessel, Erebus, which had a draft of 13.8 feet?
allude to the “extensive shoal area in mid-channel (Rae Strait) of 5.5
to 18 metres.” But 5.5 metres equals 18 feet. That leaves plenty of
clearance for Erebus.

As Captain Thoomey states, even massive
ships with drafts of 8 metres (26 feet) could “technically and
theoretically” pass through Rae Strait and the adjoining channels. And
the Hanseatic, which went aground in Simpson Strait, has a draft of 16
feet — considerably more than 13.8.

But my claim does not hinge
on John Franklin and his ships. It is this: That John Rae discovered the
only Northwest Passage navigable by ships of the mid-19th century. So,
yes, as argued above, the Erebus could have made it. But also we have
the Fox in which Leopold McClintock sailed in 1857. The Fox had a draft
of 11.5 feet — scarcely more than the Gjoa.

As you know, the
reason Franklin turned west instead of east when he reached the tip of
King William Island is that he had an Admiralty map indicating that the
eastward channel ended in Poctes Bay. McClintock had learned from Rae
that “Poctes Bay” was really a strait. Had McClintock not been thwarted
at the eastern entrance to Bellot Strait, he would probably have
completed the Passage in 1857-59.

As for Joseph Conrad, well, I
am a huge admirer of his work. But he died in 1924, and his assessment
of Franklin strikes me as outdated, even quaint. He is right that
Franklin is famous for his “professional prestige and high personal
character.” But as I demonstrated in Lady Franklin’s Revenge, both of
those were fabricated by Jane, Lady Franklin. Conrad is right that
persistent efforts “to ascertain his fate advanced greatly our knowledge
of the polar regions.” But again, those efforts came courtesy of Lady

I hope, Russell, that you will repent, and that you
will accord John Rae the recognition he deserves as discoverer of the
only Northwest Passage navigable to ships of the mid-19th century. But I
will not hold my breath.

— Ken McGoogan


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

    Ken, thanks for your comments on my blog. I won't repeat the debate here, but just for the record, I would absolutely agree with you that Dr. John Rae discovered the only northwest passage navigable by 19th-century ships — adding only that such ships would have had to be considerably smaller and more maneuverable than were Franklin's ungainly "bomb" vessels.

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

    To that, I answer: Richard
    Collinson. Looks like I have more faith in certain officers of the Royal Navy than you. Collinson in the Erebus with a map by John Rae: voila, c'est fait. The Passage is accomplished.

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