More Arctic Journals of John Rae . . .

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The Arctic Journals of John Rae

Selected and Edited by Ken McGoogan

Victoria, BC: TouchWood Editions, 2012

312 pp. , $19.95

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

The welcome publication of the journals of Dr. John Rae, the man who
filled in the last crucial blanks in the northern coastline of North
America, now fills a notable blank on the shelves of history; his is the
last personal narrative of a major explorer during the search for Sir
John Franklin to be published, one hundred and fifty-eight years after
the latest events it recounts. There is considerable irony in the chief
reason for this delay, which is doubtless that Rae searched too well,
uncovering things that the British Admiralty, and large segments of the
British public, would have preferred remained covered up. His accounts
of Inuit testimony as to Franklin’s men resorting to cannibalism shocked
the sensibilities of the day, and were vociferously denied not only by
Charles Dickens, but by many others in more recent times, despite the
clear forensic evidence
since gathered which has proved this testimony true.  Rae’s own words
still speak most capably in his defense, and we must be grateful to Ken
McGoogan and TouchWood editions for bringing them back to us in a
beautiful and compact new edition.

The format of the book, though, may be a bit confusing at first to some
readers; it opens with several passages from the “lost” section of Rae’s
autobiography, missing from the manuscript at the Scott Polar Research
Institute, then partially recovered by McGoogan in a series of extended
quotations in David Murray Smith’s compendium
of Arctic voyages. Smith’s commentary and sections of Rae’s text are
given together, which makes for somewhat jarring transitions between the
rather pompous language of Smith, and the plain speaking of the
intrepid Orcadian. There can be gleaned, however, from these pages, some
items of considerable interest to the armchair Franklin searcher of
today, particularly in Rae’s extended comments on the paucity of wood
amid the Inuit he encountered. Rae believed that this was clear evidence
that they had not found either of Franklin’ ships as of 1854, which
would effectively date the finding of the ship at Oootjoolik to after
that point; certainly by the time McClintock encountered the Inuit near
Booth Point in 1859, wood was remarkably abundant.

The second, and largest section of the book contains Rae’s full account,
published in his lifetime, of his first Arctic expedition in 1846-47;
while it of necessity contains nothing about Franklin, it is remarkable
to consider how well and (for the most part) how comfortably Rae lived
off the land, at the very moment when Franklin’s men, holed up in their
frozen ships, were contemplating that same land with fear, so dependent
were they on stored provisions . . .

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