An Open Letter to Explorer John Rae On His Birthday

Dear Dr. Rae:

I write from the
future to wish you Happy Birthday on the 203rd anniversary of your
birth. What to report from 2016? Well, searchers have recently found the two lost ships of
Sir John Franklin, 
Erebus and Terror. This has sparked renewed interest in the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition.

On this subject, slowly we are
winning the war to vindicate you and your Inuit informants, so shamefully
slandered by Charles Dickens in your own time. I put that story on the record
in Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge, and elaborated
in an introduction to The Arctic Journals
of John Rae
and a foreword to a new edition of John Rae’s Arctic Correspondence. I will publish another Arctic book in 2017.

In Orkney, a new
statue of you has been erected on Stromness Pier, with an inscription
recognizing that you discovered (in the formulation of historian Tom Muir) “the final
link in the first navigable Northwest Passage.” Also in Orkney, after a long
struggle, the John Rae Society has gained control of your birthplace, the Hall
of Clestrain, and has begun work on restoring it and transforming it into a visitor centre.

I will end these words of congratulation (203 years and counting!) with a few words (edited for space) from my foreword to your Arctic correspondence: 

The polemical introduction to Arctic Correspondence, which runs almost 100 pages, illustrates the
way the British establishment framed, controlled, and projected an “authorized
history” of Arctic exploration. Its main author was Richard Julius Cyriax, an
English medical doctor and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, who rejected the fact 
that some of the final survivors of the Franklin expedition had been
driven by starvation to cannibalism. He argues that “the religion, courage,
discipline, and sense of duty of Franklin’s men would have prevented anything
whatever of the kind described by the [Inuit].”

anticipated, many investigators have since added detail and nuance to Rae’s
original findings. Those who came after McClintock but before Cyriax include
Charles Francis Hall, Frederick Schwatka, and Knud Rasmussen. Those who came
after Cyriax include David Woodman, Owen Beattie, Margaret Bertulli, and Anne
Keenleyside. Woodman, author of
the Franklin Mystery
, correctly wrote of McClintock that “the vague stories
he collected . . . added detail to Rae’s account, but presented little that was
new.” The list of those who have clarified the Fate of Franklin continues to
grow. But as I wrote in
Fatal Passage,
“John Rae, not Leopold McClintock, deserves to be commemorated at Westminster
Abbey as the discoverer of the fate of Franklin. Yet even that would right only
half the historical wrong.”


  1. Jack Kirchhoff on February 1, 2022 at 5:16 pm

    That's a large and important niche that you've carved for yourself, Ken. Congratulations on your brilliantly successful career, but especially on the part dealing with Arctic exploration. You're a mensch.

  2. Anonymous on February 1, 2022 at 5:16 pm

    Thank you, Ken, for all you have done and continue to do for John Rae. He is my all time hero and should be for all Canadians.

  3. Denis on February 1, 2022 at 5:16 pm

    Congratulations, again, Ken, I am so pleased that the Hall of Clestrain will be restored. I strongly believe that the Canadian government should make a significant contribution to this great national hero.

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