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Canada, Orkney & Maps.

Niamh Wood

John Rae

John Rae was a physician and highly respected explorer known for his remarkable strength and competence. He explored the Canadian Arctic and during these travels he walked more than 23,000 miles and mapped around 1,750 miles.

John Rae was born on September 30th, 1813, in Orkney, Scotland. As a young boy, John loved to go fishing and sailing on the family’s small boat; an education that would prove to serve him well in his future career as an explorer. He studied medicine at the University of Edinburgh and The Royal College of Surgeons, graduating with a degree in 1833. John’s father was the agent for the Hudson’s Bay Company in Stromness. John, following in his father’s footsteps decided to work on the company ship that annually visited Moose Factory, a trading post in Canada.

He worked as a surgeon on the ship and after just two years, John was made resident surgeon of the Canadian post and went on to serve there for ten years. He spent his free time hunting and learning survival skills from the natives. They also taught him how to use sleds and with the help of local craftsmen, he designed his own snowshoes. The knowledge taught to him by the natives allowed Rae to travel great distances with little equipment few people, unlike many other explorers of that era.

The Hudson’s Bay Company governor-in-chief, Sir George Simpson, decided that Rae should finish mapping the Arctic Coast as he had spent so much time living and learning with the natives. So, in 1846-1847 Rae set forth on the first of four expeditions into the Canadian Arctic. On this trip, Rae left with a small group of people and carried only a small amount of food, choosing instead to live off the land utilizing hunting, something he had much experience in since he was a young child. The expedition consisted of the exploration of the Gulf of Boothia and Rae soon discovered that Boothia was a peninsula and not an island which it had been thought to be.

In 1848, following a trip to London, Rae revisited the Arctic, this time as second in command in Sir John Richardson's search party on the look for the lost Franklin Expedition. In 1849 Richardson returned to England while Rae and six other men continued the search. They used a boat to explore the coastline to Wollaston land but didn’t find anything linking Franklin’s expedition being here.

Rae went on a third arctic expedition in 1851. He and his group travelled about 5,300 miles and mapped 700 miles of the Southern Coast of Victoria Island. It was on this trip that he saw the first trace of Franklins missing ships. On Raes returned to London he was awarded with The Founders gold medal of The Royal Geographical Society in 1852 for his discoveries of 1846-47 and 1851.

In 1853-54 Rae set out again for the Canadian Arctic, surveying the Boothia peninsula and making the important discovery proving king William's land was not a peninsula but an island. It was on this journey that Rae received news from Eskimos at Pelly Bay that the members of the Franklin Expedition had perished of exposure and starvation, resorting to cannibalism in a final attempt to stay alive.

Rae returned to London with the tragic news of the unfortunate fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew. However, this news began a storm of controversy. His unedited report, containing the reports of cannibalism was issued to The Times magazine by the Admiralty. Meanwhile, Lady Franklin rallied support from Charles Dickens who vilified the Eskimos as savages and liars in his magazine, household words. Lady Franklin destroyed Rae's reputation and proclaimed Franklin as the discoverer of the Northwest Passage, not Rae. Rae was however finally awarded the £10,000 reward for the news of the fate of the Franklin Expedition which he shared with his party.

Rae retired from The Hudson’s Bay Company in 1856 and lived thereafter in London with his wife Catherine Thompson who he married in 1860. In 1860-64 he took part in land surveys for the establishment of a telegraph between England and America.

On the 22nd of July 1893, Rae died at his house at 4 Addison gardens, London. He was moved and buried on the grounds of St Magnus cathedral in Kirkwall, Orkney. A memorial, paid by public subscription was made in dedication to his work and placed inside the cathedral the following year.

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