Fatal Passage: The Untold Story of John Rae, the Arctic Adventurer Who Discovered the Fate of Franklin

by Ken McGoogan

Published by Harper Canada


Reviewed by Paul vanPeenen


There is a great irony in the relationship between John Rae and Sir John Franklin. Their names will forever remain synonymous with the history of Arctic exploration, but Ken McGoogan’s new book Fatal Passage attempts to set the record straight. Both men were explorers, Rae with the Hudson’s Bay Company and Franklin with the Royal Navy -- but there the similarity ends. Franklin, the consummate British officer, refused to adapt to proven Arctic survival techniques and it cost him his life along with the lives of 128 officers and men. Rae readily accepted and adapted to wearing fur clothing and using proven travel methods of the Inuit and Indians he lived and worked with.

The irony, of course, is that Rae was the first European to discover the fate of Franklin and his men while at the same time discovering the only navigable Northwest Passage with which Franklin and Sir Robert McClure have been credited. McGoogan goes to great lengths to corroborate Rae’s discoveries to correct the historical record.

By all accounts Franklin was ill-suited to travel in the harsh Arctic environment. His first Arctic expedition in 1821 was a disaster in which he lost more than half his men to starvation and only barely escaped with his life thanks to midshipman George Back and the Yellowknife Indians who saved the remainder of the party. Nevertheless, this fiasco catapulted Franklin into the Victorian limelight as "the man who ate his boots."

Franklin’s ultimate demise came more than 25 years later when, in 1845, he sailed from England intent to become the first man to navigate the Northwest Passage. He never made it as his ships Erebus and Terror became beset in ice off the northwest coast of King William Island. Franklin and many men died of a combination of scurvy, botulism, starvation and lead poisoning while the survivors died one by one on a grueling march to the mouth of the Back River.

At the tender age of 19, upon graduating from medical school in Edinburgh, Scotland, adventure and Rupert’s Land beckoned the young Rae and he left his native Orkney Islands in 1833 hired as surgeon on board the Hudson Bay Company ship Prince of Wales bound for Moose Factory. He was to have sailed back that same season but pack ice prevented the ships from leaving Hudson Bay and Rae and the crew spent the winter on Charlton Island at the south end of the bay. Here Rae proved himself not only as a doctor by nursing many of crew suffering from scurvy but also as ". . . hardy and well-adapted to the country," according to Chief Factor John George MacTavish in a letter to Sir George Simpson, the HBC governor at the time. And so Rae’s fate was sealed with a five-year contract offer from governor Simpson to which Rae agreed to remain for only two years. As it happened, he was to remain at Moose Factory for the next ten years, honing his skills and according to McGoogan ". . . embarking on a singular journey that would make him arguably the greatest Arctic explorer of the century."

The book is rich in detail of Rae’s childhood on the Orkney Islands followed by his years as doctor at Moose Factory where he quickly learned the necessary skills for life in Rupert’s Land from the Cree who lived all around the post. Rae became an expert canoeist and extraordinary snowshoe walker as his house calls frequently forced him to make long-distance trips both summer and winter. His skill as a hunter also flourished as he constantly supplied deer and fowl for the fur trading post. McGoogan’s painstaking research adds colour to the story of Rae’s early life. The author’s admiration for Rae is palpable. Little details gleaned from letters and journals are used to give insight to what life was like for the young Rae at a 19th century Hudson’s Bay Company post at a time when great changes were taking place in Rupert’s Land and the rest of the world.

In 1843, Sir George Simpson summoned Rae to Lachine for Christmas where the men discussed plans for Rae’s first Arctic expedition to survey and map the north coast and possibly discover the Northwest Passage, the Holy Grail of 19th century Arctic exploration. Rae prepared himself by snowshoeing 700 miles back to Moose Factory and in the two years that followed he learned to use a sextant and the art of surveying. In June 1846 he set out from York Factory with 10 men and two boats on what was to be the first of four remarkable expeditions that mapped key parts of the north coast of the continent. The journey took him north along the Hudson Bay coast to Repulse Bay across (what is now known as) the Rae Isthmus into Committee Bay where he surveyed the entire coast of the bay and the southern half of the Gulf of Boothia. He discovered that Boothia Felix was a peninsula and not an island as had been previously speculated. In short, he proved that no Northwest Passage existed in this vicinity.

What makes this survey remarkable is that it was carried out largely after Rae and his men spent the winter of 1846-47 in Repulse Bay living in a stone house and igloos while hunting for their food, a challenge that, according to McGoogan, no European had yet met. At the same time, hundreds of miles to the northwest, Franklin and his men also spent a grueling winter beset in ice off the north coast of King William Island. By the time Rae returned to civilization with his discoveries Franklin was already dead and the greatest search for a lost explorer had begun and, in many ways, continues to this day.

In 1848, one of these search expeditions was lead by Rae and John Richardson who had served with Franklin during his first two Arctic expeditions of 1820-21 and 1825-27. They traveled up the Mackenzie River and along the north coast as far east as Coronation Gulf before retreating back up the Coppermine River to spend the winter at Fort Confidence on Great Bear Lake. The following summer, Richardson returned to England and Rae attempted to cross to Wollaston Land by small boat but failed and returned to Fort Simpson to take charge of the Mackenzie River District for the HBC.

In the spring of 1851 Rae did cross Dolphin and Union Strait on foot and surveyed the coast line of the Wollaston Peninsula believed at the time to be separate from Victoria Island. Later that same year, Rae and 11 men in two small boats sailed east along Coronation Gulf to the Kent Peninsula. Here, Rae decided to sail north to Victoria Island and search for Franklin along its southern and eastern coasts. Ironically, Rae wrote at the time: "Had geographical discovery had been the object . . . I would have followed the coast eastward to Simpson Strait and then have crossed over towards Cape Franklin (on King William Island)."

McGoogan laments that had Rae indeed been able to go east, he would likely have discovered the fate of Franklin and his men early enough to retrieve invaluable written records of the lost expedition. About a month later, Rae twice tried crossing Victoria Strait to King William Island but ice and the onset of winter prevented him from doing so. But Rae did discover the first clues to what had happened to Franklin. He found two pieces of wood which were clearly manufactured and Rae speculated they were portions of one of Franklin’s ships.

The search for Franklin continued with his widow Lady Jane Franklin leading the charge and even going so far as to finance private expeditions. Rewards were offered by the admiralty and both Navy and private expeditions were sent into the Arctic to find the lost explorer.

In March 1854, after having spent another winter living off the land in the Arctic, Rae’s fourth Expedition took him back to the Boothia Peninsula to complete the mapping of the northern coast of the continent. This is were the story of Rae’s life becomes forever intertwined with that of Franklin. Rae traveled north along the coast of Boothia and discovered that King William Land was an island and that the strait separating it from the mainland – now known as Rae Strait – was the last piece in the Northwest Passage puzzle which Europeans had been trying to solve since the 17th century. Fifty years later, Roald Amundsen would prove Rae correct by becoming the first to navigate the passage through Rae Strait.

Secondly, Inuit hunters told Rae of dead white men to the west of a large river (the Back River) and they also produced artifacts undoubtedly belonging to the Franklin expedition. Rae bought silver cutlery, buttons and a gold hat band from the Inuit along with other artifacts. More importantly, Rae was told by the Inuit about more dead "kabloona" near the mouth of the Back River and that these men most certainly ". . . had been driven to the last dread alternative as a means of sustaining life."

With this report of cannibalism, Rae’s life was forever changed as Victorian society refused to believe these sensational rumours gleaned as so-called second-hand information from "unreliable savages." More than anyone, Lady Jane Franklin, with help from Charles Dickens, refuted the reports as slanderous. She began a systematic campaign to discredit Rae which certainly succeeded as today’s history books still credit Franklin with the discovery of the Northwest Passage. Rae eventually received credit and a reward for discovering the fate of Franklin but he was denied a knighthood, a honour bestowed on many lesser men in the history of Arctic exploration.

McGoogan’s book successfully brings Rae’s discoveries from obscurity into the proper place they deserve to occupy in our collective mind. His research includes numerous unpublished documents and letters in addition to extensive published materials. Fatal Passage is a compelling read as it describes Rae’s journeys in great detail and takes the reader along through the northern parts of Canada. McGoogan clearly argues that Rae was unmatched by any other explorer of the Victorian era. The book has tension even though the outcome of the story is generally already known.

In 1999, McGoogan even went so far as to travel north to Point de la Guiche on Rae Strait where the explorer discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage. There McGoogan placed a plaque on what he believes to be near the same spot where Rae built a cairn in 1854. It commemorates Rae and his discoveries.

"For me, that is the most historically significant location in the Arctic," said McGoogan. And who could argue with him?


EXTRA FEATURE: Read Paul vanPeenen's interview with Ken McGoogan