Inteview with Ken McGoogan by Paul vanPeenen


Pv: What motivated you to undertake this project?

McGoogan: Back in 1997, I applied for a "press fellowship" at Cambridge University, undertaking to spend my time studying post-colonial theory. To my surprise, my application proved successful. Immediately, I thought: three months at Cambridge? Surely, instead of studying theory, I should begin writing a new book -- one with a post-colonial theme? While trying to get more specific, I remembered reading about John Rae a dozen years before, in Peter C. Newman’s Company of Adventurers. I remembered particularly the controversy that erupted in 1854, when Rae returned to Victorian England, reported the truth about the Franklin expedition, and then, despite fierce pressure, refused to recant and denounce the Inuit. At that point, Rae became a post-colonial figure in a colonial age.

So, having published four novels, I proposed to write a fifth -- a contemporary work that would incorporate the story of John Rae, perhaps using the fact that a final chunk of his unpublished autobiography, held in Cambridge at the Scott Polar Research Institute, had disappeared. I began framing out this novel. Meanwhile, at Cambridge, I spent hours exploring libraries and archives. And the more I discovered, the more disturbed I became. As a boy, I had been taught that Sir John Franklin discovered the Northwest Passage. Yet Franklin, I now realized, discovered no passage at all. He died aboard his ice-locked ship off the west coast of King William Island, and even the final survivors of his expedition trekked down an impassable strait and discovering nothing, myth-makers to the contrary. The man who discovered the final navigable link in the Passage -- i.e. the link that Franklin had been seeking -- was John Rae. He found it on the east side of King William Island: Rae Strait. And he was vindicated in 1903-06, when Roald Amundsen became the first to complete the Northwest Passage -- by sailing Rae Strait.

I remember the night I faced this realization, how I paced around my room smacking my forehead. Because I realized that if I turned John Rae’s story into a novel, people would be able to dismiss it: oh, he’s just writing fiction. So, I felt I had no choice: I abandoned the fictional framework and started again, bent this time on telling the true story, and on vindicating John Rae.

Pv: How long did it take you to research and write the book?

McGoogan: Roughly three years.

Pv: Do you think you have written a controversial book?

McGoogan: Controversial? Yes, absolutely. Like John Rae himself, Fatal Passage is a subversive piece of work. In fact, the book has already begun to generate controversy. Official history will always have its doughty defenders. Is any field of study free of vested interests? Of sour grapes? If, a dozen years ago, I had written a book reiterating the prevailing wisdom, only to have some hotshot come along and explode that mythology, I suppose I might feel threatened and lash out -- though I like to think I would respond out of a larger, more open spirit.

Pv: Do you think that your book sets the record straight? Has Rae been vindicated? Should (can) more be done or is that too revisionist?

McGoogan: My book is, I hope, a good beginning. I got a call the other day from an Arctic aficionado who rightly perceived that Fatal Passage is the first book to identify what happened to the most important section of Rae’s unpublished autobiography, and suggesting that the Champlain Society, or some other body, should investigate publishing that whole palimpsest, including the previously missing section I have identified, together with related correspondence.  I think that’s a great idea. For a century and a half, the history of Arctic exploration has revolved around Sir John Franklin -- but why? Why this obsession with disaster and incompetence? Why not focus instead on excellence and accomplishment? In my view, the story of Franklin is subsidiary to the story of John Rae.

Pv: Did Rae need vindication? Others have given him credit for his discoveries. For one, David C. Woodman in Unravelling the Franklin Mystery.

McGoogan: In Fatal Passage, I describe Woodman’s excellent book as both a tour de force and a model of creative analysis. And, yes, Woodman does recognize Rae as the discoverer of the fate of Franklin. Woodman does not, however, recognize Rae as the discoverer of the final link in the Northwest Passage. In fact, he attempts to make a different case -- a case that, in Fatal Passage, I address and refute. My book is the first to celebrate Rae as having solved the two great mysteries of 19th-century Arctic exploration -- as the discoverer of both the fate and the Passage.

Pv: Do you think Rae's employment with the HBC rather than the Navy had any bearing on the fact that he did not receive the credit/rewards he was entitled to?

McGoogan: Yes, this was a contributory factor, one that reduced sympathy for him in the highest circles: "He’s a fur trader, you know, not a Royal Navy man."

Pv: Do you think Rae's report of cannibalism among Franklin's men was really the clincher in him not receiving proper credit or reward for his discoveries?

McGoogan: Yes, absolutely. Rae could have overcome the social albatross of the HBC connection, and was well on his way to doing so, and to achieving a knighthood. Then he reported the cannibalism. In the face of fierce criticism by the likes of Charles Dickens, who denounced the Inuit as savages and virtually accused some of them of murder, Rae stood resolute and refused to recant; instead, he mounted a stout defence of the Inuit. This revealed him as a man out of time, a postcolonial figure in a colonial age -- and, as such, a man beyond the pale.

Pv: You present a great case that Rae was the first European explorer to really "go native" and to live off the land. What about Samuel Hearne? Did he not live off the land during his travels with Matonabbee across the Barrens to the mouth of the Coppermine?

McGoogan: Within the realm of Arctic exploration, I see John Rae as a Christ figure: he is the one who fulfilled all the prophecies.  In addition to solving the two mysteries, he not only led expeditions, but was also and always the chief hunter. Samuel Hearne did not lead, but shambled after Matonabbee; what’s more, Hearne could not have survived long by his own rifle. In this context, Hearne is a Moses figure: one who, by "going native" and writing about it, laid the original groundwork for the eventual appearance of the master. Yet, Hearne is fascinating in other ways -- which is why he’ll be the subject of my next book.

Pv: Why did you want to travel north and place a plaque at Pt. de la Guiche?

McGoogan: I felt absolutely driven to mark the spot where John Rae discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage. For me, that is the most historically significant location in the Arctic. I realized, of course, that placing the plaque, making that gesture in the real world, also served as an ideal metaphor for what I intended to do in the realm of letters with Fatal Passage.

Pv: Can you elaborate on your feelings when you were at that point where Rae made his discovery of the NW Passage?

McGoogan: First, relief: nobody had arrived a few days before (think of Scott arriving at the South Pole); second, exhilaration. I refer you to Fatal Passage: "We had become the first to commemorate John Rae’s greatest achievement at its location. Nobody could take that away from us."

Pv: Rae "discovered" the fate of Franklin and the Northwest Passage. Did not, in both cases, the Inuit already know these things? Rae certainly seemed to have thought so and staunchly defended the Inuit and all they told him. Can we, as non-Inuit or Europeans (past and present), truly lay claim to having discovered either?

McGoogan: The ancestors of contemporary Inuit may well have arrived in the Arctic 10,000 or 11,000 years ago. They may well have rambled the North from coast to coast to coast. But they did not discover the Northwest Passage because that Passage did not exist. The Northwest Passage did not exist, and so could not be discovered, until Europeans invented it. The Passage is first and foremost an intellectual construct, a way of conceiving: a geographical puzzle that could only be "solved" in its own terms. (Lady Jane Franklin conspired to change those terms, those "rules of the game," for her own ends, as I show in Fatal Passage.) The same is true of "the fate of Franklin." The Inuit found only some dead kabloonas who had resorted to cannibalism. They did not discover "the fate of Franklin," however, because they conceived of no such thing. Hence: Papers and logbooks? Utterly meaningless. John Rae was the one who fit the Inuit reports of dead kabloonas into the European conception of the lost Arctic hero, and so "discovered" the fate of Franklin. Is this Eurocentric? Yes, I suppose it is. But should North Americans stop investigating the Seven Years War or the American Revolution because those subjects are Eurocentric? Fatal Passage arises out of the European encounter with the Arctic, and focuses on key aspects of that encounter. This seems to me legitimate. I decline to apologize for critically exploring our European heritage.