Paul Wilson: Arctic tales come to McMaster – the glory and the gore

John Rae, Arctic explorer, called Hamilton home for a short while, but few know who he is. Author Ken McGoogan tells the story of his hero at Mac this weekend.

In the final desperate days, the stranded explorers turned to the "last resource" – cannibalism.

John Rae made major discoveries in the Arctic, but paid the price for telling the gruesome truth when he sailed back to England. (Passage Through The Ice, Sir John Ross)

There’s a plaque on the lawn of a highrise at Bay and Hunter that’s dedicated to a man named John Rae.

He was an Arctic explorer. Ever heard of him? Most have not.

That’s why Ken McGoogan decided to write a book about Rae. It’s called Fatal Passage and came out a dozen years ago. It won awards, got turned into a docudrama by the BBC and still sells well in the UK.

"I hate to put it this way," McGoogan says, "but Rae is my hero."

While living in Hamilton in 1858, John Rae posed for posterity. (Portrait by Stephen Pearce)

And if there’s someone he just can’t bear, it would be the scheming Lady Franklin, the wife of Sir John Franklin, who got credit aplenty for his wanderings through the Arctic.

Lady Franklin made sure of that. And she made it her mission to rob Rae of his own legacy. And all because Rae told the truth that, in the last desperate days, Franklin’s valiant men resorted to cannibalism.

McGoogan, author of 11 books, will tell the story – the glory and the gore – this Saturday night at McMaster.

Rae helped found the Hamilton Association

Though we have a plaque to Rae, he didn’t live in Hamilton long. But while here, he helped found the Hamilton Association for the Advancement of Literature Science and Art.

And 156 years later, it’s still going. The Association hosts monthly public lectures and the lineup is on their website.

This talk is special because the Association is celebrating Rae’s birthday. He turns 200 this month. To mark the occasion, McGoogan was a clear choice. All these years later, John Rae has no better friend.

Rae grew up in Orkney, the rugged jumble of islands off north Scotland. He learned to hunt and sail in boyhood. By age 19, he had graduated from medical school in Edinburgh. But he wanted adventure.

Author Ken McGoogan admires John Rae and can't bear Lady Franklin. (Ken McGoogan)

So Rae joined the Hudson’s Bay Company and wandered the Arctic. McGoogan provides Rae’s odometer reading:

"Between 1846 and 1854, he led four major expeditions, travelling more than 37,000 kilometres. The chief hunter and food-supplier of every outing, he charted 2,475 kilometres of what is now Canadian coastline.

"He trekked 10,470 kilometres in the Arctic alone, mostly on snowshoes, and travelled 10,680 kilometres in canoes and small boats."

He solved two big mysteries

And the result of all that? Huge, McGoogan says: "John Rae solved the two enduring mysteries of nineteenth-century Arctic exploration. He discovered the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition; and he found the final link in the Northwest Passage."

Rae was an amazing physical specimen, and proud of it. Despite the ample ego, he treated his men well. And he was wise enough to learn from the Inuit, abandoning houses made of stone for igloos.

Near the close of his Arctic career, Rae finally met Inuit who knew the Franklin story. From them, he retrieved relics of the failed expedition – broken watches, compasses, telescopes and a small silver plate engraved "Sir John Franklin, K.C.H."

Lady Franklin wasn't going to let John Rae's testimony sully the tale of her famous husband's expedition. (Amelie Romilly/ Wikimedia Commons)

The Inuit had more to tell Rae. He returned to England in 1854, and related that unspeakable part of the story to the First Lord of the Admiralty:

"From the mutilated state of many of the corpses and the contents of the kettles," he told Sir James Graham, "it is evident that some of our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource."

The story hit The Times. Lady Franklin hit the roof. She had maneuvered Franklin into leading the Northwest Passage expedition, even though, as McGoogan puts it, "everyone knew he was too old, and not that competent."

Charles Dickens coaxed into the fight

And cannibalism sullied her story. Lady Franklin was a powerful force around London. She even brought Charles Dickens into the picture, coaxing him to write that the testimony Rae heard from the Inuit of men eating men just couldn’t be true. "The word of a savage is not to be taken," Dickens wrote, "because he is a liar."

The admiralty had offered a reward equal to $400,000 today to whomever determined what happened to Franklin. Lady Franklin tried to prevent Rae from receiving it, but failed.

The BBC turned Ken McGoogan's book about John Rae into a docudrama. (HarperCollins Publishers)

Rae was denied a knighthood, but that money let him lead a comfortable life. And from 1857 to 1860, he lived in Hamilton. His brothers Richard and Thomas had a meatpacking business here. Rae practiced some medicine and lived in a stone house where the plaque on Bay now stands.

He apparently stayed in good shape. The plaque says that in 1859 Rae snowshoed from Hamilton to Toronto in seven hours for a dinner engagement.

He married and moved back to the UK. He and his wife lived well in London and there in 1893, just shy of 80, he died.

He lives again Saturday night, Sept. 14, at eight o’clock. McGoogan’s illustrated presentation is in Room 1A1 of the Ewart Angus wing, McMaster Health Sciences Centre. Admission is free. |  @PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.