Pioneering explorer and survivalist honoured
The Arctic explorer John Rae (1813 – 1893) is to be commemorated with an English Heritage blue plaque at 4 Lower Addison Gardens, Holland Park, London; his home from 1869 – 1893 where he spent his last 24 years. The plaque was unveiled by Ray Mears on 23rd June at 11am.
John Rae was largely an unsung hero of Arctic exploration during his lifetime, and only relatively recently has his contribution to modern survivalist techniques been fully appreciated. His expeditions in the Canadian Arctic saw him cover a remarkable 13,000 miles by boat and on foot and survey more than 1,700 miles of new coastline, filling in some of the last gaps on the world map. As the twentieth-century explorer Vilhjalmur Steffanson noted, Rae far outdid his contemporaries “in miles, speed and comfort” and was, in exploration terms, “as new as Darwin”. Rae was notable for having befriended the Inuit and used their survival techniques; they called him “Aglooka” meaning “he who takes long strides”. Rae also identified the only north-west passage around America that is navigable without icebreakers, thereby signposting the end to a centuries-long quest. At the time, however, his having ‘gone native’ was viewed with suspicion, and he was unfairly traduced as the bearer of bad news about the grim fate of Sir John Franklin’s expedition.
Rae was born in Orkney in 1813 and studied medicine at Edinburgh before being appointed surgeon aboard the Hudson Bay Company ship Prince of Wales. From 1834 he served as surgeon at Moose Factory, the Company’s post on James Bay, where he treated the local population as well as Company men. Having learned the rudiments of surveying Rae was chosen to lead an expedition to survey of the northern coastline of North America in 1846-67. More than 600 miles of Arctic shoreline were mapped; the expedition was also significant for its unprecedented success in living off the land through an Arctic winter, which Rae later described in his Narrative of an expedition to the shores of the Arctic Sea in 1846 and 1847 (1850). The writer R. M. Ballantyne encountered Rae on this journey, and recalled him as “very muscular and active, full of animal spirits” and as possessing “a fine intellectual countenance”.
Arctic exploration was one of the biggest challenges of the age, and one of the most dangerous: it is to Rae’s credit that he lost just one man in his entire career. By 1848 concern was growing as to the fate of Sir John Franklin and his expedition, who had set off to find the Northwest Passage three years earlier. In 1854 Rae, who had joined two earlier search parties, encountered a party of Inuit who, through interpreters, told him of a group of Europeans who had starved to death, and produced artefacts that showed beyond reasonable doubt they were describing the Franklin expedition. Aware that others were looking for the expedition in completely the wrong place, Rae hurried back to London and made a full report to the Admiralty, which included the Inuit’s harrowing accounts of evidence of cannibalism among the starving men. Much to Rae’s dismay, this report was made public; it was met with hostile incredulity, not least from Franklin’s widow, Lady Jane Franklin, who memorably described Rae as “hairy and disagreeable”. Even Charles Dickens waded in with criticism, and Rae was accused of returning only for the £10,000 reward on offer and derided for accepting the word of Inuit “savages”. He almost certainly knew nothing of the reward, which he shared with his men, and thereupon retired from exploration in 1856. Recent forensic work on the Franklin expedition appears to have vindicated Rae and his Inuit informers.
From 1857 to 1859 Rae lived in Ontario and married Catherine Thompson in 1860. They afterwards sailed to England and lived mostly in London thereafter, though they continued to visit both Orkney and Canada. In retirement Rae lectured extensively and was the author of some 30 articles relating to Arctic exploration, survival, flora, fauna and anthropology. Elected to the Royal Geographical Society in 1880, Rae gave papers to numerous learned institutions and served on the British Association for the Advancement of Science’s research committee on ‘permanently frozen soil’, or permafrost. He died of an aneurism at his London home in 1893 and was buried in Orkney. The navigable passage he identified through the Canadian Arctic is now named the Rae Strait; a plaque marks the approximate site of its discovery. Rae also has a plaque in Hamilton, Ontario, and fundraising is underway for the rescue and restoration of his Orkney ancestral home, the Hall of Clestrain, which is grade A listed (in the Scottish statutory list) but presently in a state of severe dereliction.
4 Lower Addison Gardens (originally known as 2 Addison Gardens South), where the English Heritage blue plaque will be unveiled, is the only surviving London address with a strong and proven association with John Rae. The three-storey terraced house dates from very shortly before the Raes moved in there in 1869; the road was only half complete when they did so. For an Arctic explorer from the Orkneys, London may not seem the most obvious place to retire, but he relished London and its connections to intellectual life. After his treks in the Arctic, Holland Park was just a short stroll away for Rae from the learned institutions at which he lectured. Rae was also a good shot and belonged to the London Scottish Volunteer regiment.
Howard Spencer, English Heritage historian added: “When Roald Amundsen sailed the north-west route around America in 1903-06 he readily acknowledged his debt to Rae as a surveyor and a survivalist. Rae paved the way for the explorers who walked in his footsteps and learned from the strong connection he forged with the land and its indigenous people.”