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John Rae

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Published : 3 Articles
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Rae, John I Dr. Rae l, 1813–1893, arctic explorer. Studied medicine in Edinburgh. L.R.C.S. Edinburgh, 1833. In 1833 entered service of Hudson's Bay Co. as ship-surgeon. Remained in service of Company to end of 1854, serving for about ten years as clerk, surgeon, and trapper at Company's post at Moose Factory; then as chief trader and chief factor of Mackenzie River district and as explorer engaged in surveying and mapping unexplored land and coastline. During this time, under Admiralty orders, took part in 1848–49 and 1851 expeditions in search of Sir John Franklin and his crews. In 1854, while on surveying expedition, obtained from Eskimos first decisive information concerning fate of Franklin expedition. In the 1860s conducted land surveys for telegraph lines. Contributed to Nature, to Journal of Royal Geographical Society, and to other periodicals. Author of Narrative of an Expedition to the Shores of the Arctic Sea, in 1846 and 1847, 1850 Hon. M.D. McGill College, Montreal, 1853; Hon. LL.D. Univ. of Edinburgh, 1856. F.R.G.S., F.R.S.


      Rae's appearance in H.W. occurred in connection with his defence of his conclusion that the survivors of the Franklin expedition had resorted to cannibalism before dying of starvation. Rae had stated this conclusion in his report (letter dated July 29, 1854) to the Admiralty, which report the Admiralty had released for publication. It had appeared in the Times, Oct. 23, 1854. Dickens was among those who held that Rae's statement was based on unreliable and inconclusive evidence and that, moreover, the admirable discipline and the moral character of Franklin's men rendered the alleged conduct in the highest degree improbable. These convictions Dickens stated emphatically in his H.W. article "The Lost Arctic Voyagers," Dec. 2, Dec. 9, 1854. The article cast no aspersions on Rae himself. A man of conscientious and modest character, of "high reputation as a skilful and intrepid" arctic traveller, Rae had carried out his duty in giving the Admiralty a faithful report of his information and his conclusions, stated Dickens. It was the Admiralty's release of the report, with its "painful" aspect of alleged cannibalism, that was ill advised.
      Rae's reply to Dickens's article, obviously sent to the periodical rather than to Dickens personally, was published in two instalments, individually titled: "The Lost Arctic Voyagers," Dec. 23, and "Dr. Rae's Report," Dec. 30. In his article Rae replied to the points that Dickens had raised and reasserted his conviction that the survivors had resorted to cannibalism. He acknowledged the difficulty of countering opinions expressed in so "very ably-written" an article as "The Lost Arctic Voyagers" of Dec. 2 and 9, particularly since that article expressed "the popular view" of the matter under discussion. Rae's comments indicate that he was not aware that Dickens was the author of the article to which he was writing a reply. Before Rae's article appeared in H.W., however, Dickens had written Rae a letter; in it, presumably, he made his authorship known (Dickens to Wills, Dec. 16, 1854: MS Huntington Library).
      The Office Book assigns the first instalment of Rae's article to Rae and Dickens, the second instalment to Rae alone. The first instalment is not, of course, jointly written; Dickens's share in it consists (aside from four lines of introductory comment) merely of a long passage cited from Sir John Barrow's Voyages of Discovery and Research within the Arctic Regions (1846), intended to cast doubt on the opinions expressed by "our esteemed friend, DR. RAE," in Rae's portion of the article.
      The second item by Rae to appear in H.W. – "Sir John Franklin and His Crews" – is not an article written by him for the periodical (though the Office Book records for it payment of £5.5.0). It is a copy of Rae's official report of his 1853–54 expedition, addressed to the Secretary of the Hudson's Bay Co., in London, dated Sept. 1, 1854 (but written in part after Sept. 1); the report contains substantially the same information in regard to Franklin's crews as that given in Rae's letter to the Admiralty. Dickens printed the report in H.W. as a historical document recording what he believed to be unwarranted conclusions concerning the cannibalism – conclusions that future investigation might well prove to be untrue. Prefatory editorial comment stated: "In order that our readers, at a future time, when the Esquimaux stories shall have been further tested, may be in possession of them as originally brought home, we have procured from DR. RAE a faithful copy of his Report for publication. We do not feel justified in omitting or condensing any part of it; believing, as we do, that it is a very unsatisfactory document on which to found such strong conclusions as it takes for granted."
      The copy of the report as printed in H.W. differs in more than 800 instances from the copy (in a clerk's handwriting, but signed by Rae) in the archives of the Hudson's Bay Co. published in John Rae's Correspondence with the Hudson's Bay Company, 1953. Most of the differences are in punctuation and capitalization, though many result from the H.W. practice of spelling out numbers. Some occur in spelling and paragraphing. But there are also variants in text. The copy in Correspondence, for instance, states that a certain river was named "in honor of Sir Roderick Murchison"; H.W. erroneously reads "in honour of Sir Frederick Murchison." Again, in stating what was found near the bodies of Franklin's men, the copy in Correspondence reads: " ... fresh bones and feathers of geese were noticed near the scene of the sad event"; for "fresh bones," H.W. reads "fish-bones."
      Two H.W. articles of 1857 – "The Lost English Sailors" and "Official Patriotism" – mentioned Rae and the information contained in his reports and letters concerning Franklin's crews. The first article dismissed as "assuredly" without foundation the dark "hints of cannibalism"; the second contained a commendatory reference to Rae, in a letter from Lady Franklin. An earlier article, "Regular Trappers," mentioned Rae's heading the Hudson's Bay Co. exploration expedition of 1846–47. 
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Author: Anne Lohrli; © University of Toronto Press, 1971

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography 

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