Theme Layout

Boxed or Wide or Framed


Theme Translation

Display Featured Slider


Featured Slider Styles

Display Grid Slider

Grid Slider Styles

Display Author Bio

Display Instagram Footer

Dark or Light Style

Search This Blog

Blog Archive


Popular Posts


Eyewitness report from Westminster Abbey: John Rae lives!

LONDON, England – The ledger stone is brilliantly placed. It reads: “John Rae / 1813 – 1893 / Arctic Explorer.” Newly installed in Westminster Abbey in the heart of London, it is situated directly beneath the elaborate bust of Sir John Franklin.
The effect is one of completion. Given the privilege of offering “a reflection” today at the commemoration ceremony, I spoke of how Rae had completed the work begun by Franklin. In 1846, after sailing south down Peel Sound from Parry Channel, the good Sir John got trapped in the pack ice at the northwest corner of King William Island.
Eight years later, John Rae discovered not just the most salient features of the tragic fate of the Franklin expedition, but a channel to the east of King William Island – Rae Strait -- that would prove to be the final link in the first navigable North West Passage.
After becoming the first explorer to sail the Passage from beginning to end (1903-06), Roald Amundsen explicitly credited Rae with having shown him how to sail beyond King William Island. Nobody would pass through Victoria Strait, where Franklin’s ships got trapped, until 1967, when a Canadian icebreaker pounded through.
All this and more I outlined to a standing-room-only audience – many of whom had come south from Rae’s native Orkney -- in the Chapel of St. John the Evangelist. Somehow, I confined myself to five minutes! Orcadian musician Jennifer Wrigley then brought tears to many an eye by playing Air for Dr. John Rae, and two Canadian cousins who share an ancestor with Rae – Mary Davey and Jane Hamilton – laid a wreath and flowers by the new ledger stone. A CBC-TV crew captured all this for posterity -- oh, and for tonight's news.
After the ceremony came Evensong in the splendiferous Abbey, and a reception at the Scottish Office in nearby Dover House. This is home base for Alistair Carmichael, the politician who, backed by countless Orcadians and the John Rae Society, spear-headed the drive to get John Rae recognized in the Abbey. As one woman put it, looking around at the reception, “This is an occasion we will never forget.”
 (Photo by Sheena Fraser McGoogan)

Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :

Canada's Scottish architects designed a pluralistic, postmodern nation

When Maclean's magazine invited me to ruminate on why Canadians should care about the Scottish referendum, I discovered that, yes, I did have a few thoughts. The piece runs around 1,100 words, and can be found here in its entirety. It begins like-so:
In uptown Toronto, if you look east across the street from the Royal Ontario Museum, you will see an elegant building that symbolizes what the Scots have done for Canada. It also suggests why, in light of today’s divisive referendum, Canadians should take a moment to think of their Scottish cousins. Originally, this stately, three-storey structure formed part of the University of Toronto. Today, the main tenant is Club Monaco, a clothing-store outlet geared to young professionals. If you step inside on a Saturday afternoon, you will marvel at the ethnic and linguistic diversity swirling around you.
What does that have to do with the Scots? I would argue: everything. The architect who designed this building, working with philanthropist Lillian Massey, and as part of an architectural firm owned by G.M. Miller, was my wife’s grandfather—a Scottish immigrant named William Fraser. Few people know his name. The Scottish architect has become invisible. Yet, when you look around from inside this neoclassical edifice, you realize that the architect is all around you. So it is with Canada. The Scottish architects are invisible. But if we stop and look around, we realize that they played a preeminent role in shaping our country. Nobody owes them more than we do. . . .
Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :

New edition sheds light on explorer who discovered the Fate of Franklin

Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :

How Lady Franklin led Charles Dickens to disgrace himself

In Lady Franklin’s Revenge, I devote 130 pages to showing not only how Lady Franklin orchestrated  the search for Sir John Franklin, but how she manipulated public opinion after explorer John Rae returned with the first news of the fate of her husband's expedition. In this excerpt, we find her getting Charles Dickens involved. . .
Late in 1854 . . . Lady Franklin launched an undeclared war on John Rae. His allegations of cannibalism threatened her husband's reputation, and so her own. They could not be allowed to stand. Rae's relics had convinced Jane that Franklin had died, but never would she accept the narrative
that came with them.
When the explorer paid her the obligatory courtesy call, still wearing his full Arctic beard, Jane told him to his face that he never should have accepted the word of "Esquimaux savages," none of whom claimed to have seen the dead bodies, all of whom were merely relaying the accounts of others. Rae refused to recant. He insisted that he knew the truth when he heard it, and that he had written his report not for publication, but for the Admiralty. Jane replied that he should never have committed such allegations to paper. And the explorer withdrew.
Eventually, John Rae would be vindicated. Down through the decades, researchers would contribute nuance and clarification. But none would repudiate the thrust of his initial report. Starting in Victoria Strait, a large party of final survivors had trekked south in a desperate attempt to reach the continental mainland. Many of them perished along the way, and the final survivors were driven to cannibalism. Such was the fate of the Franklin expedition.
In 1854, however, Jane Franklin refused to accept this reality. And she had no shortage of natural allies. These included the friends and relatives of men who had sailed with Franklin, and an array of eminent officers concerned with the reputation of the Royal Navy—men like James Clark Ross, John Richardson, and Francis Beaufort. But all of these, Jane realized, would be open to charges of special pleading.
The resourceful Lady Franklin wondered about Charles Dickens. Hadn't his father had some connection with the Royal Navy? Surely he could be induced to strike the right attitude? The forty-two-year-old author had already published such classics as Oliver Twist, David Copperfield and Bleak House. More importantly, he edited a twice-monthly newspaper called Household Words—potentially the perfect vehicle. Through her friend Carolina Boyle—formerly a maid of honour to Queen Adelaide, consort of King William IV—Jane communicated her wish that Dickens should visit her as soon as possible.
The desperately busy author dropped everything and, on November 19, 1854, turned up at her front door. No eyewitness account of their meeting has survived. But Jane Franklin wanted John Rae repudiated—especially his allegations of cannibalism—and the greatest literary champion of the age undertook to accomplish that task.
The next morning, Dickens scrawled a note to one W.H. Willis, a sometime assistant. While until now he had paid scant attention to the issue, Dickens observed, "I am rather strong on Voyages and Cannibalism, and might do an interesting little paper for the next No. of Household Words: on that part of Dr. Rae's report, taking the arguments against its probabilities. Can you get me a newspaper cutting containing his report? If not, will you have it copied for me and sent up to Tavistock House straight away?"
Taking his cue from Jane Franklin, Dickens proceeded to write a devastating two-part analysis entitled "The Lost Arctic Voyagers." He published Part 1 as the lead article on December 2, and Part 2 the following week. Acknowledging that Rae had a duty to report what he had heard, and so demonstrating his even-handedness, Dickens castigated the Admiralty for publishing his account without considering its effects. While exonerating Rae personally, he attacked that explorer's conclusions, contending that there was no reason whatsoever to believe "that our wretched countrymen had been driven to the last resource—cannibalism—as a means of prolonging existence."
Given that he could present no new evidence, Dickens argued by analogy and according to probabilities. He suggested that the remnants of "Franklin's gallant band" might well have been murdered by the Inuit: "It is impossible to form an estimate of the character of any race of savages, from their deferential behaviour to the white man while he is strong. . . We believe every savage to be in his heart covetous, treacherous, and cruel; and we have yet to learn what knowledge the white man—lost, houseless, shipless, apparently forgotten by his race; plainly famine-stricken, weak, frozen, helpless, and dying—has of the gentleness of the Esquimaux nature."
Dickens offered much more along these lines. He criticized Rae for having taken "the word of a savage," and, confusing the Inuit with the Victorian stereotype of the African, argued, "Even the sight of cooked and dissevered human bodies among this or that tatoo'd tribe, is not proof. Such appropriate offerings to their barbarous, wide-mouthed, goggle-eyed gods, savages have been often seen and known to make."
With all the literary skill at his command, Dickens presented an argument that, from the vantage point of the twenty-first century, can only be judged profoundly racist. In this instance, at least, the author failed to transcend the imperialism of his age. Time has proven his two-part essay to be a tour-de-force of obfuscation, self-deception, and wilful blindness. But late in 1854, it engulfed Rae like an avalanche. The explorer responded as best he could, but he had only truth on his side, and few writers in any time or place could have contended with Charles Dickens in full rhetorical flight. When the author was done, in the only realm that mattered—that of reputation—John Rae was deader than Jane Franklin's late husband.
Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :

The woman who launched the search for Sir John Franklin

"Denied a role in Victorian England’s male-dominated society, Jane Franklin (1791–1875) took her revenge by seizing control of that most masculine of pursuits, Arctic exploration, and shaping its history to her own ends." This clarification went missing during my own final edit of the book, to my lasting mortification. So it's great to see it turning up in a promotional blurb here, where anyone can easily order a copy.  Between 1848 and 1859, thirty-five expeditions went searching for Sir John Franklin and, as I write in the book, Lady Franklin "variously organized, inspired, and financed eleven of these -- nearly one third." Lady Franklin's Revenge runs 468 pages and, yes, it's more relevant than ever. Where else will you get the Charles Dickens angle? The book won the UBC Medal for Canadian Biography and, in conjunction with Fatal Passage and Ancient Mariner, landed the Pierre Berton Award for History. There's more at the HarperCollins Canada site, and here I discover an interview that is probably the best-ever backgrounder. Far be it from me to blow my own horn or tout my own wares. But, hey, someone has to do it.
Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :

The Franklin discovery is not about what, but where

What’s most exciting about this discovery, however, is the where of it.
The ship has been found not in the primary search area, but off a small island to the southwest of King William Island. It appears to be Hat Island, one of the Royal Geographical Society Islands.
The discovery at this location vindicates Inuit testimony. Not only that: In conjunction with that testimony, it suggests an explanation for a major anomaly, one that has troubled historians for more than century, in the so-called “standard version” of what happened to the Franklin expedition.
That anomaly is the north-facing lifeboat, with two bodies in it, that Leopold McClintock discovered in 1859 on the west coast of King William Island. According to the one-page record he found farther north, near Victory Point, Franklin’s men had abandoned their ship to travel south seeking help. Why, then, was the lifeboat facing north?
The location of this latest discovery suggests a possibility that has merely been floated in the past. Franklin’s two ships may have gotten separated. And some men may have been aboard this newly discovered vessel as it travelled south, or reboarded after it had done so, carried probably by the ice. Further research should reveal whether the lifeboat comes from the ship discovered here.
In her 2008 book Encounters on the Passage: Inuit Meet the Explorers, Dorothy Eber writes of interviewing contemporary Inuit who relayed traditional stories of a ship that sank off Hat Island. As a child, her book tells us, Mabel Angulalik “heard that her own relatives had come upon what they thought were pieces of a ship’s wreckage buried in sand … to the east of Hat Island.” She believes that Inuit shamans might have sunk the ship.
Whatever forces sank the ship, the discovery at this location, taken together with the north-facing lifeboat, suggests that some men from this ship set out to return to the other one – the ship at the so-called “point of abandonment” to the north. This would also explain why only several dozen men were seen trekking south by Inuit. At least some of the others would have been on this ship.
This finding also offers further irrefutable proof, if any were needed, that Franklin discovered a navigable Northwest Passage as far south as King William Island. Recently, several historians have argued that because a stretch of coastline remained unmapped into the 1850s, that section had yet to be discovered. Clearly, Franklin sailed right along that unmapped coast, and left evidence that he had done so. The argument is specious.
. . . As a symbol of Canada’s supremacy in the Northwest Passage, the finding is invaluable. It shows that we have have sufficient control over these waters that we can uncover the Arctic’s greatest secrets. Oh – and that we can revolutionize exploration history while we are at it. . . .

Still with me? Then you might be interested in checking out what I wrote for Canada's History magazine. Again, you can find the whole piece by clicking here. But first a snippet to whet your appetite . . .
The discovery prompted international headlines and has sent many experts reeling. There are three main reasons why the news has had such a big impact. First, this discovery vindicates Inuit oral history. Second, it advances Canada’s claim, challenged by many countries, including the United States, to control of the Northwest Passage. Third, and most surprisingly, it suggests an amendment to, if not a whole new interpretation of, the fate of the Franklin expedition. . . .
Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :

John Rae enters Westminster Abbey, redeems Sir John Franklin

With a Canadian search expedition scouring the Northwest
Passage for the Erebus and the Terror, several Arctic historians have turned their backs on Sir John Franklin’s claim to fame. By insisting that “a substantial section” of the Passage remained undiscovered well into the 1850s, these would-be guardians of exploration orthodoxy repudiate Franklin’s claim to discovery of the Passage, which derives from his voyage of 1846.
That was when, with the two ships mentioned above, Sir John sailed south from Parry Channel to the northwest corner of King William Island. There he got trapped in the heavy ice, and there Canadian ships are now searching. The repudiation of Franklin arises out of a last-ditch attempt to prevent Westminster Abbey from recognizing the Scottish-Orcadian explorer John Rae for discovering the final link in the Passage. 

Thanks to a years-long campaign led by Alistair Carmichael, member of parliament for Orkney and Shetland, a memorial to Rae will be dedicated at Westminster Abbey on September 30th. As the author of a book about Rae (Fatal Passage), I will attend that ceremony and say a few words.
The nay-saying historians point to a stretch of Arctic coastline that remained unmapped for years after Franklin and Rae did their work. But a stretch of coastline cannot, by definition, provide a navigable link in a Passage. The argument is a red herring.
In contrast, Orkney-based historians introduced a significant clarification last September, when they erected a new statue of Rae in Stromness. There, they recognized that he discovered “the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage.”
That clarification brings us to Roald Amundsen, universally recognized as the first explorer to navigate or sail through the Passage. In his book about his voyage of 1903-06, Amundsen explicitly credits Rae with having shown him where to sail. “His work was of incalculable value to the Gjoa expedition,” Amundsen writes. “He discovered Rae Strait which separates King William Land from the mainland. In all probability through this strait is the only navigable route for the voyage round the north coast of America. This is the only passage which is free from destructive pack ice.”

In Westminster Abbey, etched in stone, we find Franklin hailed for “completing the discovery of the Northwest Passage.” The guardians of orthodoxy have now joined me in rejecting this formulation. In Lady Franklin’s Revenge, I show where it came from.
Over the past dozen years, when addressing this issue, I have sometimes declared that Franklin discovered nothing. But that is going too far. In 1846, Franklin made a major contribution by sailing south down Peel Strait from Parry Channel to the northwest corner of King William Island.
Now, I reject the corollary -- that his men “forged the last link with their lives” -- because those ill-fated sailors slogged south along a coastline where no navigable Passage existed. No ship would transit through Victoria Strait until 1967, more than a century later, when an icebreaker finally passed that way. Even today, as I write, Canadian searchers are battling sea ice in that area.
But again: Franklin did sail south to King William Island. Of that accomplishment, we have tangible proof -- and more evidence may soon be found. Franklin established a navigable Northwest Passage all the way south to where he got trapped in the ice.
Who cares about an uncharted stretch of coastline that he sailed past? Certainly not John Rae, who built on the work of Franklin (and of James Clark Ross, who had visited the area). In 1854, eight years after Franklin got trapped off King William Island, while travelling over ice and snow less than 200 km away, Rae gleaned from Inuit hunters not only how the Franklin expedition had ended, but what it had achieved.
On that same outing, Rae discovered a strait linking the north-south channel established by Franklin (and Ross) with the coastal channel previously delineated by several explorers, notably Thomas Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company. That short waterway, Rae Strait, was the final link in the Passage, the one Amundsen would use on his historic voyage.
Rae built a cairn to mark his discovery. In 1999, with two fellow adventurers, I went north and placed a plaque beside the remains of that cairn -- a homage to Rae and his two companions, an Inuk and an Ojibway. I tell that story in the epilogue to Fatal Passage.

Getting John Rae recognized in Westminster Abbey stands as a significant development. On September 30, the Dean of Westminster will dedicate a ledger stone that reads, “John Rae, Arctic explorer.”
Certainly, the Stromness formulation is superior. Even so, kudos to the Dean, and hats off to Alistair Carmichael and his fellow Orcadians, for having the courage, resolve, and political muscle to make this dedication happen. Hats off to Sir John Franklin, who established the second-last link in the Northwest Passage. And hats off, finally, and above all, to explorer John Rae, who recognized what Franklin had achieved, and built on his work in discovering the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage.

[Arrowsmith map published 1857: ]

Photo taken (using a timer) on Boothia Peninsula at the site of the cairn that John Rae built in 1854. The water in the background is Rae Strait.
Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :

Going online to improve your ability to tell true stories with style

So the guy in the shades is giving this course two thumbs up. Here at University of Toronto, we've dubbed it The Art of Fact: An Introduction to Writing Nonfiction. It's online, so you can work it into your schedule any time, and get active from any where. The course is all about craft, and telling true stories with panache. But look: with a start date of September 22, time is running out. Best response: register by clicking here.
There, too, you can survey the lay of the land. Put it this way: the hallmarks of Creative or Narrative Nonfiction are truth and personal presence. The genre includes subjective and objective streams, and encompasses memoir and autobiography. It also takes in biography, history, adventure, travel, true crime, you name it. The writer of nonfiction employs memory, but also imagination, analysis, and research, and adapts literary techniques from fiction, journalism, and the essay. This craft-oriented course will enhance your ability to tell your true stories. We draw on an outstanding textbook: The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, edited by Kevin Kerrane and Ben Yagoda. 
And we have biography that begins like this:
In 2013, Ken McGoogan published 50 Canadians Who Changed the World. His other books include How the Scots Invented Canada and four nonfiction narratives about Arctic exploration: Fatal Passage, Ancient Mariner, Lady Franklin’s Revenge, and Race to the Polar Sea. These works won him . . . no, no, it's too shameless, even for a grandstander. You'll have to click on the above link or go to But here is hoping you'll come on out. See you in cyberspace?
Ken McGoogan
Share This Post :
Before turning mainly to books about arctic exploration and Canadian history, Ken McGoogan worked for two decades as a journalist at major dailies in Toronto, Calgary, and Montreal. He teaches creative nonfiction writing through the University of Toronto and in the MFA program at King’s College in Halifax. Ken served as chair of the Public Lending Right Commission, has written recently for Canada’s History, Canadian Geographic, and Maclean’s, and sails with Adventure Canada as a resource historian. Based in Toronto, he has given talks and presentations across Canada, from Dawson City to Dartmouth, and in places as different as Edinburgh, Melbourne, and Hobart.