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An Open Letter to Explorer John Rae On His Birthday

Dear Dr. Rae:

I write from the future to wish you Happy Birthday on the 203rd anniversary of your birth. What to report from 2016? Well, searchers have recently found the two lost ships of Sir John Franklin, Erebus and Terror. This has sparked renewed interest in the fate of the 1845 Franklin expedition.

On this subject, slowly we are winning the war to vindicate you and your Inuit informants, so shamefully slandered by Charles Dickens in your own time. I put that story on the record in Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin’s Revenge, and elaborated in an introduction to The Arctic Journals of John Rae and a foreword to a new edition of John Rae’s Arctic Correspondence. I will publish another Arctic book in 2017.

In Orkney, a new statue of you has been erected on Stromness Pier, with an inscription recognizing that you discovered (in the formulation of historian Tom Muir) “the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage.” Also in Orkney, after a long struggle, the John Rae Society has gained control of your birthplace, the Hall of Clestrain, and has begun work on restoring it and transforming it into a visitor centre.

I will end these words of congratulation (203 years and counting!) with a few words (edited for space) from my foreword to your Arctic correspondence: 

The polemical introduction to Arctic Correspondence, which runs almost 100 pages, illustrates the way the British establishment framed, controlled, and projected an “authorized history” of Arctic exploration. Its main author was Richard Julius Cyriax, an English medical doctor and fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, who rejected the fact that some of the final survivors of the Franklin expedition had been driven by starvation to cannibalism. He argues that “the religion, courage, discipline, and sense of duty of Franklin’s men would have prevented anything whatever of the kind described by the [Inuit].”
anticipated, many investigators have since added detail and nuance to Rae’s original findings. Those who came after McClintock but before Cyriax include Charles Francis Hall, Frederick Schwatka, and Knud Rasmussen. Those who came after Cyriax include David Woodman, Owen Beattie, Margaret Bertulli, and Anne Keenleyside. Woodman, author of Unravelling the Franklin Mystery, correctly wrote of McClintock that “the vague stories he collected . . . added detail to Rae’s account, but presented little that was new.” The list of those who have clarified the Fate of Franklin continues to grow. But as I wrote in Fatal Passage, “John Rae, not Leopold McClintock, deserves to be commemorated at Westminster Abbey as the discoverer of the fate of Franklin. Yet even that would right only half the historical wrong.”
Ken McGoogan
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Jack Kirchhoff said...

That's a large and important niche that you've carved for yourself, Ken. Congratulations on your brilliantly successful career, but especially on the part dealing with Arctic exploration. You're a mensch.

Anonymous said...

Thank you, Ken, for all you have done and continue to do for John Rae. He is my all time hero and should be for all Canadians.

Denis said...

Congratulations, again, Ken, I am so pleased that the Hall of Clestrain will be restored. I strongly believe that the Canadian government should make a significant contribution to this great national hero.

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.