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1. Defenders of Arctic Orthodoxy Turn Their Backs on Sir John Franklin

  -- Polar Record, online 2 October 2014

William Barr’s article on John Rae presents quite the spectacle. Barr paints a picture of eminent British historians, staunch defenders of Arctic orthodoxy, scurrying around to deny Rae his rightful recognition and stumbling into an abyss of self-contradiction. In their anxiety to keep Rae in his “proper place” at Westminster Abbey, Barr and his friends have repudiated Sir John Franklin’s claim to being the discoverer of the Northwest Passage – the claim they sallied forth to defend.

Before going further, I must confess to being shocked by Barr’s thinly veiled contempt for MP Alistair Carmichael and his fellow Orcadians. Apparently, these simple folk are unable to think for themselves. Some postcolonial Pied Piper – that would be me -- must have lured them down the garden path to ideological impurity.

Sorry, no. Flashback to 1998. While doing research at the Scott Polar Research Institute, I gleaned that Franklin was being credited with Rae’s crowning achievement. I travelled north to Kirkwall and was delighted to learn that Orcadian historians had independently reached the same conclusion, and were asserting that Rae had discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage. Alas, nobody could hear them.
Barr quotes Rae on the subject of an uncharted stretch of coastline and claims that this bolsters his case. In fact, Rae was writing not about a channel or a waterway, but about land. Nobody has ever suggested that Rae completed the mapping of the Arctic coast of North America. Barr’s convoluted argument is specious -- a red herring.

For the record, I demolished his allegations last September at the Stromness Academy, when I gave a talk on Returning to Rae Strait. See the attached detail from a map printed in July 1857 – before any explorer but Rae had come anywhere near Rae Strait. Barr refers to a 240-km stretch of coastline along Boothia Peninsula, which is indicated with dots. That stretch of land was not yet charted in detail, which is what Rae was indicating.

Yet explorers, notably William Kennedy and Joseph-Rene Bellot, had previously determined that the channel opposite that stretch was at least 30 km wide and free of islands. This explains why the 1857 map is so accurate. Now, a stretch of coastline cannot, by definition, provide a navigable link. A channel or a strait is required to link waterways. And I must insist, as I have done since 1998, that John Rae discovered the final link in the Northwest Passage.

More than that, I applaud the two-word clarification that Orcadians presented with the new statue of Rae in Stromness: the final link in the first navigable Northwest Passage. That clarification brings us to Roald Amundsen, universally recognized as the first explorer to navigate the Passage.

In his book about that voyage, 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.”

>But now we find Barr arguing that Rae Strait was NOT the last link to be discovered. And this is where we enter the spectacle. By insisting that certain sections of the Passage remained “undiscovered” even after 1854, Barr repudiates the claim he set out to defend. I refer to the assertion etched in stone in Westminster Abbey, which hails Franklin for “completing the discovery of the Northwest Passage.”

Those who have done their homework know that I am no champion of Franklin. But I do acknowledge that in 1846, the good Sir John sailed south down Peel Strait from Lancaster Sound to the northwest corner of King William Island. I reject the corollary to this claim -- that his men “forged the last link with their lives” -- because those ill-fated sailors slogged south along a coastline where no Passage existed, and where none would become navigable for a century.

But again, yes: Franklin did sail south to King William Island. Of that achievement, he left tangible proof. He established a navigable Northwest Passage all the way south to where he got trapped in the ice. Unlike Barr and his friends, I accept that in 1846, John Franklin discovered much of the north-south part of the first navigable Northwest Passage. Who cares about an uncharted stretch of coastline that he sailed past?

Certainly not Rae, who extended the work of Franklin. The good Sir John discovered the second-last link in the Northwest Passage. In 1854, eight years after Franklin got trapped in the ice off King William Island, Rae gleaned from Inuit hunters what Sir John had accomplished. On that same expedition, Rae discovered the final link in the Passage, the one Amundsen used -- the short waterway, Rae Strait, linking the north-south channel established by Franklin (and James Clark Ross) with the coastal channel previously determined by Thomas Simpson of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Rae built a cairn to mark his discovery of Rae Strait. 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 companions, an Inuk and an Ojibway. I tell that story in the epilogue to Fatal Passage.

Getting John Rae into Westminster Abbey stands as a notable victory. Hats off to Alistair Carmichael and his fellow Orcadians for having the courage, resolve, and political muscle to make it happen. Yet clearly, though now the nay-sayers stand exposed, flailing in self-contradiction, we can expect more denial, more waffling, more nit-picking and prevarication.

With Fatal Passage, Lady Franklin’s Revenge, the forewords to new editions of John Rae’s Arctic Journals and John Rae’s Arctic Correspondence (forthcoming), as well as articles in Canada’s History magazine and a book to be published in 2017, I will have done what I can. For complete vindication of John Rae, I look to posterity.

2.     To the Editor (Literary Review of Canada)

In her perceptive and engaged but opinionated review ("Heroine or Hellcat?", December 2005), Wendy McElroy hails my latest book, Lady Franklin's Revenge, as brilliant and superbly written. She also declares the work "infuriating," charging that I show far too much generosity to the deplorable Jane Franklin.
McElroy wonders whether I have changed my mind about the contribution to Arctic exploration of the peerless John Rae, the subject of my book Fatal Passage. The answer is emphatically no. But my understanding of Lady Franklin, and particularly of her situation as a Victorian woman, deepened as I scoured archives and visited relevant sites, and that's why this biography, in McElroy's words, "exquisitely captures the complexity of Jane Franklin."
When Rae revealed that Sir John Franklin's expedition had degenerated into cannibalism, he inadvertently threatened Jane's existence, psychologically and spiritually. Driven by guilt and remorse, she had long since demonstrated that she would let nothing stand in the way of her quest to redeem the Franklin name -- not her dwindling resources, not her precarious health, and not even her relationship with the father she adored, a man who, because she steadfastly refused to cease questing, finally disinherited her.
McElroy and I differ about Jane Franklin not because we approach historical analysis differently, as she suggests, but because she analyzes and judges where I narrate and evoke, sometimes using point-of-view techniques to suggest inner perspectives and bring figures more vividly to life. I lean to showing, not telling, and invite readers to judge for themselves. I see Fatal Passage and Lady Franklin's Revenge as belonging to an Arctic Discovery Quartet, and the tension between them as akin to that between certain books in Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet. Such tension, the hallmark of postmodern consciousness, is anathema to the tunnel vision of any ideology.
Your reviewer asserts that I have given Lady Franklin "a free pass on bad behaviour." Not so: Jane behaved atrociously at times and, as McElroy elsewhere admits, I have taken pains not only to unearth but to elaborate every incidence. As a self-proclaimed "individualist feminist," however, McElroy fails to register or recognize – probably because of ideological blinders -- the many occasions when Jane behaved in exemplary fashion. . . .
As a biographer, I did not fall in love with Jane Franklin the way I did with my previous subjects, John Rae and Samuel Hearne. And yet, I did come to a grudging admiration. Jane was brilliant and resourceful, dauntless and persevering – and the greatest woman traveler of her times. While deploring her shortcomings, I acknowledge her achievements, and I continue to marvel at her strength of character. Does this make me "the last in a long chain of men bamboozled into promoting her legacy?" The suggestion is sexist and absurd. It would have been easy to write a hatchet job. I chose to wrestle honestly with human truth, and I think the resulting complexity provides readers with a richer experience.

3.     Letter to the Editor
Halifax Chronicle Herald
In his Nov. 15 review of my book Celtic Lightning, Paul W. Bennett suggests that I have omitted "critical pieces" in exploring the roots of Canadian identity. He clings to the old narrative of a French-English rapprochement – the Confederation story that highlights the political alliance between John A. Macdonald and Georges-Etienne Cartier.
Unfortunately for Mr. Bennett, that narrative is dead. It ended with a whimper on Nov. 27, 2006. That was the date when, under Stephen Harper, the Canadian House of Commons passed a resolution recognizing that “the Quebecois form a nation within a United Canada.”
Basically, one partner has withdrawn from the original rapprochement. We find ourselves looking at a symbolic divorce. What? Are we supposed to keep telling the same old story of a happy marriage?
If the Quebecois constitute a distinct nation, what happens to the idea of Canadian nationhood? We must engage yet once more with that perpetual Canadian question: Who do we think we are? One answer, proposed recently by John Ralston Saul, is that we should embrace our identity as a Metis nation.
Alongside that idea, Celtic Lightning presents an alternative. It suggests that we should recognize our Scottish and Irish heritage as seminal. My latest book emerges out of the view that Canada is postmodern: one nation, multiple identities.
Yet, among those Canadians who do not identify as Quebecois, almost one-third claim Scottish or Irish roots. By celebrating “Celtic” heroes and heroines as belonging to this country’s extended history, Celtic Lightning moves on from the death of that old familiar narrative of French-English rapprochement. We live under the same roof, but the marriage is dead. Perhaps it is time to say goodbye to “Anglophone Canada” and speak instead of “Celtic Canada.”
Ken McGoogan
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1 comment:

Jennifer Leslie said...

Hear hear! To the accurate acknowledgement of a "Celtic Canada."

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.