Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Gads - none of our chaps would do such a thing!

It's a well worn cliche that history is written by the victors, but one might also add that it is written by the rich, privileged and influential with loud voices or those who come from the right strata of society.
On a recent trip to the Orkney Islands, I heard the story of the Arctic explorer, John Rae, whose claim to fame was seriously muddied by a woman whom I must I admit I had once greatly admired - Lady Jane Franklin.
It seems that when John Rae discovered evidence that members of Franklin's lost expedition to find the North West Passage had resorted to cannibalism, society back home in Britain would have none of it, and certainly not Lady Jane, Sir John Franklin's widow. Other famous Victorian individuals such as Charles Dickens also added fuel to the outrage that no member of the Royal Navy could possibly stoop to such a disgusting thing as eating his fellows even when in starvation extremis.
It didn't help either that John Rae believed in learning from native peoples and took advice from the Inuit on how to travel in the Arctic; notions that were anathema at the time to the arrogant British. Rae was shunned and never received his due as perhaps the greatest-ever British Arctic explorer.
Cannibalism among members of the Franklin Expedition has now been proved by modern archaelogical research and there is also a campaign in Orkney for Rae to be restored to his rightful place in history. You can read more detail on that campaign here and the Hudson's Bay Company entry for him is here.
He is buried in the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall and this somewhat unusual effigy of him asleep in the wilderness is to be found inside the Cathedral itself.

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