RICS honours pioneering Scottish Arctic explorer
RICS, in its 150th anniversary year, will celebrate the achievements and life of pioneering Scottish explorer and surveyor, John Rae at an event at RICS HQ on 13 September.
In 1854, John Rae, a Scottish doctor who trained as a surveyor in Toronto, was the first person to successfully map the final sections of the Northwest Passage through the icy straights and narrows of the Canadian arctic.
Many had tried and failed to find a shortcut through Canada by boat but the passage across the Arctic proved to be a dangerous and deadly journey. Credit for the discovery was given posthumously to John Franklin and it was not recognized until recently that it was Rae who completed the task.
In the mid 1850s, European expeditions raced to be first to discover this promise of a shipping route from Europe to Asia. But no one could navigate the freezing maze by sea.
The Hudson’s Bay Company came up with a new approach to find the last piece of the puzzle. Rae’s tenacity and skill in navigating the land’s snowy tundra and forests, his ability to hunt and keep his men alive and local smarts learned from his friends in the Arctic gave the Hudson’s Bay Company an idea: to find the Northwest Passage by foot. In 1844, the company instructed Rae to travel to first train as a surveyor and apply these skills to find and map the final sections.
Rae trekked 800 kilometres by foot from Moose Factory, near James Bay, to Toronto to train as a surveyor. There he learned how to use surveying tools, such as the octant, to accurately map unchartered territory. The skills Rae learned in Toronto were used in more than four expeditions in the Canadian Arctic between 1846 and 1854, during which John Rae travelled more than 21,000 kilometres and mapped approximately 2,900 kilometres of coast. His ability to travel such distance, in often extreme conditions, relied in no small part upon his friendship, and tutelage from, northern Canada’s subarctic Indigenous peoples.
Rae never got credit for the work he did. When he reported finding Captain Sir John Franklin’s lost 1845 expedition and claimed that the crews of the HMS Erebus and HMS Terror had resorted to cannibalism in their final days, he was ostracised. British society rejected his assertion that British naval officers would turn to such desperate measures when their ships were stuck in the ice and all public recognition for the discovery of the Northwest Passage went to John Franklin – until now.
In the spring of 2019, RICS is funding the Arctic Return Expedition that will leave Naujaat in Nunavut to embark on a 650-km trek across Boothia Peninsula to Rae Strait following the same route taken by John Rae in 1854.
Travelling on skis and snowshoes, the Arctic Return Expedition will pay tribute to, and raise awareness of, Rae and his journeys. Rae’s success was due in large part to his willingness to learn from the indigenous people and culture of the region he explored. It was during his 1854 expedition that Rae and his companions discovered the final missing link to the first navigable Northwest Passage and the most salient facts pertaining to the fate of the failed Franklin expedition.
RICS is sponsoring the 2019 expedition, which aims to raise awareness and appreciation of Rae, his accomplishments, and help raise funds for the restoration and conversion of his family home in Orkney, Scotland into an interpretive Arctic history centre.
John Hughes FRICS
John Hughes FRICS took office as RICS President on 7 November 2017. In his role as President, John’s major themes are cities, including planning and management; infrastructure, including sustainable investment; and technology, particularly its relationship to cities. John is also proud to hold the position of President during RICS’ 150th anniversary year.