13 SET 2018
Orkney’s John Rae (1813-1893) is well known as an arctic explorer and surgeon but until now his considerable achievements as a land surveyor have been less well recognised.
A first step in redressing this situation will take place in London on September 13, 2018, when RICS President, John Hughes FRICS, will welcome Rae as a member of the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors, awarding him the prestigious posthumous title of Honorary Charter Surveyor. This rare award is not bestowed lightly. Previous recipients have included Robert Burns, George Cadbury and Alfred Wallace.
One of nine children, John Rae was born at the Hall of Clestrain, Orphi, Orkney, on 30th September 1813. Studying medicine at the Royal College of Surgeons in Edinburgh, Rae qualified in 1833 and promptly accepted the post of ship's surgeon on the Hudson Bay Company’s Canada-bound, Prince of Wales. Forced to over-winter in the Canadian arctic pack ice in 1834, Rae abandoned his plans to return to his native Scotland and instead accepted the post of Hudson Bay Company surgeon and clerk at Moose Factory, Ontario, serving there for ten years.
It was here that Rae honed his skills as an explorer, map-maker and surveyor. Learning native tracking and survival skills from the indigenous Metis Indians, Rae became an expert in long-distance arctic navigation and survival. In 1844, Rae made the trek by foot from Moose Factory, near the southwestern tip of James Bay, to Toronto to train as a surveyor. There he would learn how to use the measurement instruments necessary to accurately map uncharted landscapes.
Recognising his skills and his natural aptitude for complex land surveying, the Hudson Bay Company’s Governor-in-Chief, Sir George Simpson, identified Rae in 1846 as the only man in the Company capable of exploring, surveying and mapping the Canadian arctic coastline.
The search for a Northwest Passage to the East through the ice-bound waters of arctic Canada had been an obsession with British maritime powers since the 18th century and the success of Rae’s first expedition in 1846/47 in mapping the remote, ice-covered Gulf of Boothia was widely regarded as a significant contribution to the quest.
After a short trip to London, Rae returned to the arctic in 1848, this time as second-in-command under Sir John Richardson, searching for the lost Franklin Expedition. The search proved fruitless and Richardson returned to England in 1849 but Rae remained, continuing his exploration and mapping of the remote Canadian artic.
A third arctic expedition in 1851 saw Rae add considerably to the mapped geography of the arctic and also produced the first discoveries to shed light on Franklin's missing expedition.
His fourth arctic expedition of 1853-54 saw him make the important discovery that King William Land was not a peninsula but an island. However, his crowning glory as an arctic explorer and surveyor was the discovery of the channel, later named the Rae Strait, forming the last link of a linked navigable Northwest Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean.
The significance of Rae’s discovery of the Northwest Passage cannot be understated yet his unparalleled and breath-taking personal achievements in the most difficult and inhospitable conditions on earth were overshadowed by the truth he had uncovered about the Franklin Expedition. His unedited report of their folly and desperation, including reports of cannibalism, were dismissed in London and his career and reputation tarnished.
Over the course of his lifetime, Rae travelled more than 37,000 kilometres and charted more than 2,475 kilometres of remote, previously unexplored Canadian arctic coastline. His skills as a surveyor were unparalleled and the accuracy of his mapping has only recently been surpassed. His contribution to society was immense. His unrelenting dedication and unparalleled surveying skills, practiced for the most part in extreme arctic conditions, produced maps that laid the foundations for new communication routes that changed the world.
Rae died, aged 79, at his house at 4 Addison Gardens, London, on 22nd July 1893; his body was taken back to Orkney for burial in the grounds of St Magnus Cathedral. A memorial, paid for by public subscription, was erected inside the cathedral in 1894.
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Sydney Kirkby MBE, born in 1933 in Perth, is a pioneer surveyor who served in the Australian National Antarctic Research Expeditions (ANARE) and personally surveyed more of the Antarctic territory than any other explorer.