The Orcadian explorer

This week, on what would have been his 201st birthday, a plaque was unveiled in Westminster Abbey to commemorate the life of the Arctic explorer John Rae. Rae, originally from Orkney, is one of the most significant of British explorers, and is credited with discovering the last part of the long-searched for Northwest Passage. Yet in his own lifetime, Rae's reputation was destroyed after another of his discoveries proved to be very unwelcome news in Victorian England.

When the expedition led by Sir John Franklin in Arctic Canada went missing, Rae was involved in the search. In the far north, he made contact with a group of Inuit who claimed to have met the sailors. Later, they said, they had found corpses showing signs of cannibalism.

Rae reported the findings honestly, but on doing so was met with extreme hostility. Led by Franklin's wife, and with the help of influential Victorians including Charles Dickens, Rae found himself the victim of an intense and deeply racist smear campaign. His achievements were undermined and forgotten, and when he died, in 1893, he was buried without honours in Orkney.

It was not until 1997,  when human bones showing knife marks were discovered on King William Island, that Rae's story was proved to be correct. But still today, while the failed Franklin expedition is legendary, Rae's great successes are largely forgotten.

The plaque commemorating John Rae is situated alongside that of John Franklin.

You can read more about story, and watch a short video, by clicking on the image below.