The Point
Last updated: 05 March 2020.

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Praise of John Rae

 Steve Arnott introduces Praise of John Rae,

 by John Aberdein 

 

There’s a statue of Admiral Sir John Franklin in London.  Its plaque proclaims the English naval hero and explorer as the man who ‘discovered the North-West passage’ – the fabled trade route through the Arctic pack ice to Canada dreamed of by 19th century explorers and merchants.

 

This is a lie. Almost everywhere else in the world, and particularly in Canada where he is revered as a national hero, the Orkney born Scot John Rae is recognised as the true discoverer of the passage.

 

The Franklin expedition, HMS Terror and HMS Erebus, was lost with all hands after suffering two winter’s stuck in the pack ice. Franklin’s tenacious wife, Lady Jane, offered a huge reward for anyone finding or rescuing the expedition.

 

Polar explorer John Rae, starting out from Hudson Bay and sledging 1000 miles out into the ice was the only one to get sufficiently close to bring back relics from the expedition and speak to Inuits who had witnessed its final demise.  Rae’s report to the Admiralty, which drew the  conclusion that at the last, attempting to drag lifeboats over the ice and running out of provisions, the men of the Royal Navy had resorted to eating their dead saw him vilified in polite Victorian society and his Inuit comrades described as savages. This campaign of vilification was taken up by particular viciousness by the giant of Victorian literature and letters, Charles Dickens.

 

To this day, John Rae is the only British Born polar explorer never to have received any official recognition by the state for his pioneering travels and discoveries.

 

This is the subject of Saltire award winning writer John Aberdein’s epic, yet condensed, narrative poem - but it is not its all. John takes his subject matter and imbues it with many layers:  political, social and metaphysical. Published in a slightly different form in 1988, against the backdrop of Thatcher’s re-election to office for the third time, The Point is privileged to publish a slightly updated version of the poem, a marvellous and resonant piece of work - which perhaps like Rae himself, deserves much greater recognition than accorded it thus far.

John Aberdein is the Saltire prize winning author of Amande's Bed,  recently selected as one of The Scotsman's 50 greatest Scottish novels of the last 50 years. 

 

 

Praise of John Rae

 

Sir John’s prop was misshapen,

bitten and cased in ice;

he had a loco aboard,

plumb in the hold

of Terror, attending good result.

 

He was God-fearing and mast-upright:

he buried his dead crew

deep in the permafrost,

the sharp scent of flintspark 

in the pickmen’s nostrils,

that leaden Hogmanay.

 

O they went wandering then,

lugging a longboat stuffed with Bibles

and soap, they dragged their ark

to scour the sand and scarify the shingle,

puffing a cherrywood pipe.

 

They boiled their tea with glacier mince

and sucked a little chocolate, 

then scraped round, like a points race

at Stromness, their last warm dance-place,

and laboured the boat back.

 

They let go and sprang forward and died 

amongst their fellows gnawed by scurvy,

wolves and bears, and by each other:

for a while each survivor shouldered 

a serving of severed limb,

which became him.

 

It did not become John Rae to say so,

the Admiralty found no poetry in his chopped-up

prose, on the say-so of Inuit trappers:

the Empire’s men might swallow

cannonball at Sebastopol

but were not cannibals.

 

Parochial taboo of the wet Lords,

like the piano-leg attitude to sex:

does the soul really inhabit

buttock and slice of thigh?

Surely it is sepulchred in the empty belly:  

Grub first, then ethics

was Brecht’s chew.

 

But Rae knew the score, who had shot

grey heron through the Clestrain dyke

and ridden Brenda up the Hoy Sound tide,

listened to Knox lecture over Burked bodies,

gathered cranberries in his snowshoes

to stave off scurvy at Moose Factory,

years he was surgeon there.

 

The opposite of a romantic,

soaked to the moleskinned skin,

he tramped a hundred miles easy

in two days, he never piddled

at the side with his paddle

but propelled it sculling at the rear,

he took his pocket Bard

into his best fur bed to thaw the pages out.

 

He surveyed all he surveyed

and that was plenty, the wastes 

of Boothia, Pelly and Repulse Bay,

the worst was Melville, walking at night

under seventy pound packs in the waist-deep snow,

the knee-deep water, coming out of holes

on the slippery ice like quadrupeds,

supping soup from the stomachs of deer.

 

There was no lead in his tins

to derange the brain, and colic the gut

and make the limbs erratic:

he wintered off the river, sea and earth,

salmon and curlew fried over seal-fat,

no tins at all, no suicide solder running down

the sides of his hunter’s meat.

 

But the Admiralty had done for Franklin

and his 128 alright, the lowest tender

taken from Stephan Goldner on All Fool’s Day ’45,

and the bulk of 8,000 tins of beefs and soup

rush-packed inside one week.  The solder cheap as hell,

90% lead, hardly flowing into the roll-round seam at all,

but sticking like a poisoned comb into the men’s meat.

 

All the fancy rewards for the finding of Franklin,

twenties of thousands of pounds,

all the real love and amazing devotion of Lady Jane

to get to the bottom of mystery,

the mystery of capitalism,

why we let it so easily persist

with its money-saving on safety,

Piper Alpha, King’s Cross,

and all the Heralds of Free Enterprise

with their enormous price.

 

A far cry from Hudson Bay

demands to be heard: we are cannibals, Rae said,

so readily, who was himself lectured for being  

Over-liberal in all payments to Indians on his private account,

Rae who disciplined the dirty cook at Moose

for paying no heed to the men’s representations,

we are cannibals when market forces become supreme,

a message the Navy Lords found a bit too close to the bone.

 

Dickens also complaining, finding Rae’s report flawed

by its essential basis on the word of a savage,

who is always a liar and boaster in Dickens’ book,

Dickens with his fecund gallery of white character types

from Heep to Micawber, Pickwick to Havisham,

prepared, with a racialism rooted to this day,

to caricature not just Eskimos, but all victims of Empire

with the vices of that Empire, particularly boasting,

and endemically, of course, lying:

a dog-collar Empire, a dog in God’s clothing,

that gnawed at the vitals of all native culture.

 

Rae responded with overwhelming modesty,

contrasting his own small wandering experience

with Dickens’ very great ability and practice,

but despite the salvos, the salivations of Times readers

and the attempt by Dickens to crack his marrow,

he stuck to his guns on all the issues and Rae’s opinions

on Franklin’s end remained exactly the same.

 

His not the drawing-room or coffee-house horror

at the thought of men in extremis eating chunks of their species:

what devoured Rae was the lofty way

that naval brass swanning to the Arctic

would task the Hudson Bay traders with poor treatment of natives,

forgetting that ten times as much famine and misery

looked at them from their own doorsteps in Ireland.

Rae who had the wit to be civilised by his journeys,

learning the craft of snow-houses and honing his hunting,

noting that it was often an Inuit woman who brought down

the first spring goose, who had lived off a thin bone of ptarmigan

the long winter and, with powerful pun,

asked us to observe those who had never been 24 hours without food  

enlarging indignantly on the subject of cannibalism.

 

Rae, who lost only one man on all his 13 thousand miles

of open boat and snowshoe journeys, 

and that thought heavy to him,

would he have given countenance to a Pentland Firth crossing

at its tightest choke-point ten times daily

through the smash of winter?  

 

That would be to mistake his lesson,

knowledge and courage of judgement,

not a reckless throwing of oneself on the elements

as though being a modern white man conferred some immunity.

 

Rae, like the best Scots, was a perfectionist not an exploiter:

sewing his own breek-buttons and splicing rigging 

others might find infra dig, but he wrote,  

I care nothing about that

as long as the work is done to my mind.

 Coming back to Orkney one rain-thrashed Christmas Eve,

he refused his ordered gig on account of lateness,

walking 14 miles to Orphir over villainous roads, 

that was his measure.  Yes, he kept his own quarters

apart from the men, his ink frozen on the mantelpiece,

but was never divided from his fellows by labour.

 

Alone of the great Arctic explorers never made Sir,

his report often doubted, reward grudged,

discoveries he trudged first were labelled naval,

Collinson or McLintock given hydrographer’s honour:

bitter to him that, even in late life,

his views, from scurvy to sledging, hard-won, discounted,

a mere trader, a toiler from remote strata,

not part of the coterie of truth.

 

But his trips and his treatise 

were treasure elsewhere:

for Nansen and Amundsen and Rasmussen

he showed how to live in the Arctic,

less-laden on the small sledge,

with no tight forces discipline

but a good morale that is mutual,

where, as in any true democratic advance,

the speed of the party is the speed of the slowest,

though the strength of the party

is not the strength of the weakest,

and all are equal before death.

 

John Aberdein  

External links:

Bella Caledonia

Bright Green

George Monbiot

Green Left

Greenpeace

The Jimmy Reid Foundation

Laurie Penny

New Left Project

Newsnet Scotland

Richard Dawkins

Scottish Left Review

Socialist Unity

UK Uncut

Viridis Lumen

Wings Over Scotland

Word Power Books