Manitoba History: Ian Bunyan, Jenni Calder, Dale Idiens and Bryce Wilson, No Ordinary Journey: John Rae, Arctic Explorer 1813-1893

by C. Stuart Houston
Department of Medical Imaging, University of Saskatchewan

Number 27, Spring 1994

This article was published originally in Manitoba History by the Manitoba Historical Society on the above date. We make this online version available as a free, public service. As an historical document, the article may contain language and views that are no longer in common use and may be culturally sensitive in nature.

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Ian Bunyan, Jenni Calder, Dale Idiens and Bryce Wilson, No Ordinary Journey: John Rae, Arctic Explorer 1813-1893. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press and Edinburgh: National Museums of Scotland, 116 pp., illus., 1993. ISBN 0-7735-1106-7.

The book is replete with well-chosen, beautifully-produced and informative colour and black-and-white illustrations, which alone make it a best-buy. There are two helpful maps.

John Rae, arctic explorer.
Source: Archives of Manitoba

Bryce Wilson, like Rae a native of Stromness, has written a sensitive account of “Childhood in Orkney,” which tells how Rae learned boating and hunting skills and instilled in himself an unusual degree of self-reliance. Ian Bunyan’s “Early Arctic Exploration,” places Rae’s explorations in perspective, but there are obvious errors in his text and too much overlap between his and the next chapter, “Rae in the Arctic,” by Jenni Calder. Dale Idiens writes of “Rae and the Native Canadians,” and “Rae as Collector and Ethnographer.” Both Calder and Idiens give full credit to Rae’s common sense, his adoption of native clothing, shelter and travel methodology, and his high regard for the knowledge and integrity of the Inuit.

Although it had the potential to be nearly perfect, there are signs that this book may have been rushed into production, with-out time for critical pre-publication reading by a Canadian more familiar with the history and landscape. Perhaps the most egregious of the errors is the ascription of a Robert Hood painting to “Robin” Hood (I detected three additional typographic errors). John Barrow was second secretary to (not ‘at’) the Admiralty. Idiens’ text incorrectly states that Ouligbuck had accompanied Sir John Franklin’s early expeditions (plural) whereas the caption of the Ouligbuck portrait correctly states that he was a member only of the 1825 Franklin Expedition. There is no explanation that ‘deer’ are now called caribou, nor that the magnetic pole is not a fixed site, but moves continuously. Although Calder and Bunyan both allude to the cost-effectiveness of Rae’s journeys, with only one life lost (in a rapid), both fail to tell us that Rae mapped more miles of arctic coastline than any other arctic explorer, and that some place names on Victoria Island, given by Rae as the island’s first surveyor, have been misapplied or not used.

Clearly, although Rae collected the £10,000 prize for determining the fate of Franklin’s men, he deserved knight-hood as well; he no doubt would have received this honour if he hadn’t told the truth, unmentionable in the Victorian era, about the cannibalism practised by the desperate men of the third Franklin expedition.

I am sure my teacher, the late Doctor Ross Mitchell of Winnipeg, who wrote a fine article about Rae in The Beaver in 1936, would have shared my enthusiasm for this fine book. It brings the true flavour of one of Canada’s heroes, one of the first to place due confidence in the accurate descriptions given by native people, a man whose integrity and physical endurance may never be equalled. It is meant to be read, admired and treasured and would make a fine gift for anyone with the remotest interest in our North.

Page revised: 11 April 2010