In the mid-19th century, the search was on for the elusive Northwest Passage, that area of water connecting the east side of the globe to the west, north over Canada and through the Arctic regions. Whichever country was successful in navigating this route would ultimately be able to control it, and therefore trade between East and West. Britain at this time had the best navy in the world, so it was not unusual to expect Britain to find this elusive stretch of water. Expedition after expedition set out, but it was ultimately the disappearance of Sir John Franklin’s ships that brought Rae to the forefront of Arctic exploration.
Rae, born in Orkney in 1813, joined the Hudson Bay Company straight out of university initially as a surgeon, but he soon discovered his talent for navigating the Arctic tundra. He gained an enviable reputation throughout his lifetime of being a first class explorer, which led to him being chosen to head up the expedition to find the lost Franklin expedition and their two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror by the London Admiralty. However, when Rae reported his findings to London he was castigated by society, and eventually became the only Arctic explorer of his generation not to receive a knighthood. Why should this be? Because he reported that the local Inuit recounted having found items from the expedition, and that some members of the Franklin expedition had resorted to cannibalism. Unfortunately, modern expeditions have borne this out to be true, but Rae was never believed in his lifetime.
The Halkett or cloth boat (to the right) was invented by Lt Peter Halkett RN, and despite being used by many explorers, John Rae among that number, it was not a commercial success. The boat in our collection is the only known example to have survived, and although it never made it to the Arctic, it did belong to Rae until given to a friend in Orkney. It was probably the additional boat requested by Rae for his final expedition in 1853, but was unused.
It was made from layers of cotton fabric and rubber in the same style as that very modern Victorian invention, the Mackintosh waterproof coat, and was actually designed to double up as a cloak, the wearer carrying a walking stick (paddle) and large umbrella (sail). It seems unlikely that Rae would have carried these double-duty items, though we’re sure he would have been entertained by the thought of taking such items to the Arctic.
The boat has copper alloy air valves and its canvas fender was filled with cork, and the one in our collection dates from around 1852. It could carry two men or a substantial load of stores, and took only four minutes to inflate. On its bow is painted ‘Dr Rae, Hudson Bay’ and on the stern ‘James Fitzjames,’ Fitzjames being commander of HMS Erebus on the lost Franklin expedition.