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book review

Ken McGoogan’s Dead Reckoning adds to the debate over who should be credited with discovering the Northwest Passage.

"The Untold Story of the Northwest Passage" is a bold choice of subtitle, since few stories have been told more often. Among earlier works, Leslie Neatby's In Quest of the North West Passage (1958) stands up remarkably well. Pierre Berton's The Arctic Grail (1988) is superbly readable. Ann Savours (1999) and Glyn Williams (2009) both dug deep in the archives and produced excellent, accurate books. The finding of Sir John Franklin's ships in 2014 and 2016 added a fresh episode, chronicled in print by Paul Watson, Russell Potter and John Geiger.

Ken McGoogan has already published four Arctic volumes. So what does he have to offer here that is truly new? Actually, something very important. Over the years, historians have become more careful about giving credit to the Indigenous men and women who acted as guides, hunters, cartographers and more. But McGoogan goes beyond any other previous writer in highlighting their deeds. A book like his is long overdue – and he deserves all possible praise for it.

Yet even so, in the end McGoogan champions a white explorer. As every reader of his previous books knows, his hero is John Rae. And he doesn't merely argue that Rae was denied the recognition he deserved for his outstanding success in Arctic travel. He upholds Rae as the Northwest Passage's true discoverer.

Who "really discovered" the passage has been debated, sometimes furiously, since the 1850s. A case can be made for Franklin. In 1845 he sailed into the Arctic Archipelago from the eastern side. After his death, his men, having abandoned their ships, passed the cairn raised on King William Island by Peter Dease and Thomas Simpson, who had travelled there from the west in 1839. In the memorable words of Franklin's old friend Sir John Richardson, the lost explorers forged the last link with their lives.

But Franklin hadn't found a navigable passage: Heavy ice barred him from sailing onward to safety along Dease and Simpson's route. After blazing a new trail as far as King William Island, he had taken a wrong turn at the last fork in the path. With fatal results, Franklin went west of the island when he ought to have gone east.

During the Franklin search Robert McClure tried another new route from the west and he too got trapped in ice. He and his men were lucky enough to be rescued; they travelled on foot to a search ship in the eastern Arctic and so became the first to pass from Pacific to Atlantic through the archipelago.

Also during the search, William Kennedy (1852), Rae (1854), and Leopold McClintock (1859) explored the crucial track east of King William Island. Franklin likely had already passed along part of this route, but then again, maybe not. There are two ways to the crossroads north of the island and we still aren't certain which one he took.

It was McClintock who put everything together and recommended the route by which Roald Amundsen later sailed from Atlantic to Pacific. In his autobiography, Amundsen insisted he himself was the true conqueror. Rae made no claim on his own behalf, but McGoogan argues that in 1846 Franklin passed through the strait later mapped by McClintock. (Franklin's other possible route isn't mentioned.) Therefore, when Rae discovered the strait named after him, it allegedly was the real last link. At the time of his find, Rae knew nothing about what Franklin had done; and until Amundsen's voyage, no one could be sure Rae Strait was navigable. Nevertheless, in McGoogan's depiction, Rae swiftly realizes that he is the victor.

Lady Franklin had a bitter feud with McClure (not Rae) over the "true discoverer" title. Near the end of her life, she even managed to drag Sir John's embarrassed 17-year-old grandson into the fight. In a similar spirit of partisanship, McGoogan spends a few pages denouncing the distinguished Arctic geographer William Barr, who admires Rae but awards the prize to Amundsen.

The debate is rife with hairsplitting logic and the most sensible conclusion seems to be that there was no single discoverer. And if historians are going to follow McGoogan's bold example and give Indigenous people a true leading part, why is it necessary to exalt any white explorer? Rae is presented as the hero who shattered conventions and valued Indigenous wisdom, but his writings show he wasn't free of racism. He used Indigenous techniques, but often took a patronizing attitude to Indigenous people.

In 1824, Edward Parry published an Inuit map of the Melville Peninsula's west coast. Rae later surveyed the area and found that the chart was generally, though not perfectly, accurate. In 1891, Parry was mistakenly credited with first exploring this coastline. Rae was enraged – not because credit was being taken from the Inuit, but because it was being taken from him. He and Franklin were both 19th-century Brits, and the differences between them were differences of degree, not of kind.

Celebrating Franklin seems reactionary and wrong to many Canadians today because they associate him with British imperialism. Rae, much less famous in his own time, can more easily be shaped into a hero for the 21st century. Elevating him over Franklin offers a very significant advantage: It encourages more diverse narratives about the Northwest Passage. McGoogan is an adept storyteller and Dead Reckoning is an engrossing read. But a book without a supposedly flawless white hero at its heart would be even better.

Janice Cavell, a research professor in Carleton University's department of history, has published two books and many articles on the Arctic.