Richard King (1810-1876)

  • Hugh N. Wallace
Keywords: Biographies, Expeditions, Exploration, Explorers, History, Traditional knowledge, Inuit, King, Richard, 1810-1876, Mapping, Search for Franklin, Topography, Back River, Nunavut, Canadian Arctic, Canadian Arctic Islands, Northwest Passage


Dr. Richard King was an explorer, geographer, and ethnologist who commented discerningly upon much that happened in arctic exploration in the period 1833-1869. The Cassandra of this period, he prophesied accurately a good deal of the arctic map and of arctic happenings without, however, gaining public acceptance for his predictions. ... He also showed an interest in Amerindians and the Inuit and contributed in this regard to the Ethnological Journal. ... Using a combination of geographical data (some of his own discernment) and anthropological and other reasoning, King produced a remarkable sketch map of the Arctic as he saw it, which had a number of correct and newly visualized features, and which contrasted sharply with the Navy's current view of the Arctic. For example, just as he had once trusted direct information from the Inuit cultures and their distribution in order to recognize a more northerly passage. In our own day, some of King's views have been borne out by archaeological findings on Greenland and Ellesmere Island. ... It is typical of Richard King's role in the arctic story that there is no known portrait of him. Faceless himself in the extant records so far as we know them, he had delineated or anticipated much of the topography of the Canadian Arctic. He had gone to that region only once, and yet had perceived and forecast much that was accurate in regard to its map and to events in the unrolling of it. His work on the Arctic still helps us to understand what other explorers had done - and failed to do - in discovery of the region. Indeed, had King not existed, perhaps "someone would have had to invent him," so as to shed light upon certain arctic realities of which King had been very aware and of which most of his contemporaries had not been. He had predicted the existence of Queen Maud Gulf, the peninsularity of Boothia, the insularity of King William Island, both a coastal and a more northern Northwest Passage, and a superiority of the latter over the former as a navigable channel. He had warned against Back's ill-fated expedition of 1836 and the still more ill-fated Franklin expedition of 1845; he had also predicted (perhaps his most famous forecast) where the lost Franklin expedition would be found and what the causes of its loss might be. The Cassandra of arctic exploration in its greatest era, his fate had been to know and prophesy future arctic events and future knowledge of the Arctic without, however, the public believing his prophesies until much later, when there was a tendency to forget that it was he who had made them in the first place.
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