16 Apr 20
Posted by: Andrew Lambert, King' College London

If any Victorian Admiral needed a new life it was Albert Markham (1841-1914), whose role in the loss of HMS Victoria, a tragedy that will live forever in the lexicon of naval disasters, continues to excite interest. Inspired to join the Navy by his elder cousin Clements, who acquired a passion for polar exploration before going ashore to pursue a career in geography, Albert remained in the navy, but never lost an opportunity to pursue geographical work. It soon becomes clear that Albert would remain a follower, of Clements and others, for the rest of his life. Despite serving alongside Arthur Wilson, Edward Seymour, Garnet Wolseley and Charles Gordon in China in the late 1850s, Albert did not develop an aptitude for high-level leadership. When the imperious Admiral Sir George Tryon demanded action in 1893 Albert did as he was bid, despite knowing the risks. The chapter on the Victoria disaster is short, passing up the opportunity to join the long running debate about what Tryon intended. It is worth noting that Sir Geoffrey Hornby, who was highly critical of Markham’s failure to challenge the order, had drilled the Mediterranean Fleet fifteen years before, with Tryon among his favourite captains, using similarly challenging evolutions to assess the seamanship and nerves of his subordinates. That Albert was given a final flag post, in a shore command it should be noted, shows just how influential his friends were.

While Jastrzembski makes a good case for Markham as an explorer, adventurer and all-round nice guy, he cannot disguise his limits as a senior naval officer. Courage rather than competence was his strong suit. At the centre of the book is an account of George Nares’ Naval Expedition to the Arctic in 1875-76, with Markham as second in command, and leader of the sledge party that reached the highest latitude yet. Jastrzembski provides a solid defence of Markham on the subject of anti-scorbutic provision, where he exceeded orders, but still did not take enough to prevent a deadly outbreak of scurvy, while highlighting his heroic leadership and willingness to go the extra mile for his men. Yet there is more to be recovered from this icy life: Markham’s ostensibly private voyage to Novaya Zemlya in 1878 followed a recent Russian war scare. The Admiralty sanctioned leave in return for reports. Operations in the White Sea had featured in Crimean War, led by an experienced Arctic officer. It seems likely Markham would have been given an icy command, had a war broken out. His command of the Torpedo School HMS Vernon, a critical location for the emerging high-tech Fleet, is passed over as a distraction. In a book dominated by exploration it is hardly a surprise to find Albert and cousin Clements picking Robert Falcon Scott, an 18 year old midshipman, for future icy exploits in 1887. At the time Albert commanded the Training Squadron, Clements had come along for the voyage. At the end Albert wrote a biography of Clements, the best of his many books.

There are a few places where the author’s understanding of the Navy might be better: Flag Captains are not second in command on their own ships, while the Admiralty Secretary identified as Clarence Page was in fact Captain, later Admiral Lord Clarence Paget, on whose Flagship Markham served in the mid-1860s. The most significant weakness of this well-informed book is that some excellent research, including original sources, cannot be followed up by other scholars for want of footnotes. A useful book that would have been improved by engaging more closely with the Victorian Navy and joining some of the current debates that surround Albert’s career.