NELSON’S ARCTIC VOYAGE THE ROYAL NAVY’S FIRST POLAR EXPEDITION 1773 and THE MAN WHO DISCOVERED ANTARCTICA EDWARD BRANSFIELD EXPLAINED

Reviewed by: M. K. BARRITT

Polar exploration exercises a powerful spell over the people of these islands. This becomes apparent to researchers manhandling the vast ledgers, labelled prosaically TNA ADM 12, which hold indices and digests of Admiralty Board correspondence. In that for 1819, the section which exceeds all others in size, records volunteers for the Arctic component of the exploration campaign championed by Secretary John Barrow. Turn the clock forward and the first decades of the twentieth century are dubbed the ‘Heroic Age’ of Scott and Shackleton. Now in our days the rediscovery of Franklin’s Erebus and Terror has inspired a slew of television documentaries and a popular book.

Here on offer are two accounts of polar voyages of discovery. One tells of an expedition to test the theory that, beyond the ice fields, the North Pole might be surrounded by open water. The other tells of the man who confirmed that the fabled southern continent had indeed been sighted, albeit one with the least habitable environment on earth.

The author, or more probably the publisher, of the first book has not felt able to rely solely on polar allure and has called in aid an unmistakable national hero. This is ‘Nelson’s Arctic Voyage’. The dust cover is emblazoned with William Westall’s famous picture of the teenage midshipman’s battle with a bear, which, for this reviewer at least, has been consigned by John Sugden’s authoritative biography to the realm of mythology. The hero’s profile is kept alive in this work by a string of references suggesting that he ‘would have’, ‘probably would have’ or ‘might have’ taken part in evolutions.

The expedition is properly speaking that of Commander Constantine Phipps, for which a splendidly concise and definitive account, Northward Ho! A Voyage towards the North Pole 1773, was published in 2010 by the Captain Cook Memorial Museum Whitby in association with the Society for Nautical Research. A reader of this new account will come away with a sound appreciation of the aim, conduct and outcome of the expedition set in the context of pre- and post-dated voyages. It is not, however, an easy read. The tale of the voyage itself comprises only some 40 percent of the text and is heavily larded with prosaic extracts from the everyday logs of the ships. As the commanders enter the ice, and as they encounter heavy weather on their return voyage, the author injects more atmosphere and insight.

The narrative will not necessarily carry the reader hungrily from cover to cover, but this, like earlier books by the author, is a valuable work of reference. Reflecting his justly renowned expertise, the remainder of the text and 14 detailed appendices describe the selection, fitting out, manning, and provisioning of HM Ships Racehorse and Carcass, as well as their previous and subsequent history and fate. There is gold to be mined here amongst the author’s explanation of the seamanship involved, especially as the voyage narrative picks up some pace. It is too easy, for example, for an author to talk glibly of deep-sea sounding. Commander Goodwin has done his calculations, showing that the ‘dipsie’ lead and 290 fathoms of soaked line presented the hands on deck with a load of 886 pounds to recover. Sadly, however, not all material is readily traced through the index. There are errors, largely attributable to the proof reader e.g. Iceland and Svalbard are confused in the caption to the first plate, the artist for the well-known images of the voyage is John Clevely the Younger, rather than John Cleverly, and plate 24 does not show a dip circle. The book is generously and generally well illustrated, though the reproduction of a plan of the vicinity of Smeerenburg is too small to make use of the accompanying key.

Now let us head south to follow The Man Who Discovered Antarctica in a volume sporting an unattributed image of a sailing ship in ice. ‘Buyer beware’. The polar buff may be somewhat perplexed to find that he will not reach the Southern Ocean until page 192 and that little more than one chapter will cover this episode in Edward Bransfield’s career. The primary source for this part is the only journal from the voyage of the merchant brig Williams, that of Master’s Mate Charles Poynter. This has been published in full in a finely illustrated volume of the Hakluyt Society, together with most other documentation pertinent to the origin, conduct, and aftermath of Bransfield’s probe towards the continent of Antarctica. He himself was perhaps too preoccupied with his hazardous task to make his own voice more prominent. Since the author of this biography has visited some of the locations along his route, one might have expected some more colour in this account. This part of the narrative, at least, calls out for a map.

Those of us working more generally in this period, and with a desire to see the unsung RN Masters given greater profile, will turn to the book hoping to find a rare substantial biography. Alas, the author has in fact fared no better than the rest of us. Her years of effort in the archives have turned up the usual bare career record in Muster and Pay Books and the occasional ray of light from other service records and Navy Board in-letters. Detective work in parish records has revealed two short-lived marriages, Bransfield being at sea when both his first and second wife died suddenly. The author injects some pathos into her account, though Bransfield has left no record of the impact on him. Overall, she provides a comprehensive description of the operations of the ships in which Bransfield served, but there is very little with which to bring his character alive. Again, the text is larded with suggestions that he ‘would’ have seen or experienced events.

Since the narrative has been woven skilfully into the wider historical background, the book could be commended to a general reader seeking insight into a sea career in the Royal Navy in the Napoleonic wars and their aftermath. There are, however, some misleading passages. It would indeed be good to know how a boy pressed from a vessel in Cork Harbour made the transition from ordinary seaman to master’s mate, a transition which was, however, by no means unique. He would then ‘walk the quarterdeck’ but he would mess in the gunroom, not the wardroom. The description of boys’ careers is inaccurate. There are some unfair comparisons of the fortunes of Bransfield and his fellow midshipman William Edward Parry. The way in which a captain worked the scheme of complement with the result that young men transitioned backwards and forwards from midshipman to master’s mate, to clerk, and yes, to able seaman, is clearly not understood. No evidence is cited to support the assertion that, on advancement to Master, Bransfield took his new wife to sea to share his tiny cabin in the brig-sloop Goldfinch. It may have been ‘customary’ for the wives of other warrant officers to accompany their husbands, but I have seen little evidence that masters, with their heavy responsibilities, especially for navigation, did so. Lieutenant Matthew Flinders earned a reprimand when he embarked his wife after commissioning Investigator.

It brings little pleasure to pen a downbeat assessment of the labour of love of other researchers, reflecting years of work. This reviewer, writing whilst himself awaiting a publisher’s verdict, can only note the object lessons with some trepidation. What fascinates us may not raise the enthusiasm of a general audience. Both these books are immensely detailed. How hard it is to leave out so many of those wonderful snippets of information which brightened up an otherwise arid day amongst dusty folios! But in the end, despite all the reservations above it is encouraging to see maritime titles finding an outlet and appearing at an affordable price and in an attractive format.