Wednesday, February 27, 2019

I do not quit my post here

‘The sea may be open both above and below, and even if open off-shore, may never release this ship from her present prison until every matter requisite for her extraction is fairly prepared, and nothing left but taking advantage of the first lead, I do not quit my post here.’ This is from a published narrative written by Captain Edward Belcher - born 220 years ago today - during his last and disastrous expedition to the Arctic region. In fact, despite the above sentiment, he abandoned four of his five ships, hopelessly stuck in ice (though, one subsequently drifted free on its own), and was never given another commission again. Previously, he had undertaken two successful long surveying expeditions, and had published narratives of those journeys too. While the narratives appear to be have been written in retrospect (presumably from diaries), Belcher often - especially in the account of the last expedition - resorts to using diary-type dated extracts.

Belcher was born on 27 February 1799 in Halifax, Nova Scotia (then British, now Canadian), where his father Andrew Belcher was a prominent member of the Nova Scotia Council. Aged 13, he enlisted in the British Royal Navy as a first class volunteer. In 1816, as a midshipman in HMS Superb, he took part in the Battle of Algiers; and in 1818 he was promoted to lieutenant. After 1820, he visited the United States, investigated channels near Bermuda, and served on the Nova Scotia station in the Salisbury. In 1825, for more than three years, he sailed with Captain Frederick William Beechey in the HMS Blossom on an exploration of the Pacific and Alaskan coasts. He was made commander in March 1829, and from 1830 to 1833 commanded the Aetna, surveying parts of the west and north coasts of Africa. In 1830, he married Diana Joliffe, but the marriage was soon blighted by her claims of cruelty, and legal actions that eventually led to an arranged separation.

In 1836, Belcher was given command of the Sulphur, a surveying ship (
after its captain, Beechey, was invalided home), and continued its work for the next three years along the coasts of North and South America. At the end of 1839, he received orders to return to England by way of the Western route. However, in Singapore, he was ordered back to China, and was subsequently engaged in war operations along the Canton River. In 1841, he made the first British survey of the Hong Kong harbour. After seven years, he and his ship finally returned to England in 1842, where he was knighted the following year. Thereafter, he was engaged on HMS Samarang, initially to survey the coast of China (the war having opened up the area to trade), but was diverted further east to Borneo and the Philippines, among other places, where he remained five years surveying coasts and fighting pirates.

In 1852, Belcher was given command of a large expedition (five ships led by HMS Assistance) with the aim of searching for Sir John Franklin’s expedition which had been lost in 1845 when attempting to find the Northwest Passage. Belcher spent two years scouring for signs of Franklin’s expedition, often making long trips on land by sledge, but found little evidence of what had happened to it. His own ships then also got into serious difficulty because of the winter conditions, so much so that he abandoned four of them to the ice before making it back to England in HMS North Star. (However, one of the abandoned ships, the Resolute, broke free and drifted until picked up by an American whaler. The ship was returned to the UK, where many years later some of its timbers were used to make a desk for the American president. Given as a present by Queen Victoria, the Resolute desk remains in use in the Oval Office.)

Although exonerated by the Navy for losing his ships, Belcher never received another command. However, he was made Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1867, and an admiral in 1872. He died in 1877. Further information can be found at Wikipedia, the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (log-in required), and the Belcher Foundation (though the latter two have markedly different assessments of the man).

Belcher published three two-volume narratives describing in detail each of his major expeditions: Narrative of a Voyage Round the World (1843); Narrative of the Voyage of HMS Samarang, During the Years 1843-46 (1848), and The Last of the Arctic Voyages (1855). Most of the text in these books reads like a narrative, not a diary, but they were surely written with the help of an expedition diary, kept by Belcher or a subordinate. I can’t find any evidence of such diaries extant today, with one exception: the National Library of New Zealand holds Belcher’s private journal from his time on HMS Blossom in 1825-1827. Otherwise, the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich holds the Royal Navy order books for Belcher’s expeditions.

Nevertheless, within the published ‘narratives’ there are entries that are dated and read as though they were taken directly from a diary (
much more so in the last set than in the first). The following examples are taken from the second volume of The Last of the Arctic Voyages: Being a narrative of the expedition in H.M.S. Assistance under the command of Captain Sir Edward Belcher, C.B. in search of the Sir John Franklin, during the years 1852-53-54. Both volumes (Vol 1 and Vol 2) are freely available at Internet Archive.

5 February 1854
‘The weather still remains line, but the temperature still clinging to -40°. Yesterday, under a change of wind to the northward, a point from which it seldom blows, we experienced a fall of snow, the temperature dropping, contrary to rule, as low as -50°; this was succeeded by calm and a rise to -40°.

After prayers today the bodies of our two men were interred in the same grave, with the customary solemnities. I had already deferred it some days, in the hope of milder weather; indeed, in a great measure, to enable me to officiate in my proper place; but the superstitious feelings of the crew were at work, and I thought it better to stop talking and conclude the ceremony. The service was read by Commander Richards; indeed I suffered severely from the exposure, which sent me to bed with severe rheumatism, or, what I am more inclined to believe, an attack of jaundice.

4 March 1854
‘I have not progressed towards recovery as I had anticipated; in fact, I learn that this is not a climate to trifle with. Undue exertion of the lungs (reading the service on Sunday) has thrown me back and confined me to cabin exercise. The following ideas have lately been 
impressed on me: 1. Never to pass over, as unworthy of thought, after the first year particularly, any symptoms similar to rheumatism, affection of chest or voice, discoloration, emaciation, etc., but at once meet the question by full diet, stimulated even by curries, etc. Exercise is important; injudicious exposure to severe cold should not be risked. This probably has been my fault, or possibly not quite my own, for my preaching has ever been, “not to expose the lungs unnecessarily to a lower temperature than can be avoided.” Latterly our upper deck, under the housing, has maintained a higher temperature by nineteen degrees above the external atmosphere, with a complete shelter from the slightest breeze.’

15 March 1854
‘Our ice-gauge having been raised, we content ourselves with the simple measurement of the in-shore ice, principally with the intent of discovering the approximate moment when the sea-water season terminates; or when the ice crystals, constantly pervading the sea beneath the floe, cease to attach themselves to the under surface, and thus increase the homogeneousness of the floe. Our thickness today affords sixty-five inches, = five feet five inches, and the last ten-day temperatures as under:- Max - 19.00°; min. -49.62°; mean, -34.629°; previous, -32.733°

Our last Division has been delayed to this preconceived date, in the expectation of a decided change of season; and the temperature having risen to -23°, and the wind lulled, I determined to push forward Messrs. Grove and Pim, with the ‘Dauntless’ and ‘Reward,’ on the morrow, should the weather continue propitious.’

19 March 1854
‘The breeze has failed and the temperature again fallen to -40°. We have not been visited by the old noises termed “bolt-breaking” for some time, but last night the outer ice evinced great uneasiness, and reports of heavy and repeated cracks were heard during the whole night. From the report of those sent to examine the outer ice, I gather that the exterior ice already exhibits large rents, and the fissures generally seem to indicate a probability of off-shore leads whenever the ice is relieved from off-shore pressure. To those accustomed to view these matters it will of course be apparent; but to the uninitiated it may be necessary to explain, that this dislocated state of the off-lying pack affords us better grounds for release than if we had been frozen up in smooth continuous floe of equal thickness, as the pack invariably falls asunder at the first thaw, and may either float off or be compressed into smaller space, and thus afford space for motion, the great desideratum in these cases; on the other hand, when the floe is continuous and of equal thickness, it is only disrupted by forces which would entail destruction on our insignificant vessels.

My own conviction is, that no opinion as to ultimate release can be formed on this side of Beechey Island, and then not before July or probably until the 22nd of August, notwithstanding the unprecedented open water found here on the 14th of the latter month in 1852, and that, as it appears by reports of not many hours later, was closed almost to boats.

Last year Commander Pullen, on his first journey to Cape Becher, on the 10th of April, found the ice very treacherous with many pools of water; but then we experienced many warm days during the months of February and March. But the open water above our present position and that below, or southerly to Beechey Island, are dependent on very different conditions. We know, from actual experience now, that the Polar Sea may be open and in active motion as early as the 18th of May, as noticed on that date from Britannia Cliff, and we also know that the sea was open on the 14th of July, last season, at Northumberland Sound, yet still sealed near Hamilton Island late in August. But to my mind the cause is very clear - as clear as the North Sea and British Channel flood-tides meeting at high water near Dover. North of our present position, the flood-tide sets in from the Polar Sea and brings its warmer oceanic water; southerly, the flood has to pass up Lancaster Sound, then to be deflected up this channel, and makes high water somewhere between this and Beechey Island; hence the inaction in this particular neighbourhood when the sea may be open both above and below, and even if open off-shore, may never release this ship from her present prison. But until every matter requisite for her extraction is fairly prepared, and nothing left but taking advantage of the first lead, I do not quit my post here.’

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