Barrow’s Boys

Fergus Fleming

Granta Books, 1998, reprinted 1999

ISBN 1 86207 286 8


Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary to the Admiralty from 1804 to 1845, has been a shadowy figure in the background of many narratives of British Arctic exploration. Picking leaders for expeditions, deciding their routes and destinations, even, seemingly, ordaining what geographical facts they would or would not discover, he has nevertheless scarcely emerged from the obscurity to which his dreary job title seemed to confine him. Fergus Fleming does not exactly drag him into the light in Barrow’s Boys - that is not his purpose - but by making Barrow’s life’s work in the Admiralty the organizing principle of his book, he provides narrative continuity to a bewildering variety of exploratory ventures, and throws light on the often haphazard processes by which scientific and imperialist motives drove geographical discovery.

Barrow was a bright boy who, through hard work at school and ingratiating himself with the right people, secured a job as interpreter on a diplomatic mission to China, then worked in the government of Cape Colony in South Africa before he secured his prestigious Admiralty job in London at the age of forty. His first decade in office was dominated by the second half of the Napoleonic Wars, a conflict to which he contributed a decisive solution by suggesting the super-remote St Helena as a suitable place of exile for Napoleon (Elba having proved a bit too close for comfort). The end of the war presented a great administrative problem, however - the world’s largest navy now had little to do - and Barrow’s solution was to employ some of them at least in a programme of geographical exploration.

Barrow’s name has long been associated with the series of Arctic expeditions that stretched from 1817 to his retirement in 1845, but one of the fascinating facts thrown up by Fleming’s book is that this was just one of many parts of the globe in which he had an interest (albeit the strongest interest). Running through the story in counterpoint is a series of expeditions to different parts of West Africa, their overarching goal being to trace the course of the Niger, which it was thought could become an artery of trade to open up the African interior and extend British influence. The very first expedition Barrow sent out, in 1816, was to the Congo, of which river Barrow thought the Niger a tributary. Most of its members died of fever having added little to the sum of geographical knowledge, and Barrow, in an unusual sign of learning from his mistakes, made sure future expeditions were over land, and of much smaller parties. Through the following 15 years a succession of heroic but always fever-ridden parties, led in turn by George Lyon, Walter Oudney, Hugh Clapperton, the deranged Gordon Laing, and the ultimately successful Richard Lander, gradually pieced together the geography of west Africa, locating Timbuctoo and Lake Chad and establishing that the Niger flowed into the Gulf of Benin. Fleming’s breezy and easily digestible prose style, unobtrusively inserting the fruits of his research in quotations from or summaries of the primary sources, conveys with great panache the hair-raising difficulties they had and the grisly ends they virtually all encountered.

Another of Barrow’s geopolitical games was to establish a colony on the north coast of Australia as a "second Singapore", and two attempts were made, both failing for the simple reason that the coast is not on any shipping lane, and so had no commercial reason to exist. The essentially negative motivation for the African and Australian ventures was straightforward: if Britain did not establish its presence in these areas, some other country might, particularly the French. It was a simple but powerful argument to use in supporting proposals to the Admiralty - staffed as it was by men who had spent most of their careers fighting the French - and Barrow employed it consistently in all his areas of interest. In the Arctic, he portrayed the idea of allowing another nation to unlock the North West Passage as a betrayal of all the work done by the great naval explorers of previous generations such as Cook, Vancouver, and Flinders. Fleming skilfully conveys how a country that had been nationalistically energized by the Napoleonic Wars, and was about to embark on the orgy of patriotism that was the Victorian age, was willing to send ship after ship into the Arctic in the belief that no-one else should forestall them in discovering a passage to the Pacific.

The obvious question to ask in relation to Fleming’s coverage of the Arctic expeditions is whether they add anything to the work of Pierre Berton in The Arctic Grail (1988). Fleming is clearly aware of his potential overlap with the book he describes as "required reading for polar enthusiasts" and has gone to some lengths to avoid it, so that the two books seem happily complementary in their coverage. Where Berton has given most detail - in his description of Franklin’s two overland expeditions, for instance - Fleming gives less, and where Berton slightly holds back - such as in his accounts of Parry’s second and third voyages - Fleming comes forward. While Berton’s focus is on the North West Passage, Fleming’s is on the web of projects initiated by Barrow, and for that reason he conveys a greater sense of the interconnectedness of the people involved: between expeditions, the explorers corresponded with each other and took part in the games of career politics that their expeditions were in large part aimed at. George Lyon, of the African exploits, also pops up in the Arctic as second-in-command to Parry on the latter’s second and third expeditions, while most famously James Clark Ross, having spent 17 years in the Arctic, was put in charge of Barrow’s grand play for the Antarctic in 1839. After spending so long as second-in-command this was the highlight of Ross’s career, and the achievements of the four-and-a-half year expedition, particularly in its first season, are documented in colourful detail by Fleming, who devotes the most dramatic prose of his book to the collision between the Erebus and Terror on the night of 13 March 1842, following which the crippled Erebus was in danger of being crushed between two icebergs:

Tangled under a wreckage of spars, unable to make sail, and being driven ever closer to the bergs, the Erebus’s only hope was to use the dangerous and often ineffective remedy of a sternboard - going astern with a reversed helm and hoping that the bow swung around to circle them out of danger. Hazardous enough at the best of times…By a miracle they scraped past the berg. But then came the difficulty of forging the pass. They were heading, stern-first, for the adjoining berg…Abernethy the ice-master lay flat on the ice-plank protruding from the bow, ready to shout directions. Ross stood, arms folded, on the afterpart of the quarterdeck, the epitome of fearlessness.

The Erebus and Terror survived, of course, if only to meet their famously uncertain end under the command of John Franklin. Franklin’s last expedition was also Barrow’s last throw, organized in his final months in office and setting sail four months after his retirement. Barrow died three years later, when Franklin’s fate was still unknown, and the scale of the disaster that emerged summed up something of the nature of Barrow’s entire project: it had, in operational terms, been a catalogue of expensive disasters and disappointments, and Fleming pulls no punches in spelling this out. Of more than twenty major expeditions that Barrow sent out, only Parry’s first, Franklin’s second, and James Ross’s last had been really successful both in terms of geographical discovery and the safe return of at least most of their members: just a 15 per cent strike rate. One of the reasons for this was Barrow’s weakness for strong opinions on subjects about which he could not possibly have knowledge: he was convinced that the Niger ran into the Congo (or when that was disproved, the Nile), just as he was convinced that the North Pole was surrounded by an ice-free "Open Polar Sea", and he (mis-)briefed and (mis-)directed his expedition leaders accordingly, so their failure was in large part preordained.

The reasons Barrow was allowed to continue with his obsessions despite their many failures were many, but must have included the huge number of volunteers among the underemployed naval officers; the popularity of the expeditions with the public; and the way failure, if heroic in the face of adversity, fed into the naval culture of noble sacrifice and thus fed back in turn into a reckless disregard for safety (Fleming describes Franklin’s first expedition as like "being ordered to hitch-hike through a war-zone into a wilderness"). The author tellingly conveys how despite its scattergun inaccuracy, Barrow’s exploring machine, once set in motion, developed a momentum that led to the blanks on the map being filled in despite him, by explorers who achieved great things even as they flew in the teeth of his instructions. Even if the outcome was not what he intended, it was Barrow who set the machine in motion and pedalled the wheels to keep it going. For that reason he is worthy of remembrance, and in Barrow’s Boys he receives a fitting commemoration.

Jonathan Dore