Barrow’s Boysby Fergus Fleming
“An engrossing and moving story of high endeavour and frustrated hope. . . . Get hold of this book and read it.” –Barry Unsworth, Sunday Telegraph
“Surely this spring’s most entertaining popular history . . . Here is all the adventure you could want, stirringly and generously told.”–Anthony Brandt, National Geographic Adventure
Barrow’s Boys is a spellbinding account of perilous journeys to uncharted areas under the most challenging conditions. Re-creating the successes and harrowing failures of the original extreme adventurers, Fergus Fleming captures the incredibly brave, and often downright insane, passion for exploration that led a band of men into situations that would humble even the bravest adventurers today.
These men served under John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, who, after the Napoleonic wars, launched the most ambitious program of exploration the world has ever seen. For the next thirty years, his handpicked teams of elite naval officers scoured the globe on a mission to fill the blanks that littered the atlases of the day.
From the first disastrous trip down the Congo, in search of the Niger River, Barrow maintained his resolve in the face of continuous catastrophes. His explorers often died of sickness or at the hands of unfriendly natives, and they struggled under minuscule budgets that forced them to resort to pulling enormous ships across floating ice fields; to eating mice, raw meat, or their own shoes; and even to horrifying acts of cannibalism.
While many of the journeys failed entirely, Barrow and his men ultimately opened Africa to the world, discovered Antarctica, and pried apart the mandibles of the Arctic. Many of the missions have gone down among the greatest in history, yet they have never before been collected into one volume that captures the full sweep of Barrow’s program. Beyond their own renowned discoveries, Barrow’s officers inspired scores of men, from Livingstone to Shackleton, to continue the incredible quest for knowledge well into the twentieth century. Never again would such a disparate and entertaining band of explorers stalk the world.
A few of John Barrow’s expeditions:
1816: Barrow’s first mission sends a crew up the Congo in search of the mouth of the Niger River. Within 200 miles yellow fever wipes out most of the crew; when the survivors turn around their African guides flee into the bush, stealing most of their supplies. None of the officers survive and only a few crewmembers limp back to England. The mission is a total failure, setting an unfortunate precedent for the missions to follow.
1819-1822: The legendary John Franklin takes his first overland mission to map Canada’s northern coastline. They run out of food and are driven to eating lichen from rocks, mice, and even their shoes, which are roasted or boiled before being devoured. Some of the men resort to cannibalism.
1825: Gordon Laing, the indomitable African explorer and dreadful poet, crosses the Sahara in search of Timbuctoo, rumored to be a wondrous city of learning and commerce. Attacked by Tuareg tribesmen, he covers 400 miles strapped to the back of a camel with numerous saber cuts, a fractured jawbone, a musket ball in the hip, three broken fingers, and a slashed wrist. He eventually finds Timbuctoo, which turns out to be nothing more than a squalid huddle of mud houses. Laing is murdered by Tuaregs on his way back and his body is never discovered.
1830: Richard and John Lander take up the intrepid task of following the Niger to its mouth. Along the way they are forced to bribe tribal leaders to let them continue, abducted by pirates and delivered into slavery, bought by a drunken chief who sets them free to sail away with a foul-mouthed British captain who desperately needs healthy crewmembers. They return to England in 1831, having discovered the mouth of the Niger, only to receive the cold shoulder from Barrow, who had long argued that the Niger ended elsewhere and was displeased to have his beliefs disproven.
“An engrossing and moving story of high endeavour and frustrated hope. . . . Get hold of this book and read it.” –Barry Unsworth, Sunday Telegraph
“A fine book. It is wonderful to have these little-read accounts of a critical period of exploration so well organized into one coherent narrative–and not only that but so well written, in a fresh and immediate manner which brings to life the extraordinary courage and endurance of the men involved.” –Peter Matthiessen
“Barrow’s Boys is a marvelous book . . . giving the real story of the men who risked (and often lost) their lives for the glory of England–and the glory of exploration.” –The Times (London)
“A hugely entertaining read. . . . This is travel history of the best kind: entertaining, informed and opinionated.” –Sunday Times (London)
“Fleming has an eye for a ripping yarn and a gift for spinning it. . . . He is a lively interpreter, with bags of narrative flair.” –Literary Review
“A rollicking narrative about the real thing: nineteenth-century British seafaring exploits . . . A riveting yarn.”–Grace Lichtenstein, The Washington Post Book World
“Fleming delivers with firsthand accounts from diaries, meticulously crafted details, and devastatingly dry wit.”–Ben Arnoldy, The Christian Science Monitor
“A series of vivid portraits and thrilling tales . . . The book makes wonderful reading.”–Kildare Dobbs, The Globe and Mail (Toronto)
“A sure bet for fans of Caroline Alexander’s The Endurance, this captivating survey of England’s exploration during the 19th century illuminates a host of forgotten personalities. . . . Readers will enjoy Fleming’s clever chronicle of their exploits.” –Publishers Weekly
“Barrow’s Boys is a wonderful story, vividly told.” –Nature
Chapter One: The Man at the Admiralty
`To what purpose could a portion of our naval force be, at any time, but more especially in time of profound peace, more honourably or more usefully employed than in completing those details of geographical and hydrographical science of which the grand outlines have been boldly and broadly sketched by Cook, Vancouver and Flinders, and others of our countrymen?’
These words were written in 1816 by John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, in the introduction to Captain James Kingston Tuckey’s journal of his expedition to the Congo of that same year. They were read by few but their swords-to-ploughshares sentiment was shared by many, particularly by the officers of the Royal Navy.
Having swelled during the Napoleonic Wars to proportions that would not be equalled for a century, the Royal Navy was in the throes of massive disarmament. On the whole it was a straightforward process.
The ships were laid up `in ordinary’ and the seamen were simply thrown back onto the streets from which they had often been press-ganged in the first place. The officers, however, were a different matter. They were career men, they had political clout and they could not be dismissed so easily. In fact, their numbers increased until the navy, reduced to a rump of some 23,000 men from a peak of more than 130,000, had one officer for every four men. But 90 per cent of these officers had nothing to do. Mothballed on half-pay they yearned for something – a war would have been good – to get them back into service. But a war was unlikely. Their only hope of advancement was if someone higher up the Navy List died. Alas, such deaths proved rare in peace. Thirty years on, the navy was still feeling the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. The average age of an Admiral was seventy-six. Below them on the list hundreds of grey-haired captains drew their half-pay with autumnal melancholy. In 1846, of 1,151 officers, only 172 were in full employment.
Half-pay was not a happy prospect, amounting to little more than subsistence. So when Barrow asked the question `to what purpose’ the response was enthusiastic. To what purpose indeed?
Captain James Kingston Tuckey could have told them. But, alas, he was dead.
The Admiralty Board Room, situated on the first floor of Admiralty House, Whitehall, was the nerve centre of the world’s largest and mightiest navy. On one wall, surmounting a pair of globes and flanked by bookshelves, was fixed a powder-blue wind clock whose indicator, linked to a vane on the roof, swung through the points of the compass. On another wall, charts hung in rolls nine-deep waiting to reveal the coastline of any given point in the known world. In the middle of the room, flanked by coal fires, the Lords of the Admiralty dispensed power from a mahogany table, seating ten, in the Sheraton-style, with fluted pilaster legs, the surface of light-green leather.
In this room, in 1804, John Barrow took his place as Second Secretary to the Admiralty. With the exception of a brief hiatus between 1806 and 1807, he was to remain there, through Whig and Tory administrations, for the next forty-one years. Although seemingly inferior, the position of Second Secretary was far from being so. The Admiralty Board, which took the navy’s executive decisions – as opposed to the Navy Board which concerned itself with supplies and other administrative housekeeping – was overseen by a group of seven lords and two secretaries. The lords were political appointees to a man. They had little knowledge of the navy and, usually, not much interest in it either. They were, however, the men in charge and so, to assist them in their decisions, they called upon the services of the secretaries. The First Secretary was, like the lords, a Member of Parliament. His job was to deal with all political aspects of the navy. The Second Secretary, an apolitical civil servant, was charged with putting his superiors’ decisions into practice and keeping the administration running smoothly.
To an outsider who observed proceedings at the green-topped table it would have been obvious where power lay. It lay with the lords – especially the First Lord – with their fine clothes, languid airs and high-toned political opinions. The First Secretary might have talked quite a bit, but he still showed deference. And the Second Secretary? He was the man who kept quiet and took the minutes. A look at the pay of these men would have told a different story. The ordinary lords received “1,000 per year. The First Secretary received four times that amount and the Second Secretary, on “2,000, was on level pegging with the First Lord himself. Between them the First and Second Secretaries were easily the most influential people in the Admiralty.
When Barrow joined this exalted company he was a dark-haired, moon-faced man of forty and was very much the second secretary. Born in 1764 near the town of Ulverston, north Lancashire, he could claim not the slightest drop of blue blood. His parents lived in a small cottage from which his father worked two fields. Socially and economically Barrow Senior was only one step up from a farmhand. John Barrow, however, proved to be a very intelligent child. He attended Ulverston’s Tower Bank School until the age of thirteen by which time he could read and write Latin and Greek and was conversant with Shakespeare. A period as private tutor to a midshipman (older than himself) taught him confidence as well as a smattering of navigation. He was hungry for knowledge and had an insatiable appetite for work. Even `at this early period of life,’ he later wrote, `I had an inherent and inveterate hatred of idleness.’ A smug statement. But then he did have cause for smugness.
In quick succession he learned mathematics and astronomy from a reclusive `wise man’, kept the accounts of a local iron foundry, spent a summer whaling off Spitsbergen, attended the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, and at the age of twenty became tutor to a child prodigy, Thomas Staunton, who was fluent in five languages and from whom Barrow learned how to speak and write Chinese.
Barrow was intelligent. But intelligence alone got a man nowhere in eighteenth-century England. What counted was patronage. Fortunately for Barrow, the child prodigy’s father was a baronet. The baronet had the ear of Lord Macartney who, in turn, had the ears of various political dukes and earls. When Macartney was proposed as Ambassador for Britain’s notoriously unsuccessful attempt to represent itself at the Chinese court in 1795, the process of patronage trickled downhill. The earls and dukes asked Lord Macartney if he could speak Chinese. He could not, so he asked the Baronet if he knew anybody who could. The Baronet recommended John Barrow, who was thus appointed official interpreter to Lord Macartney’s mission.
The embassy was a magnificent failure. Arriving at Peking with gifts which included all the wonders of Western civilization – artillery, telescopes, a coach-and-four, a balloon and pilot – Macartney was treated with hospitable disgust before being dismissed with polite contempt. According to the Chinese Emperor, the presence of a British Ambassador was `not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire, we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country’. In addition, `we have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures’. And to underline it, `This is a special edict.’
As interpreter, Barrow must to some extent have been a bearer of bad news. Yet somehow, during this hopeless visit, he managed to ingratiate himself with Macartney. When Macartney was appointed Governor of Cape Colony in South Africa, only a few months after his return from China, he chose Barrow to accompany him.
The farmer’s son who spoke Chinese excelled himself. He conducted the first Cape Colony census, mapped parts of the interior as far as the River Orange, in Namibia, made a few amateur geological surveys, and even contrived an interview with Shaka, King of the Zulus, whose impis would soon throw southern Africa into disarray. (A man of `much good sense and prudence’, wrote Barrow, a little hastily.) In 1799, aged thirty-three, he married the daughter of a Stellenbosch judge and settled in a cottage at the foot of Table Mountain before returning to Britain four years later.
Whilst in Africa Barrow had managed to find another patron. General Francis Dundas, who had taken over the Governorship from Macartney in 1798, was part of the vast and influential Dundas clan whose members permeated the navy, military and parliament. His uncle was Lord Melville, a brutal and hard-nosed politician who was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in May 1803. The day after his appointment, on the advice of Macartney and Dundas, Melville called Barrow to the Admiralty and informed him that he was to be Second Secretary.
Melville had chosen well. The post required somebody who was a bureaucrat, who knew what he was doing, and who respected rank. Barrow fulfilled all these criteria. He was a bureaucrat par excellence, who proved capable of reading and answering up to 40,000 letters per year; he had a passing acquaintance with life aboard ship, had experience of international affairs and had written, two very well-received books on China and South Africa. Above all, he was a farmer’s son from Lancashire who venerated the system which had got him so far.
The First Lord, however, whom Barrow duly praised for his `urbanity, the kind and friendly manner in which his Lordship received all officers of the Navy, his invariable good humour, and above all his admitted impartiality’, was impeached two years later for granting contracts to his friends, peculation, and misappropriation of government funds. He fell with a thunder that even Napoleon noticed.
But Barrow survived. He was too junior to be involved with such shenanigans. Moreover, as he argued, he had a job to do and would do it under any administration. Having achieved office, he was damned if he would let it go, come Whig or Tory, and remained at the Admiralty until the age of eighty-one, thus establishing himself as Britain’s first true civil servant.
On the surface, Barrow was a humble, unassuming clerk. He ate and drank in moderation – plain food and the occasional glass of port – and rarely took any exercise. Religiously, every summer, he took a month’s holiday in the English countryside. He never went abroad – `except twice or thrice I had a run on the Continent’. He never fell ill, never took any medicine – in 1846 he had his pulse taken for the first time in fifty-three years – and his weight never varied from ten to eleven stone. As he liked to say, `much may be ascribed to a regular and systematic course of life, to moderation in eating and drinking, and avoiding excess in both’. His daily routine was unwavering. He did his work, came home, had dinner with his family, and then did a bit more work. He was so wedded to his Admiralty desk that it was presented to him as a retirement present. All in all, he appeared the model of dullness.
Now and again Barrow ventured into the limelight. He made no secret of the fact that he had been the last Admiralty official to see Nelson before his death at Trafalgar – the cult of Nelson, and the prestige associated with anybody who knew him, can only be guessed at nowadays – and it was he who suggested in 1816 that Napoleon be exiled to St Helena. But in the main he distanced himself from Admiralty policy-making. To have interfered overmuch might have led him into a dangerously partisan situation. In this respect he was very happy to be merely the man who took the minutes.
Yet behind this unassuming exterior lurked a man of ambition, intellect and remorseless application. Barrow would not jeopardize his post by interfering in decisions, but he was determined to make his name somehow. The route he chose was exploration. His efforts in South Africa had been praised highly: `I do believe that no person, whether native or foreigner, has seen so much of the country, or seen it so well, and to such good purpose, as he has done,’ wrote Lord Macartney. `I imagine his travels will be a great acquisition to the world. His map must be particularly valuable, as it is the only one that can at all be depended upon.’ Barrow was proud of this praise and decided to build on it.
While the Napoleonic Wars dragged on, Barrow carved a niche for himself as a geographer. His books on South Africa and China – four volumes in all – had shed at least some light on those mysterious realms and had been well received, being reprinted in at least one foreign language. Thus encouraged, he had no trouble finding a post as geographical reviewer on the Quarterly Review, a journal designed to counter the influence of the left-leaning Edinburgh Review. When first approached in 1809 by William Gifford, the Quarterly‘s founder, Barrow was reluctant to submit his `crude observations’ to the public eye – particularly as it had been stipulated that he must understand the subject he was writing about. After cutting his teeth on a few articles about China, however, he soon got into the swing of it. He took care not to overstep himself: `In all my critical labours I avoided touching upon politics, almost, I might say, altogether,’ but even without mentioning politics he found enough to keep him busy. He wrote about China, Africa and America, about naval timber, `dry-rot doctors and quackery in general’, about steam power, canals and railways. He examined the geography, history and customs of countries `little or not at all known’ until there was, by his own admission, `scarcely a corner of the world left unscrutinised’. His main interest, however, was exploration.
Exploration was an ideal topic for Barrow; it dealt with the unknown and by its nature required no particular understanding of the subject. All that was needed was a deft and inquiring mind; a reviewer could declaim as stridently and controversially as he liked without fear of retribution. With increasing confidence Barrow contributed more and more articles. Luckily, at that time, people were hungry for news about the unknown. Soon Barrow was the Quarterly‘s most sought-after contributor. He wore his laurels lightly. The reviews `were written off hand as an amusement’, he wrote modestly. `It was to me a relaxation, after dinner, and a relief from the dry labours of the day.’ Nevertheless, an article by Barrow could add 1,000 to the Quarterly‘s subscription list – an 8 per cent increase on circulation. His reputation grew to the extent that he was soon being asked to write for the Encyclopedia Britannica.
The Quarterly‘s publisher was John Murray, a youngster whom Walter Scott described as a man of `more good sense and propriety of sentiment than fall to the share of most of the trade’. Barrow got on well with Murray and the two men maintained a close friendship for the rest of their lives. Barrow saw to it that Murray became the Admiralty’s official publisher and in later years he asked him to publish his own works that included five biographies – Anson, Howe, Bligh, Macartney and Peter the Great – plus three volumes on geography. Given his long hours at the Admiralty this was an enormous undertaking and Barrow himself was astonished when towards the end of his life he `found a parcel from Mr. Murray, enclosing eleven thick octavo volumes, neatly bound in red Russia, and containing the whole of the articles [in the Quarterly] that I had supplied up to that time’. In all, he had written 195 reviews.
Meanwhile, if Barrow truly wanted to make his mark in his chosen field he needed official recognition and in 1806 was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. The Royal Society was supposedly formed for scientific purposes but in fact only a third of its members were scientists. The rest were dubbed, optimistically, `natural philosophers’. Barrow, who was elected on account of his books, fell into the latter category. (Even had his books been concerned solely with geography he would still have been a lay member; the Royal Society did not consider geography a science.) The weekly meetings of the Royal Society were dull beyond belief, but there was the Royal Society Club which provided dinner on Thursdays (1s 6d, wine extra) in the company of such luminaries as Sir Humphry Davy, Nevil Maskeleyne, John Rennie and `Phenomenon’ Young, of whom Davy wrote, `he knew so much that it was difficult to say what he did not know’. And on Sunday evenings Barrow found stimulating company at 22 Soho Square, the home of the Society’s President, Sir Joseph Banks. Here they discussed the more pressing concerns of natural philosophy, such as who had eaten the most unlikely fish or animal. (Barrow won with hippo.)
Joseph Banks was a formative influence in Barrow’s life. In his day, he had been one of Britain’s most energetic and most vociferous exponents of exploration. He had circumnavigated the world with Captain Cook, had made his name as an explorer and botanist, and had ruled the Royal Society with despotic benevolence since 1778. By the time of Barrow’s election he was a gouty, wheelchair-ridden sexuagenarian who barely had the strength to leave London. But for all his age and incapacity he was still a man to be reckoned with. He was wealthy, influential, and had experience of an age of scientific inquiry which had been all but forgotten in the turmoil of the Napoleonic Wars. He was a Great National Treasure, who did not really belong in the emerging, commercial world of the nineteenth century. Yet there he was. And when he spoke people listened.
Barrow listened more than most. Banks was, as Davy said, `always ready to promote the objects of men of science, but he required to be regarded as a patron and readily swallowed gross flattery’. Barrow was an old hand at the patronage game but, far from using Banks as a stepping stone to his own advancement, Barrow found himself overwhelmed by the older man’s experience. Banks was a gifted individual, whose contribution to science was enormous, but he was also opinionated, didactic and, in his old age, often mistaken. Nevertheless, he became the man Barrow wished to emulate. The more he worshipped at his altar the more Barrow developed the mix of precise views and vague speculation that would characterize his tenure as Second Secretary. Before them both was spread the atlas. So many areas of it were blank. What lay at the North Pole? Did Antarctica exist? Was there a North-West Passage? Where was Timbuctoo? What lay at the heart of Africa? Barrow was not an imaginative man. On his visit to China’s fabled Summer Palace he had been impressed by one thing: the brickwork in a garden wall. He was, however, a dreamer. His dream was that he could fill those blanks.
Helping him – or, more precisely, not hindering him – in his goal was the First Secretary (1809-30), the famously unpleasant John Wilson Croker. Croker was a talented but vituperative self-server who was loathed universally by his enemies and held in fearful respect by his right-wing political supporters. Publicly he was acknowledged as the best debater in Parliament. Privately, he was described as tasteless, shameless, malevolent and unscrupulous, a man who `would go a hundred miles through sleet and snow, in a December night, to search a parish register, for the sake of showing that a man was illegitimate or a woman older than she said she was’. The author Thomas Macaulay detested him `more than cold boiled veal’. To which Croker replied sneeringly of Macaulay, `I disliked him at first sight before I even heard him open his mouth; his very person and countenance displeased me.’ Rumour had it that Croker was the model for Rigsby in Benjamin Disraeli’s Coningsby, a man `who possessed, in a very remarkable degree, a restless instinct for adroit baseness’. Disraeli did not deny it – to the delight of Macaulay, who had fostered the idea in the first place.
Croker was an avowedly political animal, who saw his Admiralty post as simply a rung on the parliamentary ladder. This was fortunate because, had he deigned to apply his mind to his job, he would have ruined not only Barrow’s plans but the entire hydrographical section of the navy. His oft-stated opinion – which conformed with his almost fanatical detestation of anything modern, such as democracy – was that Britain had done very well with its old charts so why bother making new ones? He did everything in his power to hinder the chartmakers and it was only through the efforts of a few die-hards such as Captain Francis Beaufort – of wind scale fame – that anything was achieved in that direction at all. Logically, he should have been at loggerheads with Barrow. But Barrow was a man who managed never to be at loggerheads with his superiors. Moreover, he was personally connected to Croker in that his eldest son, George, had married Croker’s adopted daughter Nony. The two families even lived together in the same house for a while.
Both men used the Quarterly Review as a propaganda tool to further their own ends. And both shared the same conservative values, though Barrow’s fear of the new was not as inclusive as Croker’s and restricted itself to vehement attacks on the `projectors’, as he called them, who were always pestering the Admiralty with oddball ideas. One such project, which seems to have especially outraged him, was the notion that the navy scrap its sailing ships in favour of a steam-powered fleet. To the end of his life, when just such a development was underway, he was still deriding `a fleet of iron steam vessels [as being] altogether useless … as ships of war’.
Barrow has been called the father of Arctic exploration. In fact he was the father of global exploration, for which he has never been given due credit. He was also, though, a geographical `projector’ of the worst kind. He had no original views, receiving what he did from other sources – Banks, mostly – but thanks to his position he was able to make things happen. And like any true `projector’ he was a fanatic. Outwardly his `project’ had no chance of success. In the post-war climate of austerity, exploration came low on the Admiralty’s list of priorities. Its budget was tight and there was little to spare for unnecessary fripperies. At a pinch it was willing to pay for the proper charting of strategic coastlines, such as those of the Mediterranean, but that was all. It was not interested in the unknown precisely because it was unknown. But Barrow made sure his project would succeed. He argued that exploration would increase scientific knowledge, that it would be a boon to national commerce, and above all that it would be a terrible blow to national pride if other countries should open up a globe over which Britain ruled supreme. All Barrow’s points had superficial merit, but it was the last one that struck home. There was also the fact that Barrow was such a serious, moderate, unobtrusive and respectful man. Surely he would not suggest anything to the Admiralty’s detriment? Moreover, he was supported by Sir Joseph Banks. And above all, he was very persuasive.
Reluctantly, but unable to explain their reluctance, the Admiralty Lords let Barrow have his way. Between 1816 and 1845, therefore, the Second Secretary despatched volleys of expeditions – one ship, two ships, one man, three men, one a year, none a year, sometimes four a year – to every blank on the map that caught his fancy. Throughout it all, Barrow kept a cool, analytical head. Not until the end did he overreach himself. Unfortunately, for all his cool analysis, Barrow was never quite right. When he had a geographical opinion it was frequently the wrong one. And when he had no opinion he formed one on the wildest of conjectures suggested by others. Sometimes he hit the spot; more often he missed it. The Treasury dogged him remorselessly; in many expeditions the auditors’ reports far exceeded in volume those of the explorers themselves. Even the Admiralty Lords were roused on occasion from their reveries to query the point of it all.
Barrow weathered the criticism with the same stubborn perseverance he brought to everything he did. He wanted to chart the unknown; and he knew for certain that the public was on his side. This was the age of Romanticism, where crags of ice, tempestuous seas and tribes of undiscovered savages were far more interesting than the dry perspectives of eighteenth-century Enlightenment. As the journals of each expedition rolled off John Murray’s presses, to be snatched up by an eager readership, Barrow was well aware that he was in tune with the times. It was apt, therefore, that he chose for his first venture into the field one of the most popular, most glowingly Romantic of all endeavours: the search for the Niger.
©1998 by Fergus Fleming. Reprinted with permission from Grove Atlantic, Inc. All rights reserved.