An unsung Arctic hero

 

About Us: Banbridge man Capt Francis Crozier led many 19th-century polar expeditions and reached the most elusive stretch of the North West Passage. Yet his memory has been allowed to fade, writes Michael Smith.

High above the tree line in the icy wastes of the Arctic, about 40 starving and emaciated men stumbled towards a band of quizzical native Inuits. One man, a naval officer, stepped forward rubbing his hand across his stomach, repeatedly saying: "netchuk", the Inuit word for seal.

The Inuits handed over a few scraps of raw seal meat and calmly walked away, ignoring the further appeals for help and leaving the gaunt officer and his bedraggled men to their fate. The Inuits, who have long existed on the edge of survival, knew instinctively that their meagre Arctic hunting grounds could barely support their own families - but not another 40 ravenous sailors. None of the seamen survived.

The encounter took place in 1848 and the doomed officer was Capt Francis Crozier from Banbridge, Co Down.

The account of the poignant meeting with the Inuits survived only because of the oral testimony of the natives and is the last recorded sighting of Crozier. It was also the moment when the memory of Crozier began to fade, leaving the distinguished and accomplished explorer as little more than a footnote to history.

Crozier's tragedy is that he was among the most outstanding Arctic and Antarctic explorers of the 19th century who never received the recognition he deserved and for the next 150 years was a largely forgotten figure from the past.

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, was born into a wealthy Banbridge family in 1796. His father, George Crozier, was a leading solicitor who acted for two of Ireland's most powerful families, the Downshires and the Moiras. Francis, one of 13 children, was named after Francis Rawdon, the Earl of Moira.

IN 1810, SHORTLY before his 14th birthday, Crozier left Banbridge to enlist in the British navy and was immediately thrown into the Napoleonic wars. On one of his first journeys, Crozier met the last surviving mutineer from the Bounty, living in idyllic exile on the tiny Pacific island of Pitcairn.

When the Napoleonic wars ended in 1815, the navy turned to exploration and for the next 30 years, fleets of ships were sent in pursuit of the three great targets of 19th century exploration - navigating the North West Passage, standing at the North Pole and surveying Antarctica. Among the famous men to emerge were John Franklin, Edward Parry, James Ross, Leopold McClintock - and Francis Crozier.

Crozier devoted his entire adult life to the navy, became one of the country's leading authorities on magnetism and sailed on six great journeys of discovery and exploration. But, despite his illustrious career, he received scant recognition, and unlike Franklin, Parry, Ross and McClintock, he did not receive a knighthood.

While he was often overlooked by the blinkered top brass at the Admiralty, Crozier was highly regarded among the scientific community and in 1843 was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society. Among his sponsors was Sir John Herschel, the great astronomer.

It is unclear why Crozier was treated so badly, although his Irish background may have counted against him at the Admiralty, which was the living symbol of the class system where the right breeding was more important than ability. Promotion up the navy ranks and the plum jobs were reserved for the sons of aristocrats and it took Crozier, a highly accomplished seaman, 31 years of dedicated service to reach Captain.

Crozier's first polar expedition came in 1821 when he volunteered to join Parry's failed attempt to navigate the fabled North West Passage, a feat which had eluded sailors for centuries. He returned after two years in the ice and went north again in 1824 when Parry made another unsuccessful bid to locate the passage. The expedition nearly ended in disaster when one ship was wrecked.

In 1827, Crozier teamed up with Parry in an arduous slog to reach the North Pole. The party, dragging heavily laden boats, trekked more than 1,000 km (660 miles) but advanced only 275 km (172 miles) to the north because the ice was steadily drifting south. It was like walking the wrong way up an escalator and the men survived only because of well-stocked depots of food laid down by the conscientious Crozier.

CROZIER'S MOST ACCOMPLISHED feat was his four-year journey with Ross in the Erebus and Terror to map the unknown territory of Antarctica. Crozier captained Terror on the trip between 1839 and 1843 and never lost a man, a rare achievement in those days. By contrast, Captain James Cook lost more than 30 men on his epic 18th century voyage to the Pacific and Australia in Endeavour.

The Erebus and Terror expedition was the last great voyage of discovery made under sail and paved the way for the heroic age of Antarctic exploration in the 20th century, which created legendary figures such as Amundsen, Shackleton and Crean. Many of the features associated with the heroic age - the Ross Ice Shelf, Mount Erebus and McMurdo Sound - were discovered by the Erebus and Terror expedition.

Cape Crozier, the desolate bluff on Ross Island, was later commemorated in The Worst Journey in the World, the celebrated book on Scott's last expedition.

However, the Antarctic journey took a heavy toll of Crozier, who fell into a deep depression on his return. Part of his melancholia was caused by a broken heart. Crozier had stopped in Tasmania on his way south where he fell deeply in love with Sophy Cracroft, the flirty niece of fellow explorer, Sir John Franklin, who was the island's governor. Crozier proposed marriage on several occasions but he was rejected because Cracroft refused to be a sea captain's wife. "She liked the man, but not the sailor," a close confidante said.

Heartbroken and depressed, Crozier elected to head north again in 1845 when the Admiralty launched a fresh attempt to navigate the North West Passage in the veteran ice ships, Erebus and Terror.

While Crozier was more experienced than any other serving officer, the Admiralty inexplicably gave command to John Franklin, an overweight 59-year-old who had not taken a ship into the ice for 27 years. But Sophy Cracroft was Franklin's niece and in a last attempt to impress the woman he loved, Crozier swallowed his pride and volunteered to sail as Franklin's second-in-command.

It was an unhappy and eventually tragic expedition for the unhappy Crozier, who sailed with grave doubts about the venture and Franklin's ability as commander. In his last letter home, he wrote: "In truth I am sadly lonely."

Erebus and Terror entered the treacherous Arctic waterways in the summer of 1845 with 129 men and were never to leave. Command of the expedition passed into the hands of Captain Crozier in 1847 when Franklin died. By then Erebus and Terror had been crushed by the ice and Crozier inherited the hopeless task of leading about 100 starving survivors in a forlorn retreat across the ice. Men fell dead in their tracks and some resorted to the last taboo of cannibalism in the struggle to survive.

CROZIER'S DEATH MARCH ripples with historic significance. At one point, the party reached the narrow and shallow Simpson Strait which runs between King William Island and the Canadian mainland. Unknown to Crozier, the strait was the last piece of the jigsaw that makes up the North West Passage.

A little over 50 years later the great Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen, made the first navigation of the passage and graciously flew his ship's colours in salute of Crozier's brave party as he sailed along the Simpson Strait.

Crozier's meeting with the native Inuits occurred during the appalling trek towards Simpson Strait. According to native accounts, a few desperate souls clung to life for years but none managed to find a route to safety. Crozier, the cool-headed and experienced commander, is thought to have been among the last to die. But no one knows for sure.

Almost 50 ships went north in the next few years to search for the lost men andin 1859 a party under Leopold McClintock from Dundalk retrieved a short record of the expedition, which contained a message from Crozier divulging the ambitious attempt to march across the ice to safety. It was Crozier's last communication with the outside world.

Since then, Crozier's fame has been allowed to fade, except in his hometown of Banbridge where he is rightly celebrated. He deserves to join other Irishmen from the history of Polar exploration - such as Tom Crean - whose previously unknown exploits are now fully recognised. A decade ago, Crean was barely known but today his extraordinary story is taught in Irish schools. Capt Francis Crozier is another unsung hero.

Michael Smith wrote the biography of Tom Crean, An Unsung Hero. His new book, Captain Francis Crozier - Last Man Standing? is published this week by The Collins Press, €23.95. Details: www.collinspress.com