Tuesday, August 10, 2010

James Fitzjames: Mystery Man

James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition

by William Battersby

Stroud, Gloucestershire: The History Press, £20

ISBN 978-0752455129

Reviewed by Russell A. Potter

With the publication of this book, we now have full biographies of all of the chief officers of Sir John Franklin's final Arctic expedition of 1845. Franklin himself, of course, is a man of evidently endless fascination; Francis Crozier, his second-in-command, makes up in fortitude what he apparently lacked in charm, and has been seen by some as the "Last Man Standing." And yet it's Fitzjames, the third in line, who has had, in death as he had in life, the most charmed of reputations, despite the fact that so little was known about him. His lively letters sent home via the last port-of-call in Greenland, his gallant good looks (available in two different daguerreotype images), and his boundless enthusiasm ("I hope that we are forced to stay at least one winter in the ice," as memorably voiced by Thom Fell in 2005's Search for the Northwest Passage), are all part of his attraction. Indeed, he is the only figure from the expedition other than Franklin himself to have inspired a novel (John Wilson's North With Franklin: The Lost Journals of James Fitzjames, 1999).

But who was this man? By all accounts, a spirited young fellow, with a heroic rescue and a dogged expedition in the Middle East to his credit, but no Arctic experience at all. His service and promotion? Well, there are a few blanks here and there. His parents? Ahem, may we have another question, please? And yet, as William Battersby shows us in this engaging and well-researched volume, his life up until the moment of his departure for the North is recoverable in a remarkable degree of detail.

Except, as it happens, with the matter of his parentage. Not wanting to disclose any trade secrets here, I will simply say that Battersby's solution to this longstanding mystery is, I believe, the correct one, although it is (in part) a very close conjecture. "Fitzjames," after all, means merely "son of James," and had known use before as a patronymic vague enough to both hint at and gently pass over any questions of legitimacy. And yet, though deprived of the privileges he might have had as a legitimate heir, Fitzjames in fact enjoyed in his relations precisely the kind of deep and satisfying intimacies which were so often lacking from natural parents in this era. His foster parents, Robert and Louisa Coningham, raised him with the same kindness and affection with which they did their own son, William, whom Fitzjames referred to as "Willie." The two of them had a brotherly bond which endured throughout Fitzjames's life, and it was to Elizabeth "the wife of him I love best," that he addressed the charming letters sent from Greenland.

And yet, despite their closeness, the destinies of William Coningham and James Fitzjames could hardy have been more different. Coningham, through inheritance, became by degrees a wealthier and wealthier man, while Fitzjames, who first volunteered for the Royal Navy at the age of twelve, had always to seek new assignments, and promotion, by the skin of his teeth. For although his upbringing was a very good one, he lacked the sort of "friends" that were usually required for Naval advancement, particularly in times of peace. The most difficult step of his rise through the ranks was his ascent to Midshipman, and here Fitzjames's determination motivated him to permit an untruth to go unremarked -- that he had not, in fact, served the requisite full year as a first-class volunteer. This was later discovered, but glossed over, as much to avoid embarrassment to the more senior officers involved as to spare Fitzjames, and he soon distinguished himself sufficiently that there was no reason to revisit the lapse.

And his career was in every respect a brilliant one. He cut his explorer's teeth on an expedition down the Eurphrates in 1835-36, a struggle of man, machine, and water of almost mythological proportions. He participated in the naval blockade in Syria in 1839, and then went on to serve in Britain's Chinese conflict, which involved both naval bombardment and hand-to-hand street fighting. It was here that Fitzjames met many of the men whom he would later select for "Erebus" and "Terror," among them Edward Couch and George Hodgson. But perhaps his most important new friend was John Barrow, the son of Sir John Barrow, whose advocacy for Arctic exploration was so powerful and influential that it had already shaped an era.

Still, as Battersby notes, this connection alone would scarcely be sufficient to cause Fitzjames to rise above hundreds of men with similar records to attain a coveted senior post on a vaunted Arctic expedition. In this case, his detective work cannot, ultimately, solve the problem, but it appears to have been some service that Fitzjames performed for John Barrow's brother George, something which caused his friend to feel he was very much in his debt, and to intercede with his father. The results were impressive, and fateful: a promotion to Commander, and a ship which, as Battersby notes, brought him to London "at exactly the right (or wrong) time to be appointed to the Franklin Expedition."

It also goes some way to explain why it was Fitzjames, and not Crozier, who selected the junior officers for that expedition. In his biography of Crozier, Michael Smith makes much of this, seeing it as almost a direct insult to an officer of Crozier's seniority to deny him the privilege traditionally accorded to seconds. Authorities seem divided as to whether this was really so severe a breach of protocol as Smith claims, but there has also, as Battersby notes, been criticism of Fitzjames's choices. And yet, as he demonstrates, his selection was not so anomalous as is often claimed; the small number of men with specific Arctic experience (Ross's Antarctic expedition had been sent with many fewer), the supposed regional prejudices (they were in fact quite a diverse and representative batch), or the preference for former messmates (which would have been expected no matter who was doing the choosing).

And, in any case, they sailed into an oblivion that would have been difficult to avoid, even had every man aboard been a hardened Polar veteran. As Glyn Williams has noted, it was precisely the Franklin expedition's success in reaching an area assumed by those who searched for it to be impassible that delayed -- fatally -- any chance of rescue. Battersby, unlike Smith and other biographers, avoids any speculation about the fate of Fitzjames or any other individual men after the abandonment of "Erebus" and "Terror" in 1848. It's a judicious and understandable caution, although given the remarkable detail he has given us of Fitzjames's earlier life and career, it feels somewhat like jumping off a cliff into the void (and perhaps that is his intent). He instead traces the sense of loss via Fitzjames's foster-brother William Coningham, and thus gives a fresh sense of the admixture of grief and admiration felt by those who knew Franklin and his officers personally. It's a fitting conclusion.

There are some additional thoughts and appendices, including a poignant poem, "A Sailor's Life," penned by Fitzjames, and several excellent maps. The illustrative material is rich and well-reproduced, though I hope I will be forgiven for saying that my favorite plate is that giving both of Fitzjames's photographic poses side by side. For some years, it frustrated me to see one or the other of these images reproduced, without any indication that two existed: here we finally have Fitzjames, with and without telescope, and without and with wry smile. Like this plate, Battersby's book is the first really full depiction that we have had, and it ably fills our previously incomplete portrait of Franklin and his senior officers. It's a book that no one with an interest in this expedition, or this period, will want to miss.


  1. Thank, Russell, for the review! I look forward to reading my copy when Borders delivers it someday soon.

    --David Farmer

  2. Excellent review Russell. I was excited to assist William with the various twists and turns of Fitzjames' naval career and see the book develop over time.

    Glenn M. Stein, FRGS

  3. Careful folks, we'll sound like a mutual admiration society. But on the other hand...

    I did thank both Russell and Glenn for their tremendous help in this project in the Forward of the book and I really meant it. You have both been tremendouslu helpful.

    I think this subject: studying and understanding extra-ordinary people who did extra-ordinary things, does seem to bring the best out in people. In many ways it is similar to the subject of gallantry in war, but it is somehow more uplifting.

    Thanks, guys.