by P.J. Capelotti
Calgary: University of Calgary Press, 2013.
Reviewed by Jonathan Dore
Peter Capelotti, anthropologist at Penn State University, archaeologist of human space travel, sometime poet, and writer on many lesser-travelled byways in the exploration and exploitation of the seas, has now written the first biography of Benjamin Leigh Smith (1828–1913), who appears as a shadowy presence in the annals of late-19th-century Arctic exploration—mentioned in passing in the narratives of more famous names—but who is now given centre stage in an account that focuses on his three yachting expeditions to Svalbard and two to Franz Josef Land in the 1870s and 80s.
It doesn’t take long to understand the reason for Leigh Smith’s ghostly absence from the feast of Arctic exploration history, and consequently the challenge that Capelotti set himself. The explorer was such a shunner of public attention—friendly as well as hostile, in print as well as in person—that even medals awarded to him ended up being sent in the post rather than collected. He never wrote (let alone published) accounts of any of his expeditions beyond the bare bones of a ship’s log, and never presented a paper at a meeting or wrote one up for a journal. Even the private correspondence that survives rarely concerns itself with anything beyond the practical arrangements for his voyages, and there is no body of letters from him to other explorers or theorists of the day that might place him as part of the conversation of the time. Most of his letters are to family members and rarely stray beyond the domestic.
The great majority of what we know of him has therefore come from the writings of others. Some of his expeditions resulted in the publication of popular accounts by other participants—of varying quality—and colleagues were also responsible for writing up or analysing the scientific results of his voyages. Most of the rest comes from the dedication of an indefatigable family archivist, Charlotte Moore, without whose work in preserving the documents of her ancestor’s life Capelotti’s task, already difficult, would have been almost impossible.
Benjamin Leigh Smith was the eldest son in a wealthy but socially eccentric family of dissenters that, in the way of such families, produced some groundbreaking and impressive lives; Florence Nightingale was a cousin of the explorer, and the early feminist Barbara Bodichon was a sister. His parents were never married, and only in midlife did he and his siblings discover that their father had sired another family with another unmarried partner who was a few rungs down the social ladder—with the result that, in the stratified society of the time, the two families would never meet and could be kept in ignorance of each other. Capelotti identifies Leigh Smith’s sense of vulnerability to the social stigma of his illegitimacy as one of the drivers behind his reluctance to establish a public profile; his outsider status as a non-Anglican—not unusual among Victorian industrialists but surely rare among Home Counties landed gentry—was no doubt another.
After education at Cambridge and training in law, he coasted without much direction until the death of his father gave him the income to indulge a passion for sailing to the Arctic—something that, like much else in his life, seems to come out of the blue, an almost arbitrary whim for someone with no background in sailing or geographical research beyond an amateur's dabbling. Capelotti gives some possible antecedants for his dream in the voyages of other wealthy yachtsmen to the Arctic, including Lord Dufferin and James Lamont, for both of whom the primary interest had been hunting. This too became the rationale for Leigh Smith’s first expedition, in 1871 in the yacht Sampson, which he had purchased from another landowning huntsman, John Palliser (leader of the British North American Exploring Expedition of 1857–60, though the author notes the name without seeming aware of the identity). If there is more than a touch of self-indulgent vanity in a rich man going hunting in exotically remote locations, Leigh Smith at least avoided hubris: he knew his limitations. All of his voyages were skippered by professional captains and crewed by workaday fishermen and whalers, British or Norwegian, who knew their way around the ropes, and Leigh Smith never seems to have insisted on a dangerous course to prove either his authority or his manliness. Indeed, he made a virtue of his ships’ relative powerlessness against the forces of nature, developing an exploration philosophy that emphasized going with the flow, allowing wind, current, and ice conditions to dictate where the exploring would be done. It’s notable that hard-bitten skippers like the whaler David Gray wrote about him not as a dilettante they tolerated, but as a colleague they genuinely respected.
At a time when no government-sponsored expeditions had been sent to the Arctic from Britain in more than a decade, Leigh Smith’s first voyage showed what patience and modest expectations could accomplish in a much smaller craft than the adapted bomb vessels sent out by the Royal Navy. His target was Svalbard, and in searching to the east of it for Gillies Land (one of many landmasses in Arctic exploration history that turn out to have been mirages) the Sampson became the first ship to reach the easternmost tip of Nordaustlandet—and thus of the Svalbard archipelago as a whole—which was later fittingly named Cape Leigh Smith. Cruising back along the northern coast of the island a lucky run of very late-season fine weather in September allowed them to sail to the northernmost end of the archipelago as well, adding new coastlines and place names to the map. A second expedition to the same area the following year was less lucky with the weather and added only one further name to the map, while a third in 1873 became famous primarily as a humanitarian venture, when Leigh Smith arrived in time to give desperately needed help and supplies to the Swedish North Pole expedition, whose support ships had been frozen in the previous autumn, leaving its leader Nordenskiold with double the expected number of mouths to feed through the winter.
After three expeditions in as many years, it seems that Leigh Smith had got it out of his system, but after the disappointing results of Nares’s British Arctic Expedition of 1875–76 (Capelotti is somewhat unfair in branding this a complete failure, with its significant science programme and its new furthest norths for both men and ships), the triumph of Nordenskiold’s first sailing of the North-East Passage in the Vega in 1879, and the loss of the Jeannette north of the Lena, Leigh Smith seems to have reconsidered his retirement to the sidelines, and he returned to the fray on a grander scale than ever, this time having his own yacht purpose-built for Arctic work with an icebreaking bow and a supplementary steam engine. In 1880 in this vessel, the Eira, he made his most successful expedition and one of the most geographically productive single-season voyages in the history of Arctic exploration. Following up on the discovery of Franz Josef Land by Weyprecht and Payer in the year of his last expedition, 1873, he managed to sail more than a hundred miles further west along the archipelago’s southern coast than its discoverers had done, charting coastlines, identifying and naming individual islands and their prominent features, and showing it to be a significant landmass rivalling Svalbard in overall dimensions.
This voyage sealed his acclaim among the geographers of Europe and America, but when he tried to follow it up the next year Leigh Smith had only a couple of weeks of further discoveries in the same area before a misjudgement of ice conditions by the Eira’s skipper led to the book’s eponymous shipwreck at Cape Flora, when the vessel was pinned between fast and moving ice and soon crushed, though before she sank there was time to remove almost all of her supplies and equipment. Like Nordenskiold’s crews, they now faced an unexpected overwintering, but unlike the Swedes they were relatively few in number and very well supplied with food, though they had to improvise a hut from local stone plus canvas and wood from the ship. If one guiltily acknowledges a sense of bathos in reading of the almost complete lack of drama during the winter of 1881–82, it is a tribute to Leigh Smith’s leadership and sense of responsibility for his men that ensured everyone had enough to eat. Again, modest expectations came into play: with no superiors to impress, promotion to gain, or desire for fame, Leigh Smith made no ambitious plans for overland expeditions in the spring that would add to their stock of geographical discoveries before attempting their escape southwards. He was content for everyone to stay as warm, dry, and well-fed as himself. And when the ice broke up in 1882 they made a well-ordered voyage towards Novaya Zemlya in the boats, meeting relief just where they expected to from one of a small flotilla of craft sent out that year from Europe to find them.
Two seasons of significant geographical discovery, and involvement in two overwinterings—once as the reliever, once as the relieved—gave Leigh Smith an almost complete set of classic Arctic exploratory experiences, and even if age and the financial burden of the lost ship had not been factors, perhaps he sensed that his career as an explorer was now complete, for he never went north again. Instead, after the inevitable blaze of publicity had been, as usual, diverted onto the heads of colleagues and companions, he retreated to the domestic concerns of his family and the management of his estate.
Peter Capelotti has done a remarkable job in pulling together the rather slender sources for Leigh Smith’s life and voyages into a coherent narrative that benefits from its author’s deep familiarity with the wider background of exploration, geographical theory, and social history of his subject’s time (I spotted only one minor error, a repeated reference to the Royal Geographic, rather than Geographical, Society). The one serious drawback is not in the writing but in the lack of good maps. Apart from reproductions of 19th-century maps, which really provide only historical interest, there are a small number of modern maps in inconsistent formats, and none of sufficient scale to follow the track in detail or note all of the place names bestowed—and none at all of Franz Josef Land, where the greatest number of these names are found . Instead, we have only Payer’s and Markham’s contemporary maps, which are almost impossible to relate to each other, let alone to the reality on a modern map.
But there is a more central lack than maps, and one that no author could supply if it were not available in the sources: a sense of a subject’s real personality. The few genuinely self-revelatory writings we have by Leigh Smith (in his letters) reveal a character solipsistic and startlingly vindictive in personal relationships. But for a man of his drive and achievements, liked and admired by colleagues, there must have been more, and the lack of writings that would have given a sense of his wider view of the world, and of his activities in it, are a keenly felt absence that no maps could make up for. The contradictory outlines refuse to resolve into a coherent whole, so while the ghostly figure at the feast has been adumbrated, he can probably never be made solid.