Saturday, November 6, 2010

James Fitzjames

The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition

The early naval record of James Fitzjames, third in command of the lost Franklin expedition, is confusing and incomplete. He gave conflicting accounts of his age and place of birth, and his baptismal certificate was fraudulent.

The story that author William Battersby has pieced together is this: Fitzjames was the illegitimate son of an important British diplomat serving in Brazil, while his mother was "almost certainly" Portuguese. In England, he was raised "from an early age" by a foster family, the Coninghams, and maintained a deep attachment to them for the rest of his life.

At the age of 12 he went to sea on a ship captained by a blood relative, and a few years later parlayed an ambiguously worded letter into a rating as midshipman.

After serving in the Mediterranean, he signed on with the Chesney expedition, which was endeavouring to set up a mail route to India via the Persian Gulf. As part of this expedition he undertook a 1000-mile overland journey from the Euphrates to Beirut.

He received advanced training in gunnery, which he put to use in China during the Opium Wars. His fighting there came to an end when he was struck by a musket ball that pierced his arm, entered his body via the armpit, and lodged next to his spine. It was successfully removed without the benenfit of anaesthesia.

A second unknown in Fitzjames's life is the act of assistance he rendered to Sir John Barrow's son, George, in Singapore. Whatever it was, it was enough to earn Sir John's lasting gratitude, and resulted in Fitzjames obtaining his first command, the HMS Clio, and later his place on the Franklin expedition.

The Franklin Expedition

Fitzjames harboured a secret ambition. Once the Northwest Passage was conquered, he wanted to deliver the news to England via an overland journey across Siberia. It was a characteristic attitude of the time that all one needed in a risky undertaking was sufficient pluck.

Ironically he thought Franklin reckless for piling on too much sail as they made for Greenland, and ordered the canvas reduced after Franklin had gone to bed. But he was not alone in this view, and Franklin after all had not commanded a ship in 10 years, and never in arctic waters.

Several of his crewmates were close friends or former shipmates, including LeVesconte, DesVoeux, Fairholme, and Couch.


Battersby is at pains to correct the previous image of Fitzjames as "well-educated, aristocratic, wealthy, of good family, Church of England, fast rising in the service -- and thumpingly, lispingly, English to the core," which is Scott Cookman's description of him in Ice Blink, and one that has been generally accepted for over a century, and so entrenched that it has found its way into popular works of fiction (e.g. Clive Cussler's Arctic Drift and Dan Simmons's The Terror.)

Fitzjames, who was responsible for selecting most of the crew of the Erebus and Terror, has been criticized for choosing men without polar experience. Battersby refutes this charge, and here again Cookman is specifically mentioned.

Battersby also challenges the contention of Michael Smith (Captain Francis Crozier: Last Man Standing?) that Crozier's Irishness was prejudicial to his advancement within the Royal Navy.


This book contains an astonishing amount of original research, though some of the conclusions that Battersby reaches are speculative. He provides an interesting snapshot of what it was like to serve as an officer in the Royal Navy in the first half of the 19th century -- the hardship, danger, camaraderie, and travel to far-flung places.

Fitzjames, in the course of his career, visited Lisbon, Malta, Troy, Constantinople, Babylon, Damascus, Beirut, Baghdad, Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore, and Hong Kong -- to name some of the better-known spots. Two of his more colourful experiences: being mooned by a group of women while steaming up the Euphrates, and being clawed by a pet cheetah while aboard the Clio. (It used to climb up the rigging with the sailors.)

Fitzgerald himself was handsome, charismatic, and ambitious. He was fluent in Portuguese and French, with some knowledge of Spanish and Arabic. He was a competent artist (the book reproduces a few of his sketches) and the author of a 10,000-word naval poem. He was a lover of elaborate practical jokes, and almost recklessly brave.

In the end he left this life as mysteriously as he entered it.


Updates and Corrections
Hidden Tracks (Battersby's blog)
Review by Russell Potter