Friday, August 31, 2012

Adventure Runs in the Family

Lt. Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte is a singular-looking fellow. His steady gaze and erect posture suggest a competent officer; his eloquent and observant prose reveals a perceptive and intelligent human being. As history can tell us, he was brave and adventurous enough to join Franklin's expedition in search of the Northwest Passage. He is not, however, the only one in his family to have embarked on a dangerous, and ultimately fatal, quest.

Thanks to the tireless work of Franklin researchers and the well-travelled Wills family, we know that Lt. Le Vesconte is a Wills by his mother's side of the family. The Wills family maintains an extraordinarily comprehensive genealogical website: HERE . His mother was Sarah Wills; she married Commander Henry Le Vesconte. One of Sarah's eight siblings was Dr. William Wills, who had seven children. Among those children was William John Wills, the same William Wills who acted as second-in-command of the famed Burke and Wills Expedition in Australia! Henry T.D. Le Vesconte and William John Wills, both famed and ill-fated explorers, are first cousins!

The Burke and Wills Expedition (more formally known as the Victorian Exploration Expedition), much like the Franklin Expedition, was one centered on geographical discovery. In 1860-61, Robert O'Hara Burke and William John Wills set out with a small party to survey the Australian continent from south to north. Wills was a trained surveyor and was recommended to the expedition by the Exploration Committee of the Royal Society of Victoria. Burke was appointed as commander, despite his marked lack of experience in exploration. The expedition had a rough start and made unsatisfactory progress at first; searing summer heat was punctuated by monsoons that caused considerable hardships. Burke's later decision to split the party resulted in profound logistical problems, and his failure to mark the location of a note he cached sealed the fate of his small splinter party. Burke and Wills died of malnutrition (more specifically, beriberi) at Cooper Creek. As was the case with the Franklin Expedition, several relief expeditions were organized. Alfred Howitt ascertained the sad fate of Burke's small, detached party when he reached John King, the sole survivor.

The Victorian Exploration Expedition and the Franklin Expedition are both characterized by tragedy, nutritional problems, and bad luck. The former endured searing heat; the latter, freezing cold. Yet, both contributed greatly to humanity's knowledge of geography. Franklin's men essentially found a northwest passage, while Burke and Wills completed the map of Australia.

I strongly recommend a visit to Mike Wills' website on his fascinating family. There, you will find two photos of a letter written by Lt. Le Vesconte to his father, as well as a journey some of the Wills descendants took through Australia to trace their ancestors' footsteps.

When I think of Le Vesconte's short but eventful life, I think of a quote I once read in a biography of T.E. Lawrence. It was taken from Pliny the Younger's letter to Tacitus, in which he essentially states that the most fortunate man is one who can do things worth recording AND write things worth reading.  Le Vesconte, Wills, and all those who strike out for distant horizons, are all worthy of praise.


  1. History sometimes throws up surprises,this is one of them. Amazing find,well done.

  2. Wonderful post Jaeschylus!!

    The Victorian era seems to me as a forge of outstanding men. Sometimes simply as the result of performing their duties and their jobs.

    I share that thinking, a big amount of facts have went unnoticed just because the main actors have failed to transmit the esence of the adventure which they had lived, and they have had to wait years to be written properly. I am sure that there are stories still waiting in the form of old journals, locked in a forgotten box, for a suitable messenger to be told.

    1. Very well said! Many fine figures emerged from this historical period, and it's up to researchers like us to bring their fascinating stories to light!