Sunday, September 30, 2012

Upon the China Station

The First Opium War, known more formally as the First Anglo-Chinese War, began in 1839 when relations between China and Great Britain deteriorated, largely due to massive quantities of British opium flooding the Chinese trade market. I will not elaborate on the moral implications and deleterious effects of this conflict (Wikipedia does an adequate job of that); rather, I would like to briefly mention the roles of several Royal Navy Men who would later become linked in a desperate fight for their survival in the Canadian Arctic.

HMS Volage was a 28-gun sixth rate ship that saw action during the early stages of the war. Young Thomas Hartnell, Able Seaman, served on her from January 1838 to May 1841 and was probably present during the First Battle of Chuenpee. This was an easy victory for the more maneuverable and heavily armed British ships. Thomas' older brother, John, joined the Volage in mid-September 1841, after Tom had already transferred to HMS Tortoise. One of Tom Hartnell's superior officers on the Volage was 1st Lt. Graham Gore; the two would later serve together on HMS Erebus on the last Franklin Expedition. The article "The Men who Sailed with Franklin" by Ralph Lloyd-Jones is an excellent source for the dates of service for Franklin's ratings.

Another young lieutenant (or "luff" in nautical parlance) who saw active service in the First Opium War was Henry T.D. Le Vesconte, who was appointed Mate of HMS Calliope, a ship very similar to the Volage. The Calliope was present at a number of key engagements, and even carried most of the Canton ransom money. After the war's end in 1842 (a victory for the British), Le Vesconte joined James Fitzjames on HMS Clio. William Battersby cleverly identified Fitzjames in the painting "The Signing of the Treaty of Nanking". Le Vesconte is also somewhere in this painting, perhaps standing  adjacent to his friend Fitzjames. Here is an image of that painting.

Readers will find an excellent summary of the First Anglo-Chinese War and its participants in Battersby's exquisite book James Fitzjames: The Mystery Man of the Franklin Expedition.

In writing this cursory post, this website was of great assistance. It is an index of Royal Navy ships and their services, and I recommend it to all of you.

The men who fought bravely in the First Opium War endured great hardships. It is a genuine tragedy that some of them would go on to endure further hardships in a much different environment, equally far-removed from their native Britain.

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

The Good Surgeon Is In: Alexander McDonald's Portrait and Prose

Richard Beard's daguerreotypes of Sir John Franklin and some of his officers give us a privileged glimpse into a world of wonder. These images help to provide an identity and soul to each of the heroic men the represent. That is why the absence of images for the officers of HMS Terror (with the exception of Captain Crozier) is so frustrating. We yearn to put faces with those names of yore. Fortunately, an acquisition by the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich, UK, has helped us do just that, at least for one man: Assistant Surgeon Alexander McDonald.

McDonald's portrait, painted by an unknown artist circa 1840, was acquired by the NMM in late 2008. You can read about the acquisition and view a high-quality image of it HERE. You can also purchase a print of the portrait and read some brief biographical info HERE. Another article from the University of Calgary in Alberta, Canada, further illuminates the brief life of this intellectually gifted young man.

The surgeon had served in the Arctic on a whaler prior to joining the Franklin Expedition and published an account of his journey with the lengthy title A Narrative of Some Passages in the History of Eenoolooapik, a Young Eskimaux. You can read it HERE. The book includes important ethnographic information on the Inuit, and while I have not yet read it, I recommended it wholeheartedly. It is a historical gem.

Looking at the portrait of the boyish McDonald, it is incomprehensible to think that he would perish under terrible circumstances a mere few years after sitting before the unknown artist's canvas, his mind full of hope and unrealized dreams.

Monday, September 10, 2012

The Viscount from the Beautiful Island

In my previous post, I wrote about a famous cousin of Lt. Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte. Now, I would like to shift focus to the good lieutenant himself, as well as a brief outline of his family's origins.

The Le Vesconte family traces its roots to the island of Jersey, one of the Channel Islands. Since 1875, the Societe Jersiaise, a society that promotes cultural studies of the island, has published the Annual Bulletin, a treasure trove of information on the history and people of the scenic island. It was through one of the Bulletin's articles, available HERE on theislandwiki, that I learned a bit about one of Sir John Franklin's ill-fated officers, including a remarkable example of family oral traditions.

The surname Le Vesconte is a corruption of the French term for viscount, vimconte. The Le Vescontes on H.T.D.'s line trace their origins to the island of Jersey and, subsequently, to Devon in the southern UK. One of their descendants, Jean Arthur, published the aforementioned Bulletin article in 1974. In it, the author detailed a quest to locate a Bible that H.T.D. took with him on the Franklin Expedition. According to the family's oral traditions, he was chosen for the Expedition "because of his knowledge of the Bering Strait." An unspecified search party later found his Bible in the snow, along with human remains. The former point puzzles me, as Lt. Le Vesconte had no prior experience in the Arctic, but his knowledge could have been obtained through study. Regardless, his friendship with Commander James Fitzjames was probably the main impetus behind his participation on the Expedition.

Arthur was able to examine a New Testament (found on King William Island) in the National Maritime Museum's collection and compare it with a sample of Lt. Le Vesconte's handwriting, but the comparison "proved inconclusive". Interestingly, the handwriting sample came from a lovely sketch of the Erebus and Terror by the lieutenant in 1845, which is reproduced in the article. Glenn M. Stein, FRGS, presents a thought-provoking discussion of this sketch HERE.

This simple example of family history opened up a doorway to a fascinating world for Jean Arthur. Such is the allure and mystique of all things Franklin: the mystery never ends, and one new discovery leads to a profusion of compelling questions.