Published in Book Reviews, Book Reviews, Issue 2 (March/April 2022), Reviews, Volume 30

Michael Smith
The O’Brien Press
ISBN 9781788492324

Reviewed by James Bartlett

James Bartlett is a writer and journalist.

A couple of years ago, horror mini-series The Terror shone a light on a Banbridge-born sailor who was reported to be the last man alive on the most infamous journey in Arctic history—the ‘lost’ 1845 expedition led by Sir John Franklin. Audiences saw that when the two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror, became stuck and the crews had to winter on the ice, it wasn’t immediately a disaster. There were plenty of rations and endless duties and, while months of sunless skies might be challenging, it was almost expected and quite possible to survive.

After all, theirs was a nearly pre-ordained path to imperial glory, even if they all knew that death was always on board with them, too. But then things started to go wrong, and Francis Crozier, captain of the Terror, had to take control of a group of men who began to feel that God had abandoned them to their fate. The cast of The Terror included Belfast-born Ciaran Hinds, Armagh’s John Lynch and Ronan Raftery from Dublin, while Crozier was played by Jared Harris, son of legendary Limerick-born actor Richard.

The real Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in 1796 as the eleventh of thirteen children, and he signed up as a ship’s boy at the tender age of just thirteen. After rising through the ranks, he joined Franklin’s Royal Navy attempt to discover the legendary Northwest Passage, and disappeared alongside his 128 fellow officers and crew.  

In this updated biography, author Michael Smith explores the many years of exploration and achievement in which Crozier played a part; while it’s not necessarily a compelling page-turner, it’s still interesting, especially if you are a fan of tales from this golden era of exploration. The book also makes a strong case that Crozier, despite living the maritime dream of the age, was largely sidelined, at least in terms of knighthoods, best-selling memories and public glory. Much admired by officers and crew alike, he was a rather shy man who struggled when at home on half-pay and would often hit the bottle hard. Though from a comfortable family, he was perhaps more from the wrong country than from the wrong class, though his lack of flair in an age of ‘argonauts’ might have played a part.

Before his infamous last journey, Crozier had already been part of six expeditions to the Arctic and Antarctic, and had unsuccessfully attempted the Northwest Passage twice, in 1821 and 1824. Even earlier, in 1814, he met the last mutineers from the HMS Bounty on Pitcairn Island, and sailed round the Cape of Good Hope in 1818. He was elected a fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and Royal Society thanks to his expertise in astronomical and magnetic studies, and, in a foreshadowing of what happened later, he joined a search party looking for twelve lost British whaling ships in 1835. He also knew the Terror already, having been appointed its captain in 1839, when he was second-in-command to James Clark Ross on a four-year voyage to the Antarctic.

The Terror mini-series may have portrayed his romantic life rather simplistically, but here his—rejected—love for Sophy Cracroft is chronicled in more depth, as is the exhausting work that she and Lady Jane Franklin did after the 1845 expedition was considered lost. There was no solid news until 1859, when a rescue mission co-funded by the Admiralty and Lady Franklin (and led by Dundalk-born explorer Leopold McClintock) returned with a note dated 1848.

Cracroft’s tireless letter-writing, lobbying and moral support for the unstoppable Lady Franklin doubtless contributed to the fact that she never married, something that Smith reveals to have been predicted by a clairvoyant during a séance arranged as a desperate attempt to contact the missing men. It’s hard to believe, but search parties were dispatched for another 30 years, yet even when well-preserved bodies of some of the early victims were found in the 1980s events remained up for debate.

Pleasingly and frequently illustrated with photographs, articles and maps, Smith’s book also touches on the discovery in the last few years of the elusive Erebus and Terror, which were standing upright as if just waiting to be found. He also writes about the possible fate of Crozier, from Inuit native reports to near-myths of years of survival on the ice, and while later explorers did find various crew relics—one of which was a silver fork belonging to Crozier—the whole misadventure ended up mired in the sensational suspicion of cannibalism.

Crozier’s bones are forever lost in the snow and ice, but this book will hopefully and deservedly place him alongside the more-celebrated compatriots of his age. Smith notes that Crozier’s name lives on in geographic features in Norway, the Arctic, the Antarctic, and even as a crater on the moon, while back in his native Banbridge there’s a statue, complete with four polar bears, celebrating their long-lost son. Smith also tantalises his readers about what might be in the two frozen hulks resting under the waves, and especially what might be retrieved from Crozier’s writing desk on the Terror: could there be a (last?) letter to his long-time love? It’s a warm thought to end the story of a brave and adventurous man who knew much cold and loneliness.




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