Remembering “the Captain”

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Features, Issue 3 (May/Jun 2007), Volume 15

Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in 1796 and sprang from a well-connected Banbridge family who first settled in County Down during the seventeenth century. His father, George Crozier, was a prominent solicitor who acted for the Downshires and Moiras, two of Ireland’s richest and most powerful landowners. Francis, one of thirteen children, was named after Francis Rawdon, the earl of Moira.

In 1810, a few months before his fourteenth birthday, Francis Crozier left Banbridge to join the British Navy at Cork and was immediately plunged into the bloody Napoleonic wars. Crozier was to spend the rest of his life in the navy. Prospects of promotion were dimmed in 1815, however, when the Battle of Waterloo ended the long conflict. The navy, which at the height of the war could summon a huge fleet of 1,000 ships, was geared for war and not for peace. Nine out of ten officers were idle on half-pay, and there was little chance of advancement in a service where commissions were awarded by age or patronage.
The Admiralty turned to exploration in a bid to find a role for its officers, and for the next 30 years a small armada of vessels was sent in pursuit of the three great goals of nineteenth-century exploration—navigating the North-West Passage, reaching the North Pole and mapping the unknown continent of Antarctica. It was an era that produced a generation of famous explorers like James Ross, Edward Parry, John Franklin—and Francis Crozier.

Crozier played a prominent role in all three endeavours. But, alone among his contemporaries, Crozier received precious little official recognition for his prodigious feats over nearly 30 years. Unlike many others, he was never asked to write a book about his exploits, and unlike almost all those who took their ships into the unknown, Crozier was not knighted.

The precise reasons for Crozier’s shabby treatment are not clear, although the obvious suspicion is that the Irish pedigree of the solicitor’s son from Banbridge probably counted against him at the Admiralty, the embodiment of the rancid English class system. It was Joseph Hume, a radical reformer of the time, who observed: ‘Promotion in the army and navy is reserved for the aristocracy’.

Crozier’s impressive record makes it hard to understand why he was not more famous at the time. He made six voyages of exploration, rose from midshipman to captain, and became one of the navy’s most accomplished magnetic experts. In 1843 he was awarded the rare distinction of being elected a fellow of the highly respected Royal Society. Crozier’s reputation among the scientific community was such that Sir John Herschel, the outstanding astronomer of the age, was among his sponsors for fellowship.

Crozier’s first expedition was in 1821, when he volunteered to join Parry’s unsuccessful bid to find the North-West Passage, an arduous trip that lasted over two years. In 1824 he embarked on another two-year expedition to the Arctic with Parry that almost ended in disaster when one ship, Fury, was wrecked. In 1827 he joined Parry in a futile bid to reach the North Pole. Crozier next went north in 1836, when he joined James Ross to search for whaling ships trapped in the ice of Baffin Bay.

But his most accomplished feat was the four-year voyage—between 1839 and 1843—in the Erebus and Terror with Ross to map the unknown waters and coastline around Antarctica. Crozier captained Terror and never lost a man. The expedition, the last great journey of discovery made under sail, penetrated the Antarctic pack ice and located many of the features—Mount Erebus, McMurdo Sound and the Ross Ice Shelf—that became synonymous with the heroic age of exploration associated with Amundsen, Crean, Scott and Shackleton. Cape Crozier, the wind-blasted headland on Ross Island, was later immortalised by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in his book on Scott’s last expedition, The worst journey in the world (1922).

The journey took a heavy toll on Crozier, who was exhausted and became depressed on his return. Observers noticed that his hands shook so badly that he had to hold a glass with both hands. A major cause of Crozier’s depression was a failed romance with Sophy Cracroft, the intelligent but flirtatious niece of the explorer Sir John Franklin. Cracroft turned down several proposals of marriage from Crozier, partly because she refused to become a sea captain’s wife. ‘She liked the man, but not the sailor’, her aunt once said.

In 1845 the Admiralty launched a fresh attempt to navigate the North-West Passage in Erebus and Terror. While Crozier had more experience of the ice than any other serving officer, the Admiralty inexplicably gave command of the expedition to Franklin, a portly 59-year-old who had not taken a ship north for 27 years. Crozier unwisely ignored the snub, agreeing to serve as second-in-command and as captain of Terror. It is safe to assume that, by accepting second best, Crozier wanted to impress Sophy Cracroft by bringing home the key to the North-West Passage. But lovelorn Crozier went north reluctantly, and in his last letter he wrote: ‘In truth I am sadly lonely . . .’.

Erebus and Terror entered the treacherous Arctic labyrinth in the summer of 1845 with 129 officers and men and were never seen again. The expedition was the biggest disaster in the history of polar exploration. Franklin was dead by 1847 and command passed to Crozier. By then Erebus and Terror had been crushed by the ice, and Crozier led about 100 survivors in a desperate overland retreat across the icy wilderness. It was an appalling ordeal of exhaustion, starvation and scurvy. Men dropped dead in their tracks, and some even resorted to cannibalism. A few clung to life for years, though no one survived. Crozier, the cool-headed and experienced commander, is believed to have been among the last to die. Dozens of ships were sent in search of the lost men, and in 1859 a party under the Dundalk-born Leopold McClintock found the only written record of the expedition, which contained a brief enigmatic message from Crozier revealing the bid to reach safety.

Friends and relatives of Francis Crozier erected a fine monument opposite his old home in Banbridge, and local people since have striven to keep alive the memory of the man they call simply ‘the Captain’. But we have to look 240,000 miles away to the face of the Moon to see Crozier ranked where he deserves to be, alongside the other great polar explorers. Crozier Crater in Mare Fecunditatis finally places Captain Francis Crozier in his rightful place in the company of Amundsen, Cook, Shackleton and other explorers who are also commemorated on the lunar landscape.

Michael Smith’s Last man standing—Captain Francis Crozier was published last year by Collins Press.

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