High above the tree line in the icy wastes of the Arctic about 40 starving
and emaciated men shuffled towards a small band of native Inuits. The
two groups surveyed each other for a moment as the glacial winds lashed
One man, a naval officer, stepped forward rubbing his hand across his
stomach, repeatedly saying: "netchuk", the Inuit word
for seal. The Inuits generously handed over a few scraps of raw seal
meat and calmly walked away, ignoring the insistent pleas for more help
and leaving the gaunt officer and his bedraggled men to their fate.
poignant encounter took place well over 150 years ago in 1848 and the
doomed officer was Captain Francis Crozier from Banbridge, County Down
in Ireland. The Inuits, who have long existed on the edge of survival
in the Arctic wilderness, knew instinctively that their meagre hunting
grounds could barely support their own families - but not another 40
ravenous sailors. None of the seamen survived.
The account of the poignant meeting with the Inuits survived only because
of the oral testimony of the natives and is the last recorded sighting
of Crozier. It was also the moment when the memory of Crozier began
to fade, leaving the distinguished and accomplished explorer as little
more than a footnote to history of Polar exploration.
Crozier's tragedy is that he was among the most outstanding Arctic
and Antarctic explorers of the 19th century who in life never received
the recognition he deserved and for the next 150 years has been a largely
forgotten figure. Only the tragedy of his death surpasses the miserly
response meted out by history.
However, the newly published first comprehensive biography of Crozier
- Captain Francis Crozier - Last Man Standing? - sets the record
straight and demonstrates that the Irishman was among the exceptional
band of men who opened the doors to the unexplored regions of the Arctic
and Antarctic. It was the feats of Crozier and his fellow explorers
in the mid-19th century who paved the way for the more well-known exploits
of men like Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton in the early years of the
20th century. There would be no heroic age of Polar exploration without
men like Francis Crozier.
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who was born in 1796, came from a wealthy
Banbridge family. His father, George Crozier was a leading solicitor
who acted for two of Ireland's most powerful land-owning families, the
Downshires and Moiras. Francis, one of 13 children, was named after
Francis Rawdon, the Earl of Moira.
In 1810, shortly before his fourteenth birthday, Crozier left Banbridge
to enlist in the British navy and was immediately thrown into the Napoleonic
wars. On one of his earliest voyages, Crozier met the last surviving
mutineer from the Bounty, who was living in idyllic exile on
the tiny Pacific island of Pitcairn.
Exploration was far from anyone's mind during the Napoleonic Wars.
But this all changed in 1815 when the decisive Battle of Waterloo brought
the long and bloody conflict to an end. However, peace left Britain
with the major problem of how to accommodate thousands of semi-redundant
naval officers, who could not be paid off or thrown back onto the streets
like the press-ganged ordinary sailors.
The answer was exploration and under the dictatorial leadership of
Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, Britain began
a major programme of discovery. From 1818, fleets of ships were sent
in pursuit of the three great targets of 19th century exploration -
navigating the Northwest Passage, standing at the North Pole and surveying
It was a golden age of endeavour which produced a new generation of
outstanding explorers. Among the famous men to emerge from the era were
John Franklin, Edward Parry, James Ross, Leopold McClintock - and Francis
Crozier's first Polar expedition came in 1821 when he volunteered to
join Parry's failed attempt to navigate the fabled Northwest Passage,
a feat which had eluded British sailors for centuries. He returned after
two years in the ice and went north again in 1824 when Parry made another
unsuccessful bid to locate the passage. The expedition nearly ended
in disaster when one ship - the Fury - was wrecked.
By 1827, Crozier joined Parry and James Clark Ross in an arduous and
hugely ambitious slog to reach the North Pole. The party, dragging heavily-laden
boats, trekked for over 660 miles (1,000 km) but advanced only 172 miles
(275 km) to the north because the ice was steadily drifting south. It
was like walking the wrong way up a fast-moving escalator and the men
survived only because of well-stocked depots of food laid down by the
Crozier's most accomplished feat was the mammoth four-year journey
with Ross in the Erebus and Terror to map the unknown
territory of Antarctica. Crozier captained Terror on the trip
between 1839 and 1843 and never lost a man, a rare achievement in those
days. By contrast, Captain James Cook lost over 30 men on his epic 18th-century
voyage to the Pacific and Australia in Endeavour.
The Erebus and Terror expedition was the last great voyage
of discovery made under sail and opened the door for the more celebrated
era of Antarctic exploration in the 20th century. Many of the geographic
features associated with the heroic age - Mount Erebus, Ross Island
and McMurdo Sound - were discovered by Erebus and Terror.
The Great Ice Barrier, where Scott's party perished in 1912, was so
named because it represented a barrier to the ships of Crozier and Ross.
(It was later named the Ross Ice Shelf.)
Cape Crozier, the desolate bluff on Ross Island, was later commemorated
by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, which
many people still regard as among the best books written about Scott's
disastrous last expedition.
However, the Antarctic journey took a heavy toll on Crozier, who fell
into a deep depression on his return. Part of his melancholia was caused
by a broken heart.
Crozier had stopped in Tasmania on his way south where he fell deeply
in love with Sophy Cracroft, the flirty niece of fellow explorer Sir
John Franklin, who was the island's governor. Crozier proposed marriage
on several occasions but he was rejected because Sophy Cracroft refused
to be a sea captain's wife. "She liked the man, but not the sailor,"
Franklin's wife, Jane Franklin, once confided to a friend.
Heartbroken and depressed, Crozier elected to head north again in 1845
when the Admiralty launched a fresh attempt to navigate the Northwest
Passage in the veteran ice ships Erebus and Terror.
While Crozier was more experienced in navigating the ice than any other
serving officer, the Admiralty inexplicably gave command to John Franklin,
an overweight 59-year-old who had not taken a ship into the ice for
27 years. Improbably enough, Franklin's reputation as an explorer was
founded largely on overland trekking, rather than seafaring. But the
Admiralty chose Franklin ahead of Crozier and Crozier, sadly, volunteered
to travel as second-in-command and captain of Terror.
It may be that Crozier's motive was a last ditch attempt to impress
Franklin's niece, Sophy Cracroft. It failed.
It was an unhappy and eventually tragic expedition for the lovelorn
Crozier, who sailed with grave doubts about the venture and Franklin's
ability as commander. In his last letter home he wrote: "In truth
I am sadly lonely." More pertinently, he criticised Franklin's
leadership, writing: "[Franklin] is very decided in his own views
but has not good judgement."
Erebus and Terror entered the treacherous Arctic waterways
in the summer of 1845 with a 129 officers and men and were never seen
Command of the expedition passed into the hands of Captain Crozier
in 1847 when Franklin died. By then Erebus and Terror
had been crushed by the ice and it was Crozier who inherited the hopeless
task of leading about 100 starving survivors in a forlorn retreat across
the ice. Men fell dead in their tracks and some resorted to the last
taboo of cannibalism in the desperate struggle to survive.
Crozier's death march ripples with historic significance. At one point,
the party reached the narrow and shallow Simpson Strait which runs between
King William Island and the Canadian mainland. Unknown to Crozier, the
Simpson Strait was the last piece of the jigsaw which makes up the Northwest
A little over 50 years later, the Norwegian explorer Roald Amundsen
made the first-ever navigation of the passage through the Simpson Strait
and graciously flew his ship's colours in salute of Crozier's brave
According to native accounts, a few desperate souls clung to life for
years but none managed to find a route to safety. Crozier, the cool-headed
and experienced commander, is thought to have been among the last to
Almost 50 ships went north in the next few years to search for the
lost men and in 1859 a party under Leopold McClintock retrieved a short
record of the expedition, which contained a message from Crozier divulging
the hugely ambitious attempt to march across the ice to safety. It was
Crozier's last communication with the outside world.
Crozier devoted his entire adult life to the navy, sailing on six great
journeys of discovery and exploration and becoming one of the country's
leading authorities on magnetism. But, despite his illustrious career,
Crozier received scant recognition for his efforts. Unlike his contemporaries
- Franklin, Parry, Ross and McClintock - he did not receive a knighthood
for almost 40 years of active service.
While he was often overlooked by the blinkered top brass at the Admiralty,
Crozier was highly regarded among the scientific community and in 1843
was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society. Among his sponsors
was Sir John Herschel, the greatest astronomer of the age.
It is unclear why Crozier was treated so badly, although his Irish
background may have counted against him at the class-conscious Admiralty
where promotion up the navy ranks and the plum jobs were reserved for
the sons of aristocrats or the well-connected. It took Crozier, a highly
accomplished seafarer, 31 years of dedicated service to reach the rank
Since his death, the memory of Francis Crozier has been allowed to
fade. But Crozier, a modest and unassuming man, deserves a better understanding
and a place among the men who shaped the history of Arctic and Antarctic
© Michael Smith 2007. Michael Smith is a best-selling author
who specialises in the history of polar exploration and has contributed
to newspapers and magazines, appeared in television and radio documentaries
and lectured extensively. Michael's first book, An Unsung Hero -
Tom Crean, was short-listed for the Banff Mountain Book Festival,
2002. He also wrote I Am Just Going Outside, a biography of Captain
"Titus" Oates, Sir James Wordie - Polar Crusader, the
life of James Wordie and Tom Crean - An Illustrated Life. Michael
has written two books for children: Tom Crean - Iceman, a children's
version of Tom Crean's story, and The Boss, a biography of Sir
Ernest Shackleton. Anyone wishing to contact Michael may do so via e-mail:
Captain Francis Crozier - Last Man Standing?
is published by The Collins Press, €23.95.