Matthew Betts HMS Terror: The Design, Fitting and Voyages of the Polar Discovery Ship, Seaforth Publishing, 2022
Matthew Betts’ book brings together in amazing detail the history and design of HMS Terror, one of the ships of the Franklin Expedition. It is richly illustrated with plans and includes descriptions of every single part of the ship. This part of the book I am very much not qualified to comment on and can only say that it looks absolutely great.
What I do wish to critique is how Fitzjames is represented and how the Admiralty’s orders are interpreted.
“In an unusual move, the Admiralty appointed Commander James Fitzjames as second in command of Erebus, and third in command of the expedition. Fitzjames, an historically inscrutable character, had no polar experience, but did possess a powerful patron in the form of John Barrow, who helped secure his position on the expedition.” [Betts, pp. 69-70]
Why was appointing Fitzjames as second in command of a ship and third in command of an expedition an “unusual move”? He had previously been the Captain of his own ship, HMS Clio. Appointing him the leader of an Arctic expedition would have been quite unusual, given that his knowledge of polar exploration came solely from books. With two Arctic veterans (Sir John Franklin and Captain Francis Crozier) leading the expedition, appointing an officer with ample naval and expedition experience as a third so that he can learn on the job is not a strange decision. Franklin himself had requested a Commander to be appointed to his ship [Russell Potter et al. May we be spared to meet on earth, 2022, p. 52] to assist him with the day-to-day management of the Erebus. That Fitzjames ultimately got appointed thanks to Sir John Barrow’s exertions in his favour is indeed true, but that does not mean that Fitzjames was out of place on this expedition.
Fitzjames’ letters as a source of information
Even though the HMS Terror book is about a ship he was not on, Fitzjames’ letters provide a lot of information about the expedition’s journey to the Whale Fish Islands and Betts makes frequent use of them. However, he has not consulted the original letters [on microfilm at the Caird Library] and has only read the bits that Battersby included in his Fitzjames biography and the heavily edited versions that were published in The Nautical Magazine in 1852. I do realise that it is not always possible to consult everything in the archives, especially when the material is just a side issue to your main topic. But Betts uses Fitzjames’ letters as a source to learn about the ships and their sailing qualities, and to create a timeline of the voyage to Greenland. This turns Fitzjames’ letters into primary material. Reading the full letters instead of just quotes and heavily edited versions would have provided Betts with more context and possibly more information.
“Terror and Erebus reportedly handled well and sustained no damage. Fitzjames, who had limited experience on bomb vessels, much less polar conversions, had a mixed opinion of the sailing qualities of the ships. In correspondence, he repeatedly called the ships ‘old tubs’, a derogation unusual for an officer in effective command of a ship. He complained that they pitched and rolled greatly […]” [Betts, p. 75]
When using letters as a source, things that you have to consider are: who is the recipient, what is their relationship to the sender, and is the letter private or formal.
The letters that Betts quotes to illustrate that Fitzjames was unprofessional are private letters that Fitzjames wrote to his friend John Barrow and his brother William Coningham. We all say things in private correspondence that we would never say to, for example, our boss at work. Betts not clarifying the nature of the correspondence makes it look as if Fitzjames was calling the ships old tubs to all and sundry in official correspondence.
“At one point Fitzjames was forced to reduce sail while Franklin slept, disobeying his orders.” [Betts, p. 80]
The footnote for this erroneously leads to page 165 of Battersby which has nothing to do with sailing but instead shows Fitzjames’ farewell letter to Sir John Barrow of May 1845. The incident that Betts refers to can be found on a different page:
“At this point in the crossing, Fitzjames thought that Franklin was taking risks by insisting on sailing with too much canvas. The other officers agreed and during the night, while Franklin slept, Fitzjames turned out to order the Erebus’ topsails reefed.” [William Battersby James Fitzjames: The mystery man of the Franklin Expedition, 2010, p. 172]
Battersby appears to have based this one on the following passage in Fitzjames’ June 10th letter to Elizabeth and William Coningham:
“10th I was beginning to write last night but the ship
was tumbling about to such an extent I went to bed
and had to turn out again immediately & get the
Topsails reefed as it blew hard in squalls —”
Unless Battersby got his information from elsewhere, which is hard to tell with his lack of footnotes, Fitzjames does not anywhere describe or allude to disobeying a sleeping Franklin’s orders and agreeing on this with the Lieutenants.
To John Barrow, Fitzjames wrote on July 1st 1845:
“We kept close reefed Topsails & reefed Foresail
and made the old craft go 8 Knots through
it. We lost no time I can assure you —the
only difficulty I had was to get Sir John to
shorten sail when it was wanted – he is full
of life and energy — with good judgement, and
a capital memory —”
In this letter to Barrow, Fitzjames says that he discussed shortening sail with Franklin, and had difficulty with getting him to do it. Fitzjames did not just act on his own.
Of course, it is possible that Fitzjames was not completely truthful in his letters, but if this was Battersby’s evidence then I do not see a reason to paraphrase it as “While Sir John slept I secretly convened with the Lieutenants and we all agreed to disobey Sir John’s orders.” That is literally mutiny. Disobeying orders in a hierarchal institution such as the Royal Navy has severe consequences for the offender unless it can be proven that a command is unlawful. [See the Naval Discipline Act 1860]
I therefore really do not think that there is any indication that Fitzjames mutinously disobeyed Franklin. This error is actually not on Betts but on Battersby. Betts repeated it in his book trusting that Battersby had provided factual information.
Against Admiralty orders
“Though official orders dictated that Crozier was to take command of Erebus in the event of Franklin’s death, the note [Victory Point Note] states that Fitzjames was still the captain of Erebus when it was deserted. This unambiguously indicates that Crozier chose to command the expedition from Terror after Franklin’s death. […] There may be good practical reasons why command was switched, against Admiralty orders, to Terror.” [Betts, p. 83]
The official order with regard to the ships in case of the expedition leader’s demise was:
“In the event of any fatal accident happening to yourself [Franklin], Captain Crozier is hereby authorized to take command of the Erebus placing the officer of the expedition who may then be next in seniority to him in command of the Terror.” [full orders here]
Again, Betts sees an instance of naval personnel disobeying orders. He and I had a little friendly (or so I thought) discussion on Twitter about the Admiralty orders which resulted in Matthew Betts blocking me along with two other people who agreed with me. In this discussion, Betts said that he thinks that “the Admiralty expected Crozier to take command of the expedition in the flag ship.” I said to him that the Admiralty orders merely authorised Crozier to move to Erebus in case of Franklin’s death. Just to be clear, this is the definition of the word ‘authorise’:
Definition: to give official permission for something to happen, or to give someone official permission to do something [Cambridge English dictionary]
Betts seems to think that the word ‘authorise’ means something else. He explained on Twitter: “Crozier was authorized to take command of Erebus, not to use his discretion to stay in Terror.” Betts does not understand that this discretion already lies in the word ‘authorise’.
If the Admiralty truly wanted Crozier to do something without room for discretion, they would have used the word ‘order’.
Definition: something that someone tells you you must do
To further illustrate my point, let us take a look at the Admiralty orders for the 1839-43 Antarctic Expedition under Sir James Clark Ross and Captain Francis Crozier, also with the Erebus and Terror:
“In the event of any fatal accident to yourself, Commander Crozier is hereby authorised to take command of the expedition, either on board the Erebus or Terror, as he may prefer (placing the senior lieutenant in command of the other ship), to carry these instructions into execution.”
[from Sir James Clark Ross A Voyage of Discovery and Research in the Southern and Antarctic Regions, During the Years 1839-43, 1847 Introduction xxvii]
The Admiralty did not know the condition the ships would find themselves under in the Arctic or Antarctic at the time of the expedition leader’s possible demise, and therefore would never insist on a switch of Captain and crew to a different ship.
– Fabiënne Tetteroo
23 December 2022
[Thank you R. and D. for the valuable feedback]