In the 1820’s it took about 4 months before mail from England reached India. The English Government and the East India Company wanted to launch an investigation to see if a speedier overland route was possible, using steamboats. The mail was to be delivered via Syria to Basra, Iraq from where another steamer would take over and bring the mail to Bombay (present-day Mumbai). The upper part of the Euphrates river was then still largely unknown territory.
In the Spring of 1830 this plan caught the imagination of Francis Rawdon Chesney, a Royal Artillery Captain eager for an adventure.
He proposed a personal reconnaissance of two possible routes: the river Euphrates and a possible canal from Port Said to the Red Sea. Chesney reported the construction of a canal to be feasible, but the Government did not act upon this until many years later. The ‘Suez Canal’ was ultimately completed in 1869.
Chesney was able to do a good portion of surveying the river Euphrates, but had to abandon the project when plague and war broke out in Iraq.
In September 1832 Chesney arrived back in England and he managed to enthuse the Government about the Euphrates route. Although the canal to the Red Sea seemed a better and cheaper option, an important reason for the approval of the Euphrates expedition was the need to strengthen England’s position in the Middle East against Russian takeover.
The steamboats required Royal Navy personnel. An anonymous article (actually written by John Barrow) was published in the Quarterly Review, vol. 49 in April 1833, in which the cons of the Euphrates route are clearly explained. The Royal Navy ultimately did agree to supply personnel, on the condition that the Expedition would include the assignment of completing the survey of the Cilician coast begun by Captain Francis Beaufort in 1810.
Finally, on 4 August 1834 the House of Commons approved the Euphrates Expedition, and preparations could truly begin. Two iron steamboats were ordered to be built by Laird shipyard in Birkenhead. These steamboats would be transported dismantled, to be assembled upon arrival at the river Euphrates. Because Chesney was in a hurry to commence the Expedition, there was no time to test the steamboats in England.
Fitzjames had already signed on to the HMS Winchester, when during a visit from Army officer Colin Campbell (a relative of the Coningham family) he was informed of the Euphrates Expedition and decided to volunteer for that instead. He officially joined the Expedition on 25 October 1834.
On 28 November 1834 Chesney received his official instructions from King William IV. They stipulated that the Expedition must be peaceful and respectful of the inhabitants of the countries they are traveling in:
Colonel Chesney will further be careful to maintain the most perfect discipline and subordination among the persons who compose the Expedition. He will explain to them that His Majesty will view with the severest displeasure any conduct on their part calculated to defeat the objects of the Expedition, whether arising from disagreement among themselves, or from an indifference to the habits and prejudices of the inhabitants of the country in which they are employed.
It will be the duty of Colonel Chesney, and of every other individual, to conciliate to the utmost of his power the friendship and goodwill, not only of the authorities of the Grand Seignior, but of the different communities and tribes with whom he may have intercourse ; to abstain from all acts calculated to rouse the prejudices of the inhabitants ; to take no part in any disturbances or quarrels which may exist among adverse tribes ; and to avoid all acts of violence, unless in the last extremity, for the preservation of the lives of His Majesty’s subjects. In short, Colonel Chesney is always to bear in mind that the character of the Expedition is one of peace. – from Chesney 1868
When the Expedition was loading the last of the supplies onto the transport boat George Canning on 1 February, a customs officer fell overboard and was heroically rescued by Fitzjames.
On 10 February 1835, the George Canning sailed from Liverpool for Malta via Cork, carrying the Expedition’s crew, equipment, and supplies.
The Euphrates Expedition had begun!
An incessant series of foul winds with a very heavy sea made the first week of the voyage anything but agreeable, especially as the dead weight below, and little or nothing above, made the ship roll like the pendulum of a clock. “Never,” says Fitzjames, “was I in a vessel that knocked about so much; nearly all our breakfast and dinner things got broken, and the table in the after-cabin got unshipped one morning and smashed the lamps.” Before reaching Gibraltar, however, things mended ; and after passing the Rock, which they did in lovely weather, there were several calm days, when they had some turtle-fishing, and the men practised sword exercise, and were employed in making canvas boats and other useful things. Off Gralata, however, they were overtaken by a very violent squall.
“We saw it coming up,” writes Fitzjames, “for some time before, and, when it did come, it came with such fury, I expected to see the sails blown away, although everything was lowered in time. The hailstones were of immense size, and were driven by the wind with such force that one could not keep one’s face against it. The lightning very vivid. It lasted about a quarter of an hour, and passed on.” – from Chesney 1885
The Expedition stayed at Malta from 12 March until 21 March, picking up equipment and supplies and recruiting some Arabic interpreters.
Upon leaving Malta the George Canning got towed by HMS Columbine.
On 4 April 1835 the Expedition arrived at the Bay of Antioch, where at Suedia (present-day Samandağ, Turkey) they set up their camp which was named Amelia Depot in memory of King William IV’s deceased sister Amelia. The steamboat parts and the supplies had to be transported overland to their new camp called Port William, named after the King, which was 239 km/148 miles away. There the steamboats could be assembled and launched into the river Euphrates.
Second in Command Henry Blosse Lynch had been sent ahead in November 1834 to work on improving the roads and construct a dock for the ships. The work was supposed to have been finished by the time the Expedition arrived, but due to opposition from the local ruler Mehemet Ali, the work had not even begun.
By the end of April the unloading of the stores was finished. Finally, on the 3rd of June the Expedition received word that Mehemet Ali had decided to offer the Expedition his full support. The transport of the materials could now begin.
The transport proved to be literally a Hell of a job, as can be read in Fitzjames’ journal.
On 9 December the final parts of the Euphrates steamer arrived at Port William. There were parts of the Tigris still underway, but due to opposition from local ruler Reshid Pasha, the parts couldn’t be moved and the Expedition had to stay put at Port William, enduring cold, rain, and illness. The best place to stay was aboard the Euphrates, which was by then as good as finished.
Ultimately on 27 February 1836, the final part of the Tigris arrived. After intervention from England, Reshid Pasha had been ordered by the Sultan to not oppose the Expedition and offer help where needed. At last the Expedition could move on and steam away!
On 16 March 1836 the Euphrates steamboat embarked on her maiden voyage.
The following rules for the conduct of members of the Expedition were read out:
1. All to rise and breakfast at daybreak, and each man then to go to his allotted task, which, chiefly of a scientific nature,
consists in surveying the bed of the river to Basrah.
2. Dinner at 5.30, and tea to follow soon after, in order to afford time for noting down the events of the day, and that all may retire early.
3. No one to go ashore except well armed, but use is only to be made of weapons in the greatest extremity.
4. After 9.30 lights to be extinguished in all private cabins.
5. Smoking not allowed below deck.
– as noted down by Doctor Helfer, passenger on the Euphrates
The cabin aft, the best in the steamer, was given over to Dr. and Mrs. Helfer, Colonel Chesney and Lieutenant Murphy had cabins on the left, the gangway, my cabin, and closets occupied the right, and a passage in the middle led to the mess-room.
Beyond this were the engines and boilers ; then a series of cabins in which Lieutenants Cleveland, Charlewood, Fitzjames, Sergeant Quin, and the engineers were accommodated. One cabin was devoted to the purposes of a surgery. The men were accommodated in the forecastle.
– William Francis Ainsworth, Surgeon/Geologist
Doctor Helfer wrote that the Expedition had a very good library on board.
“My wife lent a helping hand in arranging the ship’s library in the space allotted to it. Looking through these select works — the English classics especially, with which she is as yet unacquainted — affords her much pleasure. The English have made admirable provision, not only of technical literature but of reading of every sort. No well known author in their rich national literature is wanting. To Pauline, as she says, it opens up a new world ; she has at once asked for a selection of books, among which are Addison, Johnson, Shakespeare, Gibbon, and a few humourists […]”
“On the days when we are stuck fast we occupy ourselves with reading, and the ship’s classical library provides a good selection. We have real Gibbon with profit, parts of Herodotus and Ammianus Marcellus. Ancient history is so much more interesting here, where every moment recalls stupendous events.”
Helfer also mentions a “splendid edition of ‘Parry’s North Pole Expedition’,” which he showed to Turkish guests who were very interested in the plates included in the book. “When they saw the Eskimo’s they laughed, and said they were Arabs in winter costume.”
The Expedition was also kept up to date with the latest news. “We must think ourselves happy that, at any rate, the British mother country takes good care to provide the children she sends out into the world with news from home, and food for the mind, and so keeps them in constant intercourse with herself. It is incredible what a mass of daily papers comes by every steamer by way of Malta and Alexandretta, or from Constantinople ; it is impossible to get through them all. Besides these we have the chief periodicals, such as the ‘Transactions of the Royal Geographical, Mineralogical, Geological, and Astronomical Societies’, the ‘Quarterly’ and ‘Edinburgh’ Reviews, the ‘Athenaeum’, ‘Literary Gazette’, ‘Penny Cyclopaedia’, ‘Sporting Magazine’, ‘Asiatic Journal’, ‘United Service’, ‘Blackwood’, ‘The Nautical Magazine’.”
From Port William the Expedition steamed downriver in the direction of Basra. There they were to receive the India Office mail, go back upriver and deliver the mail to England. Before they reached their destination there were plenty of adventures and remarkable incidents.
The greatest disaster occurred on 21 May 1836, when the Tigris was wrecked in a hurricane, killing more than half of the crew.
When the Euphrates got stuck in the Lemlun Marshes and couldn’t continue the journey upriver, Fitzjames left the Expedition on 30 October 1836 to personally deliver the India Office mail to England.
The Expedition was officially disbanded on 31 January 1837.
Fitzjames arrived back in England in March 1837.