Interview with the author, Michael Smith
In your previous books, you've demonstrated a proclivity for taking up the lives of unsung heroes and dramatizing their achievements. What was it that attracted you to Crozier in this light?
Ever since I first became interested in the history of Polar exploration, I have felt there was more to these stories than the feats of the leaders like Franklin, Scott or Shackleton. Much of the focus has been placed on these men without fully recognising the role played by other key men and I felt that history had been unkind to some very important and highly accomplished men.
It was this consideration which led me to my first Polar book, the biography of Tom Crean (An Unsung Hero, The Mountaineers Press). For example, Crean travelled on three of the four major British expeditions to the Antarctic during the “heroic age” at the start of the 20th century and spent longer in the ice than either Scott or Shackleton. But no one had ever written a book about him. Now a statue has been erected in his name and for the first time children in his home country of Ireland are being taught about his extraordinary life.
Crozier falls into
the same category. It will surprise many people to know that Crozier travelled
on six expeditions between 1821 and circa 1848 and yet there was no
comprehensive biography of the man. I hope I have now put the record straight
and it would be appropriate if Irish school kids were also taught the story of
I think most of your readers will agree that Crozier has received far less credit than he deserves for his role in Arctic and Antarctic exploration generally. What do you feel is the primary reason for this? Was it a matter of his personality, the whims of fate, or just that the shadow of Franklin has obscured his reputation?
The simple answer is that I don’t really know because I did not uncover any significant evidence either way. However my strong suspicion is that Crozier’s Irish background counted against him in the very English environment of the Admiralty, where social position and personal connections counted far more than natural ability. The Admiralty was the epitome of the English class system of the time and in that sense, Crozier was a victim.
What cannot be denied is that alone among his contemporaries – Back, Franklin, Parry, Richardson, John and James Ross - Crozier never received a knighthood or any other significant official recognition. When measured against his expeditionary record and high standing in the scientific community – he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society – this is either a gross oversight on the Admiralty’s part or a deliberate snub.
However Crozier was
more introvert than extrovert and unlike the more charismatic and socially
ambitious figures like Parry and James Ross, he never sought personal fame.
What was the most surprising detail about Crozier's life that you uncovered during your research?
The most surprising aspect was the lack of recognition Crozier was given during his lifetime. I think I am right in saying that only James Clark Ross in that era had more experience of Arctic-Antarctic exploration. Yet unlike many others, Crozier was not knighted, did not write a book about his exploits and was not feted by society.
You note the various classic theories of the failure of the 1845 expedition -- lead poisoning, botulism, scurvy, lack of preparedness for survival on the land, and general cultural ignorance. Allowing that all of them played some role, what do you think was the most crucial avoidable error made by those planning the expedition?
I find it difficult to select a single item which alone caused the catastrophe of the Franklin expedition. It was a catalogue of errors – classic Imperial arrogance, decades of failing to adapt to the Arctic environment and inadequate preparation, choice of leadership and reluctance to adopt new technology.
I fully recognise that, 150 years after they event, it is easy to pick holes. But, even with the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that enormous mistakes were made and experienced contemporaries like Sir John Ross and Dr Richard King were severely critical of the expedition even before Erebus and Terror sailed. They, at least, cannot be accused of possessing the 20-20 vision of hindsight.
Quite aside from the classic explanations for the collapse of Franklin's expedition, it seems to me that you make a new and rather powerful and significant point: that James Fitzjames, an officer with no Arctic experience whatsoever, was given the task, usually reserved for the second-in-command, of choosing the subordinate officers, resulting in a needless paucity of Arctic veterans. Do you have any idea why the most unusual arrangement was made? Was it a matter of patronage or family connections? And how big of a factor do you think it was in the expedition's ultimate failure?
The choice of Fitzjames was symptomatic of the chaotic selection of personnel on the Franklin expedition.
By the time Erebus and Terror sailed in 1845, the navy had spent 27 years exploring the Arctic and Antarctic. The Admiralty had literally hundreds of officers and men at their disposal with significant experience of the ice, to say nothing of the countless seafarers from the large commercial whaling fleets.
But only four of the 24 officers who sailed on Erebus and Terror had any recognisable background in the ice – Crozier, Franklin and the two ice-masters, Reid and Blanky, who came from the whaling fleet.
My suspicion is that Fitzjames was chosen as a sop to Sir John Barrow, who as Second Secretary of the Admiralty spent over 20 years in relentless pursuit of the North West Passage. Although Barrow had retired by 1845, he still carried much influence and even tried to install the unlikely figure of Fitzjames as leader of the entire expedition. I have little doubt that patronage was the most important factor in his appointment and we know that Barrow’s son was Fitzjames’ closest friend.
I find it interesting that Crozier, although he complained to Ross in 1845 of a lack of 'congenial spirits' aboard the Terror, apparently chose to remain with her and her crew after the death of Franklin, even though the expedition's orders, as you note, directed him to take command aboard the Erebus. What insight into his character would you infer from this decision?
It is very difficult to offer much insight at this distance. Perhaps Crozier felt more comfortable on board the more familiar Terror. By the time of Franklin’s death in 1847, Crozier had spent six years of his life on Terror (the Antarctic expedition, 1839-43 and 1845-47 with the North West Passage voyage). Or, perhaps, Erebus was already in severe distress when Franklin died in June 1847 and Crozier had little option but to remain on board Terror.
There are so many attractive tales about "Aglooka" in the testimony recorded by Hall, Schwatka, and others about the last survivors of the Franklin expedition -- and yet, as you note, this name had also been given by the Inuit to several other explorers. How strongly do you feel that it was actually Crozier who was, by these accounts, very nearly the 'last man standing'?
For me this is the
big question. Thanks mainly to David Woodman’s assiduous research, we know that
Aglooka was a common
name for Europeans and this is another reason why the oral and anecdotal
history handed down the ages has to be treated with some caution. Even with
this qualification, there are indications that Crozier was among the last
survivors. After spending two years researching and writing his life story, I
know that Crozier was a survivor and the romantic in me likes to think that he
was the last man standing. But who knows for sure?
I wonder if you have had a chance to see the 2005 Channel 4 documentary, "Search for the Northwest Passage," and if so, what you thought of Bodhan Poraj's portrayal of Crozier?
This was a well-intentioned and expensively-produced film which gave the general viewer a decent over-view of a complex subject. It was particularly valuable to be given an insight into Amundsen's great feat which, rather like his South Pole journey, was overshadowed by the tragedies of others (Scott and Franklin).
But the more informed watcher will inevitably feel that, at times, it was over-simplified, glossed over important issues (e.g. the poor choice of Franklin as leader or Amundsen's incredulity that the entire 1845 party perished in an area teeming with game) and relied too much on re-enactment which is a feature of modern documentaries which occasionaly I find irritating and diverting. Re-enactment is a work of fiction, whereas the documentary was meant to be factual.
For example, the re-enactment chose to make Fitzjames a more prominent figure than Crozier in the "play" when we know that Crozier was by far the most experienced explorer on the entire expedition and who assumed command after Franklin's death and led the march south across King William Island. Portraying Fitzjames as the "last man standing" fits the work of fiction.
Given that, as you note in several places, Crozier was an officer noted for his meticulous attention to duty, do you feel that he would have cached copies of his ship's logbooks or diaries in some secure location, such that someday they may yet be found? What would you expect them to contain?
Spending two years digging into Crozier’s personality and life gives me the very strong impression that he would have cached the ships’ logbooks and perhaps even some interesting personal items. It would be entirely consistent with his character to such a thing.
Obviously this would be a treasure trove for Polar historians if the cache was ever discovered. It would provide an entirely new dimension to our understanding of events up to the death of Franklin and start of the overland trek. That said, I should add that no obvious cairn or depot has so far been discovered and the paper, after 150 years, might have deteriorated badly. But what a find if it could be located !
So, what's your your next project?
My next project is a pictorial anthology of the life of Tom Crean, the subject of my first book. It will have around 200 images detailing Crean’s life from his birth, through his three Antarctic expeditions and his later life. Many of the pictures are very rare and some have not been seen before.
See Tom Crean – An Illustrated Life, published by The Collins Press.