(From the Colonial Magazine for November, .)
Amidst the various aspirants to fame, in a nation where wide and multifarious opportunities of rising to distinction present themselves, it will constantly happen that many occupy a place among their contemporaries to which posterity, more just in their adjudications, will by no means admit them. The everyday history of what is passing around us in the world, and especially in our own country, sufficiently proves this. It would sometimes, indeed, almost seem to be necessary to belong to a certain clique or coterie - to some privileged order, or accredited class of citizens - in order that merit be fully appreciated, or even a scant measure of justice awarded. Such considerations are often painfully forced upon us by the unequal awards which are meted out to individuals - whose acknowledged genius, or whose high success, craves a more adequate remuneratory allotment.
Some fifteen years ago, I noticed, in one of the Gentleman's Magazines for the year 1828, a most extraordinary voyage performed by Captain James Weddell towards the South Pole; in which a rare combination of skill and persevering talent was displayed. The singular merit of this voyage, and the high services which its distinguished commander performed in the cause of science, were, I believe, acknowledged by all who were capable of estimating them. But there it rested. A cold assent to his deservings was recorded on the part of science, and its author was suffered to pass into forgetfulness, and add another victim to the long list of those who have experienced ingratitude at the hands of those who ought to have been their most generous advocates. Some years afterwards (in the year 1840), the subject of Weddell, and his just claims upon the British public was again noticed in a paper which appeared in your own pages. A high sense of his singular merit, and a conviction of flagrant injustice done him by his countrymen, animated, those appeals.
His countrymen, however, on certain occasions, unaccountably backward in appreciating or rewarding merit, have remained deaf to those claims, in an extraordinary degree, when the facts of the case are considered. And really, the present case - Captain Weddell being now beyond the reach of remuneratory reparation - holds forth but an ill-omened security for future adventurers similarly situated.
The last quarter of a century has witnessed many in our country's annals. whose exertions in the cause of nautical science has been abundantly responded to on the part of their countrymen; and the names of Parry, Franklin, Ross, Back, and some others, prove that honours are not wanting for their especial favourites. But was Weddell hindmost in these exertions? Did not a struggle such as his, in the cause of science and discovery, deserve well at the hands of his country? Ample time was likewise afforded, to compensate him for what he actually performed, or to prosecute through him, discoveries which he had so finely opened. Discoveries in the neighbourhood of the South Pole might, through his means have been prosecuted with much success. Was either the one or the other of these alternatives adopted ?
It was a practice among the ancient Athenians, when their generals were worsted in battle by the enemy, to bring them to a public trial and execute them. But here is a commander who returned successfully from a perilous expedition, fraught with high advantages to the scientific world; who, in its prosecution, generously sacrificed all private considerations of emolument, in order to raise the interests of science, and add to the stock of our geographical and hydrographical knowledge ; who is yet suffered to terminate his earthly career in comparative indigence and obscurity. Is not the character of England herein compromised?
Other nations of modern Europe have reasoned and acted in a somewhat different way. Both the Portuguese, of a former age, and, latterly the Russians, have liberally remunerated their intrepid seamen for services performed in the cause of nautical science.
Besides his grand achievement - his discoveries within the Antarctic Circle - Captain Weddell has rendered to his country and mankind much valuable information relative to the navigation round Cape horn. With persevering industry and vigilance, he has succeeded in establishing rules for the navigation of the seas in this vicinity, which, if duly observed, must prove of extensive use to future voyagers. He at once explored the harbours in these localities, examined the soundings, ascertained the prevailing currents, and marked the approaching indications of storms from the south, and contributed, by his activity and skill, to reduce many of the difficulties with which previous voyagers have had to encounter. He also made topographical surveys, and laid down charts of the South Orkneys and South Shetlands, during three voyages performed in the years 1820-21 22-23 ; islands comparatively unknown to former navigators. But his grand distinguishing, achievement as a navigator, is his near approximation to the South Pole. He sailed to the high latitude of 74° 15' south; which is a much higher degree than any seaman, except the intrepid Cook, ever attained. Beset with difficulties in the long and perilous navigation of a thousand miles of ice, he explored his devious way, and reached seas until then unbroken by the prow of mariner since the creation.
Several phenomena, unthought of in the natural history of our globe, were elicited; amongst others, Weddell observed in this, the remotest latitude to which the exploring researches of man had penetrated, flights of innumerable birds, which are well-known by experienced navigators to indicate the vicinity of land. Has this extraordinary fact, so interesting to cosmography, been attempted to be farther explained ?
The voyage of Captain Henry Foster, performed principally with a view of ascertaining the true figure of the earth by pendulum experiments, and also to determine the longitude by chronometers - and which would have been rendered much more complete but for his lamented death - did not immediately embrace objects connected with the southern regions. The two French ships of discovery, subsequently despatched for the promotion of science, do not appear to have attained high latitudes, or to have a directed their attention towards solving any of these phenomena observed by Weddell. His most extraordinary voyage stands alone ; although performed under every disadvantage - inasmuch as it was not equipped for discovery. No navigator on record has reached the remote latitudes which he explored.
When Captain Bartholomew Diaz, of Portuguese celebrity, first reached the Cape of Tempests - as he and his successor, Gama, first named the southernmost point of Africa - did his persevering efforts go unrequited by the enlightened prince who then sat on the throne of Portugal ? - when Drake, a century afterwards, under our own magnanimous Elizabeth, again visited the shows of his native land, after his memorable expedition, in which he had enlarged the boundaries of our scientific knowledge, and subserved the maritime interests of his country - honours, immunities, and rewards awaited him ; - when, in our day, Captains Ross and Parry returned again to their country, after exploring the frozen inlets of Baffin's Bay, in the fruitless search after a north-west passage, that country hailed them with meet gratulations and honours.
But here is a private venturer, unpatronised and almost unprovided with requisites, which might in a tolerable degree insure success - performed a perilous voyage unprecedented in the annals of navigation, in which he opened up subjects of deep interest and' inquiry. Have these objects been duly investigated? Has the distinguished seaman, by whose intrepid efforts they were accomplished, been publicly acknowledged? Has he been made instrumental in prosecuting; the interesting inquiries thus opened up? Has the variation in the polarity and dip of the magnetic needle, which have been observed, in very high antarctic latitudes to be governed, as it would seem, by different laws - has the unaccountable fact of the seas in latitudes 74° 15" being free from ice - whereas lower degrees, examined by Captain Cook presented an impenetrable frozen barrier - been investigated through the genius of Weddell, the fittest agent which, under the circumstances, could have been selected? Have these things been done? Alas, no!
But the intrepid navigator of whom we speak - shorn of his fortunes, which he sacrificed in the cause of science - has gone down to the grave undistinguished by those just honours which should have enrolled in the lists of fame and amongst his contemporaries; a man who had performed an achievement unapproached by any of them. Had not England's government, or any of the public scientific bodies with which it abounds, leisure or inclination to prosecute these discoveries and turn them to high account? Was there not in England - England, on most occasions foremost in the investigation of science - public spirit or generosity to second the ardent exertions of Weddell, or to single out a man whose merit gave so high promise of benefiting his country in a scientific view ?
Captain Henry Forster, of the Chanticleer, performed valuable service for his country in this respect. His information of a hydrographical kind - his numerous pendulum experiments in the various latitudes of the globe, from London to the South Shetlands, with a view of more accurately determining the figure of the earth - his chronometer experiments - to find the longitudes - his observation on the currents in the neighbourhood of Cape Horn, (in which he shares the merit with Weddell,) would have held him forth to honour and promotion, had not his regretted and untimely fall prevented. But Weddell, more adventurous in his career, with two small trading barks, actually sailed through 1000 miles of ice in a high latitude within the antarctic circle, where, had he not been almost wholly unprovided with requisite instruments for the purpose, he, in all probability, would have solved many of the phenomena concerning which we are now profoundly ignorant.
The subject of this article, however, is now no more? he will no more be affected by the honours and immunities of this world. Whatever his merits may have been, therefore, his country cannot, with regard to him, redeem any past ingratitude. Upon contemplating the circumstances of the case, however, a powerful consideration will strike the mind at once, of the caprice of popular favour, and of the uncertainty and precariousness which the boldest efforts of the most successful adventurer have, of being visited with their honest meed of remuneratory acknowledgments. Enthusiastic honours, on certain occasions, visit the aspirant ; but cold neglect, at other periods, follows his efforts. Is this a generous procedure on the part of Englishmen ? or does it tend to the promotion of scientific discovery ? But Weddell has left behind him others who have claims on his behalf ; and it is not without interest that I hear of a memorial about to be presented to the Lords of the Treasury, setting forth the claims which Mr. Strachan, late merchant of Edinburgh. and Leith, and others his employers and patrons, have upon their country and the public. These claims are founded upon the plea (and a more just one cannot be imagined), that, great and serious losses were sustained in the trading expeditions performed by Captain Weddell, whose primary object was to procure sealskins from the South Seas. While, in the true spirit of adventure, this undaunted seaman was roaming in latitudes unexplored by any previous mariner since the invention of the compass, for the enlargement of science, the pecuniary interests of his employers correspondingly suffered. The embarrassments which in consequence, subsequently ensued, produced a total derangement of their affairs. And it is only in accordance with rigid justice, that adequate compensation, however tardily it come, be awarded them. E. P.
Avon House, Wilts. Oct. 5, 1843.
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