The British Empire Library

Admiral Albert Hastings Markham: A Victorian Tale of Triumph, Tragedy and Exploration

by Frank Jastrzembski

Frank Jastrzembski has written a biography about a man who had a truly remarkable life and yet is little known just over a century after his death. There is much in common with the author's first book about Valentine Baker. They were both contemporaries, both had remarkable military careers on a truly global scale, both had significant achievements that were lauded at the time and both had very unfortunate incidents which did much to sully their reputations. Furthermore, reading both books gives an insight into a long lost imperial world where Britain's remit ran to every corner and where people's careers could be unimaginably varied and full of opportunity. If you did not know otherwise, you would swear both of these books were works of fiction. The stories of their lives are just so varied, so epic and so unpredictable. Frank Jastrzembski provides cast iron proof that life can be far stranger than any fiction that can be imagined!

It is hard to know where to begin with Markham's career. Each of the 8 chapters of the book could be a standalone book on its own given how different the various directions his career and interests took him. The Markham's themselves were not a particularly well connected or wealthy family by any means although they did have strong military, academic and imperial ties. Albert was actually born in France to his itinerant English parents (who would end up emigrating to the States later). His youngest years were spent in Guernsey but he was quickly despatched to London to live with his aunt. It was there that he would later meet his older cousin Clements Markham who was to have a profound effect on his life. Indeed this is the same Clements Markham who participated in the remarkable imperial escapade of smuggling Cinchona out of Peru to take to India to grow quinine and aid in the prevention of malaria. More importantly still, Clements had participated in one of the Arctic search expeditions to locate the missing Franklin who had sought to discover a North West Passage on behalf of the Royal Navy back in 1845. Clements would go on to become a key person in the highly influential Royal Geographical Society and would do much to encourage Albert to both enter the Royal Navy but also to become an explorer in general and an Arctic explorer in particular in the coming years. However, the 14 year old Albert would start his nascent Royal Naval career in much warmer climes out on the China Station.

It is quite amazing for us to consider that someone so young would leave his family for such a dangerous occupation and distant part of the world. Indeed, Albert would not see his parents for another decade and by then they had emigrated to the Midwest. The sheer length of the voyage gives us a clue as to how remote a posting this was for a 14 year old. The journey out took some 156 days alone. There was no leave home from such a station. He arrived at the bustling and growing Hong Kong entrepot at a time when Britain and Europe's influence as a whole was growing in the region. Hong Kong had barely been a British colony for 15 years by the time of Albert's arrival, but the opportunities of trade with China were becoming apparent. However, there were challenges also, and the vessels carrying tea, silk, opium and cotton were tempting targets for local pirates. Within just two months of arriving in the area, Albert was not only witness to attacks by RN ships on Chinese pirate junks, he was actually leading a small boat of 6 sailors and 2 marines to storm a damaged junk to try and capture it from the 30 or 40 pirates on board. Talk about teenagers being made of sterner stuff. Remarkably, or fortuitously for such a fledgling warrior, the pirates fled and jumped over the other side of the boat. This was just the first of many such adventures as the author casts an interesting light on the Royal Navy's role in this part of the World. He also was fortunate to have been schooled by some formidable seamen and officers and picked up tips of leadership that he would hold on to throughout his life. He was also lucky to transfer from a ship shortly before it was lost with all hands in a Typhoon. He participated in both the Taku Forts expedition and the efforts to contain the Taiping Rebellion in 1862. He came into contact with Chinese Gordon who of course would become famous in Khartoum many years later. He also had a fascinating detour to Japan in the very early years of its opening up to the West. The dangers inherent in this process were revealed to Markham when he was asked to recover the body of an Englishman killed by a Japanese Samurai for an assumed slight on his Prince. The fallout of this event was the precursor of the Satsuma Rebellion. Again a young Markham found himself in the unusual position of playing the first ever cricket game in Japan. Not that this was for fun, but as a way of surreptitiously bringing armed sailors ashore in Yokohama in case an attack on the foreign quarters there occurred. I did say that Markham's life is very much larger than life.... and this is all just in his first posting!

After seven years in the Far East, he was posted to the Mediterranean for three years. After this he used his well earned leave to travel to Wisconsin to visit his parents. In a remarkable personal coincidence for me, his parents moved to Trempealeau County to start afresh after money problems in Europe. To most people in the UK, Wisconsin seems remote and far away and I'm sure almost nobody here has heard of Trempealeau and yet my own sister-in-law and her husband used to live there... How unlikely is that? Anyway, I digress, although it does give a hint that globalisation is nothing new and that enterprising people looked for opportunities where ever and when ever they could back in the Nineteenth Century. There are still many Markhams in Wisconsin and I wonder how many of them know about their adventurous ancestor and his exploits? Reporting back for duty, Markham's next posting would be in the South Pacific and Australia. Once again the author casts a fascinating light on another aspect of imperial interest that was very familiar in the Victorian era but has almost disappeared from today's understanding of the past; blackbirding. This was the process whereby unscrupulous landowners in Australia and Fiji lured unsuspecting Pacific Islanders into a life of indentured servitude bordering on outright slavery. It grew in the wake of the American Civil War when cotton prices went through the roof. Australia in particular had the land but not the labour. At least that was until some very unsavoury ship's captains decided to effectively kidnap islanders and bring them to Australia (and Fiji) against their will. Markham was in command of HMS Rosario and became fully embroiled in attempting to deter and capture blackbirders but also finding out that there were powerful political forces at work to undermine the Royal Naval's attempts at stamping it out. His experiences nicely illustrate one of the paradoxes of Britain's imperial system, even at its height. There was no single British political will pitted for or against the colonised. There were competing British and Colonial institutions, individuals and sources of power. Queen Victoria was very keen to stamp out slavery in any form and was happy to order her Royal Navy to extinguish it. However the governments of the various Australian colonies had their own legislatures and court systems with priorities of their own. Wealthy landowners found it relatively easy to apply pressure on these courts and undermine the efforts of the Royal Navy. Markham himself would find out for himself just how difficult it was to bring people to justice whatever his orders said. Again Markham's experiences provide a fascinating insight into an Empire that was anything but cohesive and united. It helps reveal the limits of imperial power and the competing entities within it. Personally, Markham would find that he had remarkable localised power as the captain of a warship and the most senior British plenipotentiary whenever he arrived at a remote Pacific Island. However, he also would learn the limits of this power, when courts and the Admiralty second guessed his decisions often on second hand and confused information. It was a fine line to tread and one that was not helped by ambiguous orders and unbelievably long communications lines. Decisions made one day might not be judged until many months or even years later.

It is as an Arctic explorer that Markham should probably be, but most certainly is not, remembered. I have to say that I was unaware of Markham's name or achievements before reading this book and I am someone who lives only a couple hundred yards away from the birthplace of Sir Robert Falcon Scott and has more than a passing interest in polar exploration. I did not even realise that Scott of the Antarctic had actually trained under Markham and almost certainly was inspired in his own polar career by both Albert and Clements Markham. Unusually for this book, his arctic exploits get two full chapters! The desire to become a polar explorer was so strong that he actually took a sabbatical to join an Arctic whaler for a year to see for himself the realities of operating in the harsh Northern Seas. His resultant book on his experiences and lectures at the Royal Geographical Society helped galvanise the Admiralty and British Government into funding another polar expedition. Markham would be the second in command of the first polar expedition since the last of the search parties for the Franklin Expedition. It seems as if the Royal Navy pulled back in the aftermath of that disaster and it would take 3 long decades until they ventured back. The difference this time was the advent of steam power. Previously, they had to work with the power of the capricious wind. Steam power would give them options that Franklin could only have dreamed of. Despite steam ships with reinforced hulls, the difficulties of travelling as far North as possible were as daunting as anything attempted to date. They had planned a two year expedition but this was no sight-seeing or box-ticking expedition, it was backed by the Royal Geographical Society as well as the Admiralty and serious science lay at its heart. Two ships got as far as they could and established two separate bases when they could get no further. They then hunkered down to survive the harsh arctic winter before the Sun reappeared 142 days later. Just thinking of spending this amount of time in absolute darkness in ferocious sub zero weather for months on end before even starting the overland expeditions hints at the ambition and hardiness of those involved. It seems as if Markham and the leader of the expedition Nares went to remarkable lengths to keep up morale through this ordeal. They appear very progressive and considerate indeed and certainly seemed to remain a cohesive team throughout. Only when the Sun reappeared could they start their overland part of the expeditions. To say they suffered terrible privations in appalling conditions does not begin to do justice to their perseverance and bravery. There were three distinct overland expeditions but it is perhaps no coincidence that Markham's made the most headway. On a good day they might travel 7 miles, on a bad day 1 mile. Sometimes they had to just hunker down and wait for storms to pass. Injury and exhaustion took their toll and the limitations of their equipment meant that frostbite was a constant threat. Most seriously of all though would be the development of scurvy despite attempts to prevent it. Men too sick to continue under their own power had to be pulled on the sleds making it harder on the rest. Eventually after 40 days Markham realised that they had to stop. He still held a flag raising ceremony and collected scientific data despite their weakened state. They were still 400 miles from the North Pole but they had got the furthest North of anyone to date. It was an accomplishment, just not the one they had hoped for. The return journey was not much better as they realised that the pack ice was melting and they were desperate to get to firm land before being cut off on ice floes. They missed a crucial rendezvous with Nares' team by just one day with too many sick to really persevere. Markham's second in command volunteered to make the rest of the 40 mile journey by himself to get help. Straight out of a boy's own story, Lieutenant Parr made the journey taking very risky short cuts and got the necessary rescue teams to come and get Markham's forlorn team. Alas one member of his team did succumb but the rest made it back. Given their weakened state, they decided not to stay another winter and headed home one year early. It was still a success and Queen Victoria herself was highly appreciative of their efforts. The reason for the outbreak of scurvy was not appreciated for years to come, but it was yet another byproduct of the American Civil War which saw the lemon sources dry up and be replaced by cheaper West Indian limes but which held only half as much Vitamin C. Markham and the authors were completely unaware of this Admiralty penny pinching but were very much its victims.

Markham would still have many more adventures on the Frontiers of the American West, in the Russian Arctic Circle, on the Pacific Station with war between Chile and Peru and in trying to map out train lines in Canada to the Hudson's Bay. These are all diligently and fascinatingly set out by the author. It is poignant though, that Markham's name would become tarnished dramatically as Rear Admiral of the fleet in the Mediterranean in 1893. He was the second in command of a squadron of ships travelling from Lebanon to Libya under the overall command of the most aggressive and thrusting Admiral in the Royal Navy at the time, Admiral Tryon. A terrible accident occurred which saw the ship that Markham was commanding plough into the side of Admiral Tryon's flagship. It would sink rapidly with the loss of over 350 men including Admiral Tryon himself. The author explains the intricacies of the manoeuvres that were being attempted and how the accident came to occur. Markham played an important role in that accident but the Admiralty's Board of Enquiry placed the ultimate blame at the feet of Admiral Tryon for trying such a difficult manoeuvre with such large ships too close to one another. However, as the most senior surviving member of the debacle, there was plenty of blame laid at Markham's feet too. Although as the author details, there were many other candidates who should have shared in the opprobrium. Markham was censured and effectively black listed for many years after the event by the Admiralty. Eventually, he was rehabilitated to a certain extent and nearly 8 years later got his first posting since the accident and was eventually promoted to Admiral and received a KCB in recognition of his life long naval service and role as explorer. He retired in 1906 and passed away in 1918 although not before helping raise money for those who lost loved ones in the war and also providing succour to Canadian soldiers far from home - perhaps keeping his connection to the Hudson Bay alive in his mind. He was rightly proud of his Arctic endeavours more than anything else he had done. I have a feeling most people would be proud of pretty much any of the varied chapters of his life. He fought pirates, he battled slavery, he collected scientific data from all over the planet, he was a prolific writer, he provided specimens galore to the natural museums of Britain and was remarkably good natured throughout. He seems to have been a genuinely charming man who engaged all who came into contact with him. He may not be as famous as he should be, but his life illustrates the fascinating potential that was available in the heyday of Empire and in particular for those who entered Royal Naval service. A life of adventure, variety, danger and exploration was very much available in a way that is almost unimaginable to us in the 21st Century. He was a product of his time and thankfully this book sheds light on that period in history through the prism of Markham's life and experiences. You will learn far more than just about one man's life if you read this book, you get a window into the world of the 19th Century as seen through the eyes of one of its most peripatetic individuals. And I hope you enjoy his company as much as I did!

British Empire Book
Frank Jastrzembski
Pen & Sword Maritime


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