County Down

Captain Francis Crozier
Michael Smith

High above the tree line in the icy wastes of the Arctic about 40 starving and emaciated men shuffled towards a small band of native Inuits. The two groups surveyed each other for a moment as the glacial winds lashed their faces.One man, a naval officer, stepped forward rubbing his hand across his stomach, repeatedly saying: “netchuk”, the Inuit word for seal. The Inuits generously handed over a few scraps of raw seal meat and calmly walked away, ignoring the insistent pleas for more help and leaving the gaunt officer and his bedraggled men to their fate.

 The poignant encounter took place well over 150 years ago in 1848 and the doomed officer was Captain Francis Crozier from Banbridge, County Down in Ireland. The Inuits, who have long existed on the edge of survival in the Arctic wilderness, knew instinctively that their meagre hunting grounds could barely support their own families – but not another 40 ravenous sailors. None of the seamen survived.

 The account of the poignant meeting with the Inuits survived only because of the oral testimony of the natives and is the last recorded sighting of Crozier. It was also the moment when the memory of Crozier began to fade, leaving the distinguished and accomplished explorer as little more than a footnote to history of Polar exploration. Crozier’s tragedy is that he was among the most outstanding Arctic and Antarctic explorers of the 19th century who in life never received the recognition he deserved and for the next 150 years has been a largely forgotten figure. Only the tragedy of his death surpasses the miserly response meted out by history.

 However the newly published first comprehensive biography of Crozier - Captain Francis Crozier - Last Man Standing? -  sets the record straight and demonstrates that the Irishman was among the exceptional band of men who opened the doors to the unexplored regions of the Arctic and Antarctic. It was the feats of Crozier and his fellow explorers in the mid-19th century who paved the way for the more well-known exploits of men like Amundsen, Scott and Shackleton in the early years of the 20th century. There would be no heroic age of Polar exploration without men like Francis Crozier.

 Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier, who was born in 1796, came from a wealthy Banbridge family. His father, George Crozier was a leading solicitor who acted for two of Ireland’s most powerful land-owning families, the Downshires and Moiras. Francis, one of 13 children, was named after Francis Rawdon, the Earl of Moira. In 1810, shortly before his 14th birthday, Crozier left Banbridge to enlist in the British navy and was immediately thrown into the Napoleonic wars. On one of his earliest voyages, Crozier met the last surviving mutineer from the Bounty, who was living in idyllic exile on the tiny Pacific island of Pitcairn.

 Exploration was far from anyone’s mind during the Napoleonic Wars. But this all changed in 1815 when the decisive Battle of Waterloo brought the long and bloody conflict to an end. However peace left Britain with the major problem of how to accommodate thousands of semi-redundant naval officers, who could not be paid off or thrown back onto the streets like the press-ganged ordinary sailors. The answer was exploration and under the dictatorial leadership of Sir John Barrow, the Second Secretary of the Admiralty, Britain began a major programme of discovery. From 1818, fleets of ships were sent in pursuit of the three great targets of 19th century exploration – navigating the North West Passage, standing at the North Pole and surveying Antarctica.

 It was a golden age of endeavour which produced a new generation of outstanding explorers. Among the famous men to emerge from the era were John Franklin, Edward Parry, James Ross, Leopold McClintock – and Francis Crozier. Crozier’s first Polar expedition came in 1821 when he volunteered to join Parry’s failed attempt to navigate the fabled North West Passage, a  feat which had eluded British sailors for centuries. He returned after two years in the ice and went north again in 1824 when Parry made another unsuccessful bid to locate the passage. The expedition nearly ended in disaster when one ship – the Fury - was wrecked.

 By 1827, Crozier joined Parry and James Clark Ross in an arduous and hugely ambitious slog to reach the North Pole. The party, dragging heavily-laden boats, trekked for over 660 miles (1,000 km) but advanced only 172 miles (275 km) to the north because the ice was steadily drifting south. It was like walking the wrong way up a fast-moving escalator and the men survived only because of well-stocked depots of food laid down by the conscientious Crozier.

 Crozier’s most accomplished feat was the mammoth four-year journey with Ross in the Erebus and Terror to map the unknown territory of Antarctica. Crozier captained Terror on the trip between 1839 and 1843 and never lost a man, a rare achievement in those days. By contrast, Captain James Cook lost over 30 men on his epic 18th century voyage to the Pacific and Australia in Endeavour. The Erebus and Terror expedition was the last great voyage of discovery made under sail and opened the door for the more celebrated era of Antarctic exploration in the 20th century. Many of the geographic features associated with the heroic age – Mount Erebus, Ross Island and McMurdo Sound – were discovered by Erebus and Terror. The Great Ice Barrier, where Scott’s party perished in 1912, was so named because it represented a barrier to the ships of Crozier and Ross. (It was later named the Ross Ice Shelf.)

 Cape Crozier, the desolate bluff on Ross Island, was later commemorated by Apsley Cherry-Garrard in The Worst Journey in the World, which many people still regard as among the best books written about Scott’s disastrous last expedition. However the Antarctic journey took a heavy toll of Crozier, who fell into a deep depression on his return. Part of his melancholia was caused by a broken heart.

 Crozier had stopped in Tasmania on his way south where he fell deeply in love with Sophy Cracroft, the flirty niece of fellow explorer, Sir John Franklin, who was the island’s governor. Crozier proposed marriage on several occasions but he was rejected because Sophy Cracroft refused to be a sea captain’s wife. “She liked the man, but not the sailor,” Franklin’s wife, Jane Franklin, once confided to a friend. Heartbroken and depressed, Crozier elected to head north again in 1845 when the Admiralty launched a fresh attempt to navigate the North West Passage in the veteran ice ships, Erebus and Terror.

 While Crozier was more experienced of navigating the ice than any other serving officer, the Admiralty inexplicably gave command to John Franklin, an overweight 59-year old who had not taken a ship into the ice for 27 years. Improbably enough, Franklin’s reputation as an explorer was founded largely on overland trekking, rather than seafaring. But the Admiralty chose Franklin ahead of Crozier and Crozier, sadly, volunteered to travel as second-in-command and captain of Terror.It may be that Crozier’s motive was a last ditch attempt to impress Franklin’s niece, Sophy Cracroft. It failed.

 It was an unhappy and eventually tragic expedition for the lovelorn Crozier, who sailed with grave doubts about the venture and Franklin’s ability as commander.  In his last letter home, he wrote: “In truth I am sadly lonely.”  More pertinently, he criticised Franklin’s leadership, writing: “(Franklin) is very decided in his own views but has not good judgement.”Erebus and Terror entered the treacherous Arctic waterways in the summer of 1845 with a 129 officers and men and were never seen again.

 Command of the expedition passed into the hands of Captain Crozier in 1847 when Franklin died. By then Erebus and Terror had been crushed by the ice and it was Crozier who inherited the hopeless task of leading about 100 starving survivors in a forlorn retreat across the ice. Men fell dead in their tracks and some resorted to the last taboo of cannibalism in the desperate struggle to survive. Crozier’s death march ripples with historic significance. At one point, the party reached the narrow and shallow Simpson Strait which runs between King William Island and the Canadian mainland. Unknown to Crozier the Simpson Strait was the last piece of the jigsaw which makes up the North West Passage.

 A little over 50 years later the Norwegian explorer, Roald Amundsen made the first-ever navigation of the passage through the Simpson Strait and graciously flew his ship’s colours in salute of Crozier’s brave party. According to native accounts, a few desperate souls clung to life for years but none managed to find a route to safety. Crozier, the cool-headed and experienced commander, is thought to have been among the last to die.

 Almost 50 ships went north in the next few years to search for the lost men and in 1859 a party under Leopold McClintock retrieved a short record of the expedition, which contained a message from Crozier divulging the hugely ambitious attempt to march across the ice to safety. It was Crozier’s last communication with the outside world. Crozier devoted his entire adult life to the navy, sailing on six great journeys of discovery and exploration and becoming one of the country’s leading authorities on magnetism. But, despite his illustrious career, Crozier received scant recognition for his efforts. Unlike his contemporaries - Franklin, Parry, Ross and McClintock – did not receive a knighthood for almost 40 years of active service.

 While he was often overlooked by the blinkered top brass at the Admiralty, Crozier was highly regarded among the scientific community and in 1843 was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society. Among his sponsors was Sir John Herschel, the greatest astronomer of the age. It is unclear why Crozier was treated so badly, although his Irish background may have counted against him at the class-conscious Admiralty where promotion up the navy ranks and the plum jobs were reserved for the sons of aristocrats or well-connected. It took Crozier, a highly accomplished seafarer, 31 years of dedicated service to reach the rank of Captain.

 Since his death, the memory of Francis Crozier has been allowed to fade. But Crozier, a modest and unassuming man, deserves a better understanding and a place among the men who shaped the history of Arctic and Antarctic exploration.


Michael Smith is a best-selling author who specialises in the history of Polar exploration and has contributed to newspapers and
magazines, appeared in TV and radio documentaries and lectured extensively.

Michael’s first book, An Unsung Hero – Tom Crean, was short-listed for the Banff Mountain Book Festival, 2002.  His most recent book Tom Crean – An Illustrated Life, was short-listed for the Irish Books Awards 2007. He also wrote I Am Just Going Outside, a biography of Captain “Titus” Oates and Sir James Wordie - Polar Crusader, the life of James Wordie.

Michael has written two books for children: Tom Crean - Iceman, a children’s version of Tom Crean’s story and The Boss, a biography of Sir Ernest Shackleton.