Chesney, Francis Rawdon (DNB00)
|←Chesney, Charles Cornwallis||Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 10
Chesney, Francis Rawdon
|Chesney, Robert de→|
CHESNEY, FRANCIS RAWDON (1789–1872), general, the explorer of the Euphrates and founder of the overland route to India, was the son of Alexander Chesney, a native of county Antrim, but of Scottish descent. The father emigrated to South Carolina in 1772 and took an active part in the war of independence, in which he performed various important services of difficulty and danger for Lord Rawdon, afterwards Marquis of Hastings, and more than once succeeded in rallying the men of Carolina round the standard of the king's army. On his return to Ireland he was appointed coast officer at Annalong in county Down, to which he was attracted hy the possibilities of action offered by the smuggling proclivities of the district, and here his son Francis was born, 16 March 1789. At the early age of nine the child held a commission as sub-lieutenant in the Mourne infantry, a body of volunteers raised by Captain Chesney for the defence of the county against the United Irishmen, and the boy actually went out on service in the field. He had already been presented with a cadetship at Woolwich by his father's old patron Lord Rawdon (then Lord Moira), and in 1803, at the age of fourteen, passed into the preparatory academy at Great Marlow, and was gazetted to the royal artillery at Woolwich in 1805. In spite of this precocious boyhood, up to the age of forty Chesney was chiefly occupied with the uneventful routine duties of his regiment at Portsmouth, Guernsey, Leith, Dublin, and Gibraltar ; but his official duties were varied by visits to the continent, first after the battle of Water- loo, in which he had vainly endeavoured to take part, and again in 1827, when he made a professional tour of examination of Napoleon's battle-fields. He never saw active service, though always eager to volunteer in every expedition for fifty years, from the campaign ending in Waterloo in 1815 to the invasion of the Crimea in 1854-5. In 1829 he set out for Constantinople, in the hope of being able to render service to the Turks in the struggle in which they were then engaged with Russia, but arrived only in time to hear of the disastrous peace of Adrianople. He was then encouraged by Sir R. Goroon, British ambassador at the Porte, to make a tour of inspection in Egypt and Syria, and this led to two results of the highest importance. One was the Suez Canal, which Chesney proved to be a perfectly feasible undertaking from an engineer's point of view, in spite of the adverse conclusions of Napoleon's surveyors; and it was on the strength of Chesney's report that M. de Lesseps, by his own frank admission, was first led to attempt the great enterprise which he has since successfully carriea out. The second result was his exploration in 1831 of the Euphrates valley, which induced the home government to send out two subsequent expeditions with a view to opening out a route to India through Syria and the Persian Gulf. After having travelled up the Nile to the second cataract, crossed the desert from Kind to Koseyr, and surveyed the Isthmus of Suez, Chesney resolved to examine the possibilities of a new road to India, or rather of a very old but long neglected road, which, starting from the coast of Syria, should make use of the waters of the Great River, and coming out at the head of the Persian Gulf, should find a terminus at Kurrachee or Bombay. With the view of surveying the Euphrates, which had hitherto remained unexplored, he journeyed through Palestine, and then, striking the Euphrates at Anah, proceeded to take elaborate soundings and surveys of the river from that town to its embouchure in the Persian Gulf (1831). The task was one of exceeding difficulty, for Chesney was unacquainted with the language of the Arabs, at whose mercy his life was placed, and was compelled to use the utmost secrecy in obtaining the necessary information about the- depth and character of the river's course and currents. A great part of his observations were conducted from a raft, in the well of which he made a hole through which he could secretly work the sounding-pole. The hostility of the Arab tribes to one another and to the stranger who had intruded into their country was a constant source of danger, and Chesney frequently made his survey under a fire from the banks. He soon succeeded, however, in winning the confidence of the Arabs, and effected a thorough survey of the lower part of the Euphrates; when, after a tour through Persia to Tebriz and Trebizonde, and thence by an adventurous route across to Aleppo, failing to complete his exploration by a survey of the upper portion of the river in consequence of the disturbed state of the country, he returned to England to make his report to the government and urge by every means in his power the adoption of the Euphrates route to India. For two years he besieged the various authorities, secured the interest of King William, of Lord Stratford (then Sir Stratford Canning), Lord Ripon, and other people of influence, and at length succeeded in getting a select committee appointed, which decided that the scheme of steam communication with India by way of the Euphrates deserv^ed a careful trial. The India board was also favourable to the project, and the House of Commons voted 20,000l. for the expenses of a new expedition, of which Chesney was to be the commander. Early in 1835, with a company of thirteen officers and a small number of artillerymen, engineers, sappers, and miners, Chesney set sail for the bay of Antioch, in order to prove his own theory that the Euphrates was navigable from the point nearest to that bay down to its mouth. The operation was attended with apparently overwhelming difficulties, but the energy of the commander and men triumphed over the physical obstacles that blocked their way. They transported the steamers which were to navigate the Great River in sections from Seleucia in the bay of Antioch to Birejik on the upper Euphrates, in spite of the opposition of the pasha of Egypt, who was then supreme in those parts, and in defiance of the impediments offered by the hilly country to heavy metal goods. After immense labour and much suffering from malaria —Chesney himself was struck down by brain fever for a while—the two steamers, named respectively the Euphrates and the Tigris, were put together on the upper river at Birejik, and the voyage down was begun under favourable auspices. They had almost got as far down as Anah, the spot where Chesney began his former exploration, when a sudden storm wrecked the Tigris, with the loss of twenty lives, and she had to be left at the bottom of the river, while the Euphrates proceeded on her way down, and, having safely reached the mouth, steamed across to Bushire in the summer of 1836. The main work of the expedition was now accomplished. Chesney had proved that the Euphrates was navigable for steam vessels through the entire course, from a point about 120 miles from the Mediterranean to the Persian Gulf; he had shown how short and rapid a route this would prove to India; and had confirmed his previous views about the tractability of the Arab tribes that ranged the banks. The foundering of the Tigris was an accident that might have occurred anywhere, and formed no argument against the practicability of the route. He remained some time longer to explore the Tigris and Karūn, and to make a journey to India to consult with the authorities at Bombay on the development of the new route, and did not return to England till the middle of 1837. In London he busied himself in working for the reward and promotion of his officers and in preparing his great work on the expedition, but was interrupted in this task by being ordered to China to command the artillery at the Hongkong station in 1843, where he remained till 1847. He was one of the party attacked on the Canton river by the Chinese mob, and was present at the consequent bombardment of the Bogue forts by Sir John Davis. On his return to England he published (1850) the first two volumes, geographical and historical, of his ‘Expedition for the Survey of the Rivers Euphrates and Tigris;’ a ‘History of the Past and Present State of Firearms,’ a work of high value from a military point of view; and a volume on the ‘Russo-Turkish Campaigns of 1828–9,’ based upon his personal observations at the close of the war. Having completed his service as colonel commandant of the Cork division, he had now retired to his home in the ‘kingdom’ of Mourne, county Down, where the greater part of what remained of his long life was spent. In 1855 he was invited by the Duke of Newcastle, secretary at war, to raise and command a foreign legion for service in the Crimea, but a change of ministers brought the project to naught. In 1856 a scheme for connecting India with England by a railway route running through the Euphrates valley was set on foot by Mr. (now Sir William) Andrew, and Chesney was naturally invited to take a prominent part in advocating this adaptation of his own scheme. Government sanctioned another expedition to examine into the feasibility of such a railway, and at the age of sixty- seven Chesney set out, accompanied by Sir John Macneill, the engineer, and thoroughly surveyed the ground with a view to ascertaining the best point for the new line to intersect the range of hills which sever the Euphrates valley from the bay of Antioch. The result was highly satisfactory, and, after having by persistent efforts obtained the necessary concessions from the Turkish government, Chesney returned home, only to find that the home government did not dare to carry out or even encourage a scheme that was regarded with dislike by Palmerston's ally, the Emperor Louis Napoleon. Yet one more attempt was made. At the age of seventy- three Chesney again went out to Constantinople in 1862 to win fresh concessions from the Porte for a renewed railway scheme, and, after a successful mission, found himself again baulked by the timidity of the British government. He visited Paris in 1869, and received the compliments of De Lesseps, who s tyled him generously the ‘father of the Suez Canal.’ He had now published (1868) by government desire the concluding ‘Narrative of the Euphrates Expedition,’ and in 1871 began to hope again that his life's idea was at last to be realised; for a committee of the House of Commons was appointed to examine into the merits of the Euphrates railway scheme, and only a few months before his death the aged general, as full of vigour as ever, though eighty-two years old, attended the meetings of the committee and gave his valuable evidence. He did not live to see the favourable but ineffectual report of the committee, for on 30 Jan. 1872 he died at his home in Mourne in his eighty-third year. He had received the Geographical Society's gold medal so long before as 1837, and, besides being a member of various learned societies, was made an honorary D.C.L. at Oxford in 1850. He was gazetted colonel commandant of the 14th brigade royal artillery in 1864 and lieutenant-general the same year. He never accepted any rewards or honours from government, though it is stated that some offers were tardily made to him. He barely exacted the payment of his expenses in the expeditions and the cost of the publication of his great work on the survey. As an explorer Chesney must hold a very high rank. His energy, courage, and perseverance were unbounded, and his pursuit of his mission was unselfish and zealous and devoted. His published works are dry, but surprisingly full of learning and research, when it is remembered that he had only received an elementary military education. His personal characteristics were a devotion to duty which has rarely been equalled, a restless energy which lasted to extreme old age, a strong religious belief which induced a constant habit of almost painful self-examination and contrition for the most trifling faults, but which could not restrain the rare kindliness of nature which made him a staunch and unchanging friend and a devoted husband and relation. He married thrice: (1) in 1822, a daughter of John Forster and niece of Sir Albert Gledstanes, who died in 1825, leaving one daughter; (2) in 1839, Everilda, daughter of Sir John Fraser, who died without issue in 1840; and (3) in 1848, Louisa, daughter of Edward Fletcher, who survives him, and by whom he had four sons and one daughter, of whom one son died in boyhood.
[Life of General F. R. Chesney, by his Wife and Daughter, edited by Stanley Lane-Poole, 1885; personal information.]