Belcher, Edward (DNB00)

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BELCHER, Sir EDWARD (1799–1877), admiral, son of Andrew Belcher of Halifax, Nova Scotia [see Beresford, Sir John Poo], and grandson of William Belcher, governor of the same colony, entered the navy in 1812, and, after serving in several ships in the Channel and on the Newfoundland station, was in 1816 a midshipman of the Superb, with Captain Ekins, at the bombardment of Algiers. He was made lieutenant on 21 July 1818, and after continuous, though unimportant service, was in 1825 appointed as assistant surveyor to the Blossom, then about to sail for the Pacific Ocean and Behring Straits [see Beechey, Frederick William] on a voyage of discovery which lasted over more than three years. He was made commander 16 March 1829, and from May 1830 to September 1833 commanded the Ætna, employed on the survey of parts of the west and north coasts of Africa, and through the winter of 1832 in the Douro, for the protection of British interests during the struggle between the parties of Doms Pedro and Miguel. The results of the Ætna's work were afterwards embodied in the admiralty charts and sailing directions for the rivers Douro and Gambia. On paying off the Ætna, Belcher was employed for some time on the home survey, principally in the Irish Sea, and in November 1836 was appointed to the Sulphur, surveying ship, then on the west coast of South America, from which Captain Beechey had been obliged to invalid. During the next three years the Sulphur was busily employed on the west coast of both North and South America, and in the end of 1839 received orders to return to England by the western route. After visiting several of the island groups in the South Pacific, and making such observations as time permitted, Belcher arrived at Singapore in October 1840, where he was ordered back to China, on account of the war which had broken out, and during the following year he was actively engaged, more especially in operations in the Canton River. The Sulphur finally arrived in England in July 1842, after a commission of nearly seven years. Belcher had already been advanced to post rank, 6 May 1841, and been decorated with a C.B.: he now (January 1843) received the honour of knighthood, and in the course of the same year published his 'Narrative of a Voyage round the World performed in H.M.S. Sulphur during the years 1836-42' (2 vols. 8vo). In November 1842 he was appointed to the Samarang for the survey of the coast of China, which the recent war and treaty had opened to our commerce. More pressing necessities, however, changed her field of work to Borneo, the Philippine Islands, and Formosa, and on these and neighbouring coasts Belcher was employed for nearly five years, returning to England on the last day of 1847. In 1848 he published 'Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Samarang' (2 vols. 8vo), and in 1852 was appointed to the command of an expedition to the Arctic in search of Sir John Franklin. The appointment was an unfortunate one; for Belcher, though an able and experienced surveyor, had neither the temper nor the tact necessary for a commanding officer under circumstances of peculiar difficulty. Perhaps no officer of equal ability has ever succeeded in inspiring so much personal dislike, and the customary exercise of his authority did not make Arctic service less trying. Nor did any happy success make amends for much discomfort and annoyance; and his expedition is distinguished from all other Arctic expeditions as the one in which the commanding officer showed an undue haste to abandon his ships when in difficulties, and in which one of the ships so abandoned rescued herself from the ice, and was picked up floating freely in the open Atlantic. Belcher has himself told the story in a work published in 1855 with the somewhat extravagant title of 'The Last of the Arctic Voyages' (2 vols. 8vo), with which may be compared the description of the abandonment of the Resolute given by the late Admiral Sherard Osborn in his 'Discovery of a North-west Passage' (4th ed. 1865), pp. 262-6. Belcher was never employed again, although in due course of seniority he attained his flag 11 Feb. 1861, became vice-admiral 2 April 1866, and admiral 20 Oct. 1872. He was also honoured with a K.C.B. 13 March 1867. He passed the remaining years of his life in literary and scientific amusements, and died 18 March 1877. Besides the works already noted, he published in 1835 'A Treatise on Nautical Surveying,' long a standard work on the subject, though now obsolete; in 1856, 'Horatio Howard Brenton, a Naval Novel' (3 vols. 8vo), and an exceedingly stupid one; and in 1867 edited Sir W. H. Smyth's 'Sailors' Word Book,' 8vo.

[O'Byrne's Naval Biog. Dict.; Journal of the Roy. Geog. Soc. (1877), xlvii. p. cxxxvi; Add. MS. 28509, f. 128.]

J. K. L.