At a Glance:
Admiral, explorer, hydrographer
Bird names: 1
Content note: this profile mentions grave desecration
Belcher’s Gull (Larus belcheri)
Admiral Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877) was born in Nova Scotia, but his career with the British Navy during one of the most frenzied periods of imperialism led to him visiting seemingly every part of the rapidly expanding empire. His career is mainly notable not for its uniqueness, but for how emblematic it was of the British Empire in the first half of the 19th century.
Belcher’s main job was surveying. He traveled widely in this capacity, eventually working his way up to commanding entire expeditions. He seems to not have much to keep him at home– his wife had legally separated from him after a brief marriage, as he had given her an unspecified venereal disease. As was often the case for 19th century colonialists, he produced several books about his voyage. Some of these were fairly matter-of-fact affairs about surveying and hydrology. Unfortunately, Belcher also couldn’t resist one of the other pursuits of colonial officers: writing extremely racist descriptions of almost every people he encountered, especially the Inuit and Dyak.
Belcher’s surveying pursuits were hardly neutral, either. Surveyors and cartographers were often the vanguard of colonial takeover, especially in the rapidly expanding British Empire. Most notably, Belcher completed the first British survey of the harbor in Hong Kong, a key part of Britain assuming control. He also participated in another part of that enterprise by participating in the Opium Wars.
Having checked off most of the things on the bucket list of your average 19th century British naval officer, in 1852 Belcher naturally joined in on one of the most popular pursuits of the day: he commanded an expedition to the Arctic to rescue the vanished Franklin expedition. His mandate also included looking for several other expeditions that had gone looking for Franklin and also had vanished. One could have interpreted this to mean that it was not a good idea to try and sail through the icy Northwest Passage; however, this was, again, the 19th century British Empire, who were fairly famous for not taking any “no” for answer, even if it was delivered via howling blizzards, endless winter darkness, and ship-eating icebergs.
Belcher found little evidence of the vanished Franklin expedition. At one point, his group found skeletal remains that they thought might be from a member of Franklin’s party; however, on return to Britain, it was determined that they likely belonged to a woman, and therefore were almost certainly the remains of an Inuit woman and not any member of the lost expedition.
Despite the extravagant dangers of Arctic travel and the disappointing failure to determine Franklin’s fate, Belcher was lucky: only four of his five ships were destroyed, and he survived. Having lost a (few) ships, he was court-martialed, and while exonerated, never held command again. One of his lost ships, the Resolute, had a curious afterlife: it was eventually recovered and brought back to Britain, where some of its timbers were turned into a desk. This desk was gifted to the US, and is now in the Oval Office.
Belcher’s career is, after reading so many accounts of the British Empire, one of many that flow together into a seemingly endless stream of colonial destruction and hubris. He may not have committed the same level of crimes as many of his compatriots of the day; but he still did his share of harm. In its way, this is more disconcerting. Empires are not built by a few select evil people; they are built by multitudes of mediocre men like Belcher, who were merely unwilling or unable to consider that they may be doing the wrong thing.
Adams, Arthur. 1848. Notes from a journal of research into the natural hisotry of the countries visited during the voyage of the HMS Samarang. Reeve, Benham, and Reeve: London. [link]
Belcher, Edward. 1843. Narrative of a voyage round the world: performed in HMS Sulphur, during the year 1836-1842, including details of the naval operations in China, from Dec 1840, to Nov 1841; published under the authority of the lords commissioners of the Admiralty. Henry Colburn: London. [link]
Belcher, Edward. 1855. The last of the Arctic voyages: being a narrative of the expedition in HMS Assistance, under the command of Captain Sir Edward Belcher, C.B, in search of Sir John Franklin, during the years 1852-54. Reeve: London. [link]
Lingwood, Peter F. 1985. Admiral Sir Edward Belcher (1790-1877): natural history catalyst or catastrophe? Archives of Natural History, 1. pp. 195-203. [link]