Admiral Sir Edward Belcher
of the British Royal Navy
Admiral Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877) of the British Royal Navy was one of the most capable naval commanders of his era. He was a wise, generous, and merciful man who was deeply devoted to the welfare of the men under his leadership. Sir Edward Belcher was a war hero, an explorer, a scientist, and a writer. He commanded a voyage around the world and made significant contributions to geography, nautical surveying, climatology, and other naval and scientific endeavors. Belcher's Arctic expedition played a significant role in demonstrating the existence of the fabled Northwest Passage. It is thus fitting that several places on the globe are named for him, such as Belcher Point (Alaska), the Belcher Islands (Hudson Bay), and Belcher Channel (in the Arctic). He was honored by his country with two knighthoods, and was rewarded with the rank of Admiral in Her Majesty’s Royal Navy.
Admiral Sir Edward Belcher led a truly exciting life. A great-grandson of Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757), the colonial governor of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and New Jersey, Sir Edward journeyed to numerous and exotic places around the globe. Some of the places he visited were Jamaica, Hawaii, Tahiti, China, Japan, Singapore, Alaska, Central America, South America, Africa, Texas, and the Canadian Arctic, just to name a few.
The nineteenth century was an era of exploration and discovery. Great Britain was at a zenith during the reign of Queen Victoria, having emerged triumphant from the Napoleonic wars that previously had preoccupied the nation. Jem Belcher (1781-1811), the Champion of England, had won his first major victory in the prize ring in 1799, a year marked by the birth of Admiral Sir Edward Belcher, who would shine as one of Great Britain’s foremost explorers.
The latter 1700's had seen explorations by Captain James Cook and George Vancouver, but many regions of the earth still needed to be examined more thoroughly. There was still much to search out, and among the foremost of the vital questions to be settled were accurate explorations of the Pacific and the discovery of the Northwest Passage, a route between the Atlantic Ocean and the Pacific Ocean whose existence somewhere in the Arctic was speculative, but if present, could open up a sea route between Europe and the Far East. Answers to many of these questions, as well as valuable scientific data, were provided by a voyager who sailed both hemispheres of the earth — the northern and the southern — and circumnavigated the globe with the dual purpose of upholding the security of his country and advancing the world of science. That Marco Polo of his time was none other than Admiral Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877).
Before the fictional Captain Horatio Hornblower sailed the Mediterranean and the South Pacific in the pages of twentieth-century sea novels, Captain Edward Belcher had explored Mediterranean and Pacific coastlines and numerous South Pacific islands. In one story, Hornblower’s ships battled the ice, and Hornblower visited Russian dignitaries at their northern military post. Likewise, the ships commanded by Captain Belcher weaved a path through Arctic ice floes, and Edward Belcher visited Russian officials at their Northwest Pacific stations.
The Hornblower saga commenced chronologically with Mr. Midshipman Hornblower (1950) and continued through Hornblower’s captaincy, his knighthood and peerage (he was made a Knight of the Order of the Bath), and his eventual attainment of the rank of admiral. Jem Belcher, the prizefighter, was mentioned in the final Hornblower novel. Captain Edward Belcher, who was also a Knight of the Order of the Bath and later an admiral, had a cousin, Captain Frederick Marryat, who wrote sea adventures such as the well-known Mr. Midshipman Easy. In 1856, Captain Belcher, himself an exceedingly intelligent writer, wrote and published a three-volume novel about a young midshipman who rose to the position of captain in His Majesty’s Navy. The name of that naval officer — and the title of the novel — was Horatio Howard Brenton.
Interestingly, the youthful C.S. Forester, who later authored the Hornblower novels, was befriended by a Belcher family, and he later married their daughter. Thus, C.S. Forester's wife was a Belcher.
Heritage and Early Life
Edward Belcher was born on February 27, 1799 in the British (later Canadian) province of Nova Scotia, where his father Andrew Belcher (1763-1841) was a prominent member of the Nova Scotia Council. This Andrew Belcher was the son of Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher, Jr. (1710-1776), the first chief justice and a lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia. Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher, Jr. was the son of Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757), the American colonial governor of Massachusetts Bay, New Hampshire, and New Jersey. Thus, Edward Belcher was the grandson of Chief Justice Jonathan Belcher, Jr., and the great-grandson of Governor Jonathan Belcher of America. Edward’s mother, Marianne (von Geyer) Belcher, came from a respected German family.
Edward Belcher embarked upon his naval career at the young age of thirteen by enlisting in 1812 as a first class volunteer in the British Royal Navy, at a time when his country was engaged in war. Midshipman Edward Belcher was willing to fight for his country, and he chose to enter the navy, for his Belcher ancestry had left him a legacy of love for the sea. His great-great grandfather, Captain Andrew Belcher (1648-1717), along with partners who included John Lloyd of London, had invested in a fleet of merchant ships, among which were the Sarah, the William, and the Eagle. Governor Jonathan Belcher, Edward’s great-grandfather, also was interested in ships; his Belcher Wharf in Boston was adjacent to Long Wharf, and he carried on his father’s shipping business. Thus, Edward inherited Captain Andrew and Governor Jonathan Belcher’s command ability and predilection for the sea, both necessary qualities in a good naval captain.
Governor Belcher, in a letter to Jonathan Belcher, Jr., once referred to a Bible verse containing the phrase "with all thy getting, get understanding" (Proverbs 4:7). Edward Belcher presented this same verse in his novel Horatio Howard Brenton, a verse which reinforced one of the novel’s major themes — determination to try to do one’s best in every endeavor. Edward was a naval officer who certainly fulfilled that ideal. His talents and scientific curiosity made him an ideal captain and explorer, for he possessed ample seamanship, high courage, a friendly nature, fortitude, and, as was the case with General Douglas MacArthur (also of Belcher heritage), a conscientious dedication to duty. Throughout his life, Edward also showed a warm-hearted regard for the welfare of his shipmates and crew.
Edward Belcher’s naval career began vigorously. After serving on the ships Abercromby and Salvador del Mundo, he was assigned to the flagship Bellerophon sailing off the coast of Newfoundland (in North America). In 1816, as a midshipman in His Majesty’s Ship Superb, he took part in the Battle of Algiers, in which a fleet comprised of British and Dutch ships joined forces and besieged Algiers, the capital of the North African Islamic state of Algeria, in an effort to suppress Barbary piracy. Years later, when he was writing his novel Horatio Howard Brenton, Edward described Brenton, as well as the Superb, as being present at the Battle of Algiers.
After the Battle of Algiers, Edward Belcher sailed aboard the flagships Sybille and Salisbury at Jamaica. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant in 1818. At one point, he studied languages and designed a number of intricate nautical devices. Among his designs was a significant improvement to the station pointer, a navigational protractor which uses horizontal sextant angles for fixing a ship’s position in coastal waters on a chart. This instrument is useful in hydrographic surveying, one of Edward Belcher’s main interests and a science for which he demonstrated a great aptitude.
Scientist and Explorer
Edward Belcher was born just before the beginning of a century that brought an Age of Exploration, when mankind’s discoveries pushed back farther the frontiers of the ocean, just as man would in the next century explore space, the last frontier. Edward lived in an exciting time for an adventurer such as he, when one could, while sailing the oceans, still sight an unexplored island, an uncharted channel, or an undelineated river. These he did, and more; his transoceanic voyages extended to every quarter of the world.
Edward Belcher was an officer in the Royal Navy, but he was an explorer and a scientist, too, and his surveying voyages involved the collection of geological, astronomical, meteorological, zoological, and botanical data. He was one of the first fellows of the Royal Geographical Society. Edward envisioned and strongly advocated the participation of surveyors in wartime strategies, and this idea received recognition from nautical contemporaries. He was the author of a classic work, A Treatise on Nautical Surveying (1835), which, during the middle part of the nineteenth century, was adopted as the standard work on that nautical science. His Treatise included a description of navigational instruments and a section titled Hints to Travellers. He also edited Smyth’s Naval Word Book (1867).
Edward was the author of many scientific papers published in various journals, of which the following are some examples: "Tide observations at Otaheite (Tahiti)," Phil. Trans. (1843); "Notice of the Discovery of Ichthyosaurus and other fossils in the late Arctic Searching Expedition, 1852-54," Brit. Assoc. Rep. (1855); and "Remarks on the Glacial Movements noticed in the vicinity of Mount St. Elias, on the north-west coast of America," Brit. Assoc. Rep. (1861).
After 1820, Lieutenant Edward Belcher visited the United States, investigated channels near Bermuda, and served on the Nova Scotia station in the Salisbury. In 1825, he sailed with Captain Frederick William Beechey in the H.M.S. Blossom on a four-year historic exploration of the Pacific and Alaskan coasts, which involved attempts to coordinate with the Arctic expeditions of Sir John Franklin and Sir William E. Parry via the Bering Strait. During the second attempt to link up with Sir John Franklin’s expedition, in August 1827, Lieutenant Edward Belcher commanded the Blossom’s decked boat, and beginning from Kotzebue Sound, Alaska, explored 300-400 miles of Alaska’s coast between Chamisso Island to beyond Icy Cape. (Captain Edward Belcher later would command an expedition to search for Franklin, who became missing while on a later 1845 expedition to the Arctic.) While on the voyage with Beechey in the Blossom, Edward Belcher, an expedition surveyor, made many important marine observations and earned the praise of Captain Beechey, who noted Edward’s bravery and compassion.
The Beechey expedition explored and named many important features along the coast of Alaska, such as Point Barrow (the United States’ most northern point). Among the places the Blossom visited were Tahiti, Alaska, San Francisco (California), Hawaii, and China. Another place the Beechey expedition visited was Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, the home of the surviving mutineer and descendants of those who participated in the famous mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty. The story of this mutiny later was told by the novel Mutiny on the Bounty (1932), a principal source for which was an earlier work, Mutineers of the Bounty (1870), written by Lady Diana Belcher, who had married Sir Edward Belcher on September 11, 1830. An Oscar-winning motion picture called Mutiny on the Bounty, starring Clark Gable and Charles Laughton, was made in 1935.
Edward Belcher was promoted to the rank of Commander in 1829, while he was on the flagship Southampton in the East Indies. From 1830 to 1833, the Admiralty assigned him to the command of the Aetna, a surveying vessel, which sailed to Africa’s west coast, Portugal, and the Mediterranean. While in Portugal in 1832, Commander Belcher completed a task about as delicate as Captain Horatio Hornblower’s negotiations with the fictional dictator Don Julian. Commander Belcher, while sailing the Douro River in Portugal, was to safeguard British interests during the hostilities between Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, and Pedro’s brother, Dom Miguel, who had seized the throne of Portugal. Commander Belcher negotiated with Miguel’s forces to obtain supplies. In 1833, Pedro, aided by England, France, and Spain, returned the throne of Portugal to his daughter Queen Maria II. The information that Commander Belcher discovered regarding the Douro River and the Gambia River (in Africa) were incorporated into the Admiralty charts. In the Mediterranean, Edward also determined new information about the Skerki Rocks.
Voyage Around the World
In 1836, Edward Belcher was appointed by the Admiralty to the command of the H.M.S. Sulphur and the H.M.S. Starling, which resulted in his voyage around the world. He distinguished himself highly while on this adventure, and consequently, he became famous. Upon the voyage’s successful completion, he was honored with a knighthood, and his published journal of the voyage was praised as being exceedingly interesting. In his two-volume work titled Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, Performed in Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur During the Years 1836-1842, Including Details of the Naval Operations in China, From Dec. 1840 to Nov. 1841 (1843), Edward Belcher described the Sulphur as weighing 380 tons, with a crew of 109 men.
Edward Belcher was surveying the Lancashire coast when he received news of his appointment, and after a journey interrupted by a hurricane, an encounter with hostile forces at Carthagena, a visit to Governor La Barriere, and a canoe ride and a wearisome trek overland across the Isthmus of Panama, Edward finally arrived at Panama, where he was to take command of the Sulphur. (Incidentally, the fictional Captain Horatio Hornblower once endured a harrowing ride on a canal boat in order to reach and take command of one of his ships.)
After reaching Libertad, Belcher’s expedition sailed for the Sandwich Islands (the Hawaiian Islands). Along the way, tropic birds, medusae, and other marine organisms were observed. A thorough scientist, Edward meticulously recorded the animals and plants sighted, along with their scientific names.
Upon the Sulphur’s arrival at Hawaii in 1837, Captain Edward Belcher met the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha III. Since he previously had visited the region while on the voyage of the Blossom, Edward knew some of the Pacific island residents and was sincerely interested in understanding their culture. He did the same in the other regions of the world which he visited, such as Malaysia, where he arranged treaties with several Sultans; and Japan, to which he later journeyed while commanding the H.M.S. Samarang, and where he was so liked by the Japanese that they invited him to visit their homes and families if he ever returned. (Previous to Edward’s visit, the Japanese typically had forbidden foreign visitors from returning.) In later years, General Douglas MacArthur, also of Belcher heritage, was viewed with similar esteem by the Japanese.
Unlike some other naval officers of that time, Edward Belcher did not consider the Pacific island people to be savages; instead, he treated them as fellow human beings, allowed them to view the ship and his own cabin, and was in favor of letting them live in peace. Views as compassionate as his are rare treasures.
After visiting Hawaii, the ships turned northward toward the Alaskan coast. In August 1837, the Sulphur reached Prince William Sound, Alaska. Off the coast of Alaska, Captain Belcher’s expedition was visited by a party of Russians who invited him to see their settlement and the houses of the Imperial Russian Fur Company, which Edward Belcher described in detail in his narrative of the voyage. Also in Alaska, Edward discovered an uncharted river and was fascinated by a ridge of ice pyramids. In September, Captain Belcher determined the location of Mount St. Elias, revised the longitudes delineated by Vancouver, and observed the famed aurora borealis (the northern lights, created by the charged particles of the solar wind striking the earth’s magnetic field.) The rest of the journey was punctuated by further astronomical and meteorological observations.
The expedition then proceeded to Sitka, Alaska, where they were warmly received by the Russian governor, Captain Koupreanoff, who cooperated with Edward Belcher in the latter’s search for an observatory site. The Sulphur was the first foreign warship to visit the Alaskan capital, and Edward’s chronicles of his experiences at Sitka, written at a time when Alaska belonged to Russia, are extremely valuable historically. His account of a couple of other Russian stations is one of the few still in existence.
In this polar region — Alaska and the Arctic Ocean — Edward Belcher’s expertise as a commander shone forth, and it is fitting that several geographical features were named for him, including Belcher Point, named by Captain Beechey when he and Edward Belcher surveyed the region in the Blossom, and located on northwestern Alaska’s Arctic coast (at 70 degrees, 47.7 minutes North, 159 degrees, 39 minutes West) between Wainwright and Point Franklin. There is a Belcher Channel in the Canadian Arctic.
After leaving Sitka, the Belcher expedition visited Nootka Sound at Vancouver Island. Then the Sulphur and the Starling sailed toward San Francisco, and Edward Belcher conducted important surveys of the California coast. In October 1837, in what proved to be one of the greatest feats of his career, he and his crew were the first to explore the navigable extent of the Sacramento River, traveling the river in boats for a distance of 156 miles — an incredible thirty-one days of fortitude and discovery. In his published narrative of his voyage, Edward described masses of beautiful wild grape vines hanging down from the trees to the river. The Starling, a schooner of 109 tons, accompanied the expedition up the Sacramento River for the first two days and thirty-six miles. After that point, Captain Belcher and his men continued up the river in other boats. The adventure was a tribute to the hardiness of Edward and his crew.
In his narrative, Captain Edward Belcher observed that San Francisco, the Sacramento River, and surrounding environs, possessed tremendous potential for development by future American pioneers and entrepreneurs. At the time of Edward’s exploration in 1837, few people lived in this area. Just a few years later, in 1848, gold was discovered near San Francisco, which brought a flood of new settlers and prospectors. Edward Belcher’s observation proved to be prophetic, as 1849 saw a gold rush and an influx of "Forty-Niners" in search of gold.
In 1838, the Sulphur visited numerous other places, including Acapulco (Mexico), Chinandega (Nicaragua) and Realejo. In Nicaragua, Edward Belcher fixed the limits of the Lake of Managua. His scientific curiosity led him to examine several volcanoes, including the Volcano de Viejo, whose slopes Edward ascended on horseback. After sleeping on stony ground at the foot of the volcano, Captain Belcher took a few men and climbed through the lava rock towards the volcano’s peak, all the while making measurements of the mountain’s elevation, climate zone characteristics, and temperature readings, until they finally reached the volcano’s three craters. Edward observed the volcano’s hot vapors, and noted the soil temperature near the upper hot spring as about 196 degrees.
After determining the position of Salinas Island and ordering a survey of the bay of Salinas, the Belcher expedition headed towards South America. During the Sulphur’s voyage, soundings (measurements of water depth by means of a lead line) were taken, along with water temperature readings. In the summer of 1838, Captain Edward Belcher explored the coast around Lima, Peru. Edward also spent an exciting time at Guayaquil and Puna, in Ecuador, South America, where he captured a twelve foot alligator by lassoing it with the boat’s lead line. Edward Belcher, certainly adventurous, additionally possessed strategic insight. While exploring the terrain of Central America, he recorded in his journal a proposal for a canal that would connect the Atlantic with the Pacific.
After revisiting Hawaii in the summer of 1839, the Belcher expedition then sailed for a second pass along the Pacific coast of North America. In July, the Sulphur reached Kodiak, Alaska, and then sailed for Sitka. After visiting Sitka, the Sulphur sailed for the mouth of the Columbia River, which the expedition then navigated. Captain Belcher visited the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver (near present-day Portland, Oregon). After several stops along the California coast, the Belcher expedition reached San Diego, California in October. Off the coast of Baja California, Edward investigated a body of water that he called the Gulf of Magdalena (Magdalena Bay).
In the spring of 1840, Belcher’s expedition reached Tahiti (an island popularized by the novel Mutiny on the Bounty). There Captain Belcher visited Queen Pomare. After visiting numerous South Pacific islands, the expedition arrived at Singapore in October 1840.
Captain Sir Edward Belcher, Naval Hero
Upon arriving at Singapore, Captain Edward Belcher was plunged immediately into war operations upon receiving orders from the Admiralty to join the British fleet fighting in the Chinese conflict. As part of the naval force in the Canton River, Captain Belcher played an outstanding and active part in the acquisition of Hong Kong, the storming and cannonading of the forts of Boca Tigris, and the capture of Canton, China.
During the Chinese conflict, Captain Edward Belcher’s spirited accomplishments were indeed remarkable. On January 7, 1841, he was involved in military operations against the forts at Chuenpee, and he received orders to shell the enemy and their war junks (Chinese ships), providing cover as the British troops landed. Edward Belcher valiantly succeeded in defeating eleven war junks, including the Chinese admiral’s vessel, thus nearly annihilating the Chinese fleet. The bombardment was a great success, and Captain Belcher was highly praised by his peers and commanding officers for his gallantry and brilliant exploits.
On January 26, 1841, Edward Belcher and his men were the first of the British fleet to land on and take possession of Hong Kong for the British Crown. Edward also made a survey of Hong Kong. In February 1841, the British squadron advanced to the forts at Wangtong. Edward Belcher participated in the bombardment of the Wangtong batteries. Following orders to assist the landing of the British troops at Wangtong, Edward landed with the troops and gained possession of a pass leading to one of the batteries. At the end of February, Edward assisted in the capture and destruction of First Bar Fort, where the British blew up the magazine and spiked the guns. At the same time, a Chinese ship was blown up, resulting in a 300-foot mushroom-shaped flame.
On March 2, 1841, the Sulphur, accompanied by some boats from the Wellesley, overwhelmed a Chinese masked battery of thirty-five guns. The Sulphur was the leading ship in the siege made on the well-protected, granite, Chinese forts of Howqua’s Folly and Napier’s Fort, of which Edward Belcher took possession. At Howqua’s Folly, Edward bravely entered the fort through an opening for one of the fort’s cannons. The Chinese fled, and Edward hoisted the British flag. Similarly, at Napier’s Fort, Edward invaded the fort through a gate out of which projected a huge cannon. Edward took possession of the fort and chopped out a gap in a wooden bridge nearby so that the British ships could pass through. Throughout the battles, Edward Belcher displayed a most admirable valor which earned him the thanks of Commodore Sir J. Gordon Bremer. Edward was also accompanied during the siege of Howqua’s Folly by Major-General Sir Hugh Gough (1779-1869), the commander-in-chief of the British troops during the Chinese conflict.
On March 13, Edward captured a Chinese fast boat (war galley) near Macao Fort. Afterwards, he surveyed a channel near Dane’s and French Islands which had never been navigated by ships before. Edward took command of a division of boats and navigated through this channel, Fatee Creek. Edward’s boats raced towards Canton, China, chasing a Chinese fast boat. Edward and his men then captured Shameen Fort and Rouge Fort, where Edward’s men destroyed the guns. Proceeding to below Dutch Folly, Edward and his men destroyed all the guns of a masked sand battery, and captured fourteen Chinese fast boats.
On May 6, 1841, Edward Belcher was rewarded with a post-commission to the rank of captain. One of the British fleet commanders, Sir Humphrey Senhouse, entrusted to Edward Belcher the charge of an intricate and difficult mission — to advance ahead of the fleet and navigate a course up the Canton River. Here, in the task of negotiating the river for the fleet, Edward Belcher’s surveying experience proved most valuable, and he boldly and diligently investigated inlets and potential locations for ambush — any place that might prove hazardous for the ships that were to follow. His navigation of the winding river, which included important soundings, was heralded in England as a daring and skillful feat.
Prior to the land force’s attack on Canton, in late May 1841 Edward Belcher made plans for a reconnaissance mission. Part of his difficult task was to gather enough boats to hold two thousand troops for a landing party and to investigate whether such a landing was feasible. During the execution of the reconnaissance, Captain Belcher encountered two flotillas of fast boats, and captured twenty-eight vessels, including fifteen fast boats and five war junks. At Tsingpoo, Captain Belcher’s men destroyed the enemy battery, and cast its guns into the sea. (Similarly, the fictional Captain Horatio Hornblower stormed several French batteries, including one where a landing party from his ship Sutherland dismantled the battery and threw the guns over the cliff.)
Continuing his reconnaissance, Edward Belcher ascended the masthead of a burning Chinese junk and spotted the enemy camp. Edward then descended the mast, but before he had moved one hundred yards from the junk, it exploded and sank. At the creek above Fatee, he captured three more boats, including a salt vessel large enough to transport an entire regiment, which Captain Belcher’s men promptly renamed "Noah’s Ark." Captain Belcher then returned to report to Sir Humphrey aboard the Blenheim, who was elated with the mission’s success.
Following his report to Sir Humphrey, Captain Belcher assisted in the loading of the troops into the boats. He then moved the Sulphur to the temple of Tsingpoo, where his men cleared out the temples for the troops to occupy. Sir Humphrey and the troops then arrived, and moved to the location where Edward had spotted the enemy camp. Finding that the enemy had retreated, Edward, Sir Humphrey, the General, the other officers, and the troops, advanced with artillery. The Chinese fired rockets at them. Escorting Captain Elliot, the plenipotentiary (British ambassador), Edward Belcher bravely faced the sizeable battery of guns at the walls of Canton, China, and successfully conveyed Elliot to Hill Fort.
Using two of the Chinese’s six-pound guns, Edward shelled an enemy battery directly in front of him that was firing on the British. As the British made ready to invade Canton, the Chinese waved flags of truce, and Edward was among those sent to talk with the enemy. Meanwhile, a truce between the British and the Chinese was agreed to by Captain Elliot, the plenipotentiary, without the knowledge of Sir Humphrey Senhouse or Captain Belcher. Sir Humphrey disagreed with the conditions of the truce. Captain Elliot was later replaced as plenipotentiary by Sir Henry Pottinger.
During the course of the military operations, Captain Edward Belcher had been wounded in the leg. During his recovery from the injury, Edward discovered that his friend and commander, Sir Humphrey Senhouse, had died shortly after the truce was made. Sir Humphrey was an officer whom Captain Belcher admired, and it has been said that Edward’s ventures promoted Sir Humphrey’s success and the success of Sir Hugh Gough, who likewise thanked Captain Belcher for his gallantry. The esteemed Captain Belcher was made a Companion of the most Honorable Order of the Bath (one of the oldest orders of English knighthood) on October 14, 1841, and he concluded his voyage around the world in the H.M.S. Sulphur by returning to England in July 1842. He was honored with a knighthood on January 21, 1843. He was now Captain Sir Edward Belcher, R.N., Kt., C.B. (Royal Navy, Knight, Companion of the Bath). (On March 13, 1867 he was made K.C.B. — a Knight Commander of the Bath — and thus he actually possessed two knighthoods, both of which entitled him to use "Sir" before his name.)
Voyage of the H.M.S. Samarang
After completing a secret mission to explore the Channel Islands (in the English Channel between England and France) for the British government, Captain Sir Edward Belcher was appointed to the command of the H.M.S. Samarang in 1842 for a five-year survey of Japan and Southeast Asia. In 1844, Captain Belcher was seriously wounded while successfully defeating the Illanon pirates at Gilolo Island. At Labuan in Malaysia, Captain Belcher named the harbor "Port Victoria" in honor of the Queen of England.
Captain Belcher made friendships with a number of the Malayan inhabitants of Borneo. He made a treaty of friendship between Great Britain and the Sultan of Gunung Taboor; he became good friends with the chief of the Sagai tribe.
The Samarang proceeded to explore many other regions, including the Korean Islands, Japan, and the Philippines. Captain Sir Edward Belcher published his adventures in the two-volume Narrative of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Samarang (1848).
In 1850, Sir Edward Belcher served as an agent for the Universal Emigration and Colonization Company of England, which planned to establish a colony of English settlers in Texas. Over 100 English colonists traveled in the ship John Garrow, which sailed from Liverpool, England in September 1850. They arrived at Galveston, Texas in October 1850, where they were met by Sir Edward Belcher. Leaving the colonists at Cameron, Texas, Sir Edward went ahead of them and selected a site for the colony’s settlement. The site Sir Edward selected was a beautiful and fertile tract of 27,000 acres, which, as British agent for the Universal Emigration and Colonization Company, he purchased from an agent acting on behalf of Richard B. Kimball of Wall Street, New York City. Located in present-day Bosque County, Texas, about fifty miles from Waco, this colorful and majestic land had thirty miles of frontage along the Brazos River. Located within the tract was the horseshoe-shaped Kimball’s bend with its fertile alluvial soil, excellent for farming.
Sir Edward supervised the surveying of the colony site by surveyors George B. Erath and Neil McLennan. (There is now an Erath County, Texas, named for George B. Erath. The present-day McLennan County, Texas was named for Neil McClennan.) Sir Edward stayed until the colonists were well settled on the Kimball tract. Then, having completed his assignment of site selection for the colony, Sir Edward left the colony in the charge of its administrator and returned to England sometime during the winter of 1850-1851. He was subsequently placed in command of an expedition to the Canadian Arctic.
After Captain Sir Edward Belcher returned to England, in 1852 he was placed in command of five vessels, aptly named the Pioneer, the Resolute, the Assistance, the Intrepid, and the North Star, for the performance of an Arctic expedition, the account of which Sir Edward related in his two-volume work, The Last of the Arctic Voyages (1855). To him was given the nearly impossible mission of searching for the missing ships commanded by Sir John Franklin (1786-1847), who had sailed to the Canadian Arctic in 1845 in an attempt to find the Northwest Passage and had never returned. Numerous expeditions were sent to look for Franklin over the next two decades, but few definitive traces of his fate were found until the discovery of records from his expedition revealed that he and his crew had perished after their ships had become icebound in 1846.
Sir Edward Belcher’s expedition sailed from England in the spring of 1852 and spent the next two years scouring the Arctic for traces of Sir John Franklin and his men. Belcher’s expedition made exhaustive searches to the north, east, and west, but no evidence revealing the location of the lost Franklin expedition were found in these areas. This, coupled with other intelligence he gathered, led Sir Edward to the conclusion that Sir John Franklin’s fate would be found in the southern parts of the Arctic. Sir Edward proved correct in this assessment, and proof of the Franklin expedition’s unfortunate deaths to the south was later discovered by another expedition.
In addition to helping determine the whereabouts of Sir John Franklin and his men, Sir Edward Belcher’s expedition made significant discoveries with regard to Canadian Arctic geography, wildlife, and climatology. Numerous Arctic geographical locations were explored and named by the Belcher expedition. Among these were Barrow Bay, Northumberland Sound, Exmouth Island, North Cornwall, Princess Royal Island, North Kent Island, Prince Edward’s Cape, Prince Albert’s Island, Buckingham Island, Victoria Archipelago, and Cape Disraeli. Belcher Channel (located below Cornwall Island) was named for Sir Edward Belcher, as were the Belcher Islands (a group of large islands in the southern part of Hudson Bay). There is a "Belcher Point" situated on Devon Island in the Canadian Arctic.
With regards to the climate and wildlife of the Arctic, Sir Edward made important observations. He performed scientific experiments on the freezing of liquids, the depth of the ice, and the effects of the extreme cold on instruments such as thermometers. He also studied the formation, characteristics, and patterns of the Arctic ice floes (frozen sheets of ice, sometimes acres wide, and typically several feet in thickness). His analysis of the temperatures, barometric pressures, winds, and weather patterns of the Arctic was extensive. His meteorological surveys revealed a climate where temperatures could dip lower than fifty degrees below zero, and where winters averaged twenty to thirty degrees below zero.
In addition to being a natural leader and having a brilliant scientific mind, Sir Edward Belcher was a kind, compassionate man deeply interested in the welfare of his crew and others. He designed significant improvements for his ship which rendered it much warmer, drier, and more comfortable for the crewmen. His efforts to improve the ship included measures to reduce the condensation of water vapor caused by cold air entering the interior of the ship. Prior to his improvements, water vapor condensed inside the ship rendering it damp and moist, which was unhealthy for the men. Sir Edward remedied this problem, as well as the problem of poor air circulation. By using the ship’s pumps to circulate air, the problem of stagnant air was solved. He also devised methods of insulating the ship from the cold Arctic air, resulting in a warmer, more comfortable, and healthier environment for the sailors. Sir Edward preserved this knowledge in his narrative of his Arctic voyage, and also suggested an improved design for building Arctic vessels.
Sir Edward and his crew got along well, and he frequently praised them and considered them to be among the finest sailors in the navy. His crew expressed their respect, admiration, and loyalty to him repeatedly, and presented him with entertainments such as plays and a musical concert. In return, Sir Edward conducted recreations such as his "Loyal Circle of Arctic Engineers" which met to discuss matters of naval and scientific interest. He also proposed topics (sometimes humorous) for the crewmen to research, and awarded them medals for jobs well done. Evening schools, where the crew were taught reading, writing, and arithmetic, were also implemented.
On Christmas Day, 1852, the men from Sir Edward’s expedition pleasantly awoke Edward with music and a Christmas song. They then wished him a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. At noon, the festivities aboard Sir Edward’s ship began, and the crew let out a loud cheer as Sir Edward told them what a good job they had done and raised his glass to toast the Queen of England. Roast beef, plum pudding, mince pies, and frosted cakes added to the Christmas good cheer. The officers and crew thoroughly enjoyed their first Christmas in the Arctic, warm feelings felt among all.
Sir Edward Belcher was a wise, generous, and merciful man. Upon learning that many families in Greenland were dying from starvation, Sir Edward donated provisions for their relief. He believed that the Eskimos living in the Arctic regions were both highly intelligent and resourceful. He was particularly impressed by the Eskimos’ skillful construction of their dwellings, which he found conducive to healthy living conditions. His wisdom led him to advise his men against the overuse of alcoholic beverages, advice which he himself followed. Throughout the expedition, Sir Edward expressed his faith that God would protect him and his men. He led the men in prayers and religious services.
Ice floes, which could batter a ship to pieces, were one of the big dangers of Arctic voyages. It was unlikely that a ship could withstand being "nipped" or hit by such a floating mass of ice. According to Sir Edward Belcher’s calculations, the floating weight of a floe measuring merely 300 square yards would be 63,080 tons; and one floe witnessed by Belcher extended as far as the eye could see. It was doubtful that any ship could withstand such pressure exerted against it.
In fact, many vessels were lost due to the treacherous and unpredictable Arctic ice. In 1852, Sir Edward Belcher found the wreck of the Regalia, which had been sheared completely through by the ice. In the same year, the ship M’Clellan was crunched by the ice and sank. In 1853, a similar fate occurred when the Breadalbane transport ship was lost to the ice’s treachery and sank in only fifteen minutes. Sir Edward’s own ships were in danger of being caught in the clutches of the ice many times, but escaped through Sir Edward’s skillful navigation.
The ice could create tragic results. In one incident, a lieutenant named Bellot (from Captain Inglefield’s expedition) fell through a crack in the ice and drowned. Certain death likewise threatened members of another expedition under Commander M’Clure in the Investigator, but just in time, M’Clure and his icebound crew were rescued by members of the Belcher expedition, and the Investigator was abandoned.
The winter of 1853-1854 was unusually severe. The temperature dropped at one point to fifty-nine degrees below zero, and averaged thirty degrees below zero for the months of November 1853 through March 1854. Few Arctic explorers prior to Sir Edward Belcher had experienced such a severe winter, and Sir Edward speculated that the temperatures may have been the lowest ever recorded by human beings. However, thanks to Sir Edward’s improvements to the ship, his men were comfortable throughout this harsh winter, with the temperatures inside the ship infinitely more hospitable than the frigid outside air. Between the Christmas and New Year’s holidays, the crew cheerfully sang songs. New Year’s Day, 1854, found the men aboard Sir Edward Belcher’s ships in good humor and of good cheer.
Long expeditions into the harsh Arctic climate, however, were not without their penalties. The frigid winters, and resulting accumulation of ice, required a ship to fasten down for "winter harbor." Thus, the crews had to deal with long periods of confinement and inactivity (traveling was usually impractical in the winter). Furthermore, the sun is not visible during the dark Arctic winters. Because game was scarce in some areas, a crew might have to survive mainly on preserved food. Even if hunting was successful, it might yield only walrus, which some found distasteful. The resulting lack of adequate nutrients could lead to the disease known as scurvy.
By 1854, several of the men in the Belcher expedition were becoming ill. Sir Edward Belcher cared very deeply for his men, and thus he knew it would be very difficult for them to last another year in the Arctic. To the equal concern of Sir Edward, several of the Investigator’s crew (which had been rescued by Belcher’s men in 1853) also were sick. Sir Edward was concerned about their welfare and was determined to get them safely home to England as soon as possible. In his own words, Sir Edward valued even one human life far greater than the value of material objects like ships.
As matters stood in early 1854, Sir Edward Belcher knew the following facts: first, that his mission to search for Sir John Franklin had been completed — all the areas he was ordered to search had been searched; second, that the missing men of the Investigator had been rescued; third, that his instructions from the Admiralty anticipated his return in 1854; and finally, that his crew (which had been in the Arctic for two years) needed to be taken back to England for their own health and safety. Added to this was the fact that fuel and food were running low, and might not last another year.
Sir Edward therefore made the intelligent and compassionate (for his crew’s sake) decision to return to England in 1854 — a decision which the Admiralty agreed with. The terrible winter of 1853-1854 had left four of the Belcher expedition’s ships locked in the ice. Aided by blasting and a battering ram, Sir Edward was successful in extricating two of them, but they were barred from further progress by an ice pack. Reluctantly, and with sadness in his heart for their loss, Sir Edward ordered his ships to be abandoned in accordance with the Admiralty’s instructions.
Luckily for the loyal crew who served under him, Sir Edward Belcher had the foresight to know that it would be senseless to try to stay with the ships. First, his orders from the Admiralty required the whole expedition to be withdrawn. Second, it was unclear if the ships could ever be extricated from the ice. Third, the ships quickly could be crunched by the ice in a matter of minutes, like the Breadalbane, allowing little time to rescue any crew members. Finally, and most importantly, he had sick men who needed to be taken back to England and it would be risking all of the crew’s lives to try to save the ships.
The Admiralty had placed in Sir Edward Belcher’s hands the safety of the entire expedition, and he, above all, was compassionate enough to fulfill that order to save human life. Sir Edward once said that he valued even one human life far greater than the value of material objects like ships. Unlike so many vainglorious explorers who risk all, including the lives of their crew, in a pursuit of glory, Sir Edward sought only mercy and justice. For that decision, he deserves the highest praise.
In the summer of 1854, the expedition thus departed for England in the North Star, in accordance with the Admiralty’s instructions. Soon after they departed, they encountered the Phoenix and the Talbot, two supply ships which helped to transport the expedition back to England. The crew of the Belcher expedition (along with Investigator’s rescued men) safely arrived in England in September 1854. The Belcher expedition had successfully completed its mission. The expedition had exhaustively searched the areas it was ordered to search for Sir John Franklin and his men. Belcher’s expedition helped determine that Sir John Franklin’s fate would likely be found to the south, thus answering many questions about Franklin’s whereabouts. Furthermore, the Belcher expedition explored thousands of miles of Arctic landscape and made many contributions to Arctic geography and meteorology.
Having demonstrated himself as an intelligent, compassionate, and capable Arctic explorer, Sir Edward Belcher additionally helped to achieve a great goal which navigators had been trying to complete ever since the 1400's. Since the voyages of John Cabot, many explorers had dreamed of finding the fabled Northwest Passage. Then, in 1853, a party from one of the ships under Sir Edward Belcher’s command, while in the process of rescuing the Investigator’s crewmen (part of the expedition commanded by Captain Richard Collinson), completed the proof of the existence of the Northwest Passage. The Investigator already had passed through the western part of the Northwest Passage, but had become entrapped in a frozen bay and could go no farther; men from Sir Edward Belcher’s expedition, sent to rescue the Investigator’s crew, came from the east and completed the Passage’s eastern link. To Sir Edward’s expedition should go the credit and praise of rescuing the Investigator’s men from certain death from starvation in the ice that entrapped their ship.
Thus, the credit for demonstrating the existence of the Northwest Passage should jointly be shared by the commanders of the respective expeditions, Belcher and Collinson. The Northwest Passage was now known to be not merely conjecture, but a tangible passage, and Sir Edward Belcher’s expedition played a great role in establishing its reality.
Admiral Belcher, Knight
On March 13, 1867, Sir Edward Belcher was made a Knight Commander of the Bath (K.C.B.), and he was promoted to the rank of admiral on October 20, 1872. He died in London, England on March 18, 1877, at the age of seventy-eight. He would be remembered as one of his country’s greatest explorers. Admiral Sir Edward Belcher was one of those commanders about whom, as in the case of General Douglas MacArthur, no one could be neutral; his qualities were so intelligent, compassionate, and sterling, that they sometimes inspired jealousy. The adventurer Marco Polo traveled to places far distant from his homeland; Admiral Belcher, too, voyaged all around the world. From lands of swamps, mosquitos, and sweltering heat to lands of ice, tundra, and biting cold, enduring numerous hardships such as Arctic ice and monsoons on the Indian Ocean, the ships under the command of Sir Edward Belcher sailed on and on. And as they sailed, a bird now called the Belcher Gull glided through the sky near the shores of South America, encouraging us to soar, like him, ever onward.
Chronology of the Life of Admiral Sir Edward Belcher
1799: Edward Belcher is born on February 27 at Halifax, Nova Scotia. He is the son of Andrew Belcher (1763-1841) and Marianne (von Geyer) Belcher.
1812: On April 9, Edward enlists as a first class volunteer in the British Royal Navy at the age of thirteen. He serves on board the Abercromby. In December 2, Edward becomes a midshipman.
1814: In February, Edward serves on board the Salvador del Mundo at Plymouth. In the same year, Edward is assigned to the flagship Bellerophon sailing off the coast of Newfoundland.
1815: In January, Edward serves on board the Malta.
1816: Midshipman Edward Belcher of the H.M.S. Superb takes part in the Battle of Algiers.
1818: Edward is promoted to the rank of lieutenant. Prior to this he was assigned to the Sybille and Salisbury at Jamaica.
1819: Edward serves on board the Myrmidon.
1821: Edward serves on board the Salisbury at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
1825: Lieutenant Edward Belcher sails with Captain Frederick William Beechey in the H.M.S. Blossom on a four-year historic exploration of the Pacific and Alaskan coasts. Edward is Assistant Surveyor for the expedition. In December, the Beechey expedition visits Pitcairn Island in the South Pacific, the home of the surviving mutineer and descendants of those who participated in the famous mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.
1827: During the Beechey expedition’s second attempt to link up with Sir John Franklin’s expedition, in August, Lieutenant Edward Belcher commands a decked boat from the Blossom, and beginning from Kotzebue Sound, Alaska, explores 300-400 miles of Alaska’s coast between Chamisso Island to beyond Icy Cape.
1829: Edward is promoted to the rank of Commander on March 16, while he is on the flagship Southampton in the East Indies.
1830: On September 11, Edward Belcher marries Diana Jolliffe.
From 1830 to 1833, Edward Belcher commands the Aetna, which sails to Africa’s west coast, Portugal, and the Mediterranean.
1832: While sailing the Douro River in Portugal, Edward safeguards British interests during the hostilities between Dom Pedro, Emperor of Brazil, and Pedro’s brother, Dom Miguel, who has seized the throne of Portugal. Edward negotiates with Miguel’s forces to obtain supplies.
1835: Edward Belcher publishes A Treatise on Nautical Surveying.
1836: Edward Belcher is appointed by the Admiralty to the command of the H.M.S. Sulphur and the H.M.S. Starling, which results in a voyage around the world that lasts until 1842.
1837: After the Sulphur arrives at Hawaii, Captain Edward Belcher meets the Hawaiian king, Kamehameha III. In August, the Sulphur reaches Prince William Sound, Alaska, where a party of Russians invites Edward to see their settlement and the houses of the Imperial Russian Fur Company. (At this time period, Alaska belongs to Russia.)
1837: In September, Edward determines the location of Mount St. Elias, and revises the longitudes delineated by Vancouver. The Sulphur then sails for Sitka, Alaska, where Edward is warmly received by the Russian governor, Captain Koupreanoff. The Sulphur is the first foreign warship to visit the Alaskan capital. In October, the Sulphur visits Nootka Sound (at Vancouver Island). After this, the Sulphur sails south to California, where Edward and his crew become the first to explore the navigable extent of the Sacramento River in California.
1838: In January, Edward’s expedition reaches Acapulco, Mexico. In February, Edward examines the Volcano de Viejo in Nicaragua, whose slopes he ascends on horseback. He also visits Chinandega (Nicaragua), Realejo, and fixes the limits of the Lake of Managua (Nicaragua). Edward then determines the position of Salinas Island and orders a survey of the bay of Salinas.In October, Edward’s expedition explores Guayaquil and Puna, in Ecuador, South America. The expedition then returns to Panama. In December, Edward devises a plan for a canal in Central America that would connect the Atlantic with the Pacific.
1839: Belcher’s expedition stops at Hawaii in June; Edward visits the Hawaiian king. The expedition then sails for a second pass along the Pacific coast of North America. In July, the Sulphur reaches Kodiak, Alaska, and then sails for Sitka, Alaska. After visiting Sitka, the Sulphur sails for the mouth of the Columbia River. The expedition then navigates the Columbia River, and visits the Hudson’s Bay Company at Fort Vancouver (near present-day Portland, Oregon). In October, after several stops along the California coast, the Sulphur reaches San Diego, California. In November, off the coast of Baja California, Edward investigates a body of water that he calls the Gulf of Magdalena (Magdalena Bay).
1840: In the spring, Captain Edward Belcher’s expedition visits Tahiti (an island popularized by the novel Mutiny on the Bounty), where he visits Queen Pomare. After visiting numerous South Pacific islands, Belcher’s expedition arrives at Singapore in October. Upon his arrival at Singapore, Captain Edward Belcher receives orders to join the British fleet fighting in the Chinese conflict.
1841: During the Chinese conflict, Captain Belcher plays an outstanding and active part in the acquisition of Hong Kong, the storming and cannonading of enemy forts, and the capture of Canton, China. On January 26, Edward Belcher and his men are the first of the British fleet to land on and take possession of Hong Kong for the British Crown. On March 2, the Sulphur, accompanied by some boats from the Wellesley, overwhelms a Chinese masked battery of thirty-five guns. In May, Edward advances ahead of the fleet and navigates a course up the Canton River, investigating any places that might prove hazardous for ships that follow. On May 6, Edward Belcher is rewarded with a post-commission to the rank of captain. Later in May, Captain Belcher executes a reconnaissance mission, during which he captures many enemy boats.On October 14, the esteemed Captain Belcher is made a Companion of the most Honorable Order of the Bath (one of the oldest orders of English knighthood).
1842: In July, Captain Edward Belcher returns to England, concluding his voyage around the world. Captain Edward Belcher is appointed to the command of the H.M.S. Samarang for a five-year survey of Japan and Southeast Asia.
1843: On January 21, Edward is honored with a knighthood.
Edward publishes his two-volume Narrative of a Voyage Round the World, Performed in Her Majesty’s Ship Sulphur During the Years 1836-1842, Including Details of the Naval Operations in China, From Dec. 1840 to Nov. 1841.
Edward commences his expedition in the Samarang
1844: Edward is seriously wounded while successfully defeating the Illanon pirates at Gilolo Island.
1845: In January, Edward makes a treaty of friendship between Great Britain and the Sultan of Gunung Taboor.
The Belcher expedition visits Japan.
1847: In January, the Samarang arrives at Chatham, England. This marks the end of the Samarang adventure.
1848: Sir Edward Belcher publishes his two-volume Narrative of the Voyage of the H.M.S. Samarang.
1850: Sir Edward Belcher, as agent for the Universal Emigration and Colonization Company of England, buys 27,000 acres of land at Kimball’s bend on the Brazos River, Texas, for the establishment of a colony of English settlers. Having completed his assignment of site selection for the colony, and leaving the colony in the charge of its administrator, Sir Edward then returns to England.
1852: Captain Sir Edward Belcher is placed in command of five vessels, named the Pioneer, the Resolute, the Assistance, the Intrepid, and the North Star, for the performance of an Arctic search for the missing Sir John Franklin expedition. The Belcher expedition sails from England in the spring, and spends the next two years scouring the Arctic for traces of Sir John Franklin and his men.
1853: The ice-bound crew of the Investigator from the Collinson expedition are rescued by members of the Belcher expedition. This meeting between these two expeditions completes the proof of the existence of the Northwest Passage.
1854: The Belcher expedition returns to England pursuant to the Admiralty’s instructions. The expedition has made significant discoveries with regard to Canadian Arctic geography, wildlife, and climatology, and has helped determine the whereabouts of the Franklin expedition.
1855: Captain Sir Edward Belcher publishes his two-volume work, The Last of the Arctic Voyages.
1856: Sir Edward publishes a three-volume novel, Horatio Howard Brenton.
1861: Sir Edward’s essay "Remarks on the Glacial Movements noticed in the vicinity of Mount St. Elias, on the north-west coast of America" is published.
1867: On March 13, Sir Edward Belcher is made a Knight Commander of the Bath (K.C.B.).
Sir Edward edits Smyth’s Naval Word Book.
1870: Lady Diana Belcher publishes Mutineers of the Bounty, a book about the famous mutiny on the H.M.S. Bounty.
1872: Sir Edward Belcher is promoted to the rank of admiral on October 20.
1877: Admiral Sir Edward Belcher, R.N., K.C.B., dies in London, England on March 18, at the age of seventy-eight.
Genealogy of Admiral Sir Edward Belcher
William Belcher (d. 1580)
of Guilsborough, Northamptonshire, England
of Kingswood, Wiltshire, England
Thomas Belcher (d. 1618)
of London, England
Andrew Belcher (d. 1673)
of Sudbury and Cambridge, Massachusetts
Captain Andrew Belcher, Jr. (1648-1717)
of Cambridge, Massachusetts
Governor Jonathan Belcher (1682-1757)
Governor of Massachusetts, N. Hampshire, N. Jersey; Founder of Princeton Univ.
Jonathan Belcher, Jr. (1710-1776)
First Chief Justice of Nova Scotia, Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia
Andrew Belcher (1763-1841)
Member of Nova Scotia Council
Admiral Sir Edward Belcher (1799-1877)
British Royal Navy, Knight Commander of the Bath
For further reading:
The President's Desk and Sir Edward Belcher's Ship Resolute
Governor Jonathan Belcher
Jonathan Belcher, Jr.: Chief of the North
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