Exploring the biographers, Tom Brooking

Frank Worsley: Shackleton’s Fearless Captain
John Thomson
Craig Potton, $50.00
ISBN 9781927213124

Dumont d’Urville: Explorer and Polymath
Edward Duyker
Otago University Press, $70.00
ISBN 9781877578700


Here we have two very different approaches to writing about the history of European exploration: one concentrating on heroism and adventure and the other adopting a more nuanced and academic approach. Both books succeed as excellent examples of almost completely different genres and will appeal to a broad readership, especially to anyone interested in the history of exploration of the Pacific and Antarctica. Both come highly recommended as ideal autumn reading.

After reading a few pages of Frank Worsley: Shackleton’s Fearless Captain, I realised that I had read this book before. The author confirmed that it had first appeared in 1998 as Shackleton’s Captain, but he has added some new research and incorporated his responses to a trip to the frozen continent 10 years ago. Craig Potton has also contributed his high production skills to produce a handsome book enlivened by striking photographs. As a former journalist, Thomson admits that he has remained “a devotee” of “the yarn” and footnotes only get in the way of telling a good story because they distract the reader’s attention. He has a point, because this tale unfolds as true “boy’s own” adventure, in which a tough, practical, Kiwi captain from Akaroa managed, in 1916, to get Shackleton and a small party to safety in Chile, after a miraculous journey in a small, open boat and a frantic scramble across the frozen wastes of South Georgia. Shackleton then returned from Chile to rescue those hardy crew left behind, once his first ship, the Endurance, became entrapped in ice. The book then traces Shackleton’s time in New Zealand, as well as Worsley’s adventures with the Royal Navy in Russia before being demobilised in 1920 and sailing back to South Georgia on the Quest to erect a memorial. Worsley went on to run liquor across the Atlantic, undertook exploration of the Arctic, and engaged in searches for sunken treasure. He undertook work for the Red Cross in Norway before the Nazi invasion during WWII, before becoming an Instructor for the Royal Navy at Hove in Sussex. He died of lung cancer on 1 February 1943.

This book tells an extraordinary story well. As an academic historian myself, I would have liked more context to explain why this Canterbury sailor became an ex-pat and a life-long adventurer, and a few footnotes would have helped. Perhaps Thomson could have also been a little more critical of Worsley’s failure to adjust to civilian life after youthful adventure, but it is an enjoyable yarn that will be savoured by the many people fascinated by tales of daring in the beautiful, elemental continent at the bottom of the world.

D’Urville’s life story is arguably even more extraordinary than Worsley’s, and Duyker tells it expertly. But this book is also a work of major scholarship that fills in large gaps in the existing historiography of French exploration of the Pacific and Antarctica. Because of his expertise in French (helped by the fact that Duyker’s mother came from Mauritius and he grew up bilingual), he has been able to immerse himself in French language sources all around the globe. One would expect the biographer of an important French explorer and polymath (d’Urville was also a competent botanist, zoologist, oceanographer, hydrographer, linguist and ethnographer) to visit libraries in France, Britain, Australia and New Zealand, but Duyker has added research in Denmark, Germany, the United States of America and Latin America. As a result, this book builds on John Dunmore’s important pioneering work on the subject. And special mention must be made of Otago University Press’s superb reproduction of paintings, etchings, photographs and maps that enhance the clearly written text. This is a handsome book befitting its subject.

Duyker builds the narrative expertly so that he captures the extraordinary heroism displayed by d’Urville while counterpointing the adventure with the continual tragedy that punctuated his personal life. Like the wives of most long-range European explorers, d’Urville’s long-suffering Adélie had to cope with long absences, as well as the loss of two children, because d’Urville set off on four major expeditions: one as a midshipman, one as a lieutenant and two as commander. Although he was born into an aristocratic family, d’Urville had to make his own way in the world as his family adjusted to the difficulties of living in post-revolutionary France (he was born in 1790). His family’s adjustment helps explain why d’Urville held relatively liberal views and supported the limited revolution of 1830. He, nevertheless, had a pleasant childhood in Normandy, but had to serve as a working sailor in the French Navy during the Napoleonic Wars. His adventures really began when he joined the Chevrette, commanded by Captain Pierre-Henri Gauttier-Duparc, to carry out hydrological investigations and archaeological diggings in Greece and Turkey in 1819. This expedition is most remembered for purchasing the statue of Venus de Milo for the Louvre in Paris; d’Urville’s efforts won him the Légion d’Honneur and he was promoted to lieutenant.

Soon after, in 1822, d’Urville circumnavigated the globe under the command of Louis Idisdore Duperry, visiting many Pacific Islands, Australia, New Zealand, St Helena and Indonesia along the way. He did not return to France until 1825, when he organised another circumnavigation around the globe under his command on the same corvette, now named the Astrolabe. He hoped to advance geographical knowledge and collect many more botanical and zoological species. Setting off on 25 April 1826, d’Urville completed another circumnavigation to pretty much the same places by 26 March 1829. The voyage was not without incident and d’Urville and his men encountered some resistance from tribes in some Pacific Islands and he lost men to disease. He added details to scientific and geographical knowledge, and helped entrench the idea that the Pacific could be divided into Polynesia, Melanesia and Micronesia, but the voyage had surprisingly little impact, other than winning him promotion to captain.

Soon after his return, he became caught up in politics and played a part in the 1830 revolution by transporting the deposed king – Charles X – to England. He then returned and won the favours of the new king – Louis-Philippe. The King’s blessing, however, did not win him further promotion, so after writing up his journals and a wildly imaginative novel set in New Zealand, he decided on another global expedition involving two ships – the Astrolabe and the Zélée – in 1837.

This time, d’Urville determined that he would visit Antarctica, as well as revisit the islands of the Pacific. This last journey, however, proved much more difficult than his earlier effort. He lost many men to illness, stranded both boats on coral reefs several times, and failed to make landfall on the southern continent, despite two mighty efforts. Eventually he returned, exhausted, to France in late 1840, having failed to persuade French authorities to challenge the British annexation of New Zealand. This extraordinary act of endurance won him promotion to rear admiral, but any pleasure he may have taken from this advancement was shortlived because he, Adélie and their only surviving son, Jules, were all killed in a horrendous railway accident outside Paris on 8 May 1842 that led to the deaths of about 200 people.

This early demise meant that d’Urville’s exploits did not have the impact that they otherwise might. In many ways, his efforts could be compared with James Cook’s, but he crisscrossed the globe much later and holds a more modest place in the pantheon of exploration. Perhaps Duyker could have explained d’Urville’s surprisingly low profile but, no doubt, his superb scholarship and intensive research will help elevate d’Urville’s reputation once more.

Unlike Thomson, Duyker also nuances his hero, pointing out that he could be rude and terse and capable of racist outbursts as well as more liberal expression on the many new cultures he encountered. At times, determination degenerated into obstinacy, and he was too careless of the welfare of his men even if he genuinely felt regret when they died in such large numbers. His treatment of Adélie also seemed harsh given that she suffered from constant bouts of depression.

My only criticisms of Duyker are mild. Perhaps he could have paid a little more attention to the times in which d’Urville lived and the place of scientific exploration in French culture (and how that differed from the British experience). Some academics would probably also like a fuller discussion of what this extraordinary story reveals about the whole European colonial project. And it is surprising that the full bibliography does not include any works by Anne Salmond. But Duyker brings d’Urville to life (surely the key aim of any biography), and the book is a major scholarly achievement.

Overall, the advantages of the academic approach outweigh Thomson’s more journalistic inclinations, especially because other scholars can follow his extensive research journey around the globe (enhanced by the excellent appendix on the contents of d’Urville’s large, personal library). Whatever, between them, these two authors should satisfy most readers interested in European exploration of, and contact with, the Pacific Islands and Antarctica.

Tom Brooking teaches history at the University of Otago and is the author of the recent biography, Richard Seddon: King of God’s Own.

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Posted in Biography, History, Non-fiction, Review
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