Guide to the Papers of Edward Belcher, 1860Stefansson Mss-245

Biography

Sir Edward Belcher (27 February 1799- March 18, 1877) was a British naval officer and explorer. Belcher was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia and entered the Royal Navy in 1812. In 1825 he accomplished Frederick William Beechey's expedition to the Pacific and Bering Strait, as a surveyor. He subsequently commanded a surveying ship on the North and West coasts of Africa and in the British seas, and in 1836 took up the work that Beechey left unfinished on the Pacific coast of South America. This was on board the bomb vessel HMS Sulphur, which was ordered to return to England in 1839 by the Trans-Pacific route. Belcher made various observations at a number of islands that he visited, was delayed by being dispatched to take part in the war in China in 1840-1841, and reached home in 1842.

In 1841 then Commander Belcher landed on Hong Kong Island and made the first British survey of Hong Kong harbor. He is commemorated in Hong Kong through a Belcher Street in Kennedy Town and the Belcher's, a development of gigantic flats.

In 1843 he was knighted, and was now engaged on the HMS Samarang, in surveying work in the East Indies, the Philippines and other places, until 1847.

In 1852 he was given command of the government Arctic expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. This was unsuccessful; Belcher's inability to render himself popular with his subordinates was peculiarly unfortunate in an Arctic voyage, and he was not wholly suited to command vessels among ice. Four of the five ships were abandoned in pack ice, for which Belcher was court-marshaled but acquitted. An American whaler later recovered one of the ships, HMS Resolute, intact.

This was Belcher's last active service, but he became K.C.B. in 1867 and an admiral in 1872.

He published a "Treatise on Nautical Surveying" (1835), "Narrative of a Voyage round the World performed in H.M.S. Sulphur, 1836-1842" (1843), "Narrative of the Voyage of H.M.S. Samarang during 1843-1846" (1848; the Zoology of the Voyage was separately dealt with by some of his colleagues, 1850), and "The Last of the Arctic Voyages" (1855); besides minor works, including a novel, "Horatio Howard Brenton" (1856), a story of the navy.

Little is documented of his work in the years after his court-material. It appears that during the period between 1859 and 1865 he corresponded regularly with John Philippart, who was probably his editor and publisher, as well as Alexander Brymer who was an advisor to Governor Parr of Nova Scotia. He was acquainted with Dr. John Rae who also explored the Arctic Regions with some frequency. In fact their trips to discover the fate of Dr. Franklins expedition overlapped. Dr. John Rae retired from the Hudson's Bay Company in 1856 at the age of 43. But his exploring days were far from over. When the Atlantic telegraph cable failed, a route was suggested through the Faroe Islands, Iceland and Greenland to North America. Rae was called upon to explore the landward side of this route. It is entirely possible that Admiral Sir Edward Belcher accompanied him on that voyage.

Belcher was an accomplished artist, executing his rough sketches and maps with perspective and detail. He is listed in at least two books as an accomplished maritime artist- including the "Artists Blue Book" and John Frazier Henrys-"Early Maritime Artists of the Pacific Northwest Coast 1741-1841". Additionally, reference can be found to Belcher in the "American Art Review" June 1995 edition- "A Noble Tradition" written by Carol Lowrey.

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