CAPTAIN THOMAS ROBERTSON 1855-1918

12 Oct

It is all to easy to forget the ‘other’ man who contributed to the success of the expeditions. On the ‘Scotia’ expedition Captain Robertson was pivotal to its success.

He was one man with whom Bruce never fell out; Bruce admired the Captain’s superb ice navigation skills and his ‘miraculous’ ability to anticipate and avoid the numerous potential emergencies that ‘Scotia’ encountered on her exploration to the South in 1903.
Thomas Robertson was born in Peterhead in 1855. His father and both his grandfathers were whaling captains, and from childhood he had a close association with the sea. His apprenticeship was served on a Peterhead merchant vessel trading with Australia and China but, on his return to England he decided to join the whaling and sealing industry. In this work he went to the Arctic, first as Mate on the ‘Jan Mayen’ of Dundee and then, at the age of twenty-four, as Master of the ‘Polar Star’, in which role he made voyages to the seal and fishery grounds off East Greenland and the Davis Straits. These voyages gave valuable experience; the ships were sail driven – this was before steam was in general use on whaling ships- and the knowledge he gained in handling these sailing vessels through the iceberg- laden north, was an invaluable asset when later he commanded ships with steam auxiliary power.

Bruce first encountered Robertson on the Dundee Whaling Expedition to the Antarctic of 1892-1893 when he (Bruce), sailed as Surgeon/Naturalist on ‘Balaena’, one of the five whalers going South in search of Right Whales. Robertson was Captain of one of the smaller ships, the ‘Active’. Bruce was accompanied on the expedition by his friend and fellow student Burn Murdoch. When Burn Murdoch wrote a book, ‘From Edinburgh to the Antarctic’, criticising the captain for the few opportunities allowed for scientific work on the expedition, Robertson wrote a defence. He said that it was difficult for the ‘passengers’ to be aware of the petty tyrannies imposed on a whaling captain.

The two men met again in the summer of 1897. Bruce was a scientist on the Franz Josef expedition when Captain Robertson, now Captain of ‘Balaena’ and on a whaling sortie, visited the archipelago. The meeting led to Robertson being later appointed as Captain of the ‘Scotia’ in 1902 when his skill in avoiding getting trapped in the Polar ice was pivotal. His plan to avoid the ice that swept up from the southeast of the Weddell Sea by sailing above it, became a benchmark for later expeditions. His contribution to the success of the ‘Scotia’ expedition was readily acknowledged by Bruce.

Robertson was naturally ambitious to further his career. At this time Shackleton was Secretary of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and Robertson wrote to him in October 1904:
Lieutenant Shackleton RNR
Edinburgh
Dear Sir
As I was in command of the ship of the Scottish Antarctic expedition I would esteem it as a great honour if your society would make one a fellow. I did some work in the Antarctic some years ago and I think that an FRGS would help one in getting charge of some expedition where I would have a chance of doing some geographical work in the future.
Trusting you will lay my request before your council I am yours faithfully Thomas Robertson.

The council approved Robertson’s Fellowship of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society and at their meeting on Thursday 20th October 1904, the council awarded the society’s silver medal to Captain Robertson. Bruce was awarded the Gold Medal.

Following the Antarctic expedition it was planned that ‘Scotia’ would see further use by the Universities of Scotland as a research vessel: however it became necessary to sell her, to recoup some of the expedition costs and she and Robertson were reunited as Robertson sailed her as a sealer and whaler off the Greenland coast. On the 15th February 1913 she was requisitioned, (still under Robertson’s command,) by the Board of Trade for use as a weathership on the Grand Banks of Newfoundland in order to give iceberg warnings to shipping; for this a Marconi wireless was fitted so allowing communications with stations on the coast of Labrador and Newfoundland.

When members of Shackleton’s ‘Nimrod’ expedition were awarded the Polar Medal, Bruce submitted a request for the crew of ‘Scotia’ to be awarded the award. This was refused by Edward VII. Bruce reapplied in 1913 but the request was refused again by George V. Bruce wrote to Charles Price, Edinburgh MP and Bruce supporter, in August 1917, that ‘Robertson was dying without his well won white ribbon! The Mate is dead! The Second Mate is dead!! the Chief Engineer is dead!!! everyone as good men as have ever served on any Polar Expedition yet they did not receive the white ribbon. Surely it can merely be treated as an omission by the King, the public need never know that King Edward ever considered the matter’.
The medal was not awarded.

But Robertson’s reputation as an outstanding seaman is assured. He had a remarkable record; in nearly forty years of Polar work he neither lost a ship, nor a man. He was a man to ride the waters with. In numerous emergencies, when a moment’s hesitation could have resulted in disaster, his natural gifts as an ice pilot were complimented by an intuition that on occasions seemed miraculous.

Taking sightings On Scotia Captain Robertson with Mr. Fitchie

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