Sir Clements Markham, Saint or Sinner?

27 May

I think that writing the biography of Sir Clements is going to take months – so I will probably not be adding much to my blog, which has concentrated on some of the lesser known Polar Heroes  -though I will probably get round eventually to John Ray and Edward Atkinson.

I remain surprised that Clements Markham has not caught the attention of other authors over the one hundred and six years since he died. Of course his cousin Admiral Albert Markham wrote a ‘life’  dedicated to Sir Clements’ widow Minna. This was written soon after Clements’ death, but the work was not, in any sense, an objective biography. Albert had had close ties with Clements’ family. When he was studying to get into the navy, he lived with Clements widowed mother Catherine. Catherine had already lost two of her sons,  and, with her remaining son, Clements travelling widely, she welcomed Albert as another ‘son’ and a ‘brother’ for her three daughters.

Clements as a young man

Clements was eleven years older than Albert and he created a  profound impact. Albert was overwhelmed by Clements’ success in smuggling quinine out of Peru and transporting the medication to India. He also shared Clements’ passion for knowledge – reading, travel and exploration. He would never write a critical paragraph about a man who was his cousin, Catherine’s son and Minna’s husband.

In fact Clements seems to have had a very loving relationship with his friends and family. The same however cannot be said about anyone who disagreed or criticized him. Such a person became a permanent enemy. Thus seems to have been a life-long characteristic, but his reputation was unequivocally damaged by his behaviour after, at the age of 63, he became President of The Royal Geographical Society  (R.G.S.) and announced his ambitions for Antarctic exploration.

His facility for acerbic observation was apparent quite early on -as a young boy for example, he described one of his father’s friends and  neighbour, as having  a ‘long neck, an eager little face and a voice like a cockatoo’. Aged fifteen, when a midshipman sailing on the ‘Collingwood’ Pacific Tour, he described the Governor of Tahiti (governed by the French). as ‘short, stumpy, ugly, fiendish and crafty looking’. The Captain of a French ship was also short, ugly, fiendish,  but also ‘a little man’ – with red hair and whiskers.

When, as a successful member and officer of the R.G.S he was made its President in 1893, Sir Clements made his announcement that his primary ambition was to support the resurgence of Polar exploration -this had lapsed following the tragic death of Sir John Franklin, who had been lost in the Arctic along with his two ships and entire crew in the 1840s during an attempt to find a sailing route from the Antarctic to the Pacific – the North West Passage.- Clements had, as a midshipman, been on one of the many ships attempting to discover the fate of the doomed expedition.

In the early part of the 1900s it was not  actually certain that the Antarctic existed as a continent and Sir Clements focused his attention on the South.   A number of land areas had been seen, but not landed on –  they could have been islands. One area, Cape Adare had been landed on and its coordinates recorded. but no significant penetration southwards had been made.  Sir Clements ambitions were  to penetrate into and discover as much as possible about this mysterious area and to collect geographic, meteorological  oceanographic information. He also wished to enthuse naval personnel with this great venture,  he felt the navy would benefit from the challenge.

His two great problems were –firstly, funds to support the expedition, and secondly, agreement over the actual aims of the expedition. To get enough sufficient funds, he had to combine with the Royal Society (R.S.), (against his better judgment), in an appeal to the government for the £45.000 still needed to launch the expedition.  He himself (on behalf of the R.G.S), had already raised  about £40,000 in three years after the appeal was launched (£25,00 had been given by an individual R.G.S. member). The R.S supplied no monies.

Balfour, the First Lord of the Treasury eventually allocated the funds applied for, but an unbridgeable chasm between the Learned Societies, as to the aims, purposes and priorities of the expedition, became apparent all too soon.

The predominant schism related to the relative leadership roles of naval personal (R.G.S. supported) and the R.S. civilian scientists.  The R.G.S. views and Markham’s vision for the expedition, was that the venture was naval, both on land (geographic discoveries and scientific work) and on sea. The R.S. plan, in complete contrast, aimed to appoint a scientific director who would have absolute control of all research on land suggesting, this implied, that the naval scientist would be answerable to a civilian scientist director. The R.S. plans also implied that the navy would provide transport to and from Antarctica and, having offloaded the scientists, would leave for warmer climes.

The Navy of course would never agree to this plan; the suggestion that naval men should report to a civilian scientist was unthinkable.  It is hardly surprising that increasingly vituperative tensions and disputes over the aims and ambitions of the expedition developed. Clements became increasingly distrustful that certain members of the R.S. were scheming against him. He wrote that one man (presumably himself), if he was capable at all, was always more capable than a number of equally capable men working together – and there undoubtedly was an unpleasant confusion of ambitions in the Antarctic deliberations.  

Bust of Sir Clements in the Royal Geographical Society

It required a diplomat as well as an administrator to steer the negotiations. Sir Clements was not a diplomat –  he was a fighter; opposition roused his pugnacious spirit and he undoubtedly became outspokenly critical, intolerant of opposition and  increasingly unpopular. It was said that he felt he had the absolute right to a priority in the Antarctic. He appears to have made as many enemies as friends.  

But it actually took him some time to fully comprehend the dramatically different aims for the expedition between the two societies, but as discussions continued, he became increasingly aware that some members of the R.S. were uniting to scheme against his plans. He described several representatives of  the R.S. with uninhibited venom in his book ‘Antarctic Obsession’.  Professor Tizard, the Assistant Hydrographer and a member of the Royal Society Joint Executive Committee, was ‘a man of some ability, but narrow minded – a man who set himself up as an authority on Antarctica because he had been on the ‘Challenger’ expedition and seen the edge of the ice’. Professor Poulton of Oxford was described as an expert on butterflies, a dull and stupid man with a genius for blundering and a total ignorance on any subject addressed by the Antarctic Committee.  Lord Lister  the President was always courteous, never taking a decided line and caring nothing.  Professor Foster FRS, the Secretary of the R.S. was plausible and agreeable but an inveterate intriguer  who cared nothing for the expedition but only what he could get out of it for the R.S.

Many of these opinions would hardly have been discreet .  They may have even been publically expressed with predictable consequences. Planning became fractious and divisive. Markham was said to behave like a dictator – that he had an unrivalled capacity for misrepresentation, slander & vindictiveness..

Markham eventually managed to alter and weaken the R.S. plans  It should be said that R.G.S. members resented the idea that the man appointed as the Scientific Director, Professor John Walter Gregory was promoting himself as leader of the whole expedition through his allies in the R.S.     R.G.S. members were resistant to his predominantly scientific plan, one that subverted the original ambitions of geographic and magnetic observation (albeit with science making an important contribution), in an expedition led by this shadowy figure, who they had hardly heard of. Furthermore members were aware that the R.G.S. had conceived and considerably funded the expedition. The R.S, had not made a financial contribution.

When Markham finally succeeded in outwitting the R.S. – and causing much resentment and bitterness Professor Gregory resigned, The eventual instructions were in a form very similar to his original proposals of 1897.

The Discovery expedition lasted from 1901-1903. The newspaper ‘The Times’ praised the many achievements of the expedition. The expedition had an enthusiastic reception in England, but no government minister was present to welcome the returning heroes.  Significant  financial problem had again arisen. These related to freeing the ship ‘Discovery’ from  its suffocating icy embrace in Antarctica. Concern that this would prove impossible led to the need for two relief ships to be available to rescue the men, the equipment, the  scientific results, paintings, photographs. Neither the RGS or the RS had the funds for a rescue mission.

 The Government was furious- this was ‘a betrayal of trust’. It had always assumed that the societies would be in perfect control of their finances. But it had no choice. It had to take over the rescue operation Their naval men were trapped in the south. Sir Clements was forced to cede ownership of the relief vessel “Morning? to the government. He also fell out with his own council over the matter and resigned as president shortly after.

He died in 1916 in dramatic circumstances. He was reading in bed by candle light  – though his room actually had electricity. The candle slipped, the bed clothes caught fire. He was engulfed in flames and died.

Although Lady Markham received many expressions of condolence (and Admiral Markham’s eulogy), he had sadly  became so unpopular that negative reservations about his achievements were expressed remarkably early. Frank Debenham the first Director of the Scott Polar Institute called him ‘a dangerous old man’. The Scottish geographer Professor Rudmose Brown called him an ‘Old Fool and Humbug’. The accuracy of his many publications was questioned.

But these comments miss an important point. Sir Clements was a man  of vision. He could claim any number number of achievements:      

Firstly, his courageous expedition to Peru to smuggle quinine out of the country and transport the medication to India, saved thousands and thousands of lives.

The ‘Discovery’ expedition would never have happened without his single -minded determination, grit, and courage. He raised a good proportion of the cash virtually single handedly, the R.S. gave no cash. 

He developed the R.G.S. –the library, research, map facilities. The membership of the society increased significantly.

He wrote some fifty books – on historical figures and events, as well as on the Polar regions, plus  many papers and reports.

He was loving and loyal to his friends and family who appreciated him.

 His overriding aim was to serve his country and geography.


4 Responses to “Sir Clements Markham, Saint or Sinner?”

  1. annestrathie May 28, 2022 at 1:42 pm #

    Interesting read, thank you – I also find the Nares/Albert Markham voyage very interesting, sitting between the Franklin and Belgica/Southern Cross eras. Do you know when your biography of Clements Markham will be coming out?

    • isobelpwilliams May 28, 2022 at 1:52 pm #

      Not for quite a few months. Its a massive subject

      • annestrathie May 28, 2022 at 5:10 pm #

        I know, which is why I was surprised you said months rather than years … as I discovered with Ponting, writing biographies of people who had long, varied lives is considerably more challenging than writing about those with shorter, less diverse ones …

  2. Isobel P. Williams May 28, 2022 at 8:42 pm #

    I was being hopeful!
    Clements started writing journals as a boy and continued throughout his life. We are going through some of them The trouble is that (so far) they are long and often not particularly useful for a biography, but one has to go through them in case there is a concealed gem
    Ann Savours has a particular talent here. She wrote some excellent dissertations and has a wide knowledge.


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