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Clements Markham 1830-1916

8 Apr

How we will be remembered -– over the years will our reputation be lauded, forgotten or debated?

An example of the latter possibility is Sir Clements Robert Markham, KCB. FRGS. FRS.

Markham was a geographer, explorer, writer, a Member of the Royal Geographical Society, its Secretary for twenty five years and, subsequently, its President. He achieved much in his long life, but his personality was such that he also aroused enmity, resentment an hostility. The Royal Geographical Librarian (Hugh Robert Mill) wrote that as President, Markham functioned more as a dictator than a President. David Crane, in his biography of Robert Falcon Scott, writes that Markham had an unrivaled capacity for misrepresentation. scurrilities, slanders and vindictiveness. But he qualifies this by stating that for every flaw, Markham had an opposite quality in good measure – for example a hatred of cruelty, a largeness of imagination and a wonderful capacity for loyalty and friendship.

Markham when he was elected to the Royal Geographical Society

Markham is mostly remembered for his presidency of the Royal Geographical Society to which he was unexpectedly elected, in 1893, when in his early sixties. His election followed a dispute over the question of admission of women members, a clash of opinions that Markham had kept out of (the dispute split the society – at a Special General Meeting the council voted against admitting women members, this differed from the results of the postal ballot where members had been strongly in favour). Following his election to the Presidency, Markham became a Knight Commander of the British Empire (KCB), and so became Sir Clements Markham. He was the society’s president for twelve years.

President of the Royal Geographical Society; 1893-1904

For years Sir Clements’ overriding passion had been the revival of British Antarctic Exploration and as president he was in the position and had the contacts and energy to pursue this vision – without him there would have been no British Antarctic expedition. In London in 1895 he chaired the Sixth International Geographical Congress, this was attended by deputations from all the major European countries. The focus was on Antarctica- at that time the actual presence of a Southern Continent was uncertain- and at the end of the congress a statement was issued: ’Exploration of the Antarctic is the greatest piece of geographical exploration still to be undertaken. That in view of the addition to knowledge in almost every branch of science that would result from such a scientific exploration, the Committee recommended that scientific societies throughout the world should urge, in whatever way seems most effective, that this work should be undertaken before the end of the century’.

Sir Clements aimed to achieve this lofty goal in Britain’s name.

Support and enthusiasm was certain, political and financial backing, less so.
The 1899 International Geographical Congress (the seventh), this time at Berlin, emphasized international cooperation, particularly with Germany, who were already financing their own Antarctic expedition, as well as scientific work. Sir Clements suggested dividing the Antarctic into sectors: Britain would cover the Ross Sea area. Germany’s sphere of activity would be the Weddell (north west) and Enderby (north east) sectors.
Sir Clements was to spend years fighting to achieve his goal; years in which he appears to have made as many enemies as friends. He needed to raise £90,000 and to get finance from the Treasury he needed the full support of two Specialist Societies – the Royal Society and the Royal Geographical Society. To this end he formed the Joint Antarctic Committee which consisted of twelve representatives from each of these august bodies. But far from achieving a coordinated plan the committee almost immediately fell apart. Whereas the Royal Society emphasised science, in particular terrestrial magnetism and oceanography, Sir Clements’ priority was geographical discovery. Endless sub-committee meetings and the diametrically differing aims of the societies resulted in frustration. Hugh Robert Mill, the geographer and meteorologist, who acted as Secretary for the Joint Committee reported on its deliberations and wrote that the work resulted in a confusion of jealousies, arguments and misunderstandings. Sir Clements also clashed with the Royal Society on the overall leader of the expedition. He was determined that his protégée, Lieutenant Robert Falcon Scott, should be both Captain and in overall command. By contrast the Royal Society assumed that a scientist would lead the work in Antarctica and backed a Professor John W. Gregory. It was not until May 1901, that Gregory was informed that Scott had been appointed Expedition Commander, Sir Clements out- manouvered the Royal Society, Professor Gregory, very publicly, resigned.
In three years of fund raising, only £10,000 of the £90,000 had been raised. But, by a welcome ‘munificent gift’ of £25,000 from a wealthy London business man, Sir Clements’ vision was saved. Mr. Longstaff wrote that he wished to contribute to the advancement of our knowledge of the planet in which we live. With this gift the tide was turned.. The government, after consultation with the Learned Societies, advanced £45,000. Interestingly, Arthur Balfour, (later to be Prime Minister) represented the government in meetings with the societies. He would have given the deputations a sympathetic ear, being much interested in science and actually a member of the Royal Society. He was also possibly influenced by the fact that German Government had voted £60,000 to Antarctic exploration (in addition to the £30,000 that had been raised in Germany by private subscription). The government gave £45,000 to the expedition, the Royal Geographical Society another £5,000. In April 1899, Queen Victoria wished the expedition success. The Prince of Wales agreed to become Patron.

Sir Clements’ capacity for loyalty and friendship was apparent in his support of Scott. During the months after Scott’s appointment he bombarded his protégée with advice and instructions. One of Sir Clements’ prejudices was against dogs – though even at this time the famous Norwegian explorer Nansen, supported dog transport. Sir Clements favoured manhauling which he had observed some fifty years previously when, as a midshipman, he had been on an expedition to the Arctic. On the expedition a lieutenant, Leopold McClintock, had mastered the technique of travelling over the ice with sledges. This expertise influenced Sir Clements absolutely in favour of manhauling, He was to become a major, and, it transpired dangerous, advocate of the technique -it could be said that he thought of Polar exploration in terms of heroism for heroism’s sake. Scott followed his mentor’s advice.

Sir Clements’ wife, Lady Markham, was to launch Discovery the expedition ship, on the 21st March 1901.

Sir Clements was fully involved in appointing Discovery’s crew members -he wrote comments on all of them. He thought the First Lieutenant, Charles Royds, was a ‘first class seaman’, and deserved to be ‘one of the Antarctic heroes’. Second Lieutenant Michael Barnes, was ‘a charming young fellow… ‘and a relation of mine which is also in his favour’. Ernest Shackleton, the future famous Antarctic explorer, was included with Sir Clements blessing as requested by Llewellyn Longstaff the ‘munificent donor’. Sir Clements thought Shackleton steady, high principled, full of zeal, hard working, good tempered and well informed. He wrote that the senior doctor of the expedition (Koettlitz) was zealous and persevering but that his mind perhaps works rather slowly.

Sir Clements decided that Discovery, a three-masted, sail and steam wooden ship, should be built in Dundee. In spite of all efforts she leaked heavily on her outward sail, the leak became all too newsworthy, the sight of water pouring from the ship in the New Zealand dry dock was well advertised and Sir Clements had to assure the press that such leaking was normal in a wooden ship.

SS Discovery

Once in the Antarctic, the expedition made the first significant penetration ever onto the continent in addition to important geographical and scientific advances: At different times and locations the expedition discovered: King Edward VII Land; the only snow-free Antarctic Dry Valleys: an unexpected Emperor Penguin colony Cape Crozier (until this time it was considered impossible that any creature could breed in the caterwauling gloom of Antarctica). Scott, with the junior doctor Wilson and Shackleton reached 82°17’ S. in a sortie towards the South Pole. All suffered from scurvy.

The Dry Valleys in the western mountains of Victoria Land

Discovery was originally meant to return to England in a year, but when the Antarctic summer arrived, she was still firmly ice bound. Sir Clements therefore had a legitimate excuse for disregarding the official orders for the ship to return to England; in fact it is claimed that Sir Clements had anticipated this and that the relief ship (Morning, which carried stores and personnel), transmitted secret instructions to Scott authorizing a further year of work.

During the second Antarctic season a major ascent into the Antarctic mountains discovered the Polar Plateau. Scientific observations were made throughout the ascent and throughout the season.

Scott had hoped that by the second Antarctic summer, Discovery would be freed from the ice, but she remained held fast. This was to be Sir Clements’ nemesis. Money was needed to get the crew home. Sir Clements’ expedition’s coffers were empty. In London he was accused of mismanagement. The Royal Geographical Society withdrew its support.
The Treasury initially refused to pay for a second rescue. The realisation that the Royal Geographical Society had made no financial provision for a relief expedition caused serious anger. Arthur Balfour (now the Prime Minister) declared this as a betrayal of trust. But Balfour really had no choice, apart from anything else thirty of the 37 officers and men on Discovery were on the Navy’s active list. The crew had to be rescued.
The Treasury funded the rescue operation on the proviso that the Admiralty took over the whole responsibility for the relief expedition. i.e. out of Sir Clements’ hands. The two Societies were told, on 20 June 1903, that the Government would assume ‘the whole responsibility for the further relief expedition which has unfortunately been rendered necessary’. Discovery was to be abandoned if she could not be freed from the ice, and her complement brought back on two relief ships. Morning and Terra Nova . The costs of repairs and victualing would be the first charge on the sale of Discovery (if she could be extricated from the ice). Morning which Sir Clements had chartered was to be transferred to the government ‘absolutely and at once’.
A furious Sir Clements claimed that Morning has been bought in his name, but the eventual threat of legal action prevailed. Sir Clements’ authority over the expedition was finished. He was out of the country when The Council of the Royal Geographical Society saw the writing on the wall and elected an Acting President who, ignoring Markham’s written instructions, acquiesced to the Treasury’s demands.
Ironically, as is the way in Antarctica, the ice suddenly began to break up. Discovery was released. The three ships returned to New Zealand together.

Sir Clements met the ship in Portsmouth on 10 September 1904, but no dignitaries greeted the party when it arrived in London a few days later. There was however, considerable public enthusiasm for the expedition. A cable from the king was sent to congratulate Scott and his men on their splendid achievements and criticism was muted in the face of royal recognition. Sir Clements advertised the achievements of the expedition and he wrote also that ‘sledge journeys without dogs are quite unequalled’. But some critics spoke out: Sir Jackie Fisher, soon to be in charge of the navy, said that money would have been better spent building up the navy writing that it wass worse than a crime, it was a blunder’

Sir Clements’ authority over Antarctic Exploration was irrevocably diminished.

To be continued