|Captain Edward Belcher
(National Maritime Museum)
The arrival of Commander Belcher, by the isthmus of Panama, to take the command, gave a new impulse to affairs, particularly as he was much attached to certain departments of Natural History. His cabin was henceforth applied as a museum, and the dredge now began to be frequently in use.
The voyage of H. M. S. Sulphur proved eminently prolific in shells, and a very considerable acquisition has been made to science. The very careful search which was unceasingly made on all the shores visited throughout the voyage, and the constant use of the dredge and trawl, whenever circumstances permitted, have contributed to this; but, above all, the close examination of the proceeds of the dredge, by siftings and diligent washings, brought into notice a great number of small but very interesting species, the great majority of which was previously unknown.
|Nemesis and boats of Sulphur, Calliope, Larne and Starling destroying the
Chinese war junks on 7 January 1841
(from Allom & Wright, The Chinese Empire Illustrated, 1858
|Belcher's illustration of the winter quarters dubbed 'Crystal Palace' during
the search for the Franklin Expeditiion
The appointment was unfortunate, for though an able and experienced surveyor he had neither the temper nor tact for a commanding officer under circumstances of peculiar difficulty. Perhaps no officer of equal ability has ever succeeded in inspiring so much personal dislike, and the customary exercise of his authority did not make Arctic service less trying. Nor did any happy success make amends for much discomfort and annoyance, and his expedition is distinguished from all other Arctic expeditions as the one in which the commanding officer showed an undue haste to abandon his ships when in difficulties, and in which one of the ships so abandoned rescued herself from the ice and was picked up floating freely in the open Atlantic.
|Belcher in 1861, the year of his
promotion to Rear-Admiral
Carte-de-visite by Camille Silvy
During his career, Belcher was one of the most controversial figures in the Royal Navy. As an officer he had many desirable attributes: scientific curiosity, technical competence, inventiveness, physical energy, and sometimes reckless bravery. However, he suffered from an irritable, quarrelsome, and hypercritical nature which made relations with superiors and subordinates alike extremely difficult. Although he was in many ways a capable officer, his record remains blighted by his ignominious failure as commander in chief of the Franklin search expedition, an appointment which has been described as “unfortunate” since Belcher’s temperament did not enable him to function as the situation demanded.
He might almost have had a subsidiary profession as animal collector. From everywhere that Belcher went, specimens were sure to go. Skins to the museum, live animals to the menagerie. Remember the conditions on board in that era, the tiny working space available, the problems of live transport. Yet he was one of the most prolific donors the Society was ever privileged to have. He contributed four papers to PZS [Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, now Journal of Zoology] and wrote a book about every voyage.
|Larus belcheri at Arica, Chile
Photographed by Alastair Rae (Flickr)
UPDATED: 14 December 2018