Captain Francis Crozier – Commander of HMS “Terror”; ca. 1845
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in 1796 into a wealthy family in the Irish linen town of Banbridge, County Down. His father, George Crozier, was a prominent solicitor who acted for Ireland’s most powerful land-owning families, and he was named after Francis Rawdon, the Earl of Moira.
In 1810, three months before his 14th birthday, Crozier enlisted in the Royal Navy and was immediately thrown into the Napoleonic wars. On one of his earliest voyages, his ship became lost in the Pacific Ocean and unexpectedly arrived at tiny Pitcairn Island, where the crew met the sole surviving mutineer from the Bounty.
After the end of the Napoleonic wars in 1815, the Admiralty turned to exploration in an attempt to find work for its ranks of idle officers and to expand the British Empire. Arctic discovery was a key ambition during this energetic burst of exploration, which produced men such as Franklin, Parry, the Rosses and Crozier.
Crozier’s first polar expedition came in 1821, when he volunteered to join Parry’s attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage, a feat that had eluded sailors for centuries. They returned after two years without success, but Crozier went north again a year later when Parry took the vessels Fury and Hecla on another vain bid to locate the passage. Disaster was only narrowly averted when Fury was wrecked in Prince Regent Inlet, and the entire party limped home on board Hecla.
In 1827, Crozier joined Parry and James Clark Ross in an arduous slog to reach the North Pole. The party, dragging heavily laden boats, trekked for more than 1,000 kilometres, but advanced only 275 kilometres north because the remorseless drift of the pack ice carried them steadily south. It was akin to walking the wrong way up a fast-moving escalator, and the men survived thanks largely to the depots earlier laid down by the diligent Crozier. But the ‘furthest north’ record of 82° 45’ stood for almost half a century.
On successive journeys, Crozier demonstrated his reliability and an aptitude for the painstaking business of magnetic and astronomic readings. In 1827, he was made a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society and was elected a Fellow of the prestigious Royal Society in 1843. His prominent sponsors included the astronomer Sir John Herschel and Sir Francis Beaufort, creator of the Beaufort scale and one of the co-founders of the Royal Geographical Society.
Crozier’s most accomplished feat was the mammoth four-year journey to Antarctica in Erebus and Terror with James Clark Ross, which arguably ranks as the 19th century’s most outstanding voyage of maritime discovery. He captained Terror and never lost a man – a rare achievement at the time.
Setting out in 1839, the Erebus and Terror expedition was the last great journey made under sail, penetrating the pack ice of the Southern Ocean and discovering vast tracts of the Antarctic continent. It also bequeathed many of the now familiar geographical names to the Heroic Age of Exploration, including Mount Erebus, Ross Island and McMurdo Sound. The Great Ice Barrier, where Scott’s party perished in 1912, was so named because it presented a barrier to Erebus and Terror (it was re-named the Ross Ice Shelf in the 1950s). And Cape Crozier, the windswept headland on Ross Island that was later immortalised by Apsley Cherry-Garrard’s book on Scott’s expedition, The Worst Journey in the World, is now renowned for its emperor penguin colony.
However, the Antarctic journey took a heavy toll on both Crozier and Ross. On their return, witnesses were shocked at the way their hands trembled – the tremors so pronounced that they could hardly hold a glass.
Sadly, Crozier was also suffering from a broken heart. On the voyage south, the ships had stopped at the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land (now Tasmania), where Crozier fell deeply in love with Sophy Cracroft, the flirty niece of the old explorer Sir John Franklin, who had been appointed the island’s governor. His repeated proposals of marriage were rejected because Cracroft refused to become a captain’s wife. ‘She liked the man, but not the sailor,’ her aunt once confided.
Heartbroken and depressed, Crozier elected to head north again in 1845 when the Admiralty launched a fresh attempt to navigate the Northwest Passage in Erebus and Terror. Although Crozier was the most experienced polar captain still serving, the Admiralty gave command of the expedition to Franklin, an overweight 59-year-old who hadn’t taken a ship into the ice for 27 years. It was a snub that hurt Crozier, and he probably should have chosen that moment to retire from exploration. But in a vain attempt to appeal to Cracroft, Crozier volunteered to travel as Franklin’s deputy and assume command of Terror.
In his last letter home, a melancholic Crozier wrote: ‘In truth I am sadly lonely.’ More pertinently, he was worried that the expedition had sailed too late in the season and also questioned Franklin’s leadership, writing that ‘[Franklin] is very decided in his own views but has not good judgement’.
Erebus and Terror crossed Baffin Bay during the summer of 1845 and entered the treacherous Arctic waterways of Lancaster Sound with 129 officers and men aboard. They were never to return.
Disaster struck in 1847, when the ships became trapped in the ice in Victoria Strait. Shortly after, Franklin died and command of the expedition passed to Crozier. The ships were abandoned in 1848, and it was Crozier who inherited the hopeless task of leading about 100 starving survivors in a forlorn retreat across the ice. Men fell dead in their tracks; years later, examination of their bones revealed that some had resorted to cannibalism in the struggle to survive.
Crozier’s death march ripples with historical significance. At one point, the survivors reached the narrow Simpson Strait that runs between King William Island and mainland Canada. Unknown to Crozier, the strait was the last piece of the jigsaw that – at that point – made up the Northwest Passage. A little over 50 years later, the Norwegian Amundsen navigated the strait during the first navigation of the passage and graciously flew his ship’s colours in salute.
According to native accounts, a few desperate souls from the Franklin expedition clung to life for several years after the ships were abandoned, but none managed to find a route to safety. Crozier, the imperturbable and experienced commander, is thought to have been among the last to succumb.