29 Sep '23   |  Posted by: Birlinn

by Edward J. Cowan

Extract from Chapter Two, John Ross’s Expedition of 1818

Thy way is in the sea, and thy path in the great waters; and thy footsteps are not known.

Psalms 77:19


John Ross asserted that few voyages of discovery had excited more general interest at their outset than that of 1818. He cautioned that his nautical education had taught him to act and not to question; ‘to obey orders as far as possible, not to discuss probabilities, or examine philosophical or unphilosophical speculations’. He claimed that his chronicle of the 1818 enterprise was intended as little more than the journal of a seaman, lacking in elegance of composition, narratorial entertainment or memorable adventure. Modesty did not become Ross any more than controversy avoided him. His book A Voyage of Discovery (1819) was condemned in a vicious review by John Barrow two months before it was published, part of a storm of literary onslaught and professional jealousy as tempestuous as the worst meteorological disturbances encountered in the Arctic today.

Ross was born on 24 June 1777 at Soulseat, Wigtownshire, the manse of his father, who was minister of the parish of Inch, neighbouring Stranraer. He was the youngest of four brothers. The future explorer left his Memoirs (1838) to posterity; this book contained a frequently confused and confusing account of his career, but was clearly designed to show that he had ‘the right stuff’. Whether it represents fiction or fact, it conveys some idea of Ross’s personality and the view he had of himself. His parents had just returned from a visit to the Isle of Man when he was born, a fanciful prognosis that he was ‘destined for a sailor’, as well as displaying a disposition for mischief and the water. At the age of six he was fighting older and bigger boys, earning thrashings from his father.

He attributed his ability to withstand cold in later life to running about barefoot as a child, a claim that could have been made by most Scottish children at that time. At age nine he joined the Royal Navy and was assigned to HMS Pearl but did not go to sea.3 Instead his first action involved a smuggler in Luce Bay, a confrontation in which he suffered a leg wound from a pistol. He spent a year at Ayr Academy; ‘at the time the boys mutinied and kept the masters out by blocking up the school with snowballs’, an incident typical of his mischievous practices. He boasted of having organised a raid on his Latin master’s fruit trees. The unfortunate teacher on another occasion was bound hand and foot by the pupils until he promised that he would no longer beat them. The dominie gave up on Ross as ‘uncontrollable . . . the head of all mischief ’. John also posed as a prostitute in order to foil an unpopular local shopkeeper. It was definitely time that he returned to his ship. Thus Ross, having demonstrated that he could climb to the masthead and sail a boat, properly went to sea in 1790, having been demoted, much to his chagrin, from midshipman to cabin boy, apprentice to a merchant ship out of Greenock bound for Jamaica.

There were seven passengers, two women, four gentlemen and a farmer’s son from Inch who was escaping ill use from his stepmother; he sold his father’s horse to pay for his passage. The captain died of yellow fever in Jamaica. Other sufferers among the crew asked Ross to write letters for them to their sweethearts. Archibald McFadzean from Campbelltown died after signing his letter, but before it was sealed. Ross provided a postscript: ‘I was taken ill of the fever this morning. I died at 12 o’clock and was buried at 6 this evening’! On returning to Scotland he enjoyed sexual adventures in Islay but what stands out in his account is the matter-of-fact way in which he describes violence at the hands of teachers and naval personnel. A Miss Kepping, with whom he formed some kind of attachment, was punished by a teacher for refusing to identify the perpetrators of a prank. She suffered twelve slaps on her hand, resulting in blistering. In return Ross organised a gang of boys and two sailors who trashed the teacher’s study and destroyed his valuable scientific instruments. Ross took part in three voyages to the West Indies and three to the Baltic, ‘all of us gentlemen’s sons, sent to sea under the mistaken idea of preparing us for the Navy or India service’. They were expected to find their sea legs on merchant ships but their privileged backgrounds seem to have rendered them disrespectful of authority. Ross escaped a flogging for near-mutiny through a chance meeting with a lieutenant who knew his father; he made his peace with an alcoholic captain whom he saved from drowning.

Gaps in his memoir severely limit its usefulness. He claimed to have no interest in the Navy during peace-time since the prospects for both promotion and prize money were remote. Family influence assisted in his appointment to the East India Company ship Queen in 1794. He was involved in the suppression of at least two more mutinies, and went through the traditional ‘crossing the line’ ceremony at the Equator with Mr and Mrs Neptune, as he sailed to India, surviving a ferocious storm in the Bay of Bengal. He thrashed two sailors who challenged him to a fist fight. Sailing homewards from Madras the boatswain announced, ‘We have a new face on the mainyard!’ A sailor had forgotten his trousers before climbing aloft thus exhibiting his ‘bare stern’. A scandalised lady passenger fled to her cabin.

Less amusing were outbreaks of scurvy which spread throughout the ship. Two hyenas died when they escaped their cages. Shortly afterwards an elephant that was also part of the cargo died, probably not of natural causes but because the crew bitterly resented the amount of fresh water the beast consumed. Back on land, Ross won a duel, rather a fashionable activity at the time. He was preparing to flee to France when he learned the supposed victim had survived.

On the outbreak of the Napoleonic wars in 1803 he sailed on HMS Grampus under the flag of Rear Admiral Sir James Saumarez, who that year received the Order of the Bath, the Freedom of the City of London and a parliamentary annuity of £1,200 a year for his naval services. Ross remained with him until he was promoted to commander in 1812. He was attached to the Swedish Navy for a time, becoming a knight of the Swedish Order of the Sword and learning the language, serving in the North Sea, the White Sea and Scottish waters. Having personally suffered (or claimed) a total of thirteen wounds, including two broken legs, a bayonet through his body and five sabre cuts to his head, he was imprisoned by the French. He married Christian Adair in 1816, using significant rewards of prize money to build their home at Northwest Castle, Stranraer. If he could have afforded the luxury, Ross might have settled in to genteel retirement now that the Napoleonic wars were over, but he was hopeless in matters financial and his restless spirit remained hyperactive. Much to his delight, he was about to embark on a second career as an Arctic explorer.

Edward J. Cowan was formerly Professor of Scottish History at the University of Glasgow and Director of the university’s Dumfries Campus. He previously taught at the Universities of Edinburgh and Guelph, Ontario. A fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh, he died in December 2021.

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