Barrow's Boys is a spellbinding account of perilous journeys to uncharted areas under the most challenging conditions. Fergus Fleming captures the passion for exploration that led a band of men into situations that would humble today's bravest adventurers.
After the Napoleonic wars, John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, launched the most ambitious exploration program the world has ever seen. For the next thirty years, his teams of elite naval officers went on missions to fill the blanks that littered the atlases of the day. From the first disastrous trip down the Congo, Barrow maintained his resolve in the face of continuous catastrophes. His explorers often died of sickness or at the hands of unfriendly natives. They struggled under budgets that forced them to resort to pulling enormous ships across floating ice fields; to eating mice, or their own shoes; and even to horrifying acts of cannibalism. While many of the journeys failed, Barrow and his men ultimately opened Africa to the world, discovered Antarctica, and pried apart the mandibles of the Arctic. Many of the missions are considered the greatest in history, but have never before been collected into one volume that captures the full sweep of Barrow's program.
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There's something about the overwhelming emptiness and terrifying beauty of the polar regions that never fails to attract. They are the most powerful symbols we have left of a world where human-made laws and values count for nothing; no one conquers the frozen wastelands--they merely learn to live by the rules nature dictates. It is easy to see how for a long time the lives of the polar explorers were shrouded in quasi-mystical and heroic terms. This all changed in the 1970s with the publication of Roland Huntford's magnificent biography of Scott and Amundsen, now called The Last Place on Earth, in which he systematically and methodically revealed the levels of incompetence and arrogance with which Scott's expedition was riddled.
In Barrow's Boys Fergus Fleming takes us on an incisive and witty journey through the landmark years of British exploration from 1816 to 1850, marveling at both the bravery and the stupidity involved. Fleming is a historian first and foremost, so he begins by placing exploration in its context. It wasn't some high-minded idealism or wacky sense of adventure, as is often suggested, that placed Britain at the forefront of discovery, but economics and self-interest. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the British Navy was too large for its peacetime needs. Officers were laid off and advancement was slow, so the Navy needed to find itself a role. Charting the unmapped areas of the world seemed as good an idea as any.
Step forward John Barrow. Barrow was only the Second Secretary at the Admiralty--not normally a position of great influence--yet he was a skilled politician, and he managed to carve out a niche for himself by organizing expedition after expedition. He started inauspiciously by sending Captain James Tuckey off on an ill-fated jaunt up the Congo in search of "Timbuctoo," which was at that time imagined as some African El Dorado, and he ended in failure with the loss of Franklin's expedition to find the Northwest Passage. In between he courted triumph and tragedy; Ross discovered Antarctica, Parry opened up the Arctic with his attempt on the Pole, and Captain Bremer failed to establish northern Australia as the new Singapore.
Fleming has a great feel for the telling detail. He doesn't get lost in endless minutiae that distract from the narrative, but he never fails to remind us of the surrealism of British 19th-century exploration--cocked hats and reindeer-drawn sledges in the Arctic, frock coats in the Sahara. When put like this, it makes it all too easy to see how Scott could have been allowed to botch his journey to the South Pole quite so catastrophically. --John Crace, Amazon.co.ukAbout the Author:
Fergus Fleming was born in 1959 and studied at Oxford University and City University, London. He trained as an accountant and barrister and has worked as a furniture maker.
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