Sir Edward Belcher | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Sir Edward Belcher

Sir Edward Belcher, naval surveyor, explorer (born 27 February 1799 in Halifax, NS; died 18 March 1877 in London, England).

Sir Edward Belcher, naval surveyor, explorer (born 27 February 1799 in Halifax, NS; died 18 March 1877 in London, England). As a surveyor, he participated in major British naval expeditions to the Bering Strait, Africa, the Americas and the Far East. Belcher proved able, though quarrelsome and vindictive. In 1852, he was given charge of five ships sailing in search of Sir John Franklin.

Belcher's expedition rescued Captain Robert McClure and his men — marooned for three winters during their own search — but his ships were icebound, and in summer 1854 he ordered that four be abandoned. Back in England, he was court-martialled for his actions but later exonerated. Belcher spent the rest of his life in literary and scientific pursuits. (See also Belcher Islands.)

Early Life and Career

Sir Edward Belcher was born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, to a prominent family. His grandfather, Jonathan Belcher, was chief justice of the Nova Scotia Supreme Court from 1754 to 1776, and lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia from 1761 to 1763.

Belcher joined the Royal Navy as a volunteer in 1812 and was made lieutenant in 1818 after serving in the Mediterranean. From 1826 to 1828, he served as assistant surveyor under Commander Frederick William Beechey on an expedition to the Bering Strait aboard the HMS Blossom.

He was made commander in 1829, leading ships along on the coast of Africa and the Irish Sea. Belcher wrote A Treatise on Nautical Surveying (1835), which was a useful reference book for years. He later conducted a survey of the Pacific coast, during which he corrected the position of Mount St. Elias and made an initial study of Nootka Sound. Belcher was seen as bad tempered and malicious by his officers and men, taking away from his achievements. Nevertheless, he later received the Order of the Bath in 1841 and was knighted in 1843.

1852 to 1854: Arctic Expedition

Despite his poor reputation as a commander, in 1852 Sir Edward Belcher was appointed commanding officer of a five-ship expedition in search of Sir John Franklin. (In 1845, Franklin had disappeared along with his men while looking for the Northwest Passage.) This was the largest expedition the British government had ordered to find Franklin. It consisted of the HMS Assistance, the HMS Resolute, HMS Pioneer, HMS Intrepid and the HMS North Star. As he sailed through Wellington Channel, Belcher became the first European to sight Exmouth Island, North Cornwall Island, and a channel (later named for him) leading to Jones Sound. The expedition was not successful in finding Franklin but managed to rescue Captain Robert McClure and the men of the HMS Investigator from Mercy Bay. In the summer of 1854, Belcher decided it was time to return home, not wanting to spend a third winter trapped in the ice. He ignored protest from his crew and ordered four ships to be left behind. He and his men sailed home in the fifth.

Belcher was court-martialled as a result of the deserted ships and exonerated, as he successfully proved he acted within his orders. He suggested that there was no proof that the ships would have been freed from the ice with enough time to sail home before winter. One of the ships left behind, the HMS Resolute, was eventually recovered by the United States and returned to the British government as a gift in 1856. He wrote The Last of the Arctic Voyages (1855), a book meant to explain his decision, which did nothing to help his reputation as the wrong person to have led the ill-fated expedition.

Belcher would never actively serve in the Royal Navy again, but rose in rank from Knight Commander of the Order of Bath in 1867, to admiral in 1872 as a result of his seniority. He died in 1877. Point Belcher in Alaska, and Nunavut’s Belcher Islands and Belcher Channel are named after him.