Icebound in the Arctic: The mystery of Captain Francis Crozier and the Franklin Expedition
By Michael Smith, O’Brien, 308 pages, 2021. $22.99
It’s not easy playing second banana. One can be remarkably skilled, dependable in a crisis, and play an instrumental role in the success (or failure) of an endeavor, yet be largely forgotten as the marquee names hog the limelight. Such is the case of Francis Crozier. Placed in command of the Terror and thus second-in-command on the ill-fated Franklin Expedition, he was one of the British Empire’s most accomplished polar explorers, even if he stood in the shadows of others, mostly because, on his most notable expeditions, he was second-in-command.
Crozier finally did assume command, but in the worst of circumstance. By the time the Terror and its sister ship the Erebus were abandoned off the coast of King William Island in the Canadian Arctic after being trapped in the ice for two winters and a summer, Sir John Franklin had died and Crozier led the desperate, unsuccessful effort at guiding 110 survivors on an escape march after the expedition’s failed attempt at navigating the Northwest Passage. We know this because of the one brief note ever recovered from the catastrophically failed expedition. What happened next is subject only to speculation, except to say that all the men died, primarily of starvation, and that some ate the remains of their fallen crew mates.
Crozier has long been familiar to Franklin obsessives, many of whom revere the man. Yet in the stellar constellation of polar explorers, one rarely finds Crozier mentioned. This despite multiple arctic excursions including an epic multi-year journey to Antarctica, where his ship suffered no casualties in a time when deaths were routine among British sailors in far less formidable waters. But despite possessing remarkable talents in navigating frozen seas, Crozier never had his name attached to any of the great expeditions he joined. And so history has mostly overlooked him.
This is an omission that British author and historian Michael Smith sets out to rectify with “Icebound in the Arctic.” A revised and updated version of Smith’s 2006 book on Crozier, it tells the story of his rise through the ranks of the Royal Navy to become part of several of the most notable polar journeys of the first half of the 19th century. For this work alone it would be an important book, but it’s bolstered immensely by Smith’s enrapturing storytelling, which sets the man in his time and place, and shows how time and place made the man.
Crozier was born into an affluent Irish family in 1796. For reasons unknown, he enlisted in the navy at age 13. Crozier’s career there coincided with the onset and peak of intensive polar exploration by Great Britain, and there he found his life’s purpose. With the Napoleonic Wars over and no serious military threats remaining, England was able to spend several decades reaching the last unvisited locations on the globe. Attaining the poles and charting the Northwest Passage emerged as national obsessions. And for a career navy man like Crozier, it presented an opportunity to make a name for himself, and also earn decent pay.
Crozier signed on with William Parry’s 1821 Northwest Passage attempt, where he became close friends with James Ross. This had him rubbing elbows with two of the most significant polar explorers of the era, and Crozier was instrumental to their successes. He would return to the Arctic three more times before heading south in 1836 as the second officer to Ross on a four-year journey to Antarctica. In one of history’s great ironies, the Erebus and Terror, the same ships lost to the Arctic a decade later, proved spectacularly suited to this expedition, which remains one of the great triumphs of the age. And in another parallel, Crozier was commander of the Terror. Not one of Crozier’s men was lost, despite several calamities that could easily have led to disaster. Crozier ran a tight ship and gained both the respect and the confidence of his men.
Crozier left a limited paper trail, but Smith does a fine job of tracing his life. He never married, although he maintained an unrequited love for Franklin’s niece Sophia Cracroft, who declined his requests for marriage. He was, as she told him, married to the sea.
For Crozier, this was at least partly necessity, as Smith makes clear. Once he dedicated himself to the navy, and especially to polar exploration, Crozier had few other options in a time when connections and class were determining factors in British society. Whatever motivated his joining the navy as a young teenager, the decision assured his place in history, but deprived him of ever enjoying a settled life.
Thus, when the British Admiralty commenced plans for a massive incursion into the Northwest Passage with two ships and over 130 men, it was probably inevitable that Crozier would be involved. He had captained the Terror already, was one of the navy’s most experienced polar veterans, and he didn’t really have anyplace else to go.
What’s most unfortunate, Smith makes clear, is that Franklin, not Crozier, was placed in command. Franklin’s arctic experience had been overland. He did not understand navigation in the tricky waters snaking through the Arctic Archipelago. He did not have the best judgement. Crozier might have led the doomed escape attempt when the ships were trapped and the 110 survivors sought a way out, but it’s worthwhile asking if Crozier would have ever put them in this predicament. We’ll never know.
Smith skillfully tells this story, bringing readers onto the ships that Crozier sailed, and into the life of a great but underappreciated explorer. “Even after his death,” Smith writes, “the remarkable record of six polar expeditions and almost forty years of dedicated service to the navy was shamefully undervalued by his superiors at the Admiralty and cruelly overlooked by history.”
“Rock solid and reliable,” Smith writes of this man whose life he celebrates, “Crozier was born to be a number two.”
But what a second banana he was.