Sunday, 8 November 2015

"... He had no rest at sea, nor I on shore." - "Foul-Weather Jack", one of the more sane Byrons

8 November 1723, the explorer, circumnavigator, Royal Navy officer and the poet’s grandfather John "Foul-Weather Jack" Byron was born in London.

“Reversed for me our grandsire's fate of yore,-
He had no rest at sea, nor I on shore." (George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron)”

Contemporary map maker Alexander Hogg's imagination of Byron's meeting with the Patagonians in 1765

not quite easy to comment offhandedly upon the attractiveness of a certain archipelago in the South Atlantic off the southern Patagonian coast without deviating into a longer geostrategic excursion. However, the rather famous French explorer and naval officer Louis de Bougainville established a permanent settlement in the Eastern part of the Islands, named, in all modesty, Port Louis, after the King of France, goes without saying, and called the place Îles Malouines, since the settlers he brought came from St Malo in Brittany. A year later in 1765, the captain of HM frigate “Dolphin”, while in the process of circumnavigating the world, formally took possession of the Western part of the islands he knew as Falklands, a name established in 1690 in honour of Viscount Falkland, Admiralty Commissioner. After a short while, English settlers began to establish a permanent base on Saunders Island. The next step in the somewhat troubled history of the Falklands. The English captain’s name was John Byron, younger brother of the “Wicked Lord” Byron, who had by then already killed his cousin in a duel over an argument who had more game populating his estates, the milestone that marked the baron’s general descent into madness and scandal. John, however, had accumulated at least some fame for being an explorer and jolly tar with publishing his account of the travels he made as a midshipman, sailing with Anson into the South Atlantic 25 years earlier, seeing the Falklands in 1740 and returning back home to England in a daring open boat journey after his ship, the frigate “Wager”, sunk off Chile. Well into the 19th century, Royal Navy missions to faraway places like the South Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, more often than not, were a combination of exploration, cartography as well as raiding, especially in wartime, like Anson’s capture of the Manila galleon during the War of Jenkins Ear. On the other hand, if such a mission foundered, survivors picked up by the enemy were usually treated as PoWs, like Mr Midshipman Byron was, alongside with the other survivors of the “Wager” disaster when they were finally picked up by Spanish authorities in Chile, sitting in the canoe they had bartered from local Indians with a last single musket being the only possession they had between themselves other than the ragged clothes they wore.

The wreck of HMS "Wager" in 1739, frontispiece of Byron's:
"Narrative of the Hon. John Byron;
Being an Account of the Shipwreck of The Wager;
and the Subsequent Adventures of Her Crew"

The possibility of a yet undiscovered continent haunted geographers, explorers and imperialists since Antiquity and, naturally, it was one of the mission objectives for the captains of every seafaring European nation on a voyage to the Pacific to discover Terra Australis. John Byron’s “Dolphin”, originally a survey ship and pressed into service as a 6th rate frigate during the Seven Years’ War, was no exception. Tasked with finding and taking possession of lands hitherto undiscovered by other European powers, such as the formal seizure of uninhabited parts of the Falklands in the name of King George III, was well within the scope of his Admiralty orders. Actually, “Dolphin” was at the lower end of the food chain of vessels commanded by reasonably well connected senior post captains like Byron. And it might have been his sheer desire to go out and explore along with his considerable experience in Southern Atlantic and Pacific water that he was chosen for the mission. The first milestone in “Dolphin’s” voyage around the world was allegedly to establish a British base in these waters, to watch shipping along the sea routes between the world’s two largest oceans, but that might well be mid-19th and 20th century hindsight. Following up from van Diemen’s and Tasman’s discoveries from the 17th century and trying to find “Terra Australis” before the Spanish or the French did, namely Bougainville, was, in all probability, the main reason for Byron’s circumnavigation in 1765 and Bougainville sailed for pretty much the same reasons – finding it before their English rivals did. Both seafarers discovered tropical paradises out in the Pacific, Bougainville in Tahiti, Byron among the Gilbert Islands, one of them, Nikunau was often called “Byron Island” during the 19th century, and both would serve 15 years later on the North American station when their countries were at each other’s throats again. Bougainville quite successfully during the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781 and at least able to get away from France’s decisive defeat at the Saintes in 1782. Byron though, then a Vice-Admiral, was not quite so lucky, but managed at least to acquire a memorable nickname.

Jean-François Hue (1751-1823): "Battle of Grenada"

with intercepting a French convoy in 1778 bound for North America as soon as England’s arch-rival from back then joined in on the rebellious colonies’ side, Byron’s squadron was caught in a storm and scattered across the North Atlantic. Only his own flagship, the 2nd rate HMS “Princess Royal” was able to make it to the planned assembly point in the port of New York. It took him more than two months to assemble his ships up north in Halifax, but further action and stopping the Comte d’Estaing’s squadron from sailing for the West Indies and wreak havoc there was, again, prevented by howling storms. Byron was called “Foul-weather Jack” ever since. A year later, he finally managed to arrive on the Caribbean theatre with 10 ships of the line, tried to retake Grenada from the French with the 21 battleships scraped together from all British squadrons present and got his nose bloodied by d’Estaing who had a considerably superior fleet assembled there. However, the exchange of blows had stopped French expansion in the West Indies and d’Estaing was finally relieved from his command, just as Byron, who returned back home to England. In the meanwhile, his daughter Juliana had eloped with her cousin, the “Devil Byron’s” son and heir William. Since the “Wicked Lord” had hoped that his offspring would marry well to help him recover from his debts and his cunning plans were now going to ruin, he’d rather destroy the inheritance than let it fall into the eloper’s hands, chopping down the woods on his estate and killing the deer he once fought a duel over and what not. Ironically enough, he survived both his son and his grandson and thus, the inheritance, both title and the devastated estates, fell to his great nephew George Gordon, then ten years old, son of John “Mad Jack” and grandson of John “Foul-weather Jack” Byron, who had died peacefully at home in London at the age of 62.

And more about “Foul-weather Jack Byron on: