The subtitle sums up the book perfectly. Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming is"A stirring story of daring, fortitude and outright lunacy". In slightly more prosaic terms it's a book about how one man John Barrow did his bit for the British Empire and exploration despite lacking competence, intelligence or indeed any of the features you'd associate with a successful explorer.
In fact the only plausible reason Barrow was a success at all was that he was safely ensconsed in the Admiralty between 1816 and 1845 and it was other poor unfortunates that were sent out to confirm his findings. This is not so much a biography as a tale of one man's desire to further the Empire by filling out the blank spaces on the map of world with the correct details.
Woe betide any explorers if they did manage to make it back to Blightly with incorrect findings. Hugh Clapperton thought the Niger flowed into the Gulf of Benin, rather than the Nile, on the entirely unreasonable grounds that he'd followed it most of the way, and the people there said it did. Barrow who knew from his desk in London the Niger flowed into the Nile, edited Clapperton's journal and noted that his observations were"not much to be depended on". He then sent Clapperton off to Africa again where this time he'd bally well discover the course of the Niger for King and Country. Clapperton died in Africa shortly after.
The book is entirely serious, but the era it describes is bizarre. After the success of the Napoleonic Wars the British Navy was simply too large. Officers were being released and there was a serious threat of a peace dividend. John Barrow's moment came through a combination of patronage and having one good idea which sustained him through a whole career of very bad ideas.
'To what purpose could a portion of our naval force be, at any time, but more especially in time of profound peace, more honourably or more usefully employed than in completing those details of geographical and hydrographical science of which the grand outlines have been boldly and broadly sketched by Cook, Vancouver and Flinders, and others of our countrymen?'
As ideas go this was a good one, but Barrow was ill-equipped to plan such expeditions. To balance things out he often made sure his explorers were also ill-equipped too.
While Barrow had plans for Africa, the bulk of the book describes the farcical attempts by Barrow to explore the poles. It's as if Zucker, Abrahams and Zucker were given carte blanche to define the British Exploration effort. The surreality of the situation is heightened by Fleming's deadpan, though not dull, narration of some very brave men following orders. It's this delivery that gives the more tragic endings the poignancy they deserve. The Polar regions are dangerous places, geography is considerably different and magnetic bearings are unreliable. It's rendered considerably more dangerous when the planner is convinced there must be a warm sea at the heart of the North Pole, for no readily discernable reason other than his incredulity that it can't be all ice.
It's arguable this insulation from reality that made Barrow so successful. Unwilling to accept any right answers which contradicted him, he blamed his explorers. Fleming describes how officers would fall in or out of favour with alarming ease as Barrow sought a man who could find the right answer as opposed to the true one.
The book ends with John Franklin's disastrous expedition to the Northwest Passage. Barrow's logic was irrefutable, James Ross had failed to find it, therefore its discovery must be imminent. The failure of the rescue parties eventually persuaded people that there was no passage. Fleming is able to draw on recent discoveries unknown to the searchers at the time which show that the expedition suffered a long slow death.
The regularity of deaths for stupid reasons, like not wanting to look like a native in the Sahara because by Jove we're British - then suffering from dehydration, could have become depressing. Fleming keeps the story going and, with journals and reports from the time, neatly weaves what could have been an incoherent mess into a compelling tale. It shows even the most incompetent man can be a success, so long as you're not counting"people coming back alive" as success.
H-Net review by Kathy Gorman
New York Times by Susan Reed