History is a patchwork of great people and events, ones that amaze us to this day. Rightfully so, we preserve and remember the endeavors of the people who came before us. However, I am continually haunted by what is forgotten or, worse, escapes historic record. For every hero we remember there are thousands that gradually fade from or consciousness. Not even fame within their own lifetime can save them from being forgotten. If stories are not passed on it fails to carry on for the next generation. The Victorian era is littered with these individuals, men and women who were eclipsed by more popular figures who had a better social standing or those who just missed out on tapping their whole potential. When we delve into the lives of these individuals It’s intriguing and melancholic as even the most thrilling stories are undercut by slipping into relative obscurity.  
The life of the ill-fated James Fitzjames is one of these stories, a man who despite the odds stacked against him became a star of the Victorian Navy. Despite this his notoriety slowly vanished over the years, any information other than his rank and fate on the Franklin expedition became lost. He became known for his tragedy rather than his career and character.

Born in Colonial Brazil in 1813 as an illegitimate child, abandoned as a ‘foundling’ it would have been all too simple for him to be damned by social stigma. His parents were listed under falsified names, however later records during his adult life strongly suggest that his father was a diplomat, James Gambier. A member of a prominent but controversial naval and political family. The identity of his mother is somewhat harder to pin down, its officially unknown but popular speculation at the time and now was that his mother may well have been a Portuguese woman. Potentially crossing the ocean with the infant Fitzjames and serving as a nurse for some years, as argued by the late William Battersby. This is further evidenced by the fact that Fitzjames was fluent in Portuguese from a young age.
A common concern for the families of illegitimate children was a looming fear of the child growing up to ruin their biological family socially or financially. This is likely why the wife of James Gambier arranged for Fitzjames to be adopted by her friends and distant relatives, the Coningham family. Despite his origins they raised him like their own son, alongside their own infant son. The Coningham’s were a respected and prestigious family, Robert Coningham being a reverend and his wife a writer and daughter of an officer in the East India company. His education was impeccable, the family had strong connections the intellectual circles. Their Son and Fitzjames where even tutored by Robert Towerson Cory who would also teach the Prince of Wales.
But despite this James seemed to feel like he had something to prove. He had the ambition to live to the expectations he assigned himself based on his own knowledge of his lineage. His naval career launched when he was only 12. His biological cousin, Admiral Robert Gambier aided his entry by a recommendation. However, it was alongside two other young men and strayed away from implying any relationship, regardless Fitzjames joined HMS Pyramus under the command of Robert Gambier himself. So, why would he been keen to help his estranged relative? The answer may go back to having an element of control over the young man, hoping to keep him on a respectable and controlled path, maybe even somewhat under his thumb.
It is also important to note that this is the very point Fitzames’ story begins to be crafted. Crafted so perfectly it would be nearly a century until the truth was again discovered. In his enlistment forms and subsequent naval records, Fitzames’ origin had been altered. No longer was he the obvious foundling born in Brazil. As far as anyone was concerned, he was born in London. This was the canvas he would build his career on, freeing himself of his true paternity.

By 1828 Robert Gambier had retired for personal reasons, leaving Fitzjames potentially vulnerable. But he was able to prove his worth under the new captain, George Sartorius. He was recognised for his social skills and charisma, further advanced by his budding talent for languages. As previously mentioned, he was fluent in Portuguese but soon developed his French, Spanish and Italian. He therefore became utilised as a translator. This was significant as Pyramus was guard ship that regularly operated in North America, Portugal and Italy. On many of these journeys Fitzjames is recorded as spending more time on land then the ship. He was soon promoted to ‘Volenteer 1st class”, accomplishing all of this by his teens. Even with this flying start Fitzjames’ himself seemed to be inwardly struggling with homesickness. He wrote often to his adopted family, expressing a longing to see them. He indeed returned to his Family in September of 1829, completing his education with privet tutors alongside his brother. (Who left Eton the same year in favour of home education). But when the time came for university, Fitzjames had rejuvenated his passion to pursue his naval career.

His re-entry into the navy was rocky, due to a mistake by his adoptive father he was not placed in the rank appropriate for him. He found himself stuck on HMS Vincent as a volunteer 2nd class rather than the ‘midshipman’ post he desired. He lamented in letters home that he was now being treated passively on a ship where he knew no one. It was however not in his character to give in, the ambitious young man began to fight for a promotion alone. After attempts to reason with his captain (Who was sympathetic but powerless to help, he set his sights on the HMS Asia. It was a ship recruiting in the same port that he kept a close eye on, monitoring every step of its progress and making connections with the local powers. To whom he was able to connect with via a distant family tie to his adoptive ‘grandmama’, these where Sir John Barrow and family. Barrow would go on to write a letter of recommendation that implied that Fitzjames had completed a year of work as volunteer 1st class. Fitzjames with this suggestion and rushed to appeal his case to Captain Senhouse of the HMS Asia, who was impressed by his charisma and education. Senhouse appointed him as a midshipman in February of 1831. Yet by a somewhat amusing twist of fate, the HMS Asia’s command and missions where transferred to the HMS St Vincent. Allowing Fitzjames to smugly return while retaining his new rank. He flourished on the St Vincent, as the flagship for the Mediterranean it welcomed his language skills and he further excelled in advancing his social mobility, bringing him closer to Captain Senhouse and his wife (Attending dinner parties and invited for tea partys with Lady Senhouse.)He earned a place on the HMS  Madagascar for a special mission; Transporting the future king of Greece (Otto of Baveria) back to the country after the civil war. The fact that his fellow shipmates on this particular mission vastly outranked him socially is testament for Fitzjames’ ability to connect to people and use his charm. The crew had the expectation to perform their duties in addition to keeping Otto entertained, the mission included a tour of Italy and Greece. Fitzjames’ contributed by writing and editing a weekly newspaper for the ship, by which be demonstrated not only his wit but that he was just as educated as any of his peers aboard. 

When the time came for his promotion to lieutenant, he had to be careful, playing fast and loose with his Origins and manipulating the system to gain his midshipman placement could ruin his prospects. There was no question in him passing the tests required, he was a capable seaman, he flew though the requirements put to him. He had captain Senhouse to advise him in his former lies stating, “Nothing had better be said of it (his promotion to midshipman) and it will more than likely passed over without notice.” Senhouse had a reason to protect him, it was not simply friendship, but it also risked his own reputation if Fitzjames was revealed as having heated the system with his unintentional help. As far as his paternity was concerned, it was exposed as his birth certificate was a requirement. However, the trust he had from Senhouse made it so that the truth was pushed aside, it was acknowledged but ignored. Later documents only referred to his paternity as “the partys father”. With this in motion all Fitzjames had to accomplish was a further 3 years as midshipman.

In the next few years his military service would allow him to demonstrate his resilience, bravery and determination. Thanks to his promotion to lieutenant he was able to exercise more control among the ranks, but perhaps more desirable to Fitzjames was the opportunity to advance his reputation professionally and publicly. In the 19th century members of the navy or military could earn a celebrity status, within the next decade he’d endear himself to the nation. His first moment in the spotlight, however, was far from the line of duty. While in Liverpool, gunpowder was being loaded onto his ship by the local dock workers. During this one of the workers slipped into the rough waters, he would have drowned if it was not for Fitzjames’ intervention. By all accounts he dove into the Mersey fully clothed. He was honored by the city with the gift of a silver cup and a dinner with the mayor. This was not the only time he’d save a man from drowning as later, while serving in the Euphrates expedition he saved Captain Henderson (HMS Columbine) while they navigated the Suez Canal. His service in the first Opium war as a commander saw him broadening his horizons with leaning more about gunpowder and weaponry. He led four land assaults using rockets, best shown by his commitment during the battle of Chenjiang although he was badly wounded by a musket ball to the chest and other injuries that resulted on him needing crutches. His bravery and possibly the damage he endured earned him a place at the signing of the Treaty of Nanking. Which he attended on crutches. His ego was further boosted when he was requested to write a poem depicting the life of the Navy so the public could revel in the glory of victory. Although this was published under pseudonym Fitzjames made a great effort, writing a 10,000-word poem.

The Signing of the Treaty of Nanking.
J.Fitzjames featured (Back row) forth from the left.

Aside from his recognition for his body of work, he also had a colourful social life. In the navy he made life long friendships, particularly with Henry Thomas Dundas Le Vesconte. The pair worked together for 12 years and served on the same ships during the opium wars and later during the Franklin exhibition. Together they shared a passion for science and coastal surveillance, having worked on many volumes of observational research together to improve naval practices. They were also known to spend a lot off their free time of duty exploring local historical sites. He also gained a reputation for his quick wit and practical jokes. As a prolific writer of journals and letters whilst on deployment we have insight into his ability to entertain with recounting his experiences. Those who fell victim to his jokes held no hard feelings, they were privet rather than staged to humiliate. For example, upon his return from the Euphrates expedition he’d become tanned and unshaven, obscuring his identity enough to fool an old friend to believing he was a Turkish representative. He convinced the friend to give him a tour of the ship he was serving on. The charade continued until the friend pointed out a beam in the lower deck proclaiming “Look, High. Very High.” Fitzjames responded by launching a high kick at the beam (Which he managed to hit) and agreeing in a ‘very hearty English’ “Yes, Very high indeed.”

Many believe one of the most career defining moments for Fitzjames maintaining his relevance after the war was the role, he played in saving John Barrow’s son from public scandal. Just what this scandal was we don’t know. What we do know is Fitzjames spent a large sum of his personal funds to bail George Barrow out of the mess. The already strong friendship he had with the family grew into one where John Barrow sought to repay the favour, which furthered his career sealed his fate. Because it was by John Barrow’s intervention that Fitzjames was given a role in the Franklin Expedition. Barrow even fought for Fitzjames to captain the whole endeavour, alas the admiralty could not agree to this as he lacked the Artic experience that so many other candidates had. However the admiralty’s interest was piqued, they appointed him as commander of the HMS Erebus and assigned him responsibility for the scientific research as well as the majority of the recruitment.  This couldn’t have come soon enough for the young sailor, who, once again was broke. His appointments after the war where half the pay he had become accustom to, the Franklin exhibition would finally double his pay again.
It would be unfair to argue that this position was purely as a result of Barrow’s intervention. He may have raised awareness for Fitzjames but the tasks given to him where based upon his own merits. He may not have been a scientist the professional sense, but he had for many years, taken it upon himself to study data and collect his own observational data. Many letters and journals we have from Fitzjames show that he had a fascination with icebergs and magnetism. Recruitment was also a fitting role for him, he excelled in finding individuals who were experienced with artic voyages in addition to being able to persuade those he had served alongside before, as was the benefit of having worked on so many vessels, including a number of Opium war veterans. One such man had been a surgeon he’d encountered during the Opium war, who Fitzjames trusted him immensely in his profession but did not spare him from his typical cutting wit, describing him as “[his] shirt sleeves tucked up; giving one unpleasant ideas that he would not mind cutting one’s leg off immediately — ‘if not sooner. He is thoroughly good-natured and obliging, and very attentive to our mess.” It can be assumed that Fitzjames’ loyalty and desire to have him onboard could stem from him potentially being the surgeon who attended his wound. Finally, Fitzjames had the potential to become the next celebrity explorer. He was young, Athletic and handsome. A war hero who did not shy away from public appearances and spoke well. The Victorians craved men like this to further national pride by laying claim to the unknown regions of the world. Once more, they wanted to know all the details presented in a theatrical way.

James Fitzjames’ career was brought to an untimely end; the Franklin exhibition would end in disaster and the deaths of all the crew. What exactly happened to Fitzjames may never be known as there is no formal grave or record of his death. The very last record of him being alive comes from a status report left at Victory Point in a Cairn (A stone capsule polar explorers left to communicate with others) that was signed by himself and Crozier. The note is dated as 25th April 1848 and explains that Franklin has died along with 15 men and 9 officers. We also can see that in the wake of Franklin’s death Fitzjames has assumed the role of Captain of HMS Erebus and become second in command of the mission. As the failed rescue missions reported back with the grim news the public turned the lost men into tragic hero’s that embodied the spirit of adventure. Therefore Fitzjames’ legacy became that of a tragic figure of the one expedition, over the century his full story had all but been forgotten, forever shadowed by his role in the ill-fated artic voyage. The historical community did not even truly know of his origins or early until 2009. Figures such as the naturalists Albert and Clement Markham idolised him for his final years, citing him in many letters and journals. It doses somewhat of a disservice to Fitzjames, who was less of an ‘explorer’ and more diverse. Although I cannot speak for his mindset it seems to be the case that his goal was to continue further his position in the navy and prove himself worth captaincy by way of all the additional duties he undertook aboard the Erebus. He’d been assigned the position rather the volunteering and rose to it so as not to insult Sir Barrow. For Fitzjames this was a chance for advancement and act on his own merits, it was advancement to higher role in his career, a prospect he was keen to engage in but a stepping stone none the less.

2 thoughts on “The forgotten career of James Fitzjames.

  1. Astonishing story – I do a lot of naval history and must admit I’d not heard of Fitzjames or his poetry and scientific bent! I guess this was the era when naval officers were expected to be jacks of all trades (and usually were); one of my favourites is the way Captain William Hobson was expected to negotiate a treaty with New Zealand Maori in 1840 and then run a colony, neither of which he had been actually trained for. But he did it anyway.


    1. Thank you, I can certainly agree that so many men of this age prided themselves of being multi-talented. I unfortunately cannot say to much on Fitzjames’ as a poet. “Voyage of the HMS Cornwallis’ feels like satire or a panicked effort to fulfill the request. With lines such as
      “We get plenty of rice, fowls, eggs, and chow-chow’
      But no milk to our tea, though so near to My-cow”(Macao).
      The pressure to fulfill their duty as well as the expectation must go beyond it in an instant must have been daunting,


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