Thursday, 26 December 2019

New biography of Admiral Sir Albert Markham

Frank Jastrzembski has done it again!

Just as his book VALENTINE BAKER'S HEROIC STAND AT TASHKESSEN 1877: A TARNISHED BRITISH SOLDIER'S GLORIOUS VICTORY told the story of one of the famous Victorian soldiers who I thought that I knew quite a lot about already – and discovered that I didn't! – his latest book – ADMIRAL ALBERT HASTINGS MARKHAM: A VICTORIAN TALE OF TRIUMPH, TRAGEDY & EXPLORATION – has made me realise just how little I knew about one of the two admirals who was involved in one of the worst peacetime tragedies to strike the Royal Navy during the Victorian era.

The story of the sinking of HMS Victoria by HMS Camperdown on 22nd June 1893 is well known, and the confusion that led to it has been extensively discussed ever since. Was Admiral Tryon mistaken when he ordered his ship to be six rather than eight cables apart when the fateful order to turn was given? Should Admiral Markham been more forceful in questioning what was required of him when Admiral Tryon’s order was given, or did the fact that he was still suffering from the effects of fever cloud his judgement? This book examines what happened and the subsequent effect it had upon Markham’s career in the navy … but it also does far more.

Before reading this book, I was unaware that Albert Markham had taken part in antipiracy operations off the coast of China during the 1850s, nor that he had had an active role during the second attempt to capture the Taku forts and the subsequent sacking of Peking. I was also unaware that Markham had conducted antislavery patrols in the South Pacific to prevent 'blackbirding', the illegal trading of slaves between Queensland and the South Sea Islands, during which he had to take action against some of the local islanders.

He also had an important role in Polar exploration, something that he was encouraged to do by his cousin, Clements Markham. Albert Markham experienced life aboard a whaler in the Arctic Ocean during a period of leave from the Royal Navy, following which he took part in the 1872 voyage of Arctic exploration conducted by HMS Alert. This expedition was intended to see if it was possible to find a route to the North Pole, and – if possible – to reach it. Although the expedition failed to achieve this final goal, it did provide vital information that was of use to later explorers, and Markham proved to be both a brave and intrepid leader of men in one of the harshest environments on Earth. Furthermore, during his six years of involvement in Arctic exploration, he conducted considerable research into the wildlife of the region, which he passed on to learned institutions on his return.

His wandering nature took Markham to the American frontier, where he visited several US Army posts, hunted buffalo, and had spent time with various American Native tribes. He also visited his family – who had emigrated to the United States – and explored the possible route for a railway between Winnipeg and Hudson’s Bay. The latter depended upon the bay being ice-free for some months of the year, and Markham was able to show that in the right conditions, this was feasible.

Intermingled with his travels, Markham served as captain of the Pacific Station’s flagship, HMS Triumph, during the War of the Pacific, before returning to the UK to command HMS Vernon, the Royal Navy’s torpedo school. He subsequently commanded the Training Squadron before taking up his post as second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet. It was in this role that he became involved in the sinking of HMS Victoria.

One aspect of Albert Markham’s life that Frank Jastrzembski mentions in passing, but which particularly interested me, was his membership of Freemasonry. At a time when being a Mason seems to have been very common amongst the English middle and upper classes, it is not surprising that Markham became a Mason; what is somewhat more surprising is that despite not having a stable home for many years, he was very active, and joined a local Masonic Lodge wherever it was possible. He was a member of Phoenix Lodge No.25 in Portsmouth, and was a founder member of The Navy Lodge No.2612. He was also District Grand Master of Malta during his time as second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet.

I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book, and I would heartily recommend it to anyone who has a genuine interest in the Victorian Royal Navy and the men who rose to lead it. It will also appeal to wargamers who enjoy refighting lesser known Colonial actions, as the earlier part of the book is full of scenario ideas. Finally, anyone with an interest in early Polar exploration will hopefully find the chapters that deal with Markham’s involvement as engrossing as I did.

ADMIRAL ALBERT HASTINGS MARKHAM: A VICTORIAN TALE OF TRIUMPH, TRAGEDY & EXPLORATION was written by Frank Jastrzembski and published in 2019 by Pen and Sword Books (ISBN 978 1 526 72592 9).

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