Chapter OneThe Man at the Admiralty
'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?'
These words were written in 1816 by John Barrow, Second Secretary to the Admiralty, in the introduction to Captain James Kingston Tuckey's journal of his expedition to the Congo of that same year. They were read by few but their swords-to-ploughshares sentiment was shared by many, particularly by the officers of the Royal Navy.
Having swelled during the Napoleonic Wars to proportions that would not be equalled for a century, the Royal Navy was in the throes of massive disarmament. On the whole it was a straightforward process. The ships were laid up 'in ordinary' and the seamen were simply thrown back onto the streets from which they had often been press-ganged in the first place. The officers, however, were a different matter. They were career men, they had political clout and they could not be dismissed so easily. In fact, their numbers increased until the navy, reduced to a rump of some 23,000 men from a peak of more than 130,000, had one officer for every four men. But 90 per cent of these officers had nothing to do. Mothballed on half-pay they yearned for something - a war would have been good - to get them back into service. But a war was unlikely. Their only hope of advancement was if someone higher up the Navy List died. Alas, such deaths proved rare in peace. Thirty years on, the navy was still feeling the effects of the Napoleonic Wars. The average age of an Admiral was seventy-six. Below them on the list hundreds of grey-haired captains drew their half-pay with autumnal melancholy. In 1846, of 1,151 officers, only 172 were in full employment.
Half-pay was not a happy prospect, amounting to little more than subsistence. So when Barrow asked the question 'to what purpose' the response was enthusiastic. To what purpose indeed?
Captain James Kingston Tuckey could have told them. But, alas, he was dead.
The Admiralty Board Room, situated on the first floor of Admiralty House, Whitehall, was the nerve centre of the world's largest and mightiest navy. On one wall, surmounting a pair of globes and flanked by bookshelves, was fixed a powder-blue wind clock whose indicator, linked to a vane on the roof, swung through the points of the compass. On another wall, charts hung in rolls nine-deep waiting to reveal the coastline of any given point in the known world. In the middle of the room, flanked by coal fires, the Lords of the Admiralty dispensed power from a mahogany table, seating ten, in the Sheraton-style, with fluted pilaster legs, the surface of light-green leather.
In this room, in 1804, John Barrow took his place as Second Secretary to the Admiralty. With the exception of a brief hiatus between 1806 and 1807, he was to remain there, through Whig and Tory administrations, for the next forty-one years. Although seemingly inferior, the position of Second Secretary was far from being so. The Admiralty Board, which took the navy's executive decisions - as opposed to the Navy Board which concerned itself with supplies and other administrative housekeeping - was overseen by a group of seven lords and two secretaries. The lords were political appointees to a man. They had little knowledge of the navy and, usually, not much interest in it either. They were, however, the men in charge and so, to assist them in their decisions, they called upon the services of the secretaries. The First Secretary was, like the lords, a Member of Parliament. His job was to deal with all political aspects of the navy. The Second Secretary, an apolitical civil servant, was charged with putting his superiors' decisions into practice and keeping the administration running smoothly.
To an outsider who observed proceedings at the green-topped table it would have been obvious where power lay. It lay with the lords - especially the First Lord - with their fine clothes, languid airs and high-toned political opinions. The First Secretary might have talked quite a bit, but he still showed deference. And the Second Secretary? He was the man who kept quiet and took the minutes. A look at the pay of these men would have told a different story. The ordinary lords received #1,000 per year. The First Secretary received four times that amount and the Second Secretary, on #2,000, was on level pegging with the First Lord himself. Between them the First and Second Secretaries were easily the most influential people in the Admiralty.
When Barrow joined this exalted company he was a dark-haired, moon-faced man of forty and was very much the second secretary. Born in 1764 near the town of Ulverston, north Lancashire, he could claim not the slightest drop of blue blood. His parents lived in a small cottage from which his father worked two fields. Socially and economically Barrow Senior was only one step up from a farmhand. John Barrow, however, proved to be a very intelligent child. He attended Ulverston's Tower Bank School until the age of thirteen by which time he could read and write Latin and Greek and was conversant with Shakespeare. A period as private tutor to a midshipman (older than himself) taught him confidence as well as a smattering of navigation. He was hungry for knowledge and had an insatiable appetite for work. Even 'at this early period of life,' he later wrote, 'I had an inherent and inveterate hatred of idleness.' A smug statement. But then he did have cause for smugness.
In quick succession he learned mathematics and astronomy from a reclusive 'wise man', kept the accounts of a local iron foundry, spent a summer whaling off Spitsbergen, attended the Astronomer Royal at Greenwich, and at the age of twenty became tutor to a child prodigy, Thomas Staunton, who was fluent in five languages and from whom Barrow learned how to speak and write Chinese.
Barrow was intelligent. But intelligence alone got a man nowhere in eighteenth-century England. What counted was patronage. Fortunately for Barrow, the child prodigy's father was a baronet. The baronet had the ear of Lord Macartney who, in turn, had the ears of various political dukes and earls. When Macartney was proposed as Ambassador for Britain's notoriously unsuccessful attempt to represent itself at the Chinese court in 1795, the process of patronage trickled downhill. The earls and dukes asked Lord Macartney if he could speak Chinese. He could not, so he asked the Baronet if he knew anybody who could. The Baronet recommended John Barrow, who was thus appointed official interpreter to Lord Macartney's mission.
The embassy was a magnificent failure. Arriving at Peking with gifts which included all the wonders of Western civilization - artillery, telescopes, a coach-and-four, a balloon and pilot - Macartney was treated with hospitable disgust before being dismissed with polite contempt. According to the Chinese Emperor, the presence of a British Ambassador was 'not in harmony with the regulations of the Celestial Empire, we also feel very much that it is of no advantage to your country'. In addition, 'we have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country's manufactures'. And to underline it, 'This is a special edict.'
As interpreter, Barrow must to some extent have been a bearer of bad news. Yet somehow, during this hopeless visit, he managed to ingratiate himself with Macartney. When Macartney was appointed Governor of Cape Colony in South Africa, only a few months after his return from China, he chose Barrow to accompany him.
The farmer's son who spoke Chinese excelled himself. He conducted the first Cape Colony census, mapped parts of the interior as far as the River Orange, in Namibia, made a few amateur geological surveys, and even contrived an interview with Shaka, King of the Zulus, whose impis would soon throw southern Africa into disarray. (A man of 'much good sense and prudence', wrote Barrow, a little hastily.) In 1799, aged thirty-three, he married the daughter of a Stellenbosch judge and settled in a cottage at the foot of Table Mountain before returning to Britain four years later.
Whilst in Africa Barrow had managed to find another patron. General Francis Dundas, who had taken over the Governorship from Macartney in 1798, was part of the vast and influential Dundas clan whose members permeated the navy, military and parliament. His uncle was Lord Melville, a brutal and hard-nosed politician who was appointed First Lord of the Admiralty in May 1803. The day after his appointment, on the advice of Macartney and Dundas, Melville called Barrow to the Admiralty and informed him that he was to be Second Secretary.
Melville had chosen well. The post required somebody who was a bureaucrat, who knew what he was doing, and who respected rank. Barrow fulfilled all these criteria. He was a bureaucrat par excellence, who proved capable of reading and answering up to 40,000 letters per year; he had a passing acquaintance with life aboard ship, had experience of international affairs and had written, two very well-received books on China and South Africa. Above all, he was a farmer's son from Lancashire who venerated the system which had got him so far.
The First Lord, however, whom Barrow duly praised for his 'urbanity, the kind and friendly manner in which his Lordship received all officers of the Navy, his invariable good humour, and above all his admitted impartiality', was impeached two years later for granting contracts to his friends, peculation, and misappropriation of government funds. He fell with a thunder that even Napoleon noticed.
But Barrow survived. He was too junior to be involved with such shenanigans. Moreover, as he argued, he had a job to do and would do it under any administration. Having achieved office, he was damned if he would let it go, come Whig or Tory, and remained at the Admiralty until the age of eighty-one, thus establishing himself as Britain's first true civil servant.
On the surface, Barrow was a humble, unassuming clerk. He ate and drank in moderation - plain food and the occasional glass of port - and rarely took any exercise. Religiously, every summer, he took a month's holiday in the English countryside. He never went abroad - 'except twice or thrice I had a run on the Continent'. He never fell ill, never took any medicine - in 1846 he had his pulse taken for the first time in fifty-three years - and his weight never varied from ten to eleven stone. As he liked to say, 'much may be ascribed to a regular and systematic course of life, to moderation in eating and drinking, and avoiding excess in both'. His daily routine was unwavering. He did his work, came home, had dinner with his family, and then did a bit more work. He was so wedded to his Admiralty desk that it was presented to him as a retirement present. All in all, he appeared the model of dullness.
Now and again Barrow ventured into the limelight. He made no secret of the fact that he had been the last Admiralty official to see Nelson before his death at Trafalgar - the cult of Nelson, and the prestige associated with anybody who knew him, can only be guessed at nowadays - and it was he who suggested in 1816 that Napoleon be exiled to St Helena. But in the main he distanced himself from Admiralty policy-making. To have interfered overmuch might have led him into a dangerously partisan situation. In this respect he was very happy to be merely the man who took the minutes.
Yet behind this unassuming exterior lurked a man of ambition, intellect and remorseless application. Barrow would not jeopardize his post by interfering in decisions, but he was determined to make his name somehow. The route he chose was exploration. His efforts in South Africa had been praised highly: 'I do believe that no person, whether native or foreigner, has seen so much of the country, or seen it so well, and to such good purpose, as he has done,' wrote Lord Macartney. 'I imagine his travels will be a great acquisition to the world. His map must be particularly valuable, as it is the only one that can at all be depended upon.' Barrow was proud of this praise and decided to build on it.
While the Napoleonic Wars dragged on, Barrow carved a niche for himself as a geographer. His books on South Africa and China - four volumes in all - had shed at least some light on those mysterious realms and had been well received, being reprinted in at least one foreign language. Thus encouraged, he had no trouble finding a post as geographical reviewer on the Quarterly Review, a journal designed to counter the influence of the left-leaning Edinburgh Review. When first approached in 1809 by William Gifford, the Quarterly's founder, Barrow was reluctant to submit his 'crude observations' to the public eye - particularly as it had been stipulated that he must understand the subject he was writing about. After cutting his teeth on a few articles about China, however, he soon got into the swing of it. He took care not to overstep himself: 'In all my critical labours I avoided touching upon politics, almost, I might say, altogether,' but even without mentioning politics he found enough to keep him busy. He wrote about China, Africa and America, about naval timber, 'dry-rot doctors and quackery in general', about steam power, canals and railways. He examined the geography, history and customs of countries 'little or not at all known' until there was, by his own admission, 'scarcely a corner of the world left unscrutinised'. His main interest, however, was exploration.
Exploration was an ideal topic for Barrow; it dealt with the unknown and by its nature required no particular
understanding of the subject. All that was needed was a deft and inquiring mind; a reviewer could declaim as stridently
and controversially as he liked without fear of retribution. With increasing confidence Barrow contributed more and
more articles. Luckily, at that time, people were hungry for news about the unknown. Soon Barrow was the
Quarterly's most sought-after contributor. He wore his laurels lightly. The reviews 'were written off hand as
an amusement', he wrote modestly. 'It was to me a relaxation, after dinner, and a relief from the dry labours of the
day.' Nevertheless, an article by Barrow could add 1,000 to the Quarterly's subscription list - an 8 per cent
increase on circulation. His reputation grew to the extent that he was soon being asked to write for the