- Book reviewer
- Biographies and personal histories, Book reviews, History - pre-Federation, Royal Navy, Biographies
- RAN Ships
- None noted.
- September 2006 edition of the Naval Historical Review (all rights reserved)
by Jordan Goodman.
Published by Faber and Faber 358 pages, illustrated.ISBN 1 5712 1973 2
Reviewed by Graeme Andrews.
Who was Owen Stanley that he could get a major mountain range named after him? Even more thought provoking is the fact that the good Captain Owen Stanley never visited the range, he being a naval captain and an ocean surveyor.
There are many interesting tales of the sea and its exploration. The Portuguese, the Dutch, later the British, even the Chinese did more than history records, but when steamships were starting to plod around the globe, there were still sailing ships out there using sextant and lead line to see what was ‘down there’.
This is the tale of one such expedition and the many varied side ventures that attracted themselves to it. The voyage seemed to be something of a follow-on to that of the Beagle and its famous passenger, Charles Darwin. It was of equal success, although the stress and strain of the loneliness of command was eventually to kill Rattlesnake’s Commanding Officer – Owen Stanley.
The voyage was instigated by Francis Beaufort, Hydrographer to the Admiralty (he of the Beaufort Scale) in 1846 with the main aim of finding one or more reliable channels through the reefs of the Great Barrier Reef. If this could be done, the Inner Passage would be of more use and offer better access to Queensland coastal towns than otherwise might be.
As we know, in 1770 Lieutenant James Cook, RN, aboard Endeavour, found the reefs the hard way and was well pleased to be clear of the area. Rattlesnake was to sort out competent passages while her biologist, and a scientifically-inclined surgeon (thereby introducing multi-skilling to the voyage) and other scientists were to reprise the roles of Darwin, Banks and Solander of other voyages.
Because Rattlesnake (built 1822) was a major naval vessel, the beautiful people of Hobart and Sydney were loath to let the voyagers proceed while there was time for yet another social soiree. The local government officers also grasped the opportunity to ‘tack on’ some extra work, without the benefit of the agreement of the Admiralty – far distant in UK.
When Rattlesnake finally sailed on her major project, she was also involved in the ill-fated and over-equipped Edmund Kennedy expedition towards Cape York. Stanley was also required to check up on Port Essington in the (now) Northern Territory with a view to offering an opinion on the value of the outpost and, if he was not impressed, he was to offer a better location for official consideration.
When all this was done, the chain of islands which make up the eastern end of the New Guinea ‘dragon’ were to be explored!
Aboard Rattlesnake was a gifted naturalist, John MacGillivray, who was inclined to become emotional – it was said to be the ‘Celtic’ in him. The assistant surgeon, Thomas Henry Huxley, grandfather of Aldous Huxley (of Brave New World fame) was keen to make his name in biology and was lovelorn the while. Stanley’s cabin steward hated him but tried to conceal it while Huxley, according to his diary, blew hot and cold over Stanley, but finally realised the weight carried by the commander of a sailing ship – but only after Stanley died in Sydney, during an epileptic fit, at the age of 38 years.
Jordan has done a wonderful job with this book. There is the impression at times that the author was actually aboard, so well does he understand and explain the problems of life in an old, leaking, cockroach-ridden wooden ship in the Wet Season with water supplies faltering.
Stanley brought his people home alive, if not well. It was a great job and it brought great kudos all round, but it cost Stanley his life. Perhaps that was why that remote mountain range was given his name.