Opening the Suez Canal 1869 – and Death in the Ice

Anybody interested in the Royal Navy of the Victorian era cannot but be fascinated by the sheer variety of tasks undertaken by the large number of gunboats in service. These small but usually heavily-armed vessels were not intended for service with the fleet, but rather for any necessary “odd-job” in a remote location. Though steam-propelled, they usually carried an auxiliary sailing rig to allow them to operate far from bases and sources of coal supply. The sheer variety of tasks they undertook, and the fact that in pre-radio days a captain was essentially incommunicado with his superiors from the moment he sailed over the horizon, demanded a high degree of initiative from the men who commanded them. As such they often offered splendid opportunities to ambitious young officers.

HMS Thrush – a gunboat of 1889
Though of steel construction she was very similar in layout to earlier wooden gunboats such as those of the Philomel Class 

Typical of the gunboats of the Mid-Victorian period were those of the Philomel-class, of which 20 were completed between 1859 and 1867. Of wooden construction they were of 570 tons on a length of 145 feet overall. The 325 hp engine, driving a single screw, gave them a maximum speed of some nine knots. With a crew of 60, these vessels were designed to carry very heavy gunpower for their size – one 68-pdr muzzle-loader, two 24-pdr howitzers and two 20-pdr breech-loaders.

Two of these vessels, Newport and Pandora, launched in 1868 and 1861 respectively, were to have especially dramatic – and eventually tragic – service lives. The former was however to play the star role in an act of insolence that was to arouse widespread admiration in Britain, if nowhere else!

Eugenie (front right) at opening ceremony, with her is he Sultan of Turkey and Emperor Franz Josef 

The Suez Canal, financed and constructed over a period of ten years by a French consortium, was due to be opened on November 17th 1869. This was to be one of the most grandiose events of the century. Hosted by the Egyptian Khedive, Ismail, invitees to the ceremony included the Sultan of Turkey and European royalty, of whom the most prominent was the French Empress Eugenie, consort of the French Emperor Napoleon III. Others included the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and the Crown Prince of the Netherlands. Queen Victoria, still in ostentatious mourning seven years after the death of her husband, did not attend but sent her son, the Prince of Wales. Among a host of distinguished visitors was, somewhat incongruously, the Norwegian dramatist Hendrik Ibsen.

 Opening ceremony at Port Said November 1869

Luxurious temporary structures were erected, similar to those of the popular universal expositions of the period. For Eugenie a replica was provided of her private apartments in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. The cost of the three weeks of festivities was to be covered by the brutally over-taxed Egyptian rural population, whose forced labour had already been used to dig the canal.

The high point of the ceremonies was to be the first transit of the canal. This honour was to be accorded to the Empress Eugenie in the French Imperial yacht L’Aigle.

 L’Aigle, the French Imperial yacht

On the night before the transit a large quantity of shipping was waiting at the canal entrance, ready to follow the L’Aigle on its course through it.

At this point, enter the gunboat HMS Newport, assigned to survey work in the Mediterranean and commanded by an up-and-coming Royal Navy officer, Commander George Nares (1831-1915).

HMS Newport’s sister Pandora, virtually identical to each other

At this point, enter the gunboat HMS Newport, assigned to survey work in the Mediterranean and commanded by an up-and-coming Royal Navy officer, Commander George Nares (1831-1915). Whether or not on his own initiative or by official sanction, Nares manoeuvred the Newport in total darkness, and without lights, through the mass of waiting ships until it was in front of L’Aigle. When dawn broke the French were horrified to find that the Royal Navy was now first in line and that it would be impossible to pass them. The result was that Nares and the Newport were to push on through the canal and thereby deprive the French of achieving the first transit between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. This action – though vastly popular with the British public – was, for diplomatic reasons, to earn Nares an official reprimand. Unofficially he received a vote of thanks from the Admiralty for his actions in promoting British interests and for demonstrating such superb seamanship. Putting the French in second place was always a popular activity in Britain! Nares was promoted to captain that same year and went on to have a very distinguished further career – which is the subject of a separate article (click here to read it).

It is ironic to note that despite all the outward show of international friendship at the opening ceremony, Eugenie’s husband, the Napoleon III ,would be surrendering his army to the Prussians at Sedan some ten months later. The Prussian Crown Prince would be present at that humiliation and Eugenie herself would be fleeing to Britain as a refugee. Her son was to die in British uniform in the Zulu War and she would live on in exile in Britain until 1920.

 First transit of the Suez Canal – HMS Newport leads, L’Aigle and the rest follow!

Let’s now turn to Newport’s sister gunboat, HMS Pandora. The latter was sold by the Royal Navy in 1875 to Sir Allen Young, who used her for his Arctic voyages over the next two years. In 1878 the Pandora was bought by James Gordon Bennett, owner of the New York Herald, and he renamed her Jeannette after his sister. Interested in Arctic exploration – and seeing spectacular “copy” in it – Bennett gained the cooperation of the American government in fitting out an expedition to attempt reaching the North Pole through the Bering Strait. Although privately owned, the ship was to sail under orders of the Navy – as the USS Jeannette – and the 33 officers and men, including three civilians, were to be subject to naval law and discipline.

Contemporary view of USS Jeannette leaving San Francisco for the Bering Strrait

The Jeannette expedition was to be a disaster. Caught fast in the ice pack near Wrangel Island, off the North Eastern Siberian coast, the ship was to drift northwestwards with the ice, ever-closer to Pole itself. Discipline was maintained and scientific observations taken systematically. Finally, on 12 June 1881 the pressure of the ice finally began to crush the Jeannette.  Equipment provisions were hastily unloaded on the ice before the remains of the ship sank from sight. There was nothing for it but to trek southwards towards the Siberian coast with their boats and provisions loaded on sledges. The privations and fatalities suffered by the party, even after they had reached the frozen tundra of Siberia, deserve an article by themselves. Almost superhuman powers of endurance and leadership were involved in saving a remnant of the crew. (Update November 2016: A superb book has recently appeared on this expedition entitle “In the Kingdom of the Ice” by Hampton Sides. It is simultaneously exciting, harrowing and inspirational. I cannot recommentded it too highly. AV)

USS Jeannette survivors dragging their boat across the ice

USS Jeannette survivors wading ashore in Siberia’s Lena Delta

HMS Newport was sold by the Roya Navy in 1881 and bought by Sir Allen Young in May 1881, who had previously bought the Pandora.  He renamed the Newport as  Pandora II  and kept her until 1890 when she was bought by another Arctic enthusiast, F. W. Leyborne-Popham. Again renamed, this time as Blencathra, she was used in an 1893 voyage along the Russian Arctic coast to the Kara Sea and up the Yenisei River as far as Krasnoyarsk, thus taking her to the furthest reaches of Siberia.  Thereafter the Blencathra was sold to a rich sportsman, Major Andrew Coats, who used her for a long hunting voyage to the Arctic waters around Novaya Zemlya and Spitsbergen in 1898.

The ex-Newport’s fate was to bear an uncanny resemblance to that of her sister, the ex-Pandora. By now a veteran of Arctic exploration, the Blencathra was bought in 1912 by the Russian explorer Georgy Brusilov for use in an attempt to explore the North East passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific. For this she was again renamed, now becoming the Svyataya Anna (Saint Anne).

 The Blencathra, later the Svyataya Anna 

In October 1912 the Svyataya Anna became locked in the iced-up Kara Sea off the Yamal Peninsula. There was no immediate concern – there were adequate supplies and there was every expectation of being released in the following year’s thaw. This did not happen however – she remained trapped through 1913. By early 1914 she had drifted so far with the ice that there was no prospect of release in that year either. Supplies were running low, scurvy had broken out and the situation was desperate.  An officer and a crewman were given permission to trek to safety on foot. These were the only survivors and they managed this only after horrendous privations.

The Svyataya Anna and her crew disappeared and among the lost was Yerminia Zhdanko, a 22-year-old nurse, only the second Russian woman to have ventured into the Arctic. Only in 2010 were the bones of a crew-member, a logbook and various other artefacts found  on Franz Josef Land. The mind recoils from imaging the last days of those involved, as terrible the fate which overtook the more famous Franklin expedition.

George Nares, when he undertook his insolent exploit at the opening of the Suez Canal, could never have guessed what would have been the final resting place of his ship. He was howevever to go on himslef to be renowned Arctic Explorer and one of the foremost scientific naval officers of his era.

Sir George Nares in Arctic exploration kit

Click here to read more about Nares’ eventful career 

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