ON THIS DATE IN 1916: Markham

January 30, 2017


On 30 January, 1916, Sir Clements Robert Markham died in London.

Born at Stillingfleet on 20 July, 1830, Markham joined the Royal Navy in 1844 and spent the next six years serving on various vessels across the world, in the Mediterranean, the Atlantic and Pacific. Following the disappearance of the Franklin expedition in the search for the Northwest Passage there were many rescue expeditions, all of which ended unsuccessfully. Markham volunteered for one such mission aboard the HMS Assistance in April, 1850.

Markham, aged eighteen

Markham, aged eighteen

Across the 1850s, Markham travelled to Peru and India studying geography and surveying as well as being in the employ of British colonial administrations. In 1867-68 Markham served as geographer as part of the British Expedition to Abyssinia, the British Army’s campaign against the Ethiopian empire. It was for this service that Markham was created Companion of the Order of the Bath on 19 May, 1871 (he was later created Knight Commander of the Order the of the Bath in 1896). In 1875-76, Markham was part of a British Expedition to the northern polar regions. Aboard the Alert, much of the coasts of Greenland and Ellesmere Island were charted and the scientific collections of the expedition were significant.


Alert (SPRI)

Markham was close to the Royal Geographical Society for many years. He was first elected to the body’s council in 1862; he was Honorary Secretary 1863-1888; he was elected President of the RGS in 1893. Markham was a prolific writer and published extensively on history, biography, geography, languages, exploration, war, poetry and anthropology. As Secretary and President of the Hakluyt Society, he edited, translated and annotated many works from 1860 onwards.

Michael Smith has written that Markham was the ‘godfather of early-20th-century polar exploration’. It is certain that as President of the RGS, Markham held much influence in the selection, planning, funding and acceptance of any possible explorer with a plan. Smith’s assessment of Markham continued: ‘Markham, crusty, manipulative and ambitious, was a mixed bag of gifted visionary and diehard reactionary. He was an empire builder who pushed exploration to the furthers extremes but ultimately stumbled because his grand schemes were too often rooted in old-fashioned ideas.’

Markham worked hard to get the government and the Royal Society involved in the planning and funding of a British expedition to the Antarctic. The American Geographical Society of New York acknowledged that to Markham ‘was due in large measure, the financing of Captain Scott’s Antarctic expedition of 1901.’ Despite the Royal Society’s choice for a commander, Markham had his mind made up—Robert Falcon Scott. Markham was set on continuing the tradition of the Royal Navy, the great British institution, being at the forefront of polar exploration. However, Markham was strongly opposed to the use of skis and dogs in the ice. As Smith has written, it was ‘a revolution which Markham resolutely ignored’. He glorified the masculine image of the Britons facing the harsh conditions, ‘with their own unaided effort’, as he said himself, in the man-hauling techniques that he had experienced in the Arctic in his younger days.

R. F. Scott

R. F. Scott

Scott remained Markham’s protégé in his polar career and was the poster boy of the RGS and the Royal Navy leading the way in Antarctica. Markham was a major supporter and sponsor of the Terra Nova expedition, which claimed the life of Scott. Though he privately praised Shackleton, Markham was privately critical of the merchant navy man who had reached a new further south point than Scott during the Nimrod expedition.

In his later years Markham continued to travel and write. He was presented with many awards and honorary degrees after a lifetime of literary and geographical activity. On 29 January, 1916, Markham was abed for numerous days following an attack of gout. He was reading by the light of a candle. His bedclothes caught fire and although the fire was extinguished quickly, he was unconscious until the next day, 30 January, 1916, when he died peacefully. His biographer Admiral Sir Albert H. Markham has written of him:

He was a quick writer, an excellent observer; clever in mastering a foreign language; a great judge of character; prompt in making up his mind; impulsive, especially in righting a wrong; a man of great determination; a stanch friend; and of a most lovable disposition.



In another sphere, Frank Debenham said that Markham was a ‘scurrilous old man’. In their obituary of Markham, The American Geographical Society of New York wrote:

Of him it may be truly said that, without intermission, through a long and splendid life- time he responded to the Society’s [the RGS] behest ‘ob terras reclusas’ [‘to lands unknown’ or ‘for lands yet to be discovered’].


Markham, Admiral Sir Albert H. The Life of Sir Clements R. Markham K.C.B., F.R.S. London, 1917.
Mill, H. R. The Siege of the South Pole. New York, 1905.
Smith, M. Shackleton: By Endurance We Conquer. Cork, 2014.

‘Sir Clements Robert Markham Obituary’, The Geographical Review, Vol. I (January, 1916) The American Geographical Society of New York, New York.

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