Admiral Albert Hastings Markham was one of the more remarkable admirals to serve in the Royal Navy during the late Victorian period. During his lengthy career he served as an arctic explorer, fought pirates off the coast of China, opposed the slave trade in the South Seas, and even designed the flag of New Zealand. He was also a prolific author, mainly producing books about the areas he had explored.
One thing that stands out is how much freedom Markham had to indulge in his own interests. Although his major Arctic expedition was an official Royal Navy project, his later visits to Novaya Zemlya and to the far north of Canada were both private ventures (in the case of Novaya Zemlya he was actually attempting to visit the Franz Josef Land archipelago (only known to the outside world since the 1870s), even further to the north, but didn’t get that far. Despite his failure to reach the islands, one of the key straits between the islands is named the Markham Sound in his honour). He also had time to visit the American West.
His actual naval career wasn’t terribly impressive, but to a large extent that was due to the times in which he served. The late Victorian navy may have dominated the worlds oceans, but it did it without having to fight any major battles – Markham’s active career fell into the gap between the Crimean War and the First World War, and many famous sailors of the period actually gained most of their military experience onshore! Markham served in the Far East, so gained some experience of naval operations along the coast of China. When he gained command of his own ship one of his most famous missions saw him given the thankless task of trying to intervene in the ‘blackbirding’ trade, which saw mainly Australian ships kidnap people from the Pacific Islands to work in Australia. Markham was unable to make much impact here, as the Australians courts tended to back the ‘blackbirders’ against the Navy, and his command was controversial.
The most famous incident in his career was an infamous naval disaster which helped to illustrate the inflexible nature of the late Victorian Navy. In 1893 he was second-in-command of the Mediterranean Fleet, under Admiral Sir George Tryon, a difficult man with a reputation as a tactical genius. On 22 June 1893 the fleet left Beirut to head to Tripoli. Tryon wanted to try out a new signalling system he had developed, but he ended up issuing orders that would inevitably lead to a collision between his own flagship, the Victoria, and Markham’s Camperdown. On the fatal morning none of Tyron’s own crew had the nerve to challenge these orders. Markham briefly considered sending a signal to query them, before receiving a curt message from Tryon’s flagship – ‘What are we waiting for?’. At this point a combination of a rigid obedience to orders and the assumption that Tryon had a cunning plan led Markham to abandon the plan to query the orders and instead obey them. Just as he had feared this resulted in a collision beween the two ship, as a result of which the Victoriawas sunk with heavy loss of life (including Tyron). Markham wasn’t officially blamed for the incident, but his career suffered for many years afterwards.
This is one of those biographies that reads more like an adventure story, and gives an interesting insight into the possibilities of a naval career during the period of the Royal Navy’s domination of the seas, even in a period without any major wars.
1 – A Son of the Ocean
2 – Anarchy in the Far East
3 – The Martyrs of Nukapu
4 – The Chosen Band
5 – Into the Arctic Unknown
6 – The American Frontier and Novaya Zemlya
7 – A Gentleman Adventurer
8 – The Fiend of Misfortune
Author: Frank Jastrzembski
Publisher: Pen & Sword Maritime