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Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy (original 1998; edition 2001)

by Fergus Fleming

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273441,545 (4.14)6
Member:dwdoug
Title:Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy
Authors:Fergus Fleming
Info:Grove Press (2001), Paperback, 512 pages
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Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming (1998)

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This is a companion book to the author's Ninety Degrees North, which focuses exclusively on Arctic exploration in the latter 19th and early 20th centuries. This book covers exploration in the Arctic, Antarctic and Africa in the first half of the 19th century, centred around those explorations sent out by the Second Secretary to the Admiralty, the very wilful and determined Sir John Barrow. These expeditions were largely to the Arctic, which I found the most interesting destination, and indeed the digressions to Africa rather jarred for me, though they petered out half way through the book (they would no doubt have fitted much better in a book devoted to the important topic of African exploration). The early visits to the then almost entirely unknown Antarctic were very intriguing and one can share their wonder at perceiving for the first time the massive Ross Ice Shelf and the volcano Erebus. Overall, what struck me in particular was the sheer amateurishness of so many of the early efforts, carried out in a death or glory frame of mind, sometimes ignoring the fact that the explorer in question might have had no previous marine experience, have a dislike for cold weather (or hot weather in the case of going to Africa), or a lack of leadership skills. This even applied to explorers who became very prominent such as Sir John Franklin, the mysterious disappearance of whose last expedition in the 1840s, and the numerous attempts at rescue, offer an eerie few chapters near the end of the book. Another feature that is prominent throughout is the sheer brutal length and misery of the Arctic winter that appears to last from about September to July, and the fact that many crews overwintered for a number of years in succession and might move very little distance in the interim. They had tremendous courage and stamina, whatever else one might say about some of mistakes and casual attitudes towards life and health that form prominent features of this fascinating saga. ( )
  john257hopper | Aug 30, 2013 |
This is an extremely exciting book which details nineteenth-century British naval officers' attempts to discover the Northwest Passage and to discover the source of the Niger. Fleming does an excellent job of describing the conditions on board a ship which is trapped in the Arctic ice, or the travails of trying to cross the Sahara.

Some readers may feel that the book is perhaps excessively long, or that the juxtaposition of material concerning the Arctic and Africa is incongrous. ( )
  BareRuinedChoirs | Nov 27, 2011 |
This is a book about English explorers and their dangerous adventures in African, Arctic, and Antarctic regions during the 1800s.

I really enjoyed this book for the most part and learned quite a bit. Once in a while I got a little bored, but there were so many exciting parts. It is hard to believe what these explorers endured. ( )
1 vote itbgc | Jan 28, 2008 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802137946, Paperback)

There's something about the overwhelming emptiness and terrifying beauty of the polar regions that never fails to attract. They are the most powerful symbols we have left of a world where human-made laws and values count for nothing; no one conquers the frozen wastelands--they merely learn to live by the rules nature dictates. It is easy to see how for a long time the lives of the polar explorers were shrouded in quasi-mystical and heroic terms. This all changed in the 1970s with the publication of Roland Huntford's magnificent biography of Scott and Amundsen, now called The Last Place on Earth, in which he systematically and methodically revealed the levels of incompetence and arrogance with which Scott's expedition was riddled.

In Barrow's Boys Fergus Fleming takes us on an incisive and witty journey through the landmark years of British exploration from 1816 to 1850, marveling at both the bravery and the stupidity involved. Fleming is a historian first and foremost, so he begins by placing exploration in its context. It wasn't some high-minded idealism or wacky sense of adventure, as is often suggested, that placed Britain at the forefront of discovery, but economics and self-interest. At the end of the Napoleonic wars, the British Navy was too large for its peacetime needs. Officers were laid off and advancement was slow, so the Navy needed to find itself a role. Charting the unmapped areas of the world seemed as good an idea as any.

Step forward John Barrow. Barrow was only the Second Secretary at the Admiralty--not normally a position of great influence--yet he was a skilled politician, and he managed to carve out a niche for himself by organizing expedition after expedition. He started inauspiciously by sending Captain James Tuckey off on an ill-fated jaunt up the Congo in search of "Timbuctoo," which was at that time imagined as some African El Dorado, and he ended in failure with the loss of Franklin's expedition to find the Northwest Passage. In between he courted triumph and tragedy; Ross discovered Antarctica, Parry opened up the Arctic with his attempt on the Pole, and Captain Bremer failed to establish northern Australia as the new Singapore.

Fleming has a great feel for the telling detail. He doesn't get lost in endless minutiae that distract from the narrative, but he never fails to remind us of the surrealism of British 19th-century exploration--cocked hats and reindeer-drawn sledges in the Arctic, frock coats in the Sahara. When put like this, it makes it all too easy to see how Scott could have been allowed to botch his journey to the South Pole quite so catastrophically. --John Crace, Amazon.co.uk

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:43:01 -0400)

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