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Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring,…

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

by Fergus Fleming

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Title:Barrow's Boys: A Stirring Story of Daring, Fortitude, and Outright Lunacy
Authors:Fergus Fleming
Info:Grove Press (2001), Paperback, 512 pages
Collections:Your library

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Barrow's Boys by Fergus Fleming (1998)


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An exceptional narrative history of the early Arctic explorers (with the odd jaunt to Timbuctoo and Antarctica thrown in for good measure). Prompted by the Second Secretary to the Admiralty, Sir John Barrow, scores of classic stiff-upper-lipped British explorers set out to fill in the blank areas of the map. "What lay at the North Pole? Did Antarctica exist? Was there a North-West Passage? Where was Timbuctoo? What lay at the heart of Africa?" (pg. 9). With the Napoleonic Wars at an end, Great Britain was starting to flex its Imperial muscles. It was considered intolerable if "other countries should open up a globe over which Britain ruled supreme." (pg. 11).

Unfortunately, the ventures were often that peculiar mix of stout-hearted bravery and bumbling incompetence which those of us in Britain have long considered our hallmark, coupled with our habitual preference for 'muddling through'. As author Fergus Fleming remarks late on in the book, Barrow's men were stereotypical of the Victorian explorer: "a brave, patriotic chap, steadfast but daring, manly but emotional, confident but modest, willing to carry the banner of queen and country to the furthest reaches of the world; ready not only to face the void but to stare it down, and to do so in blind, cheerful ignorance." (pg. 374). Those of us in Britain have always been somewhat perversely proud of our incompetent failures as long as they have the redemptive quality of courage (witness the lionisation of Scott of the Antarctic, a spiritual descendent of Barrow's boys), and Fleming has provided us with a book chock full of them.

Only 19th-century Britain could have served us such characters. There is the officer who, having distinguished himself in the Sahara, is sent to the Arctic (pg. 106) and claims "he was better able to withstand the cold because he still retained the heat" (pg. 114). There are the officers who traverse the oppressively hot inner regions of Africa in full dress uniform, determined as they are to project all the pomp and power of Britain to the natives (pg. 179). There is the captain who, with his ship completely disabled in the Antarctic oceans by a clash with its sister ship, performs a sternboard (essentially reversing in neutral) in order to outmanoeuvre a fleet of mountainous icebergs (pp355-6). There are the countless, nameless, dauntless seamen who, as Sir John Franklin admiringly notes, enter "upon any enterprise, however hazardous, without inquiring or desiring to know where he is going or what he is going about." (pg. 127). And, overseeing it all, there is the extremely harsh taskmaster Barrow (who was annoyed when an early expedition returned home unscathed, because that "was not what exploration was about" (pg. 57)).

This is not to say that Barrow's Boys is solely a comical look into John Bull playing at explorer. Fleming often notes the very real effects of the poor planning, bureaucratic high-handedness and schoolboy-ish Boy's Own eagerness, not least the tell-tale knife scrapes on human bones indicating that a lost expedition had resorted to cannibalism. Some of the tales (most notably Franklin's two major expeditions and the horrific ordeal of McClure's crew) are positively appalling, and take some of the gloss off what would otherwise just be another ripping yarn. This is welcome, for Fleming offers a balanced appraisal of this era of exploration and the conditions endured. There are countless examples of the sheer indomitableness of the natural world, particularly in the ice lands, which – whilst it is not explicit – I interpreted as a necessary riposte to the hubris of an, here in the form of the British Empire. This means that you can marvel at the tales of derring-do and bravery, and feel patriotic pride in the endeavours of the King's and Queen's men to plant their piece of silk on new barren lands, whilst still accepting that Nature reigns supreme. Fleming allows us to, in effect, have our cake and eat it too.

I could go on and on about the events featured in the book, and there are countless adventures and anecdotes which are worthy of mention. But it is even more worthy to mention that Fleming has taken these stories and woven them into a brilliant piece of narrative history. He is a sympathetic storyteller throughout, imposing his own personality and humour on the prose without letting it get in the way of the facts and the history. It is a great example of the genre, right up there with one of my favourites, The Lost City of Z by David Grann (not coincidentally, also about a British explorer). Fleming's best quality is his eye for anecdote: there are innumerable bizarre events and occurrences peppered throughout the text, and if it took me longer to read Barrow's Boys than it would another book of similar length, it is because I was enjoying it so, so much.

If I have one criticism of the book, it is that the summation at the end (the last chapter, 'Riding the Globe', not counting the Epilogue) was rather too short. Fleming's conclusions are sound, however: for all their bravery and lunacy, Barrow's expeditions were also ones of futility. "Every single one of Barrow's goals had proved worthless in the finding: Timbuctoo was a mud town of no importance; the Niger had little practical application for trade; northern Australia was totally unworkable as the site of a 'second Singapore'; Antarctica was an inhospitable lump of ice; and the North-West Passage… was an utter waste of time. The Open Polar Sea, meanwhile, was not only not worth finding but not even there to be found." (pp422-3). And after all that, the North-West Passage would eventually first be sailed by Johnny Foreigner: the Norwegian Roald Amundsen. Men had died, treasure had been expended, and for little gain in real terms. But it had fired the public imagination and began a love affair with exploration that encouraged the likes of Burton and Speke, Livingstone, Scott and Shackleton, and one which we can still see around us today (the discovery in 2014 of the wreck of the Erebus, one of Franklin's ships from his lost expedition, made headlines around the world). Despite everything, Barrow's boys embodied that primal desire for discovery, exploration and conquest which has driven human progress for millennia. And, as Fleming concludes (pp423-5), what a thrilling ride it all was. The same could be said for the reading of his book. ( )
2 vote MikeFutcher | Mar 28, 2017 |
Arctic exploration and historical adventure entertainment at its best. ( )
  ndpmcIntosh | Mar 21, 2016 |
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 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 Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:16:12 -0400)

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