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Tuesday, May 21, 2019

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Benjamin Leigh Smith

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on November 26, 2013

A now-forgotten British yachtsman and Arctic explorer

Benjamin Leigh Smith was born in the Sussex countryside, the illegitimate son of a Radical Whig politician.  He lived the stigma of illegitimacy for his entire life and was always very shy.  Leigh Smith entered Jesus College, Cambridge at age twenty, earning a BA in 1857 and a Master’s degree in 1861.  He was admitted to the bar, but never practiced law.  He became preoccupied with Arctic exploration, financing his own expeditions.  In 1871, he charted the ice-strengthen ketch Samson and explored the north coast of the Svalbard archipelago, charting for the first time several small islands.  He returned to England with an extended series of data on seawater temperatures in the region.  In 1872, he again chartered the Samson.  Calling first at Jan Mayen, where he mapped several craters, the expedition returned to Svalbard for more observations.  In 1873, Leigh Smith chartered the Arctic steamer Diana to survey Kong Karls Land in the Svalbard archipelago.  During that voyage he relieved a Swedish expedition that had gotten beset in the ice the previous year.  In 1880, he had the screw barquentine Eira (Welsh for “snow”) built to his specifications.  He sailed first to Jan Mayen, where he encountered a Scottish whaler.  On board was the young Arthur Conan Doyle, serving as ship’s surgeon.  Leigh Smith then turned to Svalbard and continued further east.  Briefly beset in the ice, the ship broke free and then reached Franz Josef Land, only the second ship to achieve that feat.  While gathering various specimens, the crew captured two baby polar bears.  Upon return to England, the polar bears were presented to the London Zoo and specimens were donated to the British Museum.  The Eira departed again in 1881 for its final voyage.  The expedition returned  to Franz Josef Land, conducting extensive charting of the area.  Trapped in the ice on 21 August 1881, the hull was damaged and the ship sank quickly.  The crew saved most of the provisions, but was stuck far from home with no winter clothing.  They built a shelter out of turf and stone, with a sail as the roof.  Provisions included 500 pounds of flour, 400 pounds to bread, a barrel of salted meat, tinned foods, and tea.  In addition, the crew had been able to save 70 gallons of rum, 36 bottles of champagne, 60 bottles of beer, eighteen bottles of whiskey, twelve bottles of gin, and some sherry.  They also had various guns and ammunition.  The party was able to kill 34 polar bears and 24 walrus, providing themselves with a meat-rich diet.   After surviving for ten months on meat and alcohol, the party made its way back to Novaya Zemlya and arrived safely in Aberdeen in August 1882.  Leigh Smith declined to attend the meeting of the Royal Geographic Society where a friend presented his paper on Leigh Smith’s behalf and accepted for him the Patron’s Gold Medal.  He thereupon ceased his explorations.