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COLLINSON, Sir RICHARD, naval officer and Arctic explorer; b. 1811 in Gateshead, England, third son of John Collinson, rector of Gateshead; d. 13 Sept. 1883 in Ealing (now part of Greater London), England.
Richard Collinson went to school until the age of 12 when Captain Thomas Maling, rn, offered to recruit him as a midshipman. He entered the Royal Navy on 2 Dec. 1823 and began his career with a long voyage on Maling’s ship, Cambridge, to the Pacific coast of South America. After his return home in June 1827, he spent a few months of inactivity on board Gloucester until his father obtained a post for him on Chanticleer, commanded by Captain Henry Foster, which was then fitting out for an important surveying voyage to the Atlantic coast of South America. During this voyage, which lasted from April 1828 to May 1831, Collinson took an active part in the scientific work and was praised by both Foster and Horatio Thomas Austin* (who took command on Foster’s death in February 1831) for his diligence and for the accuracy of his observations. His conduct on the voyage won him numerous admirers, notably Captain Francis Beaufort, hydrographer of the navy, whose personal guidance was to establish him in a successful career as a surveying officer.
In December 1831 Collinson joined Ætna, commanded by Captain Edward Belcher*, for a two-year surveying cruise on the west coast of Africa. In September 1833 he was again under Austin’s command for a voyage on the steamer Salamander, replaced a few months later by Medea, to Portugal and the Mediterranean. During the voyage he received the long awaited news of his promotion to lieutenant on 23 March 1835. In December he joined Sulphur, commanded first by Captain Frederick William Beechey* and later by Belcher, for a surveying expedition to the west coast of America between Cape Horn and Mount St Elias (Alaska). Towards the end of the voyage he fell into dispute with Belcher, a common experience for subordinates of that quarrelsome officer, and in June 1838 was transferred to the British flagship in the Pacific. He returned to England in November 1839.
At the outbreak of the 1st Chinese War in 1840, Beaufort secured for Collinson an important post as surveying officer to the fleet. His main task in China was to survey and mark with buoys a number of rivers, notably the Yangtze (Chang Jiang), which were then unknown to European navigators, enabling the British fleet to penetrate with safety to the inland cities. His great success was rewarded with promotion to commander on 18 June 1841 and to post-captain on 23 Dec. 1842, and with nomination as cb. After the conclusion of the war in 1842, he remained in China for four years, surveying the coast from Zhoushan to Hong Kong. In summer 1846 he finally returned home to Durham for a long period of rest.
Collinson was still on leave at his father’s home in autumn 1849 when the government decided upon an intensive search for Sir John Franklin*’s missing ships, following the failure of Sir James Clark Ross*’s attempt in 1848–49. A major expedition under Austin was to search the eastern Arctic by way of Baffin Bay, and Enterprise and Investigator were fitted out for an expedition to the western Arctic by way of Bering Strait. In December 1849 the Admiralty, again at Beaufort’s instigation, offered command of the latter expedition to Collinson.
The two ships sailed from the Thames on 11 Jan. 1850, with Collinson on Enterprise and Robert John Le Mesurier McClure*, his second in command, on Investigator. During the long outward voyage Investigator proved to be much the slower ship and trailed behind. Collinson allowed her to catch up in the Strait of Magellan but the ships soon parted again in the Pacific. He waited a further five days at Honolulu, then sailed north on 30 June hoping to rendezvous in Bering Strait.
Displaying a characteristic concern for the safety of his ship and crew, Collinson chose to avoid the potentially dangerous waters of the Aleutian Islands chain by sailing around its western extremity. This decision, made in spite of Henry Kellett*’s commendation of Seguam Pass as a wide and safe route through the Aleutians and in full knowledge of the urgency of reaching the ice at the beginning of August, proved disastrous for the expedition’s immediate progress. It added a considerable distance to Collinson’s route, delayed his arrival in the ice by a decisive two weeks, and allowed McClure to steal a march on him. McClure had left Honolulu four days after Collinson, but sailed through the Seguam Pass, rounded Point Barrow on 7 August, and went on to winter in Prince of Wales Strait. Collinson entered the ice nine days later, searched unsuccessfully for a clear passage through the pack for a further fortnight, and then abandoned the attempt. He chose instead to winter in Hong Kong, and try afresh in 1851.
On the voyage from Honolulu in 1850, Collinson’s extreme caution had begun to exasperate some of his officers, who already showed signs of the indiscipline and unrest that were to bedevil this expedition more than most. They were baffled by his course around the Aleutians. They queried his insistence on seeking a route directly across Beaufort Sea towards Banks Island, instead of attempting an inshore route around Point Barrow. And some of them clearly resented his decision to return to Hong Kong rather than to winter near Point Barrow. They may have been justified in showing some frustration at the loss of a whole season, but instances of overt criticism and other signs of unrest recurred so frequently throughout the voyage that, on later occasions, Collinson was driven to placing officers under arrest in order to keep them in check.
After the long voyage south, Collinson had only six weeks at Hong Kong to re-stock the ship and rest his crew before setting out northward again on 2 April 1851. This time he arrived in the ice in good season, passed around Point Barrow on 25 July, and, after coasting to Franklin Bay, set his course for Banks Island, hoping to rejoin Investigator. He entered Prince of Wales Strait on 26 August, unluckily just 10 days after Investigator had emerged from wintering there. Half-way through the strait, Collinson found evidence that McClure had explored it before him, but he continued to its northeastern extremity hoping, like McClure, to pass through into Melville Sound and thus complete the discovery of a northwest passage. But both found the sound choked with ice and turned back. Collinson wanted now to find a winter harbour on the west coast of Banks Island. At Cape Kellett on 6 September he found evidence that he was still following Investigator. The next day he met heavy pack and, considering the west coast to be too dangerous for wintering, turned south again, having little doubt that McClure had been forced to do likewise. In fact, Investigator was still far to his north and was about to become inextricably beset in Mercy Bay. Collinson returned to the southern end of Prince of Wales Strait where, in Walker Bay, Victoria Island, he found a safe winter harbour.
In contrast with several other naval searching expeditions, Collinson attempted little exploration by sledge in spring 1852, but he did lead a sledge party up Prince of Wales Strait between 16 April and 6 June to examine the north coast of Victoria Island. He explored it to Wynniatt Bay although, again, he had been preceded a year earlier by a party from Investigator.
Enterprise was released on 5 August and Collinson determined on exploring Prince Albert Sound, then thought to be a strait dividing Victoria Island into three parts. He demonstrated that the three parts were, in fact, a single island. This important discovery, however, far from satisfying him, left him uncertain as to what to do next. Almost despairingly, he chose to continue eastward through Dolphin and Union Strait, Coronation Gulf, and Dease Strait (a dangerous, rocky channel previously believed to be navigable by boat only), and made his way to Cambridge Bay, Victoria Island, where he wintered. More than 50 years later he was to win high praise for his skill in negotiating these straits from Roald Amundsen, who took his little ship Gjöa through in 1905: “His soundings and surveys of this narrow and foul channel were very helpful. . . . Sir Richard Collinson appears to have been one of the most capable and enterprising sailors the world has ever produced. He guided his great, heavy vessel into waters that hardly offered sufficient room for the tiny ‘Gjöa.’”
In spring 1853 Collinson organized only one extended sledge journey, to examine the east coast of Victoria Island northward to Gateshead Island. This choice proved unfortunate because, as he approached his farthest north, he found a note from Dr John Rae* indicating that he had searched the same stretch of coast two years earlier. Time after time on this expedition Collinson had searched a supposedly unknown region, only to find that another explorer had beaten him to it. Worse still, though, he was later to learn that this infuriating duplication of effort had almost certainly cost him the honour of discovering the fate of the Franklin expedition. On the 1853 sledge journey, like Rae before him, Collinson had unwittingly passed within 30 miles of the last relics of Franklin’s retreating crews, lying just across Victoria Strait on King William Island. Unlike Rae, he had had every opportunity to make the crossing to where the relics lay. The Inuit at Cambridge Bay had tried to direct him there, he had even planned to send one of his sledges in that direction, and he had finally been deterred only by his uncertainty about what the Inuit were trying to tell him, the inaccuracy of the map they drew for him, and the roughness of the ice in Victoria Strait. Had he known earlier that on Victoria Island he was merely following in Rae’s footsteps, he would almost certainly have gone to King William Island. In the early summer one of Collinson’s men picked up a wooden fragment, possibly a relic of the Franklin expedition, near Cambridge Bay. Now, however, it was too late to follow up such a clue. The ice was about to break up and, after two years in the Arctic and with fuel supplies low, Collinson was compelled to take the first opportunity to sail back to Bering Strait and home.
The expedition, hampered by ice and weather, was forced to spend one more winter in the Arctic at Camden Bay on the north coast of Alaska. In August 1854 Enterprise finally rounded Point Barrow and met the awaiting crew of Plover, their first contact with Europeans for three years. Enterprise arrived back in England on 5 May 1855. In the mean time, Investigator had been abandoned in Mercy Bay, Banks Island. McClure and his crew had been rescued in 1853 by Kellett and taken home in 1854 on the ships of Sir Edward Belcher, Kellett’s superior.
In spite of his disciplinary problems and his rather limited discoveries, Collinson won high praise from both contemporary and later navigators, notably for his excellent seamanship in negotiating notoriously difficult channels and his perseverance throughout so long an expedition. But the acclaim of his colleagues was not matched at the Admiralty where he received a distinctly frosty reception. He annoyed them by electing to resurrect the matter of indiscipline on board his ship and urging them to court-martial some of the officers. The Admiralty, taking a kinder view of the behaviour of men subjected to the stresses of such a testing voyage, preferred to let the matter rest – an attitude Collinson regarded as a personal affront. Further disappointment came when a select committee of the House of Commons sat to adjudicate the claims to an award for the discovery of a northwest passage submitted by McClure, by Henry Kellett on the basis of his rescue of McClure, and by Collinson. Collinson’s case was undoubtedly strong. He had independently discovered the same northwest passage as McClure – through Prince of Wales Strait – though admittedly a year later. Moreover, he had come close to completing the discovery of another northwest passage, south of Victoria Island, which, as he said in evidence, was at least navigable whereas McClure’s was not. But when the committee reported, Collinson and Kellett were passed over with an honourable mention, while McClure and his men received the £10,000 award.
Collinson was deeply hurt by the absence of any official recognition for his achievements; the only real token of appreciation came from the Royal Geographical Society, which awarded him its Founder’s Medal in 1858. And so embittered was he by the Admiralty’s rebuff in the matter of discipline that he never again approached them for a command.
He maintained an active interest in exploration and the sea. He advised Lady Franklin [Griffin*] on the preparation of her Fox expedition of 1857–59, and he began to involve himself closely in the work of the United Services Institution and the Royal Geographical Society, of which he became a fellow in 1855 and vice-president from 1857 to 1875. In 1861, after the outbreak of the American Civil War, he visited Canada for a short time charged with examining defence establishments along the frontier from the Atlantic Ocean to Lake Superior. Later, he edited an account of Sir Martin Frobisher*’s voyages for the Hakluyt Society.
Collinson also began to develop a new career in maritime affairs. In 1858 he procured an appointment in London as younger brother at Trinity House, the establishment responsible for the maintenance of aids to navigation, such as lights and buoys, on Britain’s coasts and rivers. He became increasingly involved in the work of Trinity House in his later years; he was elected elder brother in 1862, and in 1875 he rose to become deputy master, the working head of the establishment. In that same year, the Admiralty at last offered him full recognition for his services by recommending his nomination as kcb and by promoting him to the rank of admiral (he had already attained flag rank in 1862 and had become a vice-admiral in 1869). Collinson spent the rest of his working life at Trinity House, and retired in 1883, just five months before his death.
Collinson was one of the most highly esteemed naval officers of his day. His early successes as a surveying officer, his excellent work during the Chinese war, and his fine achievements in the Arctic set him on a brilliant naval career that deserved a more honourable end. That he allowed a seemingly minor dispute over discipline to cut short his career shows that he had a stubborn nature, but it also displays some of his finer qualities as an officer. It was not malice that drove him to seek courts martial for his officers so long after the events had occurred, but a strict regard for discipline and justice which, he believed, was “essential to comfort” on board ship. Although his strong commitment to discipline gave him, in his brother’s words, a “somewhat severe manner,” he was otherwise described as kind-hearted, modest, and good-humoured. And, stubborn though he was, he was not a man to bear a grudge. During and after the Arctic expedition McClure, his subordinate, stole much of the glory that was due to Collinson, but Collinson would not join those who condemned him. As a fellow officer, Sir George Henry Richards*, wrote: “he was far too generous and unselfish not to concur and to rejoice in the honours which were bestowed on his second, who, but for his chief’s unsuspicious and trusting nature would never have had the opportunity of making himself famous.”
Richard Collinson edited: [George Best], The three voyages of Martin Frobisher, in search of a passage to Cathaia and India by the north-west, A.D. 1576–8 (London, 1867). His Journal of H.M.S. Enterprise, on the expedition in search of Sir John Franklin’s ships by Behring Strait, 1850–55, was edited by his brother Thomas Bernard Collinson and published in London in 1889.
Albany Museum, 1820 Settlers’ Memorial Museum (Grahamstown, Republic of South Africa), Francis Skead, Private journal kept on board hms Enterprise, 1849–52. Gunnersbury Park Museum (London), Collinson papers, corr., 1826–57. National Maritime Museum (London), CLS/1-54 (papers and journals of Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Collinson, 1811–83). Scott Polar Research Institute (Cambridge, Eng.), ms 248/355–60 (Richard Collinson, corr. with Lady Franklin, John Barrow, and the Admiralty). Roald Amundsen, “The north west passage”: being the record of a voyage of exploration of the ship “Gjöa,” 1903–1907 . . . (2v., London, 1908). G. B., Parl., Command paper, 1852, L, , pp.671–892, Arctic expedition: further correspondence and proceedings connected with the Arctic expedition; House of Commons paper, 1851, XXXIII, 97, pp.195–307, Arctic expeditions: return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated 7 February 1851; – for, copy or extracts from any correspondence or proceedings of the Board of Admiralty in relation to the Arctic expeditions . . . ; 1854–55, VII, 409, pp.1–60, Report from the select committee on Arctic expedition; together with the proceedings of the committee, minutes of evidence, and appendix. Royal Geographical Soc., Proc. (London), new ser., 5 (1883): 606–9. W. H. B. Webster, Narrative of a voyage to the southern Atlantic Ocean, in the years 1828, 29, 30, performed in H.M. sloop Chanticleer, under the command of the late Captain Henry Foster, F.R.S. &c. (2v., London, 1834). DNB. W. R. O’Byrne, A naval biographical dictionary: comprising the services of all living naval officers . . . (new ed., London, 1861), 225–36.
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Cite This Article
Clive A. Holland, “COLLINSON, Sir RICHARD,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 25, 2023, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/collinson_richard_11E.html.
The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:
|Author of Article:||Clive A. Holland|
|Title of Article:||COLLINSON, Sir RICHARD|
|Publication Name:||Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11|
|Publisher:||University of Toronto/Université Laval|
|Year of publication:||1982|
|Year of revision:||1982|
|Access Date:||March 25, 2023|