Short biography of Captain James Fitzjames, RN

James Fitzjames has always been a well-know figure, through his participation in Franklin’s disastrous Expedition. But his past, his family and his background have always been very little know. And there were reasons for this. In the nineteenth century illegitimacy was considered shameful and ‘respectable’ families took great steps to conceal it and protect the reputations of everybody concerned.  Mothers-to-be would be hidden away, perhaps on a long holiday, so that their pregnancy and the subsequent birth could be concealed. Fathers’ families would make sure there were no open links between them and their offspring, and the resulting child would be given an identity which maintained a discrete distance between them and their two families.  There are many examples of this known or suspected both in the historical record and in fiction.  Recently discovered correspondence makes it certain that James Fitzjames was one such child.  While the identify of his mother cannot as yet be proved, and what we know is discussed here, there can be no doubt that he was the son of Sir James Gambier and the evidence for this is reviewed here.

James Fitzjames was born in 1813 and spent his childhood in the household of a wealthy Cambridge-educated intellectual, the Rev. Robert Coningham. The Coningham family had no connection with the Royal Navy, yet in 1825 James Fitzjames embarked on a naval career when he was entered on the books of one of his Majesty’s frigates, HMS Pyramus, as a ‘Gentleman Volunteer’, the most junior rank on the road to a permanent commission. On the Pyramus the young Fitzjames sailed to Vera Cruz in Mexico, the United States, Malta and Portugal, returning to the Coningham household in later 1828 no doubt with many traveller’s tales. The Coninghams withdrew their only son William from school at Eton and engaged a tutor to educate the two boys at home.

Although members of his family had tried to persuade Fitzjames to go up to Cambridge, he was insistent that he wished to resume his career in the Royal Navy. After some dubious dealings he was able to obtain a position as a Midshipman on HMS St. Vincent, a gigantic (for the day) warship which sailed in 1830 to Malta as the Royal Navy’s flagship. Fitzjames served on the St. Vincent until 1834 when she returned to Portsmouth and paid off. During this time he had some exciting adventures, including twice sailing the Hind, a small vessel little larger than a yacht from Malta to Constantinople and acting as part of the Guard of Honour for the newly crowned King Otto of Greece. Throughout the time he maintained a happy correspondence with the Coningham family.

Life took a remarkable turn for him in late 1834 when he was seconded from the Royal Navy to ‘Col. Chesney’s Experiment’. This was a daring attempt to establish a fast steamship line on the Euphrates from northern Syria to the Persian Gulf. This was intended to become one leg of a fast route from the UK to India, avoiding the necessity of digging a canal at Suez. Power politics, the limitations of contemporary technology and the personal failings of the Expedition’s leader Col. Chesney doomed this remarkable enterprise to failure. But the James Fitzjames who returned to England in 1838 from the Expedition was already a remarkable man – a brave explorer and already something of a celebrity in contemporary society. He was also lonely as his beloved guardian, the Rev. Robert Coningham, had unexpectedly died while he was away.

From then on his Naval career blossomed. He passed out with top marks from HMS Excellent, the Royal Navy’s elite gunnery school, and served as gunnery officer on the flagships of the Royal Navy’s largest Expeditionary forces of the day – first to Syria and then to China to fight in the First Opium War. In both wars he distinguished himself with reckless gallantry and he was frankly lucky to have survived, especially after being badly injured in China in hand-to-hand fighting.

He returned to England in 1844 promoted and with excellent connections throughout the upper echelons of the Royal Navy. He leveraged these to join the Franklin Expedition, at the age of 32, in what must have seemed an astute career move. Yet as the world knows Franklin was lost with all his men and even the wily and capable Fitzjames was unable to escape his shipmates’ icy death.

This brief summary gives the bare bones of his career but cannot showcase the brilliance, humour and humanity of this dashing young man – almost a nineteenth century James Bond as one of my friends put it. While some aspects of the book have been overtaken by subsequent research, it stands substantially correct as a tribute to this attractive young man whose life was so cruelly cut short by the disaster which overtook the Franklin Expedition.