James Weddell

James Weddell (1787 - 1834)

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James Weddell
Born in Ostend, Essex, Englandmap
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Died in London, England, United Kingdommap
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by Raymond John Howgego

Anglo-Scots navigator, sealer, and Antarctic explorer (1787-1834)

Early life

Born in Ostend, Weddell's father was a Presbyterian upholsterer from Dalserf in Scotland who had settled in London and married Sarah Pease, a member of a famous English Quaker family. At the time of James' birth his father was in poor health and died a short time later. In order to provide money for the family, James' elder brother, Charles Weddell, joined the Royal Navy. James, aged nine, joined him as boy, first class, on the Swan, but discharged himself six months later. Charles eventually settled in the West Indies, dying in 1818. James entered the merchant service and was apparently bound to the master of a Newcastle collier for some years. About 1805 he shipped on board a merchantman trading to the West Indies, making several voyages there. However, charged with striking his tyrannical captain, he was handed over to the frigate Rainbow as a prisoner, guilty of insubordination and mutiny. In Jamaica Weddell once again volunteered for service in the Royal Navy and in December 1810 was appointed master of the Firefly. In December 1811 he was moved to the Thalia, and on her return to England and being paid off he was promoted on 21.10.12 as master of the Hope. He was aboard the Hope when in 1813 in the English Channel she captured the True Blooded Yankee, an American privateer. A few months later Weddell was moved to a brig Avon. The Avon was paid off in March 1814 and Weddell was appointed to the Espoir sloop, sailing to the West Indies and Nova Scotia, from which he was promoted to the Cyndus frigate and later to the Pactolus. With the end of the Napoleonic War he was laid off on half pay in February 1816, and for a while resumed merchant voyages to the West Indies.

First Voyage to the Antarctic

In 1819 Weddell was introduced to James Strachan, a shipbuilder of Leith, who together with James Mitchell, a London insurance broker, owned the 160-ton brig Jane, an American-built ship taken during the War of 1812 and re-fitted for sealing. News of the discovery of the South Shetland Islands by William Smith had just broken, and Weddell suggested to Strachan that fortunes might be made in the new sealing grounds. In particular, Weddell was interested in rediscovering the mythical 'Aurora Islands', said to lie to the east of Cape Horn at 53ºS, 48ºW. The islands had been reported in 1762 by the Spanish ship Aurora while sailing from Lima to Cádiz, and then again in 1794 by the corvette Atrevida, which had been sent to find them. Details of Weddell's first voyage are fragmentary; he arrived with the Jane in the Falkland Islands and wintered there from 1819 to 1820, collecting hydrographical information in the Falklands and the surrounding islands. The Jane carried chronometers, a luxury beyond the reach of most sealers, and it is known that these were rated at Staten Island on 27.1.20 before Weddell's vain search for the Aurora Islands. A few days later Weddell, his holds full, left the southern seas for the voyage back to England. He carried letters from other sealers, notably from the Liverpool ship George, which had taken 9,000 seals; and was the first to report the shipwreck of four sealers: the American Clothier (wrecked at Blythe Bay on the north coast of Livingstone Island), and the British Hannah, Lady Troubridge (Captain Richard Sherrat), and Ann.

Second Voyage to the Antarctic

Weddell's first voyage showed a handsome profit for Strachan and Mitchell - enough for them to purchase a second smaller vessel, the 65-ton Beaufoy. In September 1821 the Jane, commanded by Weddel, and the Beaufoy, commanded by the Scot, Michael McCleod, left the Thames, and by August 1821 were at Madeira, where stores were taken on board. After calling at the Cape Verde Islands for salt the two vessels arrived at New Island, in the Falklands. There Weddell encountered Charles H. Barnard, commander and owner of the brig Charity, who had been marooned on the Falklands for two years, 1812-14. It was perhaps at Weddell's prompting that Barnard was to write an account of his experiences (1829). The Jane, Beaufoy, and Charity then sailed for the South Shetlands, arriving late in October 1821. By that time, 45 American and British sealers were in the area and seals were becoming scarce. The three vessels therefore separated to scout for new grounds. On 11.12.21, when 240 miles to the east of Elephant Island, McCleod in the Beaufoy sighted land further to the east - the South Orkney Islands, discovered quite independently four days earlier by George Powell in the company of Nathaniel Brown Palmer. The three captains rendezvoused at Yankee Harbour, on Greenwich Island on 22.12.21, and in February 1822 Weddell, with the Jane, sailed for the South Orkneys where seals were taken and some survey work carried out. The Beaufoy sailed directly to South Georgia, where she was joined later by the Jane. The two vessels sailed for England at the end of March 1822 and arrived in the Thames in July.

Third Voyage to the Antarctic

The next few months were spent frantically re-supplying the Jane and Beaufoy for a third voyage to the Antarctic. Although the major purpose was for sealing, Weddell now had instructions that if no seals were found he should 'prosecute a search beyond the track of former navigators'. This appealed immensely to Weddell, who was more an explorer than a sealer, and the ships were duly equipped with three chronometers, compasses, barometers, thermometers, logbooks, charts, and the new steel pens and graphite pencils. Weddell commanded the Jane, with 22 crew, while the Beaufoy, with 13 men, was given to Matthew Brisbane (c.1787-1833), a Scotsman from a seafaring family. The two ships sailed from the Thames on 13.9.22, and after entering the Atlantic separated: the Jane steering for Madeira, and the Beaufoy for the Cape Verde Islands. By 14.10.22 both ships were off Bonavista in the Cape Verdes. After taking on supplies they sailed on 20.10.22 and crossed the equator on 7.11.22. During the crossing the Jane developed a serious leak, requiring an anchorage to be found on the coast of Patagonia. After searching around the Valdes Peninsula (10.12.22), a harbour was found at Port St Elena on 19.12.22. While repairs on the Jane were being carried out the Beaufoy went sealing along the Patagonian coast. By 1.1.23 the two vessels were in company again, midway between the Patagonian coast and South America, where they searched for an island, the 'Aigle Reef', which had been reported by a variety of navigators, particularly Captain Bristow in 1819, and the whaler captain Robert Poole, of the Aigle. Finding nothing, they arrived off the South Orkney Islands on 12.1.23, anchoring between Saddle Island and Melville Island (= Laurie Island). Sealing proved disappointing, so the two ships headed south, and by 27.1.23 had reached 64º58'S. Weddell, wanting to make use of the long periods of daylight, then turned north to look for land between the South Orkneys and South Sandwich Islands, and on 1.1.23 was at 58º50'S. Weddell was now convinced that nothing new remained to be discovered in those latitudes, and that he should search further to the south. Following the 40ºW line of latitude, the two ships reached 66ºS on 10.2.23, and a week later at 71º10'S were rapidly approaching the furthest south penetrated by any ship in the Southern Ocean. The season was unusually mild and tranquil, and 'not a particle of ice of any description was to be seen'. By 17.2.23 the two ships had reached 74º34'S, 30º12'W. A few icebergs were sighted but there was still no sight of land, leading Weddell to theorize that the sea continued as far as the South Pole. Another two days' sailing would have brought him to Coats Land but, to the disappointment of the crew, Weddell decided to turn back. The region would not be visited again until 1911, when Wilhelm Filchner discovered the ice shelf which now bears his name. Weddell returned north roughly along the 40º line of latitude, passed by the South Orkneys and sheltered at South Georgia, where he and his crews searched for the elusive seal. On 17.4.23 they sailed from South Georgia bound for the Falklands, and on 11.5.23 anchored off New Island. After wintering at the Falklands the two ships sailed on 7.10.23 for the South Shetlands. They survived a ferocious hurricane but were prevented from approaching the islands by thick pack ice, and on 18.11.23 Weddell turned west to search for seals around Cape Horn. On 23.11.23 the Jane and Beaufoy dropped anchor in Wigwam Cove, ten miles north of Cape Horn, and during December made another fruitless attempt to reach the South Shetlands, still locked in ice. In the first week of 1824 the two ships separated: Brisbane and the Beaufoy stayed in Tierra del Fuego until 20.1.24; Weddell cruised the Patagonian coast as far as the Santa Cruz River, then returned to the Falklands on 2.3.24. Seventeen days later Weddell sailed for Patagonia to rendezvous with Brisbane, but by that time the Beaufoy had set off on the homeward voyage and was to arrive in the Thames on 20.6.24. Weddell encountered severe storms, and a leak in the Jane forced him to put in at Montevideo. Repairs completed, the Jane sailed from the Río de la Plata on 4.5.24 and reached the Thames on 9.7.24. His record for a southerly voyage, three degrees beyond that of Cook, caused some raised eyebrows. Rather than confronting the Admiralty with numerous charts and records, Weddell was persuaded by Strachan and Mitchell to incorporate everything in a book, thereby adding credence to his discoveries. The first edition appeared in 1825. In August 1824 Brisbane sailed the Beaufoy from the Thames for a return voyage to Patagonia, Tierra del Fuego, and the Falklands, with particular instructions to revisit the Fuegian islanders they had encountered two years earlier. Brisbane returned to England on 14.4.26 and Weddell added a short account of the voyage, mainly concerning the Fuegians, to the second, enlarged edition of his book published in 1827.

Later life

In 1826 Weddell offered his services to the Admiralty with a proposal for a return voyage to the high southern latitudes, either in command of an expedition sponsored entirely by the Admiralty, or in ships of his own with the costs defrayed by the Government. The proposal failed to meet the approval of John Barrow, and was turned down. Instead, Weddell returned to trading along the warmer Atlantic coasts. In 1829 he was still master of the Jane, but on a passage from Buenos Aires to Gibraltar the Jane leaked so badly that on arrival at Horta, in the Azores, she was condemned and allowed to founder. Weddell and his cargo were transferred to another ship for the passage to England, but this ran aground on the island of Pico, and Weddell survived only by lashing himself to a rock. The loss of the Jane meant financial ruin for Weddell, who was forced to take paid employment as a ship's master. In September 1830 he left England as master of the Eliza, bound for the Swan River Colony, Western Australia. From there he proceeded to Hobart, Tasmania, where in May 1831 he assisted John Biscoe in landing his scurvy-afflicted crew from the Tula. Weddell sailed for England in the Eliza in January 1832 and arrived in the Thames six months later. In London he took up lodgings at 16 Norfolk Street, where he resided in relative poverty and obscurity, apparently supported by a Miss Rosanna Johnstone. He died in September 1834 at the age of forty-seven and was buried in the churchyard of St Clement Danes.

Selected References

Weddell, James, A voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822-24. Containing an examination of the Antarctic Sea, to the seventy-fourth degree of latitude; and a visit to Tierra del Fuego, with a particular account of the inhabitants. To which is added, much useful information on the coasting navigation of Cape Horn, and the adjacent lands (London, 1825; 2nd edn [enlarged], London, 1827; reprinted, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1971).

Balch, Edwin Swift, Antarctica (Philadelphia, 1902 [a thoroughly researched work assessing for the first time a large number of fragmentary primary sources]).

Barnard, Charles H., A narrative of the sufferings and adventures of Capt. Charles H. Barnard, in a voyage round the world, during the years 1812… 1816… (New York 1829; New York 1836).

Gurney, Alan, Below the convergence: voyages towards Antarctica 1699-1839 (London, 1997, 1998 [devotes over 60 pages to Weddell's voyages]).[1]

Resource Notes

Descendents of James Weddle claim to be related.


  1. Encyclopedia of exploration, 1800 to 1850: a comprehensive reference guide to the history and literature of exploration, travel and colonization between the years 1800 and 1850; Raymond John Howgego; Hordern House, 2004 - Biography & Autobiography - 690 pages

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