Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Middleton, Christopher (d.1770)

MIDDLETON, CHRISTOPHER (d. 1770), commander in the navy and Arctic voyager, was from about 1720 in the employment of the Hudson's Bay Company, and seems to have been early recognised as a capable servant of the company and a scientific navigator. In a memorial which he addressed to the admiralty, apparently in 1750 (Captains' Letters, M. 17), he stated that for several years before 1741 he had commanded a ship which was worth to him, one year with another, 800l. As early as 1721 he observed the variation of the magnetic needle at Churchill (Phil. Trans. xxxiv. 73); and he claimed ‘to have found, from repeated observations, a method of obtaining the true time at sea by taking eight or ten different altitudes of the sun or stars when near the prime vertical, by Mr. Smith's or Mr. Hadley's quadrant,’ and to have practised it from about 1737. This is the method of finding the ship time now in daily use at sea, for determining the longitude; whether Middleton found it out himself or not, he must have been one of the first to practise it, for Hadley's quadrant was only introduced at a meeting of the Royal Society in 1731. On 7 April 1737 Middleton was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, as one ‘who has communicated to this society several curious observations relating to the variation of the needle in the northern seas, printed in the “Philosophical Transactions”’ (information from the society; Phil. Trans. xxxvii. 71, 76, xxxviii. 127, xxxix. 270); and in 1741 he was, after several years' solicitation, prevailed on, he says, by Arthur Dobbs [q. v.], who promised him a great reward from the public, or at least an equivalent to his profits in the service of the Hudson's Bay Company, to undertake the discovery of the north-west passage. Dobbs, however, did nothing more than obtain for him a commission from the admiralty as commander in the navy, 5 March 1740–1, and an appointment to the Furnace sloop, with pay, for himself and servant, of 7s. 6d. a day. Some two months later he sailed for the Arctic seas in company with the Discovery tender, commanded by Lieutenant Moor.

On 27 June he left the Orkneys; made Cape Farewell on 16 July, and the entrance of Hudson's Strait on the 25th. The passage was clear of ice, and on the 31st he was off Carey's Swan's Nest; here he held a council, which agreed that it was too late in the season to attempt any discovery. By 9 Aug. they got into the Churchill River in search of winter quarters, and for the next six weeks they were busily employed in digging docks for the ships, repairing an old fort that was in ruins, and cutting firewood. By the end of September the winter had set in very cold. They were well housed, well clothed, had an ample supply of fuel and plenty of provisions; but the men suffered terribly from scurvy. ‘By March they almost all had it, and several died.’ ‘In twenty years,’ wrote Middleton in June 1742, ‘that I have used this voyage, I never heard of, or knew any afflicted with this or any other distemper, before the last and this year.’ It does not, however, appear that he had ever before wintered there; and Mr. Barrow has pointed out that the supply of brandy to the men was excessive.

On 20 March, by the observation of an eclipse of Jupiter's satellite No. 1, he calculated the longitude of his position to be 97° W., the true longitude of Fort Churchill being 94° 10′. The error was thus nearly 3°, which, though it would be now considered monstrous, was a mere trifle compared with the enormous errors which were at that date the rule [cf. Legge]. On 1 July 1742 the ships left the river and examined the coast to the northward. On 12 July they were off a cape which Middleton named Dobbs; and on the 13th they entered ‘an inlet or strait which makes a fair opening.’ A short experience of the tides convinced Middleton that it was only a river, and he named it Wager River. The tides showed him that the Frozen Strait was the passage to the sea; but this was choked with ice, and his men were very sickly. On 15 Aug. he held a council, which determined that they ought to bear away for England. On 15 Sept. they arrived at the Orkney Islands, where several of the sick men were put ashore. But most of both crews were ‘very much afflicted with the scurvy and otherwise distempered.’ After recruiting them as much as possible, Middleton pressed men to take the ships to the Thames, where he arrived on 2 Oct. 1742.

The results of the voyage were mainly negative; but though more might perhaps have been done had not the ships been, as Middleton put it, ‘pestered with such a set of rogues, most of them having deserved hanging before they entered with me,’ and had not the scurvy raged so terribly among them, Middleton still felt warranted to express a strong opinion that there was no passage to the westward in that direction; that Wager River was a river and not a strait, and that the flood tide came from the eastward through the Frozen Strait. Dobbs took on him to controvert this opinion. Middleton, he alleged, had taken no pains to assure himself whether Wager River was a river or not; or rather, he had in reality found it to be a strait, but concealed the discovery in the interests of the monopolists, his old masters of the Hudson's Bay Company. The admiralty called on Middleton to answer the charges laid against him, which he did publicly in ‘A Vindication of the Conduct of Captain Middleton’ (1743, 8vo). Dobbs's personal interest, however, was considerable, and the admiralty hesitated as to accepting Middleton's statements; so that, although the war was calling for the services of every capable officer, he was left unemployed for nearly two years. It was not till 8 June 1745 that he was appointed to command the Shark sloop of war. In her he was stationed on the coast of Scotland during the rebellion, and claimed to have rendered exceptional service by his intimate local knowledge. When Scotland was quieted he was sent to the coast of Flanders, under the orders of Commodore Matthew Michell [q. v.] At the peace he was put on half-pay; and though in his memorial he represented the great loss to which he had been subjected, he received neither compensation, nor promotion, nor employment, but remained on the half-pay of his rank, 4s., till his death, 12 Feb. 1770 (Half-Pay List).

[Coats's Geography of Hudson's Bay, with an Appendix containing Extracts from the Log of Captain Middleton … in 1741–2, edited for the Hakluyt Society by John Barrow; the Vindication and Memorial referred to in the text; the official letters in the Public Record Office, several of which are published by Barrow; see also Phil. Trans. vols. xl. xli. xlii. Besides these there are the pamphlets alternately by Dobbs and Middleton in their controversy. Sir John Barrow, in his Voyages into the Arctic Regions (1818), inclined to the belief that Dobbs was right, and that Middleton was either deceived or was deceiving. But Middleton's correspondence with the admiralty has every appearance of honesty; and his good faith was proved by Moor's subsequent voyage described by Henry Ellis [q. v.], and still more fully afterwards by Sir William Edward Parry [q. v.]]

J. K. L.