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Royal Naval Biography/Buchan, David


DAVID BUCHAN, Esq.
Principal Sheriff of Newfoundland.
[Post-Captain of 1823.]

This officer obtained a lieutenant’s commission, Jan. 29th, 1806. The first mention we find made of him, subsequent to that period, is in “Barrow’s Chronological History of Voyages into the Arctic Regions,” published in 1818; – Mr. Harrow says:–

“Since the first establishment of the fishery on the banks of Newfoundland, very little communication has at any time been had with the natives of this large island, and for more than half a century past none at all; indeed, it was considered by many as doubtful whether there were on the island any permanent inhabitants, or whether the Indians, some-times seen on the western coast, did not come in their canoes across the straits of Belleisle, merely for the purpose of fishing and killing deer. A settler, however, reported that, in the autumn of 1810, he had discovered a storehouse on the banks of the River of Exploits. Upon this report, Sir John Duckworth sent Lieutenant Buchan, commander of the schooner Adonis, to the Bay of Exploits, for the purpose of undertaking an expedition into the interior, with a view of opening a communication with the native Indians, If any such were to be found. His vessel was soon frozen up in the bay; and on the 12th January, 1811, Mr. Buchan began his march into the interior, along the banks of the river, accompanied by twenty-four of his crew, and three guides; and, having penetrated about 130 miles, discovered some wigwams of the natives. He surprised them and their inhabitants, in number about 75 persons, became in his power. He succeeded in overcoming their extreme terror, and soon established a good understanding with them. Four of the men, among whom was their chief, accepted his invitation to accompany him back to the place where, as he explained to them by signs, he had left some presents which he designed for them.

“The confidence by this time existing was mutual, and so great, that two of Mr. Buchan’s people requested to remain with the Indians till his return with the presents. They were permitted to do so; and Mr. Buchan set out on his return to his depot, with the remainder of the party and the four Indians. They continued together for about six miles, (to the resting place of the night before,) when the chief declined going any farther, and with one of his men took leave, directing the other two to go on with Mr. Buchan. They did so, till they came near the place to which they were to be conducted, when one of them became panic-struck, and fled. But the tempers of the two men were different. The other remained unshaken in his determination, and with a cheerful countenance, and an air of perfect confidence in the good faith of his new allies, motioned to them with his hand to proceed; disregarding his companion, and seeming tn treat with scorn Mr. Buchan’s invitation, to depart freely if he chose to do so. Soon afterwards the party readied their rendezvous; slept there one night; loaded themselves with the presents, and returned again to the wigwams,” (leaving eight men behind in charge of the depôt). “The behaviour of the Indian remained always the same. He continued to shew a generous confidence, and the whole tenor of his conduct was such as Mr. Buchan could not witness without a feeling of esteem for him. On arriving at the wigwams they were found deserted, and the Indian became exceedingly alarmed. Many circumstances determined Mr. Buchan to let him be at perfect liberty; and this treatment revived his spirits. The party spent the night at the wigwams, and continued their route in the morning. They had proceeded about a mile, when, being a little in advance before the rest of the party, the Indian was seen to start suddenly backward. He screamed loudly, and fled with a swiftness that rendered pursuit in vain. The cause of his flight was understood when Mr. Buchan, the next moment, beheld upon the ice, headless, and pierced by the arrows of the natives, the naked bodies of his two marines who had been left with the Indians.”

The following are extracts of Lieutenant Buchan’s journal:–

“On coming up, we recognized with horror the bodies of our two unfortunate companions, lying about 100 yards apart; that of the corporal (James Butler) was pierced by an arrow in the back; and three others had entered the body of the private marine (Thomas Bouthland): they were laid out straight, with the feet towards the river, and backs upwards, their heads were off, and no vestige of garments left; several broken arrows were lying about, and a quantity of bread, which must have been emptied out of the knapsacks; very little blood was visible. This melancholy event naturally much affected all the party; but these feelings soon gave way to sensations of revenge. Although I was fully aware of the possibility of finding out the route they had taken, yet prudence called on me to adopt another line of conduct; that all our movements had been watched I could have no doubt; and my mind became seriously alarmed for the safety of those who had been left with the sledges; I conceived it, therefore, of the utmost consequence to lose not a moment in joining our other men. Having given to the people with me some little refreshment, I caused them to be formed into a line of march, those having fire-arms being in the front and rear, those with cutlasses remaining in the centre, and all were charged to keep as close together as the intricacies would permit. On opening the first point of the river-head, one of the men said he observed an Indian look round the second point, and fall back; on coming up, we perceived that two men had certainly been there, and had retreated; we afterwards saw them at times, at a good distance before us; the tracks shewed that they had shoes on. This caused considerable perplexity; the guides, and indeed all the party, were of opinion that the Indians had been to the sledges, and that those two were returning down the river to draw us into a trammel, for they supposed a body of them to be conveniently posted to lake advantage of us in some difficult pass. These conjectures were probable; they strongly urged my taking to the woods, as being more safe. Although this was certainly true, it would have been attended with great loss of time, as, from the depth and softness of the snow, we could not possibly perform it under two days; but as the immediate joining my people was paramount to every other consideration, for our conjectures might be erroneous, and as I was, in this instance, fain to suspect that curiosity had predominated over the obligations of duty, I continued on by the river side. At noon, we arrived at the fire-place, and finding all well I experienced great relief, after four hours spent in unutterable anxiety for their fate. The two men who had been straggling were easily discovered by the sweat which still rolled down their faces. Nothing now remained for us but to make the best of our way down the river; especially as a thaw had set in, and the ice was speedily breaking np. We therefore set forward, and after a most painful journey, chiefly through soft snow or water, succeeded in reaching the Adonis on the 30th January.

“The lake on which the Indians were found does not appear to have been discovered during any excursion from the north side of the island but there is no question of its having been seen in some route from the Bay of Islands along by the Humber river, or from St. George’s Bay by a communication of waters; for in Cook and Lane’s chart, published by Laurie and Whittle, in May, 1791, there is a pond delineated, which, from relative distances and appearances, I have no doubt to be the same on which our unfortunate companions lost their lives.”

We next find this officer employed in surveying the coasts of Newfoundland; and afterwards, commanding the Pike schooner; to which vessel he was first appointed Mar. 26th, 1814; and again, with the rank of commander, April 13th, 1810. He subsequently received the thanks of the inhabitants of Newfoundland, for his exertions and humanity during the calamitous winter of the latter year.

On the 14th Jan. 1818, Captain Buchan was appointed to the Dorothea hired ship, and the command of an expedition which, in consequence of the disappearance of the arctic ice from a very considerable extent of the Greenland seas, it had been resolved to equip, for the discovery of a northern communication between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The orders under which he sailed from England were, to proceed directly north, between Greenland and Spitzbergen, and in the event of meeting with a sea free from land, in which case it was hoped it would also be free from ice, to proceed direct for Behring’s Strait. Another expedition, under Captain John Ross, was at the same time directed to proceed up the middle of Davis’s and Baffin’s Straits to a high northern latitude, and then to stretch across to the westward, in the hope of being able to pass the northern extremity of America, and reach Behring’s Strait by that route, a distance greater than the one laid down for Captain Buchan, by nearly one-third. The Dorothea’s consort on this occasion was the Trent hired brig, commanded by Lieutenant (now Sir John) Franklin.

The interest excited by the equipment of these vessels was of so general a nature, that there is scarcely an individual who is not fully in possession of its purport; but, as no official narrative of the voyage has hitherto been published, the following authentic outline may not prove uninteresting.

Captain Buchan sailed from Deptford early in May 1818, and, few obstacles presenting themselves, the island of Spitzbergen was approached on the 26th of that month. Its shores at first present a picture of dreariness and desolation: craggy mountains, with their summits towering above the clouds; deep glens, filled with eternal snows, and stupendous icebergs, are the principal objects which attract attention. The eye, however, soon becomes familiarized to such a scene, and the mind is then filled with admiration of its grandeur and magnificence.

The ships pursued an almost uninterrupted course along the western shore of this island, until they reached Cloven Cliff, its northern boundary, where they found that impenetrable barrier of ice described by Captain Phipps, which has hitherto frustrated every endeavour to reach the Pole. Twice they were led into it by flattering prospects, and each time the floes closed upon them, so that they could neither advance nor recede.

These discouraging circumstances, though they threw a damp upon the most sanguine expectations, served but to redouble the ardour of every officer and man. Finding that the sails alone were insufficient to force a passage, the laborious operation of dragging the ships with ropes and ice-anchors was resorted to; an experiment never before made, and now attempted more with the determination of leaving nothing undone, that might afford the slightest prospect of accomplishing the important enterprise in view, than with any expectation of its succeeding to the desired extent. This fatiguing duty was at first rewarded with some degree of success; but difficulties increased as the vessels proceeded, and at length the compactness of the ice was such, that they became quite immoveable. The first time, they were beset for thirteen days, within two miles of the land, and in such shoal water that the rocks were plainly to be seen in the offing. On the second occasion they penetrated as far as 80° 14' N., and remained among the ice nearly four weeks; sometimes striking against it with a violence that made them rebound, and frequently suffering much from its pressure, which nothing but their prodigious strength could have withstood. So powerful was this compression, that the planks of their decks were split; and the vessels themselves occasionally lifted up several feet, and thrown over, very considerably, on their bilges.

On the evening of the 29th of July, being once more in the open sea. Captain Buchan, whose patience had been so severely tried, but who was still anxious to make the most of the remainder of the season, steered to the westward, in the hope of meeting with a more favorable opportunity of reaching a higher northern latitude in that direction; and with the determination, in the event of failure, of making the attempt to the eastward of Spitzbergen. Unfortunately for the successful issue of this project, the ships had scarcely entered upon it when a violent gale came on suddenly; and they were reduced to the almost hopeless alternative of taking refuge amongst the ice, from the pressure of which, in smooth water, they had so narrowly escaped, that it appeared scarcely possible for them to survive its effects, now that it had become most violently agitated by the storm.

The first contact with the icy barrier – the moment of almost inevitable destruction – was deferred to the last instant; in the hope of a change, and in order to prepare the vessels, as much as possible, for the premeditated collision, by cutting up the cables, and hanging the pieces as fenders over the bows. At length the dreaded moment arrived; there was but one wave between the vessels and the margin of the ice, which latter was buried in foam, and heaving and grinding with the effect of the tempest, to a degree that the noise it occasioned completely drowned the voices of the crews. The helm was put a-weather, and the fore-top-sail added to the head-sail upon each vessel, in order that she might the more successfully force herself past the turbulent margin of the awful barrier, and enter so far, that, in case of her destruction, the crew might have some chance of saving themselves upon the ice. The reader will imagine the anxiety with which the officers and men awaited the first shock, and their heartfelt joy at finding it successfully resisted. The vessels, pressed by canvass, had acquired considerable velocity; but this was instantly stopped on reaching the edge of the pack, and they owed their safety, partly to their being forced an-end by the violence of the sea, and partly to the fortunate position in which they had been placed by their commanders. It is needless to add, that the havoc upon them was great: their rudders were squeezed and rendered useless; the greater I part of their timbers were either broken or sprung; and the Dorothea was stove in several places.

Preparations were now made for putting the boats and provisions on the ice; but, providentially, a favorable change soon took place. An immense floe, which had impeded the progress of the Trent, was split by a blow of her stem, and the several pieces, re-uniting after she had passed between them, formed a breakwater, and afforded such protection as yet to hold out hopes of her safety.

By 4 p.m., on the 30th, the gale had abated; the wind shifted, and the Trent forced her way out: the Dorothea had suffered too much to make the attempt. Early next morning, however, both vessels were clear of the ice; but in so shattered a condition, as to render their continuance at sea most perilous.

The hopes of the expedition being now at an end, Captain Buchan reluctantly yielded to necessity, and lost no time in making for the nearest anchorage. The port of Smeerenberg being found too insecure to admit of the vessels undergoing a temporary repair there, he proceeded from thence to Danes’ Gat, the best harbour yet discovered in Spitzbergen, where he remained until the end of August.

In this expedition, which has never had justice done it, many interesting magnetical and astronomical observations were obtained, which have been published by Mr. George Fisher, astronomer, of whom mention is made in our memoir of Sir W. E. Parry.

Captain Buchan’s last naval appointment was. May 24th, 1819, to the Grasshopper of 18 guns, fitting out for the Newfoundland station; where he received his post commission from England, dated June 12th, 1823. Previous to this advancement, he had again undertaken the arduous task of investigating, during the winter season, the interior of that colony; “a service never sufficiently noticed, but in which was manifested all that persevering spirit, intrepidity, and hardihood of endurance, which characterises a British seaman under every possible aspect of peril.” One of his companions, on this occasion, was Mr. Charles Crump Waller, midshipman, a clever and highly respectable young officer, who afterwards served in one of the expeditions under Captain Parry[1], and died at Southsea, Hants, Sept. 16th, 1826.

Captain Buchan was appointed Principal Sheriff of Newfoundland, in April, 1825. He married a sister of Lieutenant-Colonel Adye, royal artillery; in which corps, we believe, he has a son, who accompanied him towards the north pole, in 1818.