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Edward Bransfield

Edward Bransfield
Born 1785
Ballinacurra, County Cork, Ireland
Died 31 October 1852 (Aged 67)
Brighton, England
Allegiance  United Kingdom
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Years of service 1803–1820
Battles/wars Bombardment of Algiers

Edward Bransfield (c. 1785 – 31 October 1852) rose to become an officer in the British Royal Navy, serving as a master on several ships, after being impressed into service at the age of eighteen in Ireland, where he was born. He is noted for exploring parts of Antarctica, sighting the Trinity Peninsula in January 1820.[1]


  • Early life 1
  • Antarctica 2
  • Later life 3
  • Legacy and honors 4
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7

Early life

Edward Bransfield was born in Ballinacurra, County Cork, Ireland, in c.1785. While little is known of Edward's family or early life, the Bransfields were thought to have been a well-known and respected Catholic family.[2] The Bransfields may have had enough money to pay for Edward's education, but because of the Penal Laws, it is more likely that he attended a local hedge school. On 2 June 1803, Bransfield, then eighteen years old, was removed by British sailors from his father's fishing boat and impressed into the Royal Navy.[3]

He began as an ordinary seaman on the 110-gun first rate ship of the line HMS Ville de Paris, where he shared living quarters with William Edward Parry, then a twelve-year-old midshipman. He later also became known in Polar exploration.[4] Bransfield was rated as an able seaman in 1805 and was appointed to the 110-gun first rate HMS Royal Sovereign (which had taken part in the battle of Trafalgar in 1805); he was promoted in 1806 to able seaman, then 2nd master's mate in 1808, midshipman in 1808, clerk in 1809, and midshipman again in 1811. By 1812 he had achieved the rank of second master, and in the same year he was made acting master on HMS Goldfinch, a 10-gun Cherokee-class brig-sloop.

Between the years 1814 and 1816, he served briefly, as master on many fifth rate ships. On 21 February 1816, he was appointed master of the 50-gun fourth rate HMS Severn, leading it in the Bombardment of Algiers.

During September 1817, he was appointed master of HMS Andromache under the command of Captain W H Shirreff. It was during this tour of duty that he was posted to the Royal Navy's new Pacific Squadron off Valparaíso in Chile.


During 1773 James Cook sailed beyond the Antarctic Circle—noting with pride in his journal that he was "undoubtedly the first that ever crossed that line.". The next year, he circumnavigated Antarctica completely and reached a latitude of 71° 10', before being driven back by the ice. It was the furthest south any European man had recorded traveling.

Although Cook failed to see Antarctica, he dispelled once and for all the myth that a fertile, populous continent surrounded the South Pole. Not surprisingly, the British Admiralty lost interest in the Antarctic and turned its attention to the ongoing search for the Northwest Passage. Almost half a century passed before anyone else is known to have travelled as far south as Cook.

During 1819 while rounding Cape Horn, William Smith, the owner and skipper of an English merchant ship, the Williams, was driven south by adverse winds and discovered what came to be known as the South Shetland Islands. When news of his discovery reached Valparaíso, Captain Shirreff of the Royal Navy decided that the matter warranted further investigation. He chartered the Williams and appointed Bransfield, two midshipmen, and the surgeon from the ship HMS Slaney, to survey the newly discovered islands. Smith remained aboard, acting as Bransfield's pilot.

After a brief and uneventful voyage into the Southern Ocean, Bransfield and Smith reached the South Shetland Islands. Bransfield landed on Deception Island, not investigating or charting it. Turning south, he crossed what is now known as the Bransfield Strait (named for him by James Weddell in 1822), and on 30 January 1820 sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland. "Such was the discovery of Antarctica," writes the English writer Roland Huntford.

Unknown to Bransfield, two days earlier, 28 January 1820, the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen may have caught sight of an icy shoreline now known to have been part of East Antarctica. On the basis of this sighting and the co-ordinates given in his log-book, Bellingshausen has been credited by some (e.g., the British polar historian A. G. E. Jones) with the discovery of the continent.

Bransfield made a note in his log of two "high mountains, covered with snow", one of which was subsequently named Mount Bransfield by Dumont D'Urville in his honour.

Having charted a segment of the Trinity Peninsula, Bransfield followed the edge of the icesheet in a north-easterly direction and discovered various points on Elephant Island and Clarence Island, which he also formally claimed for the British Crown. He did not sail around Elephant Island and did not name it (it is named for elephant seals), although he charted Clarence Island completely.

When Bransfield returned to Valparaíso, he gave his charts and journal to Captain Shirreff, who delivered them to the Admiralty. The original charts are still in the possession of the Hydrographic department in Taunton, Somerset, but Bransfield's journal has been lost. The Admiralty, it seems, was still more interested in the search for the Northwest Passage. But, two private accounts of Bransfield's historic voyage were published during 1821.

During recent years the journal of one of the midshipmen, Charles Poynter, was discovered in New Zealand. An account has been published by the Hakluyt Society, edited by Richard Campbell, RN.

Later life

The remainder of Edward Bransfield's life was obscure. He died on 31 October 1852 in his sixty-seventh year and was buried in Brighton, England. His wife survived him and was buried in the same grave after her death in 1863.

Legacy and honors

Bransfield Island, Bransfield Strait, Bransfield Trough, Bransfield Rocks and Mount Bransfield were all named in his honour.[5]

During 2000 the Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp in Bransfield's honour, but as no likeness of him could be found, the stamp depicted instead RRS Bransfield, an Antarctic surveying vessel named after him.

In 1999 Edward Bransfield's grave, discovered in a deteriorated state in a Brighton churchyard, was renovated (funded by charitable donations) by Sheila Bransfield. In 2002 she completed a master's thesis on his role in the discovery of Antarctica at the Greenwich Maritime Institute. The event was marked by a ceremony attended by numerous dignitaries.

See also


  1. ^
  2. ^ Michael Smith, Great Endeavour: Ireland's Antarctic Explorers, Dublin: The Collins Press, 2010, p. 10.
  3. ^ Michael Smith, Great Endeavour: Ireland's Antarctic Explorers, Dublin: The Collins Press, 2010, p. 10.
  4. ^ Michael Smith, Great Endeavour: Ireland's Antarctic Explorers, Dublin: The Collins Press, 2010, p. 12.
  5. ^
  • Edinburgh Philosophical Journal (April 1821)
  • London Literary Gazette (November 1821)
  • Encyclopaedia Britannica (14th edition, 1962)
  • Geographical Journal (October 1939)
  • Mariner's Mirror (July 1941)
  • The Discovery of the South Shetland Islands 1819–1820: The Journal of Midshipman C W Poynter (Hakluyt Society, London 2000), R J Campbell (Editor)
  • The Antarctic Problem: An Historical and Political Study (George Allen & Unwin, London 1951), E W Hunter Christie.
  • Below the Convergence: Voyages Towards Antarctica 1699–1839 (W W Norton Co Ltd, London, 1977), Alan Gurney.
  • Antarctica Observed – Who Discovered the Antarctic Continent? (Caedmon of Whitby, North Yorkshire, 1982) A G E Jones
  • Ф. Ф. Беллингсгаузен. «Двукратные изыскания в южнополярном океане и плавание вокруг света». By Imperial Decree, St Petersburg, 1831, two vols.
  • The Voyage of Captain Bellingshausen to the Antarctic seas 1819–1821. Translated from the Russian, edited by Frank Debenham, OBE MA, Director of the Scott Polar Research Institute, Cambridge, MCMXLV. London, printed for the Hakluyt Society (W Lewis, University Press, Cambridge)
  • "The Bombardment of Algiers, 1816," from 'History Today' January 1978, Derek Severn. Also Gunfire in Barbary – Admiral Lord Exmouth's Battle with the Corsairs of Algiers in 1816 by Roger Perkins and Captain K J Douglas-Morris RN (Kenneth Mason, Homewell, Havant, Hampshire, 1982)
  • The Role of Edward Bransfield in the Discovery of Antarctica, Greenwich Maritime Institute, (Dissertation submitted towards the MA in Maritime History, 2002), Sheila Bransfield MA

Further reading

  • Michael Smith, Great Endeavour – Ireland's Antarctic Explorers, Collins Press, 2010
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