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    George Francis Lyon

    Encyclopedia Arctica 15: Biographies

    001      |      Vol_XV-0476                                                                                                                  

    (Herma Briffault)


            George Francis Lyon, (1795-1832), captain in the British Navy,

    arctic explorer, traveler, writer, and artist. The son of a colonel in

    the army, he was born at Chichester in 1795. He entered the Navy in 1808

    and saw active service in several naval operations of the Napoleonic wars,

    being at the siege of Gaeta in 1815, at Algiers on August 27, 1816, and at

    Malta in September 1818. During these years he studied Arabic and, in 1819,

    was sent to North Africa on a government mission. His first book, published

    in 1821, A Narrative of Travels in North Africa in the Years 1818, 1819, and

    , is illustrated, as are his subsequent books, with engravings form his

    own drawings. In 1821, with the rank of commander, he was appointed to the

    Hecla , under orders of Captain (afterwards Sir William Edward) Parry (q.v.),

    in the Fury , to take part in a voyage for the discovery of the Northwest

    Passage, a signal honor for one so young - he was then aged 26.

            This expedition, which is recounted elsewhere, tried for the Passage

    by a more southerly route than Parry had yet attempted. The ships sailed

    westward through Hudson Strait, then northward into Foxe Channel, where they

    stood northwestward toward a strait that had been discovered by Captain

    Christopher Middleton in 1742, but never traversed; Frozen Strait, Middleton

    had named it, because of its icebound condition when he saw it. For seventy–

    nine years the very existence of the Frozen Strait had been disputed. Parry

    002      |      Vol_XV-0477                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Briffault: George Francis Lyon

    wanted to settle the long controversy, and did, by sailing through it to

    Repulse Bay, August 21, 1821. Since Middleton's time, many had argued

    that here lay the long-looked-for Passage to the "western ocean." Repulse

    Bay was thoroughly examined, without avail, and the neighboring coast of

    Melville Peninsula was carefully examined, Lyon Inlet and other indentations

    being explored. They wintered at a small island, to the east of Frozen Strait

    in Foxe Basin, now called Winter Island because of this.

            Next summer they stood northward, following the eastern coast of Melville

    Peninsula to the " east-west " strait they heard about from the Eskimos on their

    land trips from Winter Island. The strait, which Parry named Fury and Hecla

    Strait, was barred by ice. A land party explored it in August, along both

    coasts. The second winter was passed at Igloolik (69° N. 81° 44′ W.), a small

    island north of Hooper Inlet. During both winters hunting was carried on with

    the aid of Eskimos and until the summer of 1823 there were no cases of scurvy.

    But by August of that year the dread disease had made its appearance and,

    following the surgeon's advice, Parry decided to sail for home. The ships

    were in the Thames on October 21, 1823. The expedition had failed in its

    chief objective, but had amassed some very important knowledge of the regions,

    and honors were heaped upon its members.

            Lyon was promoted to the rank of captain. On January 16, 1824, he was

    presented with the freedom of his native city, Chichester, and in that same

    month was appointed to the Griper , which had been with Parry in his voyage of

    1819, to head a voyage of exploration of his own. His instructions were to get

    to Repulse Bay by whatever route he judged best, and from it to examine the coast

    of the mainland westward "to the point where Captain Franklin's late journey

    had terminated." Before he sailed, on June 6, 1824, his account of the

    expedition with Parry was published: The Private Journal of Captain G.F. Lyon

    003      |      Vol_XV-0478                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Briffault: George Francis Lyon

    of H.M.S. Hecla During the Recent Voyage of Discovery Under Captain Parry.

    It furnishes, in both text and plates (engravings from Lyon's drawings), a

    vivid account of the two and a half years spent in the Arctic and remains to

    this day one of the most informative as well as readable of books ever

    written by an arctic voyager.

            The Griper was a notoriously slow and cumbersome ship. Originally a

    gun brig, it had been strengthened for arctic work. For this expedition she

    was heavily overladen and it is, in fact, a mystery why the Griper was chosen

    to make this voyage, which seemed doomed, from the start, to failure. A sur–

    veying ship, the Snap , which accompanied it as far as north of Cape Chidley,

    had several times to take the Griper in tow. When, in August, the brig was

    alone and met the ice in Hudson Strait, the compass became ever more sluggish

    and irregular, to add to the difficulties of navigation in exceptionally bad

    weather. In Evans Strait (so named for the purser of the Griper), the compasses

    became entirely useless, and Lyon records that they were "without other guidance

    than celestial bearings." Close to shipwreck several times, they were once

    driven, in a heavy gale, into a shallow bay on the southwest end of Southamp–

    ton Island. So miraculous seemed their escape that the place was named, on

    September 2, 1824, the Bay of God's Mercy. In dirty weather, with neither

    compasses nor "celestial bearings," they stood northward in Roes Welcome Sound.

    Lyon's observations of the tides and of the variations of the magnetic needle

    constantly confirmed those of Middleton on his voyage of 1742, and Lyon meticu–

    lously set down the fact in his journal. Repulse Bay could not even be

    approached and the ships reached their farthest northing, 65° 25′ N. latitude,

    on September 4, just north of Middleton's Wager Bay. On September 15, Lyon

    assembled all hands and announced to them his painful necessity of turning

    south, abandoning any further effort to reach Repulse Bay, their objective.

    004      |      Vol_XV-0479                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Briffault: George Francis Lyon

    From being constantly wet in heavy seas, many of the men were suffering

    from rheumatic fever. For days there had been a shortage of drinking water,

    which had to be carefully rationed. The Griper had lost one of her anchors

    and some of her cables. The ship continued to meet with heavy weather, but

    courageously Lyon brought her back to England. They passed the Needles on

    November 10, in a distressed state, without anchors, and ran into Portsmouth

    Harbor in a heavy squall.

            Lyon's account of this short and unfortunate voyage, A Brief Narrative

    of an Unsuccessful Attempt to Reach Repulse Bay
    , published in the following

    year, 1825, was obviously written with a heavy heart and largely with the

    aim of clearing himself of any possible accusation of incompetency. It in–

    cludes a botanical appendix and gives detailed compass observations made on

    the voyage.

            In June 1825 an honorary D.C.I. was conferred upon Lyon by the University

    of Oxford. In September of that year he was married to Lucy Louisa, daughter

    of Lord Edward Fitzgerald. Fortune smiled for a while upon him, but he aban–

    doned the sea and, in 1826, he went to Mexico as one of the commissioners of

    the Real del Monte Mining Company. On the way home the packet on which Lyon

    had embarked was wrecked at Holyhead, January 14, 1827, and most of Lyon's

    papers and collections were lost. He survivied, to publish, in 1828, his

    last book, Journal of a Residence and Tour in the Republic of Mexico in the

    Year 1826.

            Lyon's health and eyesight were now failing; but, bereaved of his wife,

    who had died during his absence in Mexico, he once more returned to America on

    business, this time having to do with South American mines. Bad health forced

    him to return to England sooner than he had planned, and he died, October 8,

    1832, on board the packet on which he sailed from Buenos Aires.

    005      |      Vol_XV-0480                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Briffault: George Francis Lyon

            Lyon would have been the first to disclaim being a writer and artist.

    His preface to the Private Journal is disarmingly unpretentious; he refers

    to it as his "private gossiping journal" and says its excuse for being pub–

    lished is merely that it contains a "number of little anecdotes...relative

    to the habits and disposition of a people [the Eskimos] entirely separated

    from the rest of the world, and with whom we had for so great a length of

    time kept up an intimate and constant intercourse." He modestly adds that

    it may also fill in gaps left in the record of the expedition, since Captain

    Parry, "in his...official account...had notdeemed it...necessary" to enter

    into details of the wort. As to his drawings, he makes no mention of them.

    Yet both text and illustrations are of an exceptional degree of vividness

    and charm, and have all the earmarks of exactitude. He was a man of lively

    intelligence, had a cultivated mind, and his sensitive reactions to people,

    animals, and scenes are rare in any age. His descriptions of the Eskimos and

    his drawings of them are still among the best available.

            He was 26 when he went with Parry on the 1821 expedition. Though so

    young, he had led a life crowded with events. His earlier contacts with the

    primitive peoples of northern Africa had given him an advantage ever some of

    the other officers on the voyage, who were less experienced and less adaptable.

    Thus, we have Lyon frequently comparing the Eskimo way of life with that of

    the Arabs, and we find him accepting it more readily than do the others. In

    the matter of food, for instance, Lyon, without feeling or showing any revulsion,

    could eat the flesh of foxes, while "the others were horrified" at the idea.

    And when, receiving the hospitality of an Eskimo in his hut, he was offered

    by the Eskimo's wife"apiece of reindeer fat," he could appreciate the gift

    and eat his morsel, finding it "sweet and good." He was able to set up friendly

    relations with the Eskimos, whom he describes with affection and esteem, and so

    must have been a valuable adjunct to Parry's staff.

    006      |      Vol_XV-0481                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Briffault: George Francis Lyon

            Already a student of languages, he quickly acquired a smattering of

    Eskimo. He had obviously soaked in the literature of the North and constantly

    quotes, in the Private Journal , David Crantz's History of Greenland (1765)

    for the purpose of comparison with what he learned of the Eskimos of the

    mainland. He was always aware of the significance to future ethnologists

    and historians of any remarks he might make, and recounted only what he could

    verify. When he advances a theory, as, for instance, that the lack of exercise

    might be a contributing cause of scurvy, he does so cautiously, submitting all

    his evidence. (See the Private Journal , page 458).

            "When "red snow" was brought off to the Fury while it was lying in Frozen

    Strait, Lyon was able to account for the appearance of "red" or "pink" snow

    by saying that "the colouring mater...was proved, prior to our leaving England,

    to consist of a species of fungus," but is delighted to add the absurd specula–

    tions on the phenomenon set down by Peter Peterson in 1671.

            In Perry's own narrative of the voyage, Capt. Lyon is always mentioned

    with affectionate esteem. The veteran explorer was glad to bestow upon an arm

    of the sea to the west of Winter Island in the name of Lyon Inlet. And when

    Lyon organized theatricals to while away the idle winter months, as was the

    habit of expeditions in those days, Perry entered into and took his share of

    the fun. On the 9th November, 1821, we find, from the playbill furnished by

    Lyon in his Journal , that Captain Perry (then aged 31) took the part of Sir

    Anthony Absolute in a performance of The Rivals , while Lyon, aged 26, played

    Captain Absolute.

            The journal abounds in beautiful descriptions of arctic scenes and in

    vivid accounts of the Eskimos. It provides invaluable information of every

    kind and affords most zestful and rewarding reading.

    007      |      Vol_XV-0482                                                                                                                  
    EA-Biog. Briffault: George Francis Lyon


    Lyon, Capt. G.F. A Narrative of Travels in North Africa in the Years 1818,

    1819, and 1820, Accompanies by Geographical Notices of Soudan

    and of the Course of the Niger
    , (4to, 1821).

    ----. The Private Journal of Captain G.F. Lyon of H.M.S. Hecla During the

    Recent Voyage of Discovery under Captain Perry
    (8vo, 1824).

    ----. A Brief Narrative of an Unsuccessful Attempt to Reach Repulse Bay

    through Sir Thomas Rowe's Welcome, in H.M. ship Griper, in

    the Year 1824
    (8vo, 1825)

    ----. Journal of a Residence and Tour in the Republic of Mexico in the

    Year 1826, with some Account of the Nines of that Country

    (2 vols. Post 8vo, 1828).

    A good account of his service career, as well of his travels, is an Marshall's

    Roy. Nav. Biog. ix (vol iii, pt i)100. From this abstracts were made for the

    Memoir which appeared in Gentleman's Magazine , 1833, pt I,p 372.


    Herma Briffault

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