Sir John Barrow - Unsung Champion of the Empire
Civil servant, naval secretary, developer, publicist, settler, author and all-round-adventurer John Barrow was understandably a man of many talents. Here we take a look at how these skills drove forward the rapid expansion of the British Empire at the turn of the 19th Century.
The history of British exploration in the nineteenth century is often told in tales of derring-do by the great adventurers such as Burton and Stanley; men whose exploits filled newspapers and magazines in an attempt to satisfy the insatiable appetite of the public for reports of personal heroism and bravery in the quest for imperial expansion.
This demand for such tales, which led to intrepid explorers being able to raise funds for their large and costly expeditions, owes a lot to the promotional efforts of a little-known civil servant in the admiralty, Sir John Barrow (1764-1848).
Barrow’s association with exploration began when he was appointed comptroller to Lord Macartney's embassy to China (1792–4). He served with distinction during this embassy and Macartney's governorship of the Cape of Good Hope (1797–9), collecting much of the commercial and strategic intelligence about the eastern seas and southern Africa that Macartney forwarded to Henry Dundas, president of the Board of Control and secretary of state at war.
Barrow married whilst at Cape Colony and looked set to stay there, writing a fine account of the colony, Travels into the interior of Southern Africa in the years 1797 and 1798, which was illustrated by the great topographical artist, Samuel Daniell (published 1806). However the return of the Colony to the Dutch in 1803 led to his return to England where he was appointed Second Secretary to the Admiralty – a post he was to hold until 1845.
Early on, Barrow saw the link between exploration and trade, and the desirability of having a strong navy to control the sea lanes. Barrow was a key player in developing naval dockyards both for defence of the realm during the Napoleonic Wars, and safeguarding Britain’s interests abroad whilst developing trade links.
Amongst the expeditions promoted by Barrow were Scoresby’s to the Arctic regions, news of which encouraged the support of various voyages to search for a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific, including those of Franklin, Ross, and Parry.
In Africa, Barrow was the prime mover behind Lander’s expedition to the Niger (1831); and, very importantly for the Empire, in 1837, Barrow convinced Lord Glenelg, then colonial secretary, to occupy Port Essington on Australia's north coast to safeguard the Australia–Asia trade route.
Barrow was an advocate of overseas settlement, publicizing both the Albany settlement in Cape Colony (1820) and the foundation of Swan River Colony (Western Australia) in 1829, and emigration to southern Africa, southern and eastern Australia, and Upper Canada. He played a major role in the decision to send the Amherst embassy to China in 1815, having advocated such a mission as early as 1809.
Through his friendship with John Murray, he also secured the publication of a succession of travellers' accounts which generated the great public interest in exploration in the period after 1815.
With all these activities it is apparent, that without Sir John Barrow, the development of geographical knowledge would have been very different, and the rise of the British Empire would not have been so rapid.