cover image Barrow's Boys

Barrow's Boys

Fergus Fleming, Author Atlantic Monthly Press $26 (512p) ISBN 978-0-87113-804-0

A sure bet for fans of Caroline Alexander's The Endurance, this captivating survey of England's exploration during the 19th century illuminates a host of forgotten personalities, principal among them John Barrow, Britain's Second Secretary of the Admiralty from 1816 to 1848. Though Barrow never achieved the historical fame of subordinates William Parry and James Ross, he was one of the most influential organizers behind the massive program of globe-trotting that allowed these men to make their names. When he suggested the conversion of idle naval ships into vessels for exploration, Barrow had two driving obsessions: to discover the fabled Northwest Passage through the Arctic Ocean and to chart the course of Africa's Niger River. Barrow was certain that the Northwest Passage existed and that the Niger eventually joined the Nile; if so, their mappings would have profound commercial ramifications. With the air of a dictator, Barrow dispatched officers and crews to the extremes of the world in order to prove the notions he thought to be true, becoming more irritated if the explorers reported evidence contrary to his liking than if they died in his service. Alongside tales of grueling endurance, gross incompetence, cannibalism, jealousy and dirty politics, the explorers themselves are wonderfully reconstructed through quotes from journals and correspondence. They include the stalwart John Franklin (more popularly known as the ""Man Who Ate His Boots""), Gordon Laing (""The Madman of Timbuctoo"") and a bilious captain named Belcher. Though many perished and Barrow was ultimately wrong about both of his assumptions, readers will enjoy Fergus's (a former writer and editor at Time-Life Books) clever chronicle of their exploits. 40,000 first printing. (Apr.)