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A Cold Death in South America

Posted by Richard Conniff on April 15, 2014

View of Tierra del Fuego painted by Alexander Buchan four days before he joined the fatal expedition into the interior

In putting together The Wall of the Dead:  A Memorial to Lost Naturalists, I have been continually aware that local collectors and other underlings often get left out of history.  So I was intrigued to come across an account of two explorers lost in January 1769 on Capt. Cook’s first circumnavigation of the globe.  Both Richmond and Dorlton were servants–and specimen collectors–for the great botanist Joseph Banks.  Cook’s journal noted them both as negro servants.

Banks writing afterward in his journal:

 The weather had all this time been vastly fine much like a sunshiny day in May, so that neither heat nor cold was troublesome to us nor were there any insects to molest us, which made me think the traveling much better than what I had before met with in Newfoundland.

We passd about half way very well when the cold seemd to have at once an effect infinitely beyond what I have ever experienced. Dr Solander was the first who felt it, he said he could not go any fa[r]ther but must lay down, tho the ground was coverd with snow, and down he laid notwisthstanding all I could say to the contrary. Richmond a black Servant now began also to lag and was much in the same way as the dr: at this Juncture I dispatchd 5 forwards of whom Mr Buchan was one to make ready a fire at the very first convenient place they could find, while myself with 4 more staid behind to persuade if possible the dr and Richmond to come on. With much persuasion and intreaty we got through much the largest part of the Birch when they both gave out; Richmond said that he could not go any further and when told that if he did not he must be Froze to death only answerd that there he would lay and dye; the Dr on the contrary said that he must sleep a little before he could go on and actualy did full a quarter of an hour, at which time we had the welcome news of a fire being lit about a quarter of a mile ahead. I then undertook to make the Dr Proceed to it; finding it impossible to make Richmond stir left two hands with him who seemd the least affected with Cold, promising to send two to releive them as soon as I should reach the fire. With much difficulty I got the Dr to it and as soon as two people were sufficiently warmd sent them out in hopes that they would bring Richmond and the rest; after staying about half an hour they returnd bringing word that they had been all round the place shouting and hallowing but could not get any answer. We now guess’d the cause of the mischeif, a bottle of rum the whole of our stock was missing, and we soon concluded that it was in one of their Knapsacks and that the two who were left in health had drank immoderately of it and had slept like the other.

For two hours now it had snowd almost incessantly so we had little hopes of seeing any of the three alive: about 12 however to our great Joy we heard a shouting, on which myself and 4 more went out immediately and found it to be the Seaman who had wakd almost starvd to death and come a little way from where he lay. Him I sent back to the fire and proceeded by his direction to find the other two, Richmond was upon his leggs but not able to walk the other lay on the ground as insensible as a stone. We immediately calld all hands from the fire and attempted by all the means we could contrive to bring them down but finding it absolutely impossible, the road was so bad and the night so dark that we could scarcely ourselves get on nor did we without many Falls. We would then have lit a fire upon the spot but the snow on the ground as well as that which continualy fell renderd that as impracticable as the other, and to bring fire from the other place was also impossible from the quantity of snow which fell every moment from the branches of the trees; so we were forc’d to content ourselves with laying out our unfortunate companions upon a bed of boughs and covering them over with boughs also as thick as we were able, and thus we left them hopeless of ever seeing them again alive which indeed we never did.

In these employments we had spent an hour and a half expos’d to the most penetrating cold I ever felt as well as continual snow. Peter Briscoe, another servant of mine, began now to complain and before we came to the fire became very ill but got there at last almost dead with cold.

Now might our situation truely be calld terrible: of twelve our original number 2 were already past all hopes, one more was so ill that tho he was with us I had little hopes of his being able to walk in the morning, and another very likely to relapse into his fitts either before we set out or in the course of our journey: we were distant from the ship we did not know how far, we knew only that we had been the greatest past of a day in walking it through pathless woods: provision we had none but one vulture which had been shot while we were out, and at the shortest allowance could not furnish half a meal: and to compleat our misfortunes we were caught in a snow storm in a climate we were utterly unaquainted with but which we had reason to beleive was as inhospitable as any in the world, not only from all the accounts we had heard or read but from the Quantity of snow which we saw falling, tho it was very little after midsummer: a circumstance unheard of in Europe for even in Norway or Lapland snow is never known to fall in the summer.”

17 January 1769

17. The Morning now dawnd and shewd us the earth coverd with snow as well as all the tops of the trees, nor were the snow squalls at all less Frequent for seldom many minutes were fair together; we had no hopes now but of staying here as long as the snow lasted and how long that would be God alone knew.

About 6 O’Clock the sun came out a little and we immediately thought of sending to see whether the poor wretches we had been so anzious about last night were yet alive, three of our people went but soon returnd with the melancholy news of their being both dead. The snow continued to fall tho not quite so thick as it had done; about 8 a small breeze of wind sprung up and with the additional power of the sun began (to our great Joy) to clear the air, and soon after we saw the snow begin to fall from the tops of the trees, a sure sign of an aproaching thaw. Peter continued very ill but said he thought himself able to walk. Mr Buchan thank god was much better than I could have expected, so we agreed to dress our vulture and prepare ourselves to set out for the ship as soon as the snow should be a little more gone off: so he was skinnd and cut into ten equal shares, every man cooking his own share which furnishd about 3 mouthfulls of hot meat, all the refreshment we had had since our cold dinner yesterday and all we were to expect till we should come to the ship.

About ten we set out and after a march of about 3 hours arrivd at the beach,, fortunate in having met with much better roads in our return than we did in going out, as well as in being nearer to the ship than we had any reason to hope; for on reviewing our track as well as we could from the ship we found that we had made a half circle round the hills, instead of penetrating as we thought we had done into the inner part of the cuntrey. With what pleasure then did we contratulate each other on our safety no one can tell who has not been in such circumstances.”

Cook in his journal seems to be confused about who had the rum, blaming it on the two black servants.

Parkinson does not mention the deaths at all, and says that Banks and Solander ” returned to the ship much pleased with their adventure.”  And Hawkesworth noted that, after the catching and dissecting of a shark on January 11, “Nothing remarkable happened till the 30th.”

In early December the Endeavour continued south, heading for the Horn and then on to the Pacific Ocean. Although Cook had to resist Banks many requests to make landfall for the purpose of further study, he nonetheless took an increasing interest in the collections of his ‘Gentlemen Passengers’. It was early in January of 1769 when the Endeavour first reached Tierra del Fuego in preperation for rounding the Horn. When Captain Cook realized the strength of the current through Straight le Marie, he knew he would have to bide his time until conditions were favourable. This afforded Joseph Banks and Daniel Solander a chance to make landfall and to investigate the local wildlife, while Cook and his crew restocked the ship’s wood and water supplies.

The Sub-Antarctic summer is a fickle thing, and can prove fatal for the inexperienced explorer. Banks had decided that since ‘The weather was vastly fine, like a sunshiny day in May, so that neither heat nor cold was troublesome to us’ it was a perfect day for a short excursion inland. He wanted to reach higher ground to get a sense of the lay of the land, and look for any interesting alpine plants. His entire retinue joined him that day: Daniel SolanderRibes magellanicum - by Sidney Parkinson, the botanist; Herman Spöring, Solander’s assistant; Charles Green, the astronomer; William Monkhouse, the surgeon; and Alexander Buchan, the artist; as well as four servants and two seamen to help transport the equipment and carry back the collections. Not all would return alive.

The terrain proved more difficult going that it first appeared, since what had looked like tundra proved to be a bog populated by extremely dense, waist-high trees. They pressed forward through the strange little forest when Buchan was struck with an epileptic fit. They built a fire and tended to the stricken artist, and seeing that he appeared to be recovering, Banks and Solander continued on. The two botanists did find some alpine plants, and were collecting specimens when Solander first noticed the sudden bitter cold. The sun disappeared behind thick clouds and snow began to fall heavily.

They were able to return to the main group where they found that Buchan had fully recovered. With the snow coming down hard it was difficult to see their way clearly, but Banks knew that the only option was to head back to the ship. After some distance Solander and one of the servants, Tom Richmond, were feeling the early stages of hypothermia and grew tired and lethargic. Banks tried to keep them moving, but was unsuccessful. On Banks’s orders the others had moved ahead and established another fire in a clearing. Eventually Banks was able to rouse Solander and assist him through the dark to the makeshift camp while leaving another servant, George Dorlton, and a sailor to watch over Richmond. The sailor arrived at the camp around midnight, too drunk to make much sense. Banks took four of the hardiest men in his party and returned to where Richmond and Dorlton remained. Unable to get them back to the camp, Banks had his men fashion a crude shelter out of branches, and left his two grey hounds with the men to help keep them warm.

When they returned the next morning, Richmond and Dorlton were both dead. The dogs, however, were alive but reluctant to leave their friends.
As so often happens in a blizzard, they were much closer to their goal than they had realized, and were able to return to the ship, with the dogs, by just after noon.

A shipmate noted in his private journal that “this was a heavy loss to Mr. Banks, as they were both very useful.”

5 Responses to “A Cold Death in South America”

  1. Back in 2003 I revisited the site of this fatal expedition – retracing the route (which incidentally was also taken by Charles Darwin decades later in his Beagle Voyage). The visit was hugely informative and gave a very different perspective on what actually happened when these tragic events had unfolded – there is a full account here: . Actually the two black man-servants were Banks’ house servants from his house in Chelsea, London (not out-door types) and were particularly unsuited for the ill-judged expedition being under-dressed and given their restricted activity both in London and in the confines of the tiny Endeavour very out of condition. it is no wonder they were the first to suffer the effects of exposure – exacerbated by their drinking the rum ration.

    • Do you happen to have the full names of the two servants? I have them listed in the wall of the dead elsewhere on this site, but only by partial names.

      • The servants are referred to as George Dalton and Thomas Richmond – it was Richmond who passed out and who had had charge of the rum ration. Banks initially left Dalton and a sailor to tend him on the mountainside as he was a dead weight and couldn’t be carried in the terrain, The others, including the ill Buchan and Solander, moved down hill to bivouac where there was a degree of shelter. Later in the night the sailor made it down to the place the others had sought refuge, After the blizzard abated the bodies of the other two were relocated.on hill above,

    • Thank you.

  2. […] and specimen collector for botanist Joseph Banks aboard Capt. Cook’s HMS Endeavour, he was frozen to death, age unknown, on Banks’s ill-considered collecting expedition in Tierra del […]

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