Unknown Conqueror of the Arctic – Benjamin Smith

Doug Williams

The stories of Arctic explorers Ernest Shackleton and Robert Scott are known by many.  But how many have heard of Arctic explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith.  Smith’s tale is extraordinary, though few have heard his name.

Benjamin Leigh Smith (1828-1913) did not show much tendency to heroism in his early life. He was quiet and restrained, perhaps because he was surrounded by outspoken people. His grandfather was a fervent opponent of slavery and promoter of education for the masses.

Smith’s mother was an activist for women’s right. Florence Nightingale was his cousin! So naturally, there was a certain expectation that Benjamin would be eloquent and industrious.

Indeed, he did grow up to undertake great deeds, but he was never forthcoming about them. And that is why he is not well known. He trained as a barrister and planned to fight for his mother’s cause. But really he wanted to explore the Arctic which, in the middle of the nineteenth century, was still largely uncharted. The great Arctic explorers like Amundsen, Boyd, and Henson were still to come.


He was one of the most intrepid explorers of the 19th Century, leading five expeditions to the Arctic and surviving for 10 months after his ship was crushed between two ice floes. But 100 years after his death, Benjamin Leigh Smith is now largely forgotten. The crew of the Eira (Benjamin Leigh Smith, second left)

His family was wealthy and so Smith was able to commission a small ship in 1871. He set out on a frigid pleasure cruise, admiring walruses and glaciers. This first expedition inspired his scientific mind and he returned four times to collect plants and animals, including two polar bear cubs that ended up in London Zoo. His expeditions greatly increased the geographic and oceanographic knowledge of the Arctic.

He sailed the Barents Sea to Svalbard in the northwest and Franz Joseph Land to the northeast. Many new islands were charted. Smith was interested in sea currents in particular. He took many temperature recordings which were greatly valued by climatologists and oceanographers.

Just like his conversation, his report logs were sparse. Only bare facts were detailed, so it is difficult to know his personal views during his voyages. He had scant training as both a sailor and scientist, but he was intelligent. The quality of his data cannot be faulted.

He leads his crew well. He had a calm, reasonable and resilient temperament. These qualities were put to the test in 1881. In that year he fitted out the Eira (Welsh and Finnish for snow, and the name of a Norse goddess) for an Arctic voyage and set out. In August it was crushed by sea ice of Cape Flora, off Northbrook Island in the Franz Joseph Archipelago.


After two hours the Eira sunk, and the crew abandoned ship with supplies, lifeboats, wood for building a shelter, and the ship’s dog, Bob. The crew made a moderately comfortable shelter on the island. They lived there for nine months, six of which were in the dark of the Arctic winter. They hunted walruses and seals for food and played a music box for entertainment.

Consistently for Smith, he continued to keep a log but failed to record any emotional commentary. So even in this situation, we do not know what kind of a leader Smith was. Nevertheless, everyone survived, including Bob the dog. The crew constructed sails and attached them to their four lifeboats.


Eira`s boats with `tablecloth sails

They entered the treacherous Barents Sea, desperate for rescue. After three weeks they were exhausted and almost dead from hunger. Just when all seemed lost, a search party of three ships finally found them.

When they returned to England Smith remained silent. Queen Victoria summoned him to relate his adventures, but he sent a proxy instead. He continued his secluded life right until his death.

Was Ernest Shackleton acquainted with the Smith story? Was he inspired to perform feats of exploration himself, in the Antarctic, thirty-four years later? He would have been eight years old when the Eira was lost. But then again, given Smith’s reluctance for elaboration, perhaps not.


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