Friday, 10 May 2013

Exploration: Perth Man Central to the History of the Falkland Islands

Bruce Gittings, Vice Chair of the Perth-based Royal Scottish Geographical Society remembers Matthew Brisbane, a little-known Perth-born explorer who was influential in the Falkland Islands in the early 1830s. This was a time when Britain was re-asserting its claim over Argentina - or the newly-independent United Provinces of Río de la Plata, which later became part of the Argentine Republic.   

Matthew Brisbane was born in Perth in 1797, the son of a blacksmith who lies buried in an unmarked grave in Greyfriars Kirkyard.  Little is known of his early life, but he went on to accompany explorer James Weddell to the Southern Ocean. Brisbane captained the cutter Beaufoy while Weddell sailed the Jane looking for seals while also engaged in exploration.
Painting of James Weddell´s second expedition, depicting the brig "Jane" and the cutter "Beaufroy", published in James Weddell´s book, first edition, London, 1825 (public domain)
Brisbane reached Patagonia and the pair surveyed the then recently discovered South Orkney Islands in 1823. They sailed south once more and, on 20th February 1823, reached 74° 15' S - a record extremity for the time - within what is now the Weddell Sea, close to the coast of Antarctica. 

Brisbane returned to Britain in 1826, but soon set sail again, this time commanding the Prince of Saxe-Coburg and intent on capturing seals in the South Orkney Islands. However, he was shipwrecked off Tierra del Fuego and rescued after some months by HMS Beagle. He had an unlucky time on the seas and was shipwrecked twice more in 1829: in the Hope off South Georgia and in the Bellville again off Tierra del Fuego. 

Brisbane then settled in the Falkland Islands, becoming Superintendent of Fisheries for the German-Argentinian merchant Luis Vernet (1791 - 1871) who had been appointed Governor of the islands by Argentina. 

Brisbane was at the centre of conflicting interests as Britain re-asserted its authority over the islands following twelve years of rule by Argentina.  The British first landed on the Falklands in 1690, naming them after a Scottish nobleman, but left in 1776 due to pressures on military expenditure because of the American War of Independence.  They did however make clear that sovereignty was not being renounced.

The Falklands at this time was a lawless place, with sealers, fishermen, adventurers and the beginnings of a penal colony.  As an official of the islands Brisbane presented himself to Captain Fitzroy on HMS Beagle when it called at the Falklands in 1833, this time with Charles Darwin on board.  

However, Brisbane, alongside a number of island officials, was murdered by a group of Argentinian gauchos and convicts the later same year, following a disagreement over payments, and was hastily buried.  The exact circumstances were not clear at the time and his brother, John Brisbane, living at 17 John Street in Perth asked the Admiralty to investigate.  

Thomas Helsby, a British clerk, was a witness to the murders and his account of meeting the killers was recorded “I was ordered by them into Captain Brisbane's house, and there first saw his body lying dead upon the floor, he appeared to have been making towards his pistols before he fell, and there was smile of contempt or disdain very strongly marked in his countenance. They dragged his body with a horse to a considerable distance, and plundered the house.” Beagle’s Captain Fitzroy returned to the island and was disgusted to find Brisbane in a shallow grave, his feet protruding from the ground.  He wrote: “This was the fate of an honest, industrious, and most faithful man: of a man who feared no danger, and despised hardships. He was murdered by villains, because he defended the property of his friend; he was mangled by them to satisfy their hellish spite; dragged by a lasso, at a horse's heels, away from the houses, and left to be eaten by dogs.” 

In 1842, Brisbane’s remains were moved to a nearby graveyard on East Falkland and a marker erected by the noted Scottish explorer James Clark Ross (1800-62).

Brisbane’s name is commemorated in Brisbane Road in Stanley (Falkland Islands), Cape Brisbane on Henderson Island (Tierra del Fuego) and Brisbane Heights on Coronation Island (South Orkney Islands). 

Bruce Gittings’ interest in the subject stems from his work on the Gazetteer for Scotland, an authoritative web site which attempts to catalogue the bens and glens of Scotland, together with the people who inhabited them.  This work has been ongoing since 1995 and now represents a massive body of information.

The Royal Scottish Geographical Society celebrates exploration through its collections and education work, and the Society’s  visitor centre in The Fair Maid’s House, Perth.