Captain Robert Moresby (RN)

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Robert Moresby

Death: Died
Immediate Family:

Son of Fairfax Moresby and Mary Rotton
Brother of Admiral of the Fleet ,Sir Fairfax Moresby GCB

Managed by: Private User
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About Captain Robert Moresby (RN)

Robert Moresby (15 June 1794–15 June 1854) was a distinguished captain of the British Royal Navy. He was also an excellent hydrographer, maritime surveyor and draughtsman.

Capt. Moresby is a figure who has now all but disappeared from the records. But his vitally important feat in charting the dangerous waters of the Red Sea and some archipelagoes of the Indian Ocean, like the Maldives, Laccadives and Chagos in the 1820s and '30s ensured that the route from Europe to the East Indies became viable for the new steam vessels.

Robert had 6 brothers and 3 sisters. His eldest brother was Sir Fairfax Moresby, Admiral of the British Fleet, and Commander in Chief, Channel Squadron and Pacific Station.

The East India Route and the New Era of Trade and Communication

In the nineteenth century, the sea route between the Mediterranean Sea and India would come to play a key role in a new era of communication. Already before the opening of the Suez Canal, industrial Britain, had a rapidly expanding economy, and needed improved communication with British India, with its raw materials and imperial requirements. Crucial in the development of the Red Sea route between the two countries was the harnessing of steam power, most notably in the form of the marine steam engine. A further vital factor in this revolution in trade and transport was the charting of the hazardous waterway commissioned by the British East India Company and carried out by the little-known naval commander Robert Moresby and his colleague Thomas Elwon, both of the Bombay Marine, later the Indian Navy.

Lack of accurate maps

The Red sea is full of navigational hazards, but at that crucial time, reliable charts were not available. Preliminary surveys of the Red Sea route had been published in 1826–27 by James Horsburgh, hydrographer to the East India Company. Horsburgh's work provided a good foundation, but also highlighted the limitations' of existing knowledge. By this time, the marine steam engine appeared to be racing to the rescue of British communications with India; the engine, first tested on Scottish lochs and American rivers, was by 1826 attempting the Cape route to India.

In that year a 479-ton wooden paddle steamer, HMS Enterprise, steamed (mostly sailed in fact) from London to Calcutta. Its progress was particularly noted by two individuals — a river pilot named Thomas Waghorn who was impressed by the steamer's steady progress against the wind up the Hooghly river to Calcutta, and indirectly by the Governor of Bombay, Mountstuart Elphinstone. A year later Elphinstone, together with the secretary of the Calcutta government and his wife, Mr and Mrs Lushington, chose to return to England via the Red Sea, sailing on a cramped little brig, HMS Palinurus. This involved disembarking at Qusayr and crossing the desert to the Nile in the customary four days. Back in Britain Elphinstone joined the campaign, promoted by the visionary new commander of the Bombay Marine (renamed the Indian Navy in 1832), Sir Charles Malcolm, to introduce steam to the Red Sea, which would enable boats to navigate up the Gulf of Suez against those tiresome northerlies.

Waghorn and other entrepreneurs in Britain and Egypt were meanwhile working at linking Mediterranean steam crossings (already overcoming its infuriating calms) with the Red Sea via an 'overland route' through Egypt. An experimental vessel, HMS Hugh Lindsay, was built in Bombay, powered by engines sent from England, and launched for Suez in 1829; a collier loaded with Welsh coal (sent via the Cape) went ahead, convoyed by a sailing brig, HMS Thetis. Captained by a real steam enthusiast, James Wilson, she made it to Suez in thirty-four days but the collier was later wrecked on a reef, a fate which narrowly missed befalling the Thetis, on a reef subsequently named after her, just south of Yanbu on the north Arabian coast.

Robert Moresby Begins the Survey of the Red Sea

Drastic measures were clearly needed to prevent these disasters and two small brigs were made ready for cartographical work despite the reluctance of the East India Company in London to provide finance. One was HMS Palinurus, the same vessel that had transported the Elphinstone party to Qusayr in 1827. She was captained by Robert Moresby, who had already gained experience from having surveyed the Laccadive Islands. The second vessel was HMS Benares, under the captaincy of Thomas Elwon. Each had a complement of around ten officers. Initially Moresby was appointed to the far less known northern half of the Red Sea. His base was at Suez, seen as the terminus of Waghorn's much trumpeted Overland Route, which connected the Mediterranean with the Indian Ocean via Egypt and the Red Sea. Elwon was despatched to the south, but in 1833 he was transferred to the Persian Gulf leaving Moresby to complete the full survey.

From 1829 to 1833 Moresby never left the Red Sea.

Survey of the Red Sea and its Hazards

Between 1829 and 1833 Robert Moresby completed a full survey of the Red Sea with HMS Palinurus and HMS Benares. Moresby began his survey in the north, first in the two Gulfs and along the Arabian coast south to Jiddah, then north-south down the African coast. However, his Sailing Directions for the Red Sea, published in 1841, charts the Sea from south to north. Every detail is noted, not only reefs, harbours and anchorages but also provisions, the essential water (often awful) and fuel supplies. A fuller and more graphic narrative of the upper half of the survey is contained in Lieutenant J.R. Wellsted's account, in the second volume of his Travels in Arabia (1838). Wellsted had joined the Palinurus in 1830. The reefs were mostly surveyed from local boats with local pilots.

This survey was an arduous task and the ships suffered. The Palinurus had been forced to return to Bombay in 1830 for refitting after surveying the Gulf of Suez, while the Benares had to be sent back in 1831 in a shattered state, the leaky tub caught forty-two times on coral reefs). "This heated funnel of reef-bound sea" as Moresby referred to it, took its toll on the surveyors; "great dangers and privations were inseparable from such a service", Moresby noted. The summer months were particularly punishing when temperatures reached the high 40°s and the Benares seems to have been especially vulnerable. It was rare for the full complement of officers to be functioning and Elwon himself was frequently ill. In 1833 the assistant surveyor, Lieutenant Pinching, died of smallpox off Aden where he was buried.

Starting from Suez, as the nearest point to Cairo for those crossing Egypt by the Overland Route, Moresby worked a system of triangulation down each shore. At Suez itself he noted, "provisions are plentiful and good—oranges, pears, apples, plums in season. And there were plenty of fine cabbages!" In the Gulf there were some nasty spots whose names indicate the hazards—Moresby Shoal for instance, and Felix Jones Patches. Another danger spot was the Daedalus Shoal at the entrance to the Gulf of Suez, which has a light on it to this day.

Moresby also surveyed the Gulf of Aqaba, a narrow deep waterway between high mountains that funnels high northerly winds. It was such winds, so frequently mentioned in the Sailing Directions, which the steam engine was supposed to overcome. The six-kilometre-wide entrance, at the Straits of Tiran, was bad enough—wrecks are strewn over the rocks there even today. In the Gulf itself on one occasion the Palinurus was blown off her anchorage three times and only managed to stay put with fifty fathoms (90 m) of chain on each of two anchors.

Wellsted describes Moresby on one occasion springing up the rigging to spot reefs which everyone had declared were just wash from clashing tides; they lowered anchors to three fathoms but the vessel swung round and suddenly there was no bottom under the stem at eighty fathoms. In Wellsted's opinion four years in the Red Sea was nothing like as bad as 150 kilometres in the Gulf of Aqaba. On shore the crew helped locals repair their boats and Moresby going for a walk along the beach was accosted by fishermen whose boat had been thus mended, who insisted on his accepting a present of two sheep and a bag of dollars.

Heading out of the Gulf and down the Arabian coast a particular danger spot was Zabarga Island (also known as St John's or Emerald Island because of ancient peridot mines); Palinurus was caught in a fearsome gale and only avoided being driven on to the rocks by hooking a kedge anchor on to a hole in the reef. "An uncomfortable night was spent by all."

Moresby always records the availability or otherwise of fuel, provisions, water, attitude of locals: availability of water was sometimes dependent on their being able to roll the ship's casks to and from the source. Onshore reception was variable owing to the long tradition of piracy in the northern end of the Red Sea. Moresby warned that "should a ship touch at any part of the Red Sea not frequented by Europeans (for water, etc.), great caution ought to be adopted, to guard against treachery from the various predatory tribes inhabiting the borders of the sea."

The coastal plain had been devastated earlier in the century by Wahhabi puritan Muslims from Central Arabia followed by an Egyptian invasion — none of this good news for non-Muslims. At Sharm Ghabur ('sharm' meaning a channel through the reefs in the local Arabic), where Muslim pilgrims traditionally donned their pilgrim's garb, "water and wood were cheap, and dates excellent, but the bedu were not to be trusted. They were feared throughout the sea for ferocity and treachery," writes Moresby, "so that it is dangerous to land on that stretch of shore."

During the survey of the Red Sea Robert Moresby was smitten by intermittent fevers. Finally Moresby returned to Bombay in 1833, exhausted by four years of surveying. Meanwhile the valiant HMS Palinurus sailed on to survey the southern coast of Arabia under Captain Haines who would later become the first British official in charge of the Protectorate of Aden.

The Red Sea charts of Moresby and Elwon were drafted by chief draughtsman Felix Jones to a scale of one inch to the mile (in the trickier parts, ten inches to the mile), and published in 1834.

Other important surveys: the Maldives and the Chagos

After the completion of the Red Sea Survey, Robert Moresby was sent to chart various coral island groups lying across the track of India-to-Cape trade. In 1834–36 Moresby, assisted by Lieutenants Christopher and Young, undertook the difficult cartography of the Maldive Islands, drawing the first accurate maritime charts of this complicated Indian Ocean atoll group (Admiralty Charts). These charts were printed as three separate large maps by the Hydrographic Service of the Royal Navy.

Moresby's survey of the Atolls of the Maldives was followed by the Chagos Archipelago. where he conducted "a thorough scientific survey". He planted 30 breadfruit trees in Diego Garcia Island, the largest of the group. Moresby reported that "there were cats and chickens on the island". Some of his observations were used by Darwin in his 1842 book "The Structure and Distribution of Coral Reefs."

In 1838, after leaving the Chagos, Robert Moresby went on to survey the Saya de Malha bank. This is a vast submerged reef south-east of the Seychelles and since there is no island above the surface, the men were forced to spend many days at sea often under difficult weather conditions. Moresby could only complete part of this survey, namely the Southern Bank, for this arduous task and the accumulated fatigue from his previous surveys, took a toll on his health. Thus Robert Moresby had to interrupt the task and the Northern Bank of Saya da Malha could not be satisfactorily surveyed. He sailed then back to India, for a much needed time of rest for him and his crew.

Even after the necessary period of relaxation Moresby didn't fully recover. Finally his precarious condition obliged him to give up surveying.

In 1842 he was employed by Peninsular & Oriental, better known as P&O, to command their brand new and most luxurious steamer, HMS Hindostan, on her maiden voyage from Southampton to Calcutta. Subsequently the Hindostan was employed on the Calcutta-Suez run, the Red Sea now made safe by the immaculate surveys led by Moresby and Elwon.

Moresby's charts were so good that they were favoured by Maldivian pilots navigating through the treacherous waters of their atolls until the 1990s, when satellite images appeared. In the Maldives a channel locally also known as Hanikandu, between Northern Maalhosmadulhu Atoll and "Fasdhūtere" Atoll, is still known as 'Moresby Channel' in the honor of this forgotten captain and draughtsman, who with much patience and hard work charted all the Atolls of the Maldives.

Moresby Island, an island in Peros Banhos Atoll in the Chagos Archipelago has been named after this skilled British cartographer as well. However, Robert Moresby should not be confused with Admiral Sir Fairfax Moresby, also of the British Navy, after which Port Moresby, the capital of Papua New Guinea, was named. Fairfax Moresby was Robert's eldest brother.

Sir Richard Burton's Eulogy

Robert Moresby, the genius of the Red Sea, conducted also the survey of the Maldive Islands and groups known as the Chagos Archipelago. He narrowly escaped being a victim to the deleterious climate of his station, and only left it when no longer capable of working. A host of young and ardent officers, Christopher, Young, Powell, Campbell, Jones, Barker, and others, ably seconded him: death was busy amongst them for months and so paralyzed by disease were the living, that the anchors could scarcely be raised for a retreat to the coast of India.

Renovated by a three months’ stay, occasionally in port, where they were strengthened by additional numbers, the undaunted remnants from time to time returned to their task; and in 1837, gave to the world a knowledge of those singular groups which heretofore “though within 150 miles of our coasts” had been a mystery hidden within the dangers that environed them. The beautiful maps of the Red Sea, drafted by the late Commodore Carless, then a lieutenant, will ever remain permanent monuments of Indian Naval Science, and the daring of its officers and men. Those of the Maldive and Chagos groups, executed by Commander then Acting Lieutenant Felix Jones, were, we hear, of such a high order, that they were deemed worthy of special inspection by the Queen.

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Captain Robert Moresby (RN)'s Timeline

Age 60