The Library of Nineteenth-Century Photography

Admiral Sir George Back

Admiral Sir George Back

A carte-de-visite portrait of Admiral Sir George Back (1796-1878).

The British naval officer, explorer of the Canadian Arctic and artist Sir George Back was born in Stockport on 6 November 1796. As a boy, he went to sea as a volunteer in the frigate HMS Arethusa in 1808, but was captured by the French the following year and remained a prisoner until the peace of early 1814. During his captivity, Back practised his skills as an artist, which he later put to use in recording his travels through the Arctic.

Following his release, Back served as a midshipman before volunteering to serve under John Franklin in his first expedition to the Arctic in 1818. Back also served under Franklin in his two overland expeditions to survey the northern coast of North America, in 1819-1822 and 1824-1826, during which time he was promoted first to lieutenant and then to commander. Back led his own expedition in 1834 to complete the survey and explore what was later named the Back River in his honour.

In 1836, Back was promoted to captain and given command of HMS Terror for an expedition to the northern part of Hudson Bay, with plans to cross the Melville Peninsula overland and explore the opposite shore. The ship was icebound for 10 months and at one point was pushed 40 feet up the side of a cliff by the pressure of the ice. In the spring of 1837, an encounter with an iceberg further damaged the ship, which was close to sinking by the time Back was able to beach it on the coast of Ireland at Lough Swilly.

Poor health caused Back to retire from active service, although he maintained an interest in Arctic exploration for the rest of his life. He was knighted on 18 March 1839. He served as an advisor to the Admiralty during the search for John Franklin's lost expedition, and as vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society. He was promoted to vice-admiral in 1863 and admiral in 1876.

Admiral Sir George Back died on 23 June 1878.

In spite of the high regard in which he was held in Great Britain and the many honours he received, Back had a history of being disliked and distrusted by many of the people he worked with in the Arctic, including Franklin. He was variously criticized for being rude, selfish, sycophantic, quarrelsome and a weak leader. Later in life he gained a reputation for being a dandy and a womaniser.

Photographed by Camille Silvy of London on 16 April 1861.


Code: 124530
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