Francis Rawdon Chesney

From A Compendium of Irish Biography, 1878

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Chesney, Francis Rawdon, General, a distinguished explorer and military officer, was born 16th March 1789. His father, an Irish settler in America, had taken the loyalist side during the revolutionary war, and served with distinction under Hastings (afterwards Lord Moira) and Cornwallis, and at the time of his son's birth, was settled down as a revenue-officer at Ballyvea, in the County of Down. Young Chesney was a born soldier: it is recorded that at nine years of age he held a commission in the yeomanry. Presented by Lord Moira with a Woolwich cadetship, he passed through the Academy with honour. During the Peninsular War the chances of the service consigned him to garrison duty in Guernsey; but no sooner was leave granted to him after the restoration of peace, than he set himself the task of walking over Napoleon's principal battle-fields, upwards of 3,000 miles — attentively studying the strategy of that commander, and of those who defeated him. During a visit home in 1814, he by his intrepidity and powers as a swimmer, rescued the crew of a French barque that had gone ashore in a blinding snowstorm; and for this he was presented with the medal of the Societé des Naufrages.

He early acquired the habit of devoting several hours daily to the study of military science; a practice from which no inducements could draw him away. His name first came before the public in 1829, when, as a lieutenant of artillery, he was sent on a mission to Egypt to inquire into the relative advantages of the Egyptian and Syrian routes to India. He explored Syria by way of Damascus, and Tiberias, and Djerash, until he struck the Euphrates at El Werdi, encountering unlooked for perils and hardships. With a few Arabs he descended the Euphrates on a raft, and continued his explorations for three years. Apart from the practicability of a Suez canal, he also reported the feasibility of steam communication with India through Egypt. Soon after his return, Parliament voted £20,000 to defray the expenses of a second exploration of the Euphrates route under his command, he having volunteered to serve without pay. He received the brevet rank of Colonel, and early in 1835 he set out, accompanied by an efficient staff of army and navy officers, and a detachment of artillery, sappers, and marines. Landing at the mouth of the Orontes, on the coast of Syria, he transported across the desert two small steamboats, and put them together at Bir, on the upper Euphrates. Notwithstanding the loss of one of these boats with twenty lives, and other disheartening difficulties, he accomplished the task of exploring the Euphrates, the Tigris, and the Karum, and making a series of exact soundings and charts of these rivers.

Ably seconded by the officers of the expedition, he extended his journey as far as India, and returned across the Arabian desert, reaching London in August 1837. The determination, the energy, and the perseverance that he exhibited, won the admiration of his fellow-countrymen and of all interested in geographical research. The death of William IV. and political complications prevented the full results of the expedition being reaped, either in credit to himself or in benefit to the Empire. In 1836 he was made a Major in the British army, and two years afterwards Lieutenant-Colonel. In 1843 he was appointed Commandant of Hong Kong, and of the detachment of artillery sent to China. Upon his return he held commands in Ireland, and in 1851 retired to his family estate of Packolet, near Kilkeel. He was made Colonel the same year; in 1855, Major-General; General in 1868. He visited Constantinople in 1857 and again in 1863 to negotiate concessions for a projected railway.

He revisited Syria, and again surveyed the line from the Orontes to the Euphrates. In 1849 he published the first two volumes of his great work on the exploration of the rivers Tigris and Euphrates, a standard book of reference, and one that drew forth the warm congratulations of such men as Retter and Humboldt. His book on fire-arms and artillery appeared in 1852; and in 1854 his Russo-Turkish Campaigns of 1828-'29. He was a Fellow of the Royal Society, a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society, and a D.C.L. of Oxford. The last years of his life were spent in his native home, and his latest efforts were given to the cause he had so warmly advocated — the opening of communication with India by the Euphrates valley. General Chesney was esteemed a man of essentially conservative instincts. In the recasting of the affairs of the Church of Ireland, of which he was a member, his age and experience gave him an influence which he employed in the same spirit. Like other eminent Irishmen of the generation to which he belonged, he preserved to the last the simplicity of manners and some of the raciness of accent characteristic of the north of Ireland. General Chesney died at Kilkeel, 31st January 1872, aged 82.

Sources

233. Manuscript and Special Information, and Current Periodicals.

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