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Arctic Tales
28 October, 2018

Arctic Tales

Cape Neale - named of course after Dr Neale, with his pipe and deerstalker-esque cap, was the EIRA'S surgeon - who made quite the impression on the young Dr Conan Doyle* (see note below) - who was at the time ship's surgeon of THE HOPE, who charted three volumes of his Arctic adventures in his Hope diaries. Below is a snapshot of a truly fascinating story of Ben Leigh Smith - taken from a feature by The Siberian Times - alongside photography from Vladimir Melnik of Open Ocean: Arctic Archipelagos. 
This is a fascinating article and affords us another view into that hair-raising part of Arthur Conan Doyle's life spent in the Arctic and the incredible people he met along the way. 

Major discovery of Ben Leigh Smith’s vessel which sank off Franz Josef Land in 1881 sandwiched between two giant icebergs.

A Russian scientific team has confirmed the discovery of the wreck of the Eira, seen as one of the most important vessels in 19th century Arctic exploration.
The first dives to the wooden-hulled icebreaker, an elegant steam yacht with a 50 horse power engine, produced artefacts from the sea floor which establish beyond doubt this is Scottish-made vessel.
One is a fragment of an alcoholic flagon inscribed ‘Robert K….Wine & Spirit(s) - Peterh(ead)’.
This is surmised as a rum container from a local merchant in the eastern Scottish town where the Eira was specially constructed for explorer Ben Leigh Smith.
Another ceramic fragment - for use in a laboratory - had an inscription ‘London’, confirming the British origin of the vessel off Cape Flora, named after the explorer’s legendary cousin Florence Nightingale, who nursed wounded soldiers during the Crimean War 1853-56.
Such ceramics are typical for all the specialised scientific ships, which, in fact, Eira was,’ said archaeologist Mark Stepanov.
‘The result of the studies is that we can confirm 100% this is the Eira,’ he announced. The divers - operating in treacherous Arctic conditions - took sizes and noted specific features of the vessel’s unique structure and decorations. All those features confirmed the ship’s origin after a 12-years search, said Stepanov.
Lead diver Sergei Kovalev said: ‘We had very little time.‘The visibility was very bad, but still we fulfilled the task.’
In all 13 dives were made this summer, lasting 336 minutes, and involving six divers. 
Some 45 small artefacts were collected ‘including ceramic pieces of laboratory dishes and tableware, elements of ship’s decorations, details of the ship’s equipment and mechanisms, rifle cartridges’.
The bow and stern of the vessel are missing, presumably destroyed by the ice crush that led to the Eira’s sinking. Intriguingly the site of the wreck is now seen as a ‘natural’ as well as an ‘historical’ treasure trove. 
‘During almost 150 years the Eira shipwreck has become an underwater oasis developed among the surrounding sand desert bottom seascape,’ said a statement from Association ‘Maritime Heritage: Explore & Sustain’ which staged the expedition.
As such the wreck is of strong interest to marine biologists, it is understood.
‘An archaeological survey conducted by the Association of Maritime Heritage on the Eira shipwreck in Franz Josef Land appears to be the first ever underwater archaeological work in the Russian Arctic.’
Stepanov said: ‘The ship is now like an oasis on a sandy desert bottom. ‘The wreckage that remained is overgrown with algae, on which thousands of different organisms live… ’It is now not only a monument of archeology, but also a monument of nature.'
Unusually, the Eira did not have its name displayed - except on the ship’s bell which had been taken by the crew when they abandoned her when the vessel became caught in dangerous ice floes. Items recovered from the Eira have been passed to the Museum of the World Ocean in Kaliningrad.
While ‘largely forgotten’ today as a  polar explorer in his homeland, Russians salute his  ‘great input into the discovery and early exploration of the Franz Josef Archipelago’.

The intrepid explorer had set out on 14 June 1881 on the Eira, with 25 crew, a cat, a canary and Bob the dog. His key interest was deep sea currents, as well as seeking new territories in the Arctic. But they were forced to spend ten months including a bitter winter in the Franz Josef Land archipelago in the Arctic. 

Known as Britain's 'forgotten explorer' because he shunned the self-promotion of Victorian rivals, he led his men the following year in four lifeboats with sails made from salvaged tablecloths on a  perilous crossing to Novaya Zemlya where they were rescued by a British search party. 

En route to the Arctic, a remarkable photograph records a meeting at sea with two other ships from Peterhead.

Leigh Smith entertained the senior crew members on board the Eira, including Arthur Conan Doyle, then the ship's surgeon on the Hope, which with a new crew would be one of the vessels that rescued them in 1882.

After the Eira sank in just two hours, the crew built a shelter - called Flora's Cottage - to survive the harsh winter, made from driftwood, rocks and ship masts. In this bleak Arctic outpost, they survived six months of total darkness. 
Leigh Smith received the Patron's Gold Medal of the Royal Geographical Society, and Ostrov Li-Smita (Leigh-Smith Island), east of Hooker Island (Franz Josef Land), is named after him, as are glacier Leighbreen and Kapp (Cape) Leigh Smith on Nordaustlandet, Svalbard. 
Yet he shunned the limelight back in Britain, refusing to personally see Queen Victoria to tell her of his adventures. He had a  legal education and his early career that saw him as a barrister campaigning for women's rights. He possessed 'a first class scientific mind' and 'in 1872 foresaw the dangers of global warming', according to his grandson Christopher Leigh Smith.
A decade before he was shipwrecked he had explored the virgin regions north of Spitzbergen. 
At a depth of 1,500 ft in much deeper water he discovered  a warm current, corroborating his theory "that there was a means of forging a passage across the Arctic through the Barents Sea as well as his fears over global warming", said he grandson.
Between 1871 and 1882, Leigh Smith undertook five hazardous scientific expeditions to Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, bringing back specimens for the the British Museum and Royal Botanic Gardens - and even live polar bears for London Zoo.
'His leadership was so successful that the veteran Arctic whaling captain David Gray was moved to call him the very model of 'quiet, cool, thoroughbred English pluck'," wrote Peter Capelotti, author of Shipwreck at Cape Flora: The Expeditions of Benjamin Leigh Smith, England's Forgotten Arctic Explorer.
Capelotti says Leigh Smith 'always begged off' attempts in his lifetime to award him with medals.
The explorer’s grandson Christopher wrote: 'Anticipating the long winter months ahead, they built a solid hut made from rocks, earth and wood, on a green patch, 20ft above sea level.
'They also built other huts to store the fish and meat they would need to kill and preserve. 'Bob the dog was invaluable in this and without his unremitting courage none of it would have been possible. 
'On several occasions during fishing and hunting expeditions one or even several men would fall into the icy waters. 'Bob the dog always managed to save them, sometimes even running back to the camp for help.'
In fact, the scheme of Flora Cottage - built in haste from anything the crew could find to weather the harshest Arctic winter - shows he led an heroic mission of survival. 
A note*  We (The Conan Doyle Estate) have included a photograph of Dr. Neale, which comes from a Wide World Magazine article in 1898. We feel it demonstrates, even better than the photo from the Eira how much Neale looks like the Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories.  (And like Watson, his M.D. was from the University of London.)  
The Siberian Times

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