Eira the steam yacht. Picture: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
Murky underwater videos suggest wreckage of Eira is finally rediscovered off Cape Flora on Franz Josef Land archipelago, where it sank in 1881.
The name of Benjamin (Ben) Leigh Smith may not seem too familiar among Arctic explorers, but it should be.
The intrepid explorer born into a radical English family named the cape where his vessel sank after being trapped between two giant icebergs after his famous relative Florence Nightingale, known as ‘The Lady with the Lamp’ for tending the wounded in the Crimean War, an English social reformer and statistician who is seen in her country as the founder of modern nursing.
On his fateful voyage which culminated in the fateful sinking of his elegant steam yacht, the Eira, a remarkable photograph records a meeting at sea with two other ships from Peterhead in Scotland, the Hope and the Eclipse.
Leigh Smith invited on board the Eira the captains of both these ships and an historic picture records the occasion.
Look closely, and on this photograph to the right of Leigh Smith is the surgeon of the Hope, one Arthur Conan Doyle, later to be the famous writer and creator of Sherlock Holmes.
From left to right are: David Gray at the helm (Capt. Eclipse), Benjamin Leigh-Smith (Capt./owner Eira), Arthur Conan Doyle (Surgeon Hope), John Gray (Capt. Hope), Dr.Walker and Dr.Neale, and William Lofley (ice master Eira) right at the stern. Pictures: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland
After the Eira sank, the crew built a shelter – Flora’s Cottage, made from driftwood, rocks and ship masts – and somehow survived six months of total darkness, intense cold, and bone cracking gales in the Arctic winter thanks in no small measure to ship’s dog Bob.
They were rescued the next summer after a perilous journey in storm force winds in the Eira’s four lifeboats – with sails made of table cloths purloined from the sunken vessel – to the waters off Novaya Zemlya where they were found by an expedition sent from England to rescue them.
For years researchers have sought to locate the wreck of the Eira, which had been specially built as an Arctic vessel for Leigh Smith.
It is now revealed that in August 2017, the expedition ‘The Open Ocean: Archipelagos of the Arctic’ during a survey of the seabed at Cape Flora discovered ‘an object’ the size of the Eira.
Sinking of Eira, the crew hunting walruses, the Flora lodge and the only enterntainment during months of darkness – the music box. Pictures: www.leigh-smith.com
Underwater video suggests it is indeed the wreckage of this vessel, important to the histories of both Russia and Britain.
‘We saw and found the vessel of British explorer Benjamin Leigh Smith, the Eira. I am 100% sure of that, although, of course, we did not do any special research as this was technically impossible, but all the information about the scene of the wreck and certain specific features leave no doubt that it’s her,’ said expedition co-head Alexander Chichyaev.
‘The research conducted this year is a good sign that gives us hope for successful work and an efficient expedition next summer,’ said his colleague Alexander Kirilov.
He is optimistic that Leigh Smith’s intrepid vessel has been finally found although he acknowledges the ‘object’ on the seabed might yet not turn out be this famous ship which sank on its maiden Arctic voyage.
Eira means snow in both Welsh and Finnish, and is the name is Norse goddess.
General View of the Cape Flora, and Cape Flora marked on the world map. Pictures: Russian Ministry of Natural Resources and Ecology
Leigh Smith – or Ben Smith as her preferred to be called – was the son of a radical politician, also named Ben, who was instrumental in the campaign to abolish slavery.
His parents were not married and his mother was hat maker Anne Longden, who died of tuberculosis when he was just five.
Between 1871 and 1882, the explorer 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.
Yet in 2013 he was rightly called Britain’s ‘forgotten explorer of the far north’ by the BBC, even though in 1881 he had 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.
He had a legal education – and an early career that saw him as a barrister campaigning for women’s rights. Yet he also possessed ‘a first class scientific mind’ and ‘in 1872 foresaw the dangers of global warming’, according to his grandson Christopher.
His unachieved aim was to reach the North Pole.
“In 1871 and 1872 he explores virgin regions North of Spitzberg. At a shallow depth of 457 metres in very deep waters he discovers a current having a high temperature of 0.6 C., and corroborates 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,’ wrote Christopher.
Ben Leigh-Smith (portrait of 1883) and with wife Charlotte. Pictures: Public Record Office of Northern Ireland, www.leigh-smith.com
Benjamin’s maritime and overland discoveries as well as his observations on the local flora, fauna and minerals were universally acclaimed by the world’s leading scientists and brought him many decorations for his work.
‘By way of Royal recognition, Cape Leigh-Smith was named after him as well as much of Spitzbergen and Franz-Joseph Land. Nightingale Sound after his niece Florence, the Lady of the Lamp.’
Leigh Smith 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. His ship reached Franz-Josef Land but sank in only two hours after being crushed between the icebergs.
‘Anticipating the long winter months ahead, they build a solid hut made from rocks, earth and wood, on a green patch, 20ft above sea level,’ wrote Christopher.
‘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.
‘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.