John Byron

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John Byron


British Explorer and Naval Admiral

After the exploration of Australia and New Zealand by Dutchman Abel Tasman (c. 1603-1659), a feverish period of sea exploration began, setting the stage for a surge in European colonialism during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Since Ferdinand Magellan's (1480?-1521) first circumnavigation in 1520, the globe had been circled by ship numerous times. However, the need for faster, easier trade routes and a curiosity about unknown lands fueled a new breed of seaman. Admiral John Byron of the British Navy, sent to find the elusive "southern continent," discovered the Falkland Islands as well as many other smaller islands in what would be the fastest circumnavigation at the time.

Born into a family of Navy men, Lord Byron began his naval career in 1731 at age nine, when he became a midshipman. Nine years later, and still a midshipman, Byron took up with the vessel Wager, a supply ship with a reputation as the worst boat in the Navy. When it rounded Cape Horn in 1741, Wager separated from the fleet and wrecked on the rocks of an island near the Strait of Magellan. The crew, no longer under the rules of the military, disbanded and fended for themselves. Byron, who later wrote a book about the perilous trip, lived with very little food, shelter, or clothing for 13 months. He then moved to the hostile, Spanish-occupied territory of South America until a French vessel rescued him and brought him back home, nearly five years after the shipwreck.

Upon his return in 1746, he rose through the ranks of the Navy rapidly. He commanded several ships and eventually entire fleets of frigates. In 1764 he was assigned to an older frigate ship, the Dolphin, that was rotten with worm holes through its hull. The Navy used an experimental copper sheathing to cover the hull and prevent further damage. Byron's assignment, under secret government orders, was to seek out new foreign trade markets, and if possible claim any undiscovered or unclaimed lands for the British. He "rediscovered" the Falkland Islands, off the tip of Patagonia, and claimed them as British.

Unfortunately, unbeknownst to Byron, the French had already claimed the island chain. For years the British squabbled with the French, and eventually the Spanish, over control of the Falklands, but Byron had provided one of the most accurate navigational maps of the chain. After touching the Falklands, however, Byron's journey became somewhat disappointing. He toured the south seas for a "southern continent" that the British hoped to find, but soon made a fast track to the South Pacific to "rediscover" the Solomon Islands, which were said to be rich with gold and silver. Byron missed the Solomon Islands as well as Tahiti, but he did manage to spot many smaller islands.

While many observers criticized Byron's journey as unsuccessful and Byron himself as a lazy explorer, his journey was the fastest circumnavigation up to that point in history. His trip also ignited British interest in the South Pacific, where English products were eventually traded with great success.

Byron was eventually assigned to Newfoundland, where he was appointed governor, and in 1778 he became a vice-admiral. While commanding a fleet of British ships sailing to America, he lived through one of the worst Atlantic Ocean gales in history, securing his nickname, "Foul-weather Jack." Byron died in 1786, but his legacy continues to live on through the literary work of his grandson, the poet Lord Byron, who based his work Don Juan and some of his other poetry on John Byron's harrowing sea travels.


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John Byron

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