John Byron's Record-Setting Circumnavigation on the Dolphin

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John Byron's Record-Setting Circumnavigation on the Dolphin


In 1764, John Byron (1723-1786) left England in command of a two-ship expedition to circle the globe. He returned slightly less than two years later, having set a record for the fastest circumnavigation to date, and the first commander to circle the globe without losing a ship. While Byron did not accomplish some of his goals of locating new territories for Britain (with the exception of laying claim to the Falkland Islands), he did help to set a standard for both speed and safety on such an epic voyage.


Contrary to popular legend, the world had been known to be spherical since the time of the ancient Greeks. Christopher Columbus's (1451- 1506) achievement lay not in "proving" the world to be round, but in being the first to try to exploit this fact in attempting a faster route to the Far East. In fact, Columbus erred greatly in his calculations and, were it not for the unexpected presence of the Americas, his crew would almost certainly have perished trying to reach the Orient.

In spite of the long-standing knowledge of the Earth's shape, nobody attempted to circum-navigate it until Ferdinand Magellan's (1480?-1521) lieutenant, Juan Sebastian d'Elcano (1476?-1526), returned in command of Magellan's remaining ship in 1522 (Magellan, of course, was killed during the voyage and failed to complete the journey). Following this feat, the next circumnavigation was accomplished by Sir Francis Drake (1540?-1596) almost 60 years later, and others followed.

Each time a circumnavigation was completed, the sponsoring nation gained territories, prestige, and possible military or trade advantages over its rivals. In the nearly continual state of war and conflict that characterized Europe in the sixteenth, seventeenth, and eighteenth centuries, such advantages were seen as vital to the national interests of the great powers of Britain, France, Holland, and Spain.

Of increasing importance during these centuries were the trade routes to the Orient. Spices, silk, porcelain, tea, and other commodities were the foundation of great wealth, and all nations were avidly seeking gold, silver, and gemstones to help fill their treasuries. Trade routes helped ships bring these good to the mother countries, and military outposts were needed as bases to help protect the cargo vessels, which made rich prizes for any attacking nation. Because of this, many voyages of exploration and discovery had multiple goals: to locate new trading partners, to gather information about wind, weather, and ocean conditions that could help ships to reach their destinations more quickly and safely, and to scout for likely military bases at which ships could be stationed to help escort merchant vessels safely to and from their destinations. It was on such a mission that the Dolphin departed England in July 1764.

The expedition, under the command of John Byron (grandfather to the poet), was charged with exploring the Pacific Ocean in order to help Britain gain and maintain an advantage over her Continental rivals. On his way across the Atlantic, Byron laid claim to the Falk-land Islands for Britain, apparently unaware that they had already been claimed by the Frenchman Louis-Antoine de Bougainville (1729-1811). Rounding the tip of South America, he continued into the Pacific, but here he apparently either decided to disregard his orders or he was simply unlucky. In any event, he managed to cross the Pacific in the latitude of the trade winds, and did so without discovering any lands of interest. However, his long, uninterrupted stretch of steady sailing gave him the fastest crossing of the Pacific to date. He then turned his attention to returning home by the fastest route, reaching England again only 22 months after his departure. A few months later, Dolphin was outfitted for another circumnavigation, becoming the first vessel to complete this arduous journey twice.


Previous circumnavigations had all taken longer, and had lost ships and men. In fact, both Magellan and Drake set forth on their circumnavigations only accidentally, when pursuit by enemy vessels made any other return home impractical or unsafe. By comparison, Byron set forth with the express intent of circling the globe. However, in addition to his record-setting pace, Byron's expedition was the first to complete this voyage without losing a ship. By comparison, Magellan left with five ships and 265 men and returned with 18 men manning a single ship. Perhaps the single worst trip to have been on, however, would have been the ill-fated expedition led by George Anson (1697-1762) between 1739 and 1744. Anson left port with a total of 1,939 men, only 500 of whom survived the five-year voyage.

Although Byron's voyage did not result in discovery of many new lands for England and was not nearly so successful as the later voyages of James Cook (1728-1779), it was not without accomplishment. In particular, England gained some national pride from hosting such a rapid and safe voyage of this magnitude, and the Royal Navy gained some degree of acclaim through this accomplishment. In addition, by sailing with the trade winds so rapidly across the largest ocean on Earth, Byron helped to show the value of these routes. The trade winds had been known for some time; what was not known was that they were so constant over this vast expanse of water. Finally, Byron set the standard for future circumnavigations.

In fact, Byron's mission was inspired by a French writer, who urged the French government to send expeditions to claim lands for French bases, to help protect French merchant ships, and to trade in the Orient. However, the French government failed to act on this advice, leaving these seas to the English. Although Byron discovered nothing of importance in his voyage, he gave Britain valuable insights into the rigors of long-duration sea journeys—insights that were to prove valuable in future expeditions.

In addition, by showing that a British ship could successfully circle the globe so rapidly, the navy and the nation gained a sense of pride in their accomplishment. The added fact that Byron did not lose a single vessel was even better. In a sense, after the Dolphin and Tamar returned to Britain, there was the realization that voyages of such length, while still hazardous, could now be treated as "just" another voyage, albeit one of great length. This helped to mark the end of the romance of seaborne exploration and the start of the practical business of far-flung commercial and naval enterprises.

Byron also helped increase knowledge of the trade winds in the Pacific. Trade winds, the steady winds that typically blow from east to west in low latitudes (i.e., near the equator), were the global superhighways in the age of sail. By descending to the latitudes in which they blew, a ship could sail for weeks across the Pacific without adjusting its sails or rudder significantly. With steady winds and a known distance to sail, voyages began to become more predictable, and sailing became somewhat more scientific.

This increase in scientific knowledge of the Pacific and its winds, in turn, helped the British to better understand the oceans upon which their nation depended for its commercial wealth and military strength. As with merchant vessels, it was a great help to a naval captain to know how long a voyage might last, and how to cut that time to the bare minimum necessary. With this knowledge, he could better plan his supply of food and water, for example, to ensure that his men did not starve while, at the same time, taking the greatest amount of cargo, guns, or passengers possible. Although much of this information became superfluous once the age of sail had passed, it was vitally important at the time, and failure to understand wind patterns or crossing times could (and did) result in the loss of ships, lives, and cargo on a regular basis.

The last legacy of Byron's journey was the standard he set for both speed and safety while circling the world. Future such expeditions would be judged by their speed and the number of ships lost as well as by the amount of information returned by the ship at voyage's end.

All in all, Byron's voyage was not successful in the manner planned when he departed. He claimed only minor territories for Britain, and discovered no new lands of any significance to add to Britain's overseas possessions. However, he did help to break new ground in finding a fast and relatively safe route across the expanse of the Pacific Ocean by making full use of the trade winds, and he helped set a high standard for future voyages.


Further Reading


Wilson, Derek M. The Circumnavigators. Evans & Company, 1989.

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John Byron's Record-Setting Circumnavigation on the Dolphin

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