Mount Sabine (Canal Flats)
Sabine was “the artful dodger of the British scientific establishment. Bright, energetic, shrewd, he could have been the very model of Gilbert and Sullivan’s modern major general.”23
From 1857 until 1860, the British North American Exploring Expedition, often now referred to as the Palliser Expedition, travelled through western Canada between Lake Superior and over the Rocky Mountains to provide scientific research and information on the landscape, and to report on its potential for settlement and transportation. This is the second in a series of posts about geographic features named during the Expedition’s travels through the Windermere Valley.
I want to preface this post with the caveat that someone really needs to write a biography about Sir Edward Sabine, and when that biography gets published you should read it. It guarantees to be entertaining!
This post was meant to be a quick read, but I was struck by how little Sabine’s influence on Palliser’s British North American Expedition has been acknowledged. I’ve tried not to be too onerous, but I wanted to share this perspective.
There’s a bunch of additional information about Sabine: if you want to read more, there’s a list of additional resources in the References section at the end.
Edward Sabine was born in Dublin on 14 October 1788 and was educated at the Royal Artillery Academy at Woolwich, getting a commission as Second Lieutenant in December 1803 at the age of fifteen.1 He saw service in Gibralter, and later in British North America as part of the War of 1812, serving in a small outpost near Quebec City during the winter of 1813-14, and in August and September 1814 near Niagara including as part of the siege of Fort Erie.2
With the exception of a period in the 1830s, when he served in Ireland, this was the extent of Sabine’s active military service.3 He never resigned his commission from the Royal Artillery, however, and reached the rank of General in 1874 before retiring in October 1877 on full pay.4
A Military Scientist
When Sabine returned to Britain in August 1816, following the War of 1812, he found himself in the same situation as many young British officers holding a commission did at the time: not having much to do. Following the Napoleonic Wars, there were too many officers and equipment in the British military to keep busy with military matters. Instead, the Admiralty turned their attention to more scientific matters – a venture that Sabine whole-heartedly embraced.
Sabine studied magnetism, astronomy and ornithology, and was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of London on 16 April 1818. On the Society’s recommendation Sabine was then appointed astronomer to the 1818 Arctic Expedition of John Ross in search of the Northwest Passage,5 and later for a second Arctic expedition in 1819, this time under Lieutenant Commander Parry. After this second voyage, Sabine published a paper with the Royal Society about variations in the intensity of magnetic fields during the course of the trip, and specifically pointed to the importance of collecting detailed magnetic observations from different points on the earth’s surface.6
Although Sabine’s scientific interests remained broad, from the late 1820s he devoted much of his energy to this pursuit of measuring the earth’s magnetic field. Sabine was certainly not the only person in England with an interest in magnetism, but he did become one of the most vocal, and his name became closely tied to the subject.7
The earth’s magnetic field varies based on a number of factors, and Sabine wanted to understand how the field was distributed and how it changed. In particular, he came to see magnetism as an essential part of meteorology (weather), and conducted research based on the view that magnetism and weather were interrelated.8 (They are not)
Sabine’s approach to science was somewhat different from other formally trained scientists of the day. Sabine held the philosophy that the best way to approach the study of science was to gather and analyze vast quantities of data on a global scale.9 He didn’t have much interest at all in theory, and was disinterested in geographical discovery,10 instead focusing on collecting observational data from as many locations on earth as he could, and publishing that data in vast volumes.
Contemporary scientists were unimpressed with Sabine’s approach. John Herschel, for example, was frustrated by “Sabine’s seemingly endless compilation of data… chartism, he called it. Not all facts were equally important, he insisted; and the data were not the ends, but merely the preliminaries to theory. Sabine, however, relished facts and was dubious of theoreticians’ speculations.”11
Sabine’s interest in magnetism and approach to science would not have had much impact on the scientific community had he also not gained a substantial amount of influence in both military and scientific circles. From 1827 to 1829 Sabine was given military leave to act as one of the secretaries of the Royal Society, and in 1828 he was appointed as one of three “Scientific Advisers of the Admiralty.”12
Sabine went on to hold various positions within the different scientific societies, including as general secretary of the British Association for the Advancement of Science (BAAS) from 1838 until 1859, with the exception of 1852 when he was president. During that same period, he acted at times as foreign secretary, vice-president, and treasurer of the Royal Society, serving as its president from 1861 until 1871.13
This joint influence of serving within the Royal Society and the BAAS, as well as directing the Admiralty’s scientific pursuits, was only the beginning. It was common in Britain at the time for projects to be undertaken based on something of an “old boys” network, where individual objectives could be pursued based on a complex network of men in power granting and repaying favours to each other.14 Sabine understood this. Not only did he retain his military commission, but over time he became increasingly entrenched in the Royal Society as well as the (BAAS), exerting influence from three fronts as the situation required.15
Sabine’s devotion to the study of magnetism through the collection of vast quantities of data, combined with his increased influence within the British scientific community, meant that by 1838 “he had so completely demonstrated the importance of magnetic observations being carried out in all parts of the world” that Captain James Ross was sent to make a magnetic survey of the Antarctic. Sabine went along on Ross’ expedition.16
By this time Sabine had also convinced the Admiralty (commanding the Royal Navy) to establish magnetic and meteorological observatories in the colonies, and on Ross’ voyage to Antarctica he founded observatories in St Helana, the Cape [South Africa], and Tasmania.17 Later, in 1840, Sabine saw an additional observatory established on what is now the campus of the University of Toronto. This was Canada’s first magnetic observatory and later became the Toronto Magnetic and Meteorological Observatory, an institution that remains today.18
A Continued Royal Artillery Connection
Despite Sabine’s increased influence in the British scientific community, he remained a staunch Royal Artillery man with close connections to the British Admiralty and his own Royal Artillery unit. For example, rather than staffing the new observatories with scientists, Sabine had them operated by young officers from his unit: the Woolwich Royal Artillery.19 One of these Royal Artillery Officers was John Henry Lefroy, who staffed the Toronto Observatory from 1842 until 1846 and conducted detailed magnetic observations at more than 300 locations in British North America during that time.20
This preference of relying on officers from the Royal Artillery was advantageous to the way in which Sabine approached science. Formally trained scientists were likely to be distracted by theory, whereas Royal Artillery officers could, to Sabine’s mind, be trained to make the detailed observations he wanted without being distracted by other scientific questions. From 1841 to 1861 Sabine even maintained a staff at his former military college at Woolwich to process the magnetism data being collected,21 and Sabine oversaw the arrangement and publication of literally volumes of meteorological and magnetic observations.22
By the mid 1800s, therefore, Sabine had developed something of a modus operandi. He was very interested in collecting large amounts of geophysical data, particularly to do with magnetism, and he preferred to train up members of his own Royal Artillery regiment to do the work. He had also gained influence both within the Admiralty, as well as the Royal Society and the BAAS, and adeptly manipulated these networks to achieve his own goals. As one biographer put it, Sabine was “the artful dodger of the British scientific establishment. Bright, energetic, shrewd, he could have been the very model of Gilbert and Sullivan’s modern major general.”23
A Case Study
In a testament to Sabine’s influence, it’s worth taking a quick look at his role in John Franklin’s ill-fated Arctic Expedition. Franklin was Governor of Van Diemen’s Land (Tasmania) at the time that Sabine oversaw the establishment of a magnetic observatory there. Franklin reportedly supported and was quite interested in Sabine’s magnetic project.24
When the question was raised as to who should lead an Expedition to the Arctic in search of the Northwest Passage, at least one historian has argued that Sabine favoured John Franklin as a candidate, in part due to Franklin’s interest in magnetism.25 Certainly the BAAS lobbied hard in support of Franklin’s 1845 Arctic expedition, and Sabine’s influence with both the Royal Society and the Admiralty may have impacted who was appointed.26 As Sabine himself had little interest in the geographic discovery of the Northwest Passage, ensuring that the Arctic Expedition was led by someone who also supported his gathering of magnetic data would have been a priority for him. This does not seem at all settled among historians, but it is certainly an interesting perspective.
Testifying to Sabine’s duel influence in military as well as scientific circles, when the Franklin expedition went missing, Sabine was regularly consulted by the Admiralty on how to best prosecute the search. As Sabine himself had been on two expeditions to the Arctic, he was considered to be an expert on the area.
What Does this Matter?
All of this background information about Sabine becomes significant for our purposes when, in November 1856, John Palliser approached the Royal Geographical Society (RGS) with a proposal to travel through and document the western lands of British North America. As discussed in last week’s post on Palliser, the RGS suggested that Palliser should be accompanied by scientific assistants, and they turned over such details for arranging scientific personnel, instruments, and observation priorities to the Royal Society. The Royal Society promptly set up the North American Expedition Committee and, at the committee’s first meeting held on 16 March 1857, Sir Edward Sabine was in the chair.27
Given Sabine’s “artful dodging” it is perhaps not surprising that he came to hold such a critical position in determining the goals of the British North American Expedition. Here was an expedition proposing to travel over new ground, providing the opportunity to expand on magnetic observations already made by John Lefroy based out of the Toronto observatory. Sabine had positioned himself within the British scientific community to take advantage of just such opportunities.
Under Sabine’s chairmanship the Royal Society decided to send four specialists along with Palliser to collect data on the most important scientific questions pertaining to British North America. These areas of scientific study included geology (James Hector), botany (Bourgeau), astronomy (John Sullivan), and magnetism (Lieut Thomas Blakiston).
The first three of these objectives make sense in terms of describing the general physical characteristics of the region (astronomical observations were important for latitude and longitude), but Blakiston’s appointment as magnetic observer was a nod to collecting the type of general geophysical data that appealed most strongly to Edward Sabine. The decision to include magnetism in the expedition’s scientific mandate was certainly due to Sabine’s influence.28
The Magnetic Observer
Lieutenant Thomas Blakiston was, unsurprisingly given Sabine’s methodology, not a scientist, but a Royal Artillery Officer who had been recommended by John Henry Lefroy (another Royal Artillery Offider) as “one of our most promising young officers.”29
Blakiston had no previous experience with magnetic observations, so he was sent for special training on how to make the necessary observations and look after the “many delicate instruments.”30 The purchase of these instruments for magnetic observations was a significant draw on the expedition’s limited finances.31
Following his training, Blakiston was sent off not with other members of the expedition, who would travel to British North America through New York, but via an HBC ship to York Factory. This separate travel route was based on Sabine’s suggestion in order for Blakiston to transport and look after those delicate instruments. Again, additional travel costs had to be covered through expedition finances. From York Factory, Blakiston took a boat down to join the rest of the party at Fort Carlton (north of Saskatoon) in October 1857.32
A Very Long Winter
With the help of the other members of the expedition team, for the next five months Blakiston made hourly magnetic observations at Fort Carlton. For the first three of those months Blakiston had a number of men to help, but a lack of food at the Fort meant that measurements in the last two months were accomplished primarily by only Blakiston and Bourgeau (other expedition members had gone elsewhere).33
Tensions between Blakiston and others in the expedition rose quickly that winter thanks to the tedium of those hourly observations and a general lack of food. These tension did not go away, and Blakiston seems to have been largely at the root of them. When Palliser returned to Fort Carlton that spring, Lietuenant Blakiston pressed him to clarify positions of rank and authority within the group. As an army man, Blakiston wanted to know his position of authority, but he also got upset when Palliser named the younger James Hector as his second in command. Blakiston also got upset when Palliser refused to allow him to build a canoe to descend down the South Saskachewan River, thinking it too dangerous. These perceived slights against Blakiston led him, in August 1858, to “throw off” Palliser’s command and leave the expedition.34
Lieutenant Blakiston’s rejection of Palliser’s command did not stop him from taking expedition funded men, stores, and horses, “for a personal journey through the mountains,” still undertaking the instructions Palliser had given him to explore North Kootenay Pass, but refusing to hand over any of his notes or maps for the expedition report.35 Instead, Blakiston left later that year for the Red River Settlement, arriving 1 March 1859. There, Blakiston waited in the hopes of getting permission from the Secretary of State to continue his own explorations for magnetic surveys.36
This reply did not come, and even as the authorities in Britain wondered what to do about an expedition member who had abandoned the expedition (taking expedition property with him in doing so) and refused to hand over material and maps, Blakiston avoided any public inquiry by going to China and travelling up the Yangtze River. Meanwhile, back at Fort Edmonton, during the winter of 1858-59 there was “no attempt to repeat the demanding magnetic observations,” among remaining expedition members, although meteorological records continued to be kept.37
Edward Sabine, however, seems to have been little bothered by the whole mess. Although Blakiston refused to share any documentation or records with Palliser, he sent a report directly to Sabine (in which he apparently “took a number of digs at the other members of the expedition.”)38 Sabine went on to publish a report of Blakiston’s North Kootenay Pass explorations in the Occasional Papers of the Royal Artillery Institution,39 and Blakiston’s magnetic observations (sent directly to Sabine) formed the basis of three papers for the Royal Society.40
That the official records of the expedition never included these observations that the expedition had funded did not seem to bother Sabine. Altogether, Sabine was of the opinion that Lieutenant Blakiston, his fellow Royal Artillery officer, had “acquired himself with exemplary zeal and assiduity” and had fully accomplished the objects of the Expedition in the field of terrestrial magnetism.41 Sabine also write that Blakiston’s observations had, “proved to be of considerable theoretical importance,”42 which is interesting considering Sabine’s general disinterest in theory. Sabine had succeeded in collecting more data and observations on the earth’s magnetic field to add to his collection of data, and that seems to have been all that mattered.
Given the prominence of magnetic observations to the scientific goals of the Palliser Expedition, and the influence this suggests Sabine had as chair of the committee in choosing the expedition’s scientific objectives, it is interesting that Sabine’s name is usually mentioned only in passing in historical accounts of the expedition. Certainly his role in the Palliser Expedition is not mentioned at all in the various short biographies of Sabine written shortly after his death – the Palliser Expedition seems to have been too small and inconsequential to give much credit to.
Nonetheless, like many of the British men involved in the planning of the Expedition, Sabine’s name was given to a landmark along the expedition’s route. Curiously, it was not Blakiston who named Mount Sabine. The name first appears on a map tracing the expedition’s travels in the 1858 season alongside Captain Palliser’s route from South Kananaskis Pass down the Palliser River to the Kootenay River.
The “Mount Sabine” on Palliser’s 1858 map does not at all match with the present “Mount Sabine”, being on entirely the opposite side of the Kootenay River, nor do either of these placements of Mount Sabine quite match with maps in the years in between. After 1858, Palliser’s “Mount Sabine” was attributed to some peak at the head of Lussier River.
As close as I can tell, the Mount Sabine originally labeled by Palliser in 1858 is likely the current Mount Glen, although without getting alongside the Kootenay River to see what mountains look particularly visible and prominent from that vantage point it is hard to confirm. The subsequent depiction of Mt Sabine closer to the head of Lussier River suggests a location closer to Edward Peak, but this location was almost certainly an aesthetic choice of the mapmaker, who had never been in the area, and is not Palliser’s intended peak.
Regardless of how Mount Sabine has been depicted, the uncertainty about which mountain Palliser was referring to has resulted in no small amount of confusion. A note in Glen Boles’ Place Names book suggests that the location of Mount Sabine was “difficult to identify precisely,” and comments that it was in the “vicinity” of Radium Hot Springs.43
In an apparent nod to Palliser’s use of the name Sabine, at some unknown date the name was officially ascribed to a smaller peak directly overlooking Canal Flats and alongside Mt De Smet. This is certainly not the mountain Palliser originally named (his Mt Sabine was on the other side of the Kootenay River), but it preserves the name if not the original location.
Memorials after Edward Sabine’s death tended to be very positive. Sabine had worked “nobly” for science, creating the foundation of an entire branch of science (magnetism) which he pursued with “indefatigable zeal and marked success.”44 During his lifetime he also authored more than 100 scholarly papers on topics as diverse as the influence of the Gulf Stream on Europe, meteorology of Bombay, and winter storms in the United States.45 He was awarded honorary degrees from Oxford and Cambridge, as well as the Royal Medal in 1849 for his studies on terrestrial magnetism.46
A good part of Sabine’s success was due to his skill with peddling influence. On the title page of his 1825 book documenting experiments to determine the shape of the earth, attribution to the author goes to, “Edward Sabine, Captain in the Royal Regiment of Artillery; Fellow of the Royal and Linnaean Societies of London; Member of the Royal Society of Sciences of Norway; Corresponding Member of the Royal Society of Sciences at Gottingen; Honorary Member of the Historical, and of the Literary and Philosophical societies of New York.”47 This long-winded description was only at the beginning of his career: Sabine went on to become “an honorary member or associate of almost every foreign academy and scientific society of note.”48
Some of Sabine’s biographers acknowledge that his focus on magnetism was at times debilitating. He, “commanded respect, loyalty, and even affection. Yet his enthusiasm, verging on the fanatic, and his intellectual limitations became increasingly tyrannical as the climate of ideas changed and aging took its toll.”49 These “intellectual limitations” seem to be a nice way of saying that the older Sabine got, the more he gave preference to his ideas at the expense of other scientific pursuits.
These preferences came at a cost. In 1863, while serving as president of the Royal Society, Sabine reportedly refused to award the Copley Medal to naturalist Charles Darwin, instead giving it to geologist Adam Sedgwick. This gave weight to accusations that, in his position as president, Sabine neglected natural history.50
For the most part, Sabine’s contemporaries tended not to dwell too much on the scientific usefulness of Sabine’s magnetic observational data. By and large it seems that this data was valued largely for its own sake – it was a collection of information about the natural world. In terms of contributing to a broader understanding of earth and science, however, Sabine does not seem to have made much of an impact. The most significant scientific contribution that Sabine made with these magnetic studies was to identify a connection between sun spots and increased aurora activity on earth. This same observation was made interdependently by someone else at around the same time,51 so this isn’t exactly a huge success.
Sabine’s greatest influence, therefore, seems to have been not to science but to the way in which science was pursued through much of the nineteenth century. Given Sabine’s strong influence in Britain in both military and scientific circles, he made sure that his projects were given attention even at the expense of other scientific pursuits. It is interesting to consider what direction British science might have taken during this period had Sabine not been present. Certainly magnetism would have been studied – Sabine was not its only proponent – but it would have almost certainly have been less prominent. Other projects may have been greater priority and funding.
Still, this is all speculation. In Canada, without Sabine’s magnetic studies the observatory in Toronto would certainly not have been set up. That observatory placed Canada in a firm position to become a leading location for the study of space weather and in that, perhaps, Sabine is vindicated. Magnetism has nothing to do with weather on the surface of the earth, as Sabine believed, but it does have something to say about the “weather” off planet. I was unable to determine if Sabine’s numerous published volumes of magnetic data have been used since their publication, but at least his efforts came to something.