Clements Robert Markham

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SIR Clements Robert Markham, K.C.B., F.R.S., F.R.G.S. (20 July, 1830 – 30 January, 1916) was a leading geographer of the Victorian period.

Early life

Markham was born on 20 July, 1830 at the vicarage, Stillingfleet, Yorkshire N.R., the second son of the Revd. David Markham, vicar of Stillingfleet and canon of Windsor, and his wife, Catherine, the daughter of Sir William Milner, fourth baronet, of Nun Appleton Hall, Yorkshire. He was a descendent of William Markham, archbishop of York. After attending private school at Cheam, Surrey, from 1839 to 1842 and Westminster School from 1842 to 1844, he joined the Royal Navy as a cadet. He first sailed on H.M.S. Collingwood to South America, where he learned Spanish as well as the normal naval curriculum. He had been interested in Arctic exploration from an early age, and in 1850 succeeded in transferring to the Arctic squadron and sailed on the Assistance in search of Franklin (1850–51). The party found evidence of Franklin's expedition, but failed to solve the mystery, although they explored large tracts hitherto unknown.


Markham resolved to leave the Navy, finding the life as a whole uncongenial, although he enjoyed its more adventurous side. At his father's request he first sat and passed the Lieutenant's examination. He had determined to make a career in exploration and geography. Having written Franklin's Footsteps (published 1853) to rebut criticism of the expedition, in 1852 he set off for Peru, with advice from W.H. Prescott as to how he might proceed there. He spent 1852–3 in Peru, exploring Inca sites and reading manuscripts in preparation for his Cuzco … and Lima (1856), a work of history, geography, and archaeology. His translation from the Quechua of the Inca drama Ollanta appeared in 1871, and a freer translation in his Incas of Peru (1910). He retained his interest in Peru and the Incas throughout his life.

After returning to England, Markham was obliged by the death of his father to take a job to support his mother and sister. In his second post, from 1854, at what was to become the India Office, he was commissioned to carry from Peru to India seeds of the cinchona tree, the source of quinine and then found only in Peru; to establish the tree in India and Ceylon; and to make quinine readily available there. The remoteness of the country, the possibility of war between Peru and Bolivia, and the hostility of the Peruvian authorities and entrepreneurs to the scheme, which threatened their hold on the quinine trade, made it hazardous. Markham's Travels in Peru and India (1862) and Peruvian Bark (1880) recount his adventures in Peru, where he was accompanied by his wife, Minna (the daughter of the Revd. James Hamilton John Chichester, rector of Arlington and Loxhore, near Barnstaple, whom he had married in April 1857), and several botanists. He managed to gather plants and seeds, and found time for work on his first Quechua dictionary (1864; the second was published in 1892). Although Markham's own plants did not survive, the party as a whole succeeded in getting seeds and plants out of South America and establishing plantations in India and Ceylon, and making pure quinine available throughout the subcontinent. He was awarded a grant of £3,000 for his services.


Back in London, Markham built up around him the geographical department of the India Office, appalled by the lack of geographical information to hand, and the failure to use or in some cases even to preserve what there was. His Memoir on the Indian Surveys (1871) describes the various Indian surveys whose maps and reports were, under Markham, for the first time properly catalogued and stored. He discovered important accounts of early voyages and edited some of these for publication. He published a life of James Rennell (1895), a pioneer of Indian geography. In 1875–6 he took unauthorized leave to sail to Greenland with the north polar expedition. Since he had already been absent from the office to go to Peru and India, and in 1867–8 to act as geographer and naturalist to the British contingent in the Abyssinian expedition, which he described in History of the Abyssinian Expedition (1869), this proved too much for his superiors in the office. He was obliged to resign in 1877, but still received a pension. His Report on the Geographical Department (1877) and the second edition of his Memoir on the Indian Surveys (1878) summarized his achievements at the India Office and his hopes that his work would be continued.

By the time he left the India Office, Markham was active in both the Royal Geographical Society (R.G.S.) and the Hakluyt Society. His influence in the R.G.S. and his Threshold of the Unknown Region (1873) helped muster support for the 1875 north polar expedition (for having joined which, as mentioned above, he was obliged to resign his post). He served as both secretary (1863–88) and president (1893–1905) and helped transform and enliven the society's publications and meetings. He was also secretary (1858–86) and then president (1889–1910) of the Hakluyt Society, for whom he also edited some thirty volumes, many of them translations from the Spanish; in effect he kept the society going.

At the turn of the century Markham again became interested in polar exploration, this time of the Antarctic, and he was largely instrumental in getting under way the Discovery expedition (the National Antarctic Expedition) of 1901–4 under Robert Falcon Scott, the naval officer of his choice rather than the scientist others would have preferred. Markham's rôle was commemorated by Scott in Mount Markham in the Trans-Antarctic Mountains, and it was he who ensured that relief vessels were sent to guarantee the party's safe return.

Author in retirement

In the final years of his life Markham continued to support exploration and to write, and after 1905 his rate of publication on a wide range of topics, including Peru, actually increased. A notable work of the period was his Richard III (1906), the culmination of his battle with the historian James Gairdner which had been raging in print since the publication of Gairdner's Life in 1878. Markham took it on himself to clear the name of Richard, a misunderstood hero, maligned by Tudor propaganda and later scholarship. His was one of the first and most important of the popular defences of Richard which contrasted with the sceptical accounts of professional historians. With his wife, herself an interested linguist and botanist, Markham continued to travel. He was made C.B. in May, 1871, elected F.R.S. in 1873, and created K.C.B. in 1896. On 29 January, 1916 at his home in London (21 Eccleston Square), he set fire to his bedclothes while reading by candlelight in bed and, although the flames were speedily extinguished, he fell unconscious, and died on 30 January. He was survived by his wife and their only daughter.

Markham's cousin, close friend, and colleague Albert Hastings Markham wrote his life, which, although very informative, was naturally uncritical. As early as 1952 H.R. Mill, while acknowledging his enthusiasm and hard work for the R.G.S., pointed to the dictatorial way he had run the society. Several scholars have voiced doubts about his translations for the Hakluyt Society, all done freely with a view to quick publication but unrigorous and even careless. Other publications also bore the marks of haste, perhaps not surprising given that Markham had no regular income after his resignation from the India Office. It is also possible to criticize the nationalism which increasingly tinged his desire to promote scientific exploration. None the less, Markham must be recognized as one of the great geographers of his generation, for his own explorations, for making available, through his edited publications or through his careful cataloguing and storage, the work of other geographers and explorers, for his indefatigable work for the R.G.S. and the Hakluyt Society, and for his service to the geographical department at the India Office, which was the more valuable for being unorthodox. Mill's description of him as "in all things an enthusiast rather than a scholar" (D.N.B.) neatly encapsulated his strength and weakness, and helps to explain his extraordinary influence, probably second only to that of Sir Roderick Murchison, on geography and its institutions in Britain in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


  • "Death of Sir C. Markham" (Obituaries). The Times. Monday, 31 January, 1916. Issue 41077, col C, pg. 10.
  • "The Late Sir C. Markham" (Obituaries). The Times. Tuesday, 1 February, 1916. Issue 41078, col E, pg. 5.
  • "The Death of Sir Clements Markham" (Obituaries). The Times. Wednesdayday, 2 February, 1916. Issue 41079, col C, pg. 5.

See Also