The Forward

'Tomorrow, on the ebb tide, the brig the Forward, captain KZ[i] and second‑in‑command Richard Shandon, will leave New Prince's Docks; destination unknown.'

Thus read the Liverpool Herald of 5 April 1860.[ii]

The sailing of a brig is not an event of any great importance for the busiest port in Britain. Who would notice such an occurrence amongst the ships of every size and nationality[iii] that can hardly fit into the five miles of docks?

Nevertheless, a large crowd covered the quaysides of New Prince's Docks from the early morning of 6 April, as if the city's corporation of naval workers had arranged a meeting there. The dockers from the nearby wharves had abandoned their work, the tradesmen their dark counters, the merchants their deserted stores. Each minute a new cargo of sightseers poured out of the multicoloured omnibuses skirting the dock walls. The city appeared to have but one aim: to watch the Forward's departure.

The Forward was a vessel of 170 tons, with a propeller and a boiler producing 120 horsepower. She might easily have been confused with the other brigs in port. But if she did not look at all special to the public, experts noticed several characteristics that were clear to sailors.

On board the Nautilus,[iv] at anchor nearby, a group of sailors were deep in a thousand conjectures as to the Forward's destination.

'What d'you make of her masts?' said one. 'It's not normal, I tell you, for steamers to carry so much sail.'

'That ship,' answered a quartermaster with a broad ruddy face, 'must use her masts more than her boiler, and if her topsails are so big, the lower ones must often stay furled. So obviously the Forward's heading for Arctic or Antarctic seas, where the icebergs get in the way of the wind more than is healthy for such a fine, solid ship.'

'Dead right, Master Cornhill,'[v] said a third. 'And did you see how vertical her bow is?'

'Not to mention that she has a steel cutting edge as sharp as a razor, that could split a triple‑decker in two by taking her broadside at full speed.'

'Definitely,' answered a Mersey pilot; 'and her screw produces a nice fourteen knots. A sight for sore eyes she was, cutting across the water in the trials. Trust me, a fast ship.'

'Her sails are fine as well; she can sail close to the wind and heed the tiller straightaway. Mark my words, that boat will taste polar seas, or my name isn't Cornhill. And something else. Did you notice the broad trunk holding her rudder head?'

'Aye! But what does that mean?'

'It means, my boys,' retorted the bosun with contemptuous glee, 'that you lot don't use your eyes or heads; it means that the rudder head needed more play, so it could be set or moved easily. Don't you know how often you have to do that sort of trick in ice‑packs?'

'Good thinking,' replied the Nautilus's sailors.

'And besides,' one of them ventured, 'the bill of lading confirms Master Cornhill's theory. I got it from Clifton, who's signed on without more ado. The Forward has got food for five or six years, and the same amount of coal. Fuel and grub are all she's carrying, with bits of wool and sealskin clothes thrown in as well.'

'Well then,' said Cornhill, 'it's crystal clear. But, since you seem to know Clifton, didn't he say where she was going?'

'He didn't, because he's in the dark as much as anyone; the crew've been taken on just like that. They won't know till they get there.'

'Unless they go to Davy Jones's locker,' chipped in one sceptic, 'as is most likely.'

'But think of the pay,' added Clifton's friend excitedly, 'think of the money! Five times the usual on that sort of trip! Ah, without that, Richard Shandon wouldn't have had many takers. A ship with a strange shape, going the devil knows where, and apparently not planning to come back! That doesn't sound my cup of tea.'

'Whether it does or not, mate,' retorted Master Cornhill, 'the Forward wouldn't have had you.'

'And why ever not?'

'Because you don't fit the requirements. It seems that married men are out. And you fall into the great unwashed majority. So there's no point in looking down your nose, which would be a major achievement for you anyway.'

The sailor, trapped in this way, burst out laughing with his companions, showing the joke was right.

'Even the brig's name,' Cornhill continued smugly, 'is pretty bold: forward to where? Without mentioning that we don't know who the captain is.'

'But we do,' responded a young sailor with rather a naive face.

'We do?'


'My lad,' said Cornhill, 'are you so addled you think Shandon is captain of the Forward?'

'But . . .'

'I'm telling you that Shandon is the commander,[1] nothing else; he's a brave sailor, a tough whaler who's been through it, a solid fellow fitted for command in every way. But he's not in charge; he's no more captain than you or me, begging your pardon! And Shandon doesn't know who's going to be second only to God,[vi] either. In his own good time and way, the real captain will appear, hailing from some shore of the Old or New World. And Richard Shandon didn't say which corner of the globe he'll be pointing his ship at ‑ because he's not allowed to.'

'All the same,' the young sailor persisted, 'I do assure you that someone was conducted on board, and announced in the letter offering Mr Shandon the position of second‑in‑command.'

'What,' Cornhill replied raising his eyebrows, 'you mean a captain's already on the Forward?'

'I do, Master Cornhill.'

'You're telling me that!'

'Since I got it from Johnson, the bosun.'

'From Master Johnson?'

'Face to face.'

'Johnson told you?'

'Not only that, he showed me the captain.'

'He showed you!' repeated Cornhill in amazement.


'And you saw him?'

'With my own eyes.'

'And who was it?'

'A dog.'

'A dog with a leg at each corner?'


General stupefaction amongst the sailors of the Nautilus. In any other circumstances they would have been in fits of laughter. A dog, captain of a 170‑ton brig! You could gag on less. But the Forward was such an extraordinary ship that you needed to think twice before joking or arguing. And Master Cornhill himself was not smiling.

'So it was Johnson who showed you this newfangled sort of captain, this dog?' he asked the young sailor. 'And you saw him?'

'Like I see you, begging pardon!'

'Well, what do you make of it?' asked the sailors.

'I don't make anything of it,' Master Cornhill answered curtly, 'except that the Forward is a ship of the devil, or of lunatics fresh out of Bedlam!'

The sailors continued to silently study the Forward as her preparations came to an end; and not one dared claim that Bosun Johnson had been making fun of the young sailor.

The dog story had already spread across town, and amongst the crowd of bystanders many hoped to see this dog‑captain,[vii] almost believing him to be a supernatural creature.

The Forward had in fact been in the public eye for several months; the unusual features of her construction, the veil of secrecy, the incognito of the captain, the way Richard Shandon took up the position as ship's commander, the way the crew were chosen, the mysterious destination hardly guessed at by some ‑ everything contributed to giving this brig an extraordinary aura.

For a thinker, a dreamer, a philosopher, nothing is as moving as a ship about to sail; one's imagination gladly follows her fights against the waves, her struggles with the wind, her perilous course that does not always end up in port. Should an unusual feature emerge, the ship may take on a fantastic form, even to minds resistant to the imagination.

The Forward was no exception. And if the common run of spectators could not produce erudite observations like Master Cornhill, the rumours built up over the last three months were still enough to keep Liverpudlian tongues wagging.

The brig had been built in Birkenhead, a veritable suburb on the left bank of the Mersey, linked to the port by the ceaseless to‑and‑fro of the steamboats.

Scott and Co.,[viii] perhaps the most accomplished manufacturers in Britain, had received the specifications and blueprints from Richard Shandon, with the tonnage, dimensions, and floor‑plan indicated down to the last detail. An experienced navigator's knowledge could be sensed in this project. Since Shandon had considerable means at his disposal, work had started, and proceeded, quickly, as requested by the unknown proprietor.

The brig was of a solidity to withstand any force. She had clearly been designed for enormous pressures, since her frame of teak, a sort of Indian oak renowned for its exceptional hardness, was in addition reinforced with thick iron hoops. It was even wondered, in the world of sailors, why the hull of a ship built according to such specifications of resistance was not made from metal plate, like other steamships. To that it was replied that the mysterious engineer must have had good reasons for his decision.[ix]

Little by little, the brig had taken shape in the shipyard, with her qualities of strength and elegance impressing the experts. As noted by the Nautilus's crew, her stem was at right angles to the keel, and was not protected by a ram, but a steel cutter cast in the foundries of R. Hawthorn of Newcastle.[x] This metal prow, shining in the sun, gave a particular air to the ship, even if in other ways she did not appear very military. However, a sixteen‑pound cannon had been set up on the fo'c'sle; mounted on a pivot, it could easily be pointed in any direction. It should be added that the cannon was like the stem: in spite of everything it did, it could not manage to look warlike.

On 5 February 1860, this strange ship had been launched in the midst of an immense crowd of spectators, her first contact with the water being entirely successful.

But if the brig was not a warship, nor a merchant vessel, nor a pleasure‑yacht ‑ for one does not sally forth on excursions with six years of provisions in the hold ‑ what was she?

A ship designed to look for the Erebus and Terror and Sir John Franklin?[xi] Not that either, for in 1859, the year before, Captain McClintock had returned from the Arctic Ocean, bringing back incontrovertible proof of the loss of the unhappy expedition.[xii]

So did the Forward want to attempt the famous Northwest Passage? What was the point? Captain McClure had found it in 1853, and his second‑in‑command, Lieutenant Cresswell,[xiii] had the honour of being the first to sail round the American continent from the Bering Strait to the Davis Strait.

What seemed clear, however, and even indubitable to people qualified, was that the Forward was preparing to take on one of the polar regions. Was she going to push towards the South Pole, further than the whaler Weddell, a greater distance than Captain James Ross[xiv] had gone? But why, with what purpose?

It can be seen that, although the field of conjectures was extremely limited, imaginations still found a way of getting lost there.

The day after the brig was launched, her boiler arrived from the workshops of R. Hawthorn of Newcastle.

This engine, of the power of 120 horses and with oscillating pistons, was relatively small; but its force was considerable for a ship of 170 tons, in any case amply equipped with sails and benefiting from a remarkable seaway. Her tests had left no doubt on this subject, and even Bosun Johnson couldn't resist giving his opinion to Clifton's friend:

'If the Forward uses her sails and propeller at the same time, it's with the sails that she'll get there fastest.'

Clifton's friend had not understood a single word in this proposition, but believed everything possible for a ship personally commanded by a dog.

After the boiler was fitted, the loading of provisions could start; and this constituted no mean task, for the ship was to carry six years' worth of food. There were dried and salt meats, smoked fish, dried biscuit, and flour; mountains of coffee and tea also poured into the holds in enormous avalanches. Richard Shandon supervised the loading of the precious cargo like a past master; it was all stowed, labelled, and numbered in perfect order; a huge provision of the Indian product called pemmican[2] was also taken on board, for it contains many nourishing constituents within a small volume.

The nature of the victuals left no doubt as to the duration of the voyage; an experienced observer would have realized at once that the Forward was going to sail for polar seas. He just had to see the barrels of lime juice, the lime pastils, or the packets of mustard and sorrel and Cochlearia seeds[xv] ‑ in a word the profusion of powerful remedies against scurvy so vital in sailing to the furthest south or north. Shandon had clearly been advised to pay particular attention to this part of the cargo, because he took extreme care of it, as he did of the ship's medicine chest.

If there were not many guns on board ‑ reassuring timid spirits ‑ the powder‑hold was overflowing ‑ a feature sure to frighten them. The single gun on the fo'c'sle could hardly claim to require such amounts, and this gave food for thought. There were also gigantic saws and powerful tools, such as crowbars, sledgehammers, handsaws, enormous axes, etc., without counting an impressive array of blasting‑cylinders, enough to blow up Liverpool Customs‑House. All that was strange, if not alarming, without mentioning the rockets, signals, flares, and lamps of a thousand kinds.

The many spectators on New Prince's Docks stopped to admire a long mahogany whaleboat, a ship's boat of tin‑plate covered with gutta‑percha, and a number of Halkett boats,[xvi] sorts of rubber overcoats that could be transformed into vessels merely by blowing into their linings. Everyone felt more and more intrigued, and even excited, since at ebb‑tide the Forward was going to set sail for its mysterious destination.


[1] Second­in­command on a British ship. [JV]

[2] A preparation of condensed meat. [JV]


[i] the brig the 'Forward', captain KZ: a ship of that name transported emigrants to Baltimore in 1737; MS has 'the Foreward' throughout and 'Captain X . . .' here.

[ii] the 'Liverpool Herald' of 5 April 1860: the Herald was published 1855‑‑66. Liverpool was the first foreign town Verne visited (1859). In Backwards to Britain (chs 15‑‑16), he and his companion go sightseeing in the docks, with a virtuoso description of the ships' movements and port machinery. The two dine in a dock tavern, but leave abruptly following a free‑for‑all. Chs 1‑‑5 of A Floating City (1871), a semi‑fictional account of Verne's 1867 visit to America, are also set in Liverpool docks. MS: 'Nautical Paper of 6 5 April 1860'; no trace of this newspaper has been found ‑ perhaps the (HM) Nautical Almanac or the Nautical Magazine, which first published The Arctic Dispatches by McClure, cited in this same I 1.

[iii] of every size and nationality: MS: 'of every size, shape, and nationality'; '120 horsepower', two paragraphs lower, is '80 horsepower'. Franklin's Erebus and Terror had entire fifteen‑ton locomotive engines acquired from London Railways.

[iv] the 'Nautilus': the use of the name in Twenty Thousand Leagues shows how common it was for vessels of all sorts. The best‑known submarine predecessors were Hallet's Nautilus (1857) and two Nautilus's built by American Robert Fulton at the beginning of the century to launch mines against British ships.

[v] Cornhill: given that Verne's novels appeared first as serials, perhaps a reference to The Cornhill Magazine (1860‑‑1939), a serial fiction pioneer which may have influenced Hetzel's venture. The first issue featured Allen William Young, 'The Search for Sir John Franklin' (pp. 96‑‑121), with a map of McClintock's expedition.

[vi] 'second only to God': Dupanloup and Aubineau's obscurantist attacks on Verne's omission of the word 'God' (see Introduction) are ill‑founded, for it occurs in fact twenty‑seven times in Hatteras. Their criticisms were based on a half‑truth, though, for Verne rarely mentions Christ and avoids explanations in terms of divine intervention.

[vii] this dog‑captain: the idea may easily be drawn from the insignia of the Isle of Man, which depict human 'shoulders carrying the magnificent head of a Great Dane', according to Charles Nodier, 'La Fée aux miettes', in Contes (1961), 245.

[viii] Scott and Co.: the screw for Nemo's Nautilus (20T I 13) is provided by John Scott, shipbuilders 'of Glasgow' (in fact of Greenock). In 1862, they constructed a huge shipyard in the centre of Verne's home town of Nantes, taking on 1,800 men.

[ix] good reasons for his decision: the ship is built of wood to enable it to be cannibalized or provide fuel, another sign of its polar destiny (stated in any case in the Part title).

[x] R. Hawthorn of Newcastle: R. and W. Hawthorn, active until the 1980s, building steam locomotives and engines for ships.

[xi] Sir John Franklin: (1786‑‑1847), author of Narrative of a Journey to the Shores of the Polar Sea (1823) and Narrative of a Second Expedition (1828); in 1845, aged 59, he led an expedition on the Erebus and Terror to search for the Northwest Passage. From 1848, more than forty expeditions were dispatched to look for his traces. Although the geographical and scientific knowledge gained was immense, no evidence of his fate emerged before Rae, in 1853‑‑4, and McClintock, in 1857‑‑9.

[xii] Captain McClintock . . . proof of the loss of the unhappy expedition: (Verne: 'MacClintock') Sir Leopold McClintock (1819‑‑1907), member of Belcher's 1852‑‑4 expedition, then commander of an expedition (1857‑‑9) sent by Lady Franklin to investigate her husband's fate, and author of The Voyage of the 'Fox' in the Arctic Seas (1859, French translation in Le Tour du Monde (1860), to which Verne subscribed). A page McClintock discovered in a cairn at Point Victory gave information up to 25 April 1848 (see below, note to p. 000), namely that the ships had been trapped in ice between Victoria and King William Islands; and an old Eskimo woman told him that the crew had died in their tracks. The survivors had in fact abandoned ship and set off south over Boothia Peninsula, but all 138 crew died.

[xiii] Captain McClure . . . Lieutenant Cresswell: Sir Robert McClure (Verne: 'MacCure' or 'McClur' in different editions) (1807‑‑73), author of The Arctic Dispatches: Containing an Account of the Discovery of the North‑West Passage [1854?]. Lieutenant S. Gurney Cresswell (Verne: 'Creswel') (1827‑‑67), author of Series of Eight Sketches in Colour (together with a Chart of the Route) during the Discovery of the North‑West Passage (1854). McClure, Cresswell, and their crew were the first to complete the Passage (1850‑‑3), although partly by sledge (the first single ship was Amundsen's in 1906). In The Fur Country Verne describes McClure as 'the only man really to have gone from one ocean to the other via the Polar Sea'.

[xiv] the whaler Weddell . . . Captain James Ross: James Weddell (Verne: 'Weddel' or 'Wedell' in different editions) (1787‑‑1834), discovered the Weddell Sea. 'In 1825 [in reality, 1823] . . . a mere sealer, the Briton Weddell, went as far as . . . 74° 15' on the thirty‑sixth [meridian]' (20T II 15). Admiral Sir James (Clark) Ross (1800‑‑62), nephew of John Ross, located the North Magnetic Pole in 1831 and discovered Victoria Land. His southwards record was 78° 4' on 2 February 1842 (20T II 15). The opening chapters of Hatteras as far as Bellot Strait (I 16) draw much from James Ross's second journey.

[xv] lime juice, the lime pastils, or the packets of mustard and sorrel and Cochlearia seeds: in a footnote Verne translates his own 'lime‑juice' as 'Jus de citron': 'lime' is 'citron vert', but 'citron' can include both lemon and lime, especially given that lemon seems to have been generally used by British mariners, rather than the lime of popular belief. Verne wrote 'des pastilles de chaux' ('(quick)lime pastils'), a mistranslation from English.

[xvi] a ship's boat of tin‑plate covered with gutta‑percha, and a number of Halkett boats: this phrase sums up the quirky improvization of Verne's preferred technology, in contrast with his erroneous reputation for futuristic sophistication. Halkett boats were invented in 1844 by Lieutenant Peter Halkett, author of Boat‑cloak or cloak‑boat, constructed of MacIntosh india‑rubber cloth, umbrella‑sail, bellows, &c (1848). His circular boats were successfully used on Rae's and Richardson's expeditions, and one survives on Orkney, marked 'James Fitzjames', commander of the Erebus on the Franklin expedition. Verne inserts a phallic‑inspired footnote in II 1, explaining that the boat 'can expand as much as wished'. In The Tribulations of a Chinese in China (1879), the hero sails the China Sea in a Boyton Suit, a similar coat‑vessel, but now with a sail and a small stove.