|Captain Francis Crozier (L) and Captain Brett Crozier (R)|
Francis Rawdon Moira Crozier was born in Banbridge, County Down, Ireland in 1796. Like many of his generation, his naval service started early, when at the age of thirteen he volunteered for the Royal Navy. His early service brought him into many far-distant places, among them Pitcairn Island where the mutineers of HMS Bounty had settled, as well as the Cape of Good Hope, which he visited while serving aboard HMS Doterel. His career soon brought him into what was informally known as the "Discovery Service," when he signed up with William Edward Parry for his second expedition to the Arctic in 1821. This voyage included a wintering-over near the seasonal settlement of Igloolik, where Crozier had a great deal of contact with Inuit, and was said to have acquired a fair speaking knowledge of Inuktitut. His first significant command was that of HMS Terror, serving under James Clark Ross aboard HMS Erebus on an Antarctic expedition that stretched from 1839 to 1843. He didn't acquire (so far as we know) any nicknames, but his close friends always knew him as "Frank."
Neither man sought out controversy, nor could have anticipated the challenges that fate would place in their way. For Francis Crozier, it came in the form of his second voyage in command of Terror, this time under Sir John Franklin in search of the Northwest Passage in 1845. Being second-in-command was a more comfortable place for Frank than being the overall commander, and though he was never as close to Franklin as he had been to Ross, he was happy to serve in that capacity. For Captain Brett Crozier, one might imagine that he enjoyed a mightier perch -- and yet, just as with Francis, he was obliged to work in close quarters with his immediate supervisor, Rear Admiral Stuart P. Baker. Since the Theodore Roosevelt is the flagship of her squadron, Admiral Baker's headquarters was immediately adjacent to Crozier's, and they would have eaten in the same mess, seeing each other on a fairly frequent basis.
Then came the crisis. For Francis Crozier, it was the death of his commanding officer, which took place at a time when both ships were icebound, and had been for more than a year. The crisis he inherited only grew more grim, as it began to appear that neither ship was going to be freed from the ice, even in this, their second summer. We can't know exactly what went through his mind, but eventually the decision had to be made, and Crozier ordered both ships abandoned, with an effort made for his men to survive on land, and for some of them (at least) to find help and rescue. Similarly, the crisis that struck Captain Brett Crozier's ship -- an outbreak of the virus that causes COVID-19 -- threatened the lives of all of his men, and similarly he sought to save them by moving them ashore. His efforts to do so apparently having met with resistance, he wrote a letter and sent it to his superiors, reportedly including some not in the chain of command. One has to assume that he wasn't able to get Admiral Baker's full support, or the letter makes no sense -- but bad news that leaks out, by whatever means, is often cause for reprimand. In this case, it was the severest kind: Captain Crozier was relieved of his command. We don't know the all details as of why that happened, but we do know one thing: as Captain Brett Crozier walked down the gangway to the dock, his sailors -- both aboard ship and on shore -- raised a hearty cheer of admiration and appreciation.
We may never know whether the men of Erebus and Terror raised a similar cheer -- though well they may have -- but we do know that, in their peril and disorientation following the abandonment of the ships, they followed their Captain's orders faithfully and well. In Francis Crozier's case, the peril that endangered his men eventually claimed his life. Let us hope that this won't be the case for Captain Brett Crozier, who has tested positive for the virus that causes COVID-19. His courage and dedication to his men's safety was very much in the mold of Francis Crozier's, and deserves our thanks and admiration. They are both heroes for their times.
NB: I've been asked whether the two Captains might be related. Brett Crozier's branch of the family seems to have been in California and Arizona for some generations; Francis Crozier had no children, but I don't know of any of his relations having emigrated to America -- so my guess would be that their relationship -- in family terms -- is a distant one.