‘Rennell was in deadly peril. He was deprived of the use of both arms, and the loss of blood threatened immediate death. One stroke of a sabre had cut his right shoulder-blade through, and laid him open for nearly a foot down the back, cutting through or wounding several of the ribs. He had, besides, a cut on his left elbow, a stab in the arm, and a deep cut over the hand, which permanently deprived him of the use of a forefinger. There were some other slighter wounds …’
An arresting episode in the in the life of Major James Rennell (1742–1830), nominated by Sir Clements Markham as the exemplar of a geographer in his 1895 contribution to ‘The Century Science Series’, designed to show the rise of a scientific discipline in the context of one of its ‘great men’ (John Dalton in chemistry, the Herschels in astronomy, Faraday, Lyell, Clerk Maxwell …). Markham had no doubts at all as to his choice: ‘He was not only the greatest, he was also the most many-sided devotee of the science. He was an explorer both by sea and land, a map compiler, a physical geographer, a critical and comparative geographer, and a hydrographer.’ But I think it’s safe to say that Rennell is less remembered today than most of the other people in this list.
Rennell could also be an exemplar of the ‘self-help’ (coming soon!) promoted by Samuel Smiles. Born in Chudleigh of an old Devon family, he was thrown back on his own resources at a very early age. The death of his soldier father when he was four forced his mother to sell the family property; she stayed with various relatives until she remarried, when James was ten. Her new husband could support her daughter, but not her son. Luckily, the vicar of Chudleigh effectively adopted young James, supervised his education, encouraged his interest in surveying and geography, and – most happily – was able to promote his ambition for a naval career through ‘interest’: a friend of a relation was the father of a captain who took the thirteen-year-old to sea as his servant in 1756.
Markham emphasises the importance of ‘interest’ in naval life, especially during the periods between hostilities, when ships might be ‘laid up’ and their crews laid off. The Seven Years’ War was about to begin when Rennell joined the navy. He saw service during the various assaults on and sieges of French ports, and then followed his captain to the East. Markham claims that he already had ideas of entering the service of the East India Company ‘if interest in the navy failed him’.
In 1763, the 20-year-old Rennell was ‘lent’ to an East India Company ship, as the cartographer on an expedition which was pioneering new trading routes as far as the Philippines, and he made a sufficient impression on the Company that when peace with France broke out, he was offered firstly command of a ship, and then the role of Surveyor-General of Bengal. (‘Interest’ again had a part to play: a fellow midshipman from his early days had done well himself, and was in a position to help out his friend. Rennell started with the rank of lieutenant, and rose to be a major.)
For the next ten years Rennell carried out surveying work in Bengal, often in circumstances of physical discomfort and danger. The near-death experience described at the top of the page occurred in a skirmish in 1766 (Markham gives the year as 1776, but this is clearly an error) near the frontier of Bhutan: the nearest surgeon was three hundred miles away. He lay on a boat, directing its course down-river, while ‘the natives applied onions as a cataplasm to his wounds’, but he survived, though with impaired strength and movement in both arms.
He returned to his work for another eleven years, and in 1772 married Jane Thackeray, the sister of William Makepeace Thackeray (grandfather of the novelist). A daughter, Jane, died shortly after her first birthday, and a second, also Jane, was born on St Helena during her parents’ voyage home in 1777. Back in England, Rennell published his maps, entered Sir Joseph Banks’s circle at Soho Square, and was awarded the Copley Medal of the Royal Society in 1791. In his (so-called) retirement he seized the opportunity to widen his geographical interests.
His voyage home prompted hydrographical research on ocean currents, and he also began to read classical geographers and historians in translation. He published papers on such topics as where St Paul was shipwrecked, where Julius Caesar landed in Britain, and ‘the rate of travelling as performed by camels and its application, as a scale, for the purpose of geography’. His books on classical geography included Observations on the Topography of the Plain of Troy (1814) and the two-volume Treatise on the Comparative Geography of Western Asia (published posthumously in 1831 by the surviving Jane). He was also involved in the drawing up of maps for the African Association, deducing the geography of the Niger area from Mungo Park’s journals; and he remained the go-to advisor to the East India Company on all matters relating to surveying and maps.
Rennell remained active until a few months before his death in 1830, taking a great interest in Arctic exploration: he was a friend of Barrow, Franklin, Beaufort and Parry, who named a cape in the Arctic after him during the Fury and Hecla voyage. He was buried in Westminster Abbey on 6 April 1830, and Markham quotes at length from his obituary in The Times:
‘In all his discussions his sole object was the establishment of truth, and not the triumph of victory. Another characteristic of this amiable philosopher was the generous fidelity with which he imparted his stores of learning in conversation. A memory remarkably tenacious, and so well arranged as to be equally ready for the reception or the distribution of knowledge, made him a depository of facts for which few ever applied in vain. Adapting himself to the level of all who consulted him, he had the happy art of correcting their errors without hurting their feelings, and of leading them to truth without convicting them of ignorance.’
One of the most attractive sections of the book describes his correspondence – entertaining, and never patronising – with his young grandson, James Rennell Rodd. The frontispiece portrait, which we have put on the cover, shows a genial man, almost smiling – most unusual for the formal imagery of the period, but appropriate for an ‘amiable philosopher’, who deserves to be better remembered for his remarkable and pioneering range of work.