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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Biscoe, John (1794–1843)

by Ann Savours

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

John Biscoe (1794-1843), sea captain, was born at Enfield, Middlesex, England, the son of Thomas Biscoe of Waltham Abbey and his wife Anne, née Tibbs. In 1812 he joined the navy and served during the American war in the San Domingo, Colibri and Moselle, of which he became acting master. After the war he joined the mercantile marine, sailing as mate and master to the East and West Indies and to most parts of the known world. In 1830 he was appointed by the London whaling and sealing firm of Enderby to command the brig Tula, 150 tons, and the cutter Lively, 49 tons, on a voyage of discovery to high southern latitudes. The vessels circumnavigated the Antarctic continent, visited the South Sandwich and South Shetland Islands, and discovered Enderby Land (28 February 1831), Adelaide Island and the northern Biscoe Islands (February 1832). They also discovered and annexed part of the Antarctic peninsula (21 February 1832) in the name of King William IV, calling it Graham Land. After the discovery of Enderby Land the ships were separated during a gale. The Tula put into Hobart Town where she was eventually reunited with the Lively, which made her landfall at Port Phillip.

On return to London, Biscoe published the account of his voyage and was awarded the royal premium of the Royal Geographical Society and was similarly honoured by the Paris Société de Géographie. In 1833, despite the lack of commercial success of the previous voyage, Biscoe was nominated by the Enderbys to command a second exploring expedition to the Antarctic in the Hopefull and the Rose, but for reasons unknown the vessels sailed without him and he returned to more humdrum commands trading between Liverpool and the West Indies.

On 8 September 1836 Biscoe married Emma Crowe in London. Next year he sailed for Australia in the Superb. He made an abortive southern sealing and exploring voyage from Port Jackson in 1838-39 in the brig Emma. His family moved from Sydney to Hobart in 1840, while Biscoe became master of various intercolonial vessels sailing between Hobart, Sydney and Port Phillip. An appeal headed by Sir John Franklin was made in the Hobart newspapers of 1842 for money to send Biscoe back to England. He was described as being incapacitated by much illness due to the privations of his great Antarctic voyage. He and his family sailed for London in the barque Janet Izat in February 1843, but Biscoe died at sea. In 1849 an appeal was made in the Nautical Magazine for his widow and four children.

Biscoe followed James Cook and Fabian Bellingshausen in circumnavigating the Antarctic continent. Although organized on much smaller lines than these two national expeditions, his voyage had important geographical results. He was the first to chart portions of the Antarctic continent other than the peninsula. His courage in the face of great difficulties and dangers was admirable, and his perseverance, despite damaged ships, treacherous ice and a diminished crew, went far beyond duty.

Select Bibliography

  • Antarctic Manual (Lond, 1901)
  • J. Biscoe, ‘Recent Discoveries in the Antarctic Ocean’, Journal of the Royal Geographical Society of London, vol 3, 1833, pp 105-12
  • ‘Voyage of the Tula to the South Pole’, Nautical Magazine, 4 (1835)
  • D. Mawson, ‘Some Historical Features of the Discovery of Enderby Land and Kemp Land’, Geographical Journal, vol 86, no 6, Dec 1935, pp 526-30
  • A. G. E. Jones, ‘John Biscoe (1794-1843)’, Mariner's Mirror, vol 50, no 4, Nov 1964, pp 271-81
  • A. Savours, ‘Who was John Biscoe?’ Geographical Magazine (London), vol 36, no 9, Jan 1964, pp 499-505
  • John Biscoe journal, 1830-33 (copies are held in the British Library and Royal Geographical Society, London).

Citation details

Ann Savours, 'Biscoe, John (1794–1843)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

View the front pages for Volume 1

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