Thomas Spratt, R.N.

I discovered the other day that Thomas Able Brimage Spratt (1811–88) donated seven items of archaeological interest to the Fitzwilliam Museum in 1853–4. I knew him as the author of a two-volume Travels and Researches in Crete (1865), which was on our list to reissue in the Cambridge Library Collection, but which unfortunately missed the boat, so to speak. On further investigation, he turns out to have been a very interesting man, but before I get on to him, I must share a brief though lurid portion of the biography of his father, James Spratt (1781–1853), a hero of Trafalgar.

Commander James Spratt, by an unknown artist. (Credit: Royal Museums Greenwich)

James volunteered for the Royal Navy in 1796, and at Trafalgar was master’s mate on H.M.S. Defiance. While he was attempting to lead a boarding party of fifty men on to the French ship L’Aigle, the ships veered apart, but, calling on his men to follow, he jumped into the sea, cutlass between teeth, and swam across, with a few following. The ship’s log recorded that: he got in at the stern gun port up the rudder chains and was met by some of the crew, who resisted. He swung on a rope to avoid three grenadiers, then killed two with his cutlass and pushed the third down onto a lower deck where the soldier’s neck was broken, Spratt landing on top was uninjured. He succeeded in cutting his way through and hauled down the Frenchman’s colours, and in the act of doing so, was shot through the leg after having deflecting the shot down from his chest with his cutlass.’

Hauled back on board the Defiance, according to the 1885–1900 ODND, ‘By the time the Aigle‘s colours were struck, Spratt’s right leg was shattered by a musket bullet, and, swinging himself back on board the Defiance, he was carried down to the cockpit. He would not allow his leg to be amputated, and was afterwards sent to hospital at Gibraltar, where, after he had suffered most excruciating torments, his wound was so far cured that he was able to be sent home. He was promoted to the rank of lieutenant on 24 Dec. 1805, but his right leg being now three inches shorter than the left, and his general health being enfeebled, he was appointed to the charge of the signal station at Teignmouth, where he remained till 1813.’

But there is more: in William Richard O’Byrne’s Naval Biographical Dictionary (1849), we are told that: ‘He had such pain and fever that he could not keep still to allow his bones to knit together. The solution was to place his leg in a locked and padded box, however he complained of pains and discomfort that was not seemingly connected with his wounds. The box was opened and a spectacle presented itself to the view of the medical officers present unparalleled in the history of their experience. Hundreds of maggots an inch long were stuck into the calf with only the tips of their tails to be seen, the remainder of their bodies being embedded in the flesh. With some difficulty they removed them, not realising that the maggots had cleaned out his wounds and were probably the reason for his ultimate recovery.’

Follow that, as they say. In fact, the use of maggots as cleaners for wounds was a news item only a few weeks ago …

Thomas Spratt, by an unknown artist: note the chart under his hand.

But back to Thomas, Jacob’s son. He was born in Teignmouth, and at the age of sixteen entered the Royal Navy. Most of his career was spent in surveying, from 1832 in the Mediterranean and then in the Black Sea and the Sea of Azov during the Crimean War: according to the ODNB: ‘His surveys opened up the Sea of Azov, which, once occupied, cut Russian logistics in the Crimea.’

Spratt’s survey map of Balaklava.

In 1856, he was responsible for a survey of the approaches to the Suez Canal, and remained in the Mediterranean until 1863, retiring in 1870 (though during his retirement he was a commissioner of fisheries, and from 1879 until his death was chairman of the Mersey conservancy board). As an active naval officer, his highest rank was captain (achieved in 1855), though on the retired list, he became rear-admiral, and then admiral. The ODNB accounts for his slow career rise as demonstrating ‘the low status of surveying work and the limits placed on naval careers, however brilliant, by lack of influence’.  

But Thomas Spratt clearly took his ‘low-status’ surveying work extremely seriously, and did not confine himself only to geography and hydrology. He was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1856, and was also a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society. The range of his publications shows that his investigations went way beyond  what the Royal Navy might have considered important. Travels and Researches in Crete, for example, deals with the archaeology, languages, ethnology and botany of the island, and includes research and speculation about the remains of ancient sites, including ‘Gnossus’; and he refers to sources from Plutarch via Tournefort (whom he describes as ‘the quaint but celebrated botanist and traveller’, and with whom he commiserates on having arrived a month too late in the Cretan mountains to have been able to see the wonderful spring flowering) to Colonel Leake (William Martin Leake (1777–1860), many of whose books on travels in Greece we did reissue in CLC).

He also corresponded with Sir Charles Lyell about the effect of earthquakes on Cretan topography, arguing that the western part of the island had formerly been much lower, judging by the ancient port buildings now higher than sea level and away from the shore.

The range of his interests in Crete can be shown by the contents pages of the book: here are chapters V to VII, for example.

Moreover, in 1865, Churchill Babington (1821–89, Suffolk rector, archaeologist, naturalist, classical scholar and cousin of Charles Cardale Babington) published  Inscriptiones Sprattianæ: Six Greek inscriptions, discovered by Commander Spratt in the Levant, with explanatory notes. Babington is thanked in Travels for ’a learned Appendix upon the several new inscriptions that were found in the island’: I’m not sure whether this appendix was also published as a separate volume, or whether two different groups of inscriptions are involved.

Fritillaria caucasica (not white???)

This brings us (though I could linger on, for example, the bulbs of Fritillaria tulipifolia (now apparently Fritillaria caucasica which is a rusty brown colour, whereas Spratt says specifically that it is white) which his friend, the recently deceased botanist and palaeontologist Edward Forbes sent to Nathaniel Ward and Sir William Jackson Hooker) to the items which he donated to the Fitzwilliam. First, one of the inscribed stones which he discovered among the ruins of the temple of Asklepios at Lebena, the port of ancient Gortyn.

The Gortyn stela, with its votive inscription, presented by Spratt in 1854. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)

In the same year he gave a rock engraved with a dolphin, also from Crete, dating from the Archaic period (600–500 BCE); a Hellenistic stela (200–100 BCE), from Smintheus in the Troad (in Turkey); another stela from Erimoupolis in Crete, also Hellenistic, and a fragment which may or may not come from the same piece; and a stela base from Poikilasion, near the Minoan settlement of Trypiti, also in Crete. These six items were the first to be listed in the Museum’s accession book for 1854.

The rock with an engraved dolphin. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)
The Smintheus stela. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)
The Erimoupolis stela. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)
The Poikilasion stela. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)

But in 1853, he had given a sarcophagus lid from Arvi in Crete:

The Arvi sarcophgus.

This spectacular object of Pentelic marble, dating from the second century CE, perhaps suffers from quasi-invisibility in the Museum: it is on the ground floor of the Founder’s Entrance (NB, currently closed), to the right as you come through the revolving doors – but I believe most people ignore it as they climb eagerly up to Gallery 3, or down towards the Antiquities collections.

Also from Arvi, by the way, comes one of the most spectacular items in the Museum, the Pashley sarcophagus.

The Pashley sarcophagus lid. (Credit: the Fitzwilliam Museum)

It was discovered by Robert Pashley (1805–59), travelling Fellow of Trinity, whose two-volume Travels in Crete we did reissue (along with his influential Pauperism and Poor Laws, not so relevant in this context). He had it transported back to England, where it was donated to the Museum in 1835 by Admiral Sir Pulteney Malcolm (1768–1838), another Trafalgar hero. Malcolm was commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean in 1833–4, precisely the period of Pashley’s travels, so it may be safe to assume that he was responsible for arranging the transport of the one-and-a-half-ton object, and donated it on Pashley’s instructions.

Spratt’s carte-de-visite, printed in Malta.

But, circling back to Spratt, apart from his donations and his volumes on Crete, used by subsequent archaeologists and historians, not least the later excavator of ‘Gnossus’, it is thought that his survey map of the Dardanelles, published in 1844, was a key component in the discovery of Troy.

Spratt and Professor Edward Forbes of King’s College, London, published in 1847 a two-volume Travels in Lycia, Milyas and the Cibyratis, in company with the late Rev. E.T. Daniell, which described their travels while surveying the coastal area of Asia Minor including ancient Lycia.

(Edward Thomas Daniell (1804–42) was priest and artist who died of malaria in Syria after splitting up from the other two surveyors; his later solo travels, and the coins and descriptions he discovered, are narrated in Volume 2.) The 1844 map  contained two possible Troys  – Ilium Novum (Hissarlik) and Ilium Vetus (Bournabashi) – of which Spratt, following the common opinion of the time, believed Bournabashi to be Homer’s Troy.

This detail from the 1844 map shows both potential Troys.

However, even before the map’s publication, a small number of scholars and travellers believed that Hissarlik was the right place, and the subsequent excavations of Heinrich Schliemann seemed to confirm this. In fact, in Ilios: The City and Country of the Trojans (1880), he pays tribute to the accuracy of Spratt’s and Graves’s work.

(Captain Thomas Graves, to whom Travels in Lycia is dedicated, was Director of the survey of the Greek archipelago and clearly a close friend of Spratt.)

It seems undeniable that, regardless of the low status of surveying work in the Royal Navy, Admiral Thomas Spratt was in fact a most important contributor to the archaeological work begun on the shores of the Mediterranean in the nineteenth century, and deserves better recognition today. And his career is yet another example of the inter-connectedness of so many people in so many areas of exploration and endeavour in that same period.


This entry was posted in Archaeology, Bibliography, Biography, Botany, Classics, History, Museums and Galleries and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Thomas Spratt, R.N.

  1. Sue Roe says:

    What a great post- thank you!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jennifer says:

    Thank you for this fascinating post.


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