A biography of Benjamin Leigh Smith (1828–1913) is probably about a century overdue. It would never have been an autobiography given his diffidence and his refusal to seek personal publicity for the results of polar expeditions conducted between 1871 and 1882. By the end of his life, his achievements had been almost forgotten and were clearly overshadowed by events at the other end of the Earth from that which attracted him.
Leigh Smith was the eldest son in a large family of dissenters. He nursed an ambition to explore the polar regions that could only be realized with the inheritance of wealth in 1870. That allowed him to support his five expeditions to survey the coasts of Svalbard and Franz Josef Land, particularly the south coast of the latter in 1880. These expeditions were important for more than geographic surveys: they included early oceanographic research on the Arctic Ocean and geological and biologic collections that were returned to London. But his real fame derives from his last expedition in 1881 when his vessel, Eira, was wrecked on the south coast of Franz Josef Land, which gives this book its title. Following the wreck, the 25 members of the expedition were forced to overwinter at 80°N. After almost a year, Leigh Smith led the expedition with small boats over ice and open water for six weeks to Novaya Zemlya with no loss of personnel—a voyage comparable to that of Shackleton 30 years later.
SHIPWRECK AT CAPE FLORA treats a fine subject and provides a good biography of Benjamin Leigh Smith, for which the author deserves thanks. It is based on extensive research in published materials, diaries, the private correspondence and archives of the Leigh Smith family, and contacts with the subject's descendants. The text is supported by notes, references, an index, and appendices. Unfortunately, the book is marred by a few typographic errors (e.g. Smith South for Smith Sound [p. 143] and RSG for RGS [p. 218] and especially by the poor reproduction of many of its figures, including the photograph of its author! However, this is carping criticism of what is truly a good read.