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Francis Rawdon Chesney

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Francis Rawdon Chesney (16 March 1789 – 30 January 1872), general and explorer, was a son of Captain Alexander Chesney, an Irishman of Scottish descent who, having emigrated to South Carolina in 1772, served under Lord Rawdon (afterwards Marquess of Hastings) in the American War of Independence, and subsequently received an appointment as coast officer at Annalong, County Down, Ireland. There F. R. Chesney was born on 16 March 1789.

Lord Rawdon gave the boy a cadetship at the Royal Military Academy, Woolwich, and he was gazetted to the Royal Artillery in 1805. But though he rose to be lieutenant-general and colonel-commandant of the 14th brigade Royal Artillery (1864), and general in 1868, Chesney’s memory lives not for his military record, but for his connection with the Suez Canal, and with the exploration of the Euphrates valley, which started with his being sent out to Constantinople in the course of his military duties in 1829, and his making a tour of inspection in Egypt and Syria. In 1830, after taking command of 7th Company, 4th Battalion Royal Artillery in Malta, he submitted a report on the feasibility of making a Suez Canal. This was the original basis of Lesseps’ great undertaking (in 1869 Lesseps greeted him in Paris as the "father" of the canal); and in 1831 he introduced to the home government the idea of opening a new overland route to India, by a daring and adventurous journey along the Euphrates valley from Anah to the Persian Gulf. Returning home, Acting Lt Colonel Chesney (as he then was) busied himself to get support for the latter project, to which the East India Company’s board was favourable; and in 1835 he was sent out in command of a small expedition, on which he took a number of soldiers from 7th Company RA and for which Parliament voted £20,000, in order to test the navigability of the Euphrates.

After encountering immense difficulties, from the opposition of the Egyptian pasha, and from the need of transporting two steamers (one of which, the Tigris, was subsequently lost) in sections from the Mediterranean over the hilly country to the river, they successfully arrived by water at Bushire in the summer of 1836, and proved Chesney’s view to be a practicable one. In the middle of 1837 he returned to England, and was given the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal, having meanwhile been to India to consult the authorities there; but the preparation of his two volumes on the expedition (published in 1850) was interrupted by his being ordered out in 1843 to command the artillery at Hong Kong.

In 1847 his period of service was completed, and he went home to Ireland, to a life of retirement; but both in 1856 and again in 1862 he went out to the East to take a part in further surveys and negotiations for the Euphrates valley railway scheme, which, however, the government would not take up, in spite of a favourable report from the House of Commons committee in 1871. In 1868 he published a further volume of narrative on his Euphrates expedition.

1872 Obituary in The Engineer [1]

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