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Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet

Geographer, Linguist, Writer


Lifetime: 1764 - 1848 Passed: ≈ 174 years ago

Sir John Barrow, 1st Baronet was an English geographer, linguist, writer and civil servant best known for term as the Second Secretary to the Admiralty from 1804 until 1845.


Barrow was born the only child of Roger Barrow, a tanner in the village of Dragley Beck, in the parish of Ulverston, Lancashire. He was schooled at Town Bank Grammar School, Ulverston, but left at age 13 to found a Sunday school for the poor.


Barrow was employed as superintending clerk of an iron foundry at Liverpool. At only 16, he went on a whaling expedition to Greenland. By his twenties, he was teaching mathematics, in which he had always excelled, at a private school in Greenwich.


Barrow taught mathematics to the son of Sir George Leonard Staunton; through Staunton's interest, he was attached on the first British embassy to China from 1792 to 1794 as comptroller of the household to Lord Macartney. He soon acquired a good knowledge of the Chinese language, on which he subsequently contributed articles to the Quarterly Review; and the account of the embassy published by Sir George Staunton records many of Barrow's valuable contributions to literature and science connected with China.


In 1797, Barrow accompanied Lord Macartney as private secretary in his mission to settle the government of the newly acquired colony of the Cape of Good Hope. Barrow was entrusted with the task of reconciling the Boer settlers and the native Black population and of reporting on the country in the interior. In the course of the trip, he visited all parts of the colony; when he returned, he was appointed auditor-general of public accounts. He then decided to settle in South Africa, married, and bought a house in 1800 in Cape Town. However, the surrender of the colony at the peace of Amiens (1802) upset this plan.


Barrow married Anna Maria Truter (1777–1857), a botanical artist from the Cape, in South Africa on 26 August 1799. The couple had four sons and two daughters, one of whom, Johanna, married the artist Robert Batty. His son George succeeded to his title. His second son, John Barrow (28 June 1808 – 9 December 1898), was appointed head of the Admiralty Records Office as a reward for developing a system for recording naval correspondence, and for rescuing documents dating back to the Elizabethan period. He published ten volumes of his travels, wrote biographies of Drake and others and edited the voyages of Captain Cook among other works.


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