Thomas Atkinson and the great geologists – Humboldt and Murchison

In the first year of his seven-year journey through Siberia and Central Asia, Thomas Atkinson travelled with another Englishman called Charles Edward Austin. I decided to look into the background of Austin and soon began to uncover extensive links between Atkinson and two of the greatest geologists of the nineteenth century.

When Thomas Atkinson received his passport from Tsar Nicholas I in 1846 it also noted the fact that he was accompanied by an English engineer. Nowhere in either of Thomas’ two books about his travels in Siberia and Central Asia does he mention the name of the man who spent most of 1847 travelling with him. And so I set about trying to find out more. Bit by bit I pieced together the story and found out that his companion was an English engineer called Charles Edward Austin.

Once I had his name, more facts came to light. The Engineer magazine, published by the Institute of Civil Engineers, ran his obituary soon after his death in April 1893 and from that I found out that he was born in 1819 in Wootten-under-Edge in Gloucestershire in June 1819. He became a pupil of George E Frere, who was chief assistant to the great railway engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Thus Austin learned much of his trade as an engineer working on the Great Western Railway at the time it was being built. He developed automatic switching equipment for which he took out patents in 1841 and soon after this moved to St Petersburg in Russia.

From there he travelled across Russia, improving navigation on the Volga River and developing schemes for improving the management of traffic on this great waterway. At some point in 1846 he must have met Thomas Atkinson, who had arrived in St Petersburg from Hamburg where he had lived for several years helping to reconstruct the city after the great fire of 1842.

From Thomas’ standpoint, it made sense to team up with Austin. Thomas was about to embark on a long journey to the East where, as he says in the introduction to his book Oriental and Western Siberia, “My sole object was to sketch the scenery of Siberia – scarcely at all known to Europeans”. He knew nothing about Russia and did not speak the language, whereas Austin was an old hand who knew the ropes. Precisely why Austin decided to accompany Atkinson is not known, although there may be clues which we will discuss later.

The two men left St Petersburg by sleigh in January 1847, heading east towards the Urals, their first objective. As I traced their route, using the text of Atkinson’s book – and later his diaries, where Austin is mentioned on many occasions – I was struck by the similarity of their itinerary to those of both Alexander von Humboldt, the great German geologist and also that of Roderick Impey Murchison, the Scottish geologist and geographer. I decided to look into this in more detail.

Humboldt’s travels in Russia

Daguerreotype of Humboldt,_Alexander_von_1847

Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) was one of the greatest German scientists of the eighteenth-nineteenth centuries. A polymath, friend of Goethe and Schiller, he travelled extensively in Latin America between 1799-1804, describing it for the first time from a modern scientific standpoint. His great multi-volume work, Kosmos, sought to unify different branches of scientific and cultural knowledge.

In 1829 he was contacted by Count Georg von Cancrin, the Russian Foreign Minister, who wanted to know if Humboldt could help the new Tsar Nicholas I determine if it was possible to create a platinum-based currency in the country. Having long dreamed of visiting the Urals and Asia, Humboldt seized the chance. In April 1829, together with mineralogist Gustav Rose and naturalist Dr Christian Gottfried Ehrenberg, he set off for St Petesburg, where he was jouned by Count Adolphe Polier and Johann Seifert, a collector of animal specimens.

Although his expedition was tightly controlled by the Tsarist officials, Humboldt was able to travel extensively in the Urals, visiting the enormous mines and workshops scattered throughout the area. They were soon amongst the topaz, beryl, amethyst, rock crystal, jasper, malachite, porphyry and other mines. “There is scarcely another place in the world whose immediate surrounding provide such a wealth of ores as Nizhne Tagilsk,” he wrote later. “Only two versts away lies the famed Magnetberg (Mount Blagodat) whose excellent ores satisfy the blast furnaces of the entire region. Copper ores were discovered close by in 1812 and in respect to yield are not inferior to those of Gumechewsk. In still more recent times, gold and platinum placers have been discovered in the vicinity and are so richly productive that all other workings in the Urals are virtually as nothing.” Remarkably – and sadly – his three-volume Asie Centrale (1843), which set out the main findings of his Russian travels, has never been published in English.

Mount Blagodat in a 19th century photo

This trip allowed Humboldt to develop further his theory about the proximity of diamonds to alluvial gold and platinum, an observation he had first made in Brazil 30 years previously. No-one thought that diamonds could be found at the high latitude of Ekaterinburg. Thus at every point where they found placer workings, Humboldt and his companions examined the gold sands microscopically to look for diamonds. They only found zircons. But then, four days after Count Polier had left Humboldt’s party to look in another direction, the Frenchman turned up three stones. In fact they were found by a 14 year-old boy. They turned out to be diamonds. The second stone, weighing over half a carat, was later presented to Humboldt by Polier as a gift. It was the beginning of diamond mining in the Urals.

Humboldt’s journey was not without incident. The police and officials remained suspicious, as the following letter from the chief of police at Ischim to the Governor-General of Western Siberia makes clear:
A few days ago there arrived here a German of shortish stature, insignificant appearance, fussy and bearing a letter of introduction from your Excellency to me. I accordingly received him politely but must say I find him suspicious and even dangerous. I disliked him from the first. He talks took much and despises my hospitality. He pays no attention to the leading officials of the town and associates with Poles and other political criminals. I take the liberty of informing your Excellency that his intercourse with political criminals does not escape by vigilance. On one occasion he proceeded with them to a hill overlooking the town. They took a box with them and got out of it an instrument shaped like a long tube, which we all took for a gun. After fastening it to three feet they pointed it down on the town and one after the other examined whether it was properly sighted. This was evidently a great danger to the town, which is built entirely of wood, so I sent a detachment of troops with loaded rifles to watch the German on the hill. If the treacherous machinations of this man justify my suspicions, we shall be ready to give our lives for the Czar and Holy Russia. I send the despatch to your Excellency by special messenger.”

Presumably the police chief was referring to an inclinometer.

From Tobolsk the party headed for Barnaul in the Altai mountains, 1500 versts to the south. Here there was a massive silver mining industry that produced 36,000lbs of silver a year and much greater quantities of copper and lead. They visited the famous Kolyvan Lapidary works, where huge ornaments were cut from jasper to decorate the palaces of the Tsar.

Kolyvan jasperware

From there the party travelled south to Ust Kamenogorsk (now Oskemen in Kazakhstan) and then back westwards towards Omsk, along the banks of the Irtysch river. It was a substantial journey, totalling more than 15,000 kms.

Despite being warned not to talk about social issues, Humboldt’s report to Cancrin decried the use of slave labour in the mines. His publications showed that he had learned much about the mountain chains and climatology of central Asia and exhibited further his understanding of climatology. He gave technical advice to the Russian government on how to improve the technical processes of the mining and extractive industries and wrote to Cancrin in September 1829: “This year has become the most important of my restless life“.

However, despite his desire to travel further in Siberia and Central Asia, Humboldt resisted an invitation to return due to his disapproval of the restrictions on his freedom of movement. He wanted to find out much more about the role of volcanic activity in the creation of the mountain chains in these regions and this remained an enduring interest.

Murchison in Russia, 1840,1841.

Sir Roderick Murchison

The second great geologist to visit the Urals was Roderick Impey Murchison (1792-1871). A decade after the great German had been there, the Russians approached him – perhaps because Humboldt had refused to return – and persuaded him to look into the minerals and how they could best be exploited. Murchison had his own reasons for making the journeys. He wanted to extend his classification of the older rocks of Western Europe to that part of the Continent. Already he had developed the ideas that led to the establishment of the Silurian System and the Devonian and had worked out that the age of rock strata could be determined by their fossil content. His Russian trips would result in adding the category of the Permian to his system of geology. He also effectively extended the known range of the Palaeozoic strata from the Urals eastwards.

Murchison, who was supportive of the Russian autocracy, was given full diplomatic, financial and logistical support by Tsar Nicholas, who became sponsor of his expeditions. The Tsar wanted to know more precisely what existed and whether or not there was sufficient coal to allow minerals to be brought across the Urals to European Russia. Murchison both corresponded with and met with Humboldt in Berlin before he began his travels in Siberia. When he left for Russia in 1840 he was president of the Geological Society of London. Some have argued that it was these contacts that directed Murchison more towards geography than would otherwise have been the case. For much of his later life he was seen in Britain as the great imperial geographer.

Murchison’s route in the Urals and beyond followed closely that of Humboldt a decade earlier, travelling extensively along the Chusowaya River, for example and visiting the same mines and lapidary works. He too wanted to travel more extensively in Central Asia, but he ran out of time.

Atkinson and Austin’s travels in 1847

Although there is only limited evidence, it seems that Atkinson, was at least familiar with some of the debate and discussion taking place over the stratification of rocks in Siberia and Central Asia, not least because of his discussions with Humboldt. Atkinson had met Humboldt in Berlin on his way to St Petersburg in 1846 and decided to follow the great scientist’s recommendation to travel east in search of untouched places to sketch and paint. It was not the last time they were to be in contact with each other. In her book, Recollections of Tartar Steppes and their Inhabitants (1863), Thomas’ wife Lucy records that Humboldt had told Thomas that he believed islands in the middle of Lake Alakol in what is now Eastern Kazakhstan were volcanic, which he saw as evidence that the Tien Shan Mountains were volcanic in origin. Lucy writes: “It had been told Mr. Atkinson, by Baron Humboldt, that there had been volcanoes in this lake, and, as if in confirmation of his theory, we found near its shores what appeared to be lava. We brought a piece of it with us to Barnaoul, where they have analysed it, but declare it is not lava. Now I do not pretend to tell you what the composition is, nor anything about it. All I can say is, that the spot itself was a lovely one.” Thomas never stopped looking for volcanoes in Central Asia and Siberia, clearly hoping one day to find something that would interest Humboldt.

He had also clearly read Murchison’s book, The Geology of Russia (1845) as he certainly traced the Palaeozoic formations noted by Murchison right across the Kazakh steppes, through Mongolia and into Chinese Tartary. Was it thus a coincidence that Murchison sponsored Atkinson for fellowships of both the RGS and the GSL when the explorer eventually returned to England in 1858? Murchison also played a prominent role in raising funds for Atkinson’s son – born in the steppes – to be educated at Rugby following the explorer’s death in 1861. And also in ensuring that his widow, Lucy Atkinson, received a government pension in 1863. Atkinson’s son later took a job teaching at Durham School, which had been Murchison’s alma mater.

Like both Humboldt and Murchison, Atkinson and Austin spent the first month or so of their travels in 1847 exploring the incredible mineral deposits of the Urals. They too floated on rafts down the Chusowaya River, visited the solid iron ore Mount Blagodat – where Thomas had some kind of epiphany when he was trapped in the tiny chapel on top of the mountain by an electrical storm, surrounded by lightning bolts – and the Lapidary works at Kolyvan. In fact, Thomas’ first serious artistic endeavour was a series of paintings, now in the Hermitage Museum in St Petersburg, of the Chusowaya River.



Some of Atkinson’s paintings of the Chusowaya River

The third of these watercolours bears a remarkable similarity to one of those drawn by  Murchison and published in his book, as can be seen below:


Nor is this the only example of a close correlation between the artworks of Murchison – who had been trained to draw whilst serving as a soldier in the Peninsula Wars – and Atkinson. Their views of the summit of the Katchkanar Mountain in the Urals also bearing striking similarities. Here’s Murchison’s drawing:


And  here is the same view by Atkinson:

summit-of-the-katchkanarAfter spending a month or so in the Urals, the two men set out for Barnaul, the main town in the Altai Mountains, about 1600kms east of Ekaterinburg. From here they made their way through the mountains south to Zirianovsk, Riddersk and other mining towns in the Altai. In both the Urals and the Altai, so far as I can tell, Atkinson and Austin followed almost exactly the same routes taken by both Humboldt and Murchison. The only slight difference is that Atkinson made a larger detour into the Kazakh steppes, an experience which enthralled him and made him want to come back to sketch and paint the dramatic scenes of nomad life. One major incident must have stuck in his mind – an occasion one night when the encampment he was staying in was attacked by a marauding band of nomads. This baranta (raid) resulted in his hosts losing several hundred horses and cattle, even though Atkinson had opened fire with his rifle in an attempt to drive off the intruders. Atkinson later painted the scene. He can be clearly seen in the middle of the picture firing his weapon.

Night attack on the Aoul of Mohammed

By the end of 1847 Atkinson and Austin were once again back in Barnaul where they settled in for the winter. Except that they didn’t! Both men, independently, returned west. Thomas, we know, got into a sledge on 13th January 1848 and headed 3,500kms due West, travelling non-stop – na perecladnikh – towards Moscow. It would take him the best part of a month. “Pack of wolves 10 versts before Tomsk” he writes in his diary.

And why has he decided to do this? Because throughout the year he has been away he had not been able to stop thinking about the young lady he had met in St Petersburg. For the previous eight years Lucy Sherrard Finley, 28, the daughter of an East London schoolmaster,  had been working as a governess to the daughter of a Russian aristocrat – General Mikhail Nicolaevitch Muravyev. The Muravyevs were an important Russian family, some of whom had opposed the Tsar in the Decembrist uprising of 1825 and who, for punishment, had been sent into exile in Siberia. One of the Muravyevs had even been hanged as a central planner of the attempted coup. Other members of the family, including Lucy’s employer, had remained loyal to the Tsar. The General was one of the founders of the Russian Geographical Society and this is probably why Atkinson had visited him in the first place.


General Mikhail Nikolaevitch Muravyev-Vilensky

Thomas had written 66 letters to Lucy during the time he was away from her in 1847, all carefully noted down in his diary. He arrived in Moscow on the 9th February 1848 and immediately wrote to Lucy in St Petersburg. She, in turn, got into a sleigh for the long journey to Moscow, arriving on 14th February. Two days later in the English chapel of St Andrews, she and Thomas were wed. And two days after that, despite the fact that Lucy had barely sat on a horse before, they set off back for Siberia.

And what about Austin? He too had met a young Swedish lady in St Peterburg, who was apparently giving music lessons in the home of her sister, who lived in the city. Named Adele Hogqvist, she was the illegitimate daughter of a ballet dancer – Johanna Hogqvist – and niece of a well-known actress, Emelie Hogqvist. They married in the British chaplaincy, St Petersburg, on the 10 February 1848, so Charles could not have travelled back with Thomas.

However, that was not the end of the story.

Thomas and Lucy headed straight back to Barnaul and soon after left for the Steppes, taking in the Altai Mountains on their way. That journey is the subject matter of my book: South to the Great Steppe, the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan, 1847-52. Suffice it to say that they got as far as anyone could go at that time – the tiny military outpost of Kapal in the Djungar Alatau Mountains. At that point, in September 1848, it was the most remote outpost of the Imperial Russian Empire. Here, alongside the Tamchiboulac Springs, Lucy gave birth to her son, whom she named Alatau Tamchiboulac Atkinson. He was to accompany the couple for the rest of their long journey throughout Central Asia and Siberia. (Later he migrated to Hawaii, where he became director of education, and director of the first census.)

By October 1849 Thomas and Lucy  were once again back in Barnaul, together with their new son, having spent more than 18 months travelling through some of the most remote parts of Central Asia. They settled in for the winter, taking part in the town’s very active social life during the evenings whilst Thomas turned his sketches into paintings in the day.

And Austin and his new wife Adele? His obituary in The Engineer following his death in April 1893 in London says: “He extended his travels and explorations on two occasions over a wide tract of Siberia. On the first tour he crossed the Altai Mountains to the Chinese frontier and during a subsequent tour, on which he was accompanied by his wife, he visited some of the exile stations of Siberia, the mines of Nerchinsk and the Sayan Mountains to the Chinese frontier, and resided for some time at Irkutsk. In 1862 he presented to the Geological Society, of which he was a Fellow, some notes of these explorations.”

I was curious about this report when I first saw it and even more curious about the map that he had clearly prepared on this trip and which is now in the archives of the Geological Society (GSL). The map is about 2m x 70cm and you can see part of it below. It is entitled Map of Part of Siberia and is hand-drawn. It shows the routes from Irkutsk, close to lake Baikal, south to the Chinese border and east to the great gold mines at Nerchinsk. A red line south-west from Nerchinsk is also the subject of a separate geological section, showing the different rock strata along this line. So why had Austin gone to one of the most remote parts of Eastern Siberia with his new wife? What was he doing?

map-1a map-2a

The papers Austin presented to the GSL in 1862 offer some  clues. We know from the Geological Journal articles he wrote that he presented to the Society some slabs of fossiliferous shale containing specimens of the fossil fish and crustacean shells of Estheria Middendorfii which he had collected from a site about 100 miles south-east of Nerchinsk. Austin himself says he worked out that the beds from which the fish came had been pushed up by volcanic action: “Mr Austin thinks that the shale-beds formed the surface at the time of the last igneous eruption of any magnitude in that part of Siberia and that it was then disturbed and covered by the volcanic products.”

Volcanoes again! But was that really it? One explanation could be that he was looking for signs of more  gold mines like those at Nerchinsk. Another answer could lie in a completely different direction.

A clue can be found in a biography of Count Nikolai Nikolaevitch Muravyev-Amursky (1809-1881), the governor of Eastern Siberia – and cousin of Lucy Atkinson’s former employer in St Petersburg.


Count Nikolai Nikolaevitch Muravyev-Amursky

Muravyev-Amursky had been the architect of Russia’s eastward expansion. His aim: to win back from China the territory along the 3,000-mile Amur River that had been ceded to China in the 17th Century. By the middle of the 19th Century, following the Opium Wars and increasing political and economic domination of the country by Britain and France, China was weak and willing to do a deal with Muravyev-Amursky over the desolate Siberian lands. Eventually, in 1858 China signed the Treaty of Aigun ceding all land north and west of the Amur, including the port of Nikolaevsk. Two years later Russia founded Vladivostok at the mouth of the Ussuri River, giving Russia an ice-free port onto the Pacific. These achievements can be put down to the determination of Muravyev-Amursky.

At the end of 1848 Muravyev-Amursky was on an inspection trip in the gubernias of Yeniseisk and Irkutsk and was gathering data he needed for a proposal to visit the remote Kamchatka Peninsula. Whilst travelling, he was told that an Englishman named Austin, allegedly pursuing geological investigations, had crossed Lake Baikal and via Verkneudinsk and Chita, had reached Nerchinsk.

According to Muravyev-Amursky, Austin had arranged to have a large raft built on which he planned to sail down the Shilka River and the River Amur to its mouth, hoping to find a whaler on which he could cross the Pacific to America, or which could take him straight to Europe.

Being very suspicious of foreigners, particularly Englishmen, and convinced that Austin was a spy, he ordered on of his officers to go to Nerchinsk and catch up with him and bring him back to Irkutsk, ‘dead or alive’.  Austin was back in Irkutsk within 10 days. Muravyev-Amursky immediately reported the incident to St Petersburg and in a personal letter to Interior Minister Lev Perovsky he ranted about how Austin’s uninvited visit had put in jeopardy the Russian project of occupying the Amur. According to one biographer, “Muravyev seems to have been obsessed with the idea that the British might suddenly seize Sakhalin, or the mouth of the Amur, an idea to which he clung for years.” (It should be noted that during the Crimean War only a few years later, Britain and France sent a flotilla of ships to Kamchatka with the intention of seizing it. It was a terrible failure.)

In reply Perovsky wrote: “It is not without foundation that you consider it necessary to warn the English, and that the time has come when this should not be postponed. I fully share your view, but Count Nesselrode (Russian Foreign Minister) is not thinking along these lines.”

He went on to point out that Nesselrode would oppose any decisive measure at the mouth of the Amur, and would be supported by Vronchenko, the Minister of Finance. Nesselrode, he said, feared any possible rupture of friendly relations with England, while Vronchencko would point to the unfavourable consequences for Russian commerce and industry, if there should be a break with China. He warned Muravyev-Amursky that those “upon whom this matter most depends” would accuse him of being hasty, hair-brained, presumptuous and unacquainted with the area he was administering. They would say that he had not considered either the difficulties or the consequences of what he was proposing.

Accordingly, Perovsky advised Muravyev-Amursky to keep the Emperor personally informed on the Amur question, stressing the need for action and the unfortunate consequences of immobility, and to assemble information to demonstrate that if action was carefully taken, Russia’s trade with China would not suffer.

So without further ado Austin was released. He made his way back to St Petersburg with his new wife, got a ship and headed back to England via Sweden (where he called on his in-laws) and soon after returned to Russia, where he worked mostly in the Crimea.

This was, by any account, a remarkable turn of events. So who was Austin working for? The Tsar or the English? One possible clue comes from a most curious fact. John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield (1802-1879), the Second Baron Bloomfield, was from 1844-51, the British envoy in St Petersburg. Bloomfield, in turn, was the lover of Emelie Hogqvist, the aunt of Austin’s wife, who had borne the Baron an illegitimate daughter, Techla Hogqvist.

NPG 1408; John Arthur Douglas Bloomfield, 2nd Baron Bloomfield by Sir Thomas Lawrence
The Second Baron Bloomfield, by Sir Thomas Lawrence, oil on canvas, 1819

Make of that what you will. Either way it is the most intriguing connection.

So now it only remains to look at the Atkinsons. What did they do after their long expedition to central Asia and return to Barnaul in the winter of 1849? Early the following year they headed east and also ended up in Irkutsk in eastern Siberia, where they were to spend much of the next three years. The Atkinsons met with Muravyev-Amursky and his French wife and spent much time in their company. Although he clearly trusted Lucy because of her connections to his cousin in St Peterburg, he never permitted Thomas to visit Nerchinsk or to travel along the Amur River, despite strong efforts by the latter to do so.

Instead, the Atkinsons spent the summer months exploring the regions around Irkutsk and south into Mongolia. One of the papers he presented to the GSL on his return to England in 1858 was entitled “On the Volcanoes of Central Asia, commencing with the Baikal, in Oriental Siberia, and extending into Mongolia and Chinese Tartary, illustrated by a beautiful series of drawings of the principal volcanic scenes described.”  Note the title and its reference to volcanoes. He told the Fellows he was not intending to furnish a strictly geological account, but said that he had been on Lake Baikal and he gave one of the first accurate accounts in English of its physical appearance. “There was no appearance of volcanoes ever having been in action either on the northern shore or on the island (of Olchon, in the middle of the lake).” He also described a conical shaped island in the middle of Lake Kossogol (Hovsgol) in Mongolia which he believed to be volcanic.

Then he described what may have been his most important geological discovery – in what is known today as the Jom-Bolok Valley, where he (Lucy travelled with him on this expedition) found a lava bed more than a mile in width, extending across the valley and reaching in some places to a wall 40 feet high. After a five-day journey following the lava flow he found the crater which was two miles long and three-quarters of a mile in width.


He was the first person ever to visit this important valley , which has since been far more extensively studied. Kropotkin visited it in 1865, but the reason why Thomas is likely to have been the first person to visit the valley is that the local Buryats refused to go there, believing it was haunted.

That volcano turned out to be quite important. It is today known as the Jom-Bolok volcanic field and lies in the Eastern Sayan mountains to the west of Irkutsk. As described by Atkinson, the lava flow is around 70kms in length and around 100km2 in area. “The area and volume of this flow file ranks this eruption highly in the global record of fissure-fed effusive eruptions”, according to one academic study by Russian geologists.

Ten years ago, the Russian geologists who published the paper which discusses this group of volcanoes decided, in order to right a historical wrong, to name one of the cones in this volcano field Atkinson Volcano. Today you can trek there, but 160 years ago it was definitely terra incognita. After years of searching he had finally found what Humboldt had told him to look out for – volcanoes.

So excited was Thomas by his discovery that when he got back to St Petersburg,  he wrote to Humboldt in Berlin, enclosing a little present for him in a letter dated 26 April 1854:

In 1846 you very kindly gave me a letter to Admiral Lutke. Since that time I have devoted seven years in exploring the mountains of Siberia, Mongolia and have sketched the scenery of these regions from the River Ili to the Yablong Mountains. I have traced several of the great rivers to their sources and have found scenes of subline grandeur. In the Sayan Mountains I found an extinct volcano of very large dimensions from which streams of lava have poured down the valley of the Djem-a-Louk to a distance of four days’ journey from the crater. The bearer of this, Mrs Capley, will hand you a specimen of the lava which I brought along with me. Having made sketches of this most interesting place it will afford me great pleasure to send you copies of them should you deem them of any value. Probably they may possess some interests as this is the only volcanic crater that has been found in these regions. Hoping you will not deem me intrusive.

I remain with most sincere respect, Your obedient servant

TW Atkinson”.

Letter to Humboldt-pic

Thomas Atkinson’s letter to Humboldt

Humboldt, rather surprisingly, did nothing immediately. Eventually, in 1857 he must have reviewed his correspondence and he wrote in great excitement to Carl Ritter (1779-1859), his great collaborator.

I did not answer Herr Atkinson in 1854 because the four days’ journey lava flow put me off and I feared the accompanying (female) painter would only send pictures for the King and be focussed on/encourage monetary transactions.  I have been wrong.

“Keep, dear friend, Herr Atkinson’s letter.  Should this be the point which we are seeking and how should we be travelling to Irkutz and the Baikal Sea even though we have earlier heard nothing of it?”

What is amazing is that Humboldt, at the age of 88 – both he and Ritter died in 1859 – should still be thinking of travelling out to Siberia to investigate a report of a volcano. That is how important a discovery it was.

So there we have it. The mystery of Austin’s map at the Geological Society of London, turned into a wonderful story about volcanoes in Siberia and Central Asia, involving two of the greatest names in the history of geology. We may not have entirely resolved the matter of Austin’s remarkable map, but I hope to have shown that Thomas’s discoveries were not insignificant. They were enough to inspire the greatest geologist of the age, at the ripe old age of 88, to consider making a trip to Eastern Siberia.

(This is an abridged and edited version of the talk I delivered at the Geological Society of London on 28 April 2016.)

Atkinson talk at Cambridge University Nauryz celebration

On 12th March ‘South to the Great Steppe: The Travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan, 1847-1852’ by Nick Fielding was presented at the annual Nauryz celebration at Cambridge University, organised by the Cambridge Central Asia Forum (CCAF) and held at Jesus College. Attendees included Professor Ian White, Master of Jesus College and Deputy Vice Chancellor of the University, H.E. Mr. Erzhan Kazykhanov, the Ambassador of Kazakhstan to the UK and Professor Peter Nolan, Director of the Centre of Development  Studies. Dr. Siddharth Saxena, CCAF Chair, moderated the programme.
Others attending included heads of the diplomatic missions accredited in the UK, government officials, together with staff and students from the University of Cambridge.
Dr. Siddharth Saxena, Professor Ian White and Mr. Erzhan Kazykhanov made welcome addresses. Mr. Nick Fielding, the author of the book, gave an insight into the life of Thomas Atkinson and gave a detailed account of the travels the explorer undertook with his wife, Lucy Atkinson, to the Great Steppe in the 19th century.
The presentation was followed by a concert in the honour of the Nauryz celebration organised by Cambridge Central Asia Forum in collaboration with the Cambridge University Kazakh Society in the ancient Chapel of Jesus College. More than four hundred people attended the events.Cambridge 12 March 2016

Talk at the Geological Society


In January 1847 Charles Austin (1819-1893) and Thomas Atkinson (1799-1861) set out together on a journey across Russia and Siberia. Over the next year, the men would share carriages and horses, posthouses, hovels and yurts as they made their way through the Urals, the Altai Mountains and the Great Steppes of Central Asia, following in the geological footsteps of the great Prussian naturalist Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859) who had led a famous expedition to the area in 1829.

However, by the winter of 1847-1848 Charles and Thomas had separated. Thomas travelled back to Moscow to marry a young woman he had met in St Petersburg and Charles, having also returned to St Petersburg for a marriage,  headed on further east, eventually arriving in Irkutsk, Siberia. There he set out for the remote and foreboding convict settlement and mining colony of Nerchinsk where he soon ran into trouble. Suspected of being a spy, Charles was hunted down by Cossacks and thrown into prison. In contrast, Thomas and his new wife Lucy would spend almost six years travelling throughout Siberia and Central Asia, becoming well-known figures in these far-off outposts of the Russian Empire.

Join us for this incredible adventure with Nick Fielding, a freelance author and journalist whose most recent book is South to the Great Steppe: the travels of Thomas and Lucy Atkinson in Eastern Kazakhstan 1847-52 (FIRST Magazine Ltd., 2015)

During this special evening, there will also be an opportunity to view some of the Library’s historical collections on the geology and mineralogy of Imperial Russia, and to see the mysterious, geological map Charles drew of Eastern Siberia, the earliest made of the region.