Bransfield, Edward (c.1785–1852), sailor and explorer, was born in Ballinacurra, Midleton, Co. Cork, about 1785; the date is calculated from his age at date of death, as recorded from his death certificate. He was the son of a sea captain who is thought to have been of English and protestant origins. His parents’ names are not known; however, evidence of his Cork roots is reflected in his will (below). In 1803 Edward was aged 18; he was pressed into the Royal Navy and enlisted on board HMS Ville de Paris on 3 June with seven other Cork men. No bounty was paid to him as he was under age; he was classified ordinary seaman. He took part in the blockade of French Atlantic ports during the Napoleonic wars, was reclassified to able-bodied seaman (AB) in August 1805, and transferred to the 100-gun Royal Sovereign in 1806 when Ville de Paris was put out of commission. He was clearly well educated and had an interest and skills in navigation. By 1815 he had progressed to quartermaster, to midshipman in 1808, clerk in 1809, midshipman again 1811–13. Succeeding captains spoke highly of him, and he was commended to the notice of the admiralty as a good seaman who could take distance by moon, sun, and stars. In 1813 he became second master aboard Goldfinch, which operated in the Mediterranean. He was examined and received his master's certificate from Trinity House (the admiralty's training school) in April 1814, making his first appearance in the Navy List.
He served on Phoebe as acting master and later as master, escorting convoys returning to Cork and Portsmouth, and was assigned to Alceste and Pactolus for a short time. He joined the frigate Cydnus in 1816, captained by F. W. Aylmer, relieving James Weddell, who in 1823 reached the highest latitude recorded at that time. In August aboard HMS Severn, again under Aylmer, he won a medal for bravery during the bombardment of the Corsair city of Algiers. The medal was inscribed ‘Algiers bombarded its fleet destroyed & Christian slavery extinguished.’ Technically skilled, he observed for latitude from the top of the Genoa lighthouse. In September 1817 he was appointed master of the large 44-gun frigate Andromache, under the command of Capt. Shirreff. They sailed to South America, then in the process of rejecting European rule.
On arrival at Valparaiso he was ordered by Shirreff, with three midshipmen from Andromache, to survey the recently discovered South Shetland Islands and to observe, collect, and preserve every object of natural science. He was given the privately owned 216-ton brig Williams, which was chartered by the navy from the owner for the purpose. Bransfield and his team of surveyors arrived off the South Shetlands on 16 January 1820 and despite bad visibility traced the northern coasts of the Islands, charting the outline as best they could in such conditions. On 22 January 1820 they entered a bay of a long island, sounding it carefully and finding a safe anchorage. They landed by whaleboat to plant the union flag and claim the island on behalf of Britain. He named the islands New South Britain and the bay George's Bay (latterly King George's Bay). Bransfield surveyed each of the twelve islands (discovered by William Smith of Blythe, Northumberland, in 1819; Smith was one of the owners of Williams) getting as far as 63° south. On 30 January the party found itself among a group of small islands and sighted a high range running in a north-westerly direction. This was the first reported sighting of the Antarctic Peninsula, which Bransfield named Trinity Land, the north-western tip of the peninsula. He named one of the islands O'Brien Island, in honour of Capt. (later Rear-admiral) Donat Henchy O'Brien (1785–1857) of HMS Slaney, a ship in Shirreff's South American fleet. O'Brien, who was born in Co. Clare, became famous when his narrative of his three daring escapes from French jails during the Napoleonic wars was published in 1839. One of the other South Shetland Islands was named Elephant Island. (It later came into prominence when in 1916 Ernest Shackleton (qv) used the island as a secure base for the crew of Endurance, while he went in a lifeboat in search of help to South Georgia.)
Bransfield Strait, Bransfield Island, and Bransfield Rocks off the coast of the Antarctic Peninsula and Mount Bransfield on Trinity Land are all named after Edward Bransfield. Paid off by the navy on 18 September 1821, he rejoined the merchant service and became master of several cargo vessels, including Swiftsure, Bolivar, and Calcutta, trading with Gibraltar and South America. He retired to Brighton in Sussex, where he died aged 67 on 31 October 1852. He is buried there with his wife Ann (d. 1863). In his will he gave a life interest in his property to Ann; on her death the remainder was to be bequeathed to three children of his brother William, of Midleton, Co. Cork