American explorer and sealer, was born in Stonington, Connecticut, on 16 July 1769, son of Gilbert Fanning and his wife Hulda, née Palmer. He was named after his uncle, the British General Edmund Fanning and went to sea as a cabin boy at the age of 14 in 1783 and, like his older brother Nathaniel of American Revolutionary War fame, was connected to the sea in one manner or another for the rest of his life
Fanning reached the rank of mate by the age of 21 and when he first visited the South Shetlands in 1792 as first mate aboard a sealing vessel his fate became inextricably linked with the tremendously profitable sealing industry and trade with China. A single cargo of skins from the Juan Fernandez Islands on the brig Betsey in 1798 resulted in trade goods that eventually sold for more than US$120,000 (equal to approximately US$1·6 million in present value). His personal share of the cargo was $15,000. It has been claimed that the sealing business seemed more like a gold rush when news of this voyage reached the east coast of America leading eventually to the decimation and near extinction of the seal population on the Falklands and other islands along the South American coast.
Fanning recognized the potential of the Chinese market and understood the Chinese thirst for natural products that could be harvested from the sea for a relatively small investment. Bêche de mer*, pearls and the like would, he believed, more than pay for the cost of any expedition mounted by the United States. In 1812 President James Madison put Fanning in command of two ships which could have realized his dream of leading an expedition to the South Seas. It was not to be. War with England broke out and the expedition never got fully underway. While he participated in additional voyages for profit, his wish to participate in a major voyage of discovery went unfulfilled.
Fanning continued to broker voyages and his familiarity with the Falklands led him to send his son, William, as supercargo* aboard the brig Hersilia in 1819 in pursuit of furs and new islands to the east and south of the Falklands. Nathaniel Palmer, the 21 year old mariner eventually credited as a discoverer of Antarctica in 1820, was reportedly put ashore on Kidney Island in the Falklands with a couple of crewmen to gather provisions for the Hersilia. During his month on Kidney Island, Palmer became familiar with a crew member from an Argentine ship who told him of land to the south. Once the Hersilia returned to Stonington and informed Fanning of their discoveries he, along with his son William, set about organizing an expedition to take advantage of the situation. In addition to the Hersilia, Fanning and company sent out the schooner Express and the little sloop Hero, captained by Palmer. After stopping for 10 days in Berkeley Sound in the Falklands, Palmer set out on what would become his historic voyage of discovery. Both Fanning and the Falklands played a critical role in this controversial discovery.
The next expedition to the South mounted by Fanning in 1829 was a financial disaster and he attempted more than once to claim reimbursement from the United States Congress but he was rebuffed on each occasion. This did not, however, dampen his spirits for exploration. Some claim that the Wilkes Exploring Expedition of 1838-42 was a direct result of the publication of Fanning's Voyages Round the World in 1833. While he was not invited to participate in this expedition, he did petition Congress once more for funds in 1840 in hopes of leading his own expedition. Congress turned him down and he died at the age of 71 the next year on 23 April 1841 in New York, following his wife to the grave by less than one week.
Fanning played the roles of mariner, explorer, businessman, propagandist and investor in his pursuit of exploiting the far-flung reaches of the world's oceans for personal and national gain. He has given his name to Fanning Head on East Falkland and Fanning Island in the Pacific.