John Erskine Douglas

1757 -1847. One of fifteen children of David Douglas and of his wife, whose maiden name was Thompson, he was the grand-nephew of the 2nd Earl of Queensberry, and the brother of Colonel William Douglas.

Douglas was commissioned lieutenant on 21 April 1778 and saw service in the American Revolutionary War; however, it was not until his mid-thirties that he was promoted commander, his advancement coming on 24 May 1794 when he commissioned the French prize sloop Trompeuse 16. Sailing from Portsmouth in early September, his command was back at the Hampshire port from Quebec and Halifax at the beginning of December.

On 10 June 1795 he was posted captain of the nine-pounder frigate Garland 28, which for the previous sixteen years had seen service as the Sybil 28. During August his command visited the Shetland Islands, and by the end of November she was at Sheerness, where she hosted the court-martial of Commander-George Eyre for the loss of the sloop Speedy off Toulon. Tragedy struck on the following 22 January when her launch sunk whilst proceeding from Sheerness to the Nore with stores. A number of people were drowned as a result of the accident, with reports naming her first lieutenant and two master’s mate as casualties, together with a woman and five crew members. Ten of the crew were apparently saved.

Admiral John Erskine Douglas

In February 1796 the Garland escorted a convoy from Sheerness to Cuxhaven, and on 2 March she sought shelter at the former port from heavy weather. She was at the Nore later that month before returning to Sheerness to embark the Prince of Orange and his family for passage to the Elbe, although it was some days before the wind allowed them to sail. After returning to Sheerness on 19 April, she sailed with the London convoy for Elsinore on 11 May, and she departed The Sound two weeks later on the return voyage. By 10 June she was safely back at Sheerness despite concerns that her convoy might have fallen prey to a French and Dutch frigate squadron that was unerstood to be at large in the North Sea.

In July 1796, having apparently joined the North Sea squadron, the Garland was forced back to Sheerness for repairs after losing her bowsprit and springing her main-mast when ran foul by the Powerful 74, Captain William O’Bryen Drury. She sailed for the North Sea once more on 7 August, having been paid, and in September she embarked the diplomat George Hammond at Cuxhaven, who had been on a mission to the King of Prussia, and whom she landed him at Scarborough before proceeding to the Nore.

During the early spring of 1797 the Garland was with Admiral Adam Duncan’s North Sea fleet, and in March she was preparing to take a convoy from the Humber to London when intelligence was received that a 14-gun French privateer schooner had been seen off Scarborough. Douglas raced to sea, but although firing was heard off Flamborough Head, a capture did not ensue. At this time mutinous sentiments were building in the various fleets, but on 1 April the majority of the Garland’s men signed a statement stating that they would not join ‘any assembly for the purpose of taking an oath to have grievances redressed but to act with the captain to suppress such meeting or assembly’. When the North Sea fleet came into Yarmouth in April the Garland remained off the Texel with the Adamant 50, Captain William Hotham, and she did not join the mutiny which broke out at the end of May in Duncan’s force. In June she collected two noble ladies from Cuxhaven to arrive at Harwich after an eight-day voyage, and in early July she was in the Downs prior to taking the Baltic convoy to Elsinore, from where she departed with the return convoy on the 30th to reach Whitby in August. She was also back at the Yorkshire port in September, having safely delivered the Scottish portion of the convoy.

In the early part of January 1798 Douglas moved to the thirty-six year-old twelve-pounder frigate Boston 32, in which he served off the French coast under Commodore Sir Richard Strachan from April. Arriving at Portsmouth from St. Marcou in early November, his command soon went out with another squadron on reports that the French were contemplating a cruise from Le Havre. It seems likely that she then spent a short while in dock preparing for foreign service, and at the end of February 1799 she went out of Portsmouth Harbour for Spithead.

On 6 April 1799 the Boston sailed for Halifax via Cork with a large convoy including many American ships, and she was to remain on the North American station for the next five and a half years. She was off Sandy Hook during July 1800, and she engaged in a lengthy and fruitless blockade of the crack French frigate Sémillante 36 at Norfolk, Virginia, through to June 1801. Following the recall of Vice-Admiral Sir William Parker, Douglas assumed the command of the North American station at Halifax on 26 July 1801, and he retained it after peace with France had been declared in March 1802 until superseded by Admiral Sir Andrew Mitchell on 20 July, at which time he had recently returned to Nova Scotia from Bermuda. On 25 July 1803, two months after the renewal of hostilities, he boarded an American merchant vessel off Cape Henry in search of Jerome Bonaparte, who was known to be bound for that coast, in November the Boston was off Charleston Bar, and in June 1804 she was at Charleston before sailing for New York. Here, Douglas conferred with Captain William Bradley of the Cambrian 40 amidst rumours that Jerome was planning to sail for France on two enemy frigates which at the time were lying off Staten Island. The Boston was still off Sandy Hook a month later, having in the interim chased one vessel and fired five shots at her in the belief that the emperor’s brother was aboard, and she left for Halifax upon her relief by the Leander 50, Captain James Oughton, to arrive in Nova Scotia on 22 August. Here she spent some time refitting before returning to Plymouth in the early part of November 1804 with a large timber ship carrying superior masts for the Navy, and following her arrival home she was laid up and taken out of service.

From 10 January 1805 Douglas commanded the Impétueux 80 in a temporary capacity for the indisposed Captain Thomas Byam Martin at that officer’s specific request, sailing from Plymouth with bullocks to join the Channel Fleet on the 25th, and then being detached to join the squadron off Ferrol under Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder. The Impétueux returned to Plymouth on 13 April, whereupon he left her.

In January 1806 Douglas was appointed to the forty-five year-old Bellona 74, joining her at Plymouth where a squadron was forming under Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Strachan, prior to sailing at the end of the month in the hunt for two squadrons which had broken out of Brest under the command of Vice-Admiral Corentin Urbain Leissègues and Rear-Admiral Jean Baptiste Philibert Willaumez. She was back at Plymouth on 6 May to refit before putting to sea once more with Strachan’s squadron, and after Willaumez’s force was dispersed in a hurricane on 18 August, she was present at the driving aground of the French Impétueux 74 on Cape Henry on 14 September. At the end of the month the Bellona entered the Chesapeake to effect repairs to a rudder which had been damaged in the same hurricane, and thereafter Douglas commanded the British squadron in the Chesapeake in blockade of the Eole 74 and the Patriote 74 from Willaumez’s squadron, which were both refitting at Annapolis. Over the next few months he was often to be found in duty ashore, but relations with the Americans were far from harmonious and he engaged in a bitter exchange with the Mayor of Norfolk, not least when the captain of the Patriote equipped an American pilot boat as a privateer and captured several English vessels. Matters came to a head when the Leopard 50, Captain Salisbury Pryce Humphreys fired into the American frigate Chesapeake 36 on 22 June 1807, and Douglas had to be spirited off late at night by a boat from the Triumph 74, Captain Thomas Masterman Hardy, before news of the incident could inflame the locals.

In August 1807 the Bellona was refitting at Halifax, and in mid-September she was still at the Nova Scotian base when the Jason 32, Captain Thomas John Cochrane, arrived with sixty mutineers in irons. She continued on the North American station in 1808 under the orders of Vice-Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, spending much of her time at Halifax, before she sailed from Nova Scotia for England in December to reach Portsmouth on 7 January 1809. Douglas spent the next few months ashore whilst his command, under the temporary captaincy of Stair Douglas, joined the Channel Fleet, being present on 11 April at the Battle of the Basque Roads and returning to Plymouth on 19 June.

Douglas resumed the command of the Bellona during the opening stages of the Walcheren Campaign from July 1809, prior to returning to Portsmouth on 30 August, at which port his ship underwent a refit from December until March 1810. On 17 May of the latter year she arrived at the Downs from Portsmouth before sailing for the Dutch coast, on which she briefly went ashore thirteen days later but easily got off. Continuing on the North Sea station, she captured the French privateer Héros du Nord 14 near the Texel on 18 December and three days later sailed into the Downs.

The Chesapeake – Leopard affair

In January 1811 the Bellona was taken into Plymouth dock for a refit from where she entered the Hamoaze on 19 March. Whilst still at the Devonshire port, a black seaman who had deserted to the American frigate Essex 32 was given up by the American captain when about to sail to Cowes, but on going below for his dunnage the man chopped his hand off with a carpenter’s adze in order to prevent his extraction. At the beginning of April the Bellona sailed for Yarmouth to resume her somewhat tedious employment of the Dutch coast, and on 15 November she left the Downs to be docked at Chatham four days later. In early January 1812 she proceeded down the Thames for the Nore, and after reports that she had grounded off Margate, she reached the Downs and in March sailed to rejoin the fleet of the Texel.

In May 1812 Douglas was appointed to the Prince of Wales 98, serving off Flushing before arriving in the Downs on 27 July, and having been ordered to fit out at Portsmouth for foreign service, she sailed for Lisbon with a convoy and a royal marine battalion destined for Minorca on 27 August. Joining the Mediterranean Fleet, she was present in minor actions with the Toulon Fleet on 5 November 1813 and 13 February 1814, and she was at the siege and capture of Genoa in April of the latter year.

On 4 June 1814 Douglas was promoted rear-admiral, and in January 1815 he was appointed the commander-in-chief at Jamaica, hoisting his flag aboard the Warrior 74, Captain John Tremayne Rodd, and setting sail in February with several other men-of-war in escort of outgoing convoys totalling four hundred vessels. He was still at Falmouth towards the end of March when the troops under his escort were landed on news that Napoleon had returned to France, and when the Warrior eventually sailed from the Cornish port on 3 April, it was with the one hundred and seventy-five sail of the West India convoy.

Upon reaching Jamaica, Douglas’ flag was removed to the receiving ship Shark 16 at the end of May 1815, and in early July he was lucky to escape with his life when a fire in Port Royal killed several men, including one who was standing close by him when a beam crashed down upon his head. That incident apart, with the country no longer at war his period of command in Jamaica proved to be an uneventful one. In March 1816 he transferred his flag to the Salisbury 50, Captain John Mackellar, following the latter ship’s arrival at Port Royal, and having left Jamaica on 8 February 1818 he came home via Havana aboard that vessel under the command of Captain Houston Stewart to arrive at Portsmouth on 2 April.

On 29 April 1819 Douglas made the newspapers when his valet, Nathaniel Crudge, was indicted and found guilty of having stolen a pocket book containing one hundred guineas in notes from his master. The servant was given the death penalty by the court, although it appears that the sentence was later commuted to seven years transportation.

Douglas was promoted vice-admiral on 27 May 1825, and during his retirement he appears to have lived a quiet life. In November 1831 he was at Brighton where King William IV was on holiday, in February 1835 and March 1836 he attended levees at Court, and in August 1837 he visited Leamington Spa. He was advanced to the rank of admiral on 28 June 1838, and he died at Sparrows near Watford on 25 July 1847.

On 21 January 1818 at Long-Hill in St. Elizabeth’s, Jamaica, he married Catherine, the widow of Major James White and daughter of John Griffith. At 22 years of age she was nearly forty years his junior. The couple had issue at least two daughters, to whom he left a fortune of forty thousand guineas, equivalent to over £3m in today’s money. The address in his will was given as his residence, Charles Street, Berkeley Square, Middlesex. Whilst he was serving as commander-in-chief at Jamaica it seems likely that Douglas fathered a child with one of his black slaves, Diana Prince, the boy, being christened John Erskine Douglas in August 1817.

It would seem that Douglas had a reputation for being ‘confrontational’ and that during his temporary command of the Impétueux in 1805 his use of corporal punishment far exceeded that of the standing captain, Thomas Byam Martin. In retirement he was a frequent contributor to charitable causes.