The Court-Martial of Captain Walker of the Trusty – 26 September 1795
Throughout the summer of 1795, tensions increased in the Mediterranean as the allegiance of Spain to the coalition against France deteriorated in its resolve. The British government was eager to avoid the merest slight to her wavering ally, and when Commander James Walker stumbled into the political minefield, he was quickly sacrificed to favour the relationship between the two countries.
Walker had been somewhat fortunate in his promotion to commander a year earlier, having been included amongst the batch of first lieutenants promoted after the Battle of the Glorious First of June, even though he had only been present on the periphery of the engagement aboard the frigate Niger 32. Since then, he had served as a volunteer and received acting appointments only, and he was still waiting for his promotion to post captain when, in July 1795, he was appointed to the Trusty 50 in an acting capacity and instructed to convey five East Indiamen to Cape Finisterre before returning directly to Spithead.
Evidently a conscientious officer, Walker had more than fulfilled his orders by remaining with the merchantmen until they had gained a favourable wind, with the result that he ended up far to the south of the originally prescribed latitude. He was thus able, on learning from a Danish vessel that thirty-six stranded merchantmen were awaiting an escort and paying punitive demurrage at Cadiz, to make for that port and offer them a convoy for England. Whilst at the Spanish port however, allegations were made by the authorities to the effect that a huge sum of money had been illegally carried onto the Trusty by five officers, and with these men being arrested and detained, Walker had to sail for England without them.
Upon the Trusty’s arrival at Portsmouth with the convoy on 9 September, the merchants in London wasted little time in expressing their delight at Walker’s initiative and sense of duty, and it was loudly proclaimed that his action, in the context of Spain’s negotiating of a peace treaty with France, had saved merchandise to the value of over one million pounds.
At the same time however, the British administration had received demands from Spain that Walker be disciplined, and being desperate to keep Spain in the alliance, it was decided to take the matter further. On 26 September he was brought to a court-martial aboard the Juste 80 in Portsmouth Harbour under the presidency of Vice-Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis, and with five other admirals sitting. The charge laid against him was that he had ‘bore away and put into Cadiz instead of returning to Spithead according to our orders, after convoying the outward-bound East Indiaman fleet to Cape Finisterre.’ The Court found him guilty, and he was dismissed the service for disobedience of orders, even though it was probable that any other loyal officer would have taken the same action as him. Of more importance to Walker personally however, he was not found guilty of any offence against the Spanish in Cadiz, and he was therefore allowed to volunteer for service with Rear-Admiral Hugh Christian’s expedition that was preparing to sail for the Leeward Islands.
In December came the news from Spain that Captain Cuthbert of the Trusty’s Marines, together with two of her lieutenants and the surgeon, had been sent to the gallies for three years as their punishment for the ‘smuggling of money’. Their fate thereafter remains unclear, but it seems likely that at least one of the sentenced officers made it back to Britain, for in a curious footnote it was later reported that Walker had become embroiled in in a skirmish in the High Street, Portsmouth, with one of the Trusty’s old lieutenants, Emanuel Hungerford, which had resulted in the captain being forced to defend himself with a hod against Hungerford’s cane.
In the meantime, Spain had completed her negotiations with France, and by the secret Treaty of San Ildefonso on 8 October 1796 had entered the war against the British. Five months later, in March 1797, Walker was reinstated as a commander when, after British representations, the Spanish ambassador received instructions from his government to drop the original complaint. The way was therefore clear for him to reassume active duty, although when he did that year, it was in the inglorious role of commanding a gunboat against the Nore mutineers. Eventually, after many years of active service, he would achieve flag rank.