A Naval Biographical Dictionary/Walker, James Robertson

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WALKER, formerly ROBERTSON. (Commander, 1815. f-p., 15; h-p., 31.)

James Robertson Walker, born 22 June, 1783, is eldest son of the late Jas. Robertson, Esq., a Justice of the Peace and Deputy-Lieutenant for Rossshire, and many years Collector of the Customs at the port of Stornoway, by his cousin, Annabella, daughter of John Mackenzie, Esq., of Letterewe, on the banks of Loch Maree. His paternal grandfather, the Rev. Jas. Robertson, Minister of Loch Broom, co. Ross, eminent for the support he afforded the Royal cause during the Rebellion of 1745-6, was the means of preventing a large detachment of the King’s forces, under the Earl of Loudon and the celebrated Lord President Forbes, from being cut off by the rebels under the Duke of Perth. Espousing the cause of the Stuarts, his maternal grandfather, Murdoch Mackenzie, behaved with desperate bravery while fighting under his kinsman, William, Earl of Seaforth, at the battle of Glenshiel, in 1719. Commander Robertson Walker assumed the name of Walker in addition to his patronymic, Robertson, on the occasion of his marriage, as beneath.

This officer entered the Navy, 6 April, 1801, as A.B., on board the Inspector sloop, Capt. Robt. Howe Bromley, lying in Leith Roads. In the course of the same month he became Midshipman of the Princess Charlotte 38, Capt. Hon. Fras. Farington Gardner; and after serving for two years in that ship on the Irish station, part of the time as Master’s Mate, he joined, in May, 1803, the Canopus 80, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Geo. Campbell, at first off Cadiz and then in the Mediterranean; where, at the recommendation of his Captain, John Conn, he was received by Lord Nelson, in March, 180.5, on board his own flag-ship, the Victory 100. In the Canopus he was engaged in several skirmishes with the enemy’s batteries on Cape Sepet. On his return in the Victory from the West Indies, whither he had gone in pursuit of the combined squadrons of France and Spain, he fought, as Forecastle Mate, at the battle of Trafalgar, 21 Oct. 1805. On the latter ship being put out of commission, in Jan. 1806, he was placed, at the instance of her Captain, Sir Thos. Masterman Hardy, on board the Thames 32, Capt. Brydges Watkinson Taylor; under whom we find him present in a boat in the first attempt made, by Commodore Edw. W. C. R. Owen, to destroy the Boulogne flotilla by means of Congreve’s rockets. On proceeding subsequently to the West Indies Mr. Robertson, who had previously, in company with the Phoebe 36, Capt. Jas. Oswald, visited the Greenland Seas in pursuit of some French frigates who had been sent to interrupt the whale fishery, was transferred, in April, 1807, to the Northumberland 74, bearing the flag of Hon. Sir Alex. Cochrane. In the ensuing Dec, having followed the latter into the Belleisle 74, he assisted, as Mate of the Signals, at the reduction of the Danish islands of St. Thomas and Ste. Croix. In Feb. 1808 he was nominated Acting-Lieutenant of the Galatea 36, in the room of a Lieutenant Boyle, whose death at sea had been reported, but whom, on reaching the frigate, Mr. Robertson found in a state of perfect health. He returned in consequence – nearly two months, however, elapsing before he could do so – to the Belleisle; and on arriving on board he had the mortification of finding that several real death vacancies had occurred and had been given to other officers. He was immediately, however, ordered to act as Lieutenant in the Fawn 18, Capt. Hon. Geo. Alfred Crofton. On 20 May following, with two boats under his orders, Mr. Robertson succeeded in capturing a privateer schooner and three merchant-vessels under the very muzzles of the guns in two batteries on the north-east end of Puerto Rico. While the privateer (whose crew, having run her a-ground, had escaped into the bushes and had kept up a heavy fire of musketry) was being towed out, an explosion took place in her magazine which killed 1 and wounded 5 of the Fawn’s people. Mr. Robertson, although on board, fortunately escaped injury. On 17 July, 1808, in command of the boats of his own sloop and of two from the Pultusk brig (accompanied by the present Sir Chas. Napier as a Volunteer), he cut a merchant-schooner out from the same spot and spiked and destroyed the guns in one of the batteries. Being directed, 8 Dec. following, to act as Lieutenant in the Hazard ship-sloop of 18 guns, Capts. Hugh Cameron, Wm. Elliott, and John Cookesley, he assisted in her, in company with the Cleopatra 32 and Jason 32, at the capture, 22 Jan. 1809, of the French frigate La Topaze, of 48 guns and 430 men, including troops, anchored under a small battery to the southward of Pointe Noire, Guadeloupe.[1] Subsequently to the reduction of Martinique, at which he was present, Mr. Robertson, on the night of 14 April, 1809, was sent to row guard close in with a French squadron under M. Troude, who had anchored in the harbour of the Saintes. Having let go a grapnel under the Commodore’s stern, he soon perceived that the latter was getting under weigh. The information thus acquired was instantly announced by means of rockets and blue lights; the blockading force under Sir Alex. Cochrane went in pursuit; and on the 17th the D’Hautpoult 74 was captured. The Hazard having united in the pursuit, Mr. Robertson was unable for 53 days to join her; during the whole of which period he was unable once to change his dress. His confirmation in the rank of Lieutenant took place 21 July, 1809. On 17 Oct. following, while cruizing off Pointe-à-Pitre, Guadeloupe, he was sent, in charge of the boats of the Hazard and the Pelorus brig, to attack a French privateer, mounting 1 long 18-pounder on a circular carriage and 2 swivels, with a complement of more than 80 men, lying within 10 yards of 2 field-pieces, and a long line of musketry from the beach, defended too by a heavy fire of grape from a battery, and moored to the shore by a chain from the mast-head and from each quarter. Covered by the fire of the two sloops, the British, led by Mr. Robertson, dragged their boats, after many ineffectual attempts, across a reef which had impeded their approach, and, dashing on board, obtained possession of the privateer, whose crew, a minute or two previously, had abandoned her, and sought shelter in the houses on the beach, whence they kept up a galling fire. It being found impossible to get the prize out, a fire was kindled below which, rather sooner than was expected, blew her up with an explosion that knocked Mr. Robertson into his boat, and sent the Acting-Boatswain of the Hazard, Mr. Wm. Ferguson, into the air. The loss sustained from the fire of the enemy in the above enterprise extended to 6 killed and 7 or 8 wounded. In his official report Capt. Cameron confessed that it was not possible for him to express his ideas of the very gallant manner in which it had been conducted.[2] During an attack made, 18 Dec. 1809, in Anse la Barque, Guadeloupe, on the two French 40-gun frigates Loire and Seine, and which, although they were strongly protected by batteries, terminated in their destruction, the Hazard, forming one of a squadron under Capt. Sam. Jas. Bnllard, behaved most conspicuously. In an early part of the action, Capt. Cameron, who had been called from her by signal to execute a service on shore, was killed. The command in the mean time had devolved upon Mr. Robertson; and so admirably did he perform his duty that not only was he directed by Sir Alex. Cochrane to remain in command of her until the arrival of the officer intended to succeed Capt. Cameron, but he received from the Admiral a promise that he would request Lord Mulgrave, the First Lord of the Admiralty, to give him rank as Lieutenant from the date of his original acting order. As the officer above alluded to was at the time at Halifax refitting the brig he commanded, and was not expected to arrive for some months, Mr. Robertson was induced to believe that he should be afforded an opportunity of sharing in his new capacity in the operations about to commence against Guadeloupe; and indeed he was flattered, as a French squadron was hourly expected from Europe to relieve it, by being ordered to place the Hazard in a situation which would enable her to give the first intimation of the enemy’s approach. In a few days, however, he was under the necessity of resuming the post, which he had before held, of First-Lieutenant, and of resigning his command of the Hazard to the late Sir Wm. Elliott, who, in consideration of conduct he had displayed on a recent occasion, had been appointed to her instead of the officer at first proposed. During the siege of Guadeloupe the Hazard, in leading the British fleet to an anchorage in Anse la Barque, gained the position assigned to her a considerable time before any of the other ships. While her sails were being furled an enemy’s schooner, La Mouche, was perceived to be in flames; and, notwithstanding that a heavy fire was pouring from the contiguous batteries, a boat was instantly lowered and, manned with a few marines only, sent under the command of Mr. Robertson to board her. On reaching the schooner, it was found that her deck was already burnt; and so intense was the heat that all her guns went off while the lieutenant and his redjackets (the whole of whom were severely scorched) were engaged in cutting away her masts. Having returned to England with the bearers of the naval and military despatches announcing the conquest of Guadeloupe, the Hazard was ordered to Newfoundland; where, prior to his removal, in Oct. 1812, to the Antelope 50, flag-ship of Sir John Thos. Duckworth, we find Mr. Robertson contributing to the capture of several American vessels, and on all occasions discharging his duty in a manner that gained him the unqualified approbation of his Captain, Cookesley. Proceeding in the early part of 1813 in the Antelope under Capt. Sam. Butcher to the Baltic, he was for some time employed in protecting the trade through the Great Belt. In command of a captured row-boat, armed with 1 6-pounder, he made prize, on one occasion, of two vessels of a similar description;[3] and on a second, 23 Oct. 1813, he boarded and took, with resistless impetuosity, a privateer, the Eleanora pierced for 16 guns, but having only 1 long 9- pounder (on a pivot), 2 short 18-pounders, and 2 swivels mounted, with a quantity of small arms, and a complement of 37 men, 22 of whom had been selected from the King’s boats.[4] The Eleanora, to increase her means of defence, had placed 24 picked hands on board a lugger; but this vessel too Mr. Robertson had contrived to defeat, compelling her people to return to the schooner, which he and his crew entered pell-mell with them.[5] In reporting the details of this dashing performance, Capt. Butcher declares, “that since he had known the service he had never met in it a young man more eminently gifted with every quality calculated to render him an ornament to his profession” than “that most eminently zealous and gallant officer, Lieut. Jas. Robertson,” whose conduct he had been “until the close of day an admiring though distant spectator of, and, after dark, had heard and seen very distinctly by the heavy fire kept up.” Despite this glowing praise, and notwithstanding too his past services, Mr. Robertson, justified certainly in anticipating promotion, received not the least reward. So convinced, however, was his Captain that he would have attained superior rank that, when afterwards employed with other officers in successful boat-attacks, his name was purposely, as agreed between him and Capt. Butcher, omitted in the reports in order to give the rest a better chance: but the thanks of the Admiralty were all he obtained. In Nov. 1813 he removed at the request of Rear-Admiral Graham Moore to that officer’s flag-ship, the Vigo 74. The latter, being found defective, was in the ensuing Dec. paid off; and on 15 Feb. 1814 Mr. Robertson was appointed to the Lake-service in Canada; their lordships being desirous of selecting for that arduous employ “officers who had had an opportunity of distinguishing themselves.” Sailing accordingly for his destination in the Penelope troop-ship, Capt. Chas. Sullivan, he joined, in the summer of the same year, in the capacity of First-Lieutenant, the Montreal of 24 and Confiance of 37 guns, both commanded by his relative, Capt. Geo. Downie. On 11 Sept. 1814 it was his lot to be on board the Confiance in the action fought beneath the hostile batteries of Plattsburgh; where a British squadron, commanded by the officer last mentioned, was under the necessity of surrendering to a more powerful American force under Commodore Macdonough. Capt. Downie falling early, the command of the Confiance devolved upon Mr. Robertson, who, as far as his ship was concerned, nobly continued the action, although long exposed to the enemy’s united fire, until, cut to pieces and in the act of sinking, she had had 41, including her Captain, killed and 83 wounded.[6] For some time before she was taken possession of by the enemy, the water had gained so much upon her that it was found necessary to elevate the heads of the wounded to prevent them from drowning. Mr. Robertson, to whom Commodore Macdonough returned his sword, was detained in America until the end of the war. On 20 Aug. 1815, he was tried by a court-martial, and most honourably acquitted of all blame on account of the loss of the Confiance; and on the following day he was at length advanced to his present rank. His efforts to procure further employment were unavailing.

The Commander married, 24 .Tune, 1824, Ann, only daughter of the late Wm. Walker, Esq., of Gilgarran, near Whitehaven, co. Cumberland, and sister of Wm. Walker, Esq., who was killed, 1 June, 1819, during his passage in an English schooner to Italy, by the contents of a gun unwarrantably fired into her by a Spanish frigate.

  1. During the absence of the Senior officer’s First- Lieutenant Mr. Robertson was intrusted with the temporary charge of the prize.
  2. Vide Gaz. 1810. p. 174.
  3. Each carrying 1 gun and small arms, and one with 12 and the other with 13 men. – Vide Gaz. 1813, p. 2406, where he is represented as having achieved the exploit in the boats of the Antelope.
  4. Vide Gaz. 1813, p. 2406.
  5. While the British were in the act of boarding, an explosion took place in their own boat, which, while it panic-struck the enemy, gave them, if possible, an additional impetus, from the belief that the boat was sinking. The Danes, before they surrendered, had 3 men killed and 4 wounded; their assailants only 2 wounded.
  6. Vide Gaz. 1814, p. 2336. According to Mr. James, the number wounded was about 60.