Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Melville, Robert (1723-1809)

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MELVILLE, ROBERT (1723–1809), general and antiquary, son of Andrew Melville, minister of Monimail, Fifeshire, was born on 12 Oct. 1723, passed some time at the grammar school at Leven, and afterwards studied at the universities of Glasgow and Edinburgh. In 1744 he was appointed ensign in the 25th foot (now the king's own Scottish borderers), at that time generally known as the Edinburgh regiment, with which he served in Flanders. When shut up in Ath, after the battle of Fontenoy, he narrowly escaped death by the bursting of a shell. At Val, in 1747, the Edinburgh regiment captured a pair of French colours, which Melville was ordered to carry to the Duke of Cumberland. These colours were in Westminster Hall in 1819 (Higgins, p. 80). Melville was shipwrecked on the French coast on his return from Flanders. He obtained his company in the regiment in 1751, and after having been employed in Scotland recruiting, and as aide-de-camp to his colonel, Lord Panmure, then in command of the forces in North Britain, he was promoted to a majority in the 38th foot on 8 June 1756, and served with that corps at Antigua. As major he commanded the regiment at the reduction of Guadeloupe in 1759, and became lieutenant-governor of the island. He was appointed lieutenant-colonel 38th foot on 14 May 1759, and on the death of Brigadier Crump in 1760 governor of Guadeloupe. On 3 Aug. 1763 he was made governor of the ceded islands (Grenada, the Grenadines, Dominica, St. Vincent, and Tobago) (Home Office Mil. Entry Book, xxviii. 41), a post he filled for seven years with great judgment and humanity, and much advantage to the islands (Calendar Home Office Papers, 1766–1769, p. 345). Twelve years later, when Tobago was ceded to the French, who had captured it during the American war, Melville, with William (afterwards Sir William) Young, was sent to France on a special mission to solicit certain indulgences from the French government for British settlers in the island, for whom their own government had neglected to make the usual stipulations. On the conclusion of his mission, which was entirely successful, Melville travelled through Switzerland, Italy, and other parts of the continent, examining the sites of great military events, and, guided by Polybius, suggested a new and more obvious route for Hannibal's march across the Alps. He also made a special study of some of the Roman camps in Britain (Topographica Britannica, p. 36), while botanical researches deeply interested him. He founded the Botanic Garden at St. Vincent, which was afterwards taken over by the government. He was an honorary LL.D. Edinburgh, F.R.S. London and Edinburgh, F.S.A., author of a paper on ‘an ancient sword’ in ‘Archæologia,’ vol. vii., and an active member of the Society of Arts. He was also a member of the board of agriculture, and a very energetic supporter of the Scottish Corporation in London and other Scottish charities.

In 1759 Melville invented a piece of carriage ordnance, intended for a ship gun, which, though shorter than the navy four-pounder and lighter than the navy twelve-pounder, equalled in its cylinder the 8-inch howitzer. It was first manufactured for the navy in 1779 and proved very destructive, especially against timber. Carronades, as the new pieces were called, from the place of manufacture, Carron, Stirlingshire, were used with great effect in the sea-fight between De Grasse and Rodney on 12 April 1782. At that date no less than 429 ships in the navy mounted this class of gun, ranging in calibre from thirty-two to twelve-pounders. They continued in use, mainly in the British and American navies, until the middle of this century (cf. Notes and Queries, 1st ser. xi. 247–8; Macpherson, Annals of Commerce, 1805, iii. 609; Rees, Cyclopædia, s. v. ‘Cannon’).

Melville, who was long a well-known figure in Edinburgh society, was blind during the last years of his life, owing, as he believed, to injury to the eyes caused by an explosion when he was in command of the outposts at the reduction of Guadeloupe. He died on 29 Aug. 1809, the oldest general in the British army.

[Anderson's Scottish Nation, vol. iii.; Higgins's Hist. Record, 25th King's Own Borderers; Kay's Edinburgh Portraits; Nichols's Illustr. of Literature, viii. 833; Lit. Anecd. viii. 111; Home Office Papers, 1760–5, pp. 66–9.]

H. M. C.