Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Warden, William

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WARDEN, WILLIAM (1777–1849), naval surgeon and author, was born at Alyth in Forfarshire on 1 May 1777. From the parish school, in which he received his early education, he was sent to Montrose, where he served some years with a surgeon, being a fellow-pupil of [Sir] William Burnett [q. v.] and Joseph Hume [q. v.] He studied also for some time at Edinburgh, and in 1795 entered the navy as surgeon's mate on board the Melpomene frigate, one of the ships implicated in the mutiny at the Nore. The story is told that the men demanded that the surgeon should be sent on shore and Warden appointed in his stead, but that Warden, on the advice of his captain, refused the promotion. He was, however, promoted in the following year, was surgeon of the Alcmène at Copenhagen on 2 April 1801, and of the Phœnix, when she captured the Didon on 10 Aug. 1805. In this engagement Warden was severely wounded, and was for some time borne as a pensioner of Greenwich Hospital. He also received a grant from the patriotic fund. In December 1811 the degrees of M.A. and M.D. honoris causâ were conferred on him by the university of St. Andrews. He afterwards served under Sir George Cockburn (1772–1853) [q. v.] during the American war, 1812–14, and in 1815 was appointed to the Northumberland, Cockburn's flagship in the Channel, ordered to convey Napoleon as a prisoner to St. Helena.

During the voyage, and afterwards for some months at St. Helena, Warden was in frequent attendance on Napoleon, who probably talked frankly to him as to a noncombatant. Warden's knowledge of French, however, was limited, and the conversations seem to have been carried on principally, if not entirely, through the intermediary of Count de Las Cases, who acted as interpreter, sometimes, it may be supposed, not in perfect good faith, and always with a very imperfect knowledge of English. The conversations, as Warden understood them, he noted down in his journal, and from them largely filled his letters to the lady whom he afterwards married. The very general interest felt by his friends in these letters suggested that the subject-matter of them—as far as they related to Napoleon—should be published; and Warden, having no experience as an author, and expecting to be called away on active service, put them into the hands of ‘a literary gentleman’ to prepare for publication and to see through the press.

The book was published under the title of ‘Letters written on board His Majesty's Ship the Northumberland and at St. Helena’ (1816, 8vo), and, owing to the intrinsic interest of the subject, ran through five editions in as many months. The favourable view in which Napoleon was represented excited bitter criticism from the supporters of the government. In October 1816, in a savage article, the ‘Quarterly’ reviewer pointed out several passages and expressions which could not have been written by Warden at the time and under the circumstances stated, and plainly suggested that ‘Warden brought to England a few sheets of notes gleaned for the most part from the conversation of his better informed fellow-officers, and that he applied to some manufacturer of correspondence in London to spin them out into the “Letters from St. Helena.”’ Of Warden's good faith there is no reason to doubt, but his work has small historical value, for it is merely the ‘literary gentleman's’ version of Warden's recollection of what an ignorant and dishonest interpreter described Bonaparte as saying. Bonaparte, whether truthfully or not we cannot know, afterwards assured Sir Hudson Lowe that his conversation as reported by Warden was quite different from anything he said. Lowe mentioned this in a letter to Lord Bathurst, then secretary for war, and represented that Warden, who had been permitted to visit Longwood only as a medical officer in the exercise of his functions, had committed a breach of discipline in publishing the conversations and in publicly commenting on the conduct and character of individuals. A copy of this letter was forwarded to the admiralty, and they, recognising the breach of discipline, struck Warden's name off the list of surgeons. It was, however, shortly afterwards replaced at the instance of Sir George Cockburn, and Warden was appointed surgeon of the Argonaut hospital-ship at Chatham.

In 1824 Warden took his M.D. at Edinburgh, and in 1825 he was appointed surgeon of the dockyard at Sheerness, whence he was moved in 1842 to the dockyard at Chatham, and there he died on 23 April 1849. Warden married, in 1817, Elizabeth, daughter of Richard Hutt of Appleby, Isle of Wight, sister of Sir William Hutt [q. v.] and niece of Captain John Hutt [q. v.] By her he had one son, George Cockburn Warden, and two daughters. A miniature, of Warden, taken as a young man, is in the possession of his grandson, Mr. Charles John Warden, who also possesses several interesting memorials of Napoleon given to Warden either personally or through Marshal Bertrand.

[Information from Mr. C. J. Warden, who has kindly put many of Warden's papers and letters at the disposal of the present writer; the Letters from St. Helena; Letters from the Cape of Good Hope, claiming to be written by some one who went out in the Northumberland, possibly by or for Las Cases, as is suggested by the Quarterly Review of July 1817; the Edinburgh Review of December 1816 takes a much more favourable view of Warden's work.]

J. K. L.