General Sir Francis Cockburn (1780-1868), is yet another unsung hero of Dover. Twice, during his army career his political masters assigned him to oblivion for his humanitarian stance. Nonetheless, he played a major role in the European settlement of Canada, was the Commandant of the Settlement of British Honduras (now Belize) and became the Governor of the Bahamas, for which he was knighted. In those countries – streets, islands, ports and a town where an internationally well-known event took place, were named after him. Here in Dover, Cockburn was applauded over his compassion for widows and orphans of drowned seamen. Yet, he has been side-lined from British history due to his attitude towards African-American slavery and the British Law which ran contrary to the laissez-faire beliefs of the British establishment … that almost caused a war between the US and Britain!
Cockburn was the fifth and youngest son of Parliamentarian Sir James Cockburn (1729–1804), 8th Baronet of Langton. His four older brothers all achieved greatness with James (1771-1852) becoming the Governor of Bermuda, Inspector General of the Royal Marines and the High Sheriff of Carmarthenshire; George (1772-1853) an MP, became Admiral of the Fleet; William (1773-1858) Dean of York and Alexander (1776-1852) the father of the Lord Chief Justice of England. Cockburn’s residence in England after 1830 was at 19 East Cliff where he lived with his wife, Canterbury born Alicia Arabella Sandys (1782-1854) whom he married in 1804, and died there.
In 1792 the Napoleonic Wars (1792-1815) broke out. Seven years later, at the age of 19, Cockburn joined the 7th Dragoon Guards as a career soldier. By the purchase of commissions and promotions he was promoted to Captain on 3 March 1804 and in 1807 was sent to South America with the 60 Foot Regiment. On returning to Europe, from May to December 1809 he served on the Staff in the Peninsula Wars (1808-1813) under Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852) later the Duke of Wellington. He was transferred from the 4th Division to the 3rd Division and was the Deputy Judge Advocate in Spain and Portugal. Cockburn left for Canada arriving on 27 June 1811 to serve with the Canadian Fencible Infantry and in September that year he was promoted Major.
Canada 1811 – 1829
The modern history of Canada can be traced to 1583, when Sir Humphrey Gilbert (c. 1539- 1583), by the royal prerogative of Elizabeth I (1533-1603), founded St. John’s, Newfoundland, as the first North American British colony. The French explorer Samuel de Champlain (1574-1635) established the first permanent European settlements at Port Royal in 1605, and three years later, Quebec City. In 1663 Louis XIV (1643-1715) declared Quebec a French province and when the French colonised the Saint Lawrence River valley they called it New France. Meanwhile, British colonists settled along the eastern seaboard of the North American continent. Some sixty years after explorer Henry Hudson’s (c1565-1611), discovered Hudson Bay in 1610, the Hudson Bay Company was formed and exploited the wealth of the territories around the Bay. They also set up a series of trading posts between the Bay and the eastern seaboard.
Inevitably there was conflict between the French settlers and the Company and this was exacerbated during the European wars of the eighteenth century. Both the French and British destroyed each other’s settlements at the same time recruiting native Americans as allies. In May 1756, Britain declared War on France – the start of the Seven Years War (1756-1763). On 23 January 1758, General James Wolfe (1727-1759), who had previously been stationed in Dover (see Western Heights Part I), was appointed one of three brigadier-generals in North America serving under Major-General Jeffrey Amherst (1717-1797). In 1759, on the Plains of Abraham close to the township of Quebec, the British routed the French and seized the city.
This was followed by the British Royal Proclamation of 1763, creating the Province of Quebec out of New France with English becoming the main language, the Church of England the main faith and English Civil Law taking prerogative over French Civil Law. To quell dissent in the new Province, the French language, Catholic Faith and French Civil Law were reinstated by the Quebec Act of 1774. At the same time the Quebec territory was expanded to include the Great Lakes of North America and the Ohio Valley.
By 1775, there were twenty British colonies in North America, thirteen of which were along the Atlantic seaboard. A year later, in 1776, they declared their independence and the result was the American War of Independence (1775-1783). Although France supported the American colonists while the British/Canadian colonists supported the British along with the French Canadians elite. In the Quebec Act of 1774 the British had guaranteed religious freedom for Catholics and restored French civil law in the colony. The Quebecois clergy, land owners and leading citizens publicly supported the British feared, with good reason, that the rebel colonies, if successful, would repeal those freedoms. When the War ended Britain and the newly formed United States of America (USA) agreed on a boundary between their territories in which Ohio was ceded to the USA.
Some 40,000 British Loyalists emigrated from the USA to southern Canada, settling in Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the northern part of Quebec province. Southern Quebec province remained predominantly French and thus the Constitutional Act of 1791 divided Quebec province into French-speaking Lower Canada and English-speaking Upper Canada, granting each its own elected legislative assembly. Upper Canada – later Ontario – lies to the south-west of Lower Canada – Quebec. ‘Upper’ and ‘Lower’ refers to the direction which the rivers flow from the Great Lakes Basin through the St. Lawrence River – the primary communications route of the time – which flows in a North-Easterly direction. Thus Upper Canada / Ontario is upstream from Lower Canada / Quebec (Thanks to Ron W Shaw for explaining this succinctly).
In 1812, the United States declared war on Britain for several reasons but in essence because of the implementation of trade restrictions due to the Napoleonic Wars. When Cockburn arrived in Canada, he would have expected the country to be split between the French colonists who supported Napoleon and British colonists who remained loyal. In reality the French colonists saw themselves not as ‘French’ but as ‘Quebecois’ and many volunteered to serve in the several incorporated Canadian militia and fencible units. Most of the British troops were still tied up in the European conflicts and as another war could not be funded, they opted for a defensive strategy. Nonetheless, between 1812 and 1814, Cockburn, together with the Canadian Fencibles, a large number of which were Quebecois undertook successful raids against enemy forces including capturing Detroit and burning the White House in Washington. successful raids against enemy forces including capturing Detroit and burning the White House in Washington.
In April 1813, a 1,700 strong American force supported by a naval flotilla invaded the capital of Upper Canada, York Town (later Toronto). Cockburn was among the contingent sent to help out the overwhelmingly outnumbered British supporting forces. There he met Frenchman Francis Tito LeLièvre (1755-1830), the Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General for York Town, who was serving with the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment. Although the Fencibles put up a good fight, they were forced to surrender. However, the last man to leave York Town was LeLièvre, who as a parting ‘gift’, set fire to the British sloop of war Sir Isaac Brock, under construction in the dockyard and also blew up the fort’s magazine!
The abdication of Napoleon in April 1814 released British troops and an invasive strategy was pursued. In August 1813, four companies of Canadian Fencibles under Cockburn were sent to Prescott and on 7 0ctober the crossed the St. Lawrence River at Red Mills and successfully surprised a party from the 1st Regiment of U.S. Dragoons. Before Cockburn arrived in Canada, British army General, John Graves Simcoe (1752-1806), became the first Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada (1791-1796) and had founded York Town. At Georgian Bay, a large bay of Lake Huron and along its shores, Simcoe had recognised that Penetanguishene, on the west coast, would be ideal for a harbour.
In October 1814 deputy-assistant commissary-general Sir George Head, (1782–1855) of Higham Kent, was ordered to superintend the construction of the military establishment at Penetanguishene. In November and December, Cockburn commanded a company of 50 Fencibles, all experienced axe-men, together with a detachment of sappers and miners. Their job was to lay what would become the Penetang Road between Lake Simcoe and Penetanguishene. The Penetang Road provided a land route from what became the Penetanguishene naval and military base to Barrie, on the western shore of Lake Simcoe, and from there to York Town. For his work, Cockburn was highly commended and Head arrived the next year to start construction of the base. General Simcoe named Simcoe County in honour of his father.
When Napoleon abdicated he was exiled to the island of Elba, west of Rome, in the Mediterranean. In February 1815, he escaped, quickly amassed an army and the Napoleonic Wars resumed. During the morning of 18 June that year, Napoleon and Wellington faced each other at Waterloo, Belgium. The battle was one of the bloodiest in history and lasted nine hours. 200,000 infantry, cavalry and gunners took part of which more than 13,000 were killed and 35,000 wounded. Afterwards approximately a quarter of a million soldiers and sailors, many of them maimed, returned to Britain and were faced with unemployment and destitution. Crops had been poor and in an effort to curtail imports to protect the price of home produced good, the Corn Laws had been introduced. These only served to make some very wealthy but the general population, much worse off. Income Tax had been abolished, replaced by taxes on staple commodities such as candles, paper and soap as well as luxury goods. In addition the Poor Law relief rates had been drastically cut, which meant that starvation was rife. Many of the soldiers who were in the colonies at that time, such as Canada and the Caribbean, were encouraged to stay where they were and offered land grants.
On 26 June 1815, Cockburn was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel for the New Brunswick Fencibles then in the following year they were disbanded. As the garrisons were being run down, Cockburn was preparing to return to England and to be put on half pay. As the plight of the disbanded soldiers, who had been fighting on the Europen Continent, was of great concern the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Henry Bathurst, 3rd Earl Bathurst (1762-1834), advocated their assisted emigration to the colonies. Just as Cockburn was about to leave Canada, the Deputy Quarter-Master General for Upper Canada suddenly died, so he was reassigned to take his place. His office was in Kingston while the headquarters of the Quarter-Master General’s Department was in Quebec City.
There, Cockburn quickly discovered his post centred on settling former soldiers still in Canada and new immigrants. In March 1816, along with surveyor Ruben Sherwood and two others, they surveyed an area north of the Rideau Lake in present-day eastern Ontario. According to Sherwood, they explored an existing road as far as Stone Mills (Delta), then through the bush to what is now the village of Portland. They went down the frozen Rideau Lake to what is now Rideau Ferry, through the bush to Otty Lake and down Jebb’s Creek to Pike Crew, now the Tay River. There, according to Cockburn on March 22 1816, having identified the location of three townships they chose the site for what became the Depot of Perth on Pike Creek in the south-west corner of Township 2. The town of Perth grew around the designated headquarters of the Military Establishment.
Cockburn threw all his energies into ensuring that the assignment was a success. Former British military personnel members of the Canadian Fencibles settled in these towns. One of the latter was Cockburn’s old friend from the Battle of York Town, Francis Tito LeLièvre! Eventually some 1,500 people were settled in a large area that Cockburn named ‘the Settlement forming on the Rideau River’. This was soon changed to the Perth Military Settlement. In 1817, Cockburn wrote a detailed report that included the problems encountered, how they were dealt with and what could be learnt. This presentation and contents differed markedly from the usual short military reports and finished with the unforgivable – advice! Cockburn stated that civilian ‘townships’ should be established near existing military forts.
His report ended up on the desk of Sir Thomas Sydney Beckwith (1772-1831) Quartermaster-General for Upper and Lower Canada. Much to the surprise of some, Beckwith was impressed and on 10 January 1818 Cockburn was appointed Deputy Quartermaster-General for both Upper and Lower Canada, based in Quebec. Already seeing Canada as a land of opportunity, Cockburn had bought land in the Bay of Quinte area on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, is south-west of Perth. Before considering the establishment of more new townships, Cockburn decided to assess the problems new immigrants encountered and how best to deal with them. Before considering the establishment of more new townships, Cockburn decided to assess the problems new immigrants encountered and how best to deal with them.
One of the established townships that were assigned to Cockburn was Glengarry that had been established by Scottish loyalists and other Highland emigrants in 1784. Highland Clearances in Scotland had been going on, in phases, since Tudor times and many of those displaced, often with very little notice, emigrated. In 1792 many such Highlanders were on a ship intending to go to Canada but the ship was wrecked off the Scottish coast. Many of the impoverished Gaelic-speaking, would-be emigrants ended up in English speaking Glasgow. At first they managed to find low paid menial work but the Napoleonic Wars were having an increasingly negative effect on the economy and two years later most were destitute.
Catholic Priest (later Bishop) Father Alexander MacDonell (1762-1840) was working in Glasgow at the time. He became involved in setting up the Glengarry Fencibles to fight for Britain in the Napoleonic campaigns. Many of the impoverished men joined and went to war, while their pay enabled them to give their families in Glasgow a better life. On 27 March 1802, the Treaty of Amiens was signed and peace was restored (it lasted fourteen months). The Government disbanded all the Fencible regiments and for the Gaelic would be emigrants, the future looked bleak. Father MacDonell was already well acquainted with the Glengarry township and applied to the British Government for a tract of land there. Eventually, he was successful and the former Fencibles, along with their wives and children emigrated and became farmers. In the War of 1812, they re-banded as the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles and fought alongside the British Army. From what they told Cockburn, he formulated a plan which he was sure, would bring about the success of emigrants establishing in Canada.
Cockburn stated that ex-soldier emigrants should receive transport from Britain to the settlement in Canada, a year’s provision of rations, a piece of land, the instruments to work it and financial advances to be paid back in ten years. In return they should receive half (army) pay, even the ordinary former soldiers, that would be paid directly into the fund set up to enable the emigration to take place. The suggestions were discussed in both Canada and London and not too long after, most were implemented in various forms! Cockburn was resolute that the new settlements would be close to military forts, such that settlements were established along the Rivière Saint-François, in Lower Canada.
In 1816, Richmond township was established on the then Goodwood River, later renamed Jock River, a tributary of the Rideau river, Eastern Ontario. This was followed by others including Lanark, Eastern Ontario, which was settled by Scottish immigrants in 1820. At Franktown, in Beckwith Township about 8miles south of the River – a tributary of the Ottawa River, Eastern Ontario was planned to become a major trading centre but this did not happen. In 1822, Cockburn surveyed the Gaspé Peninsula on the southern shore of the St Lawrence River, with a view to creating a settlement there but by then administrative changes were afoot in England and the area is now a popular tourist region.
Nonetheless, the immigration policy proved successful and Cockburn wrote that his offices in Quebec were ‘literally filled with settlers from Morning to Night!’ Most, he added, had settled in quickly. Five years after arriving, it was later reported, most had built their own houses and stables and on average owned 25 acres of land. Nine years after settling, most had repaid their loans and also paid for their extended families to join them. Non-ex-service immigrants gave similar reports.
The founding of settlements close to military establishments ensured that Cockburn had extensive knowledge of both Upper and Lower Canada. Indeed, he was recognised as an expert on the country and in August 1819, he accompanied the newly appointed Governor General of North America, Charles Lennox, 4th Duke of Richmond (1764-1819) on an extensive tour of Upper and Lower Canada. The Duke saw for himself the colonisation of Canada but the tour was strenuous due to rough and diverse terrain and speed at which the Duke wished to travel. They only took one break and that was at William-Henry, now Sorel, Quebec where the Duke had been bitten on the hand by a pet fox. The injury quickly healed and the tour continued. The Duke agreed that the last leg would be more leisurely, with a stop at Kingston before going onto Perth then to the town named after the Duke, Richmond, before returning to Quebec.
Cockburn’s account of what happened next became a standard description, for a long time after, of the illness that the Duke suffered during the journey. In essence, on Friday 20 August they left Kingston and arrived in Perth in the evening of the following day. While in Perth, the Duke had complained of a pain in his right shoulder which was relieved by a rub of turpentine spirit but they delayed their journey until the following Tuesday. At 08.00hours they started out for Richmond, 30 miles away. This was over rugged terrain so an overnight stop at Beckwith, 15miles away, was planned. The Duke rode his horse except where the terrain was bad and due to hot weather they stopped at a farm where the Duke lay down for awhile and then ate some chicken broth. Not feeling well, the Duke had some watered brandy and when he said that he felt better they proceeded on their journey. However, as they continued the Duke increasingly complained of thirst even though he drank a copious amount.
On reaching ‘New Store’ at Beckwith, the Duke was fatigued and slept awhile, then joined the others for a meal but ate little. He complained that his shoulder hurt, which he attributed to rheumatism and was given another turpentine rub. He went to bed but had a restless night and the next morning it was evident that he was not well. Albeit, the Duke insisted on making the journey as he no longer felt thirsty as he had the day before. They made slow progress, and as part of the trip was by canoe on the Goodwood River from Chapman’s farm, 4miles from Richmond, it was decided to stop there. The party spent the night there though the Duke ate little and went to bed early. The next morning the Duke’s servant reported that his master had complained of a spasm in his shoulder and a pain in his throat. The Duke said nothing to Cockburn or anyone else about this, indeed, he was up early, full of energy, and keen to leave. However, it was apparent that the Duke had not washed, shaved and was unusually unkempt. He ate a little breakfast and announced that he would walk rather than travel by canoe.
The Duke set off at a pace, walking upright and with great stamina making his way through swamps with no difficulty. However, it was observed that he seemed to have a ‘spasm’ when he saw others jump or walk into a wet area. They arrived in Richmond, hot, dirty and sweaty but the Duke insisted on walking round the settlement before going to the Masonic Arms, where he was to stay. That evening the Duke again complained of a sore throat and the town’s surgeon was sent for. He said that one of the Duke’s throat glands was slightly swollen and recommended a gargle of port wine, vinegar and sugar. Following this, the Duke later sat down for a meal, ate little due but drank a copious amount of water and laughingly said that ‘if I was a dog I would surely be shot as mad!’ It was agreed that they would leave early the next morning for Montreal. The Duke had a fitful night and ate little for breakfast due to his sore throat but he refused to stay in Richmond to recover.
They left at 05.00hrs and the Duke was taken by wagon to the canoe but on arrival he insisted that someone else should get into the canoe first. He said that he was sure that the water would make him fall. On sitting in the canoe, the Duke insisted on holding his little dog, Blucher, close to him and kept kissing it in between having spasms in his throat. The spasms increased at an alarming rate and the Duke became increasingly agitated and desperately terrified of the water. The Duke then had a convulsion and it was decided to take him ashore. On reaching land the Duke jumped from the canoe and ran as fast as he could into the woods with Cockburn in pursuit. Cockburn persuaded the Duke to return to Richmond, which he agreed but when they reached a small rivulet, the Duke became terrified and refused to go any further. However, he did agreed to go overland to Chapman’s farm but every time they came near any water course he became terrified. It required most of the party to lift the Duke over the water courses as he struggled violently as they tried to carry him. On reaching the farm the Duke ran into the barn and the surgeon was sent for. Over the next few hours the Duke was, at times, lucid but slowly he became increasingly confused, agitated and obviously in agony.
The surgeon arrived and bled two pints of blood from the Duke who was then able to take 12 drops of laudanum (an opiate) in peppermint water. The Duke agreed to go into the farmhouse, where he ate some chicken broth and rested in bed. As the evening progressed he sweated profusely, although he did not appear to have a fever. Then he had convulsions but over time they became weaker. At the same time, the Duke was increasingly having bouts of delirium and about midnight fell into a coma. Towards morning a great deal of spittle had formed in and around the Duke’s mouth. As quickly as it was wiped away more came giving the appearance that he was foaming. The Duke died just after 08.00hours on the morning of 28 August, the diagnosis being rabies. Cockburn took his body back to Quebec where the Duke of Richmond was buried at Holy Trinity Cathedral on 4 September 1819.
George Ramsay, 9th Earl of Dalhousie (1770-1838) succeeded the Duke of Richmond as the Governor General of North America and in 1821, Cockburn accompanied him on an extensive tour. The journey covered over 1,600 miles and included the military posts on the western frontier of Upper Canada. This tour was successful and in recognition, Dalhousie named Cockburn Island, in the Manitoulin district, north eastern Ontario, after Cockburn. These days it is famous as the least populated incorporated municipality in Canada!
British Military control of Canada ceased Christmas Eve, 24 December 1822 but Cockburn remained in the country until June 1823, to tidy up loose ends and hand over control to the civilian administration. On returning to England, he and Alicia moved home and eventually settled in East Cliff later that decade. Although he held the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel he worked with the Colonial Department, establishing the price of lands for property development in Upper Canada. He also provided advice on the best locations for settlement in the region.
In the spring of 1825, Cockburn headed a Commission of five, including John Davidson, Lieutenant-General Sir John Harvey (1778-1852), the secretary of the Canada Company – John Galt (1779-1839) and also of the Canada Company Simon McGillivray (1785-1840), to fix the price of lands. These belonged to the Crown or the Clergy and it was envisaged that the Canada Company would purchase some of this land in Upper Canada. The company had been set up specifically to acquire and develop Government and Clergy owned assets and was given Royal Assent in 1825. On 19 August 1826, Royal charter also incorporated the Company. That year, the Company founded Bytown on the south side of the Ottawa River. They had been attracted to the area due to construction of the military Rideau Canal and the town was named after its engineer, Colonel John By (1779-1836). The purpose of the Canal was to create a secure waterway between Montreal and Kingston and thus bypassing a stretch of the St. Lawrence River bordering the USA state of New York, which had proved to be vulnerable during the American War of 1812. In 1855 Bytown was renamed Ottawa.
Throughout the land negotiations of the 1825 Commission, Cockburn was an important witness at an inquiry undertaken by the British Parliamentary Emigration Committee who asked him to prepare a report on past programmes of assisted emigration with future recommendations. These recommendations included the need for a strong and responsible central government to administer the area! For individual families emigrating, they should be supplied with 18-months supply of provisions, which he expected would cost on average £60 and gave a detailed breakdown of how this would be spent. He recommended settlements in the Gaspé and Ottawa regions and between Lakes Simcoe and Huron, as well as along a specially laid road between New Brunswick and Lower Canada. In his report, Cockburn stated that assisted settlements in the French dominated border Townships was to be encouraged, as the French Canadians and their archaic seigneurial system were a barrier against United States expansionism! Under the French system, the seigneur or government granted a piece of land to a family under a royalty system whereby the family met most of their food, heating, and shelter needs by subsistence farming.
In the British parliament, the report was not well received with MPs’ stating that the government had spent £20,000,000 to assist the emigration of 109,000 people, the setting up of townships and other settlement issues. Out of the 109,000 emigrants that had arrived in Canada only 10,000 remained. They recognised that sickness had taken its toll but, they purported, by far the greatest contributor was crossing of the border into the United States. Emigrants to the USA, they said, were not subsidised, indeed, on arrival £10 was imposed on every emigrant. Those who came directly from Britain by ship were forced to pay before being allowed to land. While those who had their travel subsidised by the British Government to go to Canada easily crossed the border and integrated without paying the £10 immigration tax.
Another problem, MP’s said, was the effect of subsidised emigration on Britain. One MP cited the village of Marden, near Maidstone, Kent, as an example. There, 52 out of the 416 inhabitants had emigrated making 1 in eight, all of which were hard working labourers. He went on to say that as labour must always be in proportion to the country’s capital and when so much of both was being withdrawn the country suffered as a result. Another MP summed up the general mood of Parliament on this point, when he said that it would be better to send beggars to Canada than making beggars of those who remained.
Although the subsidies were severely reduced, emigration to Canada was tentatively allowed to go ahead. In May 1827, Cockburn was appointed the head of a Commission to determine the boundary lines between British settlements and to make arrangements for the reception and location of new immigrants. These were roughly 15,000 destitute Irish, escaping starvation due to reliance on one single crop – potatoes – that had failed. Socially, the main reason behind the famine was exploitation by absentee landlords. The latter, the British government refused to recognise, but others did. Cockburn presented his report to Parliament in July. The recommendations included the laying out of six townships on Prince Edward Island, off New Brunswick, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence.
Further, he recommended a road be laid between the head of the Shediac River, and the Richebucto and the Petitcodiac rivers in a direct line for Chatham Miramichi, with access roads to be created between them. His report finished by saying that there was deep water at Shediac and that this should be made into a harbour for the disembarkation of the migrants from where they could be transported to Prince Edward Island. Sir Howard Douglas (1776-1861) Lieutenant Governor of New Brunswick (1823-1831) supported Cockburn’s report, particularly endorsing the importance of strong communication links between New Brunswick and the rest of Canada.
The scheme was given authorisation on the receipt of Cockburn’s report. Work started, but within a year the subject was brought up in a House of Commons parliamentary question about the death rate of the new Irish emigrants to Canada. Sir Robert John Wilmot-Horton (1784-1841), the Under Secretary of State for War and the Colonies (1821-1828), replied that the death rate was approximately 30% but much of this was due to the poor state of health of the new emigrants brought about by previous starvation. This was deemed of little consequence and it was voted to abandon the scheme.
As a result of this, Sir Wilmot-Horton responded with a lengthy resignation speech (Hansard 4 March 1828). In it, Sir Wilmot-Horton praised the value of Cockburn’s emigration scheme and read out an extract from a letter sent by an Irish émigré to his family in Ireland. This was one among many, he said, that had been passed to the authorities in Ireland by families who also wanted assisted passage to join their relatives in Canada. The young man had written, ‘Here, we are, without any consideration of landlord or protector, and with plenty of good eating and drinking. I am constantly in a troubled mind for not having you or mother here. I am sure you will say that it was the happiest day of your life if you come. Likewise bring several others, which the surname of O’Flaherty, my brother-in-law Cornelius Lane, with you, and Jody Lane, and by all means don’t leave little Ellen behind you. Come to the land of plenty – there is no such thing as want here’
On 30 July 1829, Cockburn received orders to join the 2nd West Indies Foot Regiment in the Caribbean and thereafter ceased to be involved in the affairs of Canada. However, it is now recognised that Cockburn played an important role in the early emigration between 1815 and 1850 during which time over 960, 000 people disembarked there. At first they were mainly British ex-soldiers but they were soon followed by civilians seeking a ‘better’ life. Although infectious diseases took a heavy toll on émigrés they continued to arrive and between 1850 and 1895 approximately 1,317,700 people disembarked mainly from the British Isles and Western Europe.
Although Cockburn had advocated a strong and responsible central government, this was not immediately forthcoming. The North America Act of 1840 (3 & 4 Victoria, c.35) merged the British provinces into the united Province of Canada. Later, the signing of the Oregon Treaty in 1846 set the U.S. and British North American border at the 49th parallel. That is, with the exception of Vancouver Island, which was retained by the British. The British North America Act, 1867 established the Federation of Canada when the four colonies of Lower Canada (Quebec), Upper Canada (Ontario), Nova Scotia and New Brunswick were joined and the post of Prime Minister was created. Other colonies and territories, including Vancouver Island, later joined the Federation and on 11 December 1931 the Statute of Westminster established Canada as a sovereign state within the Commonwealth. The capital is Ottawa.
Just under a hundred years after Cockburn left Canada, much of the northern areas of the country had not been explored. In 1926, former Dover College schoolboy, Edgar Christian (1908-1927), along with explorer Jack Hornby and Harold Adlard, set off to reconnoitre the North West Territories of Canada. During the trek Christian kept a diary describing the journey that became an ordeal and ended tragically. The three were buried in an area that is now the Thelon Wildlife Sanctuary – the largest wilderness in North America. Dover College now keeps this diary. The Edgar Christian story can be read on this website.
British Honduras – now Belize 1829 – 1837
The 2nd West Indies Foot Regiment, to which Cockburn was assigned, was originally one of eight such Regiments but by then they had been reduced to six. All having been commissioned in 1795. The intention was to recruit free Afro-Caribbean’s and to purchase slaves from the West Indies plantations but shortly afterwards, the Regiments were disbanded. However, they were re-formed in 1798 and following the Mutiny Act of 1807, all soldiers recruited as slaves were freed. The Regiment to which Cockburn was assigned was based at His Majesty George IV (1820-1830), Settlement of British Honduras in the Bay of Honduras, now the country of Belize. Cockburn’s posting made him the Governor of the Settlement which was, at that time, under military control.
The colony had been founded in 1638 by former British buccaneers who were joined by loggers in this heavily forested semi-tropical area of the east coast mainland of Central America. The indigenous population were Mayan with Caribs people but the Spanish had previously colonised the northern area before the British arrived. Both the indigenous population and the Spaniards were openly hostile to the British but the inter-marrying and the importation of British females and African female slaves ensured the survival of the new colony. Although British Honduras was required to import most of their produce they successfully exported logwood or bloodwood (haematoxylum campechianum), as it is also known. The prepared logs were exported to Europe for use in dyeing fabrics.
Although Spain claimed sovereignty over the colony, the defeat of the Spanish in 1798 permanently established the British Settlement under the protection of His Majesty – hence military rule. This was reinforced by a number of Acts in the British Parliament and treaties, most notably the 1783 Treaty of Versailles between Britain and Spain. This gave the British, rights to cut logwood between the Hondo and Belize rivers. The 1786 Convention of London expanded the concession to include the area between the Belize and Sibun rivers.
Cockburn arrived at the harbour of the main town of British Honduras, Belize, in November 1829. He was to be paid £2,000 a year out of which was a need for the upkeep and the running of his residence. This was also the official residence in which he was expected to entertain, again out of his pay. The amount was based on the value of the Settlement to the British Government and this was given as £578,760 a year in 1833. The year before Cockburn arrived, at the end of December 1828, Colonels Parks and Hall had been murdered near Truxillo (now Trujillo) in Honduras. This was the result of an altercation between Guatemala and El Salvador, neighbours of the Settlement.
Both countries had gained independence from Spain in 1821. Two years later the Federal Republic of Central America had been formed out of all former Spanish territories in Central America. However, the relationship between members of the Federal Republic was uneasy and within each country there was political unease. On 25 February 1832, Cockburn informed London that a civil war had been declared in Guatemala. He gave an account of what was happening and finished by saying that Gálvez governs as Head of State (José Felipe Mariano Gálvez c1794-1862). On 12 October, Cockburn reported that peace had been restored but that Gálvez had ordered a decree for a forced loan of $90,000 from the citizens of Guatemala. He added that raising half of that sum would cause vast distress among the already harassed merchants and tradesmen. Cockburn finished by saying that money there, was daily becoming scarcer and there was little mining taking place.
All military quarters, including Cockburn’s residence, were in a poor state due to neglect, heat and damp. The British Ordnance office had stated to Cockburn’s predecessors, as they did to him, that as soon as money allowed they would deal with the problems. Although the Colony had a military surgeon supported by military assistants they were heavily weighed down with the responsibility of the garrison and there were no hospital facilities. This came to a head in August 1830, when the Royal Navy survey ship Blossom docked in Belize bay. The captain, Richard Owen, reported that most of the crew were sick and that the ship’s surgeon had diagnosed yellow fever. Cockburn made two houses available as a hospital by a small quay some 12miles from the town. Captain Owen, whose health was rapidly succumbing to yellow fever, took the ship there assisted by the most able of his crew. All the men were taken ashore and the garrison surgeon with 6 of his medical assistants attended to them. Although senior Lieutenant William Wilson and 11 other members of the crew died the rest recovered including the Captain and the ship’s surgeon. Following receipt of his report Cockburn was assured that the lack of facilities would be dealt with.
The Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, abolished slavery in all parts of the British Empire excepting territories in the possession of the East India Company and this came into force on 1 August 1834. In the directive that Cockburn received from London it stated that slaves were to be totally freed by 1840 but until then they were to remain on their plantations. There, they were to be given the status of apprentices for up to six years duration. Although there were slave-owning residents in British Honduras, mainly involved in the logwood trade, there does not appear to be a report of their reaction to this. The 1835 Compensation Act stated the financial compensation that plantation owners would receive, but again there is no mention of the reaction from the slave owners of British Honduras.
During the night of 22 February 1835, Cockburn reported hearing what sounded like repeated cannon fire. At first it was feared that the civil war had broken out again but the next day the Royal Navy schooner Firefly, arrived. She was the former Antelope – a Spanish privateer – that had been built in 1808. Her deck was covered in thick ash and had just come from Truxillo. The captain, Lieutenant John Julius McDonnell, reported that a volcano had erupted some 60 miles inland from that town and help was needed. This was despatched immediately and on 24 February the Firefly, having spent a couple of days in Belize, sailed for the Bahamas. Three days later, carried by a strong northwest current, she drifted onto the Northern Triangles shoal. This is 90miles off Belize in the Gulf of Honduras. There she was wrecked with the loss of seven passengers and six crew members.
Except for officers and crew who were to remain with McDonnell until help arrived, the passengers left on boats under the direction of Mr Nott, the Master’s Assistant supported by some junior officers and a few members of the crew. They eventually reached Belize where Nott reported to Cockburn. Rescue parties were despatched under the command of Nott. Meanwhile, the Firefly continued to sink and two rafts were constructed out of the debris. All but McDonnell and Mr Malcolme, the ship’s clerk and six members of the crew boarded the larger raft and cast off. Those who remained boarded the smaller raft with McDonnell. This raft drifted for about 48hours until they reached an isolated beach, where McDonnell, with a couple of men left Malcolm and the other crewmen to explore. Hardly had they gone a few yards when McDonnell was overpowered and knocked unconscious. Malcolm and the crewmen then boarded and cast off the raft abandoning McDonnell lying on the beach. He was rescued some ten days later by which time, according to Cockburn, the Lieutenant was thoroughly exhausted.
When he had sufficiently recovered, McDonnell was arrested and along with the other officers and crew, conveyed first to Bermuda then to Halifax, Canada where they were taken to England. The mutineers had absconded. The Firefly men arrived at Portsmouth on 9 August 1835 and the trial began the following day. Cockburn was in Dover, having left British Honduras in April 1835 due to grave ill health, nonetheless he attended the trial and was the only witness. Cockburn gave a full account of what had happened and answered questions clearly. The Court cleared Lieutenant McDonnell and all the others charged. They then commended Nott on the rescue of the ship’s company and finding and rescuing McDonnell from a perilous situation.
Following the trial, Cockburn returned to Honduras but was with his wife at East Cliff, Dover in April 1837, preparing to return to the colony, when he received the order to go to St James’ Palace, London. There, on the commendation of the Secretary of State for War and the Colonies, Lord Gleneig Charles Grant (1778-1866), Cockburn was presented to King William IV (1830-1837) and promoted to Colonel. He was also appointed the Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahamas!
After Cockburn left British Honduras it remained under British military rule until it became a crown colony in 1862 with Belize City the capital. Logwood remained the main export until synthetic dyes killed off demand towards the end of the nineteenth century. Mahogany and other tropical hardwoods then became the main export commodity. In 1961, hurricane Hattie destroyed about three-quarters of the low-lying Belize City, following which it was proposed to build a new capital – Belmopan. In 1964, British Honduras became a self-governing colony with Belize City the capital then later on 1 August 1970 Belmopan City became the new capital. Three years later, in June 1973, the country was renamed Belize – after the old capital! Full independence discussions were started shortly after. These, however, provoked Guatemala to claim sovereignty and threatening to invade. The Royal Navy’s Ark Royal with Buccaneer aircraft on-board went to Belize’s aid. In September 1981 the last British possession on the American continent, Belize, was granted full independence.
The Bahamas are a group of 14 larger islands, nearly 700 smaller islands – most low lying – and some 2,000 reefs and keys. They are east of Cuba on the western side of the Caribbean in the Atlantic and strung out between the US Florida coast and Haiti. It was on what was later called San Salvador Island, within the Bahamas, that Christopher Columbus (d1506) made his first landfall in the New World in 1492. At that time, the Lucayan, a branch of the Arawakan-speaking Taino, inhabited the Islands. Despite land claims by Columbus and a Papal Bull of 1493, the Spanish made no attempt to settle the Islands, instead, they enslaved the native Lucayans and shipped them to Hispaniola (now the island of Haiti and the Dominican Republic).
In 1629, King Charles I (1625-1649) granted Sir Robert Heath (1575-1649) the ‘Bahama and all other Isles and Islands lying southerly there or neare upon the foresay’d continent’, but Heath did nothing with his possession and died in exile during the English Civil War of 1642-1651. During that period two ships carrying strict Protestant dissenters left Bermuda to survey the Islands. Their hope was that they would make a suitable base for a new settlement where they could worship as they pleased. Eventually, about 70 of them established a settlement with an egalitarian constitution but by 1670, this had effectively ceased.
Over the following years the Islands became home to a diverse set of folk, predominantly British. Some of these were ex- transportation convicts that had served their term and, increasingly, escaped or freed African slaves. The main source of income was piracy and wrecking which Charles II (1649-1684) hoped to put to an end when he made a grant of the Islands to Christopher Monck 2nd Duke of Albemarle (1653-1688) and five others. Instead of restoring law and order the new owners built on the established wrecking and piracy skills of the Islanders and made their fortunes. A later settler with piratical aspirations was the infamous Blackbeard, Edward Thatch (c.1680–1718). By 1684 Charles II had enough, particularly from the objections by Spain, France and the British Admiralty. He outlawed piracy from the Islands but this was not achieved until 1717, when they were put into the hands of a military governor.
The following year the Bahamas became a Crown Colony but establishing a thriving economy without piracy proved to be very difficult. The sugar cane industry was yearly subjected to hurricanes in the summer months. For this reason, slavery was not so prevalent as elsewhere in the Caribbean and the Americas. However, following the American War of Independence, some 7,300 slave owning loyalists fled to the Bahamas and were granted land by the British government in compensation for their losses. This led to a great deal of tension between the new slave owning immigrants, who made much greater economic strides, and the earlier settlers.
On 25 March 1807, the British government abolished the transportation of slaves in the British Empire with the captains of ships involved being fined £120 for every slave transported. A year later the United States followed suit and banned the import and export of slaves. Then in 1818, the British Government ruled that any slaves brought to the Bahamas from outside of the British West Indies would be set free. During the following decades, the Royal Navy intercepted ships involved in the slave trade and the thousands of liberated Africans were resettled on the different islands that make up the Bahamas. However, following diplomatic intervention particularly by the US, only the owners and captains of slave ships that ran aground or were wrecked off the coast of the Bahamas were punished and the slaves set free. Such catastrophes were not infrequent as the slave ships often went through the treacherous seas that surround the islands.
In 1834 the Slavery Abolition Act of the previous year came into force but the slave owning colonists of the Bahamas demanded that their right of property be above that of the British Government’s legislation. This came to a head on 3 January 1834, when the House of Assembly in the Bahamas was dissolved by the then Governor, Blaney Townley-Balfour (1799-1882). In retaliation the slave owners refused to accept British produced currency as legal tender. The year before, in 1833 the value of the Bahamas to the British Government, through excise duties and taxes was £2,041,400, 257.77% greater than that of British Honduras. Thus, the British government was not too happy about what was happening in the Bahamas and appear to have speeded up compensation payments to the former slave owners. Cockburn’s remit as the new Governor, was to maintain law and order and ensure that the British Government received its dues – it was pointed out that the previous year the Bahamas had spent £143,211 on imports while exports only came to £88,694.
Cockburn and Alicia arrived in the capital, Nassau, on New Providence Island, in the autumn of 1837. Although the colonial buildings and gardens were beautifully kept, on the streets of Nassau there were destitute freed slaves everywhere. Following the 1834 Emancipation of Slaves Act special magistrates had been appointed to supervise the treatment of former slaves serving ‘apprenticeships’ and slowly their remit widened to monitor liberated slaves. The responsible officer was David Turnbull, the Bahamas superintendent of Liberated Africans. He told Cockburn that due to the influx of former slaves released from ships that had ran aground off the Bahamas, there was no work available. Back in 1820, Turnbull said, that a group of freed African slaves, faced with similar problem, had founded a community on Carmichael Island (these days a beach resort). In 1831, Cockburn’s predecessor as Governor (1829-1833), Sir James Carmichael-Smyth (1779-1838) – well know for his works on slavery and their emancipation – had founded the village of Adelaide. There he settled 157 former African slaves from the Portuguese slave ship Rosa and both communities were successfully surviving on subsistance farming, fishing and charitable funding.
There was a massive influx of over a thousand liberated slaves from two Portuguese brigs, Diligent and Cameons, in May 1838 and Cockburn ordered apprenticeship papers to be drawn up. The new arrivals were then divided into three groups. These were the Minors or Domestics under 16years of age, Labourers above the age of 16 and Mariners and others above the age of 16. Families within the different groups were noted. In less than two weeks Turnbull and his team found paid work for 800 of these former slaves on the Islands and at the same time keeping family groups together. Cockburn informed the Colonial Office in London of what had happened but they wrote back saying that he should not have taken such action as the apprenticeships were illegal. By November that year, they were all cancelled except those appertaining to the minors. The result was that the former slaves were thrown out of work while those who were retained had their hours increased and wages drastically cut. By December 300 of these former slaves were on the streets but Turnbull reported that there was plenty of work on other islands and colonies in the Caribbean. This was particularly so in the sugar cane industry but both Cockburn and Turnbull recognised that the freed slaves could not afford the passage.
In the autumn of 1838, Cockburn received a communiqué from the chief administrator of Demerara, one of the three counties that made up British Guiana, on the north coast of the South American Continent. He said that he had written on behalf of plantation owners, and told Cockburn that free slaves were withholding their labour and asked him to send indentured slaves from the Bahamas to take their place. Cockburn brought this to the attention of the Assembly in December 1838 and advised that they should refuse.
Shortly after Cockburn received another communiqué, this time from the Governor of the three counties that made up British Guiana, Henry Light. Following the Slavery Abolition Act, Light’s predecessor, Sir James Carmichael-Smyth, had taken a tough stance against the plantation owners who were trying to maximise their work force while keeping wages as low as possible. However, in March that year Carmichael had suddenly died and Light, who had been the Lieutenant Governor of Dominica for less than a year, was brought in to take Carmichael-Smyth’s place. The plantation owners saw him as easy prey hence the communiqué from the chief administrator of Demerara that Cockburn had previously received. Light, however, made it clear that he would sanction immigration of former slaves but only to plantations where they would not be exploited by excessive hours and poor pay. Light, stated that all immigrant workers were not to be exploited in that way and that they were to have adequate housing and health facilities. These and other points Cockburn made to the Bahamas Assembly and advised them to accept the offer. He reminded them that ‘The Bahamas was a depot for slaves freed by the British Navy and between 1830 and 1835 nearly 300 slaves owned by United States nationals had been freed on to the Islands and in the three years since, twice as many had been freed.’
Cockburn went on to say that if freed slaves wished and if the government of the receiving colony paid for their passage, received fair wages and treated as free labourers when they arrived, then such emigration should be encouraged. Adding that it was incumbent on both the labourers seeking higher paid work on other islands and their new employers, to make financial provisions for wives, children and elderly parents left in the Bahamas while they were away. And, all those seeking such work were to discharge all their debts before leaving. Cockburn finished by saying that most of the other governors of the British West Indies territories were as strongly averse as he was to the private transactions such as those advocated by the administrator in Demerara. (From a compilation of reports sent to the British government December 1839-1840 by Cockburn)
The Bahamas Assembly accepted Cockburn’s advice and in June 1840, his communications were discussed at length in the British Parliament. There, Thomas Babington Macaulay (1800-1859) stated that he did not agree. Macaulay, at the time, was the Whig Secretary of State for War (1839-1841) and he told his fellow MPs that he had not long returned from India having served there on the Supreme Council. From his experience, wherever slavery had existed it was imperative that emigration was restricted. That it was ‘undesirable’ for former slaves to be able to move from one island to another on their own free will. The Governor of the Bahamas (Cockburn was not mentioned by name), should consider sending former slaves, if they were destitute, where they were most needed, for instance to Mauritius (in the Indian Ocean). There they would be paid six times as much as they would be paid in India…! When it came to the vote, 79 were for the motion supporting Cockburn’s proposals while 44 supported Macaulay’s (the Government’s) argument. This was followed by a directive from Robert Vernon Smith (1800-1873), on behalf of Lord John Russell (1792-1878), the Home Secretary (1835-1839) and dated 3 July 1840. The letter informed Cockburn that as the former slaves were free men he was not to obstruct them from emigrating to British Guiana. At the same time he was not to encourage the depopulation of the Bahamas ‘on the grounds of the maritime strength of Britain in the Gulf of Mexico.
Destitution of the former slaves on the Bahamas and the danger they faced from exploitation, continued to weigh heavily on Cockburn’s mind. Besides fishing and subsistence farming, which hardly provided enough to sustain the population, the only major export was that of salt. This was sold mainly to the US and the largest salt pans were on the southern islands that make up the present day Turks and Caicos. There, seawater was allowed to flood into the large man made salt pans or salinas through sluice gates. The combined high temperatures and dry breezes ensured quick evaporation. The saline was run off into smaller pans where the salt crystallised and was then shovelled into sacks and carried onto barrows to be loaded on to shallow draft lighters. These small boats were then rowed out to waiting ships for export. At the time Cockburn arrived, most of the workers were poor former slaves together with a few equally poor Europeans. Poor diet, long hours, blaring white conditions and lack of medical care brought on blindness and early deaths to both groups.
Cockburn wrote to the Colonial Office to ask for more health care and permission to build a proper harbour. The latter, he said, would mean that the salt could loaded directly onto ships so the amount exported would increased, which in turn would provide more work and help the economy in general. Before permission was granted and using the military forces stationed on the islands, a natural harbour on South Caicos was built for the purpose. At the time the government in London was facing a financial deficit and in 1842, they looked for land in the colonies that they could sell to prospectors. Cockburn, reported that in the previous year the price of land had been reduced to 12shillings an acre and the only valuable land were the salt ponds on Turks and Caicos Islands. These, he said, required peculiar management and regulation suited to their nature and recommended that they remained in the hands of the Crown. Not long after Cockburn left the Bahamas, the salt pans were sold to private individuals who exploited the workers with low wages and long hours.
The general health of the military forces and the state of the barracks, were also of concern to Cockburn. The barracks were in Dunmore Town on Eleutha and Harbour islands close to Nassau and were brick built between 1786 and 1797. Cockburn wrote that the garrison consisted mainly of men of the West Indies Regiments who were mainly former African slaves and a large contingency of British soldiers. The officers were all British and their mess was at Fort Charlotte, Nassau. In the garrison, he reported, out of approximately 1,000 British soldiers, an average of 35 were sick at any one time. This percentage and all the others were the same as he had previously observed in British Honduras but as the garrison was smaller there the numbers were smaller. The mortality of the British soldiers in these garrisons, he wrote, was greater than those in Britain with soldiers stationed in the Bahamas for two years amounting to 87 in every thousand and those for longer periods, 93 for every thousand. Epidemic fever, that ranged in the winter months, was the main cause of death.
Of the former African troops, very few suffered from the same maladies as the British. They, instead, were highly susceptible to smallpox with 2 dying out of every 7 attacked. They were also vulnerable to the lung consumption disease (tuberculosis) for although not so many, Cockburn wrote, suffered from the disease as the British, twice as many died as the equal number of British suffering that disease. In other words 20 out of every 100 of Africans suffering from the disease died. The Africans were also more likely to die of cholera than the British if a recent outbreak was anything to go by, he wrote. Adding that the disease had swept through the garrison and although most soldiers succumbed, not one British soldier died but 20 of the African soldiers had. Cockburn’s observations were published in the Journal of the London Statistical Society in 1838.
Cockburn attributed much of the maladies the soldiers suffered to the state of the barracks as they were old, cramped, lacked ventilation and were generally unhealthy. He wrote numerous letters to London making a strong case for new barracks to be built, but nothing happened. Years passed and in 1854, a Royal Commission report on the Consolidation of Military Administration, detailed what did happen as a result of Cockburn’s pleas to illustrate the lack of co-ordination between government departments.
The Commission stated that on investigation they found that Cockburn’s letters on reaching the Colonial Office were sent from department to department and eventually memos were sent to the Board of Ordnance. They received the first of these memos about a year after Cockburn’s first letter had arrived in London and asked the Colonial Office for any other letters Cockburn had written on the subject. These, the Colonial Office was unable to find, so they wrote to Cockburn for the details and any recommendations he had. On receipt, these again were passed from department to department and several other minor authorities before eventually reaching the Board of Ordnance. A survey was undertaken by which time Cockburn had left the Bahamas but it was reported his observations had been correct in every respect and new barracks were recommended immediately. This report, according to Lord Fitzroy Somerset (1788-1855) the Master-General of the Ordnance went to the Colonial Office. They sent it to the Treasury who passed it on to the General-Commander-in-Chief who in turn passed it onto the Secretary of War. His department wrote to the Board of Ordnance with the order that the Islands did not come under their department! Lord Fitzroy Somerset, who had been appointed to the position of Master-General on 30 September 1852, pointed out that the Secretary of State was incorrect and told the Royal Commission that sixteen years after Cockburn had first wrote about the poor state of the Bahamas barracks new barracks were about to be started!
Shortly after Cockburn was appointed Governor and Commander-in-Chief of the Bahamas, the Esperanza, a Portuguese slave ship, was wrecked off east Caicos. The crew and 220 captive Africans, of which there were some 20-30 orphans, survived but 18 of the Africans died before the survivors were taken to Nassau. Cockburn ordered the potential slaves be liberated with the children being sent to the Carmichael Island community of freed African slaves. In 1840, the schooner, Hermosa ran aground off the Abacos islands at the northern end of the Bahamas. The ship was sailing from Richmond, Virginia to New Orleans with a cargo of 38 slaves and was taken to Nassau. Cockburn ordered the slaves to be freed but the captain and crew with what seemed like the support of a passenger, refused. The officials forcibly removed the slaves from the ship and the passenger changed sides. Cockburn asked to the see the passenger and also the senior official. He then allowed the captain and crew to take the Hermosa and leave the Bahamas waters.
Although the US no longer allowed the importation of slaves from Africa, slavery was legal in some States and the trade flourished between them. The main slave market was in New Orleans on the Mississippi River, about 100 miles from the Gulf of Mexico. Slave owners in the States on the Atlantic seaboard transported their slaves to and from the market by ship. This meant going around the peninsula of Florida, and close to or through the treacherous Straits of Florida between the Florida Keys and the Bahamas. During the British-US War of 1812-1815 Royal Navy ships stopped all US ships in this area and if there were slaves on board, they were allowed to go free. Following the War only those slave ships that ran aground or were wrecked in the Bahamas waters, were the slaves set free. Nonetheless, in the US, the detaining of the Hermosa and the freeing of the slaves led to widespread discussion and condemnation of Cockburn added to which, it was said, an English passenger, who had tried to stop the theft, had been arrested.
The passenger from the Hermosa was invited, with a senior Royal Navy officer, to Government House in Nassau to meet Cockburn. There, the passenger told Cockburn, what he had previously told the Bahamas officials at the quayside. He had previously served on the Royal Navy schooner Firefly and was one of the last officers to leave before the ship had sunk off British Honduras. He had drifted on a make-shift raft but was rescued by a passing US slave ship on passage to Richmond. There he was ill for a very long but when he recovered made plans to re-join the Royal Navy in Bermuda. He had come to an understanding with the captain of the Hermosa that he would work his passage there but bad weather had prevented that.
When the Hermosa ran aground, the passenger told Cockburn, he was not sure where they were and supported the captain until he heard English voices. Cockburn politely asked the passenger to stay at Nassau officers’ quarters until he had heard from the Admiralty but quietly told the Royal Navy officer that the passenger was not to leave Nassau on any account. Weeks after Cockburn sent his despatch to the Admiralty, Lieutenant McDonell and the former Master’s Assistant, now Lieutenant Nott, of the Firefly, arrived in Nassau. They identified the passenger as Malcolme – the ship’s clerk from the beleaguered Firefly, who had led the mutiny that left McDonell to die on a deserted island. Malcolme was taken back to England where he was tried and subsequently hanged.
In the summer of 1841, Cockburn and Alicia returned to East Cliff, Dover and on 8 September they were invited to St James Palace. There, Queen Victoria (1837-1901), knighted Colonel Francis Cockburn. A few weeks later Colonel Sir and Lady Cockburn returned to the Bahamas to wide rejoicing. However, in the waters off the Bahamas on Sunday 7 November something happened that eventually led to the premature removal of Cockburn from the Islands. This almost led to war with the US and has gone down in the history of Afro-American slaves as a momentous event!
The brig Creole, was travelling from Richmond, Virginia to New Orleans where the 135 slaves on board were due to be sold in the market there. Johnson and Epherson of Richmond owned most of the slaves with 26 owned by Thomas McCargo, a slave trader who was also on board the Creole. Also on board besides the captain – Robert Ensor – his wife, daughter, niece and eight slave servants, were William Henry Merritt in charge of Johnson and Epherson’s slaves and John R. Hewell and his nephew Theophilus, in charge of Thomas McCargo’s slaves with their slave servants. Among the slaves being transported was Madison Washington, a recaptured escaped slave and his wife. On that November Sunday, Washington and three other slaves: Ben Blacksmith, Elijah Morris and Doc Ruffin together with fifteen other male slaves rebelled. They overpowered the ship’s crew, killing John Hewell. One of the slaves was badly wounded and later died. Captain Ensor was also badly wounded but Washington dressed the wounds. Likewise, other members of the crew who were injured were similarly looked after.
Ben Blacksmith, apparently, told the others that he had heard that the slaves on the Hermosa gained their freedom in the Bahamas so they ordered the crew of the Creole to take them there. When they arrived in Nassau on 9 November the officials told the slaves that they were free to go but Thomas McCargo and William Merritt ordered them to remain on the ship. First Mate, Zephaniah Gifford was sent to inform the American Consul in Nassau of what had happened and the Bahamian officers told Cockburn. An altercation took place between the Consul and Cockburn that ended with Cockburn refusing to allow the ship to leave unless all the slaves disembarked if they so wished. The Consul eventually agreed to the Captain being removed to receive medical help and the Creole, with the slaves on board to be anchored offshore. Members of the Royal Navy moved the ship and it was then guarded by garrison soldiers to ensure it did not leave. The crew and passengers were accommodated in Nassau and the 18 slaves that had taken over the ship were placed in custody in Nassau to await trial.
A couple of days later an attempt was made by some Americans living on the Islands to take over the Creole with the slaves on board and sail it out of Bahamian waters, but this was foiled. On 19 November Nassau magistrates went on board and told the slaves that they were free to leave the ship if they wished. All but three women and two children left and they, along with Captain Ensor, crew and passengers boarded a ship for Jamaica. members of the Royal Navy sailed the Creole to Jamaica, where the Captain, crew and passengers boarded her. When the Creole arrived in New Orleans on 21 December, they told all what had happened and outrage was loudly expressed by the public, the US Patriotic Society and in the US Senate.
At the time discussions, that led to the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 between the US and Britain over the British North American colonies, was taking place. The talks lasted 10months and took place at the British Legation offices in Washington and the British government were in a conciliatory mood towards the US. The subsequent Treaty was named after Daniel Webster (1782-1852), the US Secretary of State (1841-1843) and Alexander Baring, 1st Baron Ashburton (1774-1848) a businessman representing the British Government. In essence, when it reached its conclusion, the Treaty placed the border between the US and Canada along the 49th Parallel, up to the Rocky Mountains in the west but failed to deal with the land beyond. In the east, the border was adjusted to give the British the Quebec/ Halifax Road enabling a winter connection between Lower Canada and Nova Scotia for which the US gained more land. In essence, it placed the border between the US and Canada along the 49th Parallel, up to the Rocky Mountains in the west but failed to deal with the land beyond. In the east, the border was adjusted to give the British the Quebec/ Halifax Road enabling a winter connection between Lower Canada and Nova Scotia for which the US gained more land. The Treaty also agreed on seven crimes that would qualify for extradition between the two countries. Discussions did include the possibility of uniting in an effort to persuade the powers to close all slave markets within their territories but did not reach the final document.
Neither did the Treaty include slave revolts and therefore, although the Senate demanded the return of the 18 slaves from the Creole, to face trial in the US. Cockburn denied their demands on the grounds that the Bahamas were British and therefore British law prevailed. Cockburn informed the British Secretary of State for War and the Colonies (1841-1845) Edward George Geoffrey Smith-Stanley – Lord Stanley (1799-1869), of what he had done. Lord Stanley had ensured the passage through Parliament of what became the 1833 Abolition of Slavery Act and Cockburn expected his reply to be favourable. Indeed, Stanley passed Cockburn’s correspondence on to the Admiralty and in April 1842, Washington and his co-conspirators were tried for piracy in a specially convened Admiralty Court in Nassau. By this time, another of the slaves had died, so it was 17 who stood accused.
The US lawyers stated that the slaves were guilty of being pirates who had murdered to gain the legal property of US citizens – the other slaves. The Creole, they went on to say, was a ship in distress and Britain should not treat US domestic ships that had come into its colonial waters under duress. Nor should they treat US domestic ships as part of the unlawful international slave trade. Cockburn gave an account of the events and through his lawyers, British law appertaining to slaves and the Bahamas. The Admiralty judges gave the arguments considerable consideration and ruled that: piracy intimated that private gain was involved and that in the case of the Creole, that was not a reason for what had happened. Further, slavery was illegal in international waters and therefore the men on the Creole were being been illegally held, thus they had the right to use force to gain their freedom. The former slaves were allowed to go but shortly afterwards, several were kidnapped, including Washington and taken to Cuba. There they were bought by a Mr Forbes but were freed by David Turnbull – the Bahamian superintendent of Liberated Africans – and taken to British Guiana.
The verdict, on 16 April 1842, was a landmark decision in the abolition of slavery in the US but it generated diplomatic tension with a popular demand in the US to declare war on Britain! This raised concern by the British government that it would affect the ratification of the Webster-Ashburton Treaty and in order to appease the US, Lord Ashburton, after reaffirming that slavery was not recognised under British law, announced that ‘British officials in the West Indies would be given directions … to do nothing in this respect when it can be properly avoided in the interests of good neighbourhood.’ Cockburn was ordered to return to Britain and then to report to the 95th Foot Regiment that were in Corfu.
The Webster-Ashburton Treaty, when ratified, called for a final end to the slave trade on the high seas! In 1853, Robert Lumpkin, the owner of the Hermosa slaves, sought compensation in the British Admiralty Court but failed. However, the Treaty of Claims of 1853 set up the Anglo-American Claims Commission and successful claims were made by the owners of the Comet – 165 slaves freed in 1830 and the Encomium – 48 slaves freed in 1833. As both had taken place in the Bahamas prior to the 1833 Act the success of the cases opened the doors to other claims of slaves freed prior to 1833. Claims for slaves freed from the Creole, Hermosa together with the owners of the Enterprise – 78 slaves freed in the Bahamas in 1835. Slavery was finally abolished in the US in 1865.
Before leaving the Bahamas, Cockburn pressed the case for Nassau to become a major port of call in the Caribbean for the West Indies Royal Mail Steamers and was successful. The salt trade continued as the main source of revenue for the Islands until the end of the 19th century when it collapsed due to salt production elsewhere. The remainder of the Islands’ economy oscillated between legitimate agriculture and fishing and the more lucrative but often illegal means. However, following World War II (1939-1945) offshore banking and trust companies started to arrive followed by tourists. Since then the economy has boomed and internal self-government was achieved in 1964. In 1973 the Islands became fully independent within the Commonwealth. The expanded natural harbour on the Turks and Caicos Islands was named Cockburn Harbour and over time where Christopher Columbus landed in the New World, a settlement developed. It was named after Sir Francis Cockburn and today Cockburn Town is the largest town on San Salvador Island!
On returning to England in 1843, Cockburn attended meetings at the War and the Colonies offices before taking up his post with a Battalion from the 95-Foot Regiment. The battalion was stationed on the Western Heights and it would appear that Cockburn, who was 63years old, was on semi-retirement. At some point he met up with his old Commander-in-Chief during the Peninsula Campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars, the Duke of Wellington. The Iron Duke was the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports (1829-1852) and was concerned about the vulnerability of Dover. The port is just 20miles across the Channel from France, the Duke said, and there was discontent on the Continent and since the arrival of the faster steamships that would speed up an invasion. The Duke expressed similar views in Parliament and in the late summer of 1846 Cockburn was transferred to Dover Castle in order to work closely with Wellington. By January of the following year, some 10,000 soldiers, the first from the 57th Foot Regiment and the remainder from the 3rd, 17th, 19th, 46th, 50th and 89th Foot Regiments, were arriving in Dover. They were stationed either at the Castle or at the Western Heights.
In Ireland, what became known as the infamous Great Irish Potato Famine (1845-1852) was gathering momentum. It was a period of mass starvation, disease and emigration from the stricken land. The Tory Prime Minister (1841-1846), Sir Robert Peel (1788-1850) set up a relief operation in 1845 with his government purchasing £100,000 of maize and cornmeal from the US. However, due to the lack of the correct milling equipment in Ireland plus logistic problems, the consignments failed to have any significant impact. People on the west coast of Scotland, who also relied on potatoes as a significant part of their diets, were also starving. The Peel relief operation there, was headed by Sir Edward Pine Coffin (1784-1862) and was more successful. Many of the destitute folk from Ireland made their way to England and were given relief work to do, with which they could buy food.
The potato crops failed again in 1846 and in July the Peel administration resigned, following a split within his Party over the Corn Laws, and the Whigs came to power. The new Prime Minister (1846-1852) was Lord John Russell, and from his experience over the Creole, Cockburn was wary. Nonetheless, Cockburn reminded the government of his Canadian Prince Edward Island plan of 1828, and this was brought up for consideration in Parliament. It was rejected and the predominantly laissez-faire liberals, justified their stance by dwelling on the mortality figures of emigrants of that time (see above). Russell had already stopped all the relief policies of the Peel government and the famine lasted until 1852, during which time hardly any government help was given. Over a million people died in Ireland due to the famine and a further million emigrated, mainly to the US.
On 26 December 1853, Cockburn was assigned to the 95th Derbyshire Foot Regiment in place of Lieutenant-General John Bell (1782-1876), who was heading the 4th Foot Regiment. The following March, he was invited to Parliament to listen to a speech made by Lord Edward Seymour (1804-1885). This appertained to the Report published by the Royal Commission on the Consolidation of Military Administration and revolved around Cockburn’s request for new barracks for the soldiers stationed in the Bahamas in 1838 (discussed above). The building of the new barracks had started on the basis of the Report and to Cockburn’s recommendations. Three months later, on 25 June 1854, Cockburn was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant General with the 95th Foot Regiment. That year, Alicia, Cockburn’s wife, died and was buried in the churchyard of St Michael and All Angels Church, Harbledown, near Canterbury.
Cockburn was at East Cliff on the night of Monday 5 January 1857 and, no doubt, looked out into the Channel to see the fierce storm that was raging and putting ships in peril. At Ostend on the Belgium coast, Captain Edward Lyne was in charge of the 300-ton packet ship, Violet. It was incumbent upon him to make the crossing to Dover as the packet ship was carrying important mail. On board was a crew of 17, a mail guard and one passenger but the Violet never arrived. Joseph Churchward (1818-1900) owned the ship and Cockburn had heard that he was in financial trouble and had under insured the vessel. Over the following days parts of the ship were found and the worst was realised. The loss of the Violet left 16 widows and 42 children with no means of financial support. A subscription was hastily organised in the town by Captain Luke Smithett (1800-1871) and Cockburn wrote to him suggesting that a letter to the national newspapers would raise a lot more money for the dependants.
Cockburn, wrote saying that ‘ … these unfortunates, it does appear to me, are fully entitled to public relief as those in the army and navy who are killed in action or died in hospital in the Crimea.’ (Crimean War 1853-1856). He went on to say, ‘The wreck of the Violet is quite distinct from the general class of wrecks, inasmuch as it was entirely caused by the zealous and gallant determination to fulfil a public duty, and I do think if so stated in the London papers a large subscription would be made there. It was the desire duty to fulfil the contract made with the country that led to this sad result.’ Smithett made copies of Cockburn’s letter and sent them to the entire national and many international newspapers. Donations came in from far and wide and included a large contribution from Frederick William IV of Prussia (1840-1861). The fund raising proved so successful that monthly payments were regularly made to eleven of the widows at the Dover Sailors’ Home for many years after, as well as making improvements to the establishment.
On 12 November 1860 Cockburn was promoted to full General and on 18 October 1866, he escorted the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Alfred (1844-1900) the second son of Queen Victoria in Glasgow. There, the Prince unveiled a statue to his late father, Prince Albert (1819-1861). Although he was 86years old, Cockburn was as straight backed as ever – every inch a soldier, it was said. He died at East Cliff on 24 August 1868 and was buried besides his beloved wife at Harbledown, near Canterbury. His gravestone gives an account of his army career and the epitaph reads:
To the Memory of General Sir Francis Cockburn
Colonel of the 95th Regiment and Late Governor of the Bahamas
Who departed this life
Deeply respected by all those who knew him.
Another person from Dover whose great deeds have endured the tests of time. LS
Shorter Version First Published: Dover Mercury: 13 September 2012
- Further Information:
Bahamas Ministry of Tourism: http://www.bahamas.com
Barrie Crampton: Historical Mapping Project: 200th Anniversary.LanarkCountyTourism.com/maps/
Holy Trinity Cathedral: http://www.cathedral.ca
Ron W. Shaw: Tales of the Hare: The Biography of Francis Tito LeLièvre (1755-1830). 2014 FriesenPress, Victoria, BC, Canada. ISBN 978-1-4602-1856-3
Ron W. Shaw: First We Were Soldiers: The Long March To Perth. 2016 FriesenPress, Victoria, BC, Canada ISBN 978-1-4602-5972-6 (Paperback)
Library and Archives of Canada: http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca
New Brunswick Museum and Archives: http://www.nbm-mnb.ca/
Simco County Archives: firstname.lastname@example.org