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

DAVIDSON, WILLIAM (1756?–1795?), privateersman, a native of Scotland, born about 1756, was in 1791 serving as an able seaman on board H.M.S. Niger, then commanded by Sir Richard Keats. Davidson was noted as a comparatively well-educated man of gloomy and silent disposition, but liable to sudden outbursts of temper. While the ship was at Deal he was condemned to be flogged for some such outburst. The punishment caused him excessive agony, and at the fifth stroke he fell into convulsions. The sentence was then remitted, but some time after he struck an officer and was again condemned. While being brought to the gangway he attempted to cut his throat, and this failing, he tried, but also in vain, to throw himself overboard. His punishment was not proceeded with, but he was ordered into confinement. The whole circumstances of the case led to inquiry into Davidson's past life, and a rumour was found current in the ship that he possessed a journal giving an account of singular atrocities in which he had been engaged. Davidson's chest was ransacked, the journal was found, and laid before the officers. It narrated that the author on 1 Dec. 1788 had enlisted on board the Saint Dinnan, a Russian privateer, which on 3 Dec. cleared from Leghorn for Messina. He and the other Englishmen on board were discharged from the ship at Trieste on 6 Sept. 1789, with wages and prize money amounting to 230l. per man. During the interval the Saint Dinnan cruised in the Levant, took a large number of Turkish ships, robbed them of what was most valuable, murdered the crews, and burnt the vessels. The privateers also attacked and plundered some of the smaller Grecian islands. On one occasion they had a terrible combat with another pirate, who, after fighting all day, at length yielded. His ship had 378 men on board, ‘all of different nations.’ The survivors were told by their captors that they would be ‘put to the cruellest death that ever could be invented. So we did, for next morning we got whips to the mainstay, and made one leg fast to the whip, and the other fast to a ringbolt in the deck, and so quartered them and hove them overboard.’ These and other horrors Davidson narrates in plain methodical order.

The ‘Bloody Journal,’ as it was called, came to have considerable renown with sailors, among whom it was probably current in manuscript versions. A copy was procured for Sir Walter Scott, who had heard of it, and thought it might form a good subject for a poem. ‘On perusal he pronounced it too horrible for versification.’ He printed it in the ‘Edinburgh Annual Register’ for 1810 (published in 1812, vol. iii. part ii. li et seq.). The work itself is extremely rare. It is entitled ‘The Bloody Journal kept by William Davidson on board a Russian Pirate in the year 1789. Mediterranean. Printed on board His Majesty's Ship Caledonia, 1812,’ 8vo, pp. 34, preface pp. 4. A copy is in the library of Corpus Christi College, Oxford. The book is full of errors of composition, for which the printers or proof-readers of H.M.S. Caledonia are possibly responsible. Davidson probably found his position on the Niger exceedingly uncomfortable. He deserted from her at Portsmouth in November 1794, was afterwards pressed on board H.M.S. Royal George, and was accidentally drowned about 1795.

[Martin's Cat. of Privately Printed Books, p. 136.]

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