Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Hunter, John (1738-1821)

HUNTER, JOHN (1738–1821), vice-admiral and governor of New South Wales, the son of a master in the merchant service, was born at Leith in September 1738. While a child he accompanied his father in a northern voyage, and was wrecked on the coast of Norway. On his return he was sent to his uncle, Robert Hunter, a merchant at Lynn Regis, where he went to school. He was afterwards at school in Edinburgh, and studied for a short time at the university of Aberdeen, being intended for the church. He, however, had made up his mind to go to sea, and in May 1754 was entered on board the Grampus sloop. In 1757 he was serving in the Neptune, in the expedition to Rochefort [see Hawke, Edward, Lord; Knowles, Sir Charles], and continuing in her through the cruise off Brest in 1758, was still in her at the reduction of Quebec in 1759, when she carried the flag of Sir Charles Saunders [q. v.] At this time Hunter made the acquaintance of John Jervis (afterwards Earl St. Vincent) [q. v.], then first lieutenant of the Neptune. Hunter afterwards served as midshipman of the Royal George, in the Bay of Biscay till the peace. In 1767 he went out to North America as master's mate of the Launceston, with Commodore (afterwards Viscount) Hood, who in the following year gave him an acting-order as master. After passing at the Trinity House on his return to England in 1769, the order was confirmed, and he was appointed to the Carysfort in the West Indies. In her he had various opportunities of making charts and plans of parts of the coast, and especially of the Spanish works in progress at Havana, which were afterwards sent to the admiralty. In 1771, while in charge of a pilot, the Carysfort ran ashore on Martyr Reef, in the Gulf of Florida, but mainly by Hunter's personal exertions was got off again, though with the loss of her masts and guns. From 1772 to 1775 he was master of the Intrepid in the East Indies, and in 1775 was appointed master of the Kent, by desire of Captain Jervis, whom he followed to the Foudroyant, where he was a messmate of Evan (afterwards Sir Evan) Nepean, the purser. In 1776, at the request of Lord Howe, then going out as commander-in-chief in North America, he was moved into his flagship, the Eagle; and continuing in her during the commission, acted virtually as master of the fleet, more especially in the expeditions to the Delaware and Chesapeake, and in the defence of Sandy Hook [see Howe, Richard, Earl]. Howe's interest was not of much use with Lord Sandwich's administration, and Hunter's modest request, on his return to England, to be made a lieutenant, passed unheeded. In 1779, on the invitation of Captain Keith Stewart, he joined the Berwick as a volunteer, and was shortly afterwards appointed by Sir Charles Hardy to be a lieutenant of the Union. The admiralty refused to confirm the promotion, and in 1780 Hunter, again as a volunteer in the Berwick, went out to the West Indies, where Sir George Rodney gave him a commission. In 1781 he returned to England in the Berwick, and in her was present in the action on the Doggerbank (5 Aug.) In 1782, when Howe again hoisted his flag, Hunter was appointed third lieutenant of the Victory, and was first lieutenant of her at the relief of Gibraltar and the skirmish off Cape Spartel. On 12 Nov. 1782 he was promoted to the command of the Marquis de Seignelay, and on 15 Dec. 1786, Howe being then first lord of the admiralty, was advanced to post rank and appointed captain of the Sirius, under Commodore Arthur Phillip [q. v.], who was going out as governor of the settlement in New South Wales. The Sirius arrived at Port Jackson in January 1788; and in the following October Hunter was ordered to the Cape of Good Hope for supplies. He made the voyage by the then novel route of Cape Horn, thus performing the circumnavigation of the globe. He returned to Port Jackson in May 1789, after experiencing much difficulty from the leaky state of the ship, which rendered continual pumping necessary. When the Sirius had been refitted, she was sent to Norfolk Island with a large party of convicts; was there blown from her anchors in a violent storm, was driven on to a coral reef, and became a total wreck. The Supply brig, then at the island, carried part of her crew to Port Jackson, but the majority, with Hunter, remained at Norfolk Island for nearly a year before they could be relieved. At length the Waakzaamheid brig was chartered to convey Hunter and his people to England. She sailed from Sydney in March 1791 with 125 men on board, and provisioned for sixteen weeks; but owing to her bad sailing, contrary winds, and calms, the voyage to Batavia lasted for twenty-six weeks. The party, while attempting to get provisions at Mindanao, had a serious affray with the Malays, fortunately without sustaining any loss. They finally arrived at Portsmouth in April 1792, when Hunter was tried for the loss of the Sirius, but honourably acquitted.

In the following year, when Lord Howe hoisted his flag on board the Queen Charlotte, Hunter obtained permission to serve with him as a volunteer, and in this capacity was present in the battle of 1 June 1794. He remained in the Queen Charlotte till early in 1795, when he was appointed governor of New South Wales, in succession to Phillip. Under the auspices of Hunter, himself an experienced and scientific navigator, the exploration of the coast line of Terra Australis made rapid progress, and to him must be assigned a share in the credit of the early discoveries of George Bass [q. v.] and Matthew Flinders [q. v.] His more immediate duty as governor was at the same time well and fortunately carried out, and under his rule the young colony was established on a firm and satisfactory basis. He returned to England in 1801, being relieved by Captain Philip Gidley King [q. v.], previously lieutenant-governor. In the summer of 1804 he was appointed to command the Venerable of 74 guns, one of the fleet off Brest under Cornwallis. On the evening of 24 Nov., as the fleet was getting under way from Torbay, a dense fog suddenly came on; the ships were in no order, and had no knowledge of their position; twice the Venerable was obliged to bear up to avoid a collision, and about 8 p.m. she struck on the cliff near Paignton, and soon afterwards bilged. A gale sprang up, and the ship was evidently going to pieces, when, in answer to her guns of distress, the Impetueux anchored close to her, and with great difficulty, though with but little loss, succeeded in taking off her men. At daylight no trace of the ship was to be seen. Hunter was tried by court-martial and fully acquitted, it appearing by the evidence that it was only by astonishing good fortune that many other ships of the squadron had not shared the fate of the Venerable. He became rear-admiral on 2 Oct. 1807, and vice-admiral on 31 July 1810, but had no further service, and died in London on 13 March 1821.

[Naval Chronicle (with portrait), vi. 350; Annual Biog. and Obit. vii. 186; Biographie Universelle (supplement); Phillip's Voyage to Botany Bay; An Historical Journal of the Transactions at Port Jackson and Norfolk Island, with the discoveries which have been made in New South Wales and in the southern ocean since the publication of Phillip's Voyage, by John Hunter, with portrait after R. Dighton (4to, 1793); D.Collins's Account of the English Colony in New South Wales (2 vols. 4to, 1798, 1802); Minutes of the Courts-Martial in the Public Record Office.]

J. K. L.