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HORSBURGH, JAMES (1762–1836), hydrographer, the son of parents in a very humble position, was born at Elie in Fifeshire on 23 Sept. 1762. After a childhood spent partly at school and partly in field labour, he went to sea, at the age of sixteen, as an apprentice to Messrs. James & William Wood of Elie, on board colliers or other vessels trading from the Forth or the Tyne with Hamburg or the Dutch ports. In May 1780 he was captured by a French privateer, and was for a short time a prisoner at Dunkirk. He afterwards went on a voyage to the West Indies, and then to Calcutta, where a countryman, settled there as a shipbuilder, procured for him an appointment as third mate of a ship bound to Bombay, August 1784. For nearly two years he served as mate of ships trading from Calcutta, and in May 1786 was first mate of the Atlas, from Batavia to Ceylon, when, on the 30th, she was wrecked on the island of Diego Garcia in consequence of an error in her chart. Horsburgh's attention was thus definitely turned towards the necessity of improving the charts then in use, and from that time he began to collect information and observations bearing on the navigation of the eastern seas. From Diego Garcia he went to Bombay, where he obtained a berth as second mate of a ship bound to China. In China he became first mate, and for the next ten years he was employed in ships sailing from Bombay, generally to China, though occasionally to Bengal. During all this time, and especially while mate of the Anna, a ship belonging to Messrs. Bruce, Fawcett, & Co. of Bombay, he continued collecting information and devoting his whole leisure to the study of navigation, astronomy, geometry, and drawing. The first result of his labours was the construction of three charts—one of the Straits of Macassar, one of the western part of the Philippine Islands, and one of the track from Dampier's Strait to Batavia—which he presented, at Canton, to Mr. Thomas Bruce. After being shown to several commanders of the company's ships, they were sent to Alexander Dalrymple [q. v.], hydrographer to the company, and were published with the sanction of the court of directors, from whom a letter of thanks was sent to Horsburgh, together with a present in money for the purchase of instruments.

In 1796 he came to England as first mate of the ship Carron, and made the acquaintance of Dalrymple, by whom he was introduced to Sir Joseph Banks, Dr. Maskelyne, and others of scientific reputation. He soon sailed in the Carron, which had been taken up by government as a transport to the West Indies, and on his return to England after this service, sailed again for Bombay, where (April 1798) he was appointed to the command of his old ship, the Anna, and in her during the next seven years made two voyages to England, besides several to China, Bengal, and Madras. From April 1802 to February 1804 he kept a continuous register of the barometer, taken every four hours, by day or night, at sea or in harbour, and in discussing the observations, established the diurnal variation of the barometer in the open sea between the latitudes of 26° N. and 26° S. An abstract of this was published in the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ of 1805. He constructed also during this period several charts, which were engraved by Dalrymple. In 1805 he returned to England as a passenger in the Cirencester, and shortly afterwards published a series of four charts of the Indian and Eastern seas, with explanatory text, under the title, ‘Memoirs: comprising the Navigation to and from China,’ 1805, 4to; new edit., 1812. He published several other charts and papers, but the great work by which his name still lives is the celebrated ‘Directory’ or rather ‘Directions for Sailing to and from the East Indies, China, New Holland, Cape of Good Hope, and the interjacent Ports, compiled chiefly from original Journals and Observations made during 21 years' experience in navigating those Seas,’ 1809–11, 2 parts, 4to. Many editions, enlarged and corrected, were afterwards published, and it still forms the basis of the ‘East India Directory.’ In March 1806 Horsburgh was elected a fellow of the Royal Society, and in October 1810 he was appointed hydrographer to the East India Company. In the congenial work of this office the remainder of his life was passed. He died, after a month's suffering, on 14 May 1836. Besides the works already named and several scientific contributions to the ‘Philosophical Transactions’ and other magazines (see Royal Society Catalogue), Horsburgh revised (1819) a new edition of Mackenzie's ‘Treatise on Surveying’ and ‘Treatise by St. Cyprian, “Of the Unity of the Church,” … abridged: with an Appendix.’

[Naval Chronicle, xxviii. 441; Gent. Mag. 1836, vol. cviii. pt. ii. p. 98; Journal of the Royal Geographical Society, vii. vi; Brit. Mus. Cat.]

J. K. L.