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Royal Naval Biography/Bowen, James


JAMES BOWEN, Esq
One of the Principal Officers and Commissioners of his Majesty’s Navy.
[Retired Captain.]

This officer, a native of Ilfracombe, co. Devon, is descended from the ancient and respectable family of the Bowens, of Court House, in the seignory of Gower, in Glamorganshire.

About the year 1776, we find him commanding a merchant ship employed in the African, Canada, and Jamaica trade; on board which vessel, his gallant brother, the late Captain Richard Bowen, first went to sea[1]. He subsequently entered the naval service as a Master, and served as such on board the Artois frigate, commanded by the late Admiral Macbride, in the battle between Sir Hyde Parker and Admiral Zoutman, Aug. 6, 1781[2].

Some time after this event, Mr. Bowen went into the Texel in a Dutch fishing boat, closely reconnoitred the enemy’s ships lying at that anchorage, and made an accurate report of their condition to the Admiralty. The Dutch squadron shortly after attempted to come out; but upon the Artois making a signal to the British ships in the offing, and the latter anchoring in the Land Deep, the enemy put back in such confusion, that a 74 grounded on the Haak Sands, where she was completely wrecked.

On the 3d Dec. in the same year, the Artois fell in with, and, after a smart action, captured the Hercules and Mars, two beautiful privateers belonging to Amsterdam, mounting 24 nine-pounders and 10 cohorns each; the former having a complement of 164 men, the latter 146. The Artois, on this occasion, had 1 man killed and 6 wounded; the enemy sustained a loss of 22 killed and 35 wounded. These vessels had been cruising off Flamborough Head, to intercept a fleet of English merchantmen coming from the Baltic, of which Mr. Bowen was fortunate enough to obtain information while watching the Texel in a tender belonging to the Artois.

Early in 1782, the Artois was ordered into the Channel; and, in the month of April, she formed part of the fleet which was sent out under Admiral Harrington, for the purpose of intercepting a French squadron, then about to sail from Brest for the East Indies. On the 20th of that month, being a-head on the look out, she discovered the enemy, and succeeded in leading them to the British fleet; by which, in the course of that and the following day, the Pégase of 74 guns, l’Actionnaire, a 64 armed en flute, and twelve transports, laden with provisions and ammunition, and having on board a considerable number of troops[3], were captured.

Mr. Bowen continued in the Artois until the peace of 1783, when he removed with Captain Macbride into the Druid frigate, on the Irish station. In 1787, we find him serving under the same officer in the Cumberland of 74 guns, stationed as a guard-ship at Plymouth, where he remained till 1789, when he was appointed Inspecting Agent of Transports in the river Thames.

At the commencement of the French revolutionary war, Mr. Bowen, at the particular request of Earl Howe, joined the Queen Charlotte, a first-rate, bearing that nobleman’s flag. The professional skill and steady conduct displayed by him during the arduous conflict of June 1, 1794, secured the veteran Admiral’s lasting esteem, and obtained for him the rank of Lieutenant; by which the door was opened for his future advancement in the navy: whilst the different Captains, at the suggestion of his Lordship, and to evince their high opinion of Mr. Bowen, appointed him their agent for the prizes taken on that memorable day[4].

Our officer’s first commission was for the Queen Charlotte, of which ship we find him the first Lieutenant in Lord Bridport’s action off l’Orient, June 23, 1795[5], on which occasion, she had 4 men slain and 32 wounded. Mr. Bowen, for his conduct on that day, was shortly after made a Commander; but we are not aware of his having received any appointment until Sept. 2 following, when he obtained post-rank in the Prince George of 98 guns, fitting for the flag of Rear-Admiral Christian, who had recently been appointed to the command of a squadron destined to attack the French and Dutch settlements in the West Indies. The late period of the season to which this expedition had been protracted, occasioned the most disastrous result, as already stated under the head of Sir Charles M. Pole[6]. The Prince George lost her rudder, and was otherwise much disabled; in consequence of which, the Rear-Admiral, accompanied by Captain Bowen, removed into the Glory, of similar force.

On the 9th Dec. in the same year, the squadron made another attempt to get clear of the Channel; but after encountering weather of the most dreadfully tempestuous description for a period of seven weeks, was again obliged to return to port.

A third effort was more successful; Rear-Admiral Sir Hugh Christian, and Captain Bowen, in the Thunderer 74, accompanied by the Invincible, a third rate, Grampus of 54 guns, and four smaller vessels of war, with such of the transports and merchantmen as were ready, sailed from Spithead on the 20th March, and arrived at Barbadoes after a passage of 32 days. On the 22d April, they left Carlisle Bay, in company with Sir John Laforey, who, on his arrival at Martinique, resigned the command at the Leeward Islands to Sir Hugh Christian, by whom preparations were immediately made for the reduction of St. Lucia[7].

After the conquest of that island, and the restoration of tranquillity in Grenada, St. Vincent’s, &c.[8], Sir Hugh Christian, having been superseded by Rear-Admiral Harvey, returned to England in the Beaulieu frigate, and the Thunderer proceeded with Sir Hyde Parker to the Jamaica station, from whence Captain Bowen returned home in the Leviathan 74, towards the close of 1797.

His next appointment was, in 1798, to the Argo of 44 guns; in which ship he assisted at the reduction of Minorca, by the forces under the orders of General Stuart and Commodore Duckworth[9], and recaptured the Peterell sloop of war, whose officers and crew had been most shamefully plundered and ill-used by the Spaniards who had captured them.

On the 6th Feb., 1799, the Argo being on a cruise, in company with the Leviathan, discovered two large frigates at anchor, near a fortified tower on the south point of Alcudia Bay. Immediately the enemy perceived the British ships, they cut their cables and made sail. Chase was instantly given, under all the canvas their pursuers could bear. It blowing at this time a strong gale, the Leviathan unfortunately carried away her main-top-sail-yard; by which accident she dropped a-stern, and was soon lost sight of by the Argo. The Spaniards separated at the close of the day; but Captain Bowen, by judicious management and skilful manoeuvres, kept sight of one of the frigates, which he got alongside of at midnight, and compelled to surrender. She proved to be the Santa Teresa, of 42 guns and 530 men. Her consort, the Proserpine, of similar force, effected her escape.

Captain Bowen shortly after attacked and carried a number of merchant vessels lying at Tarragona; but in consequence of their taking the ground when coming out, he was obliged to set them on fire. He subsequently went on a mission to Algiers; and whilst there, had the good fortune to procure the freedom of six British subjects, who had been fourteen years in a state of slavery. Previous to his departure, the Dey, as a mark of friendship, presented him with a rich Turkish sabre and two fine Arabian horses.

In the month of July following, the Argo received the flag of Earl St. Vincent, who had been obliged, through ill health, to resign his command on the Mediterranean station. On the 6th August, Captain Bowen captured the Infanta Amelia, a Spanish packet, mounting guns; and twelve days afterwards, landed his Lordship at Portsmouth. He was afterwards employed in affording protection to the Portugal and Mediterranean trade; and in addition to several privateers, captured the San Fernando, a Spanish letter of marque, pierced for 22 guns, carrying 12, with a complement of 53 men and a cargo of considerable value, a French brig in ballast, and three vessels laden with iron ore.

In the summer of 1801, Captain Bowen had the gratification of receiving the following letter from the Secretary of the Hon. East India Company:

East India House, July 3, 1801.

“Sir.– I have great pleasure in obeying the command of the Court of Directors of the East India Company, by communicating their thanks for your care and attention in convoying to England from St. Helena, nine of the Company’s ships, together with an extra ship laden on their account; and in acquainting you, that the Court have presented you with the sum of 400 guineas, for the purchase of a piece of plate, as an acknowledgment of those services; which sum may he received at the Company’s Treasury here. I am, &c.

(Signed)W. Ramsay, Sec.”

Whilst absent in the performance of the service alluded to in the foregoing letter, Captain Bowen captured two of the enemy’s letters of marque. Early in the following year, the British Factory at Madeira, of which island he had some time before taken possession, requested his acceptance of a sword, as a mark of their respect for his professional character. On this occasion, similar resolutions concerning him were passed, as in the case of Captain Thomas Wolley, now a Vice-Admiral[10]. He was afterwards appointed to the chief command on the coast of Africa; from whence he returned to England, and was put out of commission in 1802.

On the renewal of hostilities in 1803, Captain Bowen obtained the command of the Dreadnought, a new ship of 98 guns; and in the summer of the same year, was nominated a Commissioner of the Transport Board. In 1805, the late Viscount Melville directed him to prepare Falmouth harbour for the reception of the Western squadron; which service he performed, by laying down buoys on the different banks and moorings for ships of the line; after which, and serving for some time as Captain of the Fleet under Earl St. Vincent, he resumed his seat at the Board[11].

In January 1809, Commissioner Bowen added to his well-earned fame, by the important services which he rendered to the brave troops, recently commanded by Sir John Moore, when embarking at Corunna, and for which he received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. Since that period, we believe he has not been afloat. He became a Commissioner of the Navy about March, 1816.

In 1810, Commissioner Bowen received a letter from a distant relative, at that time Governor of Teneriffe, where his gallant brother fell; stating, that the magistrates of the island, out of regard for the memory of the deceased, and respect for the surviving relatives, had requested him to receive the gold seals, chain, and sword, of the late Captain Richard Bowen, which had been kept ever since, in the Town House of that island, as a record of their defeat of the English on that occasion, and which was all that they could recover belonging to him, the populace having stolen his watch and other valuables; the sword, chain, and seals, had been carefully preserved; and they requested the Governor to beg Commissioner Bowen would accept them, as they conceived such relics would be grateful to his feelings; and, as the two nations were then firmly united in a cause, which reflected equal honor on both, they did not wish to retain a trophy which could remind them that they had ever been opposed to each other.

Captain James Bowen, of the Phoenix frigate, eldest son of the subject of this memoir, died on the East India station, in 1812. In him, his country lost an active, brave, and skilful officer, and society an amiable and distinguished ornament.

Another son of the Commissioner’s, John, obtained post rank, January 22d, 1806. His youngest son, St. Vincent, was admitted into holy orders in 1823.



  1. Captain Richard Bowen commanded the Terpsichore frigate, and fell covered with wounds at the attack upon Santa Cruz, in the island of Teneriffe, July 24th, 1797 (See Vol. I. note †, at p. 391.) He had landed at the Mole head, with about fifty of his crew, stormed the battery, spiked the guns, and was proceeding towards the town, in pursuit of the fugitive Spaniards, when a tremendous discharge of grape, from some field pieces in his front, brought him to the ground, with his first Lieutenant, and many brave followers, at the moment that Nelson received the wound which caused him the loss of an arm.

    Commissioner Bowen had two other brothers in the naval service; George, a Post-Captain, died at Torquay, Oct. 31st, 1817; and Thomas, who fell a sacrifice to the climate of the West Indies, when serving as a Midshipman on promotion, in the Cumberland, Captain Macbride, during the armament of 1790.

  2. See Vol. I. note §, at p. 175.
  3. The Pégase was taken by Sir John Jervis, in the Foudroyant. See Vol. I. p. 15 et seq. Five of the transports were captured by the Artois.
  4. At the commencement of the action, the Earl desired Mr. Bowen to lay the Queen Charlotte close alongside of the Montague, an immense 3-decker, bearing the flag of the French Commander-in-Chief. Mr. Bowen knew his duty, and performed it; he conducted the ship so close under the stern of the enemy, that the fly of the tri-coloured ensign brushed the main and mizen shrouds of the Queen Charlotte, as she poured her larboard broadside into her opponent’s starboard quarter. The Montague does not appear to have been prepared for action on that side; her ports were down, and it was some time before she returned a gun; the effect upon this unfortunate ship, as acknowledged by the republican Admiral, was the loss of 300 men killed and wounded. Mr. Bowen, addressing Earl Howe frequently during the battle by his title, was heard by the other officers to receive from his Lordship this grateful and animated reply:

    “Mr. Bowen, you call me, my Lord! and my Lord! you yourself deserve to be a Prince.”

  5. See Vol. I. p. 246, et seq.
  6. See Vol. I. note †, at p. 89, et seq.
  7. See Vol. I. note † at p. 134, and further particulars under the head of Captain G. F. Ryves, in the present volume.
  8. See Vol. I. p. 505.
  9. See Vol. I. p. 762.
  10. “At a General Meeting of the British Consul aud Factory, held at the Consul’s house, on the 23 Jan., 1802–

    Resolved unanimously– That the thanks of this Factory be given to Thomas Wolley, Esq., Captain of H.M.S. Arethusa, for his very meritorious conduct in the discharge of his professional duties, during his command on this station; and for the exemplary discipline and regularity preserved on board the different vessels of his squadron. The Factory with pleasure avail themselves of this opportunity, to acknowledge the many obligations which the commerce of Madeira owes to Captain Wolley; who, very fortunately for the island, has, in the course of the war, had occasion frequently to visit this station; and he has uniformly shewn every attention to the British inhabitants, and given every protection to their property, which it was in his power to afford.

    “The Consul and Factory, as a token of their gratitude for the services which he has rendered them, and as a mark of their respect for his professional character, request Captain Wolley’s acceptance of a sword. And it it is with singular satisfaction that while, as a public body, they offer this tribute to his professional conduct, each individual member of this Factory feels a private gratification in ah opportunity of testifying his personal attachment to the character of Captain Wolley.

    Resolved– That the Consul and Directors be a Committee to carry the preceding resolve into execution; and to have an authentic copy transmitted in the most respectful manner to Captain Wolley.

    Resolved– That the sword shall be of such a value and workmanship, as shall be worthy of the public body which presents, and of the respectable character who is to receive it.”

  11. Admiral Cormvallis rendezvoused at Falmoutb several times in 1805; and in the succeeding year, Commissioner Bowen conducted the fleet under Earl St. Vincent, consisting of five 3-deckers and eight other line-of-battle ships, into that port, where he moored them in safety.