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Royal Naval Biography/Bullen, Joseph


JOSEPH BULLEN, Esq
[Superannuated Rear-Admiral.]

This officer, the second son of the late Rev. John Bullen, Rector of Kennet, in Cambridgeshire, and of Rushmoor-cumNewburn, co. Suffolk, entered the navy in 1774, under the patronage of the late Hon. Sir William Cornwallis, and served with that admirable officer during the greater part of the American war. He was with him in the Isis at the reduction of Mud fort[1], and in the Lion, in the action between Byron and d’Estaing[2].

On the glorious 12th April, 1782, when Rodney defeated de Grasse, we find Mr. Bullen serving as a Lieutenant on board the Prince George of 98 guns, commanded by the late Captain John Williams, and not by the present Admiral Freeman, as stated in our first volume[3]. The Prince on that occasion was next astern of the Princessa, which ship carried the flag of Rear-Admiral Drake, and led the fleet into action. Lieutenant Bullen subsequently served with the late Lord Nelson, in the Hinchinbrooke frigate, on the Mosquito shore; where the mortality was so great, owing to the unhealthiness of the climate, that at the end of six weeks, only 27 officers and men were surviving, out of a complement of 235.

At the commencement of the French revolutionary war, he again joined Captain Nelson, in the Agamemnon of 64 guns; from which ship, after being engaged in a variety of active services, he was removed into the Victory, a first rate, bearing the flag of Lord Hood; by whom he was entrusted with the command of Fort Mulgrave, during the defence of Toulon against the republican armies[4], to whose fire he was constantly exposed for a period of three weeks.

Previous to the final evacuation of Toulon, Lieutenant Bullen was promoted to the rank of Commander; and la Mulette of 20 guns, the ship intended for him, being absent, he received an order to act as Captain of the Proselyte frigate, in which he narrowly escaped being captured, in consequence of his having voluntarily remained after every other ship had left the harbour, and thereby rescued 300 Spanish and Neapolitan troops, who had been deserted by their countrymen, and but for his humanity would inevitably have been taken prisoners, if not massacred by the ferocious enemy.

Captain Bullen subsequently obtained permission from Lord Hood to serve as a volunteer with his friend Captain Serecold, who, after the retreat from Toulon, had superseded him in the command of the Proselyte; out of which ship they were both burnt by the hot shot from the French batteries, during the siege of Bastia. Our officer afterwards commanded an advanced battery, and continued on shore until the surrender of that place. We find his name mentioned in the highest terms by Nelson, when writing an official account of the operations of the siege to Lord Hood[5].

On his return to England, Captain Bullen embarked as a volunteer with his friend the present Sir T. Byam Martin, in the Santa Margaritta; and he appears to have been on board that ship, when she captured the Tamise, French frigate[6]. His last service afloat was as acting Captain of the Alexander 74, stationed off Brest. He obtained post rank Nov. 24, 1796; and on the renewal of the war was appointed to the command of the Lynn Regis district of Sea Fencibles. His superannuation took place Aug. 28th, 1819.

On reference to the memoranda in our possession, we observe that Rear-Admiral Bullen has been sixty-nine times engaged with the enemies of his country, in ships, boats, and batteries; and that he has repeatedly received the thanks of his superior officers. He married, in 1801, Margaret Ann, only daughter of the late W. Seafe, Esq. of the Leazes, co. Durham, Barrister at Law.

Residence.– Bath.



  1. See Retired Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond.
  2. See Retired Captain Robert Fanshawe.
  3. We were led into the mistake alluded to, by Schomberg, whose errors of this description are innumerable. Early in 1780, a project was formed by General Dalling, Governor of Jamaica, against the Spanish American colonies. This design was to take Fort St. Juan, on the river of that name, which flows from the Lake Nicaragua, into the Atlantic; make himself master of the lake itself, and of the cities of Grenada and Leon; and thus cut off the communication of the Spaniards between their northern and southern possessions in America. Here it is that a canal between the two seas may most easily be formed; a work more important in its consequences than any which has ever yet been effected by human power. The Secretary of State for the American department approved the plan; and as discontents at that time were known to prevail in the Neuvo Reyno, in Popayan, and in Peru, the more sanguine part of the English nation began to dream of acquiring an empire in one part of America, more extensive than that which they were on the point of losing in another. General Balling’s plans were well-formed; but the history and the nature of the country had not been studied as accurately as its geography; the difficulties which occurred in fitting out the expedition, delayed it till the season was too far advanced; and the men were thus sent to adventure themselves, not so much against an enemy, whom they would have beaten, as against a climate, which would do the enemy’s work.

    Five hundred men, destined for this service, were conveyed by Captain Nelson from Port Royal to Cape Gracias a Dios, in Honduras. Not a native was to be seen when they landed; they had been taught that the English came with no other intent than that of enslaving them, and carrying them to Jamaica. After a while, however, one of them ventured down, confiding in his knowledge of one of the party; and by his means the neighbouring tribes were conciliated with presents, and brought in. The troops were encamped on a swampy and unwholesome plain, where they were joined by a party of the 79th regiment, from Black River, who were already in a deplorable state of sickness. Having remained here a month, they proceeded, anchoring frequently, along the Mosquito shore, to collect their Indian allies, who were to furnish proper boats for the enterprise, and to accompany them. They reached the river San Juan, March 24th, the latter end of the dry season, and the worst time for such an expedition, the river being consequently low. About 200 soldiers, however, were embarked in the Mosquito shore craft, and in the Hinchinbrooke’s boats, and they began their voyage. Indians were sent forward through narrow channels between shoals and sand-banks, and the English were frequently obliged to quit the boats, and exert their utmost strength to drag or thrust them along. This labour continued for several days, when they came into deeper water; they had then currents and rapids to contend with, which would have been insurmountable, but for the skill of the Indians in such difficulties. The brunt of the labour was borne by them, and by the British sailors – men never accustomed to stand aloof when any exertion of strength or hardihood is required. The soldiers, less accustomed to rely upon themselves, were of little use. But all equally endured the violent heat of the sun, rendered more intense by being reflected from the white shoals, while the high woods, on both sides of the river, were frequently so close as to prevent all refreshing circulation of air; and during the night all were equally exposed to the heavy and unwholesome dews.

    On the 9th April, they reached an island in the river, called St. Bartolomeo, which the Spaniards had fortified, as an out-post, with a small semi-circular battery, mounting 9 or 10 swivels, and manned with 16 or 18 men. It commanded the river in a rapid and difficult part of the navigation. Nelson, at the head of a few of his seamen, leaped upon the beach, and, in his own phrase, boarded the battery. The castle of St. Juan is situated about sixteen miles above St. Bartolomeo, sixty-nine from the mouth of the river, and thirty-two below the Lake of Nicaragua. Boats reach the sea from the castle in a day and a half; but their navigation back, even when unladen, is the labour of nine days. The British, after marching several miles, and transporting the stores and provisions through woods almost impassable, appeared before it two days after the capture of St. Bartolomeo. Nelson’s advice was, that it should instantly be carried by assault; but Nelson was not the commander; and it was thought proper to observe all the formalities of a siege. Ten days were wasted before this could be commenced. It was a work more of fatigue than of danger; but fatigue was more to be dreaded than the enemy; the rains set in; and, could the garrison have held out a little longer, disease would have rid them of their invaders. Even the Indians sunk under it, the victims of unusual exertion, and of their own excesses. The place surrendered on the 24th; but victory procured to the conquerors none of that relief which had been expected. The castle was worse than a prison; and it contained nothing which could contribute to the recovery of the sick, or the preservation of those who were yet unaffected. The huts, which served for hospitals, were surrounded with filth and with the putrifying hides of slaughtered cattle – almost sufficient of themselves to have engendered pestilence; and when, at last, orders were given to erect a convenient hospital, the contagion had become so general that there were none who could work at it; for, besides the few who were able to perform garrison duty, there were not orderly men enough to attend the sick. Added to these evils, there was the want of all needful remedies; for though the expedition had been amply provided with hospital stores, river craft enough had not been procured for transporting the requisite baggage; and when much was to be left behind, provision for sickness was that which of all things] men in health would be most ready to leave. Now, when these medicines were required, the river was swoln, and so turbulent that its upward navigation was almost impracticable. At length even the task of burying the dead was more than the living could perform; and the bodies were tost into the stream, or left for beasts of prey, and for the gallinazos – those dreadful carrion-birds, which do not always wait for death before they begin their work. Five months the British persisted in what may be called this war against nature; they then left a few men, who seemed proof against the climate, to retain the castle till the Spaniards should choose to retake it, and make them prisoners. The rest abandoned their baleful conquest. Eighteen hundred men were sent to different posts upon this wretched expedition; not more than 380 ever returned. Of the Hinchinbrooke’s crew, 87 are said to have taken to their beds in one night. The castle when taken, contained one brass 5½-inch mortar, and 20 pieces of brass ordnance, besides swivels, mounted; and 10 or 12 iron guns dismounted.

  4. See Vol. I, pp. 46 and 294.
  5. See Vol I, p. 251.
  6. See Vol. I, p. 492.