Royal Naval Biography/Dilkes, John

Vice-Admiral of the Red.

This officer was made a Commander during the war with our trans-atlantic colonies; subsequent to which, in consequence of some temporary disgust, he entered into the Portugueze service, and obtained the rank of Rear-Admiral; but brighter prospects opening, he returned to that of his native country, and became a Post-Captain, Sept. 21, 1790.

In 1795, Captain Dilkes commanded the Madras, of 54 guns, stationed in the North Sea. He afterwards proceeded to the West Indies, and was present at the reduction of St. Lucia by the forces under Sir Hugh Christian and Sir Ralph Abercromby[1]. The Madras continued about two years on the Leeward Island station, and on her arrival in England was again ordered to join the North Sea fleet.

About the latter end of 1799, Captain Dilkes sailed with the trade for the Cape of Good Hope and the East Indies. Previous to his return, he became involved in an affair of the most unpleasant nature with the Chinese government, of which the following account is given in Schomberg’s Naval Chronology.

“Early in 1800, the Providence schooner, commanded by Lieutenant Mayo, whilst lying at Whampoo, had her cables cut two or three times during the night. Her commander, irritated at these repeated robberies, gave orders that the first boat that approached near the vessel, with the supposed intention of cutting the cables, should be fired upon.

“On the 11th Feb. this order was unfortunately executed, and a young Chinese, fifteen years of age, wounded in the shoulder.

“The Viceroy of the Provinces of Canton and Quangsi, ordered the Collector of the Customs to publish on the 14th, an edict, by which the English were accused of having drowned one man and wounded another. It was enjoined the president of the cohengists, the society of traders, to communicate its contents to Mr. Hall, chief of the English Factory, and demand from him that the guilty should be given up to justice.

“Just at this time, the Madras arrived from Macoa; and the matter being represented to Captain Dilkes, he prevailed on the traders of the factory to carry a letter to the Viceroy. This step, unexampled at Canton, was contrary to all ordinary customs. The letter was however favourably received.

“Captain Dilkes complained of the robbery which had been committed, demanded an impartial examination, and prayed his Excellency to consider the affair as a national business, and having no connection whatever with the East India company. The Viceroy did hot consent to this last demand; but he sent a confidential mandarin to confer with Captain Dilkes and Mr. Hall. The parties concerned on both sides were present at the interview. The Viceroy at last decided, in conformity with the Chinese custom, that the affair should be carried before an inferior tribunal, in order to be finally brought before a superior court.

“Captain Dilkes, with the guilty person, a witness, and Mr. Staunton, in quality of interpreter, went into the town where the people treated them with much indignity. After having waited for several hours for the criminal judge of the province, they were brought into Court. Captain Dilkes insisted on the Mate (who was the one accused) being examined. The judge refused, saying that English sailors could not be believed; he added, that if the wounded person survived forty days, the laws of China only ordered banishment and that the magistrates would pass over this sentence in consideration that the guilty person was a foreigner.

“Captain Dilkes persisting in demanding the examination of the sailors, and having unfortunately raised his voice higher than what is permitted by the regulations of the courts in China; immediately the judge made a signal to his officers, who seized Captain Dilkes by the shoulders and pushed him violently out of the court; as was also Mr. Staunton.

“Some days after, as the young man was likely to recover from his wound, the Viceroy sent word to Captain Dilkes, that in consideration of the friendship subsisting between the English and the Chinese, he had dispensed with the execution of the law.”

It should here be observed, that the Chinese have no idea of making a distinction between accidental and premeditated murder; as was fatally exemplified some years ago, in the case of a poor gunner belonging to an Indiaman, who was given up, because the wad of a gun, fired by the command of an officer, happened to strike a native in a boat at some distance, and occasioned his death.

By the Chinese laws, if the person survives the accident forty days, and after that period dies, even in consequence of the same accident, yet it is not considered as murder. When any case of this kind occurs, it is best to secure the wounded Chinaman, and have him under the care of Europeans during that space of time; for the Chinese would otherwise, perhaps, bring some man who had died a natural death in the interval, and swear that it was the person who died of the accident, in hopes of extorting a sum of money. The boy alluded to above, notwithstanding his seeming convalescence, lingered about fifty days, and then expired. In these cases, the sentence of death, by the laws of China, is generally commuted for that of banishment into the wilds of Tartary. This court, however, on the boy’s decease, sent a message to Captain Dilkes, intimating that he might punish the seaman according to the laws of his own country; and consequently a British subject was thus preserved from an ignominious and unjust death, by a proper mode of interference.

Captain Dilkes appears to have returned to Europe soon after the above affair, since in the spring of 1801, we find him commanding the Raisonable, of 64 guns, in the expedition against Copenhagen, under Sir Hyde Parker[2]. On the renewal of the war, in 1803, he was appointed to the Salvador del Mundo, bearing the flag of the Port Admiral at Plymouth; where he continued until the autumn of the following year, when he was nominated Resident Commissioner at Jamaica, which we believe to have been his last public employment. His advancement to the rank of Rear-Admiral took place April 28, 1808; and on the 12th Aug. 1812, he was made a Vice-Admiral.

Our officer married, 1804, a daughter of the late Admiral Epworth, father of the present Captain of that name, a notice of whom will appear in our next volume.