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Royal Naval Biography/Dobson, William Burdett


WILLIAM BURDETT DOBSON, Esq.
[Commander.]

Entered the royal navy in 1806; and was made a lieutenant, Jan. 3d, 1814, into the Royal Sovereign, first rate, Captain Thomas Gordon Caulfield, fitting out in Hamoaze, for the Mediterranean station, from whence he returned home under the command of Captain (now Vice-Admiral) Lambert, July 29th following. His next appointment was, Sept. 17th in the same year, to the Tanais frigate. Captain Joseph James, then in the river Medway, destined to the West Indies, in which ship he continued until paid off, in May 1810. From this period we lose sight of him until April 3d, 1823, when he joined the Larne sloop, Captain Frederick Marryat, fitting out at Portsmouth, for the East India station.

In Feb. 1824, the Larne was ordered hy Commodore Charles Grant, to join the expedition then preparing at Calcutta for the invasion of the dominions of Ava:– the following is an outline of the services performed by Lieutenant Dobson during the Burmese war. A “Narrative of the Naval Operations,” from the commencement to the final termination of that contest, is given as an Appendix to Vol III. Part I.

On the 14th May, 1824, three days after the capture of Rangoon, he assisted Captain David Ross, of the Indian army, in taking possession of Dalla. On the four following days, the boats of the Larne, under his directions, were employed in placing fire-booms across the river, about a mile above Rangoon. On the 19th, he went down the river with seven boats, to attack a four gun battery, but found it dismantled and the cannon buried. On the 20th, he went up the Dalla creek, and captured eight large vessels laden with paddy and dried fish. On the 21st, he was again employed about the fire-booms, the grapnels already attached to them having been found of insufficient weight to resist the strength of the tide. On the 22d, he was taken very ill, from his having been wet through for many hours daily, and continually exposed to the weather. On the 15th July, being then convalescent, he was ordered by Captain Marryat to take the command of the Satellite armed transport, and to carry on the naval duties at Rangoon during the temporary absence of the Larne. On the 19th and 20th of the same month, he conducted a reconnoitring party nearly thirty-five miles up the Puzendown creek, and assisted in releasing a few families who were desirous of returning to Rangoon, from whence they had been driven by their armed countrymen on the approach of the invading forces[1]. On the 31st a flotilla under his orders proceeded much further up the same creek, and deprived the enemy of near 1500 tons of grain, but unfortunately the vessels containing it, thirty-five in number, were all in a very crazy state. In bringing them down the river, many got aground, and falling over, at low water, filled with the next Hood. “The loss of them,” says Lieutenant Dobson, “is to be attributed to the great distance we had to bring them, the strong tides and sudden turns, causing eddies out of which it was difficult to get, and the difficulty of towing such unwieldy craft, added to which the greater part of them were without either anchor or rudder.”

On the 4th Aug. Lieutenant Dobson, with some gun-boats under his orders, accompanied a military detachment up the Syriam river, and assisted in driving the enemy from the remains of the old Portuguese fort, situated upon a commanding height, at the mouth of the Pegu river. He was afterwards employed in stripping the Syriam Pagoda of its guns and bells[2]. On the 12th, the Satellite was directed to relieve the Hon. Company’s cruiser Teignmouth, stationed at Pagoda Point. On the 17th, Lieutenant Dobson reported to Captain Marryat as follows:–

“In compliance with your orders, I relieved Captain Hardy, and the Satellite took up the berth of the Teignmouth, on the 14th instant. On the 16th, having one boat and fifteen men from the H.C. cruiser Mercury, and our own people in three row gun-boats, we pulled up the Panlang branch, with the first of the flood-tide. Four miles from Pagoda Point, a Burmese look-out boat was seen shoving off from a hut, and firing an alarm gun: this was repeated by other boats as we advanced, at four or five miles distance from each other. About five miles above the upper stakes, we came to two stockades, one on each side of the river apparently for the protection of a large village above them. Receiving no interruption, we passed on, and destroyed a large canoe, laden with rice and gunpowder. Two reaches above this village, we got sight of twenty of the enemy’s war-boats, lying to under the bank of the river, and each containing about seventy men. As we approached, they began to row away, and I ordered our boats to open their fire, but I fear with little effect, as the enemy took care to keep at a distance, which from their superior speed they could easily do. We chased them till the tide turned and our boats made no progress, when we put about, the enemy following at a distance.”

Lieutenant Dobson’s whole European force in this little expedition was only thirty-six men. On his return to Pagoda Point he received directions to join the expedition destined against Tavoy and Mergui. On the 19th, these orders were countermanded, and the troops embarked on board the Satellite sent to other vessels. On the 11th Sept., Captain Marryat quitted Rangoon for Penang, leaving Lieutenant Dobson, with sixteen of the Larne’s crew and nine supernumerary seamen, in charge of the Satellite, off Pagoda Point; and on the 15th of the same month, Captain H. D. Chads, of the Arachne sloop, recently from England, assumed the chief command of the combined naval force attached to Sir Archibald Campbell’s army. On the 21st, a movement was made upon Panlang, where the enemy had established a post, and were busily employed in constructing combustible rafts, and boats for the destruction of our shipping. The military force employed consisted of about five hundred troops, under the command of Brigadier-General Hugh Frazer; the naval operations were personally directed by Captain Chads, who had embarked on board the Satellite for that purpose. In the evening, heavy guns were heard, not far distant, and next morning five stockades were seen, three on the right side and two on the left; the Satellite manned with forty-five British sailors and twenty soldiers, and towed by the Diana steam-vessel, was far a-head of the flotilla, and soon ran up with the enemy’s works, receiving, as she advanced, a heavy raking fire of great guns, musketry, &c., but which was not returned till she was placed directly in the centre, when both broadsides were opened on them, and the enemy soon fled in all directions. Some troops under Major Sale were immediately landed with trifling opposition, and the whole of the stockades destroyed. Fifteen guns of various calibre were taken, and the same number of one-pounder swivels. On the 24th, three other stockades, situated about twenty miles higher up the river, were bombarded for a short time previous to the landing of the troops, when they were all found evacuated. In reporting his proceedings on this occasion, Captain Chads says:– “During our progress, the Satellite was on shore three times, and the Diana once, but without the slightest injury. * * * * Lieutenant Dobson rendered me every assistance, and was of great service; he was severely burnt on the 22d.”

On the 6th Oct., the Satellite, with Captain Chads on board, proceeded up the Lyne river, accompanied by the flotilla, and a military detachment under Major Thomas Evans. On the 7th, two stockades were taken possession of without loss, and seven newly constructed war-boats destroyed. On reconnoitring the fortified village of Than-ta-bain, about thirty miles distant from Rangoon, it was found to be defended by three long breast-works, with a very extensive stockade, constructed of large teak-beams; and fourteen war-boats, each mounting a gun, were anchored so as to defend the approach to it.

“Having consulted with Captain Chads,” says Major Evans, “we advanced to the assault, the steam-boat with the Satellite and mortar-vessel in tow, and the troops in their boats ready to land when ordered. In passing the breast-works, we received a smart running fire from jingals and musketry, which were returned with showers of grape from the Satellite; and ohserving the enemy evidently in confusion, I directed the troops and scaling ladders to be immediately landed, and in a few minutes every work about the place was in our possession. At six o’clock next morning-, we again moved with the tide, and in passing a narrow neck of land at the junction of two rivers, were received with a brisk discharge of musketry from a long line of breast works, and a cannonade from a very large stockade on our right. The fire of the latter was soon silenced by the well-pointed guns of the Satellite. The troops were then ordered to land, and this formidable stockade was carried by assault without a struggle. It is, without exception, the strongest work of the kind I have ever seen.”

In his official letter respecting “the brilliant and decisive attack” on Than-ta-bain, Captain Chads again acknowledged having “received great assistance from Lieutenant Dobson.”

On the 23d Nov., the Satellite dropped down to Rangoon, having been relieved at Pagoda Point by the Teigmnouth. Next day, Lieutenant Dobson received orders to take charge of and fit out the Shaw-in-shaw, a new teak-ship of between 700 and 800 tons, belonging to a merchant at Calcutta; this was a very unpleasant employment, and gave him a great deal of trouble; she had not a sail made, no portion of her rigging fitted, nothing whatever prepared for her equipment. He was thus employed when the enemy, encouraged by the Teignmouth having been driven from her station by means of fire-rafts, in the night of Nov. 30th, commenced a series of most furious attacks both by land and water upon Kemmendine[3]. In consequence thereof Lieutenant Dobson and his people had the additional duty imposed upon them of going on board the Satellite every evening for her protection.

On the 2d Dec, in the afternoon, observing that a division of the enemy’s force had commenced throwing up works on the Dalla side, Captain Chads directed the Satellite, in charge of Lieutenant Dobson, with a party of seamen from the Arachne, to the support of the Good Hope transport and several small gun-vessels, already for some time stationed there[4]. During the nights of the 2d, 3d, and 4th, she was very closely and warmly engaged with the enemy, whose shot struck her in every direction, and greatly injured the rigging; but as Lieutenant Dobson had taken the precaution to stockade her all around with bamboo, she fortunately had not a man killed or wounded[5]. She continued in the same position, incessantly annoying the enemy, until their works were carried by storm in the night of the 8th, on which occasion Lieutenant Dobson shewed the soldiers the way, and was almost the first to enter. On the 14th, Captain Chads addressed a letter to the commander-in-chief, of which the following is a copy:–

“Sir,– Lieutenant Dobson, of H.M.S. Larne, having been left by Captain Marryat in command of the H.C. armed transport Satellite, stationed at Pagoda Point, where he has been near five months, performing the most important and anxious duties in every respect as a valuable officer, I hope you will have the goodness to recommend him to the consideration of the Right Honorable the Governor-General in Council, as in a pecuniary point of view he has been a considerable sufferer by being at so great a distance from Rangoon, and taken from his own mess in the Larne. The young gentlemen, Messrs. Winsor, Tomlinson, and Pickey, have also been sufferers with him. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)H. D. Chads.”

To Brigadier-General Sir A. Campbell, K.C.B., &c. &c. &c.

On the 22d Dec, the Shaw-in-shaw, with a cargo of timber on board, was quite ready for sea; and on the 25th, a petty officer having been ordered to take charge of her, Lieutenant Dobson returned to the Larne. On the 28th, he resumed the command of the Satellite; and on the 30th, was sent back to Pagoda Point, with seven gun-boats under his orders.

In the beginning of 1825, Sir Archibald Campbell prepared to advance upon the Birman capital; and, in order to leave no obstruction in his rear, directed the enemy to be driven from the old Portuguese fort and the pagoda of Syriam, both which posts they had re-occupied and much strengthened since their late unsuccessful attacks upon Kemmendine. During the performance of this service, by the military and naval detachments under Lieut.-Colonel Elrington and Lieutenant Keele, R.N., the Satellite was stationed at the entrance of Syriam river[6]. In the night of Jan. 29th, an auger hole was bored in her bottom, and she had 4½ feet water in the hold before it was discovered. This is supposed to have been done by her carpenter, a Chinese, in order to prevent her from proceeding up the river.

Previous to the advance upon Ava, it was necessary to open a passage up the Lyne river, for which purpose a force was detached from Rangoon, under Lieutenant-Col. Godwin and Captain Chads, who captured a large stockade at Than-ta-bain, with thirty-six guns mounted, and destroyed an immense number of fire-rafts, and canoes filled with combustibles, for the annoyance of the British shipping. On this occasion, the Satellite was allowed to approach within half a mile before the enemy opened their fire, which proved extremely heavy, and raked her “until she brought up by the Stern with a bower anchor, the steam-vessel hanging by her, at about forty yards distant from the enemy’s works, enfilading the whole of their right, and commanding their left abreast of her; in performing which Lieutenant Dobson rendered Captain Chads much assistance”[7].

Everything being now ready for the advance, Sir Archibald Campbell formed such force as he possessed the means of moving, into two columns; one to proceed by land, and the other by water. The marine column, 1169 strong, commanded by Brigadier-General Willoughby Cotton, was directed to pass up the Fanlang river to the Irrawaddy, and driving the enemy from his stockades, to push on with all possible expedition to Donoobew.

On the 16th Feb., the troops having embarked, the flotilla moved on, escorted by the steam-vessel and Satellite, under the immediate command of Captain Thomas Alexander, C.B., then recently arrived at Rangoon. On the 17th, four stockades were destroyed at and near Thesit. During the night of the 18th, some formidable fire-rafts were launched by the enemy; but, owing to the activity of the light division of boats, their effect was totally lost. On the 19th the extensive stockade of Fanlang, and its outworks, were taken, after a feeble resistance; and on the same day, Sir Archibald Campbell, with the land column, arrived at Meondaga. The Satellite having grounded as she was coming up from Thesit, did not assist at the capture of Fanlang; and the exertions required to get her afloat caused some delay to the progress of the water column[8]. On the 23d, Lieutenant Dobson received the following order from Captain Alexander:–

“You win anchor the Satellite off the stockade, in a position to defend the different branches of the river, with the provision brigs inside of you, towards the stockade, with hawsers to the shore, or in any other position you may judge best for their security against fire-rafts or war-boats. A nightly guard boat to be kept in the Dalla and branches of the river, and reconnoitre them occasionally, making remarks of the soundings, bearings, &c., sending me the same by every opportunity. Co-operate with Captain Ross, the officer commanding the land force, who will furnish you with seven soldiers for each transport: a guard of twenty-five of the European regiment will be stationed on board the Satellite, and I shall hold you responsible for the conduct of every person afloat. The property and habitations of the Carians to be protected, as well as their religious buildings.”

On the evening of the 24th Feb. the light and advance divisions took up a position in the Irrawaddy; on the 27th, it was found necessary to unload the steam and gun-vessels, the last of which did not get over the bar at Yan-gain-chay-a before the 5th of March. From this period until April 19th, on which day he received orders to give up his charge and rejoin the Larne, Lieutenant Dobson was indefatigably employed in forwarding provisions and other supplies to the army and flotilla; an important service, well performed, and duly appreciated, as will be seen by the following short extracts from Captain Alexander’s letters:–

“Mar. 10. – From reports brought in by some Carians, it is necessary you should be on your guard, as troops have even crossed over from Donoobew to intercept our supplies.

“Mar. 21, – I am all anxiety for the arrival of the 18-pounders and ammunition. You are to send by the first boats that can bring them, the Satellite’s two long 12-pounders.

“April 10. – Should any coals arrive at Panlang, forward them by every early opportunity, or the steamer will be rendered useless. We cannot get a thing here (Sarrawah), the country being completely deserted. We only await provisions from Panlang to proceed, and hope to be in Prome by the 21st or 22d.”

In another letter. Captain Alexander says, “I am very much pleased with your exertions, and shall not fail to recommend you to the notice of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.”

On his return to Rangoon, Lieutenant Dobson found that his friend Captain Marryat had at length removed into the Tees 26, to which ship Commodore Coe had appointed him nearly nine months before, A memorandum, of which the following is an extract, appears to have been issued by that officer previous to his quitting the Larne:–

Captain Marryat cannot resign the command of H.M. sloop Larne, without expressing to the officers and ship’s company, who have survived the peculiar severity of the service upon which they have been employed, his most sincere thanks for their ready and praiseworthy support upon every occasion. To Mr. Dobson, first lieutenant, his thanks are particularly due, for the zeal and activity which he has invariably shewn, under constant sickness and prostration of strength, and more especially since he has commanded the Satellite, and, with so few English seamen to assist him, has rendered her more effective and useful than any of the Hon. Company’s cruisers. * * * * * *

(Signed)F. Marryat, Captain.”

Lieutenant Dobson subsequently received the following testimonial from the senior surviving naval officer employed in the Burmese war:–

“These are to certify that Lieutenant W. B. Dobson served under my orders at Rangoon, in command of the armed transport Satellite, and, being stationed in the advance for a considerable time, performed the most arduous and harassing duties with zeal, ability, and gallantry, and on three different expeditions up the river his good conduct was reported to the senior officer in India.

(Signed)H. D. Chads.”

The Larne took her final departure from Rangoon on the 8th May, 1825, and Mr. Dobson continued to serve as first lieutenant under acting commander John Kingcome, until July 13th, 1820, on which day, being then at Madras, he received a commission from England, dated July 25th, 1825, promoting him to the command of that sloop. During the above period, he visited Pulo-Penang, Malacca, Sincapore, Sydney (N. S. Wales), Van Diemen’s Land, New Zealand, and Norfolk Island; passed through Torres Straits, and touched at Melville Island and Batavia.

Commander Dobson’s next appointment was, July 23d, 1830, to the Hyperion 42, Captain W. J. Mingaye, stationed at Newhaven for the suppression of smuggling, in which ship he continued until paid off, May 30th, 1831. He is now an inspecting commander in the coast guard service.