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Royal Naval Biography/Gabriel, James Wallace

[Captain of 1831.]

Third son of the late Rev. Robert Burd Gabriel, D. D. rector of Haslington and Hanworth, both in co. Middlesex, and many years proprietor of the Octagon Chapel, in Miliem Street, Bath; by the inhabitants of which city he was most highly respected for his orthodoxy, and, we may venture to add, universally admired as a popular preacher.

Mr. J. W. Gabriel was born at Hanworth, April 5th, 1783; and entered on the books of the Romney 50, bearing the flag of his godfather. Sir James Wallace, Knt. governor of Newfoundland, in Jan. 1795. From that ship he followed Captain (now Admiral) Sotheron into the Latona frigate, where he completed his time as midshipman[1]. Whilst serving under the latter excellent officer, a boat of which he had the command was upset in a heavy gale of wind, between Portsmouth and Spithead, and being unable to swim, he must have perished but for the generous heroism of a tar who hastened to his assistance, and kept him from sinking until the arrival of more effectual aid. As the accident happened close to the Latona, the whole of the ship’s company witnessed with admiration the exertions of the gallant sailor, and seeing him apparently exhausted, one man sang out “Let go your hold, or you will be drowned:” – to which he characteristically replied, “No – I’ll be d___d if I do! – if he goes to h___l, I will go with him.” We mention this circumstance merely to shew how assiduously Mr. Gabriel had then laboured to gain the esteem of his inferiors, and what an impression humane and kind conduct will make on the most rude and uncultivated minds. Unfortunately, the preserver of his young officer’s life was by no means qualified for any promotion, and therefore a handsome pecuniary reward, together with such little acts of kindness as a midshipman could confer, were all that he received for imminently hazarding his own life, in order to save that of another.

Mr. Gabriel’s first commission bears date Mar. 12th, 1800; from which we infer, that he had been borne on the books of some other ship previous to his joining the Romney. On his advancement to the rank of lieutenant, he was appointed to the Alecto fire-vessel. Captain Lenox Thompson, stationed at the Needles; and we afterwards find him serving successively under Captains the Hon. Thomas Bladen Capel and Robert Barrie, in the Phoebe, Brilliant, and Pomone, frigates. The following extract is taken from the “Hampshire Courier” of July 15th, 1811:–

“Lieutenant Gabriel is the same gallant officer who, a few years ago, made an attack upon a large full-manned ship, in the Mediterranean, with the boats of the Phoebe, and having boarded her before the others came up, after a severe and bloody conflict, got temporary possession of her. The French crew, however, seeing the smallness of the party to whom they had succumbed, soon rallied, and succeeded in driving back their assailants, scarcely one of whom escaped uninjured.”

During this sanguinary conflict, which took place near Civita Vecchia, July 14th, 1803, Lieutenant George Elliot Salter boarded the enemy over the bow, and received a mortal wound: Lieutenant Gabriel was shot through the body and arm, and had his thigh dreadfully lacerated by a pike. The Patriotic Society at Lloyd’s soon afterwards resolved, “that a sword of 50l. value, and the sum of 50l., should be presented to him in consideration of his gallantry and exertions;” but, unfortunately for him, his distinguished patron, Sir James Wallace, had then recently died, whereby he was deprived of such powerful influence as would otherwise have secured his promotion. The manner in which he conducted himself whilst serving under Captain Barrie will be seen by the following testimonial:

“These are to certify that Commander J. W. Gabriel served under my command for upwards of six years, as first lieutenant of H.M. ships Brilliant and Pomone; during the whole of which time, he conducted himself in a most exemplary manner. I ever found him a cheerful volunteer on all occasions of danger, and I never entrusted him with the execution of any kind of service, which he did not perform, most completely to my satisfaction, and highly to his own credit. I have communicated to him, at different times, the official thanks of almost every superior officer the Pomone served under, particularly of Sir Richard Keats, for his zealous exertions in burning H.M. brig Atalante in the face of the enemy, when on shore on the Isle St. Martin, after the boats of the Penelope had failed in the attempt; also for his meritorious exertions to save the crew of H.M. cutter Pigmy, when she was wrecked on Isle Rhé. – Of Sir Richard Strachan, for his able and gallant conduct in capturing and destroying, with the boats of the Pomone, &c. &c. sixteen of the enemy’s vessels under Sables d’Ollone[2]. For this service, and his general conduct, he also received the thanks of Lord Gardner, who strongly recommended him to the Admiralty for promotion. – Of Lord Henry Paulet and Lord Collingwood, for his gallant conduct in cutting out a large French brig from under the guns of the batteries of Oneglia. Lord H. Paulet and his crew, who witnessed this affair, as a mark of their admiration of it, refused to participate in their share of the capture. – He was also publicly thanked for his spirited conduct in capturing, with the boats of the Pomone, the French privateer le Jupiter, of twelve 12-pounders and sixty-eight men. I also communicated to him (in common with the rest of the officers and crew of the Pomone) Sir Charles Cotton’s thanks for, and approbation of, his disinterested conduct in foregoing all claim to the property of Lucien Buonaparte when he was captured by the Pomone, though this property was legal prize, but taken under circumstances which the crew of the Pomone did not think it would become Englishmen to take advantage of. I likewise conveyed to him Sir Charles Cotton’s official thanks for his conduct at the destruction of the enemy’s ships and batteries in Sagone Bay; and Sir Charles Cotton, some time after this event, wrote to me, to signify his disappointment and surprise that Lieutenant Gabriel was not promoted for this service: in short, I always found Captain Gabriel, while serving as first lieutenant under my command, not only an active, brave, able seaman, but also an excellent officer, and honorable private gentleman.

(Signed)Robt. Barrie, Commodore.”

The destruction of the Atalante was a service of great danger, as the breakers ran so high that Lieutenant Gabriel did not think it prudent to attempt passing through them with the large boats under his orders, and therefore went in the jolly-boat, conducting her with so much coolness and skill as to excite the admiration of every spectator, On the occasion of the loss of the Pigmy he was absent from his ship ten hours, the whole time exposed to most severe cold weather, and the fury of a tremendous gale, which, added to extreme fatigue, had such an effect upon his boat’s crew, that on their return to the Pomone only four of them could walk up her side: of the other persons then with him, fourteen in number, one lost the use of his limbs, and was never again fit for service. The cutting out of the French vessels from the Sables d’Ollone, and the destruction of three national ships in Sagone bay, have been officially described in our memoir of Captain Barrie; we shall therefore only repeat, that Sir Richard J. Strachan, on seeing the former towed out by the boats under Lieutenant Gabriel, was so delighted with the success attending the gallant enterprise, that he telegraphed to his squadron, “the Pomone has great merit.” The total number of vessels, including two privateers, captured and destroyed by the boats of that ship, under the immediate command of Lieutenant Gabriel, was forty-one; and ten of those appear to have been taken close under the enemy’s batteries. The other services in which he bore a prominent part, have been recorded in pp. 722–727 of Vol. II. Part II. Let us now turn our attention to the internal discipline of the Pomone.

“Captain Barrie and his first lieutenant,” says our informant, “seems to have been actuated by a perfect unison of sentiment; – can it then be wondered at, that the former should commit to his able assistant the whole internal management of the frigate? The prominent feature in the character of each was humanity, and from it sprung up their wish to diffuse comfort and happiness to all under their controul. In addition thereto, they were both known to be brave and decisive in all their actions. The crew, well aware of their possessing these essential qualifications, paid implicit obedience to all orders, and even felt pleasure in obeying. Mutual confidence was fully established before they had long been together; doubt and suspicion were, of course, as speedily banished from every mind. Caprice and an intoxication of power were never indulged in by the officers; on no occasion had the men cause to lament that what they were taught to consider law on one day would be declared high treason and insubordination the next. It was a gratification of the highest kind, to see the pleasing result of this unanimity of disposition between Captain Barrie and Lieutenant Gabriel, the latter of whom treated the men as children entrusted to his cure, but having particular duties to perform, on the prompt execution of which both his and their lives depended, and, what is more to the truly brave, their honor. The crew regarded him as their adopted father; their true friend and watchful protector.” The gentleman, now deceased, who furnished us with the particulars of this officer’s naval career. “often saw the men approach him on the quarter-deck, with a modest manly confidence, whether to prefer a complaint or to solicit a favor. There was not that awe, strongly allied to fear, which the boldest spirit feels in the presence of a despot who has no other qualifications to demand it but pride and power. They knew that they would be heard with temper, and that if their complaint was well-founded, or their wish refused, they would be dismissed with urbanity, and probably retire fully satisfied with the lieutenant’s reasoning in either case. Were this system to be generally adopted in the royal navy, the service would no longer be regarded us the school of despotism; sailors would cheerfully enter; the primary cause of desertion, or, more plainly speaking, cruelty assuming the mark of discipline, would no longer exist; the odious method of manning our ships by impressment would soon become obsolete; and, instead of the proud spirit of British tars being broke down, by the tyranny of an upstart,” (as we ourselves have often witnessed), “they would be made happy in their respective stations by the enlivening cordials of humanity and kindness “Lieutenant Gabriel’s eye was always on the watch, not only to see that every man did his duty, but to increase the comforts of his companions in war: even to their amusements he extended his beneficial exertions when the service admitted of relaxation. In order to unbend their minds and cheer them with variety, they were permitted to amuse themselves with theatrical exhibitions, particularly when they were in harbour, and the ship was reported ready for sea, on which occasions the officers frequently honored them with their presence as spectators. This produced the most salutary effect, by keeping the whole crew in good humour, and worked very powerfully upon them.

“It also was a most delightful sight to pass along the lower-deck when all hands were piped to dinner. Their table-covers, plates, dishes, knives, &c. were equally distinguished for cleanliness; happiness was depicted on every brow, and reflected, as in a mirror, the same pleasing effect on the countenance of their protector, arising from the happy result of the wise system he had adopted. A pleasing silence reigned from stem to stern – no wrangling – no swearing; all was harmony; – decency and propriety were the order of each and every day: it hail all the appearance of a well regulated family, under the controul and superintendence of a masterly conductor, who knew how judiciously to correct the dissolute and reward the meritorious.

“I shall here adduce a proof of the mutual confidence which subsisted between the officers and crew of the Pomone, the effect of a wise and well regulated indulgence; for it would be an injustice to both, were I to withhold the fact, that, whenever the service would admit of it, one-half of the ship’s company were allowed to go on shore daily, and that, so far from desertions often taking place, the liberty-men seldom returned on board unaccompanied by volunteer seamen. How few instances can you, even with your extensive information, bring forward of a plan so liberal, rational, and blended with the purest principles of humanity, having been adopted in the ships of the royal navy during the reign of King George III., the period to which, I find, you intend to confine your particular attention? The important benefits resulting from such a system are beyond the power of the most subtle and ingenious sophistry to subvert, or to prove fallacious and nugatory.

“At the court-martial for the loss of the Pomone[3], the president, Rear-Admiral (now Sir William) Hargood observed that Lieutenant Gabriel did not answer the questions of the court to his satisfaction, upon which the whole of the other members, including the present Sir David Milne, and Captains John Towers and the Hon. George Cadogan, declared that they never heard more distinct evidence; adding, that Lieutenant Gabriel appeared to them to have great merit for his conduct on that occasion, where coolness and exertion were more requisite than in any other situation a ship could possibly be placed in. On hearing the evidence read over, the Rear-Admiral subscribed to thee just opinion of his colleagues, by whom it was allowed that the Pomone’s internal regulations, the appointment of her boats, and the discipline and happiness of her crew, were not to be excelled by any ship in the service. How must the heart of this brave and deserving officer swell with indignation when he contemplates the anxious moments he has passed, the perils he has contended with, and the wounds he has received in his country’s cause, to see boys without any extraordinary merit, and possessing no other claim than that afforded by the shadowy appellation of “honorable”, pass over his head with the velocity of meteors! If you analyse the pretensions of the latter, what do they too frequently end in but the visionary vacuum of exalted birth.

“Through the spirited and unceasing exertions of Captain Barrie, my friend Gabriel was made a commander in March 1812; since which he has made every effort in his power to obtain employment, but without success. On obtaining a pension for his wounds, ho immediately settled its amount, upon his mother for her life. As a husband, a father, or a master, his character is equally amiable and affectionate. He married Maria, eldest daughter of William Holbrook, Esq. an eminent solicitor of Ledbury, in Herefordshire, a lady possessing every qualification to make him supremely happy. By her he has one son and one daughter.”

The foregoing information was communicated to the author in Sept. 1824, at which period Commander Gabriel occupied a small farm at Newbury, in Worcestershire, and was “enjoying, in the highest degree, the otium cum dignitate, visited by many of the most respectable families in the neighbourhood, beloved and esteemed by all for his urbanity, his modesty, and his cheerfulness of temper, and bringing up his offspring in the paths of virtue, integrity, and honor.” He subsequently received a letter from Rear-Admiral the Hon. Thomas Bladen Capel, of which the following is an extract:–

“I can enter fully into your mortified feelings at the neglect of your very meritorious services, and be assured that whatever influence I may have shall be most cheerfully exerted in your behalf.”

In the ensuing month (Aug 1827) we find his friend Commodore Barrie addressing Sir George Cockburn as follows:–

“At the request of a very deserving officer whom I am anxious to serve, I enclose a memorial which I will thank you to place before the Lord High Admiral. Of Captain Gabriel I can honestly say to you, that I never knew a better officer, a better seaman, or a braver man, than he proved himself during six or seven years he served with me as first lieutenant. He is really a most valuable officer.”

Although so desirous of being employed afloat, Commander Gabriel did not obtain an appointment until June 1830, when he commissioned the Columbine, of 18 guns, fitting out for the West India station. His promotion to the rank of captain took place July 2d, 1831.

This officer’s eldest brother, Burd, was educated for the church; but preferring the army, and having a cornetcy given him by H.R.H. the Duke of York, he joined the Queen’s Bays, and has risen by his merit alone to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. Me was aide-de-camp in the late war to Lieutenant-General Stewart. John, the second son of Dr. Gabriel, was a major in the Hon. East India Company’s service, and died in the year 1815, aged 35. Vere, the fourth son of the same worthy divine, received his education at the Royal Naval College, and died whilst serving as first lieutenant of the Active frigate, in the beginning of 1824, Mrs. Gabriel’s brother, Thomas Holbrook, Esq. is a commander in the royal navy.

Agents.– Messrs. Stilwell.


(See p. 173).
[Captain of 1831.]

Previous to his return home from Jamaica, on which station he had, for some time, been the senior officer, Captain Gabriel received the following handsome testimonials from his commander-in-chief and the mayor of Kingston:

H.M.S. Champion, Bermuda, 22d Sept. 1831.

“Sir,– In acknowledging the receipt of your several letters by Falcon, dated between the 22d July and 26th August; I have to express my full and entire approbation of your proceedings, in the disposal, of the vessels of the squadron under your orders, at Jamaica. I am &c.

(Signed)E. G. Colpoys.”


“My dear Sir, – It gave me very great pleasure to hear of your promotion, and I have now only to regret, that my intentions of serving you in other matters, should have been frustrated by your appointment to the Magnificent; for had you remained in the Columbine even a few weeks longer, it appears you would, have picked up wherewithal at least to defray the expense of your outfit; but with us all is a lottery, and truly by Dame Fortune in such matters you have not been favored. I wish with all my heart that Sir James Graham would, in farther consideration of former services, afford me an opportunity of making up to you for what you have missed, by sending you out here in command of a ship. I remain, my dear Sir, very faithfully and truly yours,

(Signed)E. G. Colpoys.”

“My dear Sir,– I return you the letters, and cannot take my leave without expressing to you my warmest acknowledgments for the readiness with which all my applications on behalf of this mercantile community have been attended to. We cannot too highly appreciate the interest you have uniformly taken in our welfare, and for the zeal always manifested in promoting our commercial prosperity. I can safely say we have never missed the flag at the fore while you have had charge of the port duties; and God grant we may ever have officers like you filling that responsible situation.

(Signed)G. Yates, Mayor.”