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Royal Naval Biography/Johnston, Charles James


CHARLES JAMES JOHNSTON, Esq.
[Post-Captain of 1806.]

First went to sea in the Savage sloop of war, commanded by the late Captain Richard R, Burgess[1], and served on the Greenock station, under that officer and his successor, the present Vice-Admiral Alexander Eraser, from 1787 till 1790, when he joined the Formidable, a second rate, forming part of the Channel fleet, during the Russian armament; from which ship he was soon removed into the Scorpion sloop, Captain (now Sir Benjamin) Hallowell, whom he accompanied to the coast of Africa and the West Indies, and continued with for a period of two years. We subsequently find him serving, as Midshipman and Master’s-Mate, in the Syren frigate. Stately of 64 guns, and Excellent 74, on the North Sea, Newfoundland, and Channel stations, until his promotion to the rank of Lieutenant, Feb. 26, 1795[2].

On this occasion, Mr. Johnston was appointed to the Ruby 64, Captain Henry Edwin Stanhope, in which ship he assisted at the reduction of the Cape of Good Hope, Sept. 16, 1795. After that conquest, he exchanged into the Arrogant 74, Captain Richard Lucas; and in her, we believe, he was present at the surrender of Columbo on the 15th Feb. 1796[3].

The first Lieutenant of the Arrogant having been mortally wounded in a severe action with six French frigates, near the island of Sumatra[4], and the second being shortly afterwards invalided, Mr. Johnston became senior Lieutenant of that ship towards the close of 1796; and in that capacity he assisted at the capture and destruction of many armed vessels and valuable merchantmen, off Batavia, and in other parts of the Java seas[5].

In July, 1800, Lieutenant Johnston joined the Suffolk 74, bearing the flag of the late Vice-Admiral Rainier, Commander-in-chief on the East India station, from whom he subsequently received the following appointments, viz, – as acting Captain of the Daedalus frigate and Vulcan bomb, in 1801; as Governor of the Naval Hospital at Madras, and Commander of the Victor sloop, in 1802; and as acting Captain of the Trident 64 (then flag-ship), and Captain of la Dédaigneuse frigate, in 1804. His Admiralty commission as a Commander bears date Jan. 18, 1803.

On the 16th June 1805, Captain Johnston was removed by Sir Edward Pellew into the Cornwallis, of 50 guns and 335 men; which appointment was confirmed at home Sept. 5th, in the following year.

The Cornwallis was a very large teak-built frigate, recently purchased from the Hon. East India Company, in whose service she had been employed as a cruiser. When commissioned at Bombay, by Captain Johnston, she was considered the best specimen of the skill of Jemsatjee Bomanjee, the famous Parsee builder; and it was owing to every principle of strength having been considered in her construction, that she suffered little, except in spars, from three furious typhones, which she encountered during the same year, in the China seas.

In 1806, the Cornwallis was stationed off the Isle of France, and several times warmly engaged with the enemy’s formidable batteries.

On the 11th Nov. in that year, Captain Johnston and his senior officer, the late Rear-Admiral Bingham, then commanding the Sceptre 74, made a dash into St. Paul’s bay, Isle Bourbon, and opened their fire upon the shipping there, consisting ot the Sémillante, French frigate, three armed ships, and twelve sail of merchantmen, which had been captured from the British, and were then waiting for a favorable opportunity to stand over and enter Port Louis. Unfortunately the heavy cannonade soon hushed the little breeze there had been, and the two British ships could with difficulty manoeuvre; as otherwise the action would, in all probability, have ended in the rescue of much valuable property, the Sémillante’s prizes alone, eight in number, being valued at nearly a million and a half sterling. After this attack, the Cornwallis and her consort were obliged to repair to Madagascar for refreshments, their crews being greatly affected by scurvy.

On the 9th Feb. 1807, the Cornwallis sailed from Madras for the west coast of America; and she appears to have been the first regular man of war that ever passed between New Holland and Van Diemen’s Land. After leaving Port Jackson, she went round the south end of New Zealand; and on the 16th May we find Captain Johnston discovering three islands, situated about 54 miles S. by E. from Chatham island. A journal kept on board the Cornwallis enables us to give the following outline of his subsequent proceedings:–

“June 14th, at noon, stood towards Musafuero, but no appearance of any sealers on it. Captain Johnston resolved to ascertain if it was in possession of the Spaniards, as had been reported at Port Jackson. At 5 P.M. the boat returned, having found only two American sealers, who had been on the inland about nine months, and had seen but five sail during that time; one of them, they thought, appeared a Spanish brig of war. At 6 P.M. made sail for Juan Fernandez, in expectation of meeting some of the enemy’s cruisers.

“June 16th, stood into Cumberland bay, but not a vessel or even a boat to be seen. This bay is on the N.E. side of the island, and about a mile long from point to point: the town and castle are on the west side of the bay.

“June 18th, while both officers and men were indulging themselves in golden dreams, an accident occurred which threatened to involve the whole in one general destruction. It seems that the gunner had deposited a quantity of blank musket cartridges in his store-room, on the preceding day, after exercise, instead of returning them to the magazine, agreeably to the orders of his Captain; and, in the midst of these, one of the crew, while fitting a flint, snapped his lock, when the whole exploded with a horrible crash. Several of the ship’s company were killed, and many dreadfully burnt; the fore-cockpit was set on fire, and the decks forced up, for they fortunately presented less resistance than the bows; in 20 minutes, however, by great exertions, the ship was half water-logged, and by 9 P.M. the fire was totally extinguished.

“June 20th, made the land to the southward of Valparaiso – stood in to examine the bay. 23d, reconnoitred Coquimbo, but did not see a single vessel at anchor there. It fell calm when we were about 4 miles from the town; and, a heavy swell setting on the shore, we found it difficult to keep off with all the boats towing. Sounded in 80 fathoms, one mile from the beach.

“June 27th, anchored in Guasco bay, under American colours; armed the boats, and sent them with a division of small-arm men, under Lieutenant Barber, to procure cattle from the inhabitants; but should they refuse to supply us, to bring off whatever they could find. At 6 P.M. the boats returned with some sheep and poultry, forcibly obtained, the Chilians declining to supply any refreshments without permission from the governor of St. Jago, distant about thirty miles. Finding by the report of Lieutenant Barber that water might be obtained, though with difficulty. Captain Johnston was induced to attempt it, and we succeeded in obtaining 30 tons; but unfortunately lost a very promising young officer. Lieutenant Robson, who was drowned in the surf whilst attempting to swim a line ashore from the launch. The loss of this valuable officer was much regretted by Captain Johnston, who declared that he never knew any one that had the service more at heart than he had.

“July 2d, the inhabitants having taken away two empty butts during the absence of the watering party, and Lieutenant Barber having informed Captain Johnston that a quantity of copper was deposited near the beach, and guarded by some horsemen, an armed party proceeded to seize it, by way of retaliation. Having brought off 31 pigs, weighing 6,000lbs., and secured 2 Spanish soldiers, we weighed and made sail to the northward.

“July 8th, a small vessel from Arica was captured by the jolly-boat near Iquique, an island on the coast of Peru. From her, and two brigs which we took about the same time, a few hogs and some refreshments were obtained, which proved of great service, as the officers and ship’s company had been on two-thirds allowance of all species, except spirits, ever since our departure from Port Jackson.

“July 13th, anchored otf Elo; took possession of and destroyed the Roslia, a ship of 375 tons, laden with earth – in the mean time one of our boats, under Lieutenant Crosby, boarded and sunk a brig in the offing, she having a similar cargo. On the following day Lieutenants Barber, Crosby, and Elton, landed with a detachment of seamen, and some soldiers commanded by Lieutenant Lane, 84th regiment, exchanged a few shot with the enemy, whom they very soon put to flight, and brought off a quantity of live stock for the use of the scorbutic patients.

“July 17th, got sight of two brigs at anchor under the fort of Pisco, and sent three boats, under the orders of Lieutenant Barber, to bring them out, which service was effected without any loss. They proved to be merchant vessels, one with a complete cargo of spirits, the other partly loaded with the same.

“July 19th, made sail for Lima; on the 22d took a brig in ballast, and received information that the enemy’s naval force in these seas consisted of one 44-gun frigate, then on her return from Panama; four smaller ships of war, two gun-brigs, and several gun-vessels; the latter stationed at Lima and Guayaquil.

“July 25th, captured a brig in ballast; and on the 27th we took one of the enemy’s gun-brigs, mounting 2 brass 18-pounders and 2 iron 4-pounders, with a complement of 37 men: whilst endeavouring to escape by sweeping she had 2 of her crew killed and 1 mortally wounded. This vessel Captain Johnston manned us a tender, and placed her under the command of Lieutenant Elton.

“July 28th, got sight of a ship at anchor off Patabilco; anchored, and sent the boats under Lieutenants Barber and Crosby, to take possession of her. She proved to be the Atlantic, of 300 tons, formerly an English whaler, and now mounting 13 brass 8-pounders, 4 iron guns of the same calibre, and 2 swivels, but with an incomplete cargo.

“Aug. 1st, in Truxillo roads, captured the ship Pegasus, 250 tons, laden with spirits, sugar, and rice; on the following day destroyed a brig, the crew of which hcd run her on shore at Pacasmayo to prevent her falling into our possession.

“Aug. 4th, sent the prize gun-brig amid our boats, the whole under the orders of Lieutenant Barber, into Port Paita, where they destroyed one schooner and four other small vessels.

“Aug. 7th, anchored off Puna Island, and next morning took a small brig, loaded with cocoa-nuts and spars, bound to Guayaquil. On the 9th, Lieutenants Barber and Crosby cut out two cutter-rigged gun-vessels, one mounting a brass 24-pounders, the other an iron 12-pounder, and each manned with 36 men; this capture afforded the crew of the Cornwallis a very desirable treat, as five bullocks were found on board the prizes, and they, the sick excepted, had not tasted fresh meat since leaving Port Jackson, a period of 107 days.

“Aug. 10th, captured a brig from Guayaquil bound to Panama; cargo, bale goods, flour, and potatoes, the latter particularly acceptable. Whilst at anchor off Puna, we took several small vessels, but they were of little value.

“Aug. 15th, Captain Johnston wrote to the Governor of Guayaquil, informing him that he had liberated the 72 officers and men belonging to the prize gun-vessels, on their parole; also allowed 340 subjects of Spain to go on shore at different times since his arrival in the South Seas, and requesting that the total number might be carried to the general account whenever an exchange of prisoners should be agreed upon between the two nations.

“Aug. 17th, stood into St. Helena bay and took a small vessel loaded with timber. 19th, captured a brig from Panama, having on board a quantity of tar-wax, and some bale goods of English manufacture. 28th, anchored at the entrance of the gulf of Panama; and on the 31st brought up off Tobago, an island a few leagues distant from that port. Whilst here we made a forced landing, killed and wounded several Spanish soldiers, disarmed the whole force sent from Panama to oppose us, captured several boats loaded with cheese, jug-beef, &c., completed our water to 208 tons, and obtained a plentiful supply of fresh meat, poultry, and vegetables, which articles were to us of the highest value. Whilst at Tobago we destroyed the prize gun-brig, she being only calculated for light winds and smooth water, consequently not adequate to the voyage which we had still to perform.

“Sept. 4th, took our departure from Tobago, Captain Johnston determining to run down the coasts of New Spain and Mexico as far as Acapulco and St. Blas; but owing to unaccountable currents and light variable winds, we did not get to the westward of the gulf of Panama until the 25th.

“Nov. 1st, arrived off Acapulco; and on the 10th shaped our course for the Sandwich Islands. Dec. 2nd, anchored in Karakukooa bay; obtained there a plentiful supply of pork, vegetables, and (not very good) water; cleared the island of Owhyhee on the 9th Dec, and on the 14th made a new discovery, viz. two very low islands, in lat. 16° 52' N. long. 190° 26' E., having a dangerous reef to the eastward of them, and the whole not exceeding four miles in extent.

“Dec. 21, at noon, we were, by reckoning, only seven miles cast of Gasper Rico, as laid down in Arrowsmith’s chart, but had no appearance of land. The next day we discovered five islands in lat. 14° 30' N. and long. 168° 42' E. This group was first seen at day-break, and the Cornwallis was then standing stem on for a dangerous reef, on which the surf beat with very great violence. Had it continued dark much longer she must inevitably have perished.

“Dec. 29th, saw one of the Ladrone islands; our rigging was now in so bad a state that we were obliged to use preventer-braces, tacks, sheets, and clew-lines, as we had not rope to replace the others, having left Madras with a very small quantity for so long a voyage.

“Jan. 6, 1808, passed a sunken rock, situated about 21 miles south of Botol-Tobaco-Zima, but which is not mentioned in any of our charts. 8th, made the Great Lima; and on the 9th, anchored a few miles to the north-ward of Lintin. During our cruise only one man died of scurvy: the provisions supplied us at Madras were uncommonly good, and too much praise cannot be bestowed on our surgeon [6] for his attention to those who were at any time afflicted with that disorder, or any other illness. Jan. 11th, sailed from Lintin, with nine of the Hon. East India Company’s ships under our protection; arrived at Malacca on the 23d, and there gave the charge of the convoy to H.M.S. Drake, agreeably to orders received from Sir Edward Pellew.”

Captain Johnston’s next appointment was to the Powerful, a leaky old 74, of which ship he assumed the command, at Madras, Feb. 18, 1808. Towards the close of the same year he encountered and providentially weathered two very heavy gales of wind, while cruising off Lagullas bank in search of some French frigates. The Powerful’s condition for encountering Cape seas and storms may be estimated by her carpenter’s report of defects at that period – viz:

“1st, The frame of the ship, where it can be seen, appears very rotten. 2nd, The stern-frame has fallen three inches from its station, and both main and lower-deck beams appear to have fallen. 3d, A dangerous leak in the after wooden-ends. 4th, The 3d, 4th, 5th, and 6th lower-deck beams from aft are quite rotten through, and several of the foremost ones appear to be decayed, as the rotten wood falls through the scarfs, which are very open. 5th, The clumps of the lower-deck beams are very rotten, and several of the hanging and lodging knees and beam-arms are quite decayed. 6th, The lower-gun-deck works very much at sea, and starts at the butt-ends. The spurquiting is quite rotten fore and aft. The cells and timbers of the ports are also rotten. 7th, The streets work very much, and the fastenings are all slack. The sides are decayed in the wake of the scupper-laps. 8th The step of the fore-mast is so rotten as to render the mast unsafe; and all the wedges are bad. 9th, The apron, both above and below the breast-hook, is very rotten. 10th, Most of the hanging knees on the main-deck are decayed in the throat. 11th. The quickwork of the main-deck and poop is very rotten. 12th, The chain-plate-bolt-streak, in the topside, is rent all along the channels, and labours very much. 13th, The copper is off the ship’s bottom in nearly all directions, and all the lead is worn off the cutwater. 14th, The ship is extremely weak, labours and strains heavily, and by her working the lead of the taffrail, stern, and quarters, is entirely broke. 15th, The ship wants caulking inside and out.”

In consequence of her defective state, the Powerful was soon ordered to England; but instead of being paid off on her arrival, she was then attached to the armament destined against Antwerp[7]. On his return from that disastrous expedition, Captain Johnston was put out of commission, after being constantly and actively employed for upwards of 22 years. The opinion entertained of him by the two flag-officers under whom he had served more than half that time, will be seen by the following letter:

H.M.S. Christian VII., Downs, 22d Jan. 1811.

“Dear Sir,– Captain Johnston having requested me to state my approbation of his conduct during the period of my command in India, I confess it gives me great satisfaction to do him the justice be deserves at my hands. I found Captain Johnston not only an officer of very considerable merit and talents, but as full of zeal for his Majesty’s service, and ardent activity and enterprise, as any officer I ever had under my command. Captain Johnston enjoyed the confidence and good opinion of the late Admiral Rainier, who spoke of him to me as one of his best officers, and on every occasion of service I found that opinion perfectly correct. Captain Johnston took his ship, the Powerful, to England, after serving in India eleven years. I trust his own character will justify me to you for thus bringing him before you. I am, dear Sir, with the highest respect, and most perfect esteem, your obedient, and most faithfully devoted servant,

(Signed)Edw. Pellew.”

Right Hon. Charles Yorke, &c. &c. &c.

Captain Johnston’s next, and last, appointment was to the Scarborongh a third rate, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Ferrier, on the North Sea station, which ship he continued to command until the conclusion of the war, in 1814.



  1. See Vol. I. note * at p. 152.
  2. The Stately and Excellent were the flag-ships of the late Sir Richard King and Hon. William Cornwallis.
  3. See Vol. I. p. 47 et seq., and note at p. 49 et seq.
  4. See Vol. II. Part I. p. 328. N.B. Errata at ditto – line 2 from the top, for Ceylon read Acheen, in the island of Sumatra.
  5. The Arrogant was latterly commanded by Captain Edward Oliver Osborn.
  6. Mr. Coley, now a physician at Cheltenham.
  7. See Vol. I. p. 290.