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Royal Naval Biography/Mackellar, John


JOHN MACKELLAR, Esq
[Post-Captain of 1798.]

This officer, a descendant from an old and highly respectable family in Argyleshire, is the eldest son of the late General Patrick Mackellar, a Colonel of the Royal Engineers, by Miss Elizabeth Basaline, of Minorca, on which island he was born about 1768[1]. He entered the naval service as a Midshipman on board the Romney, a 50-gun ship, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Johnstone, Jan. 6, 1781; and was badly wounded in the leg during the action with M. de Suffrein, in Porto Praya bay[2]. He subsequently served under Captains J. W. Payne Carnegie (now Earl of Northesk), Adam (afterwards Viscount) Duncan, Benjamin Caldwell, John Knight, and William Domett; in the Enterprise of 28 guns, on the West India and American stations; Edgar 74; Phoenix frigate; Alcide a third rate, and Barfleur of 98 guns, fitted for home service; Salisbury 50, at Newfoundland; and Victory, a first rate, in the Channel.

During a cruise off the Havannah, the Enterprize assisted at the capture of two valuable Spanish polacres; a privateer of 16 guns and 70 men, under American colours; and six other armed vessels: also at the destruction of the Count de Grasse, carrying 20 guns and 110 men. She subsequently sent her boats, one of which was commanded by Mr. Mackellar, up a river, to destroy the store-houses belonging to two plantations; a service which was effectually performed, after defeating a party of native militia, who opposed their landing. They returned to the ship in safety, bringing with them a considerable quantity of sugar. Whilst on the coast of America, she drove on shore a brig privateer, of 16 guns; and captured the Mohawk of 22 guns and 125 men. Mr. Mackellar was employed in one of the two boats sent to destroy the former, which was accomplished, notwithstanding the resistance made by her crew, supported by some military, and the presence of several French men of war lying in Boston harbour. The Mohawk was afterwards commissioned as a sloop of war. Subsequent to the general pacification, the Enterprize took possession of Montserratt, Nevis, St. Kitt’s, and Dominica; which islands had been restored to Great Britain by the treaty of Versailles. She was paid off at Deptford May 26, 1784; and from that period Mr. Mackellar served in the abovementioned ships[3], until 1790, when he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the Circe frigate, employed cruising in the Channel.

A few months after the commencement of hostilities against the French republic, our officer was appointed to the Assistance of 50 guns; in which ship we find him serving as first Lieutenant, at the capture of l’Elizabeth, mounting 40 guns, with a complement of 300 men, by the squadron under Vice-Admiral Murray, on the Halifax station, Aug. 28, 1796.

In Jan. 1797, Captain Mowatt, of the Assistance, having succeeded to the command of the squadron employed in North America, appointed Lieutenant Mackellar to the command of a sloop of war recently launched at Bermuda; but, on the arrival of Vice-Admiral Vandeput, he was superseded and obliged to return home as a passenger on board the St. Albans 64. On his arrival in England, he was confirmed as a Commander, by commission dated July 5, 1797; and in November following, he was appointed to the Minerva frigate, armed en flute.

The Minerva formed part of the expedition sent against Ostend, in May 1798; and Captain Mackellar, then labouring under a severe attack of dysentery, after distinguishing himself by his activity and zeal, appears to have been included in the capitulation by which the British troops, under Major-General Coote, and a detachment of seamen, landed from Sir Home Popham’s squadron, surrendered themselves as prisoners of war to a very superior French force[4].

The following is an extract from the general order, issued by the military commander-in-chief, dated Sand Hills, near Ostend, May 20, 1798:

“To Captains Winthrop of the Circe, and Mackellar of the Minerva, Major-General Coote cannot sufficiently express how highly he is satisfied with the great assistance he has derived from those officers, by their support to the general object of the expedition; in conveying up to the basin gates, the powder and materials necessary for their destruction, and the effectual manner in which this object has been accomplished. To Captain Mackellar, the Major-General has in a particular manner to convey his marked approbation for his able conduct in lashing the vessels to the basin gates after the explosion; and in setting fire to and burning them.”

Captain Mackellar continued a prisoner in the citadel of Lisle until the month of December following, when he had the good fortune to be exchanged. The following is an extract from a letter written to him at a subsequent period, by Major-General Harry Burrard, one of his fellow captives:

“To your exertions, and those of Captain Winthrop, I have always considered the service as extremely indebted, both in taking the command of transporting the necessary combustible materials, and in arranging them for the required effect. I well remember your particular exertions, after the mine was sprung, in burning the vessels, and lashing them to the floodgates, to consume the whole; and during the attack upon us the next morning, you did every thing an officer could do in your situation. When, a few days afterwards, I joined you in the citadel of Lisle, and found that the French Commandant, with much liberality, but at his own risk, allowed us the command of our own men, I soon had reason to rejoice that an officer of your firmness of character, had the management of those who, generally speaking, I considered as a very ungovernable, I may say, mutinous set of fellows. The quota furnished, I believe, by two of the frigates, were well behaved, and might be depended upon; the rest, above 100, were mostly from the gun-brigs, Irish and lawless, as undisciplined and difficult to keep under as any men I have ever seen. We all considered ourselves as much indebted to you, when, at the extreme hazard of your life, you went into them, when in a state of mutiny, and at a time the Commandant, notwithstanding his good will, found it necessary to point guns at them. By your spirit and firmness, you brought them at length to a more sober way of thinking; shielding us all from the rigorous treatment reasonably to be expected from such a government at such a time.“After noticing his attention to the victualling and clothing of his men, together with his anxiety about those who fell sick, the Major-Geueral tells Captain Mackellar, “These sentiments were not those of the moment only. We remained together,” says the gallant officer, “confined strictly to the citadel, for above six months, where I had leisure, and surely opportunity enough to collect these observations with correctness. I shall only add, that to your firmness I consider we owed much of that lenity we continued to experience; for had it not been for those exertions, and the support you gave your officers, the very undisciplined state of the crews with us, must have made it necessary for the government to be much more rigorous.”

After commanding the Wolverene sloop of war for a very few days, Captain Mackellar was appointed to the Charon, a 44-gun ship, fitting for the Mediterranean station[5]; and on his arrival at Gibraltar, April 27, 1799, he received a post commission dated that same day, as a reward for his conduct at Ostend, but particularly for remaining on shore with the certainty of being made a prisoner, for the express purpose of giving his aid to Major-General Coote, by assuming the command of the seamen who had unavoidably been left without an officer of sufficient rank to direct them, at a moment when the presence of one was absolutely necessary.

From Gibraltar, Captain Mackellar proceeded to Constantinople with presents for the Grand Seignior, and a transport having on board a number of artificers and artillerymen, sent to instruct the Turks in their respective branches of military science. On his return he called at Smyrna, Sicily, and Minorca, for the homeward bound trade collected at those places; the whole of which he conducted in safety to the rock, where he was charged with despatches for England. On his passage thither, he chased a privateer schooner, which escaped, after throwing overboard her guns, 14 in number, boats, spars, and anchors. He subsequently assisted at the evacuation of the Helder.

Captain Mackellar’s next appointment was to the Jamaica of 26 guns, in which ship he escorted a fleet of merchantmen to and from the Baltic, re-took an English mast-ship, and a brig laden with corn; and obliged a large privateer, commanded by the famous Blackeman, to lighten herself of guns, &c., in order to avoid capture. In March 1801, he was appointed to the Terpsichore frigate, employed blockading Boulogne and Calais; on which service he continued till June following, when he received orders to sail for the East Indies with despatches, and a large quantity of specie.

In Dec. 1801, whilst the Terpsichore was under repair at Bombay, the Governor of that Presidency received information that the Portuguese authorities on the coast of Malabar, expected a French squadron, with a body of troops, to take possession of their settlements; and feeling the importance of preventing the enemy establishing themselves at Demaun and Isle Diu, applied to Captain Hargood, of H.M.S. Intrepid, the senior officer present, for assistance. The Intrepid and Terpsichore being in a dismantled state, Captain Mackellar instantly volunteered to take the command of an expedition; and his offer being accepted, sailed the same evening in the Marquis Cornwallis of 48 guns, accompanied by the Upton Castle Indiaman, Betsy, an armed brig belonging to the Hon. Company, and several smaller vessels, on board of which were embarked 1000 regulars and native troops; it being intended to have recourse to force, should the Governors of Demaun and Isle Diu refuse to admit British reinforcements. The object of the armament, however, was gained by the address used upon the occasion, and to the entire satisfaction of the government of Bombay, as will appear by the following official document:

Political Department, Bombay Castle, Jan. 18, 1802.

“Sir.– I am directed by the Governor in Council, to acknowledge the receipt of your letter of the 14th inst., with enclosures; and to express to you his entire satisfaction and thanks for the services you have lately rendered, in conveying British reinforcements to the Portuguese settlements of Demaun and Diu; and for the able and successful manner in which the object of this expedition has been accomplished.” * * * *

(Signed)R. Richards, Sec. to Govt.”

To Captain John Mackellar.

On the 27th March following, information was received at Bombay, that the Governor (Hon. Jonathan Duncan), who had gone to arrange a dispute with some of the native powers in the Guzzeret country, was unexpectedly attacked, and having lost many of the troops who formed his escort, compelled to entrench himself at Surat. This being “a case of the greatest emergency, and of particular importance to the reputation of the British name in India,” the Political Department requested Captain Mackellar, the then senior officer at Bombay, to proceed to Goa, at that time blockaded by Sir William Clarke, and convey the troops under that officer’s orders from thence to Surat. Captain Mackellar instantly sailed in the Terpsichore, accompanied by the Trident 64, Betsy armed brig, and two Indiamen, joined Captain Hargood at Goa; and such was the alacrity of all parties on this occasion, that in seven days from his leaving Bombay, 3000 troops were landed at Surat, the natives defeated, and Governor Duncan again in possession of the country. For his exertions in thus promoting the public service, Captain Mackellar was again honored with the thanks of the Bombay Government. We subsequently find him employed in the blockade of Goa.

In May 1804, the subject of this memoir was, after a short period of inactivity, appointed Agent for Transports and Prisoners of War, and Governor of the Naval Hospital at Halifax, where he continued about six years. Soon after his return, seeing no prospect of immediate employment afloat, he solicited permission to join the Spanish navy, and having procured strong letters of recommendation from Admiral Apodaca (the Ambassador at the Court of St. James’s) to the Cortes at Cadiz, he proceeded thither in the Prevoyante store-ship; but on his arrival found the Spanish marine in so cramped and inefficient a state, as to preclude all hope of obtaining a command suitable to his rank. He therefore relinquished the idea, and proceeded to his native island, at that time the rendezvous of the British fleet, from whence he returned to England in 1812.

On the 2d Aug. 1815, our officer was nominated Flag-Captain to Rear-Admiral J. E. Douglas, with whom he proceeded to Jamaica in the Salisbury of 58 guns; from which ship he exchanged into the Pique frigate, Mar. 17, 1817. Previous to his departure from the station, he had the gratification of receiving the following address from the principal merchants of Kingston:

Kingston, Sept. 21, 1818.

“Sir. We the undersigned merchants of this city, cannot suffer you to leave the station without conveying to you the high sense we entertain of your conduct.

“Your kind solicitude evinced on every occasion for the welfare of the trade of this island, and your great attention to the safety of the convoys with which you have been entrusted, deserve the thanks of this community at large; but those who have known and felt the good effects of your exertions, are bound more particularly to address you on this occasion.

“We hope your services will be duly appreciated on your return to the mother country; and with a tender of our sincere wishes for your health and prosperity, we remain, with the highest respect, &c. &c. &c."

Signed by George Kinghorn, Mayor, and the
principals of forty-nine commercial firms.

The Pique, on her passage home, encountered a dreadful hurricane, and nearly foundered: she was paid off at Deptford, in Dec. 1818; since which Captain Mackellar has twice visited the continent. He is married, and has three daughters. His only brother, Colonel Neil Mackellar, C.B. was Aid-de-Camp to Sir Adam Williamson, in all the battles at St. Domingo; served at the reduction of the Danish islands, by Sir John T. Duckworth; and commanded a brigade during the late war in India, where he at present commands the 2d battalion of the Royal Scots, in which corps he has served ever since the commencement of his military career in 1788.

Agent.– ___ Mc. Inerheny, Esq.



  1. General Mackellar was descended from the Lairds of Main and Dale, where the family possessed considerable landed property. His eminent services at the reduction of Quebec, the Havannah, and other places, are thus alluded to by General Mercer, of the same corps, in a letter addressed to Captain John Mackellar, dated at Plymouth, Jan. 29, 1803:

    “Dear Sir.– As I had the happiness of serving under your late father, for upwards of eleven years, it gives me much pleasure to comply with your wish, and to state my real sentiments of his character in public and private life. The late Colonel Mackellar, of the corps of Royal Engineers, was, in all respects, a most excellent and moral man. He was an accomplished gentleman and scholar, and a most excellent officer. He had seen much, and to him, most honorable service; and, as a professional man, we had not then, nor do I now believe we can produce, his equal in point of general knowledge. He was Chief Engineer, under General Wolfe, at Quebec; and his professional ability, and unremitted exertions, were, in a great measure, the means of preventing that place from falling into the hands of the French, when they afterwards attacked it; when, by the advice of your father, battle was given by General Murray, and the enemy were completely defeated, and put to the rout. In this engagement Mackellar was dangerously wounded, being shot through the body*. He served as Chief Engineer at the taking of Martinique, Guadaloupe, and at the siege of the Havannah; and closed a most honorable life when Chief Engineer at Minorca, (in 1779). It must afford you great pleasure to recollect and reflect upon the character and virtues of such a father. * * * *

    “I am, dear Sir, most sincerely yours,
    (Signed)Alex. Mercer.”

    P.S. I forgot to mention, that he was of very great service in General Braddock’s unfortunate engagement; and that he was wounded at Oswego.”

    * General Mackellar was badly wounded in six places.

  2. See Vol. I. note at p. 268, et seq .
  3. The Barfleur and Victory bore the flag of the late Viscount Hood; and the Salisbury that of Admiral Milbanke.
  4. See Vol. I. note at p. 713, et seq.
  5. See p. 204.