Open main menu

Royal Naval Biography/Macnamara, James

JAMES MACNAMARA, Esq
Senior Rear-Admiral of the White.

This officer is descended from an ancient family in Ireland. He entered the naval service in 1782, on board the Gibraltar, of 80 guns, bearing the broad pendant of the late Sir Richard Bickerton, Bart., whom he accompanied to the East Indies; and immediately on his arrival there, was removed into the Superb, of 74 guns, the flag-ship of Sir Edward Hughes, K.B.

Soon after the action with M. de Suffrein, off Cuddalore, June 20, 1783[1], in which the Superb had 12 men killed and 41 wounded, Mr. Macnamara was appointed to act as Lieutenant of the Monarca, a third rate, in which ship he returned to England. He subsequently served for several years as a Midshipman on board the Europa, bearing the flag of Admiral Innes, at Jamaica, on which station he was at length promoted to the rank of Lieutenant.

During the Russian and Spanish armaments, we find him in the Excellent, of 74 guns, and Victory, a first rate; the former commanded by Captain Gell, the latter carrying the flag of Lord Hood. In 1793, soon after the commencement of the war with France, he again joined that nobleman, and was by him made a Commander, about the period of the evacuation of Toulon[2].

Our officer was afterwards appointed acting Captain of the Bombay Castle, 74, from which ship he exchanged into the Southampton frigate; but, owing to an official mistake, was not confirmed in his post-rank until Oct. 6, 1795.

The Southampton formed part of the light squadron under the orders of Commodore Nelson, sent to co-operate with the Austrian and Sardinian armies in their attempt to drive the republicans from the Genoese territories; and on the departure of that officer, after the termination of the Vado campaign, was left off Genoa to blockade la Vestale, a French frigate, of 36 guns; la Brune, of 32 guns; two brigs, mounting 16 guns each; several cutters, gun-boats, &c.

Notwithstanding this immense disparity of force[3], it was not until the fifteenth day after his arrival off that port, that Captain Macnamara had the satisfaction of seeing them venture out. The weather was at this time extremely hazy, and the wind blowing hard. Running the Southampton close aboard of la Vestale, he soon compelled her to surrender; but when about to take possession, his mizen-mast went by the board, of which, and the increasing density of the atmosphere, the enemy took advantage, re-hoisted her colours, and went off before the wind after her companions.

Chagrined as Captain Macnamara was at this event, it was not long before another opportunity offered of distinguishing himself. On the evening of June 9, 1796, the present veteran Admiral of the Fleet, at that time Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean, discovered a French cruizer working into Hieres bay, near Toulon; and immediately singling out the Southampton, called her commander on board the Victory, pointed the enemy’s ship out, and directed him to make a dash at her through the Grand Passe. The Southampton was instantly under weigh, and passed the batteries on the N.E. end of Porquerol island, in view of the British fleet, which, with agonizing suspense witnessed the boldness of an attempt, that scarcely any thing but complete success could have justified. Sir John Jervis, on this occasion, even refused to give a written order for the undertaking; he only said to Captain Macnamara, “bring out the enemy’s ship if you can; I’ll give you no written order; but I direct you to take care of the King’s ship under your command.” This enterprise was executed in a most masterly manner, and, as the Admiral’s letter expresses it, with “admirable skill and alacrity.”

It is impossible to do justice to the merit of those employed in this achievement. A better idea of its formidable nature cannot be given, than by Captain Macnamara’s public letter to Sir J. Jervis.

Southampton, off Toulon, l0th June, 1796

“Sir.– In obedience to the orders I received from you on the Victory’s quarter-deck last evening, I pushed through the Grande Passe, and hauled up under the batteries on the N.E. of Porquerol with an easy sail, in hopes I should be taken for a French or neutral frigate, which I have great reason to believe succeeded, as I got within pistol-shot of the enemy’s ship before I was discovered, and cautioned the Captain through a trumpet not to make a fruitless resistance, when he immediately snapped his pistol at me, and fired a broadside. At this period, being very near the heavy battery of Fort Breganson, I laid him instantly on board, and Lieutenant Lydiard[4] at the head of the boarders, with an intrepidity no words can describe, entered and carried her in about ten minutes, although he met with a spirited resistance from the Captain, (who fell) and a hundred men underarms to receive him. In this short conflict, the behaviour of all the officers and ship’s company of the Southampton had my full approbation, and I do not mean to take from their merit by stating to you, that the conduct of Lieutenant Lydiard was above all praise. After lashing the two ships together, I found some difficulty in getting from under the battery, which kept up a very heavy fire, and was not able to return through the Grande Passe before half after one o’clock this morning, with l’Utile corvette, of 24 guns, French 6-pounders, commanded by Citoyen Francois Vega, and 130 men, 25 of whom were killed and wounded.

“I have the honor to be, &c.
J. Macnamara.”

Captain Macnamara was subsequently employed under Commodore Nelson, in taking possession of Porto Ferrajo, evacuating Capreja and Corsica, in the expedition against Piombino, and siege of Castiglione.

Towards the latter end of 1796, the Southampton captured the Spanish brig of war El Corso, of 18 guns, in a hard gale, by boarding, under the batteries of Monaca. The first attempt failed, only one man (the coxswain, Harper,) getting on board; butCaptain Macnamara, stimulated by the desire of rescuing so brave a fellow, made a second dash, and succeeded in throwing about 30 men into her, when she surrendered. During the ensuing 48 hours, the sea ran too high to communicate by boats, and the prize consequently remained for that time under the command of the coxswain. From the tempestuous weather, and the shoal water Captain Macnamara’s ship was in, the above appears to have been one of those perilous acts that nothing but the confidence he reposed in the skill and bravery of his crew could have warranted.

In the memorable battle off Cape St. Vincent, Feb. 14, 1797, the Southampton was one of the repeating frigates to the centre division of Sir John Jervis’s fleet. She returned to England in the month of June following, and was soon after put out of commission.

Captain Macnamara’s next appointment was to the Cerberus, of 32 guns, on the Irish station, where he captured l’Echange French letter of marque, of 10 guns and 40 men.

On the 20th Oct. 1799, our officer being on a cruize off Ferrol, fell in with a fleet of Spanish merchantmen, escorted by five frigates and two armed brigs, which he immediately attacked, and nearly succeeded in boarding one of the frigates; but was obliged to relinquish the attempt in consequence of being very closely pressed by the rest. He however took possession of, and after removing her people, set fire to one of the merchant vessels, in the midst of the enemy’s squadron. The Cerberus on this occasion had her main-top-sail yard-arm carried away by the rigging of the ship she had endeavoured to board, and sustained some other trivial damages, but had not a man killed, and only 4 wounded. The gallantry of her commander, in seeking a contest with so superior a foe, excited general admiration; and the Lords of the Admiralty, as a token of their approbation, paid him the compliment of promoting his first Lieutenant to the rank of Commander.

In 1800, Captain Macnamara was sent to the Jamaica station, where he cruized with considerable success during the remainder of the war. After the peace of Amiens, he went several times to St. Domingo, to confer with the French General Le Clerc. The Cerberus was paid off at Chatham in Feb. 1803, after having been most actively employed, and almost constantly at sea during a period of five years and a half.

On the 6th April, 1803, Captain Macnamara being in Hyde Park with his Newfoundland dog, the latter began fighting with one belonging to a Colonel Montgomery, who alighted from his horse to separate them. High words ensued between their respective owners, which led to a duel the same evening at Chalk Farm. The parties were both wounded, the Colonel mortally. A verdict of manslaughter having been returned by the Coroner’s inquisition, Captain Macnamara was taken into custody, and on the 22d of the same month, tried at the Old Bailey. His defence, which he read himself to the court, is so eloquent an appeal to the feelings and passions of a jury, that we cannot resist in this place, giving it to our readers at length.

“Gentlemen of the Jury,– I appear before you with the consolation that my character has already been delivered, by the verdict of a grand jury, from the shocking imputation of murder; and that, although the evidence against me was laid before them, without any explanation or evidence of the accusations which brought me into my present unhappy situation, they made their own impression, and no charge of criminal homicide was found against me. I was delivered at once from the whole effect of the indictment. I therefore now stand before you upon the inquisition only taken before the coroner, upon the view of the body, under circumstances extremely affecting to the minds of those who were to deliberate on the transaction, and without the opportunity which the benignity of the law affords me at this moment, of repelling that inference of even sudden resentment against the deceased, which is the foundation of this inquest of Manslaughter.

“The origin of the difference, as you see it in the evidence, was insignificant; the heat of two persons, each defending an animal under his protection, was natural, and could not have led to any serious consequences. It was not the deceased’s defending his own dog, or his threatening to destroy mine, that led to the fatal catastrophe. It was the defiance alone which most unhappily accompanied what was said; words receive their interpretation from the avowed intention of the speaker. The offence was forced upon me by the declaration that he invited me to be offended, and challenged me to vindicate the offence by calling upon him for satisfaction. ‘If you are offended at what has passed, you know where to find me.’ These words, unfortunately repeated and reiterated, have, over and over again, been considered, by criminal courts of justice, as sufficient to support an indictment for a challenge. These judgments of courts are founded upon the universal understandings and feelings of mankind; and common candour must admit, that an officer, however desirous to avoid a quarrel, cannot refuse to understand what even the grave judges of the law must interpret as a provocation and a defiance. I declare, therefore, most solemnly, that I went into the field from no resentment against the deceased; nothing, indeed, but insanity, could have led me to expose my own life to such imminent peril under the impulse of passion, from so inadequate a cause as the evidence before you exhibits, when separated from the defiance which was the fatal source of mischief; and I could well have overlooked that too, if the world, in its present state, could have overlooked it also. I went into the field, therefore, with no determination or desire to take the life of my opponent, or to expose my own. I went there in hopes of receiving some soothing satisfaction for what would otherwise have exposed me in the general feelings and opinions of the world. The deceased was a man of popular manners, as I have heard, and with very general acquaintance. I, on the other hand, was in a manner a stranger in this great town, having been devoted from my infancy to the ditties of my profession, in distant seas. If, under these circumstances, words which the deceased intended as offensive, and which he repeatedly invited to be resented, had been passed by and submitted to, they would have passed from mouth to mouth, have been even exaggerated at every repetition, and my honor must have been lost.

“Gentlemen, I am a Captain of the British Navy. My character you can only hear from others; but to maintain any character in that station, I must be respected. When called upon to lead others into honorable dangers, I must not be supposed to be a man who had sought safety by submitting to what custom has taught others to consider as a disgrace. I am not presuming to urge any thing against the laws of God, or of this land. I know that, in the eye of religion and reason, obedience to the law, though against the general feelings of the world, is the first duty, and ought to be the rule of action; but, inputting a construction upon my motives, so as to ascertain the quality of my actions, you will make allowances for my situation. It is impossible to define, in terms, the proper feelings of a gentleman; but their existence has supported this happy country for many ages, and she might perish if they were lost. Gentlemen, I will detain you no longer; I will bring before you many honorable persons, who will speak what they know of me in my profession, and in private life; which will the better enable you to judge whether what I have offered in my defence may safely be received by you as truth. Gentlemen, I submit myself entirely to your judgments. I hope to obtain my liberty through your verdict, and to employ it with honor in defence of the liberties of my country.”

Captain Macnamara afterwards called on the following respectable naval officers, to give evidence as to his character: viz. the Viscounts Hood and Nelson, Lord Hotham, Sir Hyde Parker and Sir Thomas Troubridge; Captains Martin, Towry, Lydiard, Moore, and Waller; also General Churchill and Lord Minto; who all concurred in bearing testimony of his conduct as an officer and a gentleman; and of his being an honorable, good-humoured, pleasant, lively companion, exactly the reverse of a quarrelsome man. The jury withdrew for about ten minutes, and then returned a verdict of, Not Guilty.

Our officer subsequently obtained the command of the Dictator, a 64-gunship, in which he served two years on the Nortli Sea station, and then removed into the Edgar, 74. In 1808 we find him employed in the Baltic, under the orders of Rear-Admiral Keats, and assisting in the rescue of the Spanish army commanded by the Marquis de la Romana, which bad been drawn from Spain by Buonaparte, preparatory to his designs upon that country being carried into effect. Whilst on that service, he was selected to command some gun-boats sent to attack a Danish brig of war and a cutter, lying under the protection of the batteries of Nyborg, and which he compelled to surrender after a gallant resistance. They proved to be the Fama, of 18, and Salorman, of 12 guns. The enemy on this occasion had 7 men killed, and 13 wounded. The British, one officer, Lieutenant Harvey of the Superb, slain, and 2 seamen wounded.

On his return to England, Captain Macnamara was appointed to the Berwick, a new 74, in which he was employed on various services in the North Sea, and occasionally had the command of a squadron blockading Cherbourgh. On the 24th March, 1811, he chased a large French frigate, and compelled her to take shelter, with an ebbing tide, within the rocks near Barfleur light-house, where she was burnt by her crew, after receiving considerable damage from the Berwick’s fire.

Our officer was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral, June 4, 1814. He married, Jan. 26, 1818, the widow of the Hon. Lieutenant-Colonel Carleton.

Residence.– Bath .



  1. See note at p. 425.
  2. See pp. 46, 60, 294, &c.
  3. The Southampton was only a 32-gun frigate.
  4. Afterwards Captain of, and perished in, the Anson.