Royal Naval Biography/Swaine, Spelman


SPELMAN SWAINE, Esq.
Magistrate for the Isle of Ely.
[Post-Captain of 1810.]

This officer is the second son, and eldest surviving child, of the late Spelman Swaine, Esq. of Leverington, near Wisbeach, co. Cambridge (at which place the family have resided for several centuries), by Dorothy, daughter of Walter Robertson, of Lynn Regis, in Norfolk, Esq. The Swaines are related, by intermarriage, to the descendants of Sir Henry Spelman.

Mr. Swaine, the subject of this memoir, was born at Lynn Regis, Jan. 1, 1760; and he appears to have first embarked as a midshipman on board the Crocodile 24, commanded by Captain Albemarle Bertie, in April 1782. We afterwards find him serving under the same officer in the Recovery 32, which frigate was attached to Lord Howe’s fleet at the relief of Gibraltar, and repeated his signals during the subsequent partial action off Cape Spartel.

The Recovery being paid off at the end of the American war, Mr. Swaine soon afterwards joined the Carnatic 74, Captain Anthony ;. P. Molloy, with whom he served until that ship also was put out of commission.

Early in 1785, having obtained an introductory letter from Lord Howe to Captain (now Sir William) Domett, Mr. Swaine was received on board the Champion 24, commanded by the latter officer, and then fitting at Woolwich. In that ship he served on the Leith station till the Dutch armament, 1787.

At this period. Captain Domett was superseded, in consequence of his being nominated to the command of the London, a second rate, intended to bear the flag of Vice-Admiral Alexander Hood, had the dispute with Holland been followed by a declaration of war; and in which case Mr. Swaine was to have accompanied those officers to the East India station. After being borne for some time as a supernumerary on the books of the Sandwich guard-ship, Mr. Swaine joined the Lowestoffe frigate, Captain Edmund Dod, employed on Channel service[1]. During the Spanish armament, he served under the first Lord Gardner,then commanding the Courageux 74.

At the commencement of 1791, Mr. Swaine was removed to the Discovery, Captain George Vancouver, a vessel then about to sail for Nootka Sound, in order to obtain formal restitution of the territories recently seized by the Spaniards; and afterwards to explore the N.W. coast of America[2]. During this very interesting, but tedious and perilous voyage, he was instrumental in saving the lives of Captain Vancouver, Lieutenant Peter Puget, a midshipman, and a boat’s crew, when treacherously attacked by a party of Indians; on which occasion several of the English were severely wounded, and the whole would doubtless have been sacrificed, had not the boat he commanded opportunely arrived to their assistance. The following is the account given by one of Vancouver’s companions[3].

“We generally landed at some sequestered spot to cook our dinner; and upon one occasion, we were certainly in the most imminent danger of being murdered. Our boat was in the mouth of the river” (named after Sir A. Mackenzie); “we had been employed in taking soundings; and the other boat, which had been in company during the morning, had separated to survey a small bay, at a little distance. A point of land lay between us, and we thought it might take them a considerable time to rejoin; we, therefore, determined to land, and dine at a spot which seemed sheltered, and free from any savages. On nearing it, a few were discovered; but, from them, Vancouver thought there was nothing to fear. We accordingly neared the shore, and landed, when other savages were observed to make their appearance from behind a small eminence, that had hitherto concealed them. On their approach, we perceived that many of them had put on their war-dress, and armed themselves with spears, bows, and war-clubs. By this time our boat had got into shoal water, and was close to the beach, within reach of their arrows. Vancouver began to talk of retreating, yet did not like to shew any symptom of fear; he ordered the arms-chest to be opened, and that every man should prepare to defend himself. The moment the savages saw us arming, they rushed towards the boat, and, plunging into the sea, got under our oars, so that they could not be used; others laid hold of the boat, and endeavoured to haul her on shore. Vancouver in vain endeavoured to hold a parley with them, and to explain that no harm was intended . they every minute became more insolent and audacious, and I saw clearly that they intended mischief.

“My station was in the stern-sheets, where providentially lay a pair of large horse-pistols I took one of them, and a midshipman, who stood by me, seized the other. We had scarcely done this, when two tall, strong, horrid-looking savages, rushed into the water, within a few feet of us, each armed with a long spear, and their faces painted with all sorts of colours. The savage who was opposed to me threw himself back a little, elevated his spear, and seemed in the very act of hurling it through my body, when suddenly his eye caught mine, and he observed that the muzzle of my pistol was directed to his breast. He, instantly, was horror-struck, and remained fixed in his terrific attitude: aware of the efficacy of fire-arms, he dreaded instant death, if he made his intended throw at me. At this critical period, when Vancouver had already been knocked down by a war-club, and several of the boat’s crew severely wounded with spears, our shipmates hove in sight! They immediately saw what was going on, and fired upon the savages, who then retired in consternation. With the assistance of our deliverers, we pushed into deep water and rowed off. One of our men was speared through the thigh, with such force as to be pinioned to the side of the boat.”

At the time this affray took place, Mr. Swaine was accompanied hy the present Captain John Sykes, a circumstance which we inadvertently omitted to notice in our memoir of that officer. Mr. Archibald Menzies, the botanist, also was in the boat with him at that critical period.

On his return to England, in Sept. 1795, Mr. Swaine, who had had an acting order ever since 1792, received a Lieutenant’s commission; and at the close of the same year he was appointed to the Spitfire sloop, in which vessel he served under Captains Amherst Morris, and Michael Seymour[4], on the North Sea and Channel stations, until 1801. His next appointment was to be first of the Princess Charlotte frigate, Captain the Hon. Francis F. Gardner, with whom he continued during the remainder of the war.

Lieutenant Swaine was advanced to the rank of Commander, April 29, 1802; and appointed to the Raven sloop, about July following. In her he carried despatches to Tangiers, Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, and Valette; at which latter place he was taken under the orders of Sir Richard Bickerton, who then commanded on the Mediterranean station. In Oct. 1803, he led Lord Nelson’s fleet through the Straits of Bonifaccio to Agincourt Sound, an anchorage amongst the Madelena islands, north of Sardinia, which was the first time that a three-decker ever attempted that intricate navigation[5]. For this service, Captain Swaine had the honor of being highly complimented by our immortal hero.

In the night of Jan. 6, 1804, the Raven was set on shore near Mazara, in Sicily, by an unusual current, and totally wrecked, notwithstanding every exertion to save her. The whole of the officers and crew, however, were happily preserved by a merchant vessel then in company. Captain Swaine was not only acquitted of all blame on account of this disaster, but commended by the court-martial for his conduct on the unfortunate occasion.

We subsequently find Captain Swaine commanding the Helicon and Philomel, sloops; the former employed on the Downs station, the latter conveying some military officers to Oporto, a Spanish grandee to Cadiz, and despatches to the Mediterranean. His post commission, appointing him to the Hind of 28 guns, bears date May 17, 1810.

In Aug. 1811, the subject of this memoir received an appointment to the Talbot 20, on the Irish station, where he narrowly escaped sharing the fate of the Saldanha frigate, having parted company with her but a short time before she was driven on a sunken rock at the entrance of Lough Swilly, by which melancholy accident, the Hon. Captain Pakenham (brother to the Earl of Longford), and nearly the whole of his officers and crew perished, Dec. 4, 1811.

The Talbot was afterwards successively employed in affording protection to the Newfoundland and West India trade; and Captain Swaine continued to command her until April 28, 1814; on which day he was appointed to the Statira frigate, vacant by the death of Captain Hassard Stackpoole, who had fallen in a duel with Lieutenant Thomas Walbeoff Cecil, of the Argo 44[6].

In that ship. Captain Swaine returned home from Jamaica, and subsequently conveyed Sir Edward Pakenham and Major-General Gibbs, with a number of other military officers, to New Orleans[7]. We afterwards find him proceeding to St. Mary’s and Bermuda. Returning from the latter place to join Sir Alexander Cochrane, at Isle Dauphine, he again had the misfortune to be shipwrecked.

On the 26th Feb. 1815, at 10 A.M., being then off Cuba, the Statira struck upon a rock which was not laid down in the Admiralty charts, nor in any others that her commander had ever seen. All his endeavours to save her proved ineffectual, and she went down in about half an hour after the officers and crew were removed into a transport under her convoy. It is almost needless to add, that Captain Swaine was fully acquitted, when tried for the loss of his ship; it being proved that the existence of such a rock was totally unknown. He returned to England as passenger on board the Asia 74.

Captain Swaine married, in 1806, the eldest daughter of the late Rev. Charles Le Grice, of Bury St. Edmunds, Suffolk; by which lady he has a son and three daughters.

Agent.– Messrs. Stilwell.



  1. Captain (afterwards Rcar-Admiral) Dod died at Exeter, Dec. 18, 1815, aged 81 years.
  2. See Vol. II, Part I, p. 200 et seq. N.B. Mr. Swaine had joined the Discovery previous to the altercation between the courts of London and Madrid, but left her again in consequence of the expected Spanish war.
  3. The late Captain John Stewart, who died Oct. 26, 1811. See Nav. Chron. Vol. xxvlii, pp. 1–47.
  4. See Vol. II, Part I, p. 295.
  5. See Vol. II, Part I, p. 143.
  6. Lieutenant Cecil, third son of the late William Cecil, of Duffryn, co. Monmouth, Esq. was shortly afterwards promoted into the Electra sloop, but died of the yellow fever, at Port Royal, Oct. 24, 1814. Some account of his family and services will be found in the Nav. Chron. Vol. xxxii, p. 478.
  7. See Vol. I, Part II, note at pp. 637–639.