Royal Naval Biography/d’Urban, William

Doctor of the Civil Law.
[Post-Captain of 1804.]

The proper orthography of this officer’s name is D’Urban, but from a mistake in his passing certificate, it has always been spelt Durban in the Admiralty lists and other official documents.

He is the son of a military officer, and descended from a very ancient and noble family who early settled in the Duchy of Milan, and were engaged under Goffredo di Bouglion in the holy wars.

Mr. D’Urban served the first three years of his naval life as a Midshipman on board the Sphinx of 24 guns, commanded by Captain, now Admiral Markham, on the Mediterranean station; and completed his time under the late Admiral John Elliot, who was, we believe, one of the first officers by whom lunar observations were brought into practice at sea. Mr. D’Urban having been educated under the well known mathematician Mr. I. Dalby, who was employed with Colonel Mudge in the great trigonometrical survey, became particularly useful to Admiral Elliot, both in making and calculating his observations, which induced that officer to request, as a personal favor, that Earl Howe would promote him to the rank of Lieutenant a request which his Lordship immediately complied with[1].

At the commencement of the French revolutionary war, Lieutenant D’Urban embarked with his friend Captain Markham, in the Blonde frigate, and soon after accompanied an armament sent under Sir John Jervis to the West Indies, where he was engaged in a variety of active services, particularly during the siege of Martinique.

Soon after his return to Europe he joined the Monarch of 74 guns, bearing the flag of Sir George Keith Elphinstone, by whom he was attached to the advanced guard of the army at the reduction of the Cape of Good Hope, in 1795. He also assisted at the capture of a Dutch squadron in Saldanha bay, Aug. 18, 1796[2].

Amongst the promotions which took place on this latter occasion, was that of Lieutenant D’Urban, who received a commission from Sir George appointing him Captain of the Castor frigate. The Admiralty, however, only confirming him in the rank of Commander, he was subsequently removed into the Rattlesnake sloop of war.

His next appointment was to the Weazle of 16 guns, employed on the Jersey station, where he performed an essential service by establishing marks for the inner channels along the French coast, between St. Maloes and Brest; by which the convoys bound to the last named port might be intercepted. For this service, which, from the nature of the coast, was attended with many difficulties and much risk, and which he undertook without orders to do so, he received the thanks of the Admiralty Board, as also those of Earl Spencer, who then presided over that department.

On the 22d Jan. 1802, Captain D’Urban sailed from Plymouth, for the Mediterranean, with despatches relative to the peace of Amiens[3]; and during the agitation of the question respecting the surrender of Malta, he was employed by the Governor to ascertain the capability of Lampadosa, as a naval station.

It was likewise through his negociation with the Grand Master and Knights of Malta, assembled at Messina (to whom he was sent by Sir Alexander J. Ball, on account of his diplomatic skill and knowledge of the Italian language) that the island was not surrendered to the Order, agreeably to the treaty with France. The importance of this service induced his friend, the Governor, to represent the ability which he had displayed, and recommend him to the notice of his Majesty’s ministers. He was subsequently sent on several delicate missions to Tripoli, Tunis, and Algiers, the whole of which he executed in a manner highly creditable to his talents, and beneficial to the commerce of his country.

Captain D’Urban’s services having gained him the esteem of Nelson, his Lordship gave him a post-commission for the Ambuscade of 32 guns, which he received but a few hours previous to the arrival of an official despatch from England announcing his promotion, and appointment to the very same frigate by Earl St. Vincent, on the IJth Jan. 1804.

A renewal of hostilities with Spain being some time after expected by our great hero, he sent Captain D’Urban to Barcelona, for the purpose of obtaining information as to the general state of Europe, giving him authority to open any public despatches that might be forwarded from the British Ambassador at Madrid for his Lordship. This service he managed with such address, as not only to avoid giving rise to any suspicions on the part of the Spanish authorities, but also to induce them to allow him to sail in company with a convoy having on board troops, stores, &c. for placing Minorca in a state of defence, the whole of which he captured, with the assistance of Nelson’s look-out ships, which he got within signal distance of the day after leaving that place with despatches confirming his Lordship’s apprehensions.

Captain D’Urban returned to England with the flag of Rear-Admiral George Campbell, in Jan. 1805; but sailed again for the Mediterranean, conveying thither the late Sir Thomas Louis, in the month of March following.

During the defence of Naples by the Anglo-Russian army, to which Captain D’Urban was attached, we find him employed at the request of the Russian commander-in-chief to examine the passes, &c. between that city and Rome. On the evacuation of Naples he was sent up the Adriatic to cooperate with the Russian fleet, under Vice-Admiral Siniavin, in checking the progress of the French forces on the coast of Dalmatia and the adjacent isles. From thence he proceeded to the Spanish coast, where he continued till the defects of his frigate required her to be sent home and put out of commission.

Having thus given an outline of Captain D’Urban’s valuable services, it remains only for us to state that there is perhaps no individual who possesses so much local knowledge of the Mediterranean as he obtained during upwards of twelve years spent on that station, or who is so intimately acquainted with the manners, customs, and prejudices of the different nations on both its shores as himself. It was on this account that Nelson and his successor, Collingwood, as also other superior officers employed him frequently as a negociator on matters of so secret a nature that it would be impolitic even now to make them public, particularly one mission relating to the Venetian Government. Although his services have not been of that brilliant cast with those of many whose exploits we have recorded, yet they have nevertheless proved in many instances highly beneficial to his country, and as such gained him the thanks and esteem of all the Admirals he ever served under, although, at the same time they deprived him of cruises, the advantages of which were reaped by the mere sailor, who is now enjoying his golden harvest, while the labours of his more scientific cotemporary, are in a great measure forgotten.

In 1810, the late Mr. Arrowsmith published “a Chart of the Dangers in the Channel between Sardinia, Sicily and Africa” formed from the original surveys of Captain D’Urban, viz. 1st. Of the Esquirques, two reefs of very large rocks, lying about two miles north and south of each other, surrounded by a bank of sand, the surface of which is chequered by patches of coral and large round stones of a bright red colour. 2d. Some dangers never before noticed, of a volcanic production, which he named Keith’s reef and shoal in compliment to his friend the late Viscount[4]. 3d. A Survey of all the dangers on the N.W. coast of Sicily, between Trapani and Marsala, with the adjacent islands and channels of Favigana, Lavanso, Formiche, the rocks of Porcelli, &c.

The positions of the dangers here enumerated were determined by Captain D’Urban from the mean result of six chronometers; their rates having been carefully examined both previous to, and after the survey was finished. The soundings were taken in boats, and laid down from angles taken from vessels anchored on the shoals.

Agent.– Thomas Stilwell, Esq.

  1. In 1790.
  2. See Vol, I, pp. 47-51.
  3. The Weazle touched at Gibraltar and reached Malta after a passage of only fourteen days.
  4. H.M.S. ship l’Atheniene of 64 guns was wrecked on Keith’s reef Oct. 27, 1806, when 397 persons perished, amongst whom was her commander, Captain Raynsford, who was then on his way to Malta for the purpose of exchanging ships with Captain Schomberg of the Madras. See p. 831.