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Sir Murray Maxwell (1775-1831)

This article was written by John Knox Laughton and was published in 1894

MaxwellSir Murray Maxwell, a naval captain, was the third son of James Maxwell, a captain in the 42nd regiment, third son of Sir Alexander Maxwell of Monreith, Wigtownshire, second baronet . He was born in the parish of Penninghame, near Newton Stewart, on 10 September 1775 [1]. This date is given in the certificate of baptism annexed to his passing certificate in the Public Record Office. On 10 September 1790 he entered the navy on board the Juno, with Captain (afterwards Sir) Samuel Hood and served in her till March 1794, when he followed Hood to the Aigle.

In November 1794 he was moved into the Nemesis, and was still in her when she was captured at Smyrna [modern day Izmir, Turkey] on 9 December 1795. He afterwards joined the Blenheim, and a few months later the Princess Royal, in which he returned to England, and passed his examination on 7 September 1796. On 10 October 1796 he was promoted to be lieutenant, and again, 15 December 1802, to be commander of the Cyane sloop in the West Indies. In her he was present at the reduction of St. Lucia, and was appointed by Hood acting captain of the Centaur, bearing his broad pennant. He had thus an important part in the capture of Tobago, Demerara, and Essequibo in July and September 1803, and of Berbice and Surinam in April 1804.

His commission as captain was confirmed to 4 August 1803. In 1805 he commanded the Galatea in the West Indies, and in 1807 was appointed to the Alceste, a 38-gun frigate, in which ‘he rendered his name conspicuous by the dashing nature of his services in the Mediterranean.’ On 4 April 1808, being off Cadiz, with the Mercury and Grasshopper brig in company, he dispersed a flotilla of twenty gunboats, sank two of them, drove their convoy on shore, and afterwards boarded and brought off seven. On the coast of Italy he assisted at the destruction of several armed vessels and martello towers. On 22 May 1810 he landed a party of men near Fréjus, stormed a 2-gun battery, spiked the guns, broke the carriages, blew up the magazine, and threw the shot into the sea. A few days later the Alceste's boats attacked a flotilla of French coasting vessels, captured four, drove two on shore, and compelled the others to put back.

In the spring of 1811 he was in the Adriatic, under the orders of Captain James Brisbane and in the autumn had for some months a semi-independent command there. On 28 November he was lying at Lissa, in company with the Active and Unité, when ‘three suspicious sail’ were signalled as in sight from the hill. Maxwell immediately put to sea, and on the morning of the 29th sighted three French frigates. Towards noon the smallest of the three separated from her consorts; she was chased, and in the evening was captured by the Unité. The other two were engaged by the Alceste and Active, Maxwell telegraphing ‘Remember the battle of Lissa’. After a sharp action of about an hour and a half, one of the French frigates, the Pauline, fled; the other, the Pomone, defended herself for half an hour longer, and then, having lost her main and mizen masts, surrendered. Neither the Alceste nor Active was able to chase the Pauline, which got into Brindisi. Her captain was severely punished by Napoleon. In 1812 Maxwell was appointed to the Dædalus, in which he sailed for India in charge of a fleet of Indiamen. On 2 July 1813 the Dædalus was wrecked off the coast of Ceylon. Maxwell returned to England, and, being acquitted of all blame, was nominated a C.B. in 1815.

In October he was again appointed to the Alceste, at the desire of Lord Amherst, going out as ambassador to the emperor of China. The Alceste sailed from Spithead on 9 February 1816, and anchored off the Bai He on 28 July. Lord Amherst landed on 9 August, directing the ship to meet him at Canton, whither he proposed to travel overland from Beijing. Maxwell took the opportunity of exploring the Gulf of Pechili, the west coast of Korea — till then unknown except by hearsay, and drawn on the chart by imagination — and the Loo-Choo [Ryukyu] Islands. The results were afterwards ably described by Captain Basil Hall of the Lyra brig, then in company with the Alceste, in his Account of a Voyage of Discovery to the Western Coast of Corea and the Great Loo-Choo Island, 1818.

Temple Garden, RyukyuGarden of the Temple at Lew Chew [Ryukyu]

The Alceste arrived off the mouth of the Canton river on 2 November, and Maxwell, unable to get any satisfactory answer to his application for a pass, determined to go up the river without one. As he approached the Bocca Tigris, a mandarin came on board and ordered him to anchor at once; if he attempted to go on, the batteries would sink the ship. Maxwell sent back an angry answer, and the Alceste passed on, scattering the war-junks which attempted to stop her, and silencing the batteries for the time by a single well-directed broadside. Without further molestation she arrived at Whampoa, where Lord Amherst re-embarked on 21 January 1817. The Lyra was sent to Calcutta with despatches for the governor-general, and the Alceste, pursuing her voyage by herself, entered the Straits of Gaspar on the morning of 18 February.

These straits, exceedingly dangerous even now, were then little more than explored, and the charts were very imperfect. About eight o'clock the ship struck on a rock about three miles from Pulo Leat. It was at once found that she had sustained fatal injuries. Everyone was landed on the island, together with such stores as time permitted, but on the third day the wreck was taken possession of by swarms of Malay pirates, who threatened the encampment on shore. On the morning of the 19th Lord Amherst and his staff had been sent on to Batavia in two boats, under the command of Lieutenant Henry Parkyns Hoppner, a son of John Hoppner the artist. Some two hundred men remained on this inhospitable island, without clothes, with a very scanty supply of food, and beset by ferocious savages. The perfect order preserved has always been justly considered one of the splendid triumphs of discipline over brute instinct. They were relieved on 3 March by the arrival of the East India Company's ship Ternate, sent by Amherst from Batavia.

Henry (afterwards Sir Henry) Ellis, an attaché of the embassy, who returned in the Ternate, wrote in his journal: ‘Participation of privation and equal distribution of comfort had lightened the weight of suffering to all, and I found the universal sentiment to be an enthusiastic admiration of the temper, energy, and arrangements of Captain Maxwell. His look was confidence, and his orders were felt to be security.’ At Batavia a ship was chartered to convey to England both the embassy and the officers and ship's company of the Alceste. Touching at St. Helena, Maxwell was presented to Napoleon, who referred to the capture of the Pomone. ‘Your government,’ he said, ‘must not blame you for the loss of the Alceste, for you took one of my frigates.’ (The Alceste was also one of his frigates; she had been captured by Sir Samuel Hood off Rochefort on 25 September 1806.) On his arrival in England in August 1817 Maxwell was tried by court-martial, and not only ‘most fully acquitted,’ but specially complimented for ‘the most zealous and officer-like manner’ in which he had conducted himself in the difficult and intricate navigation, and for ‘his coolness, self-collection,’ and exertions after the ship struck. Lord Amherst appeared as a witness in his behalf. On 27 May 1818 Maxwell was knighted. He was elected F.R.S. on 18 February 1819, and on 20 May 1819 was presented by the East India Company with £1,500 in reward of the services rendered by him to the embassy and in compensation for the loss he had sustained in the wreck.

In 1821-2 he was captain of the Bulwark, bearing the flag of Sir Benjamin Hallowell (afterwards Carew) at Chatham, and in 1823 of the Briton on the South American station. In May 1831 he was appointed lieutenant-governor of Prince Edward's Island, and was preparing for his departure when he died suddenly on 26 June 1831.

He married about 1798 Grace Callander, daughter of Colonel Waugh of the 57th regiment, and had issue a daughter and one son, John Balfour, who died an admiral on the retired list in 1874.

Of Maxwell's six brothers three were in the army, two in the navy. Of these last, John, a captain of 1810, died in command of the Aurora frigate in 1826. Keith, born about 1774, a lieutenant of 1794, was specially promoted to be commander in 1801 for his brilliant and successful gallantry in cutting out the French 20-gun corvette Chevrette from under the batteries of Camaret Bay, on the night of 21-2 July. He was promoted to be captain in 1804, and died in 1823.

[1] I am grateful to Jenny Campbell for letting me know that during her research, she has found the baptism record for Murray Maxwell; the date of baptism is 20 November 1774. [back]

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