Captain David Ewen Bartholomew Comes Over the Bows

HMS Diadem at the Capture of the Cape of Good Hope by Thomas Whitcombe

“And on the last Friday of all, the day I was there, Old Jarvie winked his eye, said ‘You want to go to sea? Then to sea you shall go, sir,’ and had him pressed on the spot.”
“An officer? Pressed for a common sailor?” cried Jack. “I’ve never heard of such a thing in my life.”
“Nor nobody else: particularly poor Mr Salt.”
 – Conversation between Tom Pullings and Jack Aubrey, Post Captain

This incident in the second novel of our beloved series is mentioned only as an aside, yet seemed to hint at a delicious historical occurrence. As it turns out, Patrick O’Brian was inspired by the real-life history of Captain David Ewen Bartholomew and an argument he had with Lord St. Vincent. But there is much more to Captain Bartholomew’s life and service than that single incident.

Early Life

Born into a poor family in Linlithgowshire in Scotland, Bartholomew joined the Merchant Navy at a young age and became a highly experienced sailor, travelling to the Baltic Sea and the West Indies, working on hired merchant ships during campaigns against French islands there at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars.[1] He later served on Greenland whalers, but in 1795 was seized by a press gang at Wapping and forcibly recruited into the Royal Navy. Due to a superior education (although where he obtained this education is unknown), Bartholomew was rapidly promoted to midshipman, serving in numerous theatres and becoming a favourite of Admiral Sir Home Riggs Popham. Bartholomew was present at the surrender of the Dutch fleet in 1799, on HMS Romney in the East Indies and in 1802 was in charge of the ship’s chronometers during a voyage to the Red Sea. The Peace of Amiens in the same year saw a reduction in the Navy and Bartholomew was placed in reserve.[1]


Frustrated at his lack of employment, Bartholomew wrote eight letters to the First Lord of the Admiralty Lord St Vincent, and often visited the Admiralty in the hope of securing an appointment aboard a ship. Infuriated at Batholomew’s insistence, St Vincent, a bitter personal and professional rival of Popham, ordered Bartholomew seized and press ganged for a second time. Placed aboard HMS Inflexible, Bartholomew was rapidly reinstated to his rank and a storm of protest was directed at St Vincent, who had overstepped his authority and the custom of the day by ordering the impressment of a commissioned officer after a personal disagreement.[1] When St Vincent was forced from office in April 1804, Bartholomew was fully reinstated to his rank and seniority and rejoined Popham on HMS Antelope during operations against Boulogne-sur-Mer. The same year his case was heard in Parliament, where St Vincent’s actions were roundly condemned as being detrimental to the practices and morale of the Navy.[1]

In 1805, probably due to his notoriety in the aftermath of the impressment scandal, Batholomew was promoted to lieutenant and served aboard HMS Diadem during the capture of the Cape of Good Hope in 1806. Later in the year, during Popham’s disastrous expedition against Buenos Aires, Bartholomew was detached to conduct the first British surveys of the River Plate.[1] In 1808, transferred to the sloop Sapphire, Bartholomew accompanied HMS Nereide under Captain Robert Corbet on a mission to transport a new ambassador to Persia. During the operation, Corbet abandoned Sapphire and another sloop Sylph in the Persian Gulf. Batholomew’s ship cruised the Persian coastline making an extensive survey, again the first by a British explorer in the region. The area was a dangerous pirate haven however and Sylph was captured and her crew massacred before Corbet returned. An expeditionary force was later despatched to the region but found itself in unfamiliar waters due to a lack of reliable charts. Bartholomew’s maps of the region were published in 1810 as a direct consequence.[2]

In July 1809, Bartholomew was given command of a transport during the Walcheren campaign and in 1810 commanded a gunboat off Cadiz in support of allied forces in the Peninsula War. In May 1811 he took over the brig HMS Richmond. On Richmond, Bartholomew attacked and defeated a French privateer Intrépide in February 1812 and was subsequently promoted to commander. In 1814, Bartholomew was in command of the rocket ship HMS Erebus off the United States during the War of 1812. In Erebus, Bartholomew was part of James Alexander Gordon’s successful campaign to attack Alexandria, Virginia by sailing up the Potomac River. He then operated off Georgia and participated in the attack on the St. Mary’s River. For his services in America. Bartholomew was promoted to post captain and made a Companion of the Order of the Bath.

Geographical Services

At the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Bartholomew’s abilities as a surveyor and cartographer were required and he was given command of the small frigate HMS Leven off the West coast of Africa, charged with preparing detailed and accurate charts of the region. Leven’s officers were all young geographers, many of whom would later achieve prominence in the field, including Alexander Vidal, William Mudge, Alexander Becher and George Frazer.[1] Bartholomew had successfully surveyed the Azores, stretches of West Africa and was working on the Cape Verde Islands when he fell ill with tuberculosis in 1821 and died at Porto Praya on Santiago. The expedition to West Africa was taken over by William Fitzwilliam Owen, but by its completion in 1825, over half the crew had died from tropical illnesses, including Bartholomew and his teenage son George, who died on Leven in 1819. He has been described as “One of the unsung heroes of the surveying service” and is also considered exceptional for his rise from an impressed sailor to post captain at a time when this was almost impossible to achieve.[1]


1. ^ a b c d e f g Bartholomew, David Ewen, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, J. K. Laughton, (subscription required), Retrieved 8 January 2009

2. ^ Gardiner, p. 89


* Bartholomew, David Ewen, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, J. K. Laughton, (subscription required), Retrieved 8 January 2009

* Editor: Gardiner, Robert (2001 [1998]). The Victory of Seapower. Caxton Editions. ISBN 1-84067-359-1.

Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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