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Sir Benjamin Hallowell [1 January 1761 – 2 September 1834] – Part 1

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Vice-Admiral of the White; Commander-in-Chief in the River Medway; Knight Commander of the most honourable Military Order of the Bath, and of the Neapolitan Order of St. Ferdinand and of Merit.

[ Please note that this short biography of Sir Benjamin Hallowell was written before Bryan Elson wrote his thoroughly researched Nelson's Yankee Captain : the life of Boston Loyalist Sir Benjamin Hallowell, which we strongly reccomend. The general reference followed for these biographical notes is Captain A. Crawford RN, Reminiscences of a Naval Officer, During the Late War. With Sketches and Anecdotes of Distinguished Commanders. In Two Volumes. Embellished with Portraits of Admirals Sir Edward Owen and Sir Benjamin Hallowell Carew. London, Colburn, 1851. 2 volumes]

Benjamin Hallowell was born 1st January 1761, probably not in Canada as is often recounted [0]. He entered the naval service at an early age, and was made up Lieutenant by Sir Samuel (afterwards Viscount) Hood, on the 31st August 1781. Five days later his ship, the Alcide, of 74 guns, commanded by the late Admiral Sir Charles Thompson, sustained a loss of 2 men killed and 18 wounded in the partial action off the Chesapeake.

Soon after this event, Sir Samuel Hood returned with his squadron to the West Indies, and Lieutenant Hallowell was subsequently removed into the Alfred, another 74, which formed part of the fleet under the orders of the same gallant Commander. She was then attacked by the Count de Grasse at the anchorage in Basseterre Road, Jan. 25 and 26, 1782. In the battle of the 9th and glorious victory of the 12th April following, the Alfred was attached to the red division of Sir George Rodney's fleet, where she sustained a loss of 12 men killed, and 40 wounded, including her Captain, W. Bayne, to whose memory a monument was afterwards erected by order of parliament. The Alfred also formed part of the detachment sent under Sir Samuel Hood in pursuit of the fleeing enemy and was consequently present at the capture of two ships of the line - one frigate and one corvette, in the Mona Passage, on the l9th of the same month.

During the ensuing peace, Lieutenant Hallowell served first in the Falcon sloop, on the Leeward Island station; and subsequently in the Barfleur with Lord Hood, at Portsmouth until his promotion to the rank of Commander, which took place about 1791. In that and the succeeding year we find him in the Scorpion Sloop, stationed on the coast of Africa. At the commencement of the war with the French Republic he was appointed to the Camel storeship [1] and proceeded in her to the Mediterranean, where he was removed into the Robust of 74 guns. The former commander of the Robust having been appointed Governor of Port la Malgue on the occupation of Toulon by the allied forces. His post commission bears date Aug. 30, 1793.

In our memoirs of Viscount Keith Lord Radstock, and Sir W. Sidney Smith, we have already related the proceedings of the British up to the l9th of December - when the French fleet and arsenal at Toulon were destroyed. The town was also evacuated, a measure rendered necessary by the immense assemblage of republicans in its vicinity. The embarkation of the troops on that occasion was successfully performed under the able management of the former officer aided by the skilful and zealous conduct of Captains Hallowell and Matthews. Previously - with the British fleet anchored in Hieres Bay, and Captain Elphinstone having resumed the command of the Robust - Captain Hallowell was appointed to the Courageux, of the same force, where he continued until the return of Captain Waldegrave from England, whither he had been sent with despatches from Toulon.

We next find Hallowell serving at the siege of Bastia, where he had the charge of the flotilla appointed to watch the mouth of the harbour [2], and was employed in that fatiguing service every night until the garrison surrendered. He subsequently served on shore as a volunteer, under the orders of the heroic Nelson, at the reduction of Calvi. Upon Captain Cunningham's being sent to England with the despatches relative to the final subjugation of Corsica, Hallowell was appointed to succeed that officer in the command of the Lowestoffe frigate. [3] In Lord Hood's official account of the capture of Calvi, we find the following just tribute of applause paid to his merits:

" The journal I herewith transmit from Captain Nelson, who had the command of the seamen, will show the daily occurrences of the siege; and whose unremitting zeal and exertion I cannot sufficiently applaud, or that of Captain Hallowell, who took it by turns to command in the advanced batteries, 24 hours at a time [4]; and I flatter myself they, as well as the other officers and seamen, will have full justice done them by the General; it is therefore unnecessary for me to say more upon the subject."[5]

From the Lowestoffe, Captain Hallowell was again appointed to the Courageux of 74 guns [6], which formed part of the fleet under Vice-Admiral Hotham when that officer encountered the enemy off the Hieres Islands, July 13, 1795. From this period, we find no further mention of Hallowell until after the evacuation of Corsica, in Oct 1796, when he proceeded in company with the rest of the fleet to Gibraltar and arrived there early in December. On the l9th of the same month the Courageux parted her cables in a violent gale of wind, and drove nearly under the Spanish batteries before she could be brought up. It was absolutely necessary to remove her from the dangerous situation, so she got under weigh and made two or three boards under close reefed topsails, with a view of gaining the anchorage in Rosia Bay. The wind increased to a perfect hurricane, and the rain fell in torrents attended by a tremendous storm of thunder and lightning, rendering every attempt abortive. At about 9 p.m., being then under her courses and stretching over to the African coast, she unfortunately ran against the steep shore of Apes Hill, and in a very few minutes was a complete wreck. By this melancholy accident nearly 500 brave fellows lost their lives, not more than 124 having escaped to relate the unhappy fate of their companions. [7] The survivors lived about a week on a very small quantity of dried beans, and were six days more in marching through the country; at which time, however, the Moors gave them as much bread once a day as they could eat.

They at length reached Gibraltar in a state of entire destitution.

At the time the Courageux was driven from the anchorage in Gibraltar Bay Captain Hallowell was attending a court-martial. [8] Upon learning of her situation, he wished very much to go on board before she moved from the range of the Spanish batteries. It being in the power of the Court to release him from his attendance, he asked permission to leave. However, the President, Vice-Admiral Thompson, refused to comply with his request and thus the life of a valuable officer was preserved for the service and for his friends.

In the memorable action off of Cape St. Vincent on Feb. 14, 1797, Benjamin Hallowell served as a volunteer on board the Victory, [9] under Sir John Jervis, who was so pleased with his conduct, that he strongly recommended him to the Admiralty, and sent him home with the duplicates of his despatches. He was in consequence immediately appointed to the Lively frigate [9-10], and again ordered to the Mediterranean station.

No harder seaman than Sir John Jervis ever served in the Royal Navy. A man of iron, who feared neither enemy nor mutineer, he was merciless to inefficiency and his discipline was so strict that one of his flag officers once challenged him to a duel. Altogether, he was about the last man a junior would choose as an object of familiarity, especially on his own quarterdeck.

On the morning of February 14th, 1797 Sir John, from the deck of his flagship Victory grimly watched the Spanish ships off Cape St. Vincent. Spain had joined France against Britain, and Napoleon had ordered the Spanish fleet to leave Cartagena, pass the Straits of Gibraltar, sail north to Brest and joining the French fleet there, make up a combined force greater in numbers than anything Britain could bring against them. To stop this junction was Sir John's business and he had 15 ships of the line to do it with. And as the tough old man -he was 62 - watched the enemy, he remembered that England badly needed a victory.

Four historians of the Royal Navy tell the story: [11]

As the mist lifted the flag-lieutenant reported, "There are eight sail of the line, Sir John."
"Very well sir."
"There are twenty sail of the line, there are twenty-five, Sir John."
"Very well sir."
"There are twenty-seven sail of the line Sir John, near double our own."
"Enough of that sir; if there are fifty sail I will go through them!" answered the undaunted admiral.
"That's right, Sir John, and a damned good licking we'll give them", cried Captain Ben Hallowell, a gigantic Canadian thumping his commander-in-chief on the back in his exhilaration, probably the first and last time that such a liberty was ever taken with "0ld Jackie". [12]

Six hours later four of the enemy were prizes and the rest in flight and a few months later Sir John Jervis was raised to the peerage as Earl St. Vincent.

On the 28th of May 1797, the Lively and La Minerve, under the direction of Lieutenant Hardy (now Sir Thomas Masterman), cut a French brig of war (La Mutine, 14 guns, 130 men) out of the bay of Santa Cruz, despite drawing heavy fire from the town, and from a large vessel at anchor there. Captain Hallowell's next appointment was to the Swiftsure [13] of 74 guns, which formed part of Sir Horatio Nelson's squadron at the capture and destruction of the French fleet in Aboukir Bay, Aug. 1st, 1798. [14]

Hallowell, having been directed to reconnoitre the port of Alexandria before the discovery of the enemy, was thus prevented assisting at the commencement of the battle. Being afterwards obliged to alter his course, in order to avoid the shoal that had proved so fatal to the Culloden, it was eight o'clock before he got into action, and total darkness had enveloped the combatants for some time. The frequent flashes from their guns all that dispelled the volumes of smoke now rolling down the line from the fierce fire of those engaged to windward. This rendered it extremely difficult for Hallowell to take his station -it was scarcely possible to distinguish friend from foe. The Swiftsure was bearing down under a press of sail, and had already got within range of the enemy's guns when her commander perceived a ship standing out of action under her foresail and fore-top sail, having no lights displayed. Supposing that she was an enemy, he felt inclined to fire into her. But as that would have spoiled the plan he had laid down for his conduct, he desisted. Happy it was that he did so, for the vessel in question was the Bellerophon [15], which had been obliged to withdraw from the conflict due to severe damage and casualties. At three minutes past eight, the Swiftsure anchored, taking the place of the Bellerophon. Two minutes later began a steady and well-directed fire on the quarter of the Franklin, and bow of L'Orient. At 9h 3' a fire was observed to have broken out in the cabin of the latter; to that point Captain Hallowell ordered as many guns as could be spared from firing on the Franklin, to be directed, and, at the same time, that the marines should throw the whole fire of their musketry into the enemy's quarter, while the Alexander on the other side was keeping up an incessant shower of shot to the same point. The conflagration now began to rage with dreadful fury; still the French Admiral sustained the honour of his flag with heroic firmness. He had before received three desperate wounds, one on the head and two in his body, but could not be prevailed on to quit his station on the armchair. His Captain, Casa Bianca, fell by his side.

"But the French {said Lee}, nothing daunted, still gloriously maintained the honour of their flag ... The brave Brueys having lost both his legs, was seated with tourniquets on the stumps in an armchair facing his enemies, and giving directions for extinguishing the fire, when a cannon-ball from the Swiftsure put a period to his gallant life by nearly cutting him in two." (Warner, Oliver. Nelson's Battles. p. 58]

Several of the officers and men, seeing the impracticability of extinguishing the fire, which had now extended itself along the upper decks, and was flaming up the masts, jumped overboard; some supporting themselves on spars and pieces of wreck, others swimming with all their might to escape the dreadful catastrophe. Shot flying in all directions dashed many of them to pieces. Others were picked up by the boats sent to their assistance, or dragged into the lower ports of the nearest ships; the British sailors humanely stretching forth their hands to save a fallen enemy, though the battle now raged with uncontrolled fury. The Swiftsure, whose distance from L'Orient did not exceed a half-pistol shot, saved the lives of the First Lieutenant Commissary and 10 men. The situation of the Swiftsure and Alexander was perilous in the extreme. The expected explosion of such a ship as L'Orient was to be dreaded, surely involving all around in certain destruction. Captain Hallowell, however, determined not to move from his station, though repeatedly urged to do so. He observed the advantage he possessed of being to windward of the burning ship. Captain Ball was not so fortunate; he twice had the mortification to perceive that the fire of the enemy had communicated to the Alexander. He was obliged therefore to change his berth and move a little further off.

" The heat was so intense that Ben Hallowell, anchored opposite her in Swiftsure, saw the pitch melting and running from his own ships seams." - [Howarth. Nelson: The Immortal Memory. p. 198]

About ten o'clock the fatal explosion took place. The fire communicated to the magazine, and L'Orient blew up with a crashing sound that deafened all around her. The tremulous motion, felt to the very bottom of each ship, was like that of an earthquake; the fragments were driven such a vast height into the air that some moments elapsed before they could descend; and then the greatest apprehension was formed from the volumes of burning matter which threatened to fall on the decks and rigging of the surrounding ships. Fortunately however, no material damage occurred. Two large pieces of the wreck fell into the fore and main-tops of the Swiftsure; but happily the men had been withdrawn from those places.

An awful silence reigned for several minutes as if the contending squadrons, struck with horror at the dreadful event which had hurled so many brave men into the air an instant before, had forgotten their hostile rage in pity for the sufferers. But the pause of death was short; vengeance soon roused the drooping spirits of the enemy. The Franklin again opened her fire on the Defence and Swiftsure, and thus gave the signal for renewed hostilities. Captain Hallowell, being disengaged from his late formidable adversary, directed the Swiftsure's whole fire into the quarter of the foe that had thus presumed to break the solemn silence. In a very short time, by the well-directed and steady fire of these two ships, and the Leander on her bows, the Franklin was obliged to call for quarter.

The Alexander and Majestic, and occasionally the Swiftsure, were now the only British ships engaged. Captain Hallowell found that he could not direct his guns clear of the former, and fearful lest he should fire into a friend, desisted - despite the fact that he continued to be severely annoyed by the shot of the French ship Tonnant, which fell thick about him.

About three o'clock in the morning on the 2nd of August, the firing ceased entirely -both squadrons being equally exhausted with fatigue. It was, however, subsequently renewed between the rear of the enemy and a few of the British ships. In the morning of the 3rd, there remained in the bay only the Timoleon and Tonnant of the French line, that were not captured or destroyed.

The crew of the former escaped in their boats after setting fire to her; the latter struck without further resistance, just as the Swiftsure was in the act of casting, for the purpose of supporting the Theseus and Leander, which ships had already approached the enemy. This completed the conquest of the French fleet. The loss sustained by the Swiftsure was seven men killed and twenty-two wounded. On going into action, she received a shot several feet under water, which proved a considerable annoyance; the chain-pumps were obliged to be kept constantly at work nor could the leak be kept completely under; she had four feet water in the hold from the commencement to the end of the battle.

"Am amusing anecdote is related of Nelson, who received on board the Vanguard Rear-Admiral Blanquet and the seven surviving captains of the captured French ships, and entertained them with characteristic hospitality. A few days after they had embarked on board the admirals ship, these officers, who were all wounded, were as usual dining with him, when Nelson, half-blind from the injury to his eye, not thinking what he was about, offered to one captain, who had lost most of his teeth to a musket ball, a case of tooth tooth-picks; on discovering his error, the gallant admiral became excessively confused, and in his trepidation, handed his snuff-box to the captain on his right, who had lost his nose." [Low, Charles; Great Battles of the British Navy. p. 256.]

On the 8th, Captain Hallowell took possession of Aboukir Island, and brought off two brass 13-inch mortars, and two 12-pounders of the same metal. The iron guns were throw into the sea, and the platforms destroyed. On the 10th, a vessel was discovered in the offing. The Swiftsure was ordered to chase and immediately got under weigh; in the evening Captain Hallowell came up with and took her. She proved to be La Fortune, a corvette of 16 guns and 10 men. On the same day Sir Horatio Nelson, who had been wounded in the late battle, wrote to Earl St. Vincent from the mouth of the Nile. In his letter we find the following passage: "I should have sunk under the fatigue of refitting the squadron, but for Troubridge, Ball, Hood And Hallowell; not but all have done well; but these are my supporters," [16]

As an interesting footnote to the sinking of L'Orient, Southey quotes:

"Some French officers, during the blockade of Alexandria, were sent off to Captain Hallowell to offer a supply of vegetables, and observe, of course, the state of the blockading squadron. They were received with all possible civility; in the course of conversation, after dinner, one of them remarked, that we had made use of unfair weapons during the action, by which, probably, the Orient was burnt, and that General Buonaparte had expressed great indignation at it. In proof of this assertion, he stated that, in the late gunboat attacks, their camp had twice been set on fire by balls of inextinguishable matter, which were fired from one of the English boats. Captain Hallowell instantly ordered the gunner to bring up some of those balls, and asked him from whence he had them. To the confusion of the accusers, he related that they were found on board of the Spartiate, one of the ships captured on the 1st of August; as these balls were distinguished by particular marks, though in other respects alike, the captain ordered an experiment to be made, in order to ascertain the nature of them. The next morning, says Mr. Wylliams, I accompanied Mr. Parr, the gunner, to the island; the first we tried proved to be a fireball, but of what materials composed we could not ascertain. As it did not explode (which at first we apprehended), we rolled it into the sea, where it continued to burn under water; a black, pitchy substance exuding from it until only an iron skeleton of a shell remained. The whole had been carefully covered over with a substance that gave it the appearance of a perfect shell. On setting fire to the fusee on the other, which was differently marked, it burst into many pieces: though somewhat alarmed, fortunately none of us were hurt. People account differently for the fire that happened on board of the French admiral: but why may it not have arisen from some of these fireballs, left, perhaps, carelessly on the poop, or cabin, when it first broke out? And what confirms my opinion on this head is, that several pieces of such shells were found sticking in the Bellerophon, which she most probably received from the first fire of l'Orient"- [Willyams. Voyage in the Mediterranean. p. 145] [17]

After the departure of Rear-Admiral Nelson from the shores of Egypt, the Swiftsure formed part of a squadron under the orders of Captain (afterwards Sir Samuel) Hood. Hood was employed in co-operation with the Turks and Russians, in harassing the French Army. Captain Hallowell remained in this service until Feb. 14, 1799, when he sailed for Palermo joining his gallant Chief on the 20th of the following month.

"During his long subsequent cruise off Alexandria, Captain Hallowell kept his crew employed and amused in fishing up the small anchors in the road, which, with the iron found on the masts, was afterwards sold at Rhodes, and the produce applied to purchase vegetables and tobacco for the ships company." [18]

Eleven days after her arrival at Sicily, the Swiftsure sailed for Naples, in company with three other ships of the line and some smaller vessels, the whole under the command of Captain Troubridge, of the Culloden. On April 2nd, they stood into the Bay and, as it was known that many of the inhabitants were desirous of returning to their allegiance, Captain Hallowell landed on the Isle of Procida. The Hon. Mr. Rushout, now Lord Northwick, accompanied him - whose acquaintance with the country as well as with the Italian language proved of great service on many occasions. They were received with enthusiasm and joy and ascended to the castle amidst the acclamations of the people; the French tree of liberty was cut down, the tri-coloured flag struck, and the royal Neapolitan ensign hoisted in its stead. The squadron anchored between Procida and the main and a party of marines were sent to Ischia to take possession of that island (the fort was given up to them without opposition.)

The squadron continued near Naples until the 15th of May, when it returned to Palermo and from thence proceeded on a cruise of Maritimo. On the 23rd of the same month, Captain Hallowell presented Lord Nelson with a coffin made from the wreck of L'Orient [19] accompanied by the following letter:

(taken from the original letter in Nicolas, who writes that Charnock and Harrison deliberately changed some of the text and the date, in order to make it appear that the coffin was sent immediately after the battle of the Nile.) [Nicolas, III, p. 89]

"My Lord, Herewith I send you a Coffin made of part of L'Orient's Main mast, that when you are tired of this Life you may be buried in one of your own Trophies-but may that period be far distant, is the sincere wish of you obedient and much obliged servant,

Swiftsure, May 23, 1799. BEN. HALLOWELL." [20]

On the bottom of this singular present was pasted a certificate written on paper, to the following effect:

"I do hereby certify, that every part of this coffin is made of the wood and iron of l'Orient, most of which was picked up by His Majesty's ship under my command, in the Bay of Aboukir.

Swiftsure, May 23, 1799. BEN. HALLOWELL." [21]

The astonishment that prevailed amongst the crew of the Vanguard, Lord Nelson's flag ship, when they were actually convinced it was a coffin that had been conveyed on board, will be long remembered by their officers: "We shall have hot work of it indeed" said-one of the seamen; "you see the Admiral intends to fight till he is killed, and there he is to be buried." [22] Lord Nelson highly appreciated the present, as Southey writes: "An offering so strange, and yet so suited to the occasion, was received by Nelson in the spirit with which it was sent. As if he felt it was good for him, now that he was at the summit of his wishes, to have death before his eyes, he ordered the coffin to be placed upright in his cabin." [23] And for some time he kept it placed upright with the lid on against the bulkhead of his cabin, behind the chair on which he sat at dinner. He viewed it with the undaunted mind of a great warrior. At length, the tears and entreaties of an old servant prevailed upon him, and he allowed its being carried below. When his Lordship left the Vanguard, the coffin was removed into the Foudroyant, where it remained for many days on the gratings of the quarterdeck. Whilst his officers were looking at it one day, he came out of the cabin: "You may look at it Gentlemen" said the hero, "as long as you please; but depend on it none of you shall have it." [24]

Continue to [ Part 2 ]


[0] His father, also Benjamin, was the last surviving Commissioner of the Board of Customs in Boston, and died at York in Upper Canada Mar. 28, 1799. His (son's) place of birth is doubtful; from private correspondence with B. Elson, we find that the father's entry in the British Dictionary of National Biography copies a statement from his obituary in the United Services Journal stating that he was born in Canada, place un-named. According to the Mormon genealogical records he was born in Windsor, NS, but that entry is totally spurious. The obituary entry has a bit more credibility because there is internal evidence that it was written by his brother in law.
B. Elson also writes (private correspondence]: "This whole issue was studied about 40 years ago by the then chief of the Nova Scotia Public Archives who concluded that Ben was born in Boston 1 Jan 1761, Boston being his parent's home town. I have a certificate obtained from the city of Boston records office saying the same thing, but it is not the original birth certificate."
Benjamin (the father), when in command of the "King George", was frequently in Nova Scotia during the late 1750's and early 1760s, but there is no record that his wife ever accompanied him. It is perhaps worth mentioning that Benjamin's (the father's wife Mary had born another son ten year's before, on 1 Jan 1751, who was also called Benjamin but died an infant, so our Benjamin was the second of their children to be so named. A Mary Hallowell is listed in the first census of Halifax in 1752, but there is no evidence she was the same Mary Hallowell.

[1] Clowes, IV, p. 203

[2] Clowes, IV, p. 244; Tracy, I, p.34

[3] Clowes, IV, p.269

[4] Tracy, I, p.34

[5] Tracy, I, P. 50 (notes).

[6] Clowes, IV, p. 274

[7] Clowes, IV, p. 289 tells of the wreck of the Courageux.

[8] Nicolas, II, p. 318 (reported Hollowell instead of Hallowell)

[9] Nicolas, II, p. 336

[10] Clowes, IV, p.321 (notes)

[11] Bradford. Nelson the Essential Hero p. 135; Hibbert. Nelson a Personal History p. 107; Howarth, David. Nelson: The Immortal Memory p.161; Walder, David. Nelson, a biography, New York, The Dial Press, 1978. Although there are slight differences in the four accounts (punctuation and wording,) our account corresponds most closely with Bradford.

[12] Bradford, Ernle. Nelson The Essential Hero. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, New York. 1977. p. 135; There is serious doubt that Benjamin Hallowell was Canadian at all – he almost certainly had no connection with Hallowell township in Prince Edward County, Ontario, Canada

[13] Clowes, IV, p. 357; Nicolas, V, p. 416

[14] Clowes, IV, p. 377

[15] Tracy, I, p. 265; Southey, Robert. The Life of Nelson. 1911, Gribbings & Company Limited, London.

[16] Nicolas, III, p. 100, Nicolas, VII, p. 258

[17] Southey, p. 130-131 (notes)

[18] Southey, p. 123 (notes)

[19] Clowes, V, p. 164; Tracy, I, p. 260, 39; Nicolas, VII, p. 258

[20] Nicolas, III, p. 89; Allen, Joseph. Life of Nelson. 1852: London. p. 136; Tracy, IV, p. 36; Nicolas, III, p. 88-89
Allen has the slightly different wording, "My Lord: - I have taken the liberty of presenting you a coffin made from the main-mast of L'Orient, that when you have finished your military career in this world, you may be buried in one of your trophies; but that that period may be far distant is the earnest wish of your sincere friend, Swiftsure, May 23rd, 1799 Ben. Hallowell"

[21] Nicolas, III, p. 89

[22] Nicolas, III, p. 89

[23] Southey, p. 124

[24] Nicolas, III, p. 89

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