Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Now here is a biography to write

I am happily chugging my way through "To Rule the Waves" a rather splendid rendition of the history of the Royal Navy and its vital importance in the creation of Britain, its empire and the system of free trade by Arthur Herman, when I came across this on page 242.

"John Parkins, the pilot seaman who ended up commanding the brig Endeavor as a lieutenant and then the frigates Turk and Arab as a post captain, until ill health forced him out in 1805. Remarkable enough because Parkins spent his entire career as a Royal Navy officer in the West Indies, without once visiting England. But remarkable, too, because Parkins was black, the son of a slave and very probably a former slave himself".

Now a bit more research suggest a couple of things, firstly it appears his name was Perkins not Parkins,

"1801 Capt. J. PERKINS, Jamaica. on 16 April 1801 the French garrison evacuated the island of St. Eustatia, carrying with them their field pieces and as much plunder as their ships could carry. Capt. PERKINS and a detachment of the 3rd regiment of Buffs immediately took possession of the island together with island of Saba. The ordnance captured on the island consisted of 48 pieces of ordnance with 338 barrels of gunpowder".

According to The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy" by NAM Rodger,

"in 1775, John Perkins was the "pilot extra" of the flagship of the Jamaica squadron. He must have been an experienced local commercial master or mate. Within a few years he was commanding the Punch, a schooner-rigged tender. In 1782, Sir Peter Parker commissioned him lieutenant in command of the Endeavor brig. In 1784, Rodney added guns to make Endeavor a commander's command and temporarily promoted him to commander. Because of the shenanigans, the promotion was not confirmed and Perkins had to wait till 1797 to advance to commander. In 1800, Perkins was made post and successively commanded the Arab and the Tartar. The first was a 22-gun "post ship" while the second was a 32-gun, 12-pounder frigate. Perkins went ashore due to "ill-health" in 1805 and died in 1812".

An extraordinary story and a testament to the burgeoning meritocracy that the Royal Navy of the time displayed. As a post captain he would have had white officers serving under him. So somebody, go get that publisher's deal.


dearieme said...

In the light of that, when do you guess that the US Federal civil service was segregated? No googling, now.

Anonymous said...

I have photographs of the Arab log from 1801. It details the capture of St. Eustatia, the battle against a Danish brig and the subsequent blockade and a number of other interesting incidents. I also have a letter from Admiral Rodney regarding Perkins detailing his exploits in 1782. I've also got a couple of articles from the Naval Chronicle if you're interested?

Elaib said...

Very, I would be fascinated in reading them. Do you have David Spinney's biog of Rodney? He taught me history and was a fanatic about the man.

Mike Beatty said...

I'm on it! I was absolutely gob-stopped when I read Herman's account of Parkins in To Rule the Waves.

I'm planning to start my PhD in History next fall (either North Carolina, Alabama, or Texas A&M; I'm working on my MA in History @ The University of Missouri - St. Louis now). I don't know if Parkins alone would be enough for a dissertation that "makes a significant contribution to knowledge," but the full story of Negro officers in the Royal Navy, from the second half of the Eighteenth Century to about 1815, would be, I think, a suitable subject.

Heh, and only three years after this post went up!