Alexander Colvill, 7th Baron Colvill of Culross, was born on 28 February, 1717, in Dundee. He was the son of John Colvill, 6th Baron Colvill, and his wife Elizabeth (née Johnston). Although titled, the family was no longer rich, so Alexander, the oldest son, needed to follow a career. As the Colvills had few connections to assist him, Alexander joined the Royal Navy in 1732 by becoming what was called a “King’s Letter Boy, or “volunteer per order”. It was a method of entry to the Navy introduced in 1676 for young gentlemen destined to become officers.
Colvill’s first ship was HMS Lime, which he joined at Bantry Bay in Ireland in 1733. He became a midshipman after two years’ service. After spells in 1738 in Phoenix and in Rose, and after several months unemployed, he became a lieutenant on 31 August, 1739, serving in that capacity in the West Indies in Alderney.
Colvill succeeded to the title of Lord Colvill in April 1741 following his father’s death. His new status helped his standing in the navy and his chances for promotion. In April 1742, he became second lieutenant of Russell (80 guns), and sailed to the Mediterranean. He transferred to Admiral Thomas Mathews’s flagship Namur in November 1742. Next, Colvill was given command of Mercury, a fireship, and then Terrible, a bomb vessel. Colvill was made post-captain on 6 March, 1744, and given command of Dursley Gally. However, on 21 September, 1744, he transferred to the command of HMS Leopard, in which he soon made his reputation by capturing or destroying a large number of enemy vessels in the Mediterranean. By the end of the war, he had received about £5,000 prize money. Colvill returned to Britain leaving Leopard on 19 December, 1748. His mother had died in March 1748.
For a month from 11 March, 1749, Colvill had command of Shoreham. He then transferred on 6 April to HMS Success, and spent the next three years based in Boston, Massachusetts. His duties included convoying salt between the West Indies and Boston, which he did to the satisfaction of the Bostonian merchants. He obviously enjoyed life in Boston, and at some point became a Freemason. Colvill had a partner (known only as D.T.) with whom he had a son, Charles, born about 1750. D.T. died about 1752, but Colvill acknowledged and supported his son, who became a lieutenant in the Royal Navy in 1765 (aged only 13!), but died in 1780.
Colvill was appointed to Northumberland (70 guns) in January 1753. After transporting troops to the British base on Minorca, she returned to Plymouth to take on guardship duties at the port until January 1755, when the fleet began preparing for war. In 1753, while based at Plymouth, Colvill began a second known relationship, this time with B.S., who came from Exeter. She gave birth to a son, James Alexander, in 1760. B.S. died in 1762.
The Seven Years War with the French was looming, and Colvill sailed in March 1755 as part of Admiral Boscawen’s attempt to prevent the reinforcement of French North America. Returning in November, Northumberland joined the blockade of Brest, France, during 1756. In 1757, she sailed with Holburne to attack Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, only for a hurricane in September to disperse the fleet and force them into harbour at Halifax, Nova Scotia.
Holburne left for Britain on 14 November, leaving Colvill as commodore and commander-in-chief of the ships on the North American station. Colvill and Northumberland were part of the blockade of Louisbourg during 1758, leading to its capture. On completion of the campaign, Colvill returned to Britain, having lost a third of Northumberland’s company to scurvy. She was back in 1759 as part of the British attack on Quebec.
After the fall of Quebec, Admiral Charles Saunders appointed James Cook as master of Northumberland, beginning a four-year working relationship between him and Colvill. In October, Colvill was re-appointed commander-in-chief at Halifax, and Northumberland remained based there until mid-1762. However, in 1760, she returned up the St. Lawrence as part of the force to repel the siege of Quebec by François Gaston de Lévis, the successor to General Montcalm. During 1761 and early 1762, Colvill worked on improving the dockyard at Halifax. News then reached Colvill on 3 July, 1762, that the French had captured St. John’s in Newfoundland. He sailed in August to take part in the recapture of the island.
The British landed troops at Torbay on 13 September. However, the French naval squadron slipped quietly away. The remaining French force at St. John’s surrendered two days later. This expedition allowed Cook the opportunity to make harbour plans. Colvill wrote to the Admiralty praising Cook’s work. Colvill and Northumberland were recalled to Britain, where they arrived on 26 October, 1762. Cook was discharged from the ship ending his relationship with Colvill.
Colvill had been promoted a rear-admiral five days earlier on 21 October. He was then appointed port admiral at Plymouth in January 1763. Later that year, he was reluctantly persuaded to resume the North American command. He reached Halifax on 13 October, 1763, and remained based there for three years. His major naval achievement was establishing the port as the major base for the region. He had a relationship with Elizabeth Greene, who gave birth to Colvill’s third child, Sarah, in 1765. In 1766 he returned to Britain, marking the end of his active service.
Colvill moved to Scotland to a property at Drumsheugh, near Edinburgh. On 1 October, 1768, he married Lady Elizabeth (née Erskine) MacFarlane, the widow of Walter MacFarlane. She was 18 years younger than Colvill. They did not have any children. She was a second cousin of Mary Erskine, who was Colvill’s grandmother. Colvill made his will in 1767, before he married, and recognised his three illegitimate children. Even after his marriage, he did not disinherit the children. He died at Drumsheugh on 21 May, 1770.
Colvill gave Cook the opportunity to prepare charts in Canada and Newfoundland, and his commendations brought Cook to the attention of Thomas Graves, Governor of Newfoundland, leading to Cook’s appointment as Surveyor of Newfoundland. Cook named the northern point of the Coromandel Peninsula in New Zealand after Colvill.
Colvill always spelt his name that way; never as Colville.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 20, volume 45, number 4 (2022).
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