John Williamson sailed on Cook’s Third Voyage. He began the voyage as third lieutenant per commission, received on 23 February, 1776, joining Resolution on the 26th. He was promoted to second lieutenant on 15 February, 1779, in the reshuffle after Cook’s death. Six months later after Clerke’s death, a second major reshuffle occurred in which Williamson was transferred to Discovery as first lieutenant on 23 August, 1779. He kept a log and proceedings from 23 February, 1776, until 28 June, 1778.1
Very little is known about Williamson. It is possible that he was born about 1745 and raised in Ireland. According to statements sworn out by his widow, in 1809, Williamson married Frances Young in Glass Niven [Glasnevin], Dublin in March 1765.2 This date is doubtful as Williamson was in the Pacific at the time. After his death in 1798, Frances Williamson moved to live in Walcot, Bath. She died there in 1812. Her will was proven on 29 April 1812.3 No children are mentioned.
John Williamson began his naval career about 1759 as a captain’s servant in HMS Dorsetshire under Captain Peter Denis. Denis had just commissioned Dorsetshire, a new 3rd rate of 74 guns. Williamson was probably in her at the Battle of Quiberon Bay that same year. Two other Cook men, William Hollamby and Michael Lane, were also on board.4
Denis commissioned HMS Bellona, another 3rd rate, in 1760, and Williamson followed him. Williamson spent nearly three years in her as a midshipman. Four months in HMS Syren and a year in HMS Deptford under Captain William Paston until 1764 followed. Williamson then sailed around the world in HMS Tamar with Captain Patrick Mouat for two years from May, 1764, to 1766.
Williamson sat and passed his lieutenant’s examination on his return in August 1766. His certificate (at the end of this article) states he was 20 years old, hence the suggestion that he was born in approximately 1745.
Williamson disappears from the record for several years. He received his lieutenant’s commission on 8 March, 1774. In 1775, he was in HMS Ramillies, Captain Sir Edward Vernon. From her he joined Cook for the Third Voyage in February, 1776.
He would prove a controversial and unpopular member of the company, at odds with everyone, including Cook. Unlike Cook, he was prepared to shoot to kill. He disapproved of many aspects of island life, finding them improper. James Trevenen described him as, “a wretch, feared & hated by his inferiors, detested by his equals, & despised by his superiors; a very devil, to whom none of our midshipmen have spoke for above a year.” 5
William Griffin, Resolution’s cooper and ship’s corporal, wrote that he was, “a very bad man & a great Tyrant.” 6
Williamson was in command of the launch at Kealakekua Bay when Cook and some men died. He claimed to have misunderstood Cook’s signals, after being blamed by some for not doing sufficient to save his colleagues. He is supposed to have fought duels as a result.7 Despite these apparent failings, Williamson was promoted commander after the voyage on 3 October, 1780.
In early 1782, Williamson re-commissioned HMS Belleisle, a 3rd rate of 64 guns. He was made post-captain on 11 June, 1782, and given command of Crocodile, a 6th rate of 24 guns.8 She sailed with Howe’s fleet in the summer of 1782. In October, Crocodile was part of a convoy to Newfoundland. In March, 1783, Williamson recommissioned Crocodile before sailing in April for India. On the return voyage she was wrecked at Prawle Point, Devon, on 9 May, 1784.
Williamson appears again as a captain in December, 1795—this time, of HMS Grampus, a 4th rate of 50 guns, which sailed to the West Indies. Apparently, he was disrespectful to Rear Admiral Sir H.C. Christian and was court-martialled on 23 May, 1796. He was found guilty. However, in October he was appointed captain of HMS Agincourt, a 3rd rate of 64 guns. The next year he was present at the Battle of Camperdown (Kamperduin) against the Dutch off the Dutch coast in October 1797.
Williamson was charged with cowardice, negligence and disaffection, that he had held Agincourt back from the fight and had not done his utmost to bring the enemy ships to battle. He was court-martialled at Sheerness for his unsatisfactory behaviour. Only cowardice was proven. He was sentenced to be placed at the bottom of the captains’ list and rendered incapable of ever serving on board a ship of the Royal Navy.
This act effectively ended his naval career. He died on 28 October, 1798. The Gentleman's Magazinecarried a short obituary in November, 1798.
27 October at his lodgings in Woodstock Street, near Bond Street, Capt Williamson, whose conduct on board the Agincourt, in the engagement between the Dutch fleet and the squadron of Lord Duncan, produced a most tedious court martial, by the result of which he was placed at the bottom of the list of captains. He had subscribed his half pay, during the continuance of the war, to the voluntary contributions. He was taken ill on the 22nd, of an inflammation of the liver and bowels.
The final illness suggests he succumbed to drinking. Joseph Farington, the artist, in his diaries recorded some opinions of Williamson.9
Sunday 10 December 1797.
Sir Rich'd [Onslow] said Captain Williamson is a troublesome man - often disagreeing and in affrays, that He challenged Lord Chatham who would not employ him - had quarelled with Captn. Hooper.
Friday 15 December 1797.
Lady Spencer said Captn. Williamson is a black-guard.
Williamson Passage in Nootka Sound is named after John Williamson.10
Many thanks to Margaret Dierden, who supplied some of this information.
Lieutenant’s Certificate for John Williamson
In pursuance, etc of the 11 August 1766, we have examined Mr. John Williamson who by certificate appears to be more than 20 years of age, & find he has gone to sea more than seven years in the Ships and qualities undermentioned (viz).
He produceth Journals from the Bellona. He produceth Certificates from Captains Denis, Ellys, Paston, Mouat and Cumming of his diligence, etc. He can splice, knot, reef a sail, etc and is qualified to do the duty of an Able Seaman and Midshipman.
Dated the 12 August 1766.
Robert Man, Abraham North.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page , volume 37, number 3 (2014).
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