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Journal of a Lady of Quality
Appendices: - XIV. Captain John Abraham Collet


CAPTAIN John Abraham Collet may well he deemed the villain of this phase of the story, for, though possessing many natural gifts, he was domineering and unprincipled and has received little commendation from either party in the struggle. He has, however, been treated more harshly than was necessary by North Carolina historians who, following contemporary revolutionary opinion, have given him no credit for his successful handling of a difficult situation. Furthermore, North Carolina owes him something for the excellent maps that he prepared of the province—maps not generally known and never reproduced to our knowledge. One was engraved and published; the other two, now in the British Museum, with photographic copies at Raleigh and in the Library of Congress, still remain in manuscript. Of the latter, the smaller covers the lower Cape Fear; the larger, Albemarle and the back country.

Captain Collet before coming to North Carolina had served six campaigns in Germany and later for four years studied mathematics, engineering, and drawing. On May 27, 1767, he was commissioned commander of Fort Johnston, and in August embarked for North Carolina, delivering his credentials to Governor Tryon in December. He was discouraged at the miserable condition of the fort and the insufficient allowance made for its maintenance, and as an ad interim employment accepted Tryon's invitation to accompany him as his aide-de-camp on the expedition against the Regulators in 1768. In December of that year he returned to England, having in the meantime surveyed the province and completed a map of it, "which he afterward had the honour of presenting to His Majesty and upon the publication of which he actually lost £500." (Testimony before the Loyalist Claims Commission.) This mar), engraved by Bayley, was published May 1, 1770, by S. Hooper, Ludgate FIjI!, London.

Though Collet carried to England recommendations from Tryon to Hillsborough, he was unsuccessful in obtaining preferment. While in England he was employed in drawing until In 1772 he was ordered by the secretary of state for the colonies to return to America and take up his post at Fort Johnston. In the meantime Governor Martin had endeavored to impress upon the assembly the necessity of making an adequate appropriation for charges and maintenance of the fort, but with slight success. Collet reached the country in 1773, and with the governor's approval "spared neither time nor pains to put [the fort] into substantial repair" and, according to his own statement, continued to maintain it at his own expense up to 1775. Martin and Collet were in fact on the horns of a dilemma: the assembly would do nothing because Collet was a British officer; and Secretary Dartmouth would do nothing because the fort "seemed calculated merely for the security and convenience of the commerce of the colony" (N. C. R. IX, 1008).
From the end of 1774 Collet was harassed "in every way the Americans could devise; they cut off his usual channels for provisions, and by great premiums and promises seduced his men to desert and after the first bloodshed at Lexington they declared open hostilities and more destruction to the garrison." As early as March, 1775, the rumor spread that the fort was to be attacked and Collet and his lieutenant, Richard Wilson, prepared for its defence. This activity, coupled with other rumors, true and false, convinced the Wilmington committee that it would be necessary to capture the fort and if possible to take Martin and Collet into custody. The attacking force numbered five hundred; for defence Collet had twenty-five men, reduced by desertion to less than half that number, of whom only three or four were to be depended on. The artillery was useless for want of powder. When it became evident that the fort could not hold out, Martin retired on board the man-of-war and ordered Collet and Wilson to dismantle the fort, save the guns, and embark for Boston. This they did, July 21, 1775, delivering to General Gage "a very valuable and costly set of artillery, arms, stores, and ammunition belonging to the Crown."

While waiting on the transport, Collet saw his own property destroyed, losing, according to his own estimate, in house and stable, horses, cattle, carriages, hay, liquors, and furniture upward of £5900, with a total loss of "at least £10,000" (Audit Office Papers). Wilson, likewise, lost a house and stable, three saddle horses, and other property worth £400 (Second Report, Ontario Bureau of Archives, p. 1207). The attacking party, not content with the destruction of the fort and the houses belonging to it, shortly afterwards tarred and feathered the gunner "for expressing his loyalty," and "so grossly insulted Mr. Mulligan in particular, surgeon to the forts and garrisons in this province [South Carolina], that he was under necessity of taking refuge on board the King's ship till the packet boat sailed" (Lord William Campbell to Lord Dartmouth, South Carolina, August 19, 1775). Collet, after his arrival in Boston, continued in military service till the end of the war. He joined the Royal Fencible Americans, a loyalist regiment, served under Lieutenant Colonel Gorham at Fort Cumberland, Nova Scotia, 1777-1780, and at Fort Howe, 1781 (Loyalist Muster Rolls, MSS., 1777-1783). Of his career after his return to England we know nothing.

Collet had conspicuous faults and Governor Martin made no effort to minimize them. He charges Collet with extravagance and with conduct based upon his own gain rather than "upon any principles of justice, equity, and charity." He says that Collet was heavily in debt and contemptuous of the efforts which his creditors made to secure payment; that he was hot-headed and impetuous and so scornful of the colonials generally as to exasperate them against him. Though Martin did not believe, and probably with reason, the report that Collet was harboring and arming negroes at the fort and inciting them to insurrection, he was convinced that Collet was the wrong man for the place and hoped that he would never return to the colony.


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