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Significant Scots
James Horsburgh


HORSBURGH, JAMES, F.R.S.—This eminent hydrographer, whose charts have conferred such inestimable benefits upon our merchant princes and the welfare of our Eastern empire, was a native of Fife, that county so prolific of illustrious Scotchmen from the earliest periods of our national history. James Horsburgh was born at Elie, on the 28d September, 1762. As his parents were of humble rank, his education in early life at the village school was alternated with field-labour. Being intended, like many of those living on the coast of Fife, for a sea-faring life, his education was directed towards this destination; and at the age of sixteen, having acquired a competent knowledge of the elements of mathematics, navigation, and book-keeping, he entered his profession in the humble capacity of cabin-boy, to which he was bound apprentice for three years. During this time the different vessels in which he served were chiefly employed in the coal trade, and made short trips to Ostend, Holland, and Hamburg. These were at length interrupted, in May, 1780, in consequence of the vessel in which he sailed being captured by a French ship off Walcheren, and himself, with his shipmates, sent to prison at Dunkirk. When his captivity, which was a brief one, had ended, he made a voyage to the West Indies, and another to Calcutta; and at this last place he found an influential friend in Mr. D. Briggs, the ship-builder, by whose recommendation he was made third mate of the Nancy. For two years he continued to be employed in the trade upon the coasts of India and the neighbouring islands, and might thus have continued to the end, with nothing more than the character of a skilful, hardy, enterprising sailor, when an event occurred by which his ambition was awakened, and his latent talents brought into full exercise. In May, 1786, he was sailing from Batavia to Ceylon, as first mate of the Atlas, and was regulating the ship’s course by the charts used in the navigation of that sea, when the vessel was unexpectedly run down and wrecked upon the island of Diego Garcia. According to the map he was in an open sea, and the island was elsewhere, until the sudden crash of the timbers showed too certainly that he had followed a lying guide. The loss of this vessel was repaid a thousand-fold by the effects it produced. James Horsburgh saw the necessity for more correct charts of the Indian Ocean than had yet been constructed, and he resolved to devote himself to the task, by making and recording nautical observations. The resolution, from that day, was put in practice, and he began to accumulate a store of nautical knowledge that served as the materials of his future productions in hydrography.

In the meantime Horsburgh, a shipwrecked sailor, made his way to Bombay, and, like other sailors thus circumstanced, looked out for another vessel. This he soon found in the Gunjava, a large ship employed in the trade to China; and for several years after he sailed in the capacity of first mate, in this and other vessels, between Bombay, Calcutta, and China. And during this time he never lost sight of the resolution he had formed in consequence of his mishap at Diego Garcia. His notes and observations had increased to a mass of practical knowledge, that only required arrangement; he had perfected himself, by careful study, in the whole theory of navigation; and during the short intervals of his stay in different ports, had taught himself the mechanical part of his future occupation, by drawing and etching. It was time that these qualifications should be brought into act and use by due encouragement, and this also was not wanting. During two voyages which he made to China by the eastern route, he had constructed three charts, one of the Strait of Macassar, another of the west side of the Philippine Islands, and a third of the tract from Dampier Strait through Pitt’s Passage, towards Batavia, each of these accompanied with practical sailing directions. He presented them to his friend and former shipmate, Mr. Thomas Bruce, at that time at Canton; and the latter, who was well fitted to appreciate the merits of these charts, showed them to several captains of India ships, and to Mr. Drummond, afterwards Lord Strathallan, then at the head of the English factory at Canton. They were afterwards sent home to Mr. Dalrymple, hydrographer to the East India Company, and published by the Court of Directors, for the benefit of their eastern navigation, who also transmitted a letter of thanks to the author, accompanied with the present of a sum of money for the purchase of nautical instruments. In 1796 he returned to England in the Carron, of which he was first mate; and the excellent trim in which he kept that vessel excited the admiration of the naval connoisseurs of our country, while his scientific acquirements introduced him to Sir Joseph Banks, Dr. Maskelyne, the royal astronomer, and other men distinguished in science. After a trip to the West Indies, in which the Carron was employed to convey troops to Porto Rico and Trinidad, he obtained, in 1796, the command of the Anna, a vessel in which he had formerly served as mate, and made in her several voyages to China, Bengal, and England. All this time he continued his nautical observations, not only with daily, but hourly solicitude. His care in this respect was rewarded by an important discovery. From the beginning of April, 1802, to the middle of February, 1804, he had kept a register every four hours of the rise and fall of the mercury in two marine barometers, and found that while it regularly ebbed and flowed twice during the twenty-four hours in the open sea, from latitude 26 degrees N. to 26 degrees S., it was diminished, and sometimes wholly obstructed, in rivers, harbours, and straits, owing to the neighbourhood of the land. This fact, with the register by which it was illustrated, he transmitted to the Royal Society, by whom it was published in the Philosophical Transactions for 1805. Having also purchased, at Bombay, the astronomical clock used by the French ships that had been sent in quest of the unfortunate La Perouse, he used it in ascertaining the rates of his own chronometers, and in making observations upon the immersions and emersions of Jupiter’s satellites, which he forwarded to the Greenwich Observatory. About the same period, he constructed a chart of the Straits of Alias, and sent it, with other smaller surveys, to Mr. Dalrymple, by whom they were engraved.

It was now full time that Captain Horsburgh should abandon his precarious profession, which he had learned so thoroughly, and turn his useful acquirements to their proper account. It was too much that the life of one upon whose future labours the safety of whole navies was to depend, should be exposed to the whiff of every sudden gale, or the chance starting of a timber. Already, also, he had completed for publication a large collection of charts, accompanied with explanatory memoirs of the voyages from which they had been constructed, and these, with his wonted disinterestedness, he was about to transmit to his predecessor, Mr. Dalrymple. Fortunately, Sir Charles Forbes interposed, and advised him to carry them home, and publish them on his own account; and as Horsburgh was startled at the idea of the expense of such a venture in authorship, his whole savings amounting by this time to no more than £5000 or £6000, the great Indian financier soon laid his anxieties to rest, by procuring such a number of subscribers for the work in India as would more than cover the cost of publishing. Thus cheered in his prospects, Captain Horsburgh returned to England in 1805, and forthwith commenced his important publication, from which his memory was to derive such distinction, and the world such substantial benefit. So correct were these charts, that even this very correctness, the best and most essential quality of such productions, threatened to prevent their publication; for with such accuracy and minuteness were the bearings and soundings of the harbour of Bombay laid down, that it was alleged they would teach an enemy to find the way in without the aid of a pilot. It was no wonder, indeed, that these were so exact; for he had taken them with his own hands, during whole weeks, in which he worked from morning till night under the fire of a tropical sun. In the same year that he returned to England, he married, and had by this union a son and two daughters, who survived him. In 1806 he was elected a fellow of the Royal Society; and in 1810 he was appointed hydrographer to the East India Company, by the Court of Directors, on the death of Mr. Dalrymple. Just before this appointment, however, he published his most important work, entitled "Directions for Sailing to and from the East Indies, China, New Holland, the Cape of Good Hope, and the interjacent ports." These "Directions," undertaken at the request of several navigators of the eastern seas, and compiled from his journals and observations during twenty-one years, have ever since continued to be the standard and text-book of eastern ocean navigation.

On being appointed hydrographer to the East India Company, Mr. Horsburgh devoted himself, with all his wonted application, to the duties of his office. He constructed many new charts, the last of which was one of the east coast of China, with the names of the places in Chinese and English; and published an "Atmospherical Register" for indicating storms at sea, besides editing Mackenzie’s "Treatise on Marine Surveying," and the "East India Pilot." From 1810, the year of his appointment, till 1836, the year of his death, he was indefatigable in that great work of humanity to which he may be said to have ultimately fallen a martyr—for his long-continued labours among the scientific documents contained in the cold vaults and crypts of the India House, and his close attention to the countless minutiae of which the science of hydrography is composed, broke down a constitution that, under other circumstances, might have endured several years longer. But even while he felt his strength decaying, he continued at his post until it was exhanged for a death-bed. His last labour, upon which he tasked his departing powers to the uttermost, was the preparation of a new edition of his "Directions for Sailing," &c., his favourite work, published in 1809, to which he had made large additions and improvements. He had completed the whole for the press except the index, and in his last illness he said to Sir Charles Forbes, "I would have died contented, had it pleased God to allow me to see the book in print!" His final charge was about the disposal of his works, so that they might be made available for more extensive usefulness; and to this the Directors of the East India Company honourably acceded, while they took care that his children should be benefited by the arrangement. He died of hydrothorax on the 14th of May, 1836. His works still obtain for him the justly-merited title of "The Nautical Oracle of the World." It is pleasing also to add, that the lessons which he learned from his pious, affectionate father, before he left the paternal roof, abode with him in all his subsequent career: he was distinguished by the virtues of gentleness, kindness, and charity; and even amidst his favourite and absorbing studies, the important subject of religion employed much of his thoughts. This he showed by treatises which he wrote in defence of church establishments, where his polemic theology was elevated and refined by true Christian piety. Of these occasional works, his pamphlet of "A National Church Vindicated," was written only a few months before his death.


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