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The Scottish Nation

HORSBURGH, JAMES, F.R.S., a distinguished hydrographer, was born at Elie, Fifeshire, September 23, 1762. His parents, though in a humble sphere of life, were pious and respectable. At the age of sixteen, having acquired the elements of mathematical science, book-keeping, and the theoretical parts of navigation, he sailed in various vessels, chiefly in the coal trade, from Newcastle and the Firth of Forth to Hamburgh, Holland, and Ostend. In May 1780 he was captured by a French ship of twenty guns, close to Walcheren, and detained in prison at Dunkirk for a short time. After his liberation he went on a voyage to the West Indies, and on his return proceeded to Calcutta. In 1784 he was made third mate of the Nancy, bound for Bombay, in which trade he continued for about two years. In May 1786, when proceeding from Batavia towards Ceylon, as first mate of the Atlas, he was wrecked upon the island of Diego Garcia, owing to the incorrectness of the charts then in use. On his return to Bombay he joined, as third mate, the Gunjava, a large ship belonging to a respectable native merchant, and bound to China. On the vessel’s arrival at Canton, he became first mate, in which capacity he continued to sail, in that and other ships, between China, Bombay, and Calcutta, for several years.

      Mr. Horsburgh’s experience and observation had enabled him to accumulate a vast store of nautical knowledge, bearing especially on eastern hydrography. By the study of books, and by experiments, he familiarized himself with lunar observations, the use of chronometers, &c. He also taught himself drawing, etching, and the spheres. During two voyages to China, by the eastern route, he constructed three charts, one of the Strait of Macassar, another of the west side of the Philippine Islands, and the third of the tract from Dampier Strait, through Pitt’s Passage, towards Batavia, accompanied by a Memoir of Sailing Directions, which were published under the patronage of the court of directors of the East India Company, for the use of their ships.

      In 1805 Mr. Horsburgh returned to England, and soon after he published a variety of charts, with Memoirs of his Voyages, explanatory of Indian Navigation. In the Philosophical Transactions for 1810 appeared several of his papers which he had presented to Sir Joseph Banks; while others were inserted in Nicholson’s Philosophical Journal. In 1809 he brought out ‘Directions for Sailing to and from the East Indies, China, New Holland, the Cape of Good Hope, and the interjacent Ports,’ compiled chiefly from original journals and observations made in the Eastern seas during twenty-one years. This invaluable work has now become a standard authority. In 1810, on the death of Mr. Dalrymple, he was appointed hydrographer to the East India Company. His energies were now devoted to the construction of various valuable charts and works; amongst which were, an Atmospherical Register for indicating Storms at Sea, published in 1816; a new edition of ‘Mackenzie’s Treatise on Marine Surveying,’ in 1819; and the ‘East India Pilot.’ He also contributed a paper to the Royal Society on the Icebergs in the Southern Hemisphere, which is printed in the Philosophical Transactions for 1830. In 1835 he published a Chart of the East Coast of China, having the names in the Chinese character and in English, translated by himself, which was his last work. He died May 14, 1836. He was married in 1805, and left one son and two daughters, A striking public acknowledgment of his merit is contained in the Report on Shipwrecks of the Select Committee of the House of Commons, which refers to the highly valuable labours of the East India Company’s maritime officers, and “the zealous perseverance and ability of their distinguished hydrographer, the late Captain Horsburgh, whose Directory and Charts of the Eastern Seas have been invaluable safeguards to life and property in those regions.”

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