James Weddell

Birth: 1787


JAMES WEDDELL (24 August 1787 - 9 September 1834) was a navigator, son of a working upholsterer, a native of Lanarkshire, who had settled in London and married there, was born at Ostend on 24 Aug. 1787. The father was at the time in bad health, and seems to have died shortly afterwards, leaving the widow with two boys unprovided for. The elder son went to sea, eventually settled in the West Indies, made a little money there, and died about 1818. At a very early age the younger son, James, with no education beyond the little that his mother had herself been able to give him, was bound to the master of a coasting vessel, apparently a Newcastle collier.

About 1805 he shipped on board a merchantman trading to the West Indies, made several voyages, and about 1808 was handed over to the Rainbow frigate, as a prisoner guilty of insubordination and mutiny; charged, in fact, with having knocked down his captain. Weddell's later conduct renders it very probable that the blow was given under extreme provocation. His opportunities for educating himself had, up to this time, been extremely small; such as they were, he had made the most of them; he was fond of reading; and, on board the Rainbow, so far improved himself that he was rated a midshipman, then quite as often a responsible petty officer as a youngster learning his profession.

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As a midshipman Weddell had more opportunities for reading and study; he rendered himself a capable navigator, and in December 1810 was appointed acting master of the Firefly. Twelve months later he was moved to the Thalia, and on her return to England and being paid off, he was on 21 Oct. 1812 promoted to be master of the Hope. A few months later he was moved to the Avon brig, with Commander (afterwards Admiral-of-the-fleet Sir George Rose) Sartorius [q. v.], who, in 1839, wrote of him as 'one of the most efficient and trustworthy officers I have met with in the course of my professional life. On taking command of the Portuguese liberating squadron (1831), I immediately wrote to Weddell to join me, but he unfortunately happened to be out of England, and when I received his answer accepting with pleasure my proposal, I had already given up the command.' The Avon was paid off in March 1814, and Weddell was appointed to the Espoir sloop, from which he was promoted to the Cydnus frigate and later on to the Pactolus, from which he was superseded in February 1816.

The reduction following the peace rendered it impossible for him to get further employment in the navy, and after three years on a scanty half-pay he accepted the command of the Jane of Leith, a brig of 160 tons, belonging to a Mr. Strachan, intended for a sealing voyage in the southern seas, for which the newly discovered South Shetland Islands seemed to offer great facilities. Of this first voyage, made in the years 1819-1820-21, no record is extant. Though Weddell had no previous experience as a sealer, it appears to have been sufficiently successful to enable him to buy a share in the brig, and to be entrusted with the command for a second voyage, in company with the cutter Beaufoy of London, of 65 tons, also put under his orders. With these two small vessels, which sailed from the Downs on 17 Sept. 1822, Weddell, in his search for fur-seals, examined the Falkland Islands, Cape Horn, and its neighborhood, South Shetlands, South Georgia, the South Orkneys, which he had discovered in his former voyage; and finding the sea open, pushed on to the southward as far as latitude 74° 15°, which he reached on 20 Feb. 1823.

The sea was still 'perfectly clear of field ice;' but the wind was blowing fresh from south, and the lateness of the season compelled him to take advantage of it for returning. Of course, too, the fact that the primary object of the voyage was trade, not discovery, had an important weight. Weddell returned to England in July 1824, and in the following year published 'A Voyage towards the South Pole performed in the years 1822-24' (1825, 8vo; 2nd ed. 1827), to which, in the second edition he added some 'Observations on the probability of reaching the South Pole,' and 'An Account of a Second Voyage performed by the Beaufoy to the same seas.'The work is interesting not only as the record of a voyage to what was then and for long after the highest southern latitude reached, but also as giving a survey of the South Shetlands, where many of the names-as 'Boyd's Straits,' 'Duff's Straits,' 'Sartorius Island'-recall the names of the captains with whom Weddell had served.

Of the later years of Weddell's life there is no clear account. It appears from the letter of Sartorius already quoted that he was abroad from 1831 to 1833, possibly in command of a merchant ship. His trading ventures had not been successful, and he is said to have been in very straitened circumstances. He died, unmarried, in Norfolk Street, Strand, on 9 Sept. 1834.

A miniature is in the possession of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society; it was presented by Mr. John Allen Brown, whose father, John Brown, author of 'The North-West Passage and the Search for Sir John Franklin,' 1858, presented, in 1839, a life-size copy of it to the Royal Geographical Society.

[Information from Mr. J. A. Brown; a manuscript memoir by John Brown, by favour of the Royal Scottish Geographical Society, to which it now belongs; Weddell's Voyage, as above; Navy Lists.]


Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900 by John Knox Laughton, Volume 60. pg. 129-130

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