John Gabriel Stedman

Birth: 1744


John Gabriel Stedman (1744-1797), lieutenant-colonel and author, was grandson of John Stedman (1678-1713), minister of Dalmeny and afterwards of the Tron Church, Edinburgh (cf. Hew Scott, Fasti, I. i. 59, 182), who was a great-uncle of Charles Stedman His father, Robert, was an officer in the Scots brigade in the service of the States-General of Holland, and fought at Fontenoy and Bergen-op-Zoom. He died at Breda in 1770.

John Gabriel, the elder son of Robert by his wife, Antoinetta Christina van Ceulen, was born in Holland in 1744. According to his own account, his ambition was to enter the British navy, to which he was well recommended. But, the paternal estate having been lost by accidental misfortunes, he was glad to accept a commission in General John Stuart's regiment in the Scots brigade in 1760, as a preliminary to which he had to take the oaths of abjuration and allegiance to King George. In 1772 he volunteered to accompany an expedition sent out by the States-General to subdue the revolted negroes in Surinam, or Dutch Guiana. This service, in which he was employed for five years, gave him the opportunity of his life. His narrative of it is a model of what such a book should be.

Its rules for marching and fighting amid tropical swamps anticipate those laid down for the Ashanti expedition. The field of his curiosity embraced not only all branches of natural history, but also economical and social conditions. His description of the cruelties practiced on the negroes, and of the moral deterioration resulting to their masters, forms one of the most vivid indictments of slavery that have been penned. While he did his duty as a soldier in the pay of Holland, he does not disguise his sympathy with the rebels. Not the least curious thing in the book is the story of his relations with Joanna, a beautiful mulatto, who nursed him when sick, and bore him a son. The freedom of the son was granted to the father by the government of Surinam in recognition of 'his humanity and gallantry;' but the boy died at sea as a midshipman in the British navy.

Stedman, immediately on his return to Holland, although Joanna was still alive (she died in November 1782), married a Dutch wife, Adriana Wiertz van Coehorn, a granddaughter of the famous military engineer. He was restored to his rank in Stuart's regiment, with which he continued to serve until the Scots brigade ceased to exist in 1783. On the outbreak of war with England in that year the privates, who now belonged to all nationalities, were naturalized as Dutchmen, while the great majority of the officers resigned their commissions and came over to England. Parliament forthwith voted to them the half-pay of their rank, and later on they were re-embodied under General Francis Dundas, and sent to garrison Gibraltar. Stedman's commission as major in the second battalion of the Scots brigade is dated 5 July 1793, and on 3 May 1796 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel.

Oddly enough, on the title-page of his book, dated 1796, he uses the style of captain; and, still more oddly, his name continues to appear in the 'Army List' until 1805, when he had been eight years dead. He seems to have lived latterly at Tiverton in Devonshire. This is the place from which the dedication of his book to the Prince of Wales is dated, 1 Jan. 1796; and according to family tradition, he retired here on meeting with a severe accident which prevented him from taking up the command of his regiment at Gibraltar.

At Tiverton he died on 7 March 1797. He had left instructions to be buried in the neighboring parish of Bickleigh, at midnight and by torchlight, by the side of Bamfylde Moore Carew, the king of the gipsies, whom he apparently regarded as a kindred spirit. As a matter of fact, the two lie on opposite sides of the church, Stedman directly in front of the vestry door. By his wife Adriana he left three sons, two of whom were killed in action, while the third died at sea, after forty years' service in India, a lieutenant-colonel in the Bengal cavalry and C.B. The male line is now extinct.

The full title of Stedman's book is 'Narrative of a Five Years' Expedition against the Revolted Negroes of Surinam, in Guiana, on the Wild Coast of South America, from the year 1772 to 1777: elucidating the History of that Country, and describing its Productions, viz. Quadrupeds, Birds, Fishes, Reptiles, Trees, Shrubs, Fruits and Roots; with an Account of the Indians of Guiana and Negroes of Guinea,' London, 1796. It is in 2 vols. 4to, illustrated with eighty plates from drawings by the author, many of which are engraved by Bartolozzi and Blake. Large-paper copies have the plates handsomely colored by hand. A second edition 'with an Account of the Indians of Guiana and Negroes of Guinea,' appeared in 1806 (London, 2 vols. 4to; reprinted 1813). A French translation by P. F. Heury appeared in 1799, and a German translation by Sprengel shortly afterwards. A romance founded upon Stedman's narrative, and called 'Joanna,' was issued in 1824 (London, 12mo).

[Stedman's Memoir, 1857; Stedman's Narrative; Appleton's Cyclop. of American Biogr. v. 658; European Mag. 1797, i. passim.]


James Sutherland Cotton, Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900, Volume 54. pg. 126.

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