Review of the Book by Prof. John B.Hattendorf
Published in US Naval War College Review June 2021
"... This five-hundred-page biography is longer than many devoted to the world's most famous admirals. One has to search quite carefully in the literature on the Royal Navy during the American Revolution and the wars of the French Revolution to find even a passing reference to John Inglis (1743-1807). During his forty-two years of active naval service, Inglis reached the coveted rank of post captain. Following his retirement from active service in 1799, he rose by seniority up the ranks of 'yellow' half-pay admirals, eventually becoming a vice admiral.
The author of this work, Jim Tildesley, former director of the Scottish Maritime Museum, has unearthed, â€with admirable diligence, in more than twenty archives in England, Scotland, and the United States the documentary evidence of Inglis's life. The result of many years labor, Tildesley's book provides a fascinating and lucid account that serves as a valuable case study of a diligent and successful naval officer who retired as a captain.
From other historians, we know that two-hundred-some captains were serving in the fleet during Inglis's career, and only a small percentage of them could rise to flag rank on active service; then, as now, reaching the rank of captain meant that an officer had had a typical successful career. Thus, Inglis is part of a significant group of career naval officers worthy of study.
Tildesley follows Inglis's life and career, seemingly using every scrap of paper that relates to him, his family, and his ships, from log- and muster books to municipal tax records as well as newspapers, estate records, letters from family friends and acquaintances, and a wide range of official reports. The result is a remarkably complete view of an ordinary naval captain's life.
Despite being part of a large organization, captains have distinctive careers and different experiences within the broad range of activities that define naval service. From the outset, John Inglis was somewhat different, having been born in 1743 at Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, then the world's third-largest English-speaking city, after Bristol and London. John was the son and namesake of a wealthy Philadelphia merchant, slave trader, and slave owner. His father was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, and settled in Pennsylvania in 1730, after a period as a merchant at Nevis in the West Indies.
Young John joined the Royal Navy at age fourteen in 1757, as an aspiring officer in the frigate Garland, commanded by the notoriously ineffective future admiral Captain Marriot Arbuthnot. Young Inglis soon deserted his ship, but family connections to the three sons of Sir Gilbert Elliot of Minto in the Scottish Borders resurrected his career prospects. The eldest of the three Elliot brothers inherited the family's Scottish estates and became a member of Parliament and a Lord of the Admiralty; the second became a wealthy merchant in Philadelphia and married John Inglis's mother's sister; and the third was a naval officer in his first command.
This last took John Inglis on board and rated him a master's mate, a typical rating for an aspiring officer. Within a few weeks, Inglis saw his first fleet opÃ‚Â¬erations as part of Admiral Sir Edward Hawke's squadron in the Bay of Biscay. Quickly promoted to midshipman, Inglis remained with Elliot as he moved to a new command and was with him during his successful capture in the Irish Channel of the French privateer squadron under Francois Thurot in 1760. In 1761, fully trained by Elliot, Inglis took his examination and was commissioned a lieutenant, then followed Elliot to the Mediterranean as fourth lieutenant in the seventy-gun Chichester.
Inglis's career touched on several naval operations that have a broader interest beyond his career. Tildesley's detailed accounts of these events often provide valuable new information based on documentary evidence. They include coverage of Inglis's first command, in 1768, of the eight-gun schooner Sultana, a replica of which was built in Maryland in 2001 and his service in that ship enforcing the Navigation Acts. This included operations in Chesapeake Bay, where he met Colonel George Washington, and later the notorious smuggling operations in Rhode Island's Narragansett Bay. While in command of Sultana, Inglis was professionally interested in law enforcement and became one of the subscribers to the first American edition of Blackstone's Commentaries. Later, Inglis was in command of a ship during the mutiny at the Nore. He participated in the battle of Camperdown and was involved with an attempt to persuade the Dutch warships under Van Dirckinck to defect to the British in 1796.
Tildesley's study of Captain John Inglis is a notable addition to the literature. His work complements recent studies, such as Hilary Rubinstein's Trafalgar Captain: Durham of the Defiance; The Man Who Refused to Miss Trafalgar (2005), Victor T. Sharman's Nelson's Hero: The Story of His Sea-Daddy, Captain William Locker (2005), and Bryan Elson's Nelson's Yankee Captain: The Life of Boston Loyalist Sir Benjamin Hallowell (2008). In his work, Tildesley breaks away from the Nelson-Trafalgar focus and gives a new, illuminating insight through this case study of a captain's career.
This is a well written, comprehensive and thoroughly researched book. As someone whose knowledge of maritime history is verging on nonexistent I was fascinated by the detail of everyday life on board ship and the battles of which again I had hardly any knowledge. It has been a voyage of discovery for me. John Inglis himself is portrayed very well, he is not a one dimensional character at all and the author has been very fair and unbiased in the assessment of him and his career.
Due to my lack of knowledge I would have appreciated a graphic time line of historical events against his life events, and maps of the American and Dutch coasts to locate places more easily would also have been helpful.
It is a well researched book, complete with a full set of source data and bibliography.
by Anne D
Former Director of the Scottish Maritime Museum and Member of the UK National Historic Ships Committee. He retired in 2013 after a career in Education, Local Government, and Museums. He is a qualified teacher and experienced lecturer with a Masters Degree in Naval History. His area of research for the last nineteen years has been the Royal Navy from the start of the Seven Years War until the end of the Napoleonic Wars.
He lives in Dumfries and Galloway, Scotland.