COLVILL (Colville), ALEXANDER, 7th Baron COLVILL of Culross, naval officer; b. 28 Feb. 1717 (o.s.), probably at Dundee, Scotland, eldest son of John Colvill, 6th Baron Colvill, and Elizabeth Johnston; m. 1 Oct. 1768 to Lady Elizabeth, daughter of Alexander Erskine, 5th Earl of Kellie, and widow of Walter Macfarlane; d. 21 May 1770 at Drumsheugh, near Edinburgh, Scotland.
Alexander Colvill’s early career was unusual in that he entered the navy by procuring a king’s letter and becoming a volunteer per order (roughly equivalent to a modern naval cadet) at a time (1732) when the system had practically disappeared. Most boys joined ships through “interest” with the captain, but the Colvill family apparently had little wealth and no connections in the service. Colvill left Dundee at the age of 15 and travelled to Bantry Bay (Republic of Ireland), where in April 1733 he joined hms Lime, 20 guns. After two years as a volunteer in this ship he became a midshipman. In 1737 he joined the 20-gun Phoenix and in 1738 the Rose, 20 guns. On 25 Jan. 1739/40 he passed for lieutenant and after eight months’ unemployment – a consequence, no doubt, of having no “interest” – was promoted on 31 Aug. 1739. Despite preparations for war with Spain he had difficulty finding a ship, but on 6 Sept. 1739 he joined the bomb vessel Alderney, sailing for the West Indies as tender to a ship under whose captain he had previously served. Colvill took part in the sieges of Portobello (Portobelo, Panama) and Cartagena (Colombia). In 1740, for the first time since leaving home in 1732, he saw his father, whose regiment was in the West Indies. While they were both still there his father died, in 1741. Consequently, as Colvill later remembered, “my health was for some time visibly impaired.” On 17 April he had joined the 70-gun Hampton Court; in September he returned to England in that ship, and was able to advance his interests by dispensing patronage on behalf of a relation of Daniel Finch, Lord Winchelsea, the first lord of the admiralty.
On 18 April 1742 as second lieutenant of Russell, 80 guns, he sailed for the Mediterranean. On 9 November he joined Admiral Thomas Mathews’ flagship, the 90-gun Namur. He was placed in command first of the Mercury fireship and then the Terrible, bomb, and on 25 June 1743 he took command of the Sutherland, hospital ship. On 5 March 1743/44 he received post in command of the Dursley galley, 20 guns. On 24 July 1744 he took command of hms Leopard, 20 guns. In this ship he distinguished himself, in the ensuing four years, by the capture and destruction of a large number of vessels, some of them under neutral flags. “Certain critical circumstances will sometimes occur,” he recalled of these activities, “wherein a vigorous exertion of Powers may become necessary, without much consideration in point of Equity.” He returned to England from the Mediterranean in the Leopard in 1748, paying off his ship on 19 December. His prize money amounted to about £5,000. With the death of his mother in 1748 he had become responsible for the support of two sisters and a younger brother.
From 1749 to 1752 he commanded the 20-gun Success, the station ship in New England, where by his efficient supervision of the annual convoy of the salt trade from the West Indies, he established an unusually harmonious relationship with the merchants of Boston. When he returned to England he won preferment “from a kind of negative merit” with the Board of Admiralty, his careening accounts having amounted to only half those of other station captains in America. On 10 Jan. 1753 he was given command of the 70-gun Northumberland, the beginning of a nine-year association with that ship. After a trooping assignment to Minorca, Northumberland reverted to the status of guardship in Plymouth until January 1755, when the fleet began to come to readiness for war.
In March 1755 Colvill sailed in Northumberland with Admiral Boscawen, taking part in the attempt to intercept French reinforcements to North America, and returning with Boscawen’s squadron in November. In the following year Northumberland cruised in home waters; in 1757 she sailed in Vice-Admiral Francis Holburne’s squadron to Nova Scotia. After the attempt to capture Louisbourg, Île Royale (Cape Breton Island), that year had been given up, Northumberland was among the ships lying in wait off Louisbourg for the French fleet in the harbour, and she was caught in the disastrous hurricane of September 1757. She sailed then to Halifax, and when Holburne returned to England on 14 November he ordered Colvill to hoist a commodore’s broad pendant and assume the duties of commander-in-chief, North America.
Holburne instructed Colvill to prepare a careening wharf in Halifax and to have the squadron ready for sea as early as possible for the Louisbourg expedition of 1758. Because it was a severe winter, it was not possible to prepare the wharf, but eight ships of the line were ready for sea, and another ship of the line and a sloop were cruising, when Sir Charles Hardy arrived from New York to assume command on 22 March. Colvill remained a commodore. The squadron sailed on 5 April and blockaded Louisbourg until 14 June, making an important contribution to the success of the expedition. Much to Colvill’s indignation, the arrival of several captains senior to him resulted in the order to haul down his broad pendant in June. On completion of the campaign, he returned to England, having lost a third of his ship’s company to scurvy.
In 1759 the ship returned to America, arriving at the Louisbourg rendezvous on 14 May for the expedition to Quebec. She was unable to play a large part in the campaign, being anchored with the other great ships under Rear-Admiral Philip Durell east of the Île d’Orléans from 27 June to 22 September. After the surrender of Quebec the commander of the British naval forces during the operation, Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders*, ordered Colvill to take over as commander-in-chief, North America, for the winter. Colvill’s task was to prepare the squadron at Halifax for a return to the St Lawrence at the first possible opportunity in the spring.
In 1760 a squadron sailing directly from England under Captain Robert Swanton reached Quebec on 15 May, and raised the siege that had been mounted by Lévis*. Nevertheless, it has generally been considered that Colvill’s ability to place his squadron, including five ships of the line, in the St Lawrence by 16 May was one of the decisive factors in the conquest of Canada. Only then did James Murray*, commanding at Quebec, gain full control of the river. Colvill’s achievement was enhanced by the difficult ice conditions he had to overcome.
In the ensuing months, as the senior naval officer in North America, he armed and fitted sloops and schooners to search out small French privateers in the lower St Lawrence. A squadron under Captain John Byron*, sailing independently from Louisbourg, destroyed French warships and vessels that had taken refuge in the Restigouche River. To deal with the situation above Quebec, Colvill sent Captain Joseph Deane with hms Porcupine and a fleet of vessels to support the army’s advance on Montreal. After the capitulation of 8 Sept. 1760, Colvill arranged transportation for more than 4,000 French prisoners to La Rochelle, France, sending the rest to England in ships of Swanton’s squadron. He established regulations for pilotage, appointed a master shipwright to maintain vessels required by the army, and supplied the Quebec garrison with wood from the Île d’Orléans, as well as coal from Louisbourg, to see them through the winter. He sailed for Halifax on 10 Oct. 1760, leaving Swanton to supervise the transportation of prisoners, and arrived in Halifax on 24 October. Admiralty orders for Swanton to relieve Colvill were received at Halifax, but by then Swanton was already on his way home.
In the next two years, plagued with “sore throats, swelled legs, innumerable pains all over me, sciatica, scurvy, rheumatism,” Colvill devoted himself principally to improving the dockyard facilities at Halifax. With the outbreak of war against Spain in 1762 he diverted available forces for service in the Havana expedition. On 3 July 1762 he learned of Charles-Louis d’Arsac* de Ternay’s capture of St John’s, Newfoundland, with two ships of the line, a frigate, two ships en flute and 570 men. Colvill detained ships as they arrived at Halifax so that on 10 August he was able to sail with Northumberland, the 40-gun Gosport (Capt. John Jervis), and the Massachusetts provincial vessel King George, 20 guns, to join the 50-gun Antelope (Capt. Thomas Graves) and the 24-gun Syren (Capt. Charles Douglas*) at Placentia (Plaisance). He had tried without success to persuade the authorities in Nova Scotia to provide troops for an expedition to relieve St John’s, but on 11 September Colonel William Amherst arrived from New York with 1,300 men, and on 13 September the force landed at Torbay. The French quietly withdrew two days later, easily eluding the English squadron under cover of night and fog. This escape would seem to reflect unfavourably on Colvill and the exceptionally distinguished captains under his command, but no repercussions followed. He had already been recalled to England, where he arrived on 26 October to find he had been promoted rear-admiral of the white on 21 October. The Newfoundland expedition had at least one consequence of importance: James Cook*, then master of the Northumberland, and Joseph Frederick Wallet DesBarres* had begun a survey of the Newfoundland coast on Colvill’s orders.
The admiralty intended to give Colvill a command in the Mediterranean, but the signing of the preliminaries of peace resulted in cancellation of this commission. On 27 Jan. 1763, he relieved Durell as port admiral at Plymouth. In June, with much reluctance, he accepted the new North American command. He sailed on 31 August and arrived at Halifax on 13 October. There he established a “fixed Headquarters, or general Rendezvous,” partly because of the excellent harbour and the proximity of the place to the new acquisitions of Cape Breton and Quebec, but mainly because it was “the best place in the whole extent of America for refitting the King’s Ships,” and offered fewer opportunities for desertion than more southerly ports. His ships were stationed from Quebec to Florida with a view to stamping out the notorious disregard in America of the trade and navigation laws. Attempts at enforcement met with various difficulties and Colvill’s admitted hopes of financial advantage were disappointed. A royal proclamation of 1 June 1763 had led him to expect an unprecedented one-sixth of the proceeds from the sale of ships condemned for smuggling. But loopholes in the law, active interference by colonial officials, and the impossibility of keeping naval ships properly manned in North America tended to deprive Colvill of “an advantage, in the full assurance of which I undertook this voyage.” Despite this disappointment his ships did curtail smuggling; he was instrumental in the success of surveys of Nova Scotia and the Gulf of St Lawrence; and he established Halifax as a naval base in time of peace. In August 1766 Philip Durell arrived to assume command in America but died shortly after coming ashore. Colvill therefore left Captain Joseph Deane in charge at Halifax before sailing for England. He was not employed again in the remaining four years of his life.
Colvill left no heirs by his brief marriage, but between 1750 and 1766 his naval “family” (which normally comprised his secretary and servants) had on three occasions included the mothers of his natural children. The first of these women was from New England, identified only by the initials “D.T.” She died in 1752, but her son Charles, born near Boston in 1751, entered the navy and became a lieutenant. The second, “B.S.,” came from Exeter, England. She joined Colvill in Plymouth in 1753 and died in England shortly before his return from Halifax in 1762. Her son, James Alexander, was born in 1760 and was living in Exeter in 1770. Finally, in 1765 Elizabeth Greene of Halifax gave Colvill a daughter, Sophia. He charged the Reverend John Breynton*, rector of St Paul’s, Halifax, with the care of funds set aside for his Nova Scotian family. To his children – who “came into the World stigmatised with the name of Bastard thro’ my Crime” – and their guardians, to his wife, and to the children of his two sisters, the admiral left his fortune, all of which was acquired “in the Service of my King and Country in the two last Wars.” His younger brother, who had also entered the navy, had been lost at sea in 1761. A half-length portrait of Colvill remains in the possession of John Colville, the present Lord Colville of Culross, in Fifeshire.
PAC, MG 18, L1, Colvill’s memoirs, 1732–64 (photostat). PRO, Adm. 1/480–82; Prob. 11/960, f.354. Correspondence of William Pitt (Kimball). Despatches of Rear-Admiral Philip Durell, 1758–1759, and Rear-Admiral Lord Colville, 1759–1761, ed. C. H. Little (Maritime Museum of Canada, Occasional papers, no.4, Halifax, 1958). Despatches of Rear-Admiral Sir Charles Hardy, 1757-1758, and Vice-Admiral Francis Holburne, 1757, ed. C. H. Little (Maritime Museum of Canada, Occasional papers, no.2, Halifax, 1958). Despatches of Vice-Admiral Charles Saunders, 1759–1760: the naval side of the capture of Quebec, ed. C. H. Little (Maritime Museum of Canada, Occasional papers, no.3, Halifax, 1958). The recapture of Saint John’s, Newfoundland: dispatches of Rear-Admiral, Lord Colville, 1761–1762, ed. C. H. Little (Maritime Museum of Canada, Occasional papers, no.6, Halifax, 1959). D. M. Clark, “The impressment of seamen in the American colonies,” Essays in colonial history presented to Charles McLean Andrews by his students (New Haven, Conn., 1931), 198–224. J. S. Corbett, England in the Seven Years’ War; a study in combined strategy (2nd ed., 2v., London, 1918). Carl Ubbelohde, The vice-admiralty courts and the American revolution (Chapel Hill, N.C., 1960). N. R. Stout, “The Royal Navy in American waters, 1760–1775” (unpubl. phd thesis, University of Wisconsin, Madison, Wis., 1962).