Captain John Erskine Douglas R.N.

Click here to 
Print this page

Biography finder





























Index of first names



Admiral John Erskine Douglas (c. 1758 – 25 July 1847) was a senior British Royal Navy officer of the early nineteenth century who served in a number of vessels and participated at the destruction of the French ship of the line Impétueux in 1806 and the victory over the French off Brest during the Battle of Basque Roads in 1809. He also served in the Mediterranean and off Norfolk, Virginia, where he gained notoriety by searching American vessels for British deserters without asking permission from the American authorities. He later served as commander in chief at Jamaica and rose through the ranks to full admiral.

The son of David Douglas, he was a descendant of James Douglas, 2nd earl of Queensberry. He amassed a fortune, and when he died Douglas left over 40,000l. to his daughters.

Douglas was born in the later 1750s, and joined the British Royal Navy at a young age, reaching the rank of commander in 1794 at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars. Within a year he had been made a post captain and taken command of the small frigate HMS Garland, which he commanded in the North Sea until 1798, when he transferred to the larger frigate HMS Boston. Boston was stationed off the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, intercepting numerous French merchant ships trading with American ports. For a time he blockaded the French frigate Sémillante, but by 1801 had sailed for the West Indies, operating in the Leeward Islands and then moving north to Halifax, Nova Scotia, where he remained until 1804, continuing in employment throughout the Peace of Amiens.

On his return to Britain, Douglas was given the 80-gun ship of the line HMS Impetueux, moving in 1805 to the 74-gun HMS Bellona, which participated in the Atlantic campaign of 1806 as part of the squadron under Vice-Admiral Sir Richard Strachan. Ordered to the Eastern Seaboard of the United States, Bellona was cruising with HMS Belleisle off Cape Henry on 14 September 1806 when the French ship of the line Impétueux was spotted steering into the Chesapeake. Impétueux had been caught in a hurricane earlier in the summer and was badly damaged, limping to port under jury masts. Closely pursued, Impétueux was driven on shore by her captain and the crew scrambled onto the beach as British boats boarded and captured the wreck. Although British intervention on American shore was a clear violation of American neutrality in the war, there was no protest from the American authorities – the only complaint coming from the French consul at Norfolk. Damaged beyond repair, the wreck of Impétueux was burnt on the beach.

Douglas remained off the Chesapeake during 1807 in command of a squadron of smaller vessels observing two French ships of the line at anchor in Hampton Roads. This squadron became embroiled in the controversy surrounding the removal of British deserters from American-flagged vessels that ended with the Chesapeake-Leopard Affair in July 1807 and Douglas exchanged angry letters with the Mayor of Norfolk. Returning to Europe in 1808, Bellona was attached to the Channel Fleet and in 1809 was part of the blockade fleet under Lord Gambier that destroyed a number of French ships at the Battle of Basque Roads. Moving to the North Sea in 1810, Douglas captured the privateer L'Heros du Nord and in 1812 transferred to the 98-gun second rate HMS Prince of Wales in the Mediterranean, where he remained for the rest of the war.

In 1814, Douglas was promoted to rear-admiral and the following year served as commander in chief of the Jamaica station, remaining in the post until 1818. Retiring from active service, Douglas continued to rise through the ranks, becoming a vice-admiral in 1825 and a full admiral in 1838.


He died aged 89 at Swallows near Watford in Hertfordshire on 25 July 1847, leaving the considerable fortune of 40,000l. (£2,896,600 as of 2011) to his daughters, with a proviso that his sister receive 150l. a year.



1.  D6/4/1853 - On the 6th instant, at 24 Chester Street, Belgrave Square, London, Miss Douglas, only surviving daughter of Admiral John Erskine Douglas, (died) aged 87 years.
2.  Daughter Helen Catherine Douglas 'of the Queensberry family' married in 1843 Lt Col Colin MacKenzie as his second wife. There was no issue.

3.  Baptism at St Elizabeth, Jamaica, June [?17] 1795 of Catherine-Ann, Daughter of John William Spencer Griffith Esqr. and Catherine Campbell his wife, born May 28 1795

4.  Rear-Admiral Douglas may have fathered a child by one of his black slaves in Jamaica, Diana Prince. Certainly the boy was named John Erskine Douglas, his father was white, and conception took place when Douglas was in Jamaica. He was christened (with his mother) at St Andrew's parish in August 1817 - he'd been born on 17th October 1816.

5.  The Newfoundlander, of Thursday 24th January 1833, carried the following notice: "Died, at Falmouth, England, on the 9th November last, aged 21 years, the much beloved wife of Lieut. Smith Griffith, RN, Commander of HM Packet Swallow, daughter of the late Port Major Green and sister-in-law of Admiral John Erskine Douglas. The deceased has left a truly affectionate and fond husband absent at the Brazils ........".


Ship: L'Impetueux, 80,

Promoted Captain - 1795

Ship: Boston, 32 returned to England from America in 1795 under Capt. James MORRIS. 1797 Capt. D. PRESTON, 8/97.
1798 Capt. John Erskine DOUGLAS, removed from GARLAND at the beginning of the year. Coast of France. 1799 West Indies station, where he blockaded the French frigate SEMILLANTE in Norfolk, Virginia, in the spring of 1801. She returned home at the close of 1804. 1805- out of commission at Plymouth.


Extracted from ???

  Josr Ensrnrr Doucues is son of the'late Divid
D_ouglas, Esq., by l\liss Thompson; grond-nephcw
ofJames, second Earl of Queensberrj; and ciusin
or_ the present tltrquesS of euensberrv, His
eld_e_br r_other, lfilliamf a Colonel in the Arniy, died
in May 1831.
. Tl-rjs officer obtained his first commission 2l
{nql,1778; acquired the rank of Commander. in
the I'RoypEUSE sloop, 24 llay, li94; and was motle
Post-Io June, 1795. He then assunied command of
the GAnT,AND 28, in which he served on the North
S€a stal.ion, util his removal, in 1799, to the Bosrox
32. \t'hile in-that vessel, on the American station.
ne appcars to heve ceptured and destroyed eeverai
ofthe_enemy's ships. and to bave bloikaded for
scveral months the &nillante, o French frieate of
l'ar s_rlperio_rfb rce. After cruizing for some t-im; iu
the \Yest Indies and off Halifax,tapt. Douelas. on
hpitsT UreEtruxr n^Uhqo maet.t acinh eId8 0{to, wthacs aCphpaonirnietel d flte"e ti.i, u Ef*x-_
chongin& early in 1803, into the Bcnorr 24. he
subsequently assisted, ofi' Cape Henry. at the des-
truction, l.l Sept. l80ti, of the Frencli 7&gun ship
L'Imrytuew-was intrusted with the command-.
during the summer of 1806, of a squadron stationed
In the Ulresopeake. eerved under Lord Gambier at
the deslructiotr of the French shipping in Aix
lioads in April, 1809-and, on 18 D"". iSfO. "oo:
tu-red, in tbe North Sea, Le lldrcsdu-t\Irdprivatee'r.
or- t4 guns a'nd 4{ nretr. \l-hen in the Pnrrcr or
W,lr,ns 9_8r__t o s.hich ship he rvas appointetl in thl
spring of 1812. Capt. Doirglas witntised Sirndw.
'Ploeullleoivn',e parr,ial actions with" the Ft;";t fl";;;;;i
5 Nov. 1813, ond 13 Feb. l8-t,1. Beins oro_
moted to Flag-rank 4 June, 1814, he was noxtlt'rom
l8I5 to 1818, employed as Commander-ir(jhief at
Jameica. He has since been oo half-pav. He
became a Vice-Admiral 22 }tey, teSi, iln"d a fun
-.l,dmiral 28 June, 1838.
IIe married, in lEl8, llrs. White, end has. with
other issue, e deughter, Helen Catherine.' who
ItlS,2I Noy. l8,lg Capt. Colin l\lackenzie, Hon.



The true picture of a ship of war of the old school is to be found in Roderic Random. Such it continued to be in 1 782, and was not much improved in 1/92. The store-rooms were a chaotic mass of most things requisite for a ship, although nothing was to be found when wanted. The first instance we can remember of their being arranged in that beautiful order, now so generally observed in the service, was on board the Boston, when commanded by the present Vice-Admiral John Erskiiie Douglas.

This was done by the carpenters of the ship, under the direction of the captain : the advantages soon became so apparent, that many captains followed the good example ; and government, receiving into its counsels some of the most active and influential officers in the navy, adopted the mode of fitting store-rooms throughout the service, and great are the benefits derived from it." Brenton's Nttvnl History, III. p. 141.





 There is some superficial incongruity in the union of the Admiral and Catherine. He was born in 1757, so was 61 on their marriage in January 1818, while Catherine or (Catharine-Anne as she is sometimes called) was 22 (she died aged 83 in 1878). There were two daughters: Helen Catherine born 1819 and Louisa born 1821. Helen married Colin Mackenzie in 1843 (he of the extraordinary portrait by Sant) and she had her parents' portraits. She wrote books on, among other topics, life in India.


Catherine's will


The portraits

John and Catherine's portraits were left to Annan Museum by their daughter, Helen (See below). She described them as being by a female artist, painted in Rome c1831. 


The portrait of Catherine is of better quality than that of her husband, although a close-up of his head seems of a better quality than of his uniform.


This gives rise to the hypotheses that the Admiral's portrait was either deliberately left unfinished, and completed by a lesser artist later, or the uniform was over-painted later.  The rationale for this is that Admirals' uniforms were changed in design and style in 1830, whilst the family were travelling in Europe , and John wished to be 'corectly dressed'.


The original bequest (or informal instruction acting as one) of Admiral Douglas’s portrait was to his cousin, The Hon John Douglas, CMG, former premier of Queensland, Australia, and at the date of writing (1902) Government Resident and Magistrate at Thursday Island. He died in 1904, so it is no surprise that the picture had to go elsewhere. Our portrait of his wife was at the same time bequeathed to ‘Germaine’, whom I take to be the Adelaide Germaine Catharine Douglas mentioned elsewhere (her husband’s cousin, b.1833), then living in Scotland. She did not die until 1917 (see memorial below) (in England), but the bequest was nevertheless superseded in the final memo.



Helen Mackenzie, – (1819 – 1910)
Anglo-Indian author
Helen Douglas the elder daughter of Admiral Douglas of Malvern (sic), she became the second wife (1843) of Lieutenant-General Colin Mackenzie (1806 – 1881), with whom she spent some years in India during the British Raj, before and after the Indian Mutiny (1857). She was the author of English Women in the Rebellion (1859). Helen Mackenzie survived her husband and wrote his biography Storms and Sunshine of a Soldier’s Life: Lt-Gen Colin Mackenzie 1825 – 1881 (2 vols.). She left her own memoirs Life in the Mission, the Camp and the Zenana (harem) (1872, 3 vols.).






Sources for this article include:
  • ArtUK

  • Any contributions will be gratefully accepted


    Back to top


    The content of this website is a collection of materials gathered from a variety of sources, some of it unedited.

    The webmaster does not intend to claim authorship, but gives credit to the originators for their work.

    As work progresses, some of the content may be re-written and presented in a unique format, to which we would then be able to claim ownership.

    Discussion and contributions from those more knowledgeable is welcome.

    Contact Us

    Last modified: Friday, 17 May 2024