[From King Orry to Queen Victoria, 1899]



HAVING in the case of William Christian (Illiam Dhôan) given some of the history of a Manxman of whom no Manxman need be proud, I will now give some particulars of another Manxman—and a sailor—that all his compatriots may well be justly proud of, for a finer specimen of the true British sailor than Captain Hugh Crow, a native of Ramsey, it would be hard to find.

Hugh Crow, the son of respectable parents, was born at Ramsey in 1765 A.D., and when quite a youngster had the misfortune to lose the sight of his right eye.

In 1782 A.D. he started on his first voyage to sea in a Dutch-built ship, the Croon, from Whitehaven to Waterford, with a cargo of coals. He had, in due sailor fashion, crept into the maritime service ‘through the hawse-pipe,’ and it was not till November, 1789A.D., that he obtained the position of second mate of the brig Elizabeth, bound for Jamaica; but the next year he was promoted to be first mate of the brig Prince, and in her made his first voyage to the Guinea Coast of Africa, a trade in which he sailed for many years, making the general round voyage—outwards from Liverpool with trade cargo—spirits, Brum magem guns, powder, and all sorts of calico goods of the very brightest colours, beads, and other useful and fine things for the adornment of the sable inhabitants of that warm part of the world, where clothing is only required as a foundation upon which ornaments and finery may be displayed. These goods were traded away for gold and ivory—when these were in the market—and for slaves, negroes, black men and women, who were taken over to Jamaica and other West India islands, and sold at large profits for labourers on the plantations.

This was called the ‘black ivory trade,’ and in those days was legitimate, and considered a respectable occupation. This was long ago; much has happened since then. Liverpool and Bristol almost monopolized the trade.

It was not till years after, when the slave trade was prohibited and negroes were smuggled over by Spaniards and other foreigners from the coast of Africa to Cuba, Brazil, and other places not British, and the ships carrying them were chased and frequently captured by English cruisers, that the horrors of the ‘middle passage' — across the Atlantic — took place.

In this African slave trade Crow, who speedily became captain, bore a high character, both among the English and the native traders, and also for his great care of and humanity to his sable passengers. Voyage after voyage he was awarded the Government premium of £ioo for the good condition he landed his negroes in, and the very few deaths that occurred in the passage across the Atlantic. At the ports on the African coast he was a great favourite with all the natives, and a personal friend of many of the kings.

In those days the seas were swarming with privateers, and it was his misfortune in 1794 A.D., when in the English Channel, homeward bound, to be picked up, and overcome after a hard fight, by a large French ship, Le Robuste, mounting 24 guns, 12-pounders, and with a crew of 150 men. Captain Crow had only thirty-five of a crew, but he fought for two hours, till his rigging was cut to pieces and many of his men disabled.

He and his crew were taken prisoners and carried to L’Orient, where, and at Quimper, forty miles inland, they were confined and most cruelly treated. This was the period of the Great Revolution, and the French were exercising the worst side of their characters. Voltaire, it will be remembered, said a Frenchman was one half tiger and the other half monkey; at this time the tiger was the predominant factor.

In May of the following year Crow effected his escape, and after many adventures and hardships, succeeded in reaching England, and made the best of his way to Liverpool to get another ship.

In July, 1798 A.D., he was appointed to the command of a fine new ship of 300 tons, belonging to Mr. William Aspinal oi Liverpool, and named after himself the Will, and this time he was better prepared to meet the Frenchmen, for the Will carried eighteen 6-pounders and fifty men.

He made a very prosperous voyage both for his owner and himself, and in addition to the Government bounty for landing his negroes in good condition, there was a large profit on the trading that voyage, on which he had a liberal commission.

One day when dining in Liverpool with Mr. Aspinal, a Mr. Hodson, a merchant also in the Guinea Coast trade was present, who observed in course of conversation

‘I give my captains very long and explicit instructions, yet they can hardly make any money for us. What kind of instructions do you give your captains?’

‘That depends on who they are,’ replied Aspinal. ‘Here, with Captain Crow, I took him yesterday to Beats’ Hotel, where we had a pint of wine together, and then I told him, "Crow, mind your eye !" Quite enough for him.’

‘Ah!’ said Hodson, ‘I notice Captain Crow has only one eye.’

‘True!’ replied Mr. Aspinal, ‘but that’s a piercer.’

In 1800 A.D., still in command of the Will, Captain Crow was in the latitude of Tobago and off St. Vincent, on February 21, when the word was passed from the masthead that two brigs were in sight standing to the northward. One of them tacked and stood for the Will. Crow kept his course, but cleared for action, trusting, if the enemy was strong, to make a running fight of it. She soon showed herself to be a large armed vessel, with ten ports aside, and her decks were crowded with men. The second vessel was a brig, her prize.

The Frenchman came up athwart the bows of the Will and gave two broadsides. He then shot close up to the English ship’s starboard quarter, and with a loud yell the word was given to board. At this moment Crow returned his fire with compound interest; his guns were well loaded with his favourite charge of roundshot and broken-up copper-dross, a most destructive compound of missiles, and he gave the enemy such a dose in his next broadside, that all idea of boarding evaporated from Monsieur’s mind, and he sheered off to continue the fight at a greater distance.

After fighting for two hours at long bowls, the Frenchman ventured up a second time, and, hailing in good English, ordered Crow to strike his colours or he would sink him. Crow replied defiantly that he scorned his threat, and that rather than strike to a beggarly Frenchman, he would sink with all hands. This so exasperated the French captain that, after dancing on the deck, he snatched a musket out of a man’s hand and fired straight at Crow, as straight as he could fire, but missed him. Another yell came from the Frenchman’s deck, and another attempt was made to board. Just as he was nearing the Will, Crow put his helm a starboard and away the brig shot ahead, and in doing so carried away the Will’s flying jibboom and its rigging.

Before the enemy could recover himself Crow’s men poured three broadsides into his larboard quarter, producing much havoc and confusion among his men. The French at that time had a clumsy and dangerous custom of loading their guns from outside the vessel, and the Will’s crew saw several of the poor fellows fall overboard as they were wounded.

Master Crapaud had by this time had enough, and not only did not attempt to board, but sheered off altogether, after an action of nine hours, leaving the Will victorious, but sadly disabled.

All her topgallant-masts were shot away, sails cut to ribbons, and topmasts wounded badly; three shots were in the mainmast and four in the mizzen-mast; the main-crosstrees shot away and other damage done. One of the enemy’s roundshot—a nine-pounder—went into the men’s quarters below and wounded twelve black slaves, two of whom died next day. Another shot had entered the starboard bow gun port, wounded three men and dismounted the gun.

As soon as Captain Crow had finally beaten off the enemy, he went below into his cabin to thank God for His goodness in giving him the victory. When the black women slaves, who were separated from the men, heard it was all over and that Captain Crow was safe, they came and gathered round him with tears in their eyes, and thanked their gods too. The officers and crew conducted themselves throughout with the greatest coolness. There was no confusion throughout the whole fight, for Crow had well trained both officers and men. One of them, a black man, was a most expert gunner.

In a few days the Will reached St. Vincent, where the ship was refitted. No sooner had he entered the port than eight British men-of-war boats boarded her and pressed the best part of her crew, taking them away. Such were the tender mercies of the law in those days of press-gangs.

Soon after the arrival of the Will at Liverpool, where the news of his gallant fight had made a great commotion, the underwriters of London presented Captain Crow with a piece of plate, valued at £200, bearing the following inscription:

‘Presented by
the Underwriters of Lloyd’s Coffee House
for his Gallant Conduct
in defending the Ship Will against a French Privateer
on his Voyage from Africa
to the West Indies,
21 February, 1800.’

This presentation of the London underwriters stirred up the Liverpool people and caused them to remember a previous achievement of the gallant one-eyed commander, when he was lying with several other ships, some twenty sail, in Bonny River, and three large French frigates appeared off the mouth of the river. Had the French entered the port they could have captured all the ships one after the other; but Crow constituted himself an admiral, and pointing out to the other captains the position of affairs, induced them to follow him, and he led the whole fleet out to sea, and formed a regular line of battle in such formidable style that the Frenchmen hoisted all sail and scuttled away as fast as the wind would take them. A finer piece of bluff has seldom been achieved.

The merchants and underwriters of Liverpool presented him with a handsome silver tray, with the following flattering address engraved upon it:

‘This piece of Plate is Presented
by the
Merchants and Underwriters
of Liverpool
to CAPTAIN HUGH CROW, of the Ship Will,
in testimony
of the High Estimation
they have of his Meritorious Conduct
in the River Bonny,
on the Coast of Africa,
on the 16th of December, 1799,
when Menaced by
Three French Frigates.’

In the latter part of the year 1806 A.D., Captain Crow had the command, from the same owner, Mr. Aspinal, of a fine new ship, the Mary, in which he sailed on his usual voyage to the West Coast of Africa, with cargo to exchange for slaves to take to the West Indies. At this time the war with France was very hot, and her privateers were active all over the seas. Crow put the Mary into good fighting trim, practised her crew at the guns whenever weather permitted, and determined to fight his way across the Atlantic. He had the largest and most valuable cargo of slaves on board he had ever carried. Every preparation was made to give any enemy a hot reception, even to preparing a number of stone two-gallon jars by loading them with gunpowder and broken copper-dross, with fuses, to be thrown from the tops on to the deck of any ship that might come alongside with the intention of boarding.

All went well till December r, when, off Tobago, with a fine breeze and all sails set, the man at the masthead sung out there were two ships a long way ahead standing towards the Mary. These he naturally concluded were French cruisers from Cayenne. Crow took in his studding sails and stood on the opposite tack to avoid them. The other ships, observing this manceuvre, both tacked, and gave chase under all the canvas that would draw, and it was then seen they were two powerful ships of war. As night came on, with heavy squalls, Crow tacked again in hopes of getting out of their way, thinking they might separate in the darkness; and if he had to fight one at a time instead of both together, he did not fear, as he considered the Mary a match for any French privateer.

At 9 p.m. the look-out reported a sail to windward. The Mary tacked again to avoid her, but she followed her on. Seeing it would be a fight, and that he and his crew would have to stand to their guns, Crow called all hands to quarters and thus addressed them:

‘Sailors and shipmates! You are aware that I have done everything in my power to keep clear of these Frenchmen, but all, as you observe, in vain. Your conduct on all occasions since we have been together has been noble and brave, worthy, indeed, of the high character of true British seamen, and I hope and trust you will stand by me this night; for, rather than be taken and sent to a French prison, of which I had enough some years ago, I am fully determined to defend the ship to the last, and even to go down with her, sooner than strike.’

To a man they cheerfully expressed their willing ness to stick to him to the last. Then Crow con tinued: ‘Commend yourselves, my brave fellows, to the care of Providence. Let’s have no cursing or swearing, but stand to your quarters; and such is my opinion of your abilities and courage that I have no doubt but that, should both ships attack us, we shall triumphantly beat them off. You know what those stone jars contain and how to use them, and woe be to them if they attempt to board us!’

It was not long before all doubt came to an end. The larger of the two ships came up astern and hailed the Mary to bring to. Crow knew too well the French cruisers had a trick of hailing ships in English, and so he calmly replied that he would not, and no one should bring him to in those seas in the night. The answer to this was two shots, and the Mary replied with one. In a few minutes the other ship loomed up out of the darkness. She also hailed the Mary, and came up close, when Crow per ceived she was a large brig, which rounded to and poured a broadside into the Mary’s starboard quarter. Crow at once returned her fire at close quarters for some time. The brig then sheered off and took up her station at some distance off, and they fought till 10 p.m., when the other ship came up on the larboard side, and both ships closed in and engaged Crow simultaneously.

The Mary and her crew had now got into a warm berth, but Captain Crow and his men were not dispirited. He animated his men by all the cheering language he could muster, giving first one and then another directions about elevating and directing the guns so that every shot might tell. While thus engaged Crow was struck by a splinter on the left arm, which staggered him at first and disabled him for some time, but he did not let any of the crew know he was hit for fear of disheartening them.

The fight proved hot and furious all round, and the cannon-balls of the enemy were whistling about in most unpleasant fashion. On looking round after one of their antagonists had fired her broadside, Crow saw the man at the wheel desert his post and run forward. He instantly sung out to him, ‘What! is it possible that we have a coward on board the Mary?’ The man felt the reproach keenly, and re turned to his post, saying to his captain he hoped he would excuse his temporary alarm.

It was a strange thing, and Captain Crow wondered at it, that so few casualties had occurred among the men; but while he was looking round and congra tulating himself at seeing so few men hurt, a large shot entered the bow port, taking off both the boat swain’s legs at the thigh; another smashed into the men’s room below and wounded a great number of the negro slaves, five of whom soon after died.

The cries of the dying and the wounded were now pitiable, and the gallant Crow’s feelings for them were mingled with a desire for revenge on the enemy. Several of the brave crew of the Mary were wounded, but though the vessel was between the fire of both ships, not one word of murmur was heard, and they continued blazing away with unabated animation. After having been engaged for six hours, Captain Crow had the satisfaction of seeing the larger ship back her topsails and drop astern.

He sung out to his men: ‘I think, my brave fellows, we have sickened them both, and your names will be honourably mentioned by our friends in Liverpool, for your brave conduct in this action.’

The men, who had come aft to hear their captain’s address, prepared to give him three cheers; but he stopped them, and desired they would all return to their quarters, fearing they might be attacked again. And so they were. Both ships returned to the fight, and the Mary engaged them tooth and nail, until the gray of the morning appeared, when, just as the first streaks of the coming daylight shone forth, a second splinter violently struck Crow on the side, and he fell senseless to the deck. The man at the helm saw him fall, and immediately sung out, ‘The captain is killed!’

Brave as the crew had shown themselves, they now lost heart, and as Captain Crow recovered from the first shock of the blow, they left their quarters and crowded round him. One of the officers, in the name of his shipmates, addressed him: ‘Captain Crow, you have done everything that a man could do to defend his ship, and we are no longer in a state to continue the action. Our rigging is much cut up, and our hull so battered that the ship is making a deal of water.’ Before Crow could recover breath to reply, the chief mate added, ‘And, sir, we have struck the colours.’

These words affected poor Crow more than his wound, and raising himself on the deck, he besought them to hoist the flag again, return to quarters, and give them three or four more broadsides; for, said he, ‘a chance shot will kill the devil; we may yet carry away one of their masts, and so turn the scale of the battle in our favour.’

The enemy continued their fire for some time, for they did not see the Mary had struck. The men carried the captain down to the cabin and laid him upon a mattress, and then collected their own clothes, expecting to be taken on board the victorious ships as prisoners of war.

When the boats of what they supposed to be their enemy came alongside to take possession of the Mary, what was the astonishment, not to say dismay, on both sides, to discover they had been fighting all night two English men-of-war one the sloop Dart, carrying 30 gunS, 32-pounders, and the other the Wolverine, carrying 18 guns, also 32-pounders.

When the grave mistake was explained on both sides, for each had taken the other for Frenchmen, the officers of the men-of-war were enthusiastic in their praise of the gallant fight of Captain Crow and his crew. They informed poor Crow that they took him for a large French privateer of 36 guns that had long annoyed the West India trade, for which they had been for some time on the look-out.

It turned out that the reason of the Dart having backed her topsails and dropped astern was that she had two guns dismounted, and she was, in fact, as severely mauled and knocked about as the Mary.

Crow rejoiced in his heart that they had never attempted to board him, as his explosive jars must have played havoc among the British sailors.

When daylight fully appeared, and it was seen how all three ships were cut up and damaged, both Captain Spear of the Dart and Captain Collier of the Wolverine were astonished to find that a Liverpool Guineaman could sustain a conflict for so long a time with so superior a force.

There was no Dutch courage about this affair, for Captain Crow, when giving his account of the fight to Mr. Aspinal, his owner, said: ‘Not a man of them got a single glass of spirits from the afternoon previous to the action until it was all over; nor did a murmur escape from any one of them on that account.’

The captain of the Dart presented Captain Crow with the following certificate:



‘Dec. 15, 1806.

‘I do certify that Hugh Crow, commanding the ship Mary, of Liverpool, and last bound from the coast of Africa with slaves, defended his ship in a running action under the fire of His Majesty’s sioop under my command, and also His Majesty’s sloop Wolverine, both carrying 32-pounders, from about io p.m. till near daylight the next morning, in a most gallant manner (supposing us French cruisers from Cayenne), and did not give up till his rigging and sails were nearly cut to pieces, and several of his people wounded.* Latitude 11° 27’ N.; longitude, 53° w.

 ‘(Signed) JOSEPH SPEAR,


It is remarkable that shortly before the Mary entered Kingston, Jamaica, a ship arrived there belonging to Liverpool called the Hannah. This vessel, while off Antigua in broad day, was hailed in English by a smart-looking brig, and ordered to lay to. The order was complied with, no doubt being entertained of her nationality. The Hannah was boarded and carried sword in hand by the Frenchmen before the crew discovered who they were. So much for placing any dependence upon the language a ship may use in hailing! Fortunately the Hannah was recaptured and taken with all her valuable cargo on board into port.

I think that in these two instances enough has been told to show that Captain Hugh Crow was a man that not only every Manxman, but every Britisher, whether hailing from England, Scotland, Ireland or Wales, should be justly proud of. Thank goodness there are many more like him both afloat and onshore!

Captain Crow continued at sea for some years after, and then retired with a good competence to spend the evening of his life in his native Mona.

* Six of the number died afterwards.


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