In the 18th century, Glasgow and its University had strong links with the Caribbean colony of Jamaica. One of the most interesting individuals that I have come across in my project is Charles Henry Knowles, who led a successful career which brought him into contact with the famous British admiral Horatio Nelson.
Charles Henry Knowles was born in Jamaica in 1754, the sole living son of the Governor of the island. This privileged background gave Charles an excellent head-start in life, but it would have meant nothing had he not also possessed strength of mind and spirit. After attending Eton, he went on to study in Edinburgh and Glasgow. In late 1768, the year in which he had earlier matriculated at the University of Glasgow, he enlisted in the British Royal Navy.
His naval career was long and illustrious, spanning the American War of Independence and the Napoleonic Wars. He was stationed throughout the British Isles and North America during his first decade of service, and saw little in the way of excitement, but in 1777 he got his first taste of combat, in a battle with a French frigate off the coast of St Lucia. This engagement seemed to end in a draw, but several days later Knowles and his fellow crew got a nasty shock. The same French frigate ambushed Knowles’ ship, the Ceres, and took him and his comrades prisoner. Knowles was still young and inexperienced, but luckily for him, his privileged background (he had become a baronet when his father died the previous year) was enough to guarantee him gentle treatment from his captors. He was soon exchanged for a wealthy French prisoner.
In 1779 Knowles was made captain of the flagship the ‘Prince of Wales’, thus giving him a second chance to prove himself. He did so in a battle off the coast of Grenada, where he performed well, despite being lightly wounded by enemy musket fire. He was then promoted to a post at Gibraltar. The next few years he spent battling pirates and enemy privateers in the Mediterranean.
Knowles spent several months in the early 1790s stationed off the North American coast, but he soon returned to the Mediterranean, and it was here that he achieved his greatest-ever success. In 1797 he served under Horatio Nelson at the Battle of the Cape St Vincent, and distinguished himself with his skilled seamanship and bravery. For his part in the British victory, Knowles received a gold medal and Parliamentary recognition.
Shortly after came the end of Knowles’ active service, for ill-health forced him into roles that were less physically arduous. He continued to climb the ranks, though: Rear-Admiral in 1799, Vice-Admiral in 1804, and Admiral in 1810. In 1820, eleven years before his death in 1831, Knowles was appointed Knight Order of the Bath (KCB), in recognition of his many years of faithful, dedicated service to the British Navy.
Patrick Goldie, MA History, Caribbean Commonwealth, Jamaica 1700s, Club21