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More on British Slavers from 1789

Captain Donald Trail - Hero or villain?

By Ken Cozens

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During the year of bicentennial Trafalgar celebrations, together with the entire associated furore surrounding all of the celebratory events, the author would like to offer a slightly different side "of the same coin" by way of a brief biographical sketch, illustrating the sometimes not-inconsiderable dangers of eighteenth-century naval command.

See new file posted by 28-9-2012: A review by Dan Byrnes of Dr John Jiggens, Sir Joseph Banks and the Question of Hemp: Hemp, Sea-Power and Empire, 1777-1815. Australia, Jay Jay Publishing, 2012. Paperback, 285pp. ISBN: 978-0-9578684-3-4. At HEMP

Captain Donald Trail, who died in 1814 leaving a "considerable fortune", (Note1) was an experienced sea captain who served in both the Royal Navy and the merchant service (Note2)

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Note1: The National Archives (UK), (TNA), PROB 11/498.

Note2: Trail's Naval career can be traced in TNA, Masters Letters, ADM, 106/2943. Original reference source: Michael Flynn, The Second Fleet: Britain's Grim Convict Armada of 1790. Sydney, Library of Australian History, 2001.

Through his association with the London merchant firm, Camden, Calvert and King, Trail was also involved in the slave trade, commanding a number of ships on their behalf. (Note3)

Note3: There are three recorded voyages of ships that Trail was involved with; the John in 1785, which he commanded as Master, and the Recovery, and Venus, both in 1786, where he is listed as Second Captain. All were London ships owned by the merchants Camden, Calvert and King, London's premier slave trading firm of the time. There is also another earlier recorded voyage, this time a Liverpool vessel, the Albion (1776), but it is unclear whether this was commanded by the same man, although it does seem likely. There is every possibility that Trail may have commanded others vessels for Camden, Calvert and King, who were responsible for a total of some seventy-seven recorded slave ventures between the years 1766-1807, or on behalf of some of the groups associates. Source: The Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade: A Database on CD-ROM, by David Eltis, Stephen D. Behrendt, David Richardson, and Herbert S. Klein, published by Cambridge University Press, 1999.

Trail served aboard the Royal Navy vessels HMS: Latona in December 1792, as Master, and on the Robust, July, 1794, then in a succession of ships thereafter, including HMS Stately, Triumph, Victory and Barfleur. In March 1795 he joined HMS Monarch which played a key role in the expedition that bought the Cape colony under British control, which also earned him an appointment as Master Attendant of the Cape of Good Hope dockyards. Here he was almost certainly involved in a number of "shady" private business enterprises, before he left the position in late 1798 to return to England. (Note4)

Note4: Flynn, The Second Fleet, pp. 73-74. Also see Michael H. Styles, Captain Hogan: Sailor, Merchant, Diplomat on Six Continents. Six Continents Horizons, 2003., pp. 99, 128 and 182, for references to Trail and Hogan and their East African slave trading activities.

Between 1798-1804, Donald Trail and his Cape partner Alexander Tennant, were associated with entrepreneur Michael Hogan, owner and Master of the convict transport ship Marquis of Cornwallis. (Note5)

Note5: Recently a long-lost ship's log that was recovered, to fetch 117,250 at auction. This provided a grim reminder of mutiny on the high seas and the hardships suffered by Irish convicts transported to Botany Bay. ‘The battered and water-stained document reveals the aftermath of a mutiny on the 654-ton Marquis Cornwallis —which set sail from Cork with 244 Irish men and women prisoners on 9 August, 1795 and eventually arrived in New South Wales on 11 February, 1796’, (Source: Irish American News.)

Whilst based at the Cape, Hogan was involved in a number of different business enterprises, including victualling, shipping, and illegal (at the time) East African slave trading. But Hogan was also one of those individuals who recognised an opportunity when he saw one, and this was exactly how he viewed the transportation of convicts to New South Wales. What is interesting is that Trail's earlier employers, and London associates, Camden, Calvert and King, also recognised this same "opportunity" too. Albeit on a much larger scale, securing the government contracts for the Second and Third Fleets for the transportation of British convicts to Australia.

Camden, Calvert and King, had been anxious to secure these contracts, and had been involved in some of the earlier discussions over a possible location for a new British penal colony.


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In 1786 Donald Trail had transported a small number of convicts to West Africa aboard the ship Recovery, (Master Andrew Hewson, second in command Captain Donald Trail) a ship owned by the group, on behalf of the British government as a pilot scheme, before the final decision was made to abandon Africa as the preferred location, choosing New South Wales instead as a destination for transportable convicts. This decision suited Trail's employers well, as they were keen to develop their other interests in the Pacific, such as whaling, and "localized trading", without suffering too many restrictions from the East India Company's monopoly.

Trail's part while in command of one of the ships in the Second Fleet, the Neptune, was however to have a controversial outcome. Here, Donald Trail perhaps played the part of an unwitting pawn in an altogether questionable government decision, now notable in history.

Trail was originally to have captained the Second Fleet ship, Surprise, but unfortunately for him, he was to take over command of the Neptune at the last minute, following a ‘dispute’, which had resulted in a duel fought between Captain Gilbert and John Macarthur, a Lieutenant in the New South Wales Corps. Later Trail was indicted on charges of cruelty, and murder whilst in command of this ship. (Note6)

Note6: Another sensational London trial of a sea captain was also taking place at the same Court at the same time in 1792 as Donald Trail’s. Captain Kimber, of the ship ‘Recovery’ (a ship which Thomas King had previously commanded, and was owned by Camden, Calvert & King) stood accused of the murder of a female African Slave whilst at sea. Source: See: TNA, HCA 1/25/208, original reference cited by Flynn, The Second Fleet, p. 61.

Admiral Nelson provided a personal reference which was later used in Trail's defence during his trial for murder at the Old Bailey in June 1792. Trial had served together with Nelson aboard HMS. Albemarle in 1782. Captain Thomas King, who was as previously stated as known to Trail through his association with the merchant partnership of Messrs Camden and Calvert, ironically had shared a similar earlier fate to Trail, when he too was bought to trial for the murder of one of his crew, on 6 July 1776. (Note7)

Note7: See: High Court Admiralty Proceedings: Reference: TNA, HCA, 1/61 Admiralty Court Minutes, HCA, 1/24/50, HCA, 1/24/53, HCA, 1/24/57 Trial Papers. Also note there are a number of other ‘documents’ relating to this case held at the Guildhall Library, London.

Some idea of Trail's personal wealth can be gathered from his Will, where it can clearly be seen that he had achieved some measure of success in his financial dealings, leaving a considerable amount of property and cash to his immediate family, a sister, and his own illegitimate daughter.

To conclude, what are we to make of Trail. Was he a rogue? Or perhaps did he allow himself to become brutalized by what he had experienced in the slave trade? There is no doubt that he was a fine seaman. His exemplary service record in the Royal Navy stands testament to that; few men have received such a commendation from so distinguished a naval officer as Horatio Nelson, who commented that "He is the best Master I ever saw since I went to sea", whilst serving together aboard the Albemarle in 1782. (Note7)

Note7: See Roger Knight, The Pursuit of Victory: The Life and Achievement of Horatio Nelson, London, 2005., p. 70.

Trail's sea experience also made him a much sought-after person for the merchant marine, where again he performed well as an experienced and trusted Master of vessels owned by Camden, Calvert and King, and possibly for some of their London associates. (Note8)

Note8: Camden, Calvert & King were part of a London merchant ‘network’ associated with some of the most prominent merchants of the day including Sir William Curtis (naval contractor, and developer of the maritime North-west American Pacific fur trade to China), John St. Barbe (shipowner and member of Lloyds, as were Camden, Calvert & King), and the Mangles family of Wapping, who were also involved in the development of Pacific whaling, See the author's unpublished MA Maritime History Dissertation: Politics, Patronage & Profit: A Case Study of Three 18th Century London Merchants, Greenwich Maritime Institute, Greenwich University, London.

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However, Trail's dealings with Hogan and his part in the slave trade do caste a large blemish on his character, with greed and avarice often playing a part in many of his financial dealings. Perhaps it would be fairer to say that he played a part in an odious trade which was then viewed as an "opportunity", but one which must truly now be seen in the context of its time. This should not however distract any attention from his personal qualities as a man, or from views of his skills and experience as a professional seafarer.

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