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John Campbell (Royal Navy officer)

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John Campbell (Royal Navy officer)

John Campbell
Born 1720
parish of Kirkbean, near Dumfries, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland
Died 1790-12-16[1]
his house at Charles Street,
Berkeley Square, London, England
Allegiance Great Britain
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Years of service Before 1740 – 1782
Rank Vice-Admiral of the White
Battles/wars Quiberon Bay, Ushant
Other work Governor of Newfoundland, astronomer

John Campbell (1720–1790) was born in the parish of Kirkbean, near Dumfries, Kirkcudbrightshire, Scotland. Campbell was a British naval officer, navigational expert and colonial governor.

Campbell joined the Royal Navy at an early age and sailed around the world in 1740 on the Centurion. He later became known as a navigational expert, and was from 1782 to his death Governor and Commander-in-Chief in Newfoundland.


  • Life 1
    • Early life 1.1
    • Astronomy and Brest 1.2
    • Seven Years War 1.3
    • Governorship 1.4
  • Marriage 2
  • Service history 3
  • See also 4
  • References 5
  • External links 6


Early life

John Campbell was born at Kirkbean close to the birthplace of John Paul Jones, 'Father of the American Navy'.

His father, John Campbell (d. 1733), was master's mate when a vacancy came up soon after sailing, and was promoted to master after the 1743 engagement against the Manila galleon Nuestra Señora de Covadonga. One of his fellow midshipmen was Augustus Keppel, who from then on became a lifelong friend.

Returning home in January 1745, Campbell passed the examination for lieutenant and, with Anson's influence behind him, rapidly gained a first command (a sloop) and – in November 1747 – a second, with promotion to post captain of the new frigate Bellona, a command he held until the peace in 1748. Praised for his successes on the Bellona, in 1749 he was given command of the expedition to the Pacific by the sloop Porcupine and the Raven, then of one to the north-west and north-east passages in the Atlantic, both of which were proposed but then called off for political reasons.

Astronomy and Brest

Meanwhile, in about 1747, Campbell had his first direct involvement in the development of astronomical navigation, as the first person to use a Hadley quadrant to measure the angular distance between the moon and fixed stars.[2] The astronomer royal, James Bradley, was shown Campbell's results and found them to correspond exactly with the actual distances in the sky, and Bradley and Campbell together made frequent observations at Greenwich of the moon's distance from the sun and stars, and of the stars' distances from one another.

His next commands after the Bellona were the Board of Longitude (chaired by Anson) that Campbell should give a sea trial to Tobias Mayer's new lunar tables and reflecting circle, and Campbell did so successfully within sight of the French coast, 'though they [the observations] were not taken with all the advantages that might have attended them, had I been alone; for I was all the cruise in company with an admiral whose motions I was obliged to follow',[3] in trials which would profoundly influence marine navigation for the next 250 years. He compared Mayer's new reflecting circle instrument with the common wooden Hadley octant as means of observing lunar distances, and in doing so found Mayer's was much too heavy whereas Hadley's – though it could not measure angles beyond 90° and was often unstable in its wooden frame – was far more useful. From this, he suggested modifications to the Hadley octant, extending its arc from 45° to 60° (to allow the measurement of arcs up to 120°) and making it of brass not wood. In 1759 John Bird, commissioned by the Board of Longitude, produced an instrument taking up both suggestions, a sextant of 20 inches radius with a brass frame[4] and 1/3 the weight of the 16-inch-diameter (410 mm) reflecting circle,[4] which served as a prototype of the marine sextant still used today.

Seven Years War

Campbell, meanwhile, returned to the Royal George as flag captain in November 1759, this time under Hawke (when Hawke moved his flag to that ship), serving as such during the decisive the king the news.

Next, Campbell was captain of the Dorsetshire (70 guns), on the home station and in the Mediterranean, from 1760 to the peace in 1763. He was admitted as a fellow of the Royal Society on 24 May 1764 (and was one of its Visitors to the Royal Observatory, Greenwich, from March 1765), before being one of those the Board of Longitude asked to 'number-crunch' the results of the 1764 second sea-trial to Barbados of John Harrison's longitude watch. From about 1764 he commanded the yacht Mary, later moving to the HMY Royal Charlotte, a command he retained until promotion to rear-admiral of the blue on 23 January 1778.

Then, in March 1778, he was chosen by his old friend Admiral Keppel (now in command of the the king by the first sea lord Lord Sandwich, and remained in the role until the end of 1778.


However, Campbell was offered no further commands until April 1782, when Keppel became Sandwich's successor as first sea lord, and appointed Campbell (now a vice-admiral of the white), governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland; Campbell sailed there in HMS Portland (50 guns) on 17 June 1782. On 25 June, the Portland and another 27 ships were intercepted by the Franco-Spanish combined fleet commanded by Luis de Cordova. Although 18 vessels were captured, HMS Portland and nine ships managed to slip away. He held this post from 1782 to his death in London in 1790.

During this time he returned to England periodically, allowing him in 1784 and 1785 – at Hans Moritz von Brühl's request – to arrange trials of Thomas Mudge's first chronometer on his passage to and from England and in Newfoundland (borrowing an achromatic telescope from the Board of Longitude to ascertain Newfoundland's longitude). Also, as a result of Campbell's proclamation of religious freedom for all inhabitants of Newfoundland, James Louis O'Donel authorised the construction of a Catholic chapel.


He was married, but his wife's name does not survive.

Service history

  • 1740 sailed around the world on the Centurion
  • 1745-01-16 made a lieutenant,[1]
  • 1747-05-27 made commander,[1]
  • 1747-11-23 made captain,[1]
  • 1778-01-23 promoted rear-admiral of the Blue,[1]
  • 1778-01-29 promoted rear-admiral of the White,[1]
  • 1779-03-19 promoted vice-admiral of the Blue,[1]
  • 1780-09-26 promoted vice-admiral of the White,[1]
  • 1782-1786 commander-in-chief and governor of Newfoundland,[1]
  • 1787-09-24 promoted vice-admiral of the Red,[1]

See also


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Navy Records Society, David Syrett, R. L. DiNardo (ed), The Commissioned Sea Officers of the Royal Navy 1660-1815, Scholar Press, Aldershot, Hants., 1994, ISBN 1-85928-122-2
  2. ^ W. Wales, ed., The original astronomical observations, made in the course of a voyage towards the south pole, and round the world, in his majesty's ships the Resolution and Adventure, in the years MDCCLXXII, MDCCLXXIII, MDCCLXXIV, and MDCCLXXV, by William Wales … and Mr. William Bayly, etc. (1777), xxxiv
  3. ^ Miscellaneous works and correspondence of the Rev. James Bradley, ed. [S. P. Rigaud], 1832, p493
  4. ^ a b May, William Edward, A History of Marine Navigation, G. T. Foulis & Co. Ltd., Henley-on-Thames, Oxfordshire, 1973, ISBN 0-85429-143-1

External links

  • The Governorship of Newfoundland and LabradorBiography at Government House
  • DNB
Preceded by
Richard Edwards
Commodore Governor of Newfoundland
Succeeded by
John Elliott
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