William James Reference: Dictionary of National Biography
Engraved by W. Read, from a painting by W. McCall
[Frontispiece of Vol.1]
Times, 31 May 1827
Gentlemen's Magazine 1827, vol. xcvii pt. ii p.281
James's own prefaces and pamphlets
Notes and Queries, 6th series. xi. 195, xii. 138, 7th series.vii. 207
Colburn's United Service Magazine April and May 1885
Writer on naval history, was from 1801 to 1813 enrolled among the attorneys of the supreme court of Jamaica, and practised as a proctor in the vice-admiralty court.
In 1812 he was in the United States, and on the declaration of war with England was detained as a prisoner. After several month's captivity he effected his escape, and reached Halifax towards the end of 1813. His attention was thus turned to the details of the war.
He sent several letters on the subject to the Naval Chronicle under the signature Boxer and in March 1816 he published a pamphlet entitled An Inquiry into the Merits of the Principal Naval Actions between Great Britain and the United States. In this he showed that the American frigates were larger, stouter, more heavily armed and more strongly manned than the English which they had captured; that the statements officially published in the United States were grossly inaccurate; and that the victories of the Americans were to be attributed, not to superior seamanship nor to superior courage, but to superior numerical force.
The excitement which the pamphlet caused both in Nova Scotia and the States was considerable, and many more angry criticisms were published in the American papers. It was falsely asserted that James was an American by birth, that he had been guilty of felony nineteen years before, had been condemned and reprieved, and was now seeking a base revenge on his injured country. Later writers of repute have repeated the baseless slander, with the addition that he was a veterinary surgeon or "horse doctor".
(J. Fenimore Cooper, in United States Democratic Review, May and June 1842; Lounsbury, J.F.Cooper, p.206).
Meantime James had gone to England, and in the summer of 1817 published a second edition of the pamphlet, enlarged into virtually a new work, under the title of A Full and Correct Account of the Chief Naval Occurrences of the late War between Great Britain and the United States of America.
In 1818 he followed this with A Full and Correct Account of the Military Occurrences of the late War between Great Britain and the United States of America (2 vols. 8vo), and in 1819 by a pamphlet entitled Warden Refuted, being a Defence of the British Navy against the Misrepresentations of a Work recently published at Edinburgh . . . by D.B. Warden, late Consul for the United States at Paris (46pp. 8vo.).
In 1819 he began preparing a naval history of the great war, which was published under the title of The naval History of Great Britain, from the Declaration of War by France in 1793 to the Accession of George IV 5 vols. 8vo., 1824-4. A second edition, in six vols, was published in 1826.
This remarkable work, which took as its motto Verite sans peur, aimed at an exact account of every operation of naval war during the period named. The author consulted not only every published work bearing on the subject, and especially the official narratives, both English and French, but also the logs of the several ships, and, whenever possible, the actors themselves. He thus produced a book "of which it is not to high praise to assert that it approaches as nearly to perfection, in its own line, as any historical work ever did." (Edinburgh Review, LXXi. 121)
It is however, a chronicle rather than a history, and while it describes events in minute detail, makes little attempt to show their relation to each other or to the current course of politics or diplomacy. It therefore presents a series of lessons in tactics, but not of strategy. A more serious fault is due to the strong national bias which affects the whole work.
The facts, although related with scrupulous accuracy, not infrequently, especially in the case of the American war, convey a false impression; and throughout it would be unsafe to accept the authors deductions without comparing his statements with those of the best French or American writers.
James, who resided for the last few years at 12 Chapel Field, South Lambeth,[London] died there on the 28 May 1827. He had no children, but left a widow, a West Indian, unprovided for. A subscription was raised for her immediate relief, and she was afterwards granted a pension of £100 on the civil list. She had, too, a share in the profits from the sale of the History, but for several years these were very small. It was not till 1837 that a third edition was called for; this was published with additions, including accounts of the first Burmese war and the battle of Navarino, for which Captain Frederick Chamier was responsible.