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Books & Manuscripts

Shipwrecks, Battles and Bandits in an Extraordinary 18th Century Naval Memoir

By Sotheby's

I n the mid-1770s, a Welsh naval officer by the name of William Owen sat down to write his memoirs. He was only in his late thirties but he had seen extraordinary adventure across four continents through his life in the Royal Navy. His narrative reads like a particularly intrepid adventure novel but is also fascinating evidence of the remarkable way in which a globalised world was beginning to emerge in the 18th century – and the unique role played by Britain and its armed forces in that world.

The first volume of Owen’s memoir, which Sotheby's is offering in the English Literature, History, Children’s Books and Illustrations, contains some 200,000 words crammed onto 591 closely-written pages. Open the book and you may find the author recounting his life on board ship, beset with tornadoes in the Atlantic and under a popular captain who suddenly sickens and dies; choose another page, and he is anchored in Ceylon and trading with the Dutch; open the manuscript elsewhere and he is fighting with the East India Company armies who are beginning to carve out a new empire; open the volume again and he is recalling an evening of “total inebriety” that almost ends in a duel. He describes losing an arm in battle, narrowly avoiding being devoured by tigers and crocodiles, fighting off bandits (on various occasions), surviving shipwreck, and being awarded a fortune by the Nawab of Bengal. He has a fine eye for detail and his recollections of everyday life provide an extraordinarily vivid picture of the often brutal world of the 18th century navy, but he was also a witness to historical events of great magnitude. His naval career took him to West Africa and the Caribbean when the slave trade was at its height; he was present under Clive of India in the Battle of Plassey, which was the first step towards British colonisation of the Subcontinent; he lost his right arm when fighting the French in the Bay of Bengal during the Seven Years’ War, often described as the first global conflict. And all of these adventures took place by the time Owen had reached the age of 24, when this volume closes.

Owen was pensioned off back to Britain at the conclusion of the Seven Years’ War, but this did not prevent him from continuing a life of high adventure: within three years he had taken himself off to Nova Scotia and he returned to Britain only to lose an eye in an election brawl. When he returned to Canada in 1770, he founded the colony of Campobello Island in New Brunswick, and later in the 1770s returned to India. He was killed in a fracas in Madras in 1778 – but then he was never likely to die quietly.

Owen clearly understood that he had lived an extraordinary life: writing the memoir must have been the work of hundreds of hours and involved considerable research going back to his old log-books and other sources, and he was careful to make provision for the transmission of his memoir in his will. His manuscripts were carefully preserved by generations of his family, and indeed the later Canadian portion of his memoir has been published. Nevertheless, this extraordinary history of Owen’s early career in India and elsewhere is unknown to historians, making it a particular privilege for us to be able to present at auction such a unique and important manuscript.

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