In 2019 the National Library of Wales purchased at auction the first manuscript volume of the memoirs of the naval officer Captain William Owen (1732?-1778) of Montgomeryshire, a very early example of a memoir written by a Welshman.
Owen is best known for owning and settling Campobello Island, New Brunswick, which he was granted in 1767 (hence his entry in the Dictionary of Canadian Biography). That period of his life was recounted by him in the second volume of his memoirs (now at the National Maritime Museum), parts of which were published in 1942.
Our manuscript, consisting of nearly six hundred pages, concerns the early, and arguably more incident packed, period of his naval career from 1750 to 1761, starting as a midshipman and ending up a lieutenant, serving aboard various ships, including HMS Tyger and the ill-fated HMS Sunderland.
In his first years he sailed the Atlantic and Mediterranean. He endured a fraught voyage to the Caribbean in 1753 during which sickness and appalling weather took the lives of eighty crewmates. From 1754 to 1761 he was in India, where he participated in the battle of Vijaydurg in 1756, Robert Clive’s expedition to retake Calcutta and the battle of Chandernagore, 1756-1757, and the naval battles against the French off Cuddalore, Negapatam and Pondicherry, 1758-1759.
On the night of 6 October 1760, during the blockade of the French port of Pondicherry, he took part in an action to board a French ship but lost his right arm to a cannonball (this accounts for the different handwriting in his contemporary log books and the later memoir!). He narrowly survived, was sent to Madras to recuperate and arrived back at Pondicherry just in time to witness from the shore the cyclone that sank the Sunderland with the loss of almost all hands.
He presents himself as unfailingly heroic and stoic during these events but was not above recounting various scrapes and escapades he found himself in, including various fights and drunkenness, the theft of a bullock at Calcutta and an ill-fated shooting expedition in Ceylon.
While Owen undoubtedly made use of (and freely copied from!) various printed works in compiling the narrative, his main sources were his own meticulous log books, journals, diaries and other papers and manuscripts. These survived his adventures and misadventures and so were available to him as he sat down one day in 1774 at his home in Shrewsbury to begin the memoir.
After his death the papers in due course came to Glansevern, the Montgomeryshire estate of his nephew, and in 1936 they were deposited at the National Library among the Glansevern Estate Records. The memoir itself seem to have remained in the possession of Owen’s direct descendants; it and its source materials are now reunited under the same roof for the first time in more than two centuries, an invaluable resource for researchers.
After a few delays (for reasons which surely need no elaboration!) the volume has now been repaired, boxed and fully catalogued as NLW MS 24132E. It is available to be consulted in the Library’s Reading Room.
Assistant Manuscript Curator