Isaac Knight: The Trusty Sergeant

By Ben Vine

supported by a Parramatta City Council Community Grant – St. John’s First Fleeters

Isaac Knight spent the prime years of his life as a marine in the Royal Navy. It was a role that would take him on journeys across large swathes of the British Empire—to North America, the Mediterranean, and finally to New South Wales. Knight served with the marines for at least fifteen years; possibly as much as half of that service had been in the American Revolutionary War and the European conflicts that it caused.

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Poor old England endeavoring to reclaim his wicked American children: and therefore is England maimed and forc’d to go with a staff (a quote attributed in the image to Shakespeare) [London: Published by Matthew Darly 39 Strand, April, 1777] Image retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Originally from Portsmouth on the south coast of England, Knight was likely of a labouring class background.[1] Like many agricultural labourers and tradesmen, being a marine probably appealed to Knight because it promised steady pay, and the possibility of prize money should enemy supplies be captured.[2] Marines made up a fifth to a quarter of the Navy’s manpower; their role was to allow the Navy to move swiftly to project their power on both sea and land. Army soldiers were wedded to their garrisons; navy seamen were wedded to their ships. Marines could be deployed rapidly on both land and sea to provide a military presence when imperial issues arose.[3] They also acted as a security force on board ships and in the dockyards, where they projected the power of the Navy and the state. Although marines like Knight were usually of the same social background as naval seamen, the duty of marines was to keep seamen in line by preventing thievery, mutiny, and desertion.[4]

On Lord Howe’s Eagle

In 1778 Knight was serving as a private on the HMS Eagle in the American Revolutionary War.[5] The HMS Eagle was the flagship of Lord Richard Howe, who at that time was the Commander-in-Chief of the British Navy in North America.[6] Knight‘s time with Howe clearly made an impression, for his death notice stated that he ‘was seven years under Lord Howe.’[7] Howe, like Knight, would only serve in America until 1778, but their two paths would soon converge again.

NPG D36352; Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe by Robert Dunkarton, after  John Singleton Copley

Richard Howe, 1st Earl Howe by Robert Dunkarton, after John Singleton Copley mezzotint, (circa 1790) © National Portrait Gallery, London

In the early years of the Revolutionary War, the Navy found itself awkwardly torn between providing support for the army on land and trying to blockade the American coast to prevent European powers from supporting the rebellious Americans. Lord Howe did not have the resources to do either effectively.[8] Yet in the midst of this trying period, Isaac Knight and the Eagle found themselves involved in something of a naval milestone: the Eagle was the first ship to ever be attacked by a submarine.

The Turtle

A cutaway depiction of the first combat submarine, David Bushnell’s Turtle by Farnham Bishop, The Story of the Submarine, (New York: Century, 1916). Click here to view a full-size replica on display at the Royal Navy Submarine Museum, Gosport, UK.

On 6 September 1776, the one-man submarine called the Turtle, an experiment of Sergeant Ezra Lee of the American Continental Army, attempted to attach an explosive to the underside of the Eagle while it sat in Upper New York Bay. The Turtle failed in its goals, but the explosion that resulted when Lee detached the bomb in the East River so spooked the British fleet that they withdrew several miles to Staten Island.[9]

Lord Howe and his British fleet found their attempts to control the American coast even more difficult as the French ramped up their support of the Americans in 1777 and 1778. Ultimately Howe handed over his command, and returned with the Eagle to Britain on 26 September 1778.[10] However, it is not at all clear if Isaac Knight went with them, for he was discharged from his duty on 15 September ‘being prisoner’; this tantalising phrase is the only detail available.[11]

The Ganges and Gibraltar

Whatever Knight did, it only temporarily stalled his career in the marines, and was not the end of his involvement in the American Revolution. By 1782 he was serving in the Mediterranean on the HMS Ganges; the ship was part of a fleet commanded by none other than Lord Richard Howe, now Commander of the Channel Fleet.[12] On 20 October of that year, Knight and the Ganges were involved in the Battle of Cape Spartel near Gibraltar.[13]

Though thousands of miles away from the place of his previous service, Knight was fighting in a closely connected conflict; from 1778, the fight for American Independence had turned into yet another war, or set of wars, spanning the Atlantic World involving the British against the French, Spanish, and Dutch Empires. The Americans had sought assistance from Britain’s traditional rivals, who seized the opportunity to challenge Britain’s supremacy in Europe and the Americas.[14]

Relief of Gibralter by Paton BHC0453

Relief of Gibraltar by Earl Howe, 11 October 1782 by Richard Paton, circa 1783 © National Maritime Museum Collections

The Battle of Cape Spartel saw the Ganges and thirty-three other British ships in conflict with a combined Franco-Spanish fleet, and was part of Spain’s attempt to reclaim Gibraltar from the British.[15] As a marine, Knight‘s role in this battle would have been to wait until enemy ships were in firing range, and then aim at the gun crews and other personnel on their upper-deck. This required Knight and his fellow marines to be exposed on the upper-decks of their own ship, thus marines tended to suffer high casualty rates during such naval battles.[16]

Sixty-three British seamen were killed in the battle, including six on the Ganges.[17] It was ultimately indecisive and the Spanish would fail to reclaim the territory in the peace settlement the following year.[18] The Ganges saw no further action during Knight‘s time of service, and by 1786 was being used as a guardship in Portsmouth.[19]

An Efficient Officer

After being discharged from the Ganges on 13 October 1786, Knight served as sergeant of marines 8th (Portsmouth) Company on the First Fleet ship Alexander in 1787.[20] During the voyage, Knight was suspended from duty at the Cape of Good Hope on the southwestern coast of South Africa. As with his ‘being prisoner’ in America almost a decade before, the reason is unknown, and he was only returned to duty on 18 January 1788 (a suspension of two to three months).[21]

Upon arrival in the new colony he served at Port Jackson; however, he also accompanied Watkin Tench, Lieutenant William Dawes, and surgeon George Worgan on two explorations. The second went beyond Richmond Hill and across the Hawkesbury, ‘until we were stopped by a mountainous country…’

To the elevation which bounded our research, we gave the name of Knight Hill (now Kurrajong Heights northwest of Richmond) in honour of the trusty sergeant who had been the faithful indefatigable companion of all our travels.[22]

Knight returned to England in December 1792 per the Atlantic; Arthur Phillip was also on board, having recently terminated his governorship due to ill health. When Knight disembarked he was discharged from the marines for the final time.[23] However, the Navy was clearly where he felt best able to make a living: though no longer in the marines, for the following seven years he served as Master-at-Arms on the HMS London.[24] Knight’s experience with the marines made him suited to this position, which required him to instruct the seamen in small arms military exercises.[25] Upon finishing his time there, and finding ‘business would not answer’ in Portsmouth, in 1802 Knight chose to return to New South Wales as a settler with his wife, Elizabeth White (née Marks), and two step-sons on the Glatton.[26]

General Orders- Knight is appointed Superintendent

Knight is made superintendent of convicts at Coal Harbour (Newcastle) in 1804. “General Orders,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser, Sunday 9 September 1804 p.1

Knight’s years with the Marines continued to be relevant to his life in the colony. As a man with significant experience in leadership positions where he enforced military discipline, it is no surprise he was made superintendent of convicts at Coal Harbour (now Newcastle) in March 1804, a position he held for one year.[27]

Remarkably, his role at Coal Harbour once again saw Knight come into contact with the ripple effects of the American Revolution. Thirty-four of the convicts Knight was charged with overseeing were Irish rebels sent to New South Wales for participating in the 1798 Rebellion.[28] This rebellion, which the British defeated in 1801, was inspired by the American colonies’ successful fight for Independence; the Irish even co-opted the cry of ‘Death or liberty.’[29] Moreover, these Irish convicts, once transported to NSW, had staged the Castle Hill convict rebellion in March 1804, just three weeks before Isaac Knight was appointed superintendent of convicts at Coal Harbour.[30] Over a quarter of a century after Knight had left American waters, the Revolution continued to leave a mark on his life.[31]

Upon his death at the age of 92, one of Knight‘s death notices stated that he ‘was universally esteemed for his kindness and generosity.’[32] But the two death notices also made clear that, more than 40 years after he had been discharged, Knight felt a strong connection to the marines and his service in the American Revolutionary War. ‘This distinguished gentlemen has been an efficient officer in the Marine Service, in various parts of the world—first in the American contest, serving also in the Mediterranean; was one of the naval officers on the establishment of this Colony.’[33] Almost seventy years after the Declaration of Independence, the memory of the American Revolution remained a part of Isaac Knight‘s life, and thus a part of colonial Australia as well.

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First Fleeter Isaac Knight is buried at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta in Section III, Row B, No.13. Source: Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St John’s, (Parramatta: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991), p.153

CITE THIS

Ben Vine, “Isaac Knight: The Trusty Sergeant,” St. John’s Cemetery Project(2016) https://stjohnscemeteryparramatta.org/bio/isaac-knight/, accessed [insert current date]

References

Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St John’s, (Parramatta: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991)

Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989).

Ian Hoskins, Coast: A History of the New South Wales Edge, (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2013)

Roger Knight, ‘Howe, Richard, Earl Howe (1726–1799),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009, , accessed 17 August 2016.

Library of Congress

Piers Mackesy, The War for America: 1775—1783, (London: Longmans, 1964).

Paul W. Mapp, ‘The Revolutionary War and Europe’s Great Powers,’ in Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 311-26.

National Maritime Museum (UK) (Royal Museums Greenwich)

National Portrait Gallery, London

N.A.M. Roger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986).

Isaac Schomberg, Naval Chronology: Or, an Historical Summary of Naval and Maritime Events from the Time of the Romans, to the Treaty of Peace 1802, Volume 4 (Originally published 1802, republished by Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015).

John P. Sinnott, “The Turtle’s Magnificent Failure,” Sea Power, Vol. 41, No. 7 (July 1998)

Anne-Maree Whitaker, “Castle Hill convict rebellion 1804,” Dictionary of Sydney, 2009, accessed 25 August 2016

Britt Zerbe, The Birth of the Royal Marines, 1664—1802 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013)

NOTES

[1] New South Wales Government, Memorials to the Governor, 1810-25, Series 899, Fiche 3001-3162, State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia; Britt Zerbe, The Birth of the Royal Marines, 1664—1802 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013), p.72

[2] Britt Zerbe, The Birth of the Royal Marines, 1664—1802 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013), p.76

[3] Britt Zerbe, The Birth of the Royal Marines, 1664—1802 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013), pp.3, 9

[4] Britt Zerbe, The Birth of the Royal Marines, 1664—1802 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013), pp.115-18

[5] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.209

[6] Roger Knight, ‘Howe, Richard, Earl Howe (1726–1799),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009, accessed 17 August 2016

[7]Family Notices,” The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Wednesday 27 April 1842, p. 3, accessed 17 August 2016

[8] Roger Knight, ‘Howe, Richard, Earl Howe (1726–1799),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009, accessed 17 August 2016

[9] John P. Sinnott, “The Turtle’s Magnificent Failure,” Sea Power, Vol. 41, No. 7 (July 1998): 33

[10] Roger Knight, ‘Howe, Richard, Earl Howe (1726–1799),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009, accessed 17 August 2016

[11] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.209

[12] According to Gillen, Knight was discharged from the Ganges in October 1786; we do not know when he joined the ship, but he claimed to serve ‘seven years under Lord Howe,’ who took charge of the Channel Fleet in April 1782. The timeline indicates Knight would have been serving on the Ganges in 1782. See Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.209;Roger Knight, ‘Howe, Richard, Earl Howe (1726–1799),’ Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, Oxford University Press, 2004; online edn, Oct 2009, accessed 17 August 2016

[13] Isaac Schomberg, Naval Chronology: Or, an Historical Summary of Naval and Maritime Events from the Time of the Romans, to the Treaty of Peace 1802, Volume 4 (Originally published 1802, republished by Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.390-3

[14] See Paul W. Mapp, ‘The Revolutionary War and Europe’s Great Powers,’ in Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp.311-26

[15] Piers Mackesy, The War for America: 1775—1783 (London: Longmans, 1964), pp. 482-4; Isaac Schomberg, Naval Chronology: Or, an Historical Summary of Naval and Maritime Events from the Time of the Romans, to the Treaty of Peace 1802, Volume 4 (Originally published 1802, republished by Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.390-3

[16] Britt Zerbe, The Birth of the Royal Marines, 1664—1802 (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer, 2013), pp.171-74

[17] Isaac Schomberg, Naval Chronology: Or, an Historical Summary of Naval and Maritime Events from the Time of the Romans, to the Treaty of Peace 1802, Volume 4 (Originally published 1802, republished by Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2015), pp.390-3

[18] Piers Mackesy, The War for America: 1775—1783 (London: Longmans, 1964), p.483-4; Paul W. Mapp, ‘The Revolutionary War and Europe’s Great Powers,’ in Edward G. Gray and Jane Kamensky, eds., The Oxford Handbook of the American Revolution (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), p.323

[19] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.209.

[20] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.209

[21] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), pp.209, 536

[22] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.209

[23] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.209; New South Wales Government, Memorials to the Governor, 1810-25, Series 899, Fiche 3001-3162, State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia

[24] New South Wales Government, Memorials to the Governor, 1810-25, Series 899, Fiche 3001-3162, State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia

[25] N.A.M. Roger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986), p.24

[26] New South Wales Government, Memorials to the Governor, 1810-25, Series 899, Fiche 3001-3162, State Records Authority of New South Wales, Kingswood, New South Wales, Australia. Note: Knight had married his first wife, Mary Talbot, in April 1794 at Saint Mary’s, Portsea, Hampshire. However, Mary must have died early in their marriage because by June 1802, he was married a second time to a widow named Elizabeth White (née Marks) who had two sons from a previous marriage.

[27] “Governor King’s Instructions to Lieutenant Menzies,” [24 March 1804] Historical Records of Australia, Series 1, Vol. 4 (Sydney: William Applegate Gullick, Government Printer, 1915), pp. 619-20; Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p. 210; Ian Hoskins, Coast: A History of the New South Wales Edge, (Sydney: University of New South Wales Press, 2013), pp.118-9

[28] Ian Hoskins, Coast: A History of the New South Wales Edge (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2013), pp.118-9

[29] Anne-Maree Whitaker, “Castle Hill convict rebellion 1804,” Dictionary of Sydney, 2009, accessed 25 August 2016

[30] Anne-Maree Whitaker, “Castle Hill convict rebellion 1804,” Dictionary of Sydney, 2009, accessed 25 August 2016

[31] In 1810, four years after his appointment at Coal Harbour, Knight was appointed the superintendent of agriculture on the Castle Hill Government Farm; the same place that the Irish rebels broke out of during the convict uprising in 1804. But this role, too, was short-lived; by September 1811 Governor Lachlan Macquarie saw fit to ‘abolish entirely’ the establishment and to convert it into the colony’s first lunatic asylum. In later life, Knight also worked as an auctioneer in Liverpool and became a member of the Wesleyan Auxiliary Missionary Society, forging strong ties with the missionary family the Hassalls. Indeed, Knight was staying at Macquarie Grove, Cowpastures, the residence of Samuel Otto Hassall, at the time of his death.

[32]Family Notices,” The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Wednesday 27 April 1842, p.3, accessed 17 August 2016

[33]Family Notices,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Thursday 28 April 1842, p.3, accessed 18 August 2016

© Copyright 2016 Ben Vine