John Palmer: The Purser, The P.O.W

By Ben Vine

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

The sea determined the course of John Palmer‘s early life. He entered the British Royal Navy at the age of nine as a captain’s servant, which suggests his father was probably an officer.[1] As a captain’s servant, John would have spent his formative years being taught the duties of a seaman; any non-naval education would have been provided by an on-board schoolmaster, if there was one at all.[2] It was all but certain, then, that Palmer would travel widely in the British Empire. During his young adulthood, he would see the fall of its old domain and the rise of its new one.

Fighting Against ‘Liberty’

In September 1781, Palmer was twenty-one and serving on the HMS Richmond off the coast of Virginia in the American Revolutionary War.[3] Popular memory of the American Revolution reduces it to a simple narrative about the triumph of ideals of liberty. In most tellings, Americans opposed Britain’s ‘taxation without representation’; they protested by throwing tea into the sea at the Boston Tea Party in 1773.

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The Destruction of Tea at Boston Harbor, by Sarony & Major, (New York : Lith. & pub. by Sarony & Major, 99 Nassau near Fulton St., c1846). Retrieved from Library of Congress.

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The Declaration of Independence, (Philadelphia: Printed by John Dunlap, 1776). Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

When the British still would not back down, the American colonies issued the Declaration of Independence on 4 July 1776, and the United States was born. But a look at the lives of those involved in the American Revolution reveals a much more complicated story. Seven years before his journey with the First Fleet, John Palmer was one such person.

By 1781 the American Revolutionary War was well into its seventh year. The fight for American Independence was neither short nor particularly dramatic; early on George Washington had realised the American Continental Army could not defeat the British in direct battle. Thus, Washington spent much of the war trying to avoid major battles while depriving the British of supplies.[4]

Meanwhile, the role of British ships like Palmer‘s Richmond was to prevent America’s European allies (the French, the Spanish, and the Dutch) from trading with the Americans.[5] The American Navy was only in its infancy therefore naval battles were largely not a major part of the war. In September 1781, though, John Palmer and the HMS Richmond found themselves caught up in what turned out to be the climax of the war: the Battle of Yorktown.

An Unknown Prisoner

On 5 September, French ships attacked the Richmond‘s squadron at the entrance of the Chesapeake Bay, which lies in between the coast of Virginia and the southern tip of Maryland.[6] The French Navy simply forced most of the British ships to leave the Bay, but Palmer was not to be so lucky. On 11 September, French forces captured the Richmond and Palmer was taken prisoner.[7] By the end of the month, the American army had trapped General Cornwallis’ British army within Yorktown, Virginia. The army was thus encircled on land and sea, cut off from all supply chains.[8] Cornwallis was forced to surrender, and though peace would not be formalised until two years later, this was effectively the end of the Revolutionary War.[9] But it was far from the end for John Palmer: he was now a prisoner of war.

HMS Richmond

Plan showing the lower deck plan and orlop deck with fore & aft platforms for Richmond (1757), a 32-gun, Fifth Rate Frigate. Richmond (1757) 12 February 1771 © National Maritime Museum Collections.

By May 1782, the British estimated that the Americans had taken at least 12,000 British soldiers captive. However this number does not include men like Palmer who were in the Royal Navy and were not captured by Americans but by America’s allies.[10] The American newspapers of the 1770s and 1780s made much of British atrocities committed against American prisoners of war, but it is likely that British POWs also faced poor treatment. With so many thousands of prisoners, the Americans and their allies did not have the resources to ensure they were sufficiently guarded, clothed, and fed. Moreover, the very nature of the war, with Americans rebelling against those they once considered their brethren, meant tensions ran high between the two groups. That ill-will was sometimes turned on POWs.[11]

interior of old prison ship

A depiction of the American POW’s experience of “degraded captivity” on a British prison ship, produced 80 years after the Revolutionary War by artist Felix Octavius Carr Darley (1822-1888), Interior view of the old Jersey prison ship, in the Revolutionary War, (Cincinnati : H. Howe, 1855). Retrieved from Library of Congress.

As he was likely an officer, Palmer was probably treated better than other prisoners; the European code of war demanded as such, and earlier in the war the Americans had shown a willingness to follow those standards.[12] Yet what Palmer experienced as a POW is unknown. This is partly a reflection of America’s stretched resources; but it is also a reflection of the stories America’s founders wanted to tell about their new nation — stories they were already shaping even as they were fighting for its independence. Keeping thousands of British soldiers and seamen imprisoned in poor conditions in no way serviced such narratives, so close records of them were not kept.[13] John Palmer‘s experience as a POW is thus one of the many stories lost and forgotten in favour of a much simpler, cleaner narrative of American Independence.

New Beginnings and New South Wales

Palmer re-emerged back in Britain in 1784. When or how he was freed is unclear. He married Susannah Stilwell, who was of an American loyalist family.[14] ‘Loyalists’ were Americans who sided with the British in the Revolutionary War; like many such families the Stilwell’s opted to flee the country during or after the war.[15] John and Susannah had three children in the following three years, but only one survived infancy.

Palmer remained an officer of the Royal Navy and on 10 January 1787 he was ordered on to Governor Arthur Phillip’s flagship of the First Fleet, the Sirius. Palmer‘s brother, Christopher, joined him.[16] John served as the Sirius purser, whose job was to provide and keep track of a ship’s foodstuffs and other supplies.[17] When Palmer arrived in the new colony, he soon held a very similar position as the government’s Commissary. This made him responsible for receiving and issuing all government stores—essentially the only supplies in the colony—but Palmer was in no way constrained by these two potentially difficult roles, and he quickly became a part of the New South Wales elite. Using a land grant from Lieutenant-Governor Francis Grose he established Woolloomooloo Farm, one of the first permanent residences in the colony. In 1812 he would claim,

“I had more ground than anybody else; I farmed more than any other person did.”

In 1801 he owned over 1,000 acres of land; soon he would also own colonial vessels, a windmill in the Domain, and a bakery near the present-day Conservatorium of Music. He was also a justice of the peace and on the committee of the Female Orphan School at Parramatta from 1803 to 1824.[18]

 

Palmer died in Parramatta on 27 September 1833 at the age of 73.[19] On the surface, little appears to connect his experience in the American Revolution to his long life in New South Wales. But a primary cause of the settlement of New South Wales was that Britain could no longer send its undesirable elements to America, causing Britain’s prisons to overflow.[20] The loss of much of its North American territories ultimately ended the ‘First’ British Empire. However, the establishment of New South Wales signalled the rise of the ‘Second’ British Empire that would dominate the nineteenth century. John Palmer’s life was defined by this transition.

Even so, we know little of Palmer’s experiences in the Revolutionary War. He was imprisoned for at least one year, if not two, and yet no historical records from his life in Australia mention this time. We can never know how those experiences affected his character and his actions. This is true not just of Palmer, but of the many thousands who were imprisoned with him during the war. Perhaps this is a reflection of British attitudes toward the Revolutionary War in this period: losing to their colonists was an embarrassment they preferred to forget.[21] But in not knowing the story of John Palmer, British POW, we lose some of the story of John Palmer, NSW Commissary; and thus we lose parts of the story of the white settlement of Australia.

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John and his brother Christopher Palmer are buried in Section 1, Row N, No.14 at St. John’s Cemetery, Parramatta. Source: Judith Dunn, The Parramatta Cemeteries: St John’s,(Parramatta: Parramatta and District Historical Society, 1991), p.78

CITE THIS

Ben Vine, “John Palmer: The Purser, The POW,” St. John’s Cemetery Project, (2016), https://stjohnscemeteryparramatta.org/bio/john-palmer/, accessed [insert current date]

Further Reading

John Blatchford, The Narrative of John Blatchford, detailing his sufferings in the Revolutionary War, while a prisoner with the British. As related by himself, (New York, Priv. print., 1865) accessed online at Internet Archive 26 August 2016

Christopher Hawkins and Charles Ira Bushnell, The Adventures of Christopher Hawkins(New York, Priv. print., 1864) accessed online at Internet Archive 26 August 2016

References

Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600—1850 (London: Pimlico, 2003).

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.

Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire (London: Harper Press, 2011).

Library of Congress

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).

Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982).

Ken Miller, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014).

Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

Roland Pietsch, The Real Jim Hawkins: Ships’ Boys in the Georgian Navy (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2010).

Paul J. Springer, America’s Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2010).

Margaret Steven, “Palmer, John (1760–1833),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed online 17 August 2016.

Trove

NOTES

[1] Margaret Steven, “Palmer, John (1760–1833),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed online 17 August 2016; Roland Pietsch, The Real Jim Hawkins: Ships’ Boys in the Georgian Navy (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2010) pp.7-8.

[2] Roland Pietsch, The Real Jim Hawkins: Ships’ Boys in the Georgian Navy (Barnsley: Seaforth Publishing, 2010), pp.110-11.

[3] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.273.

[4] Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp.333-36.

[5] David Syrett, The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775—1783 (Brookfield: Scolar Press, 1989), pp.183-4. The French had formed an official alliance with the American states in 1778. The Spanish and Dutch Empires also allied with America; John Palmer was thus caught up not just in the fight for American Independence, but the ongoing conflict between European Empires for domination of the Atlantic World. 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.

[6] David Syrett, The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775—1783 (Brookfield: Scolar Press, 1989), pp.192-94.

[7] Margaret Steven, “Palmer, John (1760–1833),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, accessed online 17 August 2016

[8] David Syrett, The Royal Navy in American Waters, 1775—1783 (Brookfield: Scolar Press, 1989), pp.187-9.

[9] For more on Yorktown and its significance, see Robert Middlekauff, The Glorious Cause (New York: Oxford University Press, 1982), pp.559-81.

[10] Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600—1850 (London: Pimlico, 2003), pp.209-10.

[11] Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600—1850 (London: Pimlico, 2003), pp.216-27; Paul J. Springer, America’s Captives: Treatment of POWs from the Revolutionary War to the War on Terror (Lawrence: University of Kansas Press, 2010), pp.15-17; for an example of ill-will between Americans and British POWs, see Ken Miller, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), pp.72-95.

[12] See for example, Ken Miller, Dangerous Guests: Enemy Captives and Revolutionary Communities During the War for Independence (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2014), pp.72-95.

[13] For an analysis of American leaders’ construction of narratives, see Robert G. Parkinson, The Common Cause: Creating Race and Nation in the American Revolution (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016).

[14] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.273.

[15] For more on the fate of such families, see Maya Jasanoff, Liberty’s Exiles: The Loss of America and the Remaking of the British Empire (London: Harper Press, 2011).

[16] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.273.

[17] N.A.M. Roger, The Wooden World: An Anatomy of the Georgian Navy (Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 1986), p.21.

[18] Mollie Gillen, The Founders of Australia: a biographical dictionary of the First Fleet, (Sydney: Library of Australian History, 1989), p.273; Margaret Steven, “Palmer, John (1760-1833),” Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, published first in hardcopy 1967, accessed online 26 August 2016, accessed online 17 August 2016

[19] Parish Burial Registers, Textual records, St. John’s Anglican Church Parramatta, New South Wales, Australia.

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

[21] Linda Colley, Captives: Britain, Empire and the World, 1600—1850 (London: Pimlico, 2003), p.224. “Family Notices,” The Sydney Herald (NSW: 1831 – 1842), Monday 30 September 1833, p.4; “Family Notices,” The Sydney Gazette and New South Wales Advertiser (NSW: 1803 – 1842), Tuesday 1 October 1833, p.3;  “Family Notices,” The Sydney Monitor (NSW : 1828 – 1838), Wednesday 2 October 1833, p.3

© Copyright 2016 Ben Vine