NAPPER, JAMES, carpenter, later ship’s captain in the service of the HBC; d. 7 Aug. 1737.
Napper is first mentioned as carpenter aboard the company ship Hudson’s Bay [III] (Capt. Richard Ward), on which he made voyages from England to York Fort in 1716 and 1718 and probably, in 1717, to Churchill River. In 1719 he again sailed to Churchill on the Hudson’s Bay, which was later wrecked off Cape Tatnum. In consequence Napper, who had evidently mastered the pilot’s art, remained in the bay in command of the Prosperous hoy, which he took to England in 1721. Apparently desirous of regular employment in the New World, he applied for the command of a vessel stationed in the bay. The company preferred, however, to appoint him to serve in the Hannah, on the transatlantic run of 1722, as first mate to Capt. Gofton, who was unfamiliar with bay navigation. In 1723 Napper again sailed to Hudson Bay as first mate aboard either the Hudson’s Bay [IV] or the Mary [I]. There he succeeded John Scroggs as captain of the Whalebone sloop, plying between York Fort and Churchill River. In 1725 he took a cargo of whale oil to England, and the following year made the round trip from England to Albany. After sailing on the Hannah to Churchill in 1727, he took command of the Martin sloop serving the bay posts. When his contract expired in 1729 he was re-engaged for another year; then, though wishing to return to England, he was persuaded to remain until 1732, when he sailed home bearing Governor Richard Norton*’s testimonial to the excellence of his services.
In 1733 Napper was re-engaged to serve as second-in-command to Norton, who was then supervising the construction of Prince of Wales Fort on the Churchill River. Napper’s salary of £40 per annum with a bonus of 50 guineas on the satisfactory completion of the five-year contract suggests that his services were highly valued by his employers. It was stipulated that, if so required, he was to work as a shipwright. In 1734 he was in addition assigned to the command of the Churchill sloop, should she be sent from the factory. Napper commanded the Churchill post during Norton’s absence in 1735–36.
In 1736 the company, goaded by its celebrated critic, Arthur Dobbs, undertook to search for an ocean passage leading westward from the bay, and authorized a voyage of reconnaissance northward to Roe’s Welcome. The company endeavoured to make the enterprise profitable by combining commerce with discovery, and the leaders of the expedition were assured that promotion of trade was the first objective. Ten seamen were sent out that year from England expressly to assist in the projected voyage. Orders reached Churchill too late, however, to be carried out in 1736, and departure the following summer was retarded by ice at the river mouth. Finally, on 4 July 1737, James Napper, who had been given command of the expedition, sailed in the sloop Churchill, accompanied by Robert Crow in the Musquash. In five weeks the expedition got no farther than Whale Point, latitude 62°15´N, and there, on 7 August, Napper died. The sloops turned homeward on 15 August. The Churchill under the command of Alexander Light reached Churchill on the 18th, and Crow in the Musquash four days later.
Capt. Christopher Middleton*’s assertion that the crews employed on this voyage “were not duly qualified for such an Undertaking” may without unkindness be applied to the captain as well as to his men. Napper’s record of service with the company is that of a subaltern, hard working and zealous, but with little aptitude for independent command, least of all on a mission of hazard and uncertainty.