WALKER, SIR HOVENDEN, naval commander of the British expedition against Quebec in 1711 b. 1656 or 1666; d. 1725 or 1728.
The second son of Col. William Walker of Tankardstown, Queen’s County, Ireland, and of Elizabeth, daughter of Dr Peter Chamberlen, Hovenden Walker is said to have been born in 1656. It is conceivable, however, according to Sir John Laughton (who sketched Walker’s adult career in the DNB) that the correct date is ten years later. Although historical chroniclers like John Charnock (Biographia navalis, II, 465–66) and Robert Beatson (A political index, II, 5) suggest 1725 as the possible year of his death, Laughton – this time unreservedly – asserts that Walker died of apoplexy in Dublin in 1728. Unfortunately the source of this confident statement is lacking. Walker was twice married, and had one daughter who died, unmarried, about 1777.
Walker entered Trinity College, Dublin, in 1678, but failed to complete the course, and subsequently joined the navy. Little is known of his early service, but it seems likely that he visited North America in 1686, putting into Boston aboard the frigate Dartmouth (Capt. George St Lo). According to Pepys he amused the ship’s company with a patriotic ballad of his own composition, attacking the Spaniards for treacherous conduct in the Caribbean.
Promoted captain on 17 Feb. 1691/92, he served off Barfleur in 1692, and four years later, when in command of the Foresight (50 guns), helped to fight off a superior French force near the Lizard, and thus to save the convoy. In 1701 he joined the fleet under Sir George Rocke at Cadiz, and shortly afterwards, as commodore, took command of a detachment charged with cooperating in an attack on Guadaloupe and Martinique. Hitherto, his career, if not brilliant, had been successful. In the Caribbean, the first signs of a character weakness that was subsequently to prove his undoing became apparent. After wasting more than two months at Barbados, Walker set out early in February 1702/3 for Antigua, where the governor of the Leeward Islands, General Christopher Codrington, was impatiently awaiting him with the required land force. Meanwhile, sickness, desertion, and “murther” by drink played havoc with the morale of the naval force. The condition of the troops was little better; they were short of siege weapons and the powder was of miserable quality, as were the provisions, which were in short supply. The delays, which gave the French time to prepare their defences, combined with the lack of cooperation between Walker and Codrington made the Guadaloupe failure almost inevitable. After an expensive and futile assault the expedition retired to Nevis and a few weeks later moved on to Jamaica, whence accompanied by Vice-Admiral Graydon a reinforced squadron sailed northwards to attack the centre of the French fishery in Newfoundland, Placentia (Plaisance). But it was well into September before the British force was assembled. A joint council of war – the customary instrument of escape from individual decision – agreed that since an assault was impracticable so late in the year, the expedition should make for England.
The failure of the Caribbean enterprise cannot in retrospect be placed on Walker’s shoulders alone; nor did his seniors of that day censure him for his lack of audacity and intelligence. In 1706 he assisted Sir John Leake in the relief of Barcelona, and two years later was appointed to command the squadron before Dunkirk. In March 1710/11 he was promoted to flag-rank with a knighthood thrown in for good measure, and, on 3 April, the new rear-admiral of the white squadron was made commander-in-chief of a secret expedition aimed at the conquest of Canada.
The decision of the British government to resurrect a project first initiated in 1709 had sound political as well as strategic justification. The steady propaganda appeals from New England and New York had not only influenced the government, especially the Board of Trade, but had roused considerable public interest. Moreover, the conquest of Port-Royal (Annapolis Royal, N.S.) in 1710 – a mere walk-over – had whetted both colonial and British imperial appetites at a time when French naval power was reduced to a shadow of its former strength. Equally impressive was the argument that the capture of Quebec under Tory auspices would dilute, if not extinguish Marlborough’s fading glories, and conceivably facilitate a more favourable peace treaty than the Duke himself could secure. There can be no denying the strong Tory urge to end the war, and the newly restored Tory ministry was not unaware of the political advantages to be reaped from a spectacular military success. Mrs. Masham had replaced the Duchess of Marlborough, and while the leader of the ministry (for all intents and purposes, the prime minister), Robert Harley, scarcely shared the enthusiasm of his secretary of state, Henry St John, he was too ill during the period of organization to interfere even had he wished.
With Harley hors de combat, St John had free rein. Five seasoned regiments, the cream of Marlborough’s army in Flanders, were ordered to be withdrawn from the continent, despite the angry objections of the Duke whose opposition was only quelled by royal command. Furthermore, St John was responsible for the choice of the military as well as the naval commander. Col. John Hill, raised to the rank of brigadier-general, was Mrs Masham’s brother, but whether political reasons were responsible for the appointment of Rear-Admiral Walker, it is difficult to be certain. Walker was a Tory, but his relationship with St John was one of casual friendship rather than intimacy. In an age of savage political vendettas which shaped or shattered the careers of soldiers and sailors as well as those of statesmen, it is not easy to sort grains of truth from the chaff of controversy. On the other hand, what little we know about Walker’s earlier career would scarcely seem to justify this important appointment; there were other seamen with far more distinguished records, and the end might have been very different had Harley and not St John been at the helm of state during the spring of 1711.
Moreover, the secretary’s fantastic efforts at secrecy indirectly placed the whole project in jeopardy. With the object of foxing the French, St John kept not only the commander, but the Admiralty in the dark regarding his real objectives. For example, by under-victualling the expedition, he may have temporarily put French agents off the scent, but in providing only three months’ provisions (the usual quantity allowed for transporting land forces to the Mediterranean) he left it ultimately dependent on New England for food supply. All told, the numbers – some 5,300 troops, 6,000 seamen, including marines, along with the promised colonial levies – exceeded the population of Boston and its vicinity.
As might have been expected in the circumstances, the British army which arrived at Boston with the main fleet on 25 June found the cost of victuals immediately ascending. There was nothing unusual about the lust of local inhabitants to make money out of visiting soldiery, but successive battles with the Massachusetts Bay authorities over supply and price deeply prejudiced good relations between colonial and regular. Encouraged by the friction a parochial spirit of independence had begun to infect the local population, a species of “colonial nationalism” which was to reach new heights of disdain in Braddock’s day.
Unversed in the procedures of large-scale organization, Walker underestimated the complications – not only problems of logistics, but labour shortages, ammunition shortages, and, above all, pilot shortages. On arrival at Boston he had expected to find any number of local captains with an adequate knowledge of the St Lawrence River, and with sufficient adventurous instinct to ascend it. To his surprise, he encountered not only much ignorance but a downright lack of enthusiasm, and in the end the governor’s authority was necessary to ferret out recalcitrant or absconding pilots. Moreover, Walker was obliged to pay handsomely for the uncertain services of a French captain, Paradis by name, master of the captured sloop Neptune. Reliable charts were equally hard to find, although Walker was able to acquire a copy of the original journal of the Phips* expedition of 1690. Unfortunately, Phips had managed to reach Quebec more by good luck than by scientific navigation, and his hair-raising account of reefs, currents, fogs, and storms served merely to unnerve the already fretting admiral. Alarmed by all he heard and read, Walker preferred not to risk his two 80-gun ships in the river, and after transferring his flag to the 70-gun Edgar, he ordered the Humber, the Devonshire, and four small cruisers to remain in the gulf as protection for the rear.
Early on the morning of 30 July 1711, the expedition consisting of nine ships of war, two bomb vessels and 60 transports and tenders, British and colonial, with some 7,500 troops and marines aboard set sail from Boston. Including seamen, the total manpower must have been in the neighbourhood of 12,000. By 3 August the fleet was abreast Cape Sable, and a few days later rounded Cape Breton under the guidance of Colonel Samuel Vetch. Before settling in Albany in 1699, Vetch had been a soldier with a good record of service in the Low Countries. An able lobbyist and propagandist who urged the expulsion of the French from North America, he, like many Albany merchants, was not averse to trading with the Indians, adventures which may account for his knowledge of St Lawrence navigation. Although formally in charge of the colonial levies accompanying the British regulars, Vetch was probably the most competent pilot with the expedition; yet for reasons still impossible to fathom, he refused to lead the fleet around Gaspé into the river, and, equally incomprehensible, his admiral acquiesced.
By 13 August the fleet was well within the gulf. Thence followed light winds and calms, until on the morning of the 18th, just as the expedition was about to enter the river proper, it began to blow hard from the northwest, and Walker was forced to seek shelter in Gaspé Bay. On the morning of the 20th, however, the wind veered to the southeast, and he was able to advance slowly past the western extremity of Anticosti Island before the wind died down and thick fog blanketed both shore and fleet. By the 22d the wind had freshened from the southeast, and there were intermittent breaks in the fog, but not sufficient to give sight of land. The fleet was now well to the westward of Anticosti, probably 50 miles from the south shore and less than 20 from the north shore. After consulting his pilots, both French and English, at eight o’clock in the evening, Walker gave the signal to bring-to on the larboard tack, thus heading the fleet to the southward.
Unfortunately, the admiral was not, as he thought, in mid-stream when he issued the order, but about seven leagues north of his proper course, and in the grasp of strong currents which were bearing him relentlessly towards the northwest. Aided by an easterly wind the fleet was gradually closing on the “North Shore,” which in the vicinity of Île-aux-Oeufs (Egg Island) runs almost north and south. Had this position been maintained until morning, disaster might still have been avoided. Unhappily, when, at about half past ten, the Edgar’s captain brought the disturbing news that land had been sighted, presumably dead ahead, Walker assumed that he was approaching the south shore, and ordered the fleet to wear, and bring-to on the other tack. Not many minutes later he was again summoned from his bed, and hurrying upon deck in dressing gown and slippers saw breakers “all round us.” By that time the whole fleet was heading for the “North Shore,” or more accurately, the coast to the westward; ships in the van were already plunging on the edge of the breakers.
Once recovered from the shock, Walker made all available sail, and stood from the shore towards mid-channel. Up to this time a gale had been blowing almost directly on shore, and had it continued it is doubtful if many of the fleet could have survived. Mercifully, by two o’clock in the morning of 23 August the wind dropped, and this lull was followed by a shift of wind which enabled most of the ships to slip their anchors and escape the shoals on either quarter. It speaks well for the seamanship of the crews that only seven transports and one storeship were lost. Out of a total of 1,390, 740 soldiers (including 35 women attached to the regiments) and probably 150 sailors were either drowned or died from exposure on shore.
Meanwhile, Colonel Francis Nicholson, a former colonial governor who had commanded the militia force during the luckless advance on Montreal in 1709 and the successful expedition against Port Royal in 1710, had once again led a supporting land force to the borders of Lake Champlain. News of the disaster along with orders to abandon the attack on Montreal came as a bitter blow, but a righteous anger which led him, so the story goes, to tear off his wig and stamp on it did not extinguish his prudence. As quickly as possible Nicholson withdrew to Albany where the troops were disbanded.
Walker cruised in the neighbourhood of Île-aux-Oeufs for two days in an effort to save what men and stores he could. Thence, following a council of war, he decided to abandon the assault on Quebec, and sailed for Cape Breton. On 4 September, the fleet made its rendezvous in the Spanish River Road (Sydney Harbour), Cape Breton, where further discussion took place on the prospects of taking Placentia. In view of his instructions, Walker had some qualms about returning to England with Quebec and Placentia both unscathed; but comforted by General Hill, who was equally loth to embark on fresh adventures, and bolstered by the unanimous verdict of a second council of war, which pointed out that only ten weeks’ provisions were available, he finally resolved to sail for home and face the music. On 10 October he dropped anchor at Portsmouth, and took coach to London where he reported to the distressed but not unaffable St John. During his absence, the Edgar blew up with the loss of the maintenance crew and the greater part of Walker’s public papers, books, journals, and charts.
Thanks to an indulgent Tory ministry, both Hill and Walker escaped official censure for their conduct of the expedition. Indeed, both were given fresh commands, which could be interpreted as tacit approval of their conduct. In March 1712 Walker was appointed commodore of the squadron in Jamaica. There he engaged in trade and politics, and quarrelled with the governor until he was summoned back to England a year later. He took a house in Huntingdonshire, where, as a justice of the peace, he lived the life of a country gentleman. But the disaster – one of the worst in 18th century naval annals – was not forgotten by the politicians. When Walker’s patron fell, Anne’s successor, George I, called the Whigs back to power, and within a few months the admiral’s name was summarily struck off the flag list without pretence of a hearing, his half-pay was stopped, and in the same year (1715) he was ordered to furnish the government with a full account of the expedition. Hoping to mend his fortunes in the colonies he took refuge in South Carolina, whence he returned within two years to complete his Journal on the basis of memory, a pocket diary, and various letters and documents supplied him by the secretary of the Admiralty, Josiah Burchett. This detailed personal record is essentially an effort at self-vindication.
As the introduction to the Journal makes clear, Walker’s inner torments had not dissolved with the years, and this misery, aggravated by peremptory dismissal from the service, helped to create something like a persecution complex. On the other hand, although he pleads his own cause with bitterness and often with melodrama, there is no attempt to suppress evidence. Indeed, Walker’s naïve admissions serve to diminish his own stature as a commander. Even had he possessed the guile, he lacked the subtlety and balance to make out a convincing case for himself. Walker’s nerves had been shaken before the fleet left Boston; thereafter his ability to make major decisions diminished progressively. Lacking provisions, and without competent pilots, his expedition had become a gigantic gamble long before it reached the St Lawrence river. Undoubtedly he lacked the qualities of a great commander, but, whatever the weaknesses of his leadership, the failure was not his alone. Walker was a victim of the pernicious political system of the day, a reluctant tool in the hands of a brilliant sharper, Henry St John, Viscount Bolingbroke.
Following the publication of the Journal in 1720, Walker seems to have moved about restlessly between Ireland and the continent. Thomas Lediard, who wrote The naval history of England, ran into him in Hamburg and in Hanover, and found him “a gentleman of Letters, good Understanding, ready wit, and agreable [sic] Conversation.”
Hovenden Walker, A journal or full account of the late expedition to Canada (London, 1720) has been republished by the Champlain Society and the Navy Records Society under the title The Walker expedition to Quebec, 1711, edited by G. S. Graham. The editor’s Introduction contains detailed bibliographical references. ... Many of the documents in the PRO (chiefly C.O. 5) relevant to the career of Walker have been printed at length, or in abbreviated form, in PRO, CSP, Col., 1710–11, 1711–12. Supplementary letters and papers, which were not available to Admiral Walker when he was writing his Journal, and which fill in the gaps in his account, are to be found in PRO, S.P. 42/68; 44/110, 44/111 (secretaries’ letter books).. ... Printed sources include the following: Josiah Burchett, A complete history of the most remarkable transactions at sea, from the earliest accounts of time to the conclusion of the last war with France (London, 1720). Juchereau et Duplessis, Histoire de l’Hôtel-Dieu de Québec; Annales (Jamet). Thomas Lediard, The naval history of England . . . from the Norman conquest . . . to the conclusion of 1734 (2v., London, 1735). Letters and correspondence, public and private, of the Right Honourable Henry St. John, Lord visc. Bolingbroke during the time he was secretary of state, ed. Gilbert Parke (4v., London, 1798). Robert Beatson, A political index to the histories of Great Britain and Ireland (3d ed., 3v., London, 1806). Charnock, Biographia navalis, II. J. S. Crone, A concise dictionary of Irish biography (London, 1928); it is here stated that Walker was born “about 1660.” DNB. R. D. Merriman, “Captain George St. Lo, R.N., 1658–1718,” The Mariner’s Mirror (London) XXXI, no.1 (1945), 13–23. P.-G. Roy, “Qui était le capitaine Paradis?” BRH, XLIX (1943), 65–68..