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The long & colourful career of John Moresby


John MoresbyONE JOHN MORESBY, late Admiral and sometime Captain-in-Charge of the Royal Navy, has planted, or imposed, the Moresby surname on both New Guinea and Bermuda.

The capital of independent Papua New Guinea remains Port Moresby, while the great playing field at the Bermuda Dockyard retains its appellation as Moresby Plain, sometimes seen in the possessive ‘Moresby’s’, as John Moresby’s creation it was.

Between John and his father, Fairfax. two generations of Moresbys gave a century of service to the Royal Navy, much of it in overseas duty, with John’s including the pleasant position as Captain-in-Charge at the Bermuda Dockyard, flying his pennant on the old warship, HMS Terror, a fixture of Grassy Bay for many years in its dotage.

The old boy was Admiral of the Fleet Sir Fairfax Moresby GCB, KMT, DCL, born in 1786, and slipping his moorings at the good age of 91, about the time son John took up, at Bermuda, one of his last active postings of a long naval career.

During part of his service, Fairfax Moresby was the senior officer in the early 1820s at Mauritius, acting on orders to suppress the trade in slaves in eastern Africa, concluding in 1822 the ‘Moresby Treaty’ restricting the local slave trade and giving British warships the right to search and apprehend vessels that might be so engaged.

Later as Commander-in-Chief of the Pacific Station at Valparaiso in the early 1850s, he assisted in the moving to Norfolk Island of some of the inhabitants of Pitcairn Island, the latter today, like Bermuda, one of the last of the oceanic islands of what is now Britain’s clutch of ‘Overseas Territories’.

His son John was born in 1830 and entered naval service as a cadet at the age of 12. Yet a teenager, John was on the Mediterranean and American Stations, so it is possibly that he visited Bermuda between 1845 and 1849.

His most significant posting began in 1871, prior to that of Bermuda in 1878, when he was authorised to survey the coast of New Guinea out of the Australian Station.

During the course of that work, he discovered the ‘China Straits’, which promised a shorter route between Australia and the Far East.

John Moresby claimed New Guinea for Britain at the appropriately named ‘Possession Island’, but it is not known if he informed the indigenous population of their transfer to Queen Victoria’s imperial inventory of real estate.

All this work was carried out in HMS Basilisk, named for the king of serpents, but a slow and ageing ‘paddle sloop’, which had earlier served on the North America and West Indies Station, headquartered at Bermuda.

After New Guinea, while hoping for another sea appointment, ‘But here, too, I was doomed to disappointment’, Captain John Fairfax arrived on his first land position, after a period of coastguard work, at Bermuda in April 1878, where he lived in ‘The Cottage’, the official residence of the Captain-in Charge.

On 1 April 1881, Captain John Moresby, later Rear Admiral, left Bermuda after a three-year stint at the Royal Naval Dockyard: ‘I handed over my command to another, when parting kindnesses, warm farewells, and much speechifying, poured in on me from all quarters, together with gratifying official recognition; but I think the Commander-in-Chief Sir Leopold McClintock’s last words were my greatest pleasure, when he simply said: “I hope I shall be regretted as you are when I also give up my command”.’

Edward Cecil Harris MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard, Bermuda

Source: The Royal Gazette Online, 19 November


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Richard Jenkin

I am surprised to see no comment at all about the part played by HMS Basilisk and Captain Moresby in the recovery of survivors from the wreck of the Maria, off North Queensland, in 1872. One of those rescued was Lawrence Hargrave.

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