To describe James Rennell as a sailor is to miss out his huge contribution to the science of oceanography; to call him an oceanographer is to overlook his consummate skill as a surveyor and map maker, especially in India. He was so much else besides – explorer, soldier, erudite writer, family man and a friend whenever one was needed. His life falls conveniently in to two parts – his early years as a sailor and adventurer, followed by half a century spent at home studying every field of geographical activity.
He didn’t have an auspicious start: he was born on 3rd December 1742 in the tiny village of Upcot near Chudleigh in Devon. His father was a Captain in the British Army and was killed in action in the Low Countries when the lad was five years old. His widow was left ‘with no visible means of support’ and was forced to sell the family properties. A couple of years later she re-married but her new partner Mr Elliot had a family of youngsters of his own, and not enough money to support any step-children. This resulted in James going to stay with the kindly Revd. Gilbert Burrington, vicar of Chudleigh, who provided him with a home, and love and affection, until James was 14. Meanwhile he attended the local grammar school, and drew maps of the village to pass the time.…
At 14 he caught the Stage Coach as it rolled past his home towards Plymouth, and got a place as a midshipman on board the Brilliant, under the captaincy of Captain Hyde Parker. This most supportive of men had served under Admiral Anson in his circumnavigation of the world and it is likely that he was the person who encouraged the lad to pursue surveying. His first chart was of the Bay of St Cast, where he witnessed the slaughter of most of the 1200 grenadiers trying to re-embark their vessels under enemy fire. The following year the Brilliant captured a couple of French privateers and this meant the entire crew shared in the Prize money. James used it to buy books, and he returned briefly to England before heading off on board America for Madras. It was to be another eighteen years before he would return.
George Romney's 1782 portrait of Hyde Parker
Captain Hyde Parker used his influence to get James transferred to the Grafton, which was involved in the siege of Pondicherry, which ended successfully in March 1761. From there the Grafton headed towards Mauritius with the rest of the East Indies Squadron, stopping en route at Rodriguez Island (some 344 miles to the east of Mauritius). There the fleet dined plentifully on turtles – lots and lots of them. James wrote in one of his letters calculating that some 60,000 turtles were consumed by the fleet during its seven week stay! When not eating turtle stew, turtle soup, turtle fricassee or turtle pie James surveyed the local Port Mathurin before the influence of the good Captain saw him seconded to the East India Company as an assistant surveyor. This post took him to Malacaa, the Nicobar Islands and North West Borneo, all of which he painstakingly surveyed.
On return to India he befriended the Governor of Madras, a man by the name of Robert (later Sir Robert) Palk. He got James a commission form the East India Company to superintend the transport and landing of troops for a siege. This led him to Calcutta where he met up with an old mess-mate called Topham. Mr Topham had a useful contact with the Governor of Bengal. The Governor rather wanted his province to be properly surveyed – an exercise which was both useful militarily, and advantageous in establishing ‘what was there’ rather in the manner of a latter-day Domesday Book. Enter James Rennie, who at the precocious age of 21 landed the plum job of surveyor with a commission in the Bengal Engineers. He rose to the rank of Captain and eventually, on retirement, was made up to Major. Meanwhile he passed the rest of the 1760s mapping the Ganges. The Governor was so pleased he recommended that the East India Company pay him a thousand pounds a year. James responded by sending money home to his mother and sister, and to the family of the kindly Revd. Burrington.
Within a couple more years he had reached the foothills of the Himalayas (then known as the Tartarian Mountains). Around this time he became a friend of Hugh (later Sir Hugh) Inglis. A useful contact – Inglis was to become head of the East India Company in 1812.
Life was never dull for James. In 1766 his surveying party was ambushed by fanatical Sanashi Fakirs, armed to the teeth with sabres and rifles. James was seriously wounded – to the shoulder blade, ribs, both arms and left hand – but managed to fight off his attackers and stagger back under heavy fire. On reaching the rest of his men he collapsed from loss of blood and was not expected to survive. His men did what they could (there was no surgeon in the party) and packed his wounds with crushed onions and put him on an open boat for the six day voyage back to Dacca. His wounds were thought to be terminal, but in time he recovered and the grateful Lord Clive promptly had him made up to Surveyor General and insisted that thereafter he should always be accompanied by his own band of sepoys.
His surveying field work took seven years, enlivened by the occasional encounter with leopards (one badly mauled five of his men before James stabbed it with a bayonet) and on another occasion when he was asked to march 320 miles against border raiders, a journey which he accomplished in fifteen days (remarkable when you consider the climate, the terrain, and the harsh conditions).
In 1768 a new Governor of Calcutta was appointed, a Mr Cartier. He had a secretary, whose sister Jane Thackeray was staying with the family in India. Jane was one of fifteen children, her father being headmaster of Harrow School in England. James and Jane fell in love, and were married in India. James then immersed himself in the second phase of the mapping operation – actually transferring all the data to make up the 14 sheets which comprised the map of Bengal.
Illness, and a desire to return to England, meant that James sought permission from Warren Hastings to retire, with a pension from the East India Company. The Company promised him six hundred pounds a year (but later tried to say it was only four hundred) and off he sailed for England, stopping off on the way at St Helena so that his wife could give birth to a daughter (called Jane). Finally, in February 1778 the Hector landed at Portsmouth.
At this point the Company not only tried to short-change him on his pension, they also refused to contribute to the cost of printing and publishing the Bengal Atlas. In time they relented, albeit begrudgingly.
The family settled in London Cavendish Square where Jane gave birth to two sons. They then moved to 23 Suffolk Street (later renamed Nassau Street) while James started on the second phase of his career, compiling his “Map & Memoir of Hindoostan”.
In 1781 he was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society (its President Sir Joseph Banks had accompanied Cook on his first 1st voyage, & became a great friend of Rennell).
He started to collate all the various attempts to chart the continent of Africa and to make these up as a comprehensive map, and was immediately made an Honorary Member of the Africa Association.
He had developed an interest in ocean drift during his long journey back from India and had prepared an oceanography chart of what he termed the Lagullas Cape in 1778. As a sailor he had personally observed the currents of the Atlantic, measured the trade-winds, and noted the monsoons and their effects on ocean drift. He persuaded sea captains to supply him with their log books so that he could add to his immense store of knowledge. From this he whittled it down to 7 charts of winds and currents. Seamen still have reason to be grateful for his expertise, especially with the identification of what is now called the Rennell Current. This sweeps up past the Bay of Biscay and across the mouth of the English and Irish Channels, and can cause ships seriously to misjudge their position. It was only a century earlier (1707) that Sir Cloudesley Shovel lost his flagship & two ships of the line through his failure to appreciate the existence of this current.
At this stage no-one else knew anything about oceanography – the word was not in use, and the importance of wind and currents was not understood. Small wonder that the Navy offered him the appointment of Hydrographer to the Admiralty, but James turned down the offer, concerned that it would interfere with his on-going research.
In his old age he continued to work, and above all to offer encouragement and support, and helpful criticism, to those that followed in his footsteps. He was a hugely influential and genial person.
With age came recognition from most of the countries in Europe. The Copley Medal was awarded him in 1791, at which point Sir Joseph Banks said that the Bengal Atlas had been prepared “with a degree of exactness that had not been paralleled by the most applauded geographers of this or any preceding age.” He was given the Gold medal by the Royal Society of Literature in 1825 as well as being honoured by continental academies. He was famed for his simplicity, courtesy and genius for friendship. Everyone agreed: he was a pleasure to know, a man of great benevolence.
When Sir Joseph Banks died his friends decided to form a dining group known as the Raleigh Club. And when James himself died, on 29th March 1830, within two months the Raleigh Club had re-named itself the Geographical Club.
Publication of many of his papers, including the Map and Memoir of Hindoostan shown here, took place posthumously, thanks to the devoted work of his daughter Jane.
He is buried in in the centre of the nave of Westminster Abbey. His grave is now unmarked but just had his name, date of death and age on it. Nearby in the north west tower chapel is a white marble bust by sculptor Jacob Hagbolt and the inscription reads:
“Major James Rennell. Died March 29th 1830 in his 88th year. His useful life, firm character and high talents are amply exhibited in his works and need no other monument. This tablet therefore merely records that this celebrated man was buried near this spot”. Appropriately, the body of David Livingstone is buried nearby.