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Bremer, Sir James John (1786–1850)

by J. Bach

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

Sir James John Gordon Bremer (1786-1850), naval officer, was born on 26 September 1786, the son of Lieutenant James Bremer, R.N., and his wife Ann, daughter of Captain James Norman, R.N. He was appointed midshipman in the Endymion in 1802, and was actively engaged in the war against France. In 1805 he was appointed lieutenant and in the Royalist shared in the capture of De Weser at Trafalgar. He was promoted commander in 1807 and captain in 1814, and in 1815 he was appointed C.B.

In 1824 Bremer was given command of the Tamar and sent from England to select a site on the north coast of New Holland that would allow British merchants to break the Dutch monopoly of trade in the East Indies. In June he arrived in Sydney where he spent a month collecting stores and troops. Sailing north through Torres Strait in the Tamar with two other ships, he reached Port Essington and a week later chose a site on the western shore of Melville Island. Here he took formal possession on 26 September and established Fort Dundas. The site was ill chosen, too far from any regular shipping track and too hazardous in access, but Bremer, seeing it at its best in the dry season, praised it in a long and flattering report which was accepted with enthusiasm by the Admiralty, Colonial Office and mercantile houses involved in East Indian trade. Leaving a garrison, convicts and some free labourers, Bremer sailed in November for India where he took part in the first Burma war. He was appointed K.C.H. in 1836.

At Fort Dundas the pier and buildings decayed and the 100 residents were attacked by tropical fevers and by hostile Aboriginals. Worse still, their store ship Lady Nelson was captured by pirates, leaving them almost marooned. When their gloomy reports finally reached the Colonial Office, Captain James Stirling was ordered to find a more suitable site for a second settlement. His choice in 1827 of Fort Wellington in Raffles Bay, east of Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula, was on the direct track of Malay trepang fishermen, but its garrison was also afflicted by sickness and isolation. In 1828 the settlers from Melville Island were transferred to Raffles Bay, where Collet Barker was beginning to transform the settlement, but the dismal dispatches of the previous commandant led to the abandonment of Fort Wellington in 1829.

The project of a northern trading station was not forgotten by enthusiasts, and in 1837 Glenelg chose Port Essington as the site for its revival. Charge of the expedition was given ironically to Bremer. In command of the Alligator and the Britomart he established the new post in October 1838, naming it Port Victoria. Once again he contributed to the tenacious myth that all the treasures of the Indies could be produced in north Australia. After one trip with George Windsor Earl, who made several visits to adjacent islands, Bremer also became enthusiastic over the expansion of British trade in the Malay world. Dreaming of a flourishing colony he urged the Colonial Office to permit the sale of land for permanent settlement at Port Essington, but Glenelg wanted no hasty action.

Port Victoria flourished until 1843, but later reports of hurricane, sickness and tropical decay convinced the Colonial Office that northern stations were based on mistaken theories, and did not justify their cost. Even Bremer had to confess to Gladstone that they were useless as commercial and naval bases. In 1849 the Port Essington base was abandoned.

News of trouble at Canton led Bremer, encouraged by Governor Sir George Gipps, to take the ships under his command to China, and with his departure from Port Essington in June 1839 his part in Australian history ends. In the Chinese war he achieved renown, in 1840-41 twice commanding the British naval forces. The Chinese recognized him as their most aggressive and skilful adversary. For these services he received the thanks of parliament and was appointed K.C.B.

In April 1846 Bremer was appointed second-in-command of the Channel Squadron, and next November commodore superintendent of Woolwich dockyard, gaining his flag as rear admiral in 1849. He died at Compton near Plymouth on 14 February 1850.

He had married Harriet, widow of Rev. George Henry Glasse, in 1811, and had two sons and four daughters.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 3, vol 5
  • W. R. O'Byrne, A Naval Biographical Dictionary (Lond, 1849)
  • W. L. Clowes, The Royal Navy, vol 6 (Lond, 1901)
  • D. Howard, ‘The English Activities on the North Coast of Australia in the First Half of the Nineteenth Century’, Proceedings of the Royal Geographical Society of Australasia: South Australian Branch, vol 33, 1931-32, pp 21-194
  • Adm 2/1695
  • CO 201/124, 196, 264, 303.

Citation details

J. Bach, 'Bremer, Sir James John (1786–1850)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/bremer-sir-james-john-1823/text2091, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 19 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 1, (MUP), 1966

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