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Campbell, William Douglas (1770–1827)

by H. E. Maude

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

William Douglas Campbell (1770-1827), mariner, shipowner and island trader, was born on 18 May 1770 at Forres, Elgin, Scotland, the eleventh and youngest child of William Campbell, an officer of the excise, and his wife Margaret, née Campbell. Educated at Forres Grammar School, he joined the merchant marine and was employed for some years on ships in the Indian country trade, paying his first visit to Australia in 1797 in the brig Deptford with merchandise from Madras. In 1799 he returned as captain of the Rebecca and again in 1801 as captain of the brig Harrington, owned by the Madras firm of Chace, Chinnery & Co. For the next two years he was based on Port Jackson while engaged in sealing in Bass Strait.

Before leaving for Madras in June 1803 Campbell made a profitable trading visit to Peru and Chile; and, having purchased a half share in the Harrington, he returned there the next year. On somewhat flimsy evidence from American sealers, he professed to believe that England and Spain were at war and proceeded to raid the South American coast as a privateer, capturing a coast-guard vessel and a merchant brig. On his return to Sydney Governor Philip Gidley King ordered that the Harrington be detained until it was known whether hostilities with Spain had broken out at the time of the capture. She was later returned on the advice of the crown law officers in England owing to a doubt whether Campbell had acted with a 'piratical intention', though his conduct was 'highly blameable'; the prizes, with other loot, were confiscated and sold for £5054.

Operating in association with John Macarthur, Campbell next took a cargo of sandalwood from Fiji to China, returning with merchandise in March 1808. Chace, Chinnery & Co. was now in liquidation and in May Campbell purchased its remaining interest in the Harrington. Six weeks later she was seized by convicts when preparing to return to Fiji and in March 1809 destroyed near Manila by H.M.S. Dédaigneuse. Campbell soon found employment in the island trade, first as captain of the American brig Favorite, which he brought back from Fiji in February 1809 with a full load of sandalwood, and later as partner with Garnham Blaxcell in an extensive shipowning and island trading business. A third visit to Fiji in the Hibernia at the end of 1809 convinced Campbell that the wood was nearly cut out and he thereafter concentrated on the eastern Pacific, where he made steady if unspectacular profits by bartering European goods for hogs, and salting pork for shipment to New South Wales.

On the earliest of three voyages to the Tuamotus between 1809 and 1813, he succeeded in recapturing the schooner Venus from the Tahitian rebels and brought the missionaries fleeing from the civil war to Sydney in the Hibernia, while on the second, in the Venus, he was shipwrecked for the only time in his career. Returning to Port Jackson in the Cyclops, Campbell left immediately for London, where he successfully petitioned for compensation for the loss of the Harrington, valued at over £4000; accordingly when he returned in 1813 as master and part-owner of the brig James Hay, he was granted 2000 acres (809 ha) near Camden. After a final trip to the Tuamotus for pearl-shell Campbell joined with Blaxcell and others in a company to exploit stands of sandalwood on Rarotonga. When these proved fictitious he sailed to the Marquesas, acting on a report that the Americans had obtained sandalwood at Nukuhiva, and as a result was able to obtain two cargoes ahead of his rivals, the first worth £4000.

Campbell now bought the Daphne, but after further voyages to the eastern Pacific in her and the Governor Macquarie sold both ships in 1817 and settled down as a gentleman farmer on his grant, which he called Harrington Park after his brig. Apart from a single voyage to Calcutta and China as master of the Greyhound, Campbell remained ashore until his death on 3 March 1827. The main event of his later years was his suit, commenced in 1820, against John Macarthur, as the executor of Blaxcell's estate, for £20,226. This was dismissed by the Supreme Court but not all the appeals, which eventually reached the Privy Council, had been decided when he died.

The first Australian shipmaster to engage in the Tahitian salt pork trade (1805), the Tuamotu pearl-shell trade (1809) and the Marquesas sandalwood trade (1814), Campbell possessed a detailed knowledge of the Pacific Islands unique in his day and hardly rivalled since. He was a friend both to the missionaries at Tahiti and to the ruling chief Pomare, whom he supported throughout his exile on Moorea, bringing him arms and supplies and transporting his warriors. By 1813, when Governor Lachlan Macquarie testified to his 'excellent character', he had become the respected doyen of island trader-captains and, with a reputation for conducting consistently profitable ventures (one voyage was said to have resulted in a profit of over 600 per cent), he was able to command the then unprecedented salary of £50 a month.

Select Bibliography

  • Historical Records of Australia, series 1, vols 3-8, 11
  • H. Compton (ed), A Master Mariner: Being the Life and Adventures of Captain Robert William Eastwick (Lond, 1891)
  • E. Im Thurn and L. C. Wharton (eds), The Journal of William Lockerby (Lond, 1925)
  • H. E. Maude, ‘The Tahitian Pork Trade: 1800-1830’, Journal de la Société des Océanistes, 15 (1959)
  • H. E. Maude, ‘Rarotongan sandalwood’, Journal of Polynesian Society, 71 (1962).

Citation details

H. E. Maude, 'Campbell, William Douglas (1770–1827)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/campbell-william-douglas-1879/text2205, published first in hardcopy 1966, accessed online 23 November 2017.

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

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