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John Elphinstone Erskine (1805–1887)

by H. J. Gibbney

This article was published:

John Elphinstone Erskine (1805-1887), naval officer, was born on 13 July 1805 at Cardross, Scotland, son of David Erskine and his wife Keith, daughter of the 11th Baron Elphinstone. He entered the navy on 6 May 1819, was commissioned in 1826 and assumed his first command of the gunboat Arachne on the Jamaica station in 1829. After service in the Mediterranean, he was promoted captain on 28 June 1839 and served as flag captain to his cousin, Sir Charles Adam, on the West Indies station. From 1845 to 1847 he was on half-pay and in February 1848 was appointed to the Havannah as senior officer on the Australian station. Soon after his arrival Erskine made a tour of Samoa, Tonga, Fiji, the New Hebrides, the Loyalty Islands and New Caledonia between 25 June and 7 October 1849, and next year visited the Solomons and other islands. An account of the first cruise was published in 1853 as Journal of a Cruise Among the Islands of the Western Pacific … in Her Majesty's Ship Havannah. Lively and intelligent, Erskine was popular in Sydney society, became friendly with the Macarthur family and in 1851 published his description of a visit to the goldfields in A Short Account of the Late Discoveries of Gold in Australia. In that year, he contributed an account of his two Pacific voyages to the Journal of the Royal Geographical Society.

Erskine returned to England in 1852, entrusted by Sir William Denison with a verbal message to the Colonial Office secretary on Tasmanian affairs; after serving in the Baltic through the Crimean war he was appointed rear admiral in 1857, A.D.C. to the Queen and second-in-command of the Channel Squadron. He was appointed vice admiral in 1864 and in 1865 was elected M.P. for Stirlingshire.

With experience of naval anti-slavery operations in the West Indies and the effects of European penetration in the Pacific, he joined the Aborigines Protection Society and became a parliamentary leader of the influential lobby working for the Pacific Islanders Protection Act of 1872. Defeated in the elections of 1874 by Henry Campbell-Bannerman, he retired from the navy and lived in London till his death on 23 June 1887.

James Elphinstone Erskine (1838-1911), son of John's brother James, was born on 2 December 1838. He joined the navy in 1852, became a captain in November 1868 and in 1880 served as private secretary to Lord Northbrook, first lord of the Admiralty. In January 1882 he became commodore on the Australian station and in 1884 declared a British protectorate over the south coast of New Guinea. His speech at the ceremony has been considered ever since as a declaration of rights for the indigenous people. On returning to England he became A.D.C. to the Queen, was appointed rear admiral and served as junior sea lord in 1886. In 1888-91 he was in charge of the Irish coast and in 1895 became commander-in-chief of the North America and West Indies station. Two years later he was knighted and promoted admiral, then after serving as A.D.C. to the King, he became an admiral of the fleet and retired in December 1908. He died at Venlaw, Peeblesshire, on 25 July 1911. In 1885 he had married Margaret Eliza Constable; their son also joined the navy.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. Lyne, New Guinea. An Account of the Establishment of the British Protectorate (Lond, 1885)
  • J. Inglis, In the New Hebrides (Lond, 1887)
  • J. W. Lindt, Picturesque New Guinea (Lond, 1887)
  • O. W. Parnaby, Britain and the Labor Trade in the Southwest Pacific (Durham, North Carolina, 1964)
  • Parliamentary Debates (House of Commons, United Kingdom), 1872-73
  • Colonial Intelligencer, 1874-78
  • 'Obituary', Times (London), 4 July 1887, p 8
  • 'Obituary: Admiral of the Fleet Sir James E. Erskine', Times (London), 26 July 1911, p 11
  • W. G. Lawes papers (State Library of New South Wales)
  • Vigors journal, G2261 (National Library of Australia)
  • manuscript catalogue under J. E. Erskine (State Library of New South Wales)
  • CO 422/3, 4.

Citation details

H. J. Gibbney, 'Erskine, John Elphinstone (1805–1887)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1972, accessed online 24 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 4, (Melbourne University Press), 1972

View the front pages for Volume 4

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


13 July, 1805
Cardross, Dumbartonshire, Scotland


23 June, 1887 (aged 81)
London, Middlesex, England

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