Astrodene's Historic Naval fiction is pleased to have obtained an Interview with Christopher J. Valin, author of Fortune's Favorite: Sir Charles Douglas and the Breaking of the Line.
How much information about your famous ancestor, Sir Charles, is passed down through the family?
Actually, almost nothing was passed down about Sir Charles. My family often talked about being related to his son, Sir Howard Douglas (my 4x great-grandfather), and it wasn’t until I started doing research on him and my family history that I came across Sir Charles. Even though I’ve always been interested in history, and especially the period of the American Revolution, I had never even heard of him and knew very little about the Battle of the Saints.
Do you have any family memorabilia from the period?
I really wish I did, but the closest things I have to memorabilia are a photograph of a family portrait of Sir Howard and some letters between some descendants of Sir Charles in England and my more direct ancestors in Canada. My great-great-great grandmother, Marguerite Douglas, was the product of Sir Howard’s relationship with a French-Canadian woman, Catherine Normandeau, and they never married (although the relationship was well documented). Any memorabilia that survived, if any, has probably been passed down through the descendants of Sir Howard and his wife, Ann Dundas, or perhaps Sir Charles’ other children.
What inspired you to write a book about him?
When I began doing research about him it was mainly for my family history and just to satisfy my own curiosity. But it started to bother me that he had done so much and played such an important role in so many events, and yet even a historian such as myself was not familiar with him. Then, when I started to realize the amount of evidence that existed proving that he should get the credit for the breaking of the line maneuver at the Saints, as well as the fact that almost nobody actually gave him that credit, I started wanting to do something about it. I basically came to the conclusion that if I didn’t do something about it, probably nobody ever would. In fact, more than one naval historian later recommended to me that I just do a straight biography and avoid the debate over the breaking of the line, but to me that was the most important thing for me to cover.
When I went back to school for my master’s degree in military history, I had the opportunity to write a couple of papers on him and thought about trying to get them published as articles. That eventually led to my master’s thesis on the subject, and from there I decided to expand my paper into a full-fledged book. I was very fortunate to have come into contact with Tom Grundner at Fireship Press during my research, and he was willing to read my manuscript once it was completed.
How did you undertake your research?
As far as the events surrounding Sir Charles’ life, I already had a good working knowledge of the period, which was greatly expanded when I worked on my degree since it was in military history with a concentration in American Revolution studies. So when it came to background material, I already felt very prepared. The problem was finding anything specifically about Sir Charles.
At first I wasn’t sure how much information I was going to be able to uncover, since Sir Charles is rarely mentioned more than a few times in passing in most secondary sources, and I knew I probably wouldn’t be able to travel to places such as London and Halifax to go through the original documents (I live near Los Angeles). I wrote to Jim Nelson, who mentioned him quite a bit in the excellent Benedict Arnold’s Navy, and asked him if he had any suggestions on where to start. He told me about Naval Documents of the American Revolution, which is published by the U.S. Government, and I was able to obtain used copies of the volumes I needed through used bookstores. Many letters from that period to and from Sir Charles are reproduced in them, as well as newspaper articles from the time.
Then there are the published letters of individuals like Rodney, Hood, and Lord Barham. The Barham Papers were extremely helpful because they were actually friends and Sir Charles wrote him quite a bit. I also, of course, used Naval Evolutions (the book by Sir Howard) quite a bit, which is full of letters on the matter as well.
But the thing that really opened it up for me was that right around that time, Google started scanning old books and periodicals that were in the public domain and making them available for free online. That was how I got access to the articles regarding the breaking of the line controversy that appeared in The Quarterly Review, The Edinburgh Review, and United Service Journal. They also scanned in a lot of old newspapers, the transcript of Keppel’s court martial (in which Sir Charles testified), and an old legal treatise that contained the full case that was brought by his daughter over his estate.
In addition, there are so many other sources one can access online now, and I was able to order a copy of his will, and even his parents’ wills. Some university libraries in Canada and Scotland have letters and documents I was able to get copies of, including letters written by Sir Charles and his daughter Mariana to Adam Smith.
Did you find bringing the information together in a book difficult?
The most difficult part for me was juggling the military history portions with his personal life. It felt very unnatural to put things in purely chronological order and have information about his wives and children mixed with, for example, his work on naval gunnery. I decided to more or less break the chapters up into a subject matter, within a framework that is generally chronological, but with some detours.
The book mentions Sir Charles' sons. Can you tell us any more about their careers?
Sir Charles’ oldest son, Vice-Admiral Sir William Henry Douglas, was apparently very well known at the time and was even one of the men carrying the canopy at Nelson’s funeral. He started his career serving with his father, and was made a captain of one of the captured French ships just after the Battle of the Saints. Eventually he rose in rank even higher than his father. Yet, somehow, there seems to be very little written about him. He died fairly young, unmarried and with no children.
The second son, Charles, Jr., also became a captain, but was not as successful and died around the same time as William Henry, which is why Sir Howard inherited the baronetcy next.
Sir Howard had about as exciting a life as Sir Charles. When he was a nineteen-year-old lieutenant, he was shipwrecked off the coast of Newfoundland during the frozen winter and took charge of the group of soldiers and sailors that survived, and they were ultimately rescued. After he went back to England, he was sent to help the Spanish fight Napoleon in a capacity that made him almost a secret agent. Then he became governor of New Brunswick, worked on the border dispute with the United States, and founded King’s College, which became the University of New Brunswick. Next, he was an MP for Liverpool, and finally the Lord High Chancellor of the Ionian Islands. In between, he fought to vindicate his father’s name and became a well respected expert on naval gunnery himself. He was also a full general by the time he died.
Are you planning any books about the sons?
If I could find enough information on Sir William Henry, I would definitely be interested in writing about him, but so far I’ve come across very little. There is even less available about the younger Charles.
Sir Howard already has a lengthy and very well researched biography about him from shortly after his death (I actually own the copy that used to be in the library at the British Ministry of Defence), as well as a Canadian children’s book called Redcoat Sailor: the Story of Sir Howard Douglas. But I am considering writing an updated biography, or even a historical fiction book (or series) about him.
What intrigues you about the period in which Sir Charles lived?
I was born in the Boston area, and was very interested in the American Revolution from a very young age. My parents would take me to places like Lexington and Concord, and Paul Revere’s house, and I remember reading books about the war and watching films like Disney’s Johnny Tremain when I was a child. That always stuck with me, and eventually led to me becoming a historian and history teacher. Even though I’ve done research on other parts of history, I always seem to come back to that period. It was such an important time in world and, especially, American history, and I feel like there’s always so much more to learn. It was very interesting for me, as an American, to study the war from the British side.
Is there anything else you would like to share with readers?
I’d like to mention that I’m currently editing and annotating a new edition of Sir Howard Douglas’ Naval Evolutions, for which I’ve written a long introduction. That will be available in the near future from Fireship Press. And I’d also make a request that anyone who is interested in naval history, and knows others who are, help me re-ignite the debate about the breaking of the line and bring all of this evidence to the attention of academics and ordinary readers alike. Sir Howard wasn’t very successful in his campaign, but I’m hoping with modern technology I’ll be able to get the word out and help give Sir Charles the credit he is due. It would be great not to read any more books or watch any more television shows that give the credit to Rodney or, worse, Clerk.