1902 Encyclopedia > James Rennell

James Rennell
English geographer

JAMES RENNELL (1742-1830), probably the most celebrated of English geographers, was born on 3d Decem-ber 1742, near Chudleigh in Devonshire, where his father John Rennell, a man apparently of gentle blood, was the owner of a small farm called Waddon. The register of Chudleigh records the baptism of James Eennell on 21st December. John Rennell, who had married Ann Clark in 1738, seems to have fallen into embarrassed circumstances, and to have taken service in the artillery, with which he served in the duke of Cumberland's campaign in Flanders of 1747-48. The date of his death is uncertain, but he appears never to have rejoined his family. As a boy the son James found a valuable friend in the then vicar of Chudleigh, Gilbert Burrington, by whose advice and assistance he entered the navy in the beginning of 1756, Throughout his Indian career Rennell kept up a regular correspondence with Mr Burrington, and always regarded him with affection and gratitude.

The earliest of Rennell's existing letters show him, in March 1758, as an acting midshipman on board the " Brilliant," 36, Captain Parker, afterwards the famous Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, the elder of two of that name. When attached to the " Brilliant" James Rennell was present at several of those desultory expeditions against the French coast and shipping on which so much strength was squan-dered in the wars with France. Among these was a landing directed against the works and ships at Cherbourg (August 1758), and two other expeditions to the vicinity of St Malo, which were more futile, and the last of which ended somewhat disastrously. A MS. plan of the Bay of St Cast, where the re-embarkation took place (September 11, 1758), executed by James Eennell at the age of sixteen, and probably his first attempt at topographical work, is now before us. It bears the inscription " Plan of St Cas Bay, J. Bennel feet. 1758. To the Et. Honble. Lord Howe this plan is dedicated by his obedient humble servant, J. Bennel."

In 1760 Captain Parker, leaving the "Brilliant," took the " Norfolk" to India, and Rennell was to have gone with him, but through some accident missed his ship and went out in the " America," 50, Captain Haldane. On reaching India he rejoined Captain Parker, now in command of the " Grafton," 58, with the fleet engaged in the blockade of Pondicherry, which Coote was besieging on the landward side.


2, 1760, when he says to Mr Burrington :—" You desired that in
but am inclined to think it will be of little use to me." There is, we believe, here some reference to the clerical relations* whom he »t that time thought neglectful.


The Annual Register for 1830, in a sketch of Rennell's career, gives an anecdote for which we cannot vouch, finding no allusion to it in his letters. It is to the effect that, some sloops of war belonging to the enemy being moored in shallow water, Eennell asked the use of a boat. Accompanied by one sailor he reconnoitred the sloops, and ascertained what he had surmised to be true, viz., that owing to an unusually high tide it was possible to reach those vessels. This information was acted on with com-plete success. Whatever amount of truth there may be in this anecdote, we know, at least, from his letters that he took part in the cutting out of the " Baleine " and "Hermione," the former a 40-gun frigate, the latter an armed Indiaman, both at anchor before Pondicherry, within a half musket-shot of the place, and that he was a volunteer in one of the boat divisions which attacked the " Baleine." This vessel had no sails bent, and the captors, being exposed for an hour to a very heavy fire from the ramparts, lost severely.

We do not know what good guidance had first turned the lad's attention to surveying, but his letters show that he went to India provided with useful books and instruments, and they contain from time to time notices of various surveys executed by him, e.g., of the harbour of Trinconomale (or Trincomalee, as we now call it), and of the bay and roads of Diego Rayes, whither the East Indian fleet had gone as the rendezvous of an intended attack on Mauritius, which did not come off.

Captain Parker appears to have been friendly to Rennell, but had little hope of obtaining promotion in the navy for him, and counselled him to try his fortune in the Company's service. Rennell acquiesced, and in the summer of 1762 went, apparently as a surveyor, on board a. Company's vessel which was despatched on a reconnaissance to Manila and the neighbouring islands. The only trace we have been able to find of this voyage consists in sundry charts and coast-views published by Alexander Dalrymple, a friend of Rennell's in after days. Such are the Bay of Camorta in the Nicobar Islands, 1762; View of Quedah; Chart of Sambeelan Islands in the Straits of Malacca, 1763 ; View of Malacca, July, 1762 ^ Chart of Abai Harbour, on north-west of Borneo, 1762.

Of the expedition we have no particulars, but we gather that Rennell looked back on his treatment and service on board with dissatisfaction, though his performance of the duties assigned him recommended him as a man of merit to the authorities at Fort St George. He had missed a great chance in the navy, for during his absence orders came for the expedition against Manila, which ended in the capture of that place in 1762,—an expedition in which Captain Parker took the "Santissima Trinidad," a prize of enormous value. Rennell, however, made many friends at Madras, and had several offers of employment, though he did not think himself at liberty to accept any till the return of Captain Parker and his final discharge from the "Grafton's" books (July 1763). He now obtained the command of a vessel in the Government service, but whilst she lay off Madras, shortly afterwards, a cyclone destroyed every ship save one in the roads, and Rennell's among them. Fortunately he was on shore when the gale came on ; but he lost everything.


also he made surveys of the coast about Cape Calymere, and of the Paumben Passage. Shortly afterwards, having gone to Calcutta, he found in Captain Tinker, the officer commanding the king's squadron there, a gentleman with wdiom he had been slightly acquainted in the navy. There was evidently something very engaging in Kennell's manner, aspect, and character, for others as well as Captain Tinker immediately endeavoured to interest in his fortunes the governor of the presidency. This was Henry Vansittart, the successor of Clive, and father of Nicolas Vansittart, who was so long chancellor of the exchequer (1812-1823), and died Lord Bexley. The result was the appointment of Rennell as surveyor of the E. I. Company's dominions in Bengal, " before," as he writes, "I was scarcely apprised of the matter." A few days later he received a commission "for practitioner engineer in the citadel erecting at Calcutta near Fort William "— the fortress, in fact, now so well known by the latter name.

Rennell, in a letter announcing his appointment, calls it that of "surveyor-general," but this term is not used in the official record, dated April 9, 1764. The date of his commission in the corps of engineers, as ensign (or " practitioner engineer," as the junior rank was termed), is the same. The corps of Bengal Engineers, which after a creditable existence of just about a century was amalgamated with the Royal Engineers in 1862, was then in its infancy. Only four officers appear as having had commissions earlier than James Rennell, though the subsequent introduction of several officers with higher rank eventually placed more than this number over his head.

Practically, though he was sometimes engaged in works of construction or demolition, Rennell's work as a surveyor occupied the whole of his Indian service, which extended to thirteen years only. In the course of this employment he reduced to order and substantial accuracy the map of Bengal, and accumulated a great part of the material which he afterwards utilized in the determination of all the important points embraced in the first approxi-mately correct map of India. His merits were highly appreciated, and his rise was rapid. In January 1767 his position was raised to that of surveyor-general, and at the same time he was promoted to captain.

In their letter to the court of directors, reporting this promotion, the council at Fort William say :—
" We have appointed Captain Rennell, a young man of distinguished merit in this brunch, surveyor-general, and directs him to form one general chart from those already made, and such as are now on hand, as they can be collected in. This, though attended with great labour, does not prevent his prosecuting his own surveys, the fatigue of which, with the desperate wounds he has lately received in one of them, have already left him but a shattered constitution.1,3

This passage refers to a memorable passage in Rennell's career, which had nearly proved its tragical termination. Bengal proper was in those early days of the Company's administration very far from being the tranquil country that we have known it for so many years (except indeed during its partial share in the agitations of 1857, from the mutiny of several regiments within its boundaries). And it was about a year before the promotion just mentioned that Rennell, on one of his surveying campaigns in northern Bengal, met with the adventure in question.

The districts in that quarter (Purniah, Dinajpur, Rangpur, &c.) were at that time habitually ravaged by bodies of marauders, who had their headquarters in the forest-tracts at the foot of the Himalayas, and beyond British jurisdiction. From these forests they used to issue annually in large bands, plundering and levying exactions far and wide, and returning to their jungle-asylum when threatened with pursuit. A few years before (1763) a large body of them had plundered the city of Dacca. They professed to belong to a religious fraternity and were commonly known as the Sanyasis, a name under which they are frequently mentioned in the corre-spondence of Warren Hastings, sometimes as Fakirs. The affair took place in the semi-independent state of Kuch Behar, near the border of Bhutan. Hearing that a party of native soldiers had been sent to put down one of those bands, which had just taken and plundered the capital of the state, Rennell hastened to join the detachment with his own small escort, and came up with it just after the banditti had received a beating. The next day (21st February 1766) was spent in pursuit of the enemy, and in the afternoon Rennell and two other officers, who had gone forward to reconnoitre, found themselves in presence of a large body of the Sanyasis. Their small escort of native horse rode off, and the officers were surrounded. Rennell's Armenian assistant was killed, his engineer subaltern fought his way clear with a slight wound,

Rennell himself retreated fighting to the detachment, and was put in a palankin, covered with sabre-wounds. One blow had cut into his right shoulder blade and through several ribs ; his left arm was severely cut in three places, and ho had other wounds besides. For surgical help he had to be sent to Dacca, 300 miles otf, in an open boat, which he had to direct himself, as he lay on his face, whilst the natives applied onions as a cataplasm to his shoulder. He was long given up, but, under the tender care of his friend Dr Russell, he recovered, though his health was long affected by the loss of blood and severity of the injuries.

On two later occasions Rennell's letters speak of his being attacked or waylaid whilst on survey, in one case by irregulars in the employment of the "jemitdars," i.e., "zemindars," in districts remote from Calcutta, and on another occasion by the " Bootese," or Bhutias, as we now call them. In a letter dated 30th October 1770 he says in his brief way :—

" I must not forget to tell you that about a month ago a large leopard jumped at me, and I was fortunate enough to kill him by thrusting my bayonet down his throat. Five of my men were wounded by him, four of them very danger-ously. You see I am a lucky fellow at all times."

We gather from this passage that it was common in those days for officers to carry bayonets,—a circumstance which is also set forth in one of the best known portraits of General Wolfe.

Shortly after this last adventure Rennell was allowed to carry out, with a force under his command, a project that he had formed for the suppression of the banditti in the north. Writing on the 3d March 1771, he speaks of having returned successful from this expedition, after marching 320 miles in fifteen days, which he justly observes was "pretty good travelling in that climate, especially for soldiers." This did not, however, put an end to the Sanyasis, for they are spoken of by Hastings as still a pest in 1773 and 1774.

Rennell's usual residence was at Dacca, though his visits to Calcutta were at least annual. On one of these he married (October 15, 1772) Miss Jane Thackeray, one of the sixteen children of Archdeacon Thackeray, who had been headmaster of Harrow from 1746 to his death in 1760, and who has been called by Dr Butler the "second founder" of the school. Among Dr Thackeray's descendants are to be counted many distinguished Anglo-Indians ; and William Makepeace Thackeray of the Civil Service, the grandfather of the great writer who has made that combination of names familiar and illustrious, was a friend of Rennell's and the brother of his wife.

Indian careers were not in those days generally prolonged. Fortunes were reaped more rapidly than in later years, and death likewise mowed with swifter strokes. In the list of Bengal engineers there are thirteen, including Rennell, who received com-missions prior to 1770, the earliest in 1761. Of these thirteen, before 1780, six were dead, four had resigned, one had been dismissed, and two only in the year named remained in the service.

Rennell's health had been remarkably good up to his encounter with the Sanyasis, but from that time it became permanently deteriorated, and in 1777 he resigned, having attained the rank of major two years earlier (January 1775). In those days no regular pension-system existed ; but, when permission for Rennell's retire-ment was given, in December 1776, by the governor and council, it was accompanied by the grant of a pension of 500 rupees a month from the Calcutta treasury, till the court's pleasure should be known. In passing this resolution the board remark that they " think fit to adopt this mode as most satisfactory to Major Rennell, wdiose fortune will not permit him to leave India without some certainty of support in the decline of life." It is impossible, in reading this last phrase, to withhold a smile at the proverbial longevity of pensioners, when we remember that the illustrious subject of the resolution drew the allowance for fifty-three years after his retirement. The court of directors, after his arrival in England, conferred a pension of £600 a year in lieu of the Calcutta one.

Major Rennell and his wife, with a daughter born at St Helena during a stoppage on the way home, reached England, 12th February 1778. For the rest of his long life he lived in London, and for much the greater part of the time in Nassau Street (formerly called Suffolk Street) near the Middlesex Hospital, a quarter then inhabited by gentlefolks, though now quite deserted by fashion.

When applying in 1776 for permission to retire, Rennell had written—"I desire not to eat the bread of idleness, but rather to make myself as useful as possible, even after my return to England," and went on to submit a scheme for the utilization of the large mass of geographical material laid up and perishing in the India House. He cannot have been long in England before he buckled to this task. He is said to have been offered employment of a considerable character and to have declined it. Of this we know no more ; but apparently he had laid out his own course of life, in devoting himself to the laborious literary elucidation of geography, and to that enjoyment of the society of his friends to which he often refers in his correspondence as the chief happiness to which he looked forward in his retirement.

His first publication after his return was A Chart of the Banks and Currents at the Lagullas in South Africa (1778), accompanied by a memoir. In the same year appeared A Description of the Moads in Bengal and Bahar, ic., printed by order of the Court of Directors. This is a small 12mo, and only a book of routes. In 1781 came out his Bengal Atlas, containing Maps of the Theatre of War and Commerce on that side of Hindustan, compiled from the original Surveys, with Tables of Routes and Distances from Calcutta, through the principal Internal Navigations. This is in folio, and contains twenty-one maps, a work leaving far behind everything in Indian cartography published up to that date. In the same year Rennell read before the Royal Society, to which he had been elected March 8, " An Account of the Ganges and Burrampootur Rivers."

These were preliminary flights. His great work on Indian geography was the Memoir of a Map of Hindustan ; and even this was of gradual growth. In its first form, as published in 1783, it contained only pp. xiv and 132. A second edition in 1785 had con-siderable additions. In 1788 a Memoir was issued altogether en-larged in scope, and of this again a second edition appeared in 1792, and a third, still enlarged, in 1793, which contains pp. cxli + 428 + 51, pp. 820 in all. The work, which thus went through five developments in all, was that which especially established Rennell's reputation,—though his knowledge and ability were appreciated in London from an early date after his return to Europe, and the con-tinued series of works which he issued from time to time during some five and thirty years spread and augmented his fame as a geo-grapher. After a brief interval of extreme old age, the series was resumed in the publication of valuable posthumous works.

But, to return to earlier days, Rennell speedily found a place in the most intelligent circles of society, counting among his friends, as years passed on, not only men of science and literature like Sir Joseph Banks, Sir Everard Home, Bishop Horsley, Sir George Staunton, Dr Robertson the historian, Dean Vincent, Mr Alexander Dalrymple, Mr William Marsden, &c., but also such men as Lord Mornington (afterwards the famous Marquis Wellesley), Lord Spencer (first lord of the Admiralty 1794-1801), and Lord Holland. His closest friends appear to have been Sir Joseph Banks, Lord Spencer, and Dr Gillies the historian, and in later years Captain (afterwards Sir Francis) Beaufort.

In 1791 he received from the Royal Society, at the hands of the president Sir Joseph Banks, the Copley medal, assigned him for his geographical labours, and especially for his paper " On the Camel's Rate, as applied to Geographical Purposes." The follow-ing passage, perhaps not quite free from exaggeration, occurs in the president's address on this occasion :—

"I should rejoice could I say that Britons . . . could boast a general map of their island as well executed as the Major's delineation of Bengal and Bahar, a tract of countries considerably larger in extent than the whole of Great Britain and Ireland ; but it would be injustice to the Major's industry, were I not here to state that the districts he has perambulated and planned exceed probably in extent the whole tract of surveyed country to be found in the maps of the European kingdoms put together; while the accuracy of his particular surveys stands yet unrivalled by the most laborious performance of the best county maps this nation has hitherto been able to produce."

In 1792 Rennell published The Marches of the British Army in the Peninsula of India during the Campaign of 1790-91, illustrated and explained by a map and other plates; and in 1794 an 8vo pamphlet entitled War with France the only security of Britain, by an " Old Englishman." Some years before this time Rennell had llso turned his attention to African geography, in connexion with the African Association, of which he was one of the earliest members. Of this body, which was the progenitor, though not the immediate parent, of the Royal Geographical Society, an account may be read in Mr Clements Markham's most interesting record of the fifty years' work of that society. The association was established in 1788, and sent out several travellers of note. Maps and geographical memoirs from Rennell's pen were issued on various occasions ; and especially were his African labours associated with the name and first journey of Mungo Park. Rennell published in all some five or six dissertations on African geography. And this branch of his work may account, after a fashion, for an odd confusion made in a public report of Livingstone's burial in Westminster Abbey.

The Philosophical Transactions, whose atmosphere in those days was not confined to the same rarefied altitudes as at present, con-tain occasional papers from Rennell's hand. We have mentioned the paper on "Camel's Rate " in 1791; in 1793 we have " Observations on a Current that often prevails to the westward of Scilly, and endangers the safety of ships " (the current in question has since been known by Rennell's name), in 1809 " On the Effect of Westeidy Winds in raising the Level of the British Channel." In the Archaeologia we find the following:—in vol. xvii. p. 242, "Observations on the Topography of Ancient Babylon," and in vol. xxi. three dissertations:—(1) p. 92, " On the Voyage and Place of Shipwreck of St Paul"; (2) p. 138, "Concerning the Identity of the Remains at Jerash, whether they are those of Gerasa or Pella " ; (3) p. 501, read May 1826, when the venerable author was in his eighty-fourth year, " Concerning the place where Julius Ctesar landed in Britain." This does not, we believe, exhaust the list of his occasional writings, and he gave much incidental help to other writers who touched his own subjects, e.g., to Dean Vincent in his well-known work on the Commerce and Navigation of the Ancients. The detail of these minor works has carried us away from the chronological order of his productions. That which added most largely to the reputation acquired as the geographer of India was his book on the Geographical System of Herodotus, 4to, with eleven maps (1800). Another great task undertaken by him was a Treatise on the Comparative Geography of Western Asia. On this field he had formed a most comprehensive project, too vast indeed for the time of life at which he undertook it, when probably he had already reached threescore. Of this project his Herodotus was indeed itself a portion, and others were his separate publications of a Dis-sertation on the Topography of the Plain of Troy (4to, 1811), and of the Illustrations of the Expeditions of Cyrus and the Retreat of the Ten Thousand, and an additional mass of matter, prepared with many years' labour, and left behind him in a very perfect state of transcription, was published after his death by his daughter, in 2 vols. 8vo, with an atlas (1831).

Another posthumous work was An Investigation of the Currents of the Atlantic Ocean, and of those which prevail between the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. For this work Rennell had examined and collated the logs of a vast number of the ships of war and Indiamen which had traversed those seas during thirty or forty years, re-com-puting observations, and reducing them to one general system. The results of this toil were left ready for the press, and were published in large charts, with a thin volume Of text, under the editorship of Mr John Purdy, in 1832. The first contributions to the scientific knowledge of currents had been Rennell's papers on the Lagullas, and on the Scilly Currents, and the present work contained nearly all that existed in the generalization of such data till more than twenty years after his death.

"Major Rennell," says an account of him, in a work privately printed by a member of his wife's family, "was of middle size, well proportioned, with a grave yet sweet expression on his countenance, wdiich is said to have conciliated the regard of all he spoke with."

The existence of this happy faculty we have already noticed as deducible from his earlier history in India. The sweet gravity of which the writer speaks is very recognizable in his portraits, alike in middle life and in extreme old age. A contemporary, quoted,in the work just referred to, said of him :—" In his intercourse with his friends he possesses a remarkable flow of spirits, and abounds with interesting subjects of conversation ; at the same time, as to what relates to himself, he is one of the most diffident, unassuming men in the world."

One of the obituary notices at the time of his death says that Rennell's '' political and religious feelings are said to have operated in causing him to decline the acceptance of an invitation to become a member of the French National Institute." This can hardly have had any basis of fact. Rennell, in politics, was always attached to what would be called, in present language, the Liberal party; though his Liberalism, as we may gather from the title of his pamphlet of 1794, and from expressions used in the dedication to Earl Spencer of his Herodotus, had nothing of that character which loves to disparage those who are jealous for the greatness of England. As a matter of fact he was elected a foreign associate of the Institute during the peace of Amiens, in 1802, and accepted the honour with unmistakable cordiality and satisfaction, as his reply, which we have seen, testifies. In his eighty-third year a gold medal was awarded to Rennell by the Royal Society of Literature ; and, as his infirmities prevented his attendance at their place of meeting, a deputation, headed by the president, visited him for the purpose of presenting it at his own house in Nassau Street.

When more than eighty-seven years of age Major Rennell slipped from a chair, and broke his thigh. He hardly ever left his bed afterwards, and died 29th March 1830. He was buried in the nave of Westminster Abbey on the 6th April. A tablet to his memory, with a bust, stands in the north-west angle of the nave.

Mrs Rennell had died in 1810. Three children of the marriage grew up. Of these, Thomas, the second, died in 1846 ; William, the third, went to India in the Civil Service, and died some years before his father (1819) ; Jane, the eldest, married Captain Rodd, afterwards Vice-Admiral Sir John Tremayne Rodd, K.C.B., and survived both her brothers, dying in 1863. It was through Lady Eodd's active filial zeal that Eennell's posthumous works were pub-lished, including, besides the two already named, a second edition of the Herodotus.

What has been said in the enumeration of his writings sufficiently shows how laboriously he worked. But to this great industry were joined in all his works sagacity, excellent judgment, and a love oî truth which made him never ashamed to confess a difficulty, and always ready to do justice to other writers. The man whom we find already at fourteen serving as a midshipman in time of war would have grown up with little instruction but what he sought, and found for himself, in the course of his career. On many of the subjects on which he wrote, fresh light has been so abundant that the ralue of his works as guides has in great measure passed away, yet jven now no one can deal with Herodotus or Xenophon without consulting Rennell's views, directly or indirectly. Obliged to depend, as regards the former, for his text on the inaccurate translation of Beloe, it has been shown that Rennell's sagacity often discerned the true meaning of the historian when his interpreter had gone astray. What lie did for the geography of India, not by his own surveys merely, but by his labour on the often remoulded Memoir, in coordinating the information gathered during forty years, may be best appreciated by a comparison of the celebrated D'Anville's Éclaircissemens Géographiques sur la Carte de l'Inde (1753) with the final edition of the Memoir (1793). Putting aside the great additions to positive knowledge which favoured the later writer, we are mistaken if the perusal of both works will not leave the im-pression that, in most of the qualities of a geographer, Rennell's place is not in any respect behind that of the famous Frenchman, for whom he himself always entertained and expressed the deepest respect.

We conclude with an extract from a tribute to his memory which appeared in the Times of the day after his funeral in the Abbey:—

" Another characteristic of this amiable philosopher was the generous facility with which he imparted his stores of learning in conversation. A memory Temarkably tenacious, and so well arranged as to be equally ready for the recep-tion or for the distribution of knowledge, made him a depository of facts to which few ever applied in vain ; adapting himself to the level of all who consulted him, he had tne happy art of correcting their errors without hurting their feelings, _and of leading them to truth wdthout convictingrfhem of ignorance."

Till Rennell's time it could hardly be said that England could boast of any geographer of the first class. His pre-eminence in that character is still undisputed, like that of D'Anville in France, and of Ritter in German}'.

In this sketch of Rennell's career, use has been made of a mass of letters addressed, during his service in the navy and in India, to the Rev. G. Burrington, kindly lent by Mr C. Langley of Chudleigh ; of papers courteously communicated by Rennell's descendants; of the "Memorials" quoted above; and of India Office records; supplemented by a good deal of other research. (H. Y.)


3 From Rennell's notice of its size and position this is evidently the island now called Rodriguez, about 350 miles north-east of Mauritius.

4 This siege of Madura belongs to an obscure passage of Indian history, an account of which must be sought in Nelson's Manual of Madura (Madras, 1868), and Bishop Caldwell's History of Tinnevelly (Madras, 1881). Mohammed Yusuf Khan, a man of great ability, who had been "commander of all the Company's sepoys" (at Madras), and afterwards governor of Madura for the nawab and the Company, threw off his allegiance in the beginning of 1763. A joint expedition was sent against him, and for a long time had indifferent success. Eventually Marchand, the chief of a French contingent in Yusufs service, betrayed him to the English commandant, and in the latter part of 1764 it is said that he was hanged, whether by order of the-

4 Rennell, in announcing his marriage to Mr Burrington, speaks of his wife as

3 See Mr A. G. Findlay in the Jour. Roy. Geog. Soc., vol. xxiii.

The above article was written by: Col. Henry Yule, C.B,E,

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