Denman, Rear Admiral Joseph
b. 1810-06-23
d. 1874-11-26
Born 23 June 1810, Joseph Denman joined the British Navy at age thirteen in 1823.1 Denman’s career culminated in his 1862 promotion to Rear Admiral and his command of the Pacific Station from 1864 to 1866.2 Over time, Denman gained a reputation for his intense manner and soldier-like attitude. He fiercely protected British interests and often said it was better to be decidedly wrong than undecidedly right.3
Denman’s command of the Pacific Station was characterized by frequent violence involving the Indigenous population. Denman ruthlessly pursued Indigenous groups that threatened British safety. For example, after Ahousaht individuals attacked the Kingfisher in August 1865, Denman destroyed nine villages, sixty four canoes, and killed at least fifteen men in pursuit of the accused. Denman threatened to return with more violence, but the courts called off the case and prevented Denman from further action.4
In contrast, Denman also held himself responsible for the safety of Indigenous peoples. After the Random incident in 1864, in which First Nations constables onboard were shot at and in one case killed, Denman called for the replacement of Captain Bazalgette for his apparent mishandling of the situation.5
The Random incident partially motivated Denman’s proposal for Vancouver Island and British Columbia to employ Navy vessels, such as a gunboat or similar class ship, which could protect Indigenous groups from aggressive settlers. The employment of such ships could also act as a defence and deterrence from Indigenous attack. Colonial officials liked the plan and considered applying it to other colonies as well, but financial experts deemed the idea too expensive.
Denman became somewhat famous for his abolitionist views, especially after the 1840 emancipation of slaves near the African Gallinas River. Denman led a force of 120 men to save a British citizen, Fry Norman, and her child from slave traders. After the operation, Denman successfully brought Fry Norman, her child, and 841 other released individuals to Sierra Leone to secure their freedom. Denman also reached an agreement with local chiefs to abolish all slave trade in the area. Denman’s actions prompted the Royal Navy to promote him to captain. Denman later drafted an anti-slavery plan, which the government enforced in 1844, so that other British ships could combat the industry. Spanish slave traders from Gallinas attempted to sue Denman for damages, but Denman was absolved in 1848.6
Denman’s abolitionist views later put him in conflict with Indigenous bands in Vancouver Island and British Columbia who engaged in slavery.7 The rear-admiral often concerned himself with Indigenous slavery and the sale of liquor to Indigenous populations.
Denman retired from the Admiralty in 1870 to become a private secretary for the Duke of Buckingham, Governor of Madras. Denman had some experience as an aide: for a time, Denman acted as the Queen’s groom in waiting and commanded the royal yacht, Victoria and Albert, from 1853 to 1860.8 However, Denman’s role as private secretary was short lived, as he died 26 November 1874.9
Mentions of this person in the documents
People in this document

Bazalgette, George

Victoria, Alexandrina

Vessels in this document

Kingfisher

Random

Victoria and Albert

Places in this document

British Columbia

Vancouver Island

The Colonial Despatches Team. Denman, Rear Admiral Joseph. The Colonial Despatches of Vancouver Island and British Columbia 1846-1871, Edition 2.2, ed. The Colonial Despatches Team. Victoria, B.C.: University of Victoria. https://bcgenesis.uvic.ca/denman_j.html.

Last modified: 2020-12-02 13:40:34 -0800 (Wed, 02 Dec 2020) (SVN revision: 5008)