John Knight was an extraordinary naval officer who saw a great deal of action in his time in service. He had worked his way up through the ranks from being a Captain’s servant and an ordinary seaman up to the rank of Admiral. He was knighted for his services against the French navy in 1815.
During the French and Indian war (also known as the Seven Years War) which took place between 1756 and 1763, Knight saw action against the French in Europe. After the Treaty of Paris of 1763 which saw an end to the conflict, Knight was engaged upon surveying the North American coastline from 1765 as a midshipman on HMS Romney, the Commander in Chief’s flag ship. In 1770 Knight was promoted Lieutenant and given control of his own survey vessel HMS Diligent that had been procured to assist J. F. W. Des Barres in his coastal survey. Their partnership was to prove extremely fruitful and efficient over the next few years.
Following the first naval battle of the war at Mechias in June 1775 Knight, still in command of Diligent, unwittingly called in to the harbour of that town to replenish supplies the following month. The battle had seen local rebels, in support of the recent uprising at Lexington and Concord and as a mark of anti British feeling, seized the schooner British schooner Margaretta, killing several of its crew. At the time Knight arrived the following month feelings were still running high and the rebels immediately seized the Diligent along with the accompanying shallop Tatamagouche and captured their crews.
Herein followed one of the most remarkable incidents of the entire war. Having been captured, Knight and his fellow Lieutenant Thomas Spry had all of their possessions confiscated, which included most of Des Barres’ manuscript charts, covering the area from New England up to Nova Scotia, which were being worked upon by Knight. This collection of data was invaluable to either side but its importance was clearly lost on the inhabitants of Mechias for the charts were returned to Knight at the start of his confinement and he promptly dispatched them back to the British. In a letter from John Lyon, one of Knight’s captors on the 19th Jan 1776 to James Otis Jnr, a member of the Massachusetts Provincial Assembly, the mistake is duly noted:
I think it my Duty to remind you, as you have doubtly been informed of what we have [done that w]e generously, perhaps too generously, gave the officers taken in the schooner Diligent, all of their pr[ivate pr]operty, & among other things all the plans of this continent, in their possession, which oversight we greatly regret & for which we can make no apology but our distress & confusion at that time, which would not admit of our attending to this matter as its vast importance required. Lieut [John] Knights goods are all sent away Lieut [Thomas] Spry’s only remain in our possession.’
Knight was held under ‘house arrest’ in the ‘district of the town of Northampton & five miles round for your place of Confinement’ (Gates to Knight, 24th May 1776). He was later moved to Cambridge and finally exchanged back to the British at the end of 1776 after more than a year of incarceration.
On the 10th Jan 1775 Knight had written to General George Washington himself to plead for his release, which letter provides something of an insight in to his character:
Many reasons as well as the unexpected lengthening time of my Captivity induces me to take liberty of addressing you on a Subject the propriety of which I must leave to your judgement. Freedom from being a Prisoner, is the ultimate of my request, and as this great indulgence I conceive lyes entirely with yr Excellency. I must beg your attention one moment – to my reasons – for this presumption. – I have been employed in America since the year 1763 on the Survey of the Sea Coasts, and since 1770 until the hour of my Captivity commanded a King’s Vessel on that Service only, during all which time I can declare I never did a single injury to an American, or even ever detain’d one of their Vessels (even in Illicit Trade) tho’ often in my power; on the contrary I dare believe there are several will do me the Justice to acknowledge having received assistance from me when in distress. The work I was then engaged on, was of a publick Nature, and intended for the Advantage of all, but as this unhappy dispute must necessary[i]ly put a Stop to that Service, there is not the least probability of my being employed (Should your goodness indulge me with my Liberty) there my being so many Young Gentlemen with the Adml waiting for promotion, and many more seeking Employment, which to a Man in my Situation, having family in America, would admit of no invitation. – I should trespass on your patience to relate the particulars of my being made Prisoner at Machias, which I am confident would appear most favourable for me, and no doubt influence you sir in a great measure to acquiesce with my entreaty. – If Captain Stephen Smith the principle person of that place was near your Excellency he [sic you] would Gain positive inform, that the proceedings with me there & the Surgeon Mr McFadjen belonging to the Diligent, was altogether contrary to every practice in War.
I beg leave to Submit these facts to you Excelcys consideration and am with respect.
Your Excellency’s [&c.]