Captain William FitzWilliam Owen, RN, was born into the world as the illegitimate child of Captain William Owen. In 1774 he followed the well-worn path of young men trying to make his way in the world at the time by joining the navy as a midshipman. It is clear that the discipline and resolve that Owen applied to his surveying duties in later life were hard learned from the outset of his naval career.
Initially he specialized in navigation and quickly rose to the role of Assistant Master. By accounts Owen was a strong-willed character and quite boisterous, twice being demoted to the rank of Able Seaman as a matter of discipline. He passed his Navy Board exam on in 1794, and was appointed Lieutenant on 24 October but characteristically fell into dispute with authority (in this case his Captain) and court-martialled at Cape Town (South Africa), and dismissed from the service on 25 June 1795.
Quite typically young officers of the time would enjoy the protection and patronage of senior officers in the service and in Owen’s case this was likely to have been Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Rich (a life-long friend of his father). The influence of his patron was sufficient to bring him back into the service, and by May 1797 Owen reappeared, again as a midshipman. It was at the time of the Mutiny at Spithead and Owen’s reputation as a hard disciplinarian, no doubt based on his own experience and boisterous personality, was already established: he was singled out by the mutineers as “too hard” and was confined in irons in the hold until he escaped with other officers. Owen rose again to the rank of lieutenant a second time in June 1797 and took command of the gun vessel Flamer with which he served under Nelson in the English Channel until 1803.
His zest for exploration came to fruition in 1806 when cruising the Maldives Islands with his own command and he is credited with discovering the Seaflower Channel off the Sumatra Coast in the same year. His did see naval action in the East Indies fighting the Dutch during which time he had been promoted to the rank of Commander. Captured in 1808 by the French he spent two years in captivity. On his release he was again promoted, this time to Post Captain and in 1813 he returned to England. Thereafter, Owen started his North American service in 1815 where he met, tutored and promoted Henry Wolsey Bayfield in the techniques of surveying before leaving Bayfield to finish the Great Lakes Survey.
Following his North American experience Owen went back to Africa in 1821 and surveyed the east coast Cape to the Horn during which time he produced about 300 charts covering 30,000 miles but at the cost of the lives of over half of his original crew due to tropical diseases.
In 1827 Owen was given responsibility for settling a new colony at Fernado Po (now the island of Bioko) off the east coast of Africa. During Owen’s three-year command in this region his forces detained 20 ships and liberated 2,500 slaves. He was a fervent anti-slaver. Britain had abolished the importation of slaves from its African colonies in 1803 and finally passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833.
By the mid 1830s Owen's naval career was effectively at an end and he retired, with the rank of Vice-Admiral, to New Brunswick where he fulfilled various positions including Justice of the Peace, Judge and Politician. He did produce one final survey for the British Admiralty between 1842 and 1847. Quite appropriately it was of the Bay of Fundy, where the British had focused so much of their attention back in the year he was born. Owen’s final survey remained in use right up to the mid twentieth century. He died in 1857 at the age of 83yrs.