Watson, Henry

, a gallant officer and able engineer, was the son of a grazier, who lived at Holbeach, in Lincolnshire, where he was born about 1737, and educated at Gosberton school. Here his genius for the mathematics soon discovered itself, and in 1753 he was a frequent contributor to the “Ladies Diary.” About this time | his abilities became known to Mr. Whichcot, of HarpsweJJ, then one of the members of parliament for Lincolnshire, who introduced him to the royal academy at Woolwich; and he soon after obtained a commission in the corps of engineers. Under the celebrated mathematician, Thomas Simpson, Watson prosecuted his studies at Woolwich, and continued to write for the “Ladies Diary,” of which Simpson was at that time the editor. Such was Simpson’s opinion of Watson’s abilities, that at his decease he left him his unfinished mathematical papers, with a request that he would revise them, and make what alterations and additions he might think necessary; but of this privilege it seems to be doubted whether he made the best use. (See Simpson, p. 20.)

During the war which broke out in 1756, he gave signal proofs of his superior abilities as an engineer; particularly at the siege of Belleisle in 1761, and at the Havannah in 1762. At the latter place his skill was particularly put to the proof; for having declared at a consultation, contrary to the opinion of the other engineers, that a breachmight be made in the Moro Castle, then deemed impregnable, he was asked by the commander in chief in what time he would engage to make the breach? He gave for answer, that with a certain number of men and cannon (naming them) he would undertake to do it in forty-eight hours atter the proposed batteries were erected. Accordingly he undertook it, and though he was struck down by the wind of a ball which passed near his head, and carried for dead to his tent, yet he soon recovered and returned to his duty, and the breach was made in a little more than half the time. For this piece of service he not only received the particular thanks of the commander in chief, but of his majesty.

His abilities soon became too conspicuous to be overlooked by that eminent soldier and politician, lord Clive, who singled him out as an engineer qualified for great and noble enterprises. Accordingly he accompanied his lordship to Bengal fojr the purpose of carrying such plans into execution which might be thought necessary for the preservation of the British acquisitions in that quarter; or to assist his lordship in any further operations he might think requisite for the interest of his country.

It was not difficult for a person of the, colonel’s penetration to see the advantageous situation of the Bay of Bengal. | He knew that if proper forts were built, and the English marine put on a tolerable^ footing in that part, they might soon become masters of the Eastern seas; he therefore got a grant of lands from the East India company for constructing wet and dry docks, and a marine yard at Calcutta, for cleaning, repairing, and furnishing with stores the men, of war and merchantmen. A plan of the undertaking wa* drawn, engraved, and presented to his majesty, and the East India company, and fully approved of; and the works were carried on for some years with a spirit and vigour that manifested the judgment and abilities of the undertaker; and though the utility of such a national concern is too obvious to be 'insisted on, yet the colonel, after sinking^ upwards of 100,000l. of his own property in the noble design, was obliged to desist, for reasons that are not very clear.

Colonel Watson had determined to come immediately for England to seek redress; but, on consulting his friend Mr. Creassy (the superintendant of the works) he changed his resolution. Mr. Creassy represented to the colonel the loss he would sustain in quitting so lucrative an office as chief engineer to the East India company; the gratification his enemies would receive on his leaving that rountry; the loss’the company might experience during his absence; and finally the delay and uncertainty of the law. These considerations induced him to send Mr. Creassy in his stead. This happened just at the eve of the Spanish war; and, as the colonel had great quantities of iron and timber in store, he resolved to build three ships, two of $6, and one of 32 guns; and in consequence he sent instructions to his agents in England to procure letters of marque, and Mr. Creassy was to return with them over land. These vessels were to cruise off the Philippines for the purpose of intercepting the Spanish trade between Manilla and China. This design, however, was frustrated, perhaps by the same means that stopped his proceeding with the docks: for his agents, on applying for the letters, received a positive refusal. But these disappointments did not damp the colonel’s enterprising spirit; for, as soon as he heard of the ill success of his agents in England, he very prudently employed the two vessels he had finished in commercial service. The third never was finished.

For near ten years colonel Watson was the chief engineer of Bengal, Bahar, aod Orissa, The East India company, | in a great measure, owe their valuable possessions in that quarter to his unexampled exertions; for, in spite of party dispute, of bribery on the part of the nations then at war with the company, and of the numerous cabals which perplexed and embarrassed their councils, he executed the works of Fort- William, which will long remain a monument of his superior skill and, for its strength, this may justly be styled the Gibraltar of India. Nor are the works at Buge Buge, and Melancholy Point, constructed with less judgment. But he did not confine his studies to the military sciences. In 1776 he published a translation of Euler’s “Theorie complete de la construction et de la niancpuvre des vaisseaux,” with a supplement upon the action of oars, which he received in manuscript from Eulerjust before he had finished the translation of what was published. This translation he has enriched with many additions and improvements of his own; and he intended to have enlarged the work in a future edition, by making experiments for discovering the resistance of bodies when moving in a fluid; but it is not known if he left any papers on the subject.

This book, which is almost the only one of the kind in the English language, is of great importance in ship-building; for though the subjects are handled scientifically, yet such practical rules for constructing vessels to advantage might be drawn therefrom, as would amply repay the trouble of a close perusal. The colonel gave the best proof of this in the Nonsuch and Surprise frigates; the first of 36, the other of 32 guns. These were built under his particular direction by Mr. G. Louch, and a few black carpenters at Bengal, at his own expence, and proved the swiftest sailers of any ships hitherto known.

The colonel’s genius was formed for great undertakings. He was judicious in planning, cool and intrepid in action, and undismayed in danger. He studied mankind, and was a good politician. Few, perhaps, better understood the interests of the several nations of Europe and the East. He was humane, benevolent, and the friend of indigent genius. When Mr. Rollinson, a man of great abilities as a mathematician, conducted the Ladies Diary, after the death of Mr. Simpson, and was barely existing on the pittance allowed him by the proprietors, the colonel sought and found him in an obscure lodging, and generously relieved his necessities, though a stranger to his person. | This the old man related while the tears of gratitude stole down his cheeks. He survived the colonel’s bounty but a short time.

By long and hard service in a unfavourable climate, he found his health much impaired, two or three years before he left India; and therefore, in 1785, he put affairs in a train of settlement, in order to return to England, to try the effects of his native air. In the spring of 1786, he embarked on board the Deptford Indiaman; but the flux and a bilious complaint with which he had sometimes been afflicted, so much reduced him by the time he reached St. Helena, that he was not able to prosecute his voyage in that ship. This island is remarkable for the salubrity of its air, of which the colonel soon found the benefit but the importunity of his friends, or his own impatienceto see England, got the better of his prudence, for as soon as he began to gather strength, he took his passage in the Asia; the consequence was a relapse, which weakened him to such a degree by the time he arrived at Dover, that he lingered but a short time, and at that place departed this life on September 17, 1786. He was buried in a vault made in the body of the church at Dover, on the 22d of the same month, in a private manner. His death mHy be accounted a national loss. No English engineer, since Mr. Benjamin Robins, F. R. S. possessed equal abilities. The same climate proved fatal to both: Mr. Robins died at Madras in the company’s service; and it may be said of the colonel, that after he had quitted it, he lived but just long enough to bring his bones to England. 1


Life prefixed to the second edition of his translation of Euler, 1790, 8vo.