Sir James Gambier – father to Captain James Fitzjames

There is no doubt, based on both contemporary letters and also an oral history preserved to the twentieth century, that his father was Sir James Gambier.  Gambier came from a prominent family of French Huguenot origin. Some of his family were very wealthy indeed.

Sir James Gambier was related to two prominent naval officers, both of who reached Flag rank.  His father was Admiral James Gambier and his uncle was Admiral Lord Gambier.  Unlike the Coningham family who brought Fitzjames up, his father’s family had strong naval connections.

Sir James Gambier had entered the Royal Navy briefly as a young man, and then transferred to the Army.  He then resigned and took up a position as British Consul General in Portugal.  When the French invaded Portugal in 1807 the Portuguese government and Royal family fled to Brazil, which at that time was a colonial possession of Portugal, where they took up residence.  Gambier accompanied them and became British Consul-General in Rio-de-Jamiero.  This is discussed at some length in the book.

The book however is incorrect in what happened afterwards.  In the book I argued that James Fitzjames, on the basis of the date of birth stated on his baptismal certificate, must have been conceived and born in Brazil as Sir James Gambier continued to be British Consul-General until 1814.  Subsequently I uncovered a long and complex correspondence in two separate archives – one that of the Foreign Office  at Kew and the other that of Hoare’s Bank on London – which gave a more complex story.  While he continued to hold the office of Consul-General to the Brazilian Government, Gambier in fact committed a diplomatic faux pas in 1810 as a result of which he had to return to London and by mid 1810 was clearly living in Britain.

As well as destroying his family’s comfortable lifestyle in Rio de Janiero, this move caused Gambier immense financial difficulties and he had to be bailed out by a family group of creditors.  It’s not clear how much contact he subsequently had with his child although relations between Fitzjames and other Gambiers seem to have been cordial.

One reviewer of the book expressed doubt over the identification of Sir James Gambier as Fitzjames’ father, although the does not seem to be any reason why she should doubt the validity of the private letter which originally confirmed it.  Subsequent to the publication of ‘James Fitzjames’ another, and completely independent, source of confirmation turned up in a book entitled ‘The Story of the Gambiers’ which was privately published in 1924 by Mrs. Cuthbert Heath, who was a grand-daughter of Sir James Gambier.  In it she mentioned Fitzjames, specifically saying:

“… At this point mention must be made of a Gambier who bore the ‘bar sinister’, but is worthy to rank with the most distinguished of the legitimate kinsman. Sir James Gambier, Ambassador to the Brazils, had a natural son, James FitzJames, RN, well known to the Gambier family, who styled him the ‘Knight of Snowden’. As Captain of HMS Erebus, he accompanied Sir John Franklin on his disastrous attempt to discover the North Pole in 1845, and shared his leader’s fate. His signature appears on one of the last entries of the great explorer’s log-book, and his name stands in the place of honour next to that of Sir John Franklin on the well-known monument in Carlton House Terrace.”

This provided independent corroboration of the information given in the book and showed that the Gambier family had retained an oral tradition that James Fitzjames was a relative of theirs for three generations. It is an interesting illustration of the impermanence of oral memory in English society that this knowledge has subsequently been lost.