Manuscripts Division
William L. Clements Library
University of Michigan

Finding aid for
Stephen Kemble Papers, 1780-1793

Finding aid created by
Rob S. Cox, September 1990

Summary Information
Title: Stephen Kemble papers
Creator: Kemble, Stephen, 1740-1822
Inclusive dates: 1780-1793
Bulk dates: 1780-1781
Extent: 151 items (0.5 linear feet)
The Kemble collection consist primarily of letters and documents sent to Stephen Kemble in his role as commander of the Nicaraguan expedition. The bulk of collection falls between the period of his appointment to the expedition in April 1780, to the evacuation of Nicaragua in January, 1781.
Language: The material is in English
Repository: William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan

Access and Use
Acquisition Information:

1976. M-1735.

Access Restrictions:

The collection is open to research.


Copyright status is unknown.

Preferred Citation:

Stephen Kemble Papers, William L. Clements Library, University of Michigan


Stephen Kemble was born in 1740 in New Brunswick, N.J., the fourth son and fifth child of Peter Kemble and his first wife, Gertrude Bayard. The Kemble family were related to several of the most influential and politically powerful New York families of the colonial period, including the van Cortlandts, Bayards, and Stuyvesants. Like many of their station, the Kemble family remained staunchly loyal to the British cause throughout the Revolution.

After attending school at the College in Philadelphia, Stephen Kemble accepted an ensign's commission in the 44th Regiment of Foot at the age of 17. Under Lord Howe, he participated on the campaign that resulted in the repulse of Fort Ticonderoga, and on 24 January 1765, he was transferred to the captaincy of the First Battalion of the 60th (Royal American) Regiment. His rise through the ranks of the British army was no doubt facilitated by his close personal relationship with Thomas Gage, the commander-in-chief of British forces in North America, who had married Kemble's sister, Margaret in 1758.

In 1772, Kemble's friendship with his brother-in-law paid dividends as he was selected to replace an ailing Richard Maitland as Deputy-Adjutant-General of the Forces in North America, a position that placed him at Gage's side and that carried with it a rank of "Major in the Army." Kemble traveled to England in the next year, a trip during which he stopped at the house of Jeffrey Amherst and 'kissed hands' with George III, but on his return, found himself in an unenviable position surrounded by the highly volatile populace of Boston. Kemble's journals reveal him to have been unwaveringly devoted to the British cause and suggest the depth of his personal loyalty to Gage, and he acquitted himself well throughout the crisis.

The first of several changes in fortune for Kemble took place, however, when William Howe replaced Gage as commander-in-chief in October, 1775. In anticipation of the arrival of German auxiliaries, Howe felt it necessary to appoint an officer of higher rank to serve as Deputy-Adjutant, and chose Francis Rawdon-Hastings (later the 2d Earl of Moira). Thus, in 1776, Kemble found himself demoted to second in charge of an office that he had previously commanded, but because of good personal relations with both Rawdon and Howe, he chose to remain in his position.

Upon Rawdon's resignation in October, 1779, Kemble expected that he would be promoted to replace the man for whom he had worked so diligently, and whose position he had, in fact, once held. Unfortunately, Henry Clinton, the commander-in-chief, held a particular, personal disregard for Kemble, and proceeded to appoint another candidate, the junior officer John André. Kemble was incensed at this replacement, which formed an ironic counterpoint to his previous replacement by the senior officer Rawdon, and after some negotiations with Clinton, Kemble resigned to resume his commission as Lieutenant Colonel of the First Battalion of the 60th Regiment.

Kemble and regiment sailed to Montego Bay, Jamaica, arriving in January 1780, where he found that Governor John Dalling had, with approval of Lord North, organized a joint military and naval operation for the reduction of the Mosquito Shore, with the goal of taking control of the St. John River, Lake Nicaragua, St. John's Castle (situated on the river on the approach to Lake Nicaragua), and several Spanish settlements around the lake and on the Pacific Shore, thus severing communications between the northern and southern Spanish American colonies.

Kemble immediately offered his services to Governor Dalling for the expedition, but Dalling initially refused on the grounds that military command had already been promised Capt. John Polson (also of the 60th Regiment) and naval command to the 22 year old Horatio Nelson. The expedition embarked on 4 March 1780, heading first for Cape Gracias a Dios to pick up some Mosquito Indians who were alleged to be disaffected with the Spaniards and to rendezvous with a small flotilla raised by English settlers along the Black River (now in Honduras). When Polson and Nelson found that the English had not arrived as expected, and that the Indians had been 'tampered with' by Spanish agents, they proceeded southward, arriving at St. John's Harbour (now in Nicaragua), on the 24th. There, meeting no opposition from the Spanish, they sailed up the St. John's River toward Lake Nicaragua, and surrounded the Spanish garrison at St. John's Castle (64 miles up river from the harbor, 32 miles from the Lake) on the 13th of April.

Meanwhile, Dalling ordered Kemble to join the expedition on the 2d of April 1780, and he gathered 250 regular army reinforcements plus 270 men from a new corps (referred to as the Jamaica Legion or Jamaica Volunteers) and arrived at St. John's Harbour to assume command on the 24th. Kemble was promoted to the rank of Brigadier-General for the duration of the expedition.

The force at St. John's Castle, under the direction of Nelson, Polson, and chief engineer Edward Marcus Despard, worked through stifling heat and strenuous conditions to bring artillery and heavy ordnance up for support. Without any dramatic assault, they forced the Spaniards to capitulate on the 29th of April after the defenders depleted their supply of drinking water. The success of this mission was greeted with euphoria in Jamaica; Dalling proclaimed that "the door to the South Seas is burst open," apparently believing Indian rumors that through the lake lay a secure shipping passage to the Pacific.

Almost immediately, however, major problems arose. The diversion to Cape Gracias a Dios and the slow passage up the St. John's River had caused the timetable to span over three months, rather than the planned four weeks, and this delay promised to extend the mission into the rainy season when health concerns became preeminent and travel was difficult at best. Nelson was taken with dysentery and fever in late April and was sent away in such a weakened condition that he had to be carried onto the transport to Jamaica.

Sickness began to decimate the troops, and by mid-May, there were not even enough able bodied men to perform the duties of the camp. By June, only 10 of 250 men were fit for duty. The Indians whom the British had hired for the expedition began to desert in great numbers, taking with them the pitpans (boats) used to transport supplies, the sick and wounded. Realizing that advance toward the lake was impossible at this point, Kemble ordered a dispatch of troops to hold St. John's Castle and another small outpost, called Cooke's Post, further upstream, and he removed the remainder of his troops to St. John's Harbour.

Throughout the summer, attempts were made to reinforce the expeditionary force with English settlers from Rattan (an island off the coast of Honduras) and the Black River area, and the army contracted for the slaves of local planters to work as camp laborers. Concurrently, in the late summer, Edward Gleadowe, Colvill Cairns and James Thomson were sent on an expedition to 'reconcile' the Mosquito Indians: by negotiation and the exchange of gifts, the British hoped to sway the Indians to their side and perhaps to convince them to participate in a planned attack on Spanish settlements late in the year. Although Cairns and Thomson were successful in bringing about a treaty between the Mosquitos and British, serious logistical problems in transporting supplies to the garrisons, sickness, and desertion continued to plague the expedition. By the end of September, only 320 of the 1400 or more sent on the expedition were left alive, and perhaps only half of these were fit for duty. Recognizing that maintaining the garrisons at both ends of the St. John's River was not possible, Dalling ordered that St. John's Castle be destroyed and Nicaragua evacuated.

Following the unmitigated disaster in Nicaragua, Kemble returned to England. He was promoted to full Colonel in the Army (20 November 1782), and returned to duty with his regiment on Grenada, where he remained in charge of the garrison at Fort George. In 1786, after another very brief visit to England, Kemble was ordered to Quebec, where he once again found himself placed under the command of an officer who was technically of an inferior grade. After his complaints to the War Department were ignored, Kemble retired from military service.

Kemble spent part of 1788 in New Brunswick, where he and a brother had some property interests, but returned to London at the beginning of 1789. He was appointed Deputy Judge Advocate in America in 1793, and in 1797, Deputy Judge Advocate for an expedition intended for Europe. In 1805, Kemble sold his English property and returned to live in the house in which he had been born, and which he still owned, in New Brunswick, N.J. He died in 1822, and is buried in Christ Church, New Brunswick.

Collection Scope and Content Note

The Kemble papers consist primarily of letters and documents sent to Kemble in his role as commander of the Nicaraguan expedition. The bulk of collection falls between the period of his appointment to the expedition in April 1780, to the evacuation of Nicaragua in January, 1781.

The papers contain information on the logistical difficulties in arranging for food, water, supplies, and transport for the garrisons at St. John's Castle and Cooke's Post, and document the confusion, errors in judgment, and ineptitude that were the hallmark of this expedition.

An important series of letters and documents from Colvill Cairns and James Thomson record British efforts to mediate affairs with the Mosquito Indians and includes a copy of the treaty Cairns and Thomson negotiated at Tebuppy, along with a list of concessions the British were willing to make.

Post-expedition correspondence includes a series of letters written by Kemble to protest his assignment to a position under the command of a junior officer in Quebec plus copies of the War Office replies. There are also a few letters from Kemble's brother, Samuel, relating to problems finding an apartment in London, and two long letters concerning prospects for the settlements in New Brunswick, Canada.

Subject Terms

    • Anglo-Spanish War, 1779-1783.
    • Cairns, Colvill.
    • Communicable diseases.
    • Gleadowe, George, d. 1780.
    • Great Britain--Foreign relations--Miskito Indians.
    • Great Britain. Army--Appointments and retirements.
    • Great Britain. Army--Officers.
    • Great Britain. Army--Pay, allowances, etc.
    • Great Britain. Army--Recruiting, enlistment, etc.
    • Great Britain. Army--Supplies and stores.
    • Great Britain. Army--Transportation.
    • Hay, Alexander Leith, 1758-1838.
    • Kemble, Stephen, 1740-1829.
    • Lawrie, James.
    • Miskito Indians--Foreign relations--Great Britain.
    • Shaw, Alexander.
    • Saint John's Castle (Nicaragua)—Description and travel.
    • Saint John's Castle (Nicaragua)--Evacuation.
    • Thomson, James.
    Contents List
    Container / Location Title
    Stephen Kemble papers, 1780 April 9-1793 [series]
    Box   1  
     April 9, 1780-October 26, 1780
    Box   2  
     November 2, 1780-1793
    Additional Descriptive Data

    Fortescue, J. W. A History of the British Army. Vol. 3, 1763-1793. London, MacMillan and Co., 1902.

    Partial Subject Index
    Anglo-French War, 1793-1802
    • 142
    Anglo-Spanish War, 1779-1783
    • 38, 64, 65, 74-76, 86, 100, 105, 114
    Betsy (Ship)
    • 93
    Caddle, Edward
    • 51, 86
    Cairns, Colvill
    • 5, 9, 26, 30, 56, 91
    Camps (Military)--Nicaragua
    • 90, 99, 105
    • 115
    • 10
    Chapman, Richard
    • 120
    Colvill, William
    • 23, 24, 32
    Communicable diseases
    • 1, 7-9, 32, 33, 38, 93, 101
    Cooke's Post (Nicaragua)
    • 90, 105
    Cooke's Post (Nicaragua)--Evacuation
    • 109, 114
    Cooke, Peirce
    • 7
    Courts-martial and courts of inquiry--Great Britain
    • 132
    Cox, Charles
    • 91
    Curaçao--Description and travel
    • 142
    Dalling, John, d. 1798
    • 2, 21, 92
    Dalrymple, William
    • 35
    • 1, 36, 37
    Demolition (Military)
    • 108, 110, 114
    Desertion, Military--Great Britain
    • 82, 106
    Despard, Andrew
    • 59
    Frazer, Andrew, d. 1792
    • 132
    • 137
    Gleadowe, George, d. 1780
    • 1, 26, 28, 31, 35-37, 54
    Graham, James
    • 66, 91
    Great Britain--Colonies--Administration
    • 102
    Great Britain--Foreign relations--Mosquito Indians
    • 12-18, 22, 25, 26, 28, 30, 31, 35-37, 54, 65, 73-75, 81, 104
    Great Britain--Foreign relations--Ramo Indians
    • 22
    Great Britain--Foreign relations--Woolwau Indians
    • 54
    Great Britain. Army--Appointments and retirements
    • 2, 4, 96, 97, 126, 127
    Great Britain. Army--Black River Volunteers
    • 24
    Great Britain. Army--Blacks
    • 10, 21, 40, 41, 46-48, 52, 58, 72, 95, 97, 98, 101, 109, 117
    Great Britain. Army--Carpenters
    • 67
    Great Britain. Army--Colonial forces
    • 1
    Great Britain. Army--Commissariat
    • 59, 148
    Great Britain. Army--Equipment
    • 125
    Great Britain. Army--Jamaica Volunteers
    • 7, 8, 90
    Great Britain. Army--Leaves and furloughs
    • 32, 42, 50, 60, 68, 69, 79, 88, 89, 94, 112, 116
    Great Britain. Army--Mosquito Indians
    • 65, 86, 91
    Great Britain. Army--Mosquito Shore Volunteers
    • 4, 7
    Great Britain. Army--Mosquito Shore Volunteers--Returns
    • 5
    Great Britain. Army--Officers
    • 118, 123, 124, 127
    Great Britain. Army--Ordnance
    • 38
    Great Britain. Army--Pay, allowances, etc.
    • 55, 64, 119, 138
    Great Britain. Army--Promotions
    • 2
    Great Britain. Army--Rattan Volunteers
    • 40, 97, 98
    Great Britain. Army--Recruiting, enlistment, etc.
    • 134, 135, 138, 141
    Great Britain. Army--Regiment of Foot, 44th
    • 125
    Great Britain. Army--Regiment of Foot, 45th
    • 148
    Great Britain. Army--Regiment of Foot, 60th
    • 134, 138, 141
    Great Britain. Army--Regiment of Foot, 79th (Royal Liverpool Volunteers)
    • 23
    Great Britain. Army--Regulations
    • 148
    Great Britain. Army--Returns
    • 6, 9, 11, 46, 47, 48, 52, 129
    Great Britain. Army--Sanitary affairs
    • 8
    Great Britain. Army--Supplies and stores
    • 11, 19, 20, 23-27, 29, 31, 33-35, 38, 39, 41, 43, 54, 55, 57, 59, 68,71, 72, 77, 84, 90, 108, 125
    Great Britain. Army--Surgeons
    • 2, 53
    Great Britain. Army--Transport of sick and wounded
    • 61
    Great Britain. Army--Transportation
    • 20, 23, 24, 26, 27, 41, 72, 77, 82, 83, 85, 87, 91, 92, 93, 103
    Great Britain. Army--Uniforms
    • 125
    Great Britain. Army. Sanitary affairs
    • 9
    Great Britain. Navy--Supplies and stores
    • 9
    Great Britain. Army--Colonial forces--Rattan Volunteers
    • 21
    Hay, Alexander Leith, 1758-1838
    • 9, 11, 20, 23, 24, 41, 54, 55, 91, 102, 114
    Hope (Ship)
    • 113
    Hope, Henry
    • 123, 124
    Horatio (Ship)
    • 9
    Housing--London (England)
    • 149, 150, 151
    Indians of Central America
    • 20
    Indians of Central America--Government relations
    • 26, 30, 70
    Indians of Central America--Nicaragua
    • 12, 22, 25
    Jenkins, Edward, d. 1780
    • 62
    Julia (Ship)
    • 9
    Kemble, Stephen, 1740-1829
    • 18, 22, 118, 120
    Knox, Vesey
    • 23
    L'Estrange, Thomas Nicholas
    • 51
    Lawrie, James
    • 4, 40, 78, 102
    Lord Germain (ship)
    • 3
    • 10
    McDonald, William
    • 89
    Medicine--Great Britain
    • 145
    Military discharge--Great Britain
    • 140
    Military discipline
    • 120
    Military intelligence
    • 78, 100, 105
    Monarch (Ship)
    • 9
    Mosquito Indians--Foreign relations--Great Britain
    • 12-18, 22, 25, 26, 28, 30, 31, 35-37, 54, 65, 73-75, 81, 104
    Mosquito Indians--Foreign relations--Spain
    • 65
    New Brunswick—Description and travel
    • 131, 136
    New Brunswick--Economic conditions
    • 131, 136
    • 51
    Penelope (Ship)
    • 9
    • 63, 75, 81, 102
    • 55
    Prisoners of war
    • 82, 114
    Race relations--Nicaragua
    • 65
    Ramo Indians--Foreign relations--Great Britain
    • 22
    Rattan Island (Honduras)--Defense
    • 62
    Real property--New York (State)
    • 143
    • 87
    Shaw, Alexander
    • 8, 20, 25, 31, 35
    Sheldon, William
    • 88
    Shipbuilding--New Brunswick
    • 136
    • 55
    • 51
    • 10
    Spain--Foreign relations--Mosquito Indians
    • 65
    Saint John's Castle (Nicaragua)—Description and travel
    • 38, 58, 64, 68
    Saint John's Castle (Nicaragua)--Evacuation
    • 108-111, 114
    Thomson, James
    • 25, 30, 37, 56, 91
    • 3
    Venus (Ship)
    • 9
    Victor (Ship)
    • 9
    Woolwau Indians--Foreign relations--Great Britain
    • 54
    Young, Daniel
    • 98