William Fitz William Owen, 1774-1857

Narrative of Voyages to Explore the Shores of Africa, Arabia, and Madagascar, Performed in H.M. Ships Leven and Barracouta. 2 vols. London: Robert Bentley, 1833. [Rare Books Division]

Sierra Leone was the termination of our labours, and, after staying as short a time as possible there, in company with the Barracouta, we got under way for England. . . . [But] how few of those happy thoughtless hearts that had left England with us full of hope and health, were now looking for that loved land once more! All ages had fallen. The father, the manly son, and the tender stripling, had alike sunk beneath the baneful breath of Africa.

—Owen (Vol. 2, p.375)

Owen entered the British navy at the age of fourteen and served on a variety of ships on the home front and in the West and East Indies. After gradual promotions, he achieved the rank of captain in 1811. He performed a preliminary survey of the Great Lakes in Canada during 1815-1816; following upon that success, he received consecutive orders (1822, 1823, 1824) that essentially resulted in his mapping much of the coastline of Africa, from the Cape of Good Hope east to the Red Sea and west to Sierra Leone. The rigors of these journeys and tropical diseases claimed the lives of more than half of his crew.

During the five years Owen was away, his expedition traced about thirty thousand miles of coastline, the hydrographical knowledge of which was transferred to about three hundred charts. Owen first established a more accurate longitude for the Cape of Good Hope and then referenced that in subsequent mapping activities. Most of these charts were the standard for the rest of the nineteenth century. Owen later rose to become a vice admiral.