Far East To West: The Life of John James Snodgrass 1796 – 1841

In the “Good Old Days” when we were able to welcome visitors to the Athenaeum one of the things usually shown to them was a package in the Committee Room.  This contains two gilded palm leaves which bear long inscriptions in an eastern script.  It had been determined by experts that this was a Burmese inscription in an archaic style which could only be read by a few scholars.   Also contained in the package is a slip of card which said “Presented by Colonel Snodgrass” and nothing more.  It seemed appropriate to try to find out who was Colonel Snodgrass and why should he have presented these strange objects to the Athenaeum.  With the help o f friend who is a skilled and experienced genealogist I set to work to unravel the strange story of our palm leaves – a story that takes us through the Peninsular War, to India, Burma and Nova Scotia.

John Snodgrass – somehow a very Dickensian name – was a son of the manse, he was born on October 22 at Renfrew where his father the Rev.John Snodgrass was the minister of the local Kirk.  We know nothing of his early life until in 1813 he was commissioned as an Ensign in the 52nd Oxfordshire Regiment of Foot (Light Infantry), one of the regiments that formed the backbone of the incomparable Light Division.  Snodgrass arrived in Spain too late to be in any of the great battles that had driven out the French occupying army but he was able to participate in the hard fighting that saw the Napoleonic army under Marshal Soult driven over the Pyrenees and the bitter and bloody battles that carried the British as far north as Bordeaux..  Snodgrass, by now promoted to Lieutenant, taking part in the battles at Vera, Nivelles, Nive, Orthes, Tarbes and Toulouse – the last battle was actually fought after the surrender to the Emperor, though then had not reached the southern armies. 

There followed the brief hiatus with Napoleon imprisoned on Elba and the French King restored to his throne until on 20th March 1815 Bonaparte escaped and returned to France.  His return was welcomed by many and the Imperial army was reformed, so that by July 1815.  On 15 July the French entered Belgium intent on destroying and Armies of Prussia and the Anglo Dutch army of Wellington separately. The Prussians were defeated at Ligny but the British held off the French attack at Quatre Bras.  Both the allied armies moved to unite at Waterloo where on the 18they defeated the French in a hard fought and bloody battle.  The 52 had been diverted from being posted to America for the war there and on the field were one of the largest battalions present under their commander Lieutenant Colbourne.  They played a very significant part.  When the Napoleonic Guard attacked the column was held by the volley fire of the Guards brigade while the 52nd moved out of line to take them in the flank, driving them into retreat.  Colborne’s initiative has been seen as a decisive move in the battle

The memorial to Lieutenant Colonel  Snodgrass in Halifax
Nova Scotia

Shortly after this campaign as peace returned to Europe Snodgrass was put onto half pay. This was a system which put officers into semi retirement.  Three years later in 1821 he was recalled to the colours and appointed as Adjutant to the 38th Foot the Staffordshire Regiment which was serving in India. .  It was at this moment that Snodgrass made a move that was to be decisive in his career – he married the Generals daughter – Miss Maria MacDonald Campbell the daughter of Sir Archibald Campbell.  They had one son, who eventually commanded the Light Company of the 52nd during the assault on the Grand Redan of Sebastopol in the Crimean War.  Shortly after his marriage Snodgrass was moved from Regimental duty to the Staff serving as Aide de Camp and Military Secretary.

In 1824 Campbell was appointed to lead the forces being sent to confront the Burmese who had been raiding on the eastern frontier of India.  A force of troops supported by the Royal Navy advanced up the Irrawaddy River in a hard campaign where the climate was inhospitable and the enemy were master for building fortified stockades dominating the river.  After many skirmishes eventually the objective, Rangoon. Was reached and the city captured.  One of the highlights was the capture of the strongly fortified Shwedagon Pagoda.  It seems likely that it was in the looting of the pagoda that Snodgrass acquired the prayer leaves that found their way to the Athenaeum.  On his return after the war, probably on the long voyage, Snodgrass wrote an account of the campaign “Narrative of the Burmese War” trying to answer the criticisms made of his Father in Law’s leadership.  A copy of this work can be found in the Athenaeum Library.

In recognition of his service he was promoted to major and Brevet Lieutenant Colonel of the 91st Argyllshire Regiment but does not seem to have actually served with the regiment. In 1834 he was appointed as Deputy Assistant Quartermaster General at Halifax Nova Scotia. The job of a DAQMG was to be responsible for the supply of arms, stores, and equipment to a force, in this case the garrison of Nova Scotia.  .  It seems probable that it was while Snodgrass was awaiting a ship to carry him across the Atlantic to his new appointment in 1827  that he visited the Athenaeum and as a gesture of gratitude present both the Burmese prayer leaves and the copy of his book.

He served in this post between 1834 and 1841 when he succumbed to a “fever” and was buried in the Old Burying Ground in Halifax and he was commemorated by a monument decorated with a military trophy and describing his life and career n St Paul’s Church.

The Snodgrass Tomb in the Old Burying Ground Halifax NS

This strange and exciting story is one of the many tales about the Athenaeum that are largely unknown to many Proprietors and which emphasizes the long and often bizarre story of our Institution.

David Brazendale

March 2021