Peacock, George (1805-1883)

Naval officer, surveyor, steamship captain, dock master and indefatigable inventor, Peacock commanded the first steamships ever to navigate the Strait of Magellan and is credited with facilitating the development of the Panama railway and canal.

Born at Navy House Exmouth, George Peacock was the son of a former master in the navy, then a merchant ship-owner, Richard Peacock and Elizabeth (née Sanders); he became an apprentice to his father at the age of 13. After serving in the Mediterranean and Brazil he joined the British navy in 1828, travelled to the West Indies and Nicaragua where he surveyed the harbour of San Juan de Nicaragua (San Juan del Norte) and suggested a route across the isthmus from that location to the Pacific at Victor Cove (Colón).  In Western Times, 23 June 1882, Comte Ferdinand de Lesseps (1805-1894) acknowledged the importance of Peacock’s survey during the French phase of the cutting of the canal (1881-1904). The same year, when working on the Corinth Canal began, King George of Greece awarded Peacock with the Royal Order of the Redeemer for carrying out a similar survey of the isthmus of Corinth in 1835.

After leaving the navy in 1840, George Peacock became the Pacific Steam Navigation Company’s (PSNC) marine superintendent and worked along the Pacific coast of South America from 1840-1846. He supervised the building of the steamships Peru and Chile and commanded the expedition of these first steamships to navigate the Straits of Magellan to the Pacific coast. In The Resources of Peru (1874) he recorded that he subsequently planted buoys, erected beacons, built a light house, opened and worked coal mines, discovered new guano beds, suggested railways and ‘established steam navigation under the flag of England’ (p. 28) along the coast of five republics from Chile to Panama and delivered the first regular mail from Valparaiso to Panama. This book, written thirty years after his period of employment with the PSNC, indicates that he had been in contact with the managers of the Valparaiso and Lima branch of the Gibbs, Crawley and Co. firm, George Thomas Davy (1826-1847) and John Hayne (1825-1847) respectively. In an appendix, Peacock included a testimonial signed by representatives of several merchant houses, including Gibbs, Crawley and Co. and also a letter from Vicente Rocafuerte (1783-1847), then Governor of Guayaquil (13th November 1841) thanking him for undertaking at this request a visit to the island of Amortajado (Santa Clara) with the object of erecting a lighthouse, and also for dispatching samples of coal and guano found there and giving information regarding the availability of fresh water. The appendix is followed by an addenda dedicated to the topic of guano where he reproduced an analysis of guano made for him by a ‘Mr Matthew Biggs’ which he had supplied to John Hayne in 1842.

In 1860, Peacock joined an expedition from the Canary Islands to the coast of the Spanish Sahara to search for guano and minerals. His handwritten journal of this expedition can be found in the substantial collection of papers held by the Liverpool Record Office. This includes original copies of his own publications, original photographs, survey material, letters, journals and records of his decorations, awards and service.

Sources:  Liverpool Record Office, ‘Papers of Captain George Peacock (1805-1883)’, 387 PEA; G. Peacock, The Resources of Peru: Its invaluable guano deposits, nitrate of soda and borate and its agricultural and metallic productions, manufactures, railroads &c, (Exeter: W. Pollard, 1874); G. Peacock, Notes on the Isthmus of Panama and Darien: also on the River of St. Juan, Lakes of Nicaragua, And, with reference to a railroad and canal (Exeter: W. Pollard, 1879); Antony Gibbs & Sons, Merchants and Bankers: A brief history of Antony Gibbs and Sons and its Associated Houses’ business during 150 years (London: Antony Gibbs & Sons Ltd, 1958, 124-131; Captain George Peacock (1805-1883): Naval officer, surveyor, inventor, entrepreneur, and recipient of Royal Order of the Redeemer’, Royal Museums Greenwich [ , accessed 02 November 2017]; ‘Captain George Peacock 1805 – 1883’, Starcross History [; accessed 02 November 2017]; Rée, Peta, ‘Peacock, George (1805–1883), naval officer’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography [ , accessed 02 November, 2017]; ‘The Swan of the Exe’, Devon Perspectives [ , accessed 02 November 2017]

Author:  Lesley Kinsley

How to cite:  To cite from this page, please use any style (Chicago, Harvard, etc). Our preferred citation form is: Kinsley, Lesley, ‘Peacock, George (1805-1883)’, The Hispanic-Anglosphere: transnational networks, global communities (late 18th to early 20th centuries), project funded by the AHRC and the University of Winchester in partnership with the National Trust, [, accessed –please add date].

Thematic categories:  Trade and Investment ; Wildlife, Nature & the Environment; Travel and Tourism;

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