Blake, Robert

, a celebrated English admiral, was born August 1599, at Bridgewater, in Somersetshire, where he was educated at the grammar-school. He went from, thence to Oxford, and was entered at St. Alban’s hall, but removed to Wadham college, and in 1617 took the degree of B. A. In 1623 he wrote a copy of verses on the death of Camden, and soon after left the university. He was tinctured pretty early with republican principles and disliking that severity with which Laud, then bishop of Bath and Wells, pressed uniformity in his diocese, he began to fall into the puritanical opinions. The natural bluntness and sincerity of his disposition led him to speak freely upon all occasions, insomuch that, his sentiments being generally known, the puritan party got him elected member for Bridgewater in 1640. When the civil war broke out, he declared for the parliament. In 1643 he was at Bristol, under the command of col. Fiennes, who intrusted him with a little fort on the line and, when prince Rupert attacked Bristol, and the governor had agreed to surrender it upon, articles, Blake nevertheless for some time held out his fort, and killed several of the king’s forces: which exasperated prince Rupert to such a degree, that he talked of hanging him, had not some friends interposed, and excused him on account of his want of experience in war. He served afterwards in Somersetshire, under the command of Popham, governor of Lyme; and, being much beloved in those parts, he had such good intelligence there, that in conjunction with sir Robert Pye, he surprised Taunton for the parliament. In 1644 he was appointed governor of this place, w; ich was of the utmost importance, being the only garrison the parliament had in the west. The works about it were not strong, nor was the garrison numerous; yet, by his strict discipline, and kind behaviour to the townsmen, he found means to keep the place, though not properly furnished with supplies, and sometimes besieged, and even blocked up by the king’s forces. At length Goring made a breach, and actually took part of the town; while Blake still held out the other part and the castle, till relief came. For this service the parliament ordered the garrison a bounty of 2000l. and the governor a present of 500l. When the parliament had voted that no farther addresses should be made to the king, Blake joined in an address from the borough of Taunton, expressing their gratefulness for this step taken by the house of | commons. However, when the king came to be tried, Blake disapproved of that measure, as illegal; and was frequently heard to say, he would as freely venture his life to save the king’s, as ever he did to serve the parliament. But this is thought to have been chiefly owing to the humanity of his temper; since after the death of the king he entered into all the measures of the republican party, and, next to Cromwell, was the ablest officer the parliament had.

February 12, 1649, he was appointed to command the fleet, in conjunction with col. Deane and col. Popham, and soon after was ordered to sail, with a squadron of men of war, in pursuit of prince Rupert. Blake came before Kinsale in June 1649, where prince Rupert lay in harbour. He kept him in the harbour till the beginning of October; when the prince, despairing of relief by sea, and Cromwell being ready to take the town by land, provisions of all sorts falling short, he resolved to force his way through Blake’s squadron, which he effected with the loss of three of his ships. The prince’s fleet steered their course to Lisbon, where they were protected by the king of Portugal. Blake sent to the king for leave to enter, and coming near with his ships, the castle shot at him; upon which he dropped anchor, and sent a boat to know the reason of this hostility. The captain of the castle answered, he had no orders from the king to let his ships pass: however, the king commanded one of the lords of the court to wait upon Blake, and to desire him not to come in except the weather proved bad, lest some quarrel should happen between him and prince Rupert; the king sent him, at the same time, a large present of fresh provisions. The weather proving bad, Blake sailed up the river into the bay of Wyers, but two miles from the place where prince Rupert’s ships lay; and thence he sent capt. Moulton, to inform the king of the falsities in the prince’s declaration. The king, however, still refusing to allow the admiral to attack prince Rupert, Blake took five of the Brazil fleet richly laden, and at the same time sent notice to him, that unless he ordered the prince’s ships out from his river, he would seize the rest of the Portuguese fleet from America. Sept. 1650 the prince endeavoured to get out of the harbour, but was soon driven in again by Blake, who sent to England nine Portuguese ships bound for Brazil. October following, he and Popham met with a fleet of 23 sail from Brazil for Lisbon, of whom, they sunk the admiral, took the vice-admiral, and | 11 other ships, having 10,000 chests of sugar on board. Jn his return home, he met with two ships in search of the prince, whom he followed up the Streights when he took a French man of war, the captain of which had committed hostilities. He sent this prize, reported to be worth a million, into Calais, and followed the prince to the pore of Carthagena, where he lay with the remainder of his fleet. As soon as Blake came to anchor before the fort, he sent a messenger to the Spanish governor, informing him, that an enemy to the state of England was in his port, that the parliament had commanded him to pursue him, and the king of Spain being in amity with the parliament, he desired leave to take all advantages against their enemy. The governor replied, he could not take notice of the difference of any nations or persons amongst themselves, only such as were declared enemies to the king his master; that they came in thither for safety, therefore he could not refuse them protection, and that he would do the like for the admiral. Blake still pressed the governor to permit him to attack the prince, and the Spaniard put him off till he could have orders from Madrid. While the admiral was cruizing in the Mediteranean, prince Rupert got out of Carthagena, and sailed to Malaga. Blake, having notice of his destroying many English ships, followed him and attacking him in the port, burnt and destroyed his whole fleet, two ships only excepted this was in January 1651. In February, Blake took a French man of war of 40 guns, and sent it, with other prizes, to England. Soon after ‘he came with his squadron to Plymouth, when he received the thanks of the parliament, and was made warden of the cinque ports. March following, an act passed, whereby colonel Blake, colonel Popham, and colonel Deane, or any two of them, were appointed admirals and generals of the fleet, for the year ensuing. The next service he was put upon, was the reducing the isles of Scilly,- which were held for the king. He sailed in May, with a body of Boo land troops on board. Sir John Grenville, who commanded in those parts for the king, after some small resistance, submitted. He sailed next for Guernsey, which was held for the king, by sir George Carteret. He arrived there in October, and landing what forces he had the very next day, he did every thing in his power in order to make a speedy conquest of the island, which was not completed that year. In the beginning of | the next, however, the governor, finding all hopes of relief vain, thought proper to make the best terms he could. For this service Blake had thanks from the parliament, and was elected one of the council of state. March 25, 1652, he was appointed sole admiral for nine months, on the prospect of a Dutch war. The states sent Van Trump with forty-five sail of men of war into the Downs, to insult the English Blake, however, though he had but twentv-three ships, and could expect no succour but from major Bourne, who commanded eight more, yet, being attacked by Van Trump, fought him bravely, and forced him to retreat. This was on the 19th of May, 1652. After this engagement the states seemed inclined to peace but the commonwealth of England demanded such terms as could not be complied with, and therefore both sides prepared to carry on the war with greater vigour. Blake now harassed the enemy by taking their merchant ships, in which he had great success. On the 10th of June, a detachment from his fleet fell upon twenty-six sail of Dutch merchantmen, and took them every one and by the end of June he had sent into port forty prizes. On the 2d of July he sailed, with a strong squadron, northwards. In his course he took a Dutch man of war; and about the latter end of the month, he fell on twelve men of war, convoy to their herring busses, took the whole convoy, 100 of their busses, and dispersed the rest. August 12, he returned into the Downs, with six of the Dutch men of war, and 900 prisoners. Thence he stood over to the coast of Holland, and on Sept. 28th, having discovered the Dutch about noon, though he had only three of his own squadron with him, vice-admiral Penii with his squadron at some distance, and the rest a league or two astern, he bore in among the Dutch fleet, being bravely seconded by Penn and Bourne when three of the enemy’s ships were wholly disabled at the first brunt, and another as she was towing oft* The rear-admiral was taken by captain Mildmay and had not night intervened, it was thought not a single ship of the Dutch fleet would have escaped. On the 29th, about day-break, the English espied the Dutch fleet N.E. two leagues off; the admiral bore up to them, but the enemy having the wind of him, he could not reach them however, he commanded his light frigates to ply as near as they could, and keep firing while the rest bore up after them upon which the Dutch | hoisted their sails, and run for it. The English being in want of provisions, returned to the Downs. Blake having been obliged to make large detachments from his fleet Van Trump, who had again the command of the Dutch navy, consisting of eighty men of war, resolved to take this opportunity of attacking him in the Downs, knowing he had not above half his number of ships. He accordingly sailed away to the back of the Goodwin. Blake having intelligence of this, called a council of war, wherein it was resolved to fight, though at so great a disadvantage. The engagement began November 29, about two in the morning, and lasted till near six in the evening. Blake was aboard the Triumph; this ship, the Victory, and the Vanguard, suffered most, having been engaged at one time with twenty of the enemy’s best ships. The admiral finding his ships much disabled, and that the Dutch had the advantage of the wind, drew off his fleet in the night into the Thames, having lost the Garland and Bonaventure, which were taken by the Dutch a small frigate was also burnt, and three sunk and his remaining ships much shattered and disabled Van Trump, however, bought this victory dear, x one of his flag-ships being blown up, all the men drowned, and his own ship and De Kuyter’s both unfit for service till they were repaired. This success invigorated the spirits of the Dutch exceedingly; Van Trump sailed through the channel with a broom at his main-top-mast, to signify that he had swept the seas of English ships. In the mean time, Blake having repaired his fleet, and Monk and Deane being now joined in commission with him, sailed Feb. 8, 1653, from Queensborough, with sixty men of war, which were soon after joined with twenty more from Portsmouth. On the 18th they discovered Van Trump with seventy men of war, and 300 merchant ships under his convoy. Blake, with twelve ships, came up with and engaged the Dutch fleet, and, though grievously wounded in the thigh, continued the fight till night, when the Dutch, who had six men of war sunk and taken, retired. After having put ashore his wounded men at Portsmouth, he followed the enemy, whom he came up with next day, when the fight was renewed, to the loss of the Dutch, who continued retreating towards Boulogne. All the night following Blake continued the pursuit, and, in the morning of the 20th, the two fleets fought again till four in the afternoon, when the | wind blowing favourably for the Dutch, they secured themselves on the flats of Dunkirk and Calais. In these three engagements the Dutch lost eleven men of war, thirty merchant ships, and had fifteen hundred men slain. The English lost only one ship, but not fewer men than the enemy. In April Cromwell turned out the parliament, and shortly after assumed the supreme power. The states hoped great advantages from this, but were disappointed Blake said on this occasion to his officers, “It is not for us to mind state affairs, but to keep foreigners from fooling us.” Towards the end of the month Blake and his colleagues, with a fleet of an hundred sail, stood over to the Dutch coast, and forced their fleet to take shelter in the Texel, where, for some time, they were kept by Monk and Deane, while Blake sailed Northward at last Van Trump got out, and drew together a fleet of an hundred and twenty men of war. June 3d, Deane and Monk engaged him off the North Foreland. On the 4th Blake came to their assistance with eighteen fresh ships, by which means a complete victory was gained; and if the Dutch had not again saved themselves on Calais sands, their whole fleet had been sunk or taken. Cromwell having called the parliament, styled the Little Parliament, Blake, Oct. 10, took his seat in the house, where he received their solemn thanks for his many and faithful services. The protector afterwards called a new parliament, consisting of four hundred, ’where Blake sat also, being the representative for his native town of Bridgewater. Dec. 6th he was appointed one of the commissioners of the admiralty. Nov. 1654, Cromwell sent him with a strong fleet into the Mediterranean, with instructions to support the honour of the English flag, and to procure satisfaction for any injuries that might have been done to our merchants. In December Blake came into the road of Cadiz, where he was treated with great respect; a Dutch admiral would not hoist his flag while he was there. The Algerines were so much afraid of him, that they stopped their Sallee rovers, obliged them to deliver up what English prisoners they had on board, and sent them to Blake, in, order to procure his favour. Nevertheless, he came before Algiers on the 10th of March, when he sent an officer on shore to the dey to tell him he had orders to demand satisfaction for the piracies committed on the English, and to insist on the release of all such English captives as were then in the place. To this the dey made | answer, that the captures belonging to particular men he could not restore; but, if Mr. Blake pleased, he might redeem what English captives were there at a reasonable price; and, if he thought proper, the Algerines would conclude a peace with him, and for the future offer no acts of hostility to the English. This answer was accompanied with a present of fresh provisions. Blake sailed to Tunis on the same errand. The dey of Tunis sent him a haughty answer. “Here,” said he, “are our castles of Goletta and Porto Ferino, do your worst! do you think we fear your fleet?” On the hearing this, Blake, as his custom was when in a passion, began to curl his whiskers; and, after a short consultation with his officers, bore into the bay of Porto Ferino with his great ships when, coming within musket-shot of the castle, he fired on it so briskly, that in two hours it was rendered defenceless, and the guns on the works along the shore were dismounted, though sixty of them played at a time upon the English. He found nine ships in the road, and ordered every captain, even of his own ship, to man his long boat with choice men, and these to enter the harbour and tire the Tuniseens, while he and his fleet covered them from the castle, by playing continually on it with their cannon. The seamen in their boats boldly assaulted the pirates, and burnt all their ships, with the loss of twenty-five men killed, and forty-eight wounded. This daring action spread the terror of his name throughout Africa and Asia, which had for a long time before been formidable in Europe. He also struck such terror into the piratical state of Tripoly, that he made them glad to strike up a peace with England. These and other exploits raised the glory of the English name so high, that most of the princes and states in Italy thought fit to pay their compliments to the protector, particularly the grand duke of Tuscany, and the republic of Venice, who sent magnificent embassies for that purpose. The war in the mean time was grown pretty hot with Spain and Blake used his utmost efforts to ruin their maritime force in Europe, as Penn had done in the West Indies. But finding himself now in a declining state of health, and fearing the ill consequences which might ensue in case he should die without any colleague to take charge of the fleet, he wrote letters into England, desiring some proper person to be named in commission with him; upon which general Montague | sent joint-admiral, with a strong squadron to assist him. Soon after his arrival in the Mediterranean, the two admirals sailed with their whole fleet to block up a Spanish squadron in the bay of Cadiz. At length, in September, being in great want of water, Blake and Montague stood away for the coast of Portugal, leaving captain Stayner with seven ships to look after the enemy. Soon after they were gone, the Spanish plate fleet appeared, but were intercepted by Stayner, who took the vice-admiral and another galleon, which were afterwards burnt by accident, the rear-admiral, with two millions of plate on board, and another ship richly laden. These prizes, together with all the prisoners, were seat into England under general Montague, and Blake alone remained in the Mediterranean till, being informed that another plate fleet had put into Santa Cruz, in the island of Teneriffe, he sailed thither in April 1657, with a fleet of twenty-five men of war. On the 20th he came into the road of Santa Cruz; and though the Spanish governor had timely notice, was a man of courage and conduct, and had disposed all things in the most proper manner, so that he looked upon an attack as what no wise admiral would think practicable yet Blake having summoned him, and received a short answer, was determined to force the place, and to burn the fleet therein; and he performed it in such a manner as appears next to incredible. It is allowed to be one of the most remarkable actions that ever happened at sea. As soon as the news arrived of this extraordinary action, the protector sent to acquaint his second parliament, then sitting, therewith upon which they ordered a public thanksgiving, and directed a diamond ring worth 500l. to be sent to Blake and the thanks of the house was ordered to all the officers and seamen, and to be given them by their admiral. Upon his return to the Mediterranean he cruised some time before Cadiz but finding himself declining fast, resolved to return home. He accordingly sailed for England, but lived not to see again his native land for he died as the fleet was entering Plymouth, the 17th of August 1657, aged 58.His body was conveyed to Westminster abbey, and interred with great pomp in Henry the Seventh’s chapel but removed from thence in 1661, and re-interred in St. Margaret’s church-yard.*

*

Clarendon having mentioned all Blake’s employmeuts to the time of his first going aboard the fleet, concludes thus " He then betook him-

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self wholly to the sea, and quickly made himself signal there. He was the first man that declined the old track, and made it manifest that the science might be attained in less time than was imagined, and despised those rules which bad been long in practice, to keep his ship and his men out of danger; which had been heid in former times a point of great ability and circumspection, as if the principal art requisite in a captain of a ship had been to be sure to come safe home again. He was the tirst man who brought the ships to contemn castles on shore, which had been thought ever very formidable, and were discovered by him to make a noise only, and to fright those who could be rarely hurt by them. He was the first that infused that proportion of courage into the seamen, by making them see by expenence what mighty things they could do if they were resolved, and taught them to fight in fire as well as upon water and though he has been very well imitated and followed, he was the first who gave the example of that kind of naval courage, and bold and resolute achievements." Hist. vol. III. p. 392.

| He was a man of a low stature but of a quick, lively eye, and of a good soldier-like countenance. He was in his person brave beyond example, yet cool in action, and shewed a great deal of military conduct; in the disposition of those desperate attacks which men of a cooler composition have judged rather fortunate thun expedient. He certainly* loved his country with extraordinary ardour, and, as he never meddled with intrigues of state, so whatever government he served, he was solicitous to do his duty. He was upright to a supreme degree, for, notwithstanding the vast sums which passed through his hands, he scarcely left five hundred pounds behind him of his own acquiring. In fine, he was altogether disinterested and unambitious, exposing himseii on all occasions for the benefit of the public and the g-ory of the nation, and not wkh any view to his own private profit or fame. In respect to his personal character, he was pious without affectation, strictly just, and liberal to the utmost extent of his fortune. His officers he treated with the familiarity of friends, and to his sailors he was truly a parent. The state buried him as it was fit: at the public expence a grave was given him, but no tomb; and though he still wants an epitaph, writers of all parties have shewn an eagerness to do his memorv justice. We find it very positively asserted, that captain Benjamin Blake, brother to the general, suffered so many hardships for being a dissenter, in the latter end of the reign of king Charles II. that he found himself under the necessity of selling his patrimony, and transporting himself and his family to Carolina. Another author (though some indeed think it is the same) relates this story of Mr. Humphry Blake, the | general’s brother, and tells us, that the family estate was worth tsvo hundred pounds a year, which he was obliged to dispose of, to pay the fines laid upon him for his nonconformity. It is jiowever strange, that every one of the general’s nephevfs an,d nieces, by his sister Susannah, who married a gentleman at Mineheacl, in Somersetshire, should be totally unacquainted with this transaction, and that none of the family should be able to give any account of that matter; and therefore it seems to be justly doubted whether there be any truth in the story, or whether it is only grounded on there being a considerable family of his name settled in that province, one of whom, when it was in private hands, was a lord proprietor.

In a life of him, written by Dr. Johnson, in the Gentleman’s Magazine, vol. X. there is a circumstance recorded that we have not found elsewhere, nor do we know the authority on which it is grounded. It is said, that while Blake was cruising in the Mediterranean, in February 1650-51, he met with a French ship of considerable force, and commanded the captain to come on board, there being then no war declared between the two nations. The captain, when he came, was asked whether “he was willling to lay down his sword and yield.” This he gallantly refused, though in his enemy’s power. Blake, scorning to take the advantage of an artifice, and detesting the appearance of treachery, told him, “That he x was at liberty to go back to his ship, and defend it as long as he could.” The captain willingly accepted the offer, and after a fight of two hours, confessed himself conquered, kissed his sword, and surrendered it.

In the same author there are some remarks concerning Blake’s conduct, in the battle which he fought with the Dutch, on the 29th of November, 1652, that appear worthy of atter.tion. “There are,” says he, “sometimes observations and enquiries, which all historians seem to decline by agreement, of which this action may alford us an example. Nothing appears at the first view more to demand our curiosity, or afford matter for examination, than this wild encounter of twenty-two ships, with a force, according to their accounts who favour the Dutch, three times superior. Nothing can justify a commander in fighting under such disadvantages, but the impossibility of retreating. But what hindered Blake from retiring as well before the fight as after it To say he was ignorant of the strength | of the Dutch fleet, is to impute to him a very criminal degree of negligence; and at least it must be confessed, that, from the time he saw them, he could not but know that they were too powerful to be opposed by him, and even then there was time for retreat. To urge the ardour of his sailors, is to divest him of the authority of a commander, and to charge him with the most reproachful weakness that can enter into the character of a general. To mention the impetuosity of his own courage, is to make the blame of his temerity equal to the praise of tils valour; which seems, indeed, to be the most gentle censure that the truth of history will allow. We must then admit, amidst our eulogies and applauses, that the great, the wise, and the valiant Blake, was once betrayed to an inconsiderate and desperate enterprize, by the resistless ardour of his own spirit, and a noble jealousy of ttie honour of his country.” This quotation we reta n for the purpose of ad din", that if the author had lived in the times of a St, Vincent and a Nelson, he would have probably viewed Blake’s temerity in a different light.

Blake’s behaviour to his brother Benjamin has been deservedly celebrated as one of the noblest instances of justice to his country, and, at the same time, of tenderness to a friend and relation, that can be met with in ancient or modern history. When that brother betrayed cowardice in the first trial, he immediately broke and sent him home, as unworthy of the nation’s pay. Yet the want of military virtue did not lessen the ties of fraternal affection, and he left his brother to enjoy that estate which he might be qualified to adorn in private life.

Mr. Hume’s character of our greatadmiral is drawn up with that historian’s usual elegance and spirit. “Never man, so zealous for a faction, was so much respected and esteemed even by the opposite factions. He was, by principle, an inflexible republican and the late usurpations, amidst all the trust and caresses which he received from the puling powers, were thought to be very little grateful to him. ‘ It is still our duty,’ he said to the seamen, * to fight for our country, into whatever hands the government may fall.* Disinterested, generous, liberal ambitious only of true glory, dreadful only to his avowed enemies he forms one of the most perfect characters of that age, and the least stained with those errors and violences, which were then so predominant. The protector ordered him a pompous | funeral at the public charge but the tears of his countrymen were the most honourable panegyric on his memory.1

1

Biog. Brit.—Gen. Dict.—Johnson’s Works.—The first regular life of Blake appeared in Lives Foreign and English, vol. II. 1704, 8vo.