Benbow, John

, a brave English admiral, descended of an ancient Shropshire family, reduced in fortune by its adherence to Charles I. was born about the year 1650, at Coton-hill, Shrewsbury, an ancient house now occupied by Mr. Bishop, a maltster of that place. His father, colonel John Benbow, dying when he was very young, this son had no other provision than being bred to the sea, a profession which he eagerly adopted, and in which he was so successful, that before he was thirty he became master, and partly owner, of a ship called the Benbow frigate, employed in the Mediterranean trade, in which he would have probably acquired a good estate, if an accident had not brought him to serve in the British navy. In the year 1686, he was attacked in his, passage to Cadiz by a Sallee rover, against whom he defended himself, though very unequal in‘ the number of men, with the utmost bravery, and, although the Moors boarded him, they were quickly beat out of the ship again, with the loss of thirteen men, whose heads captain Benbow ordered to be cut off, and thrown into a tub of pork pickle. When he arrived at Cadiz, he went ashore, and ordered a negro servant to follow him, with the Moors heads in a sack. He had scarcely landed before the officers of the revenue inquired of his servant, what he had in his sack? The captain answered, “Salt provisions for his own use.” The officers insisted upon seeing them, which captain Benbow refused. The officers told him that the magistrates were sitting, and he might appeal to them, but that it was not in their power to act otherwise. The captain consented to the proposal, and the magistrates treated him with great civility, told him they were sorry to make a point of such a trifle, but that since he had refused to shew the contents of his sack to their officers, the nature of their employments obliged them to demand a sight of them; and that as they doubted not they were salt provisions, the shewing | them could be of no great consequence. “I told you,” said the captain sternly, “they were salt provisions for my own use. Caesar, throw them down upon the table, and, gentlemen, if you like them, they are at your service.” The Spaniards were exceedingly struck at the sight of the Moors’ heads, and no less astonished at the account of the captain’s adventure, who with so small a force had been able to defeat such a number of barbarians. This anecdote, in our opinion, reflects but little credit on the feelings of our seaman, nor does it clearly appear why he should think this barbarous display necessary for his reputation. These magistrates, however, sent an account of the matter to the court of Madrid, and Charles II. then king of Spain, invited Benbow to court, where he was received with great respect, dismissed with a handsome present, and his Catholic majesty wrote a letter in his ’behalf to king James, who, upon the captain’s return, gave him a ship, which was his introduction to the royal navy. After the revolution he was constantly employed, and frequently at the request of the merchants, was appointed to cruize in the channel, where he ably protected our own trade, and annoyed and distressed that of the enemy. He was likewise generally made choice of for bombarding the French ports, in which he shewed the most intrepid courage, by going in person in his boat to encourage and protect the engineers, sharing in all their hardships. It is certain that several of those dreadful bombardments spoiled several ports, and created a terror on the French coast, notwithstanding all the precautions their government could take to keep up their spirits. This vigour and activity recommended Benbow so effectually to king William, that he was very early promoted to a flag, and intrusted with the care of blocking up Dunkirk; the privateers from thence proving extremely detrimental to our trade during all that war. In 1695, we find him thus employed with a few English and Dutch ships, when the famous Du Bart had the good luck to escape him, with nine sail of clean ships, with which he did a great deal of mischief, both to our trade and to that of the Dutch. Rearadmiral Benbow, however, followed him as well as he could; but the Dutch ships having, or pretending to have no orders, quitted him, which hindered from going to the Dogger-bank, as he intended, and obliged him to sail to Yarmouth roads; and here he received advice that Du Bart | had fallen in with the Dutch fleet of seventy merchantmen, escorted by five frigates, and that he had taken all the latter, and thirty of the vessels under their convoy; which might probably have been prevented, if the rear-admiral could have persuaded the Dutch to have continued with him. As it was, he safely convoyed a great English fleet of merchantmen to Gottenburgh, and then returned to Yarmouth roads, and from thence to the Downs, for a supply of provisions. He afterwards resumed his design of seeking Du Bart; but his ships being much cleaner than the rear-admiral’s, he escaped him a second time, though once within sight of him. In 1697, he sailed the 10th of April, from Spithead, with seven third-rates and two fireships, and after some time returned to Portsmouth for provisions; after which he had the good fortune to convoy the Virginia and West-India fleets safe into port. He then repaired to Dunkirk, where he received from captain Bowman two orders or instructions from the lords of the admiralty; one to pursue M. Du Bart, and to destroy his ships if possible, at any place, except under the forts in Norway and Sweden; the other to obey the king’s commands, pursuant to an order from his majesty for that purpose. On the 30th of July, rear-admiral Vandergoes joined him with eleven Dutch ships, when he proposed that one of the squadrons should be so placed, as that Dunkirk might be south of them, and the other in or near Ostend road, that if Du Bart should attempt to pass, they might the better discover him: but the Dutch commander objected that his ships being foul, they were not in a condition to pursue him. Rear-admiral Benbow being disappointed in this project, immediately formed another; for, observing in the beginning of August that ten French frigates were hauled into the bason to clean, he judged their design was to put to sea by the next spring-tide; and therefore, as his ships were all foul, he wrote up to the board, to desire that four of the best sailers might be ordered to Sheerness to clean, and that the others might come to the Downs, not only to take in water, but also to heel and scrub, which he judged might be done before the next spring-tide gave the French an opportunity of getting over the bar. But this was not then thought advisable, though he afterwards received orders for it, when it was too late. By this unlucky accident, the French had an opportunity of getting ut with five clean ships; which, however, did not hinder | the admiral from pursuing them as well as he was able, and some ships of his squadron had the good luck to take a Dunkirk privateer of ten guns and sixty men, which had done a great deal of mischief. This was one of the last actions of the war, and the rear-admiral soon after received orders to return home with the squadron under his command. It is very remarkable, that as the disappointments we met with in the course of this war occasioned very loud complaints against such as had the direction of our maritime affairs, and against several of our admirals, there was not one word said, in any of the warm and bitter pamphlets of those times, to the prejudice of Mr. Benbow. On the contrary, the highest praises were bestowed upon him in many of those pieces, and his vigilance and activity made him equally the favourite of the seamen and the merchants; the former giving him always the strongest marks of their affection, and the latter frequently returning him thanks for the signal services he did them, and for omitting no opportunity that offered of protecting their commerce, even in cases where he had no particular orders. With respect to political parties, he never seems to have had any attachments, which probably made him be respected by them all. On one occasion king William consulted him about a question agitated in those times, respectingthe expediency of preferring tars, as they were called, or gentlemen in the navy; and though Mr. Benbow considered himself, and was considered by all the world, as one of the former, yet he told the king it was safest to employ both, and that the danger lay in preferring gentlemen without merit, and tars beyond their capacities.

After the conclusion of the peace of Ryswick, and even while the partition treaties were negociating, king William formed a design of doing something very considerable in the West-Indies, in case his pacilic views should be disappointed, or Charles II. of Spain should die suddenly, as was daily expected. There were, indeed, many reasons which rendered the sending a squadron at that time into those parts highly requisite. Our colonies were in a very weak and defenceless condition, the seas swarmed with pirates; the Scots had established a colony at Darien, which gave the English little satisfaction, at the same time that it provoked the Spaniards. King William himself fixed upon rear-admiral Benbow to command this squadron, consisting only of three fourth-rates; and when | he went to take upon him his command, he received private instructions from the king to make the best observations he could on the Spanish ports and settlements, but to keep as fair as possible with the governors, and to afford them any assistance he could, if they desired it.

Rear-admiral Benbow sailed in the month of November 1698, and did not arrive in the West Indies till the Feb. following, where he found that most of our colonies were in a bad condition, many of them engaged in warm disputes with their governors, the forces that should have been kept up in them for their defence so reduced by sickness, desertion, and other accidents, that little or nothing was to be expected from them; but the admiral carried with him colonel Collingwood’s regiment, which he disposed of to the best advantage in the Leeward Islands. This part of his charge being executed, he began to think of performing the other part of his commission, and of looking into the state of the Spanish affairs, as it had been recommended to him by the king; and a proper occasion of doing this very speedily offered, for, being informed that the Spaniards at Carthagena had seized two of our ships, with an intent to employ them in an expedition they were then meditating against the Scots at Darien, he resolved to restore those ships to their right owners. With this view he stood over to the Spanish coast, and coming before Boccacbica castle, he sent his men ashore for wood and water, which, though he asked with great civility of the Spanish governor, he would scarcely permit him to take. This highly incensed the admiral, who sent his own lieutenant to the governor, with a message, importing that he not only wanted those necessaries, but that he came likewise for the English ships that lay in the harbour, and had been detained there for some time, which, if not sent to him immediately, he would come and take by force. The governor answered him in very respectful terms, that if he would leave his present station, in which he seemed to block up their port, the ships would be sent out to him. With this request the admiral complied, but finding the governor trifled with him, and that his men were in danger of falling into the country distemper, he sent him another message, that if in twenty-four hours the ships were not sent him, he would have an opportunity of seeing the regard an English officer had to his word. The Spaniards immediately sent out the ships, with which the admiral returned to Jamaica. | There he received an account, that the Spaniards at PortoBello had seized several of our ships employed in the slavetrade, on the old pretence, that the settlement at Darien was a breach of peace. At the desire of the parties concerned, the admiral sailed thither also, and demanded these ships, but received a rude answer from the admiral of the Barlovento fleet, who happened to be then at Porto-Bello. Rear-admiral Benbow expostulated with him, insisting, that as the subjects of the crown of England had never injured those of his Catholic majesty, he ought not to make prize of their ships for injuries done by another nation. The Spaniards replied shrewdly, that since both crowns stood on the same head, it wa; no wonder that he took the subjects of the one crown for the other. After many altercations, however, and when the Spaniards saw the colony at Darien received no assistance from Jamaica, the ships were restored. On his return to Jamaica, towards the latter end of the year, he received a supply of provisions from England, and, soon after, orders to return home, which he did with six men of war, taking New England in his way, and arrived safe, bringing with him from the Plantations sufficient testimonies of his having discharged his duty, which secured him from all danger of censure; for, though the house of commons expressed very high resentment at some circumstances that attended the sending this fleet, the greatest compliments were paid to his courage, capacity, and integrity, by all parties; and the king, as a signal mark of his kind acceptance of his services, granted him an augmentation of arms, which consisted in adding to the three bent bows he already bore, as many arrows. His majesty also consulted him as much or more than any man of his rank, and yet without making the admiral himself vain, or exposing him in any degree to the dislike of the ministers. When the new war broke out, his majesty’s first care was to put his fleet into the best order possible, and to distribute the commands therein to officers that he could depend upon, and to this it was that Mr. Benbow owed his being promoted to the rank of vice-admiral of the blue. He was at that time cruising off Dunkirk, in order to prevent an invasion; but admiral Benbow having satisfied the ministry that there was no danger on this side, it was resolved to send immediately a strong squadron to the West Indies, consisting of two third-rates and eight fourths, under the command of au officer, whose courage and conduct might | be relied on. Mr. Benbow was thought on by the ministry, as soon as the expedition was determined, but the king would not hear of it. He said that Benbow was in a manner just come home from thence, where he had met with nothing but difficulties, and therefore it was but fit some other officer should take his turn. One or two were named and consulted; but either their health or their affairs were in such disorder, that they mo^t earnestly desired to be excused. Upon which the king said merrily to some of his ministers, alluding to the dress and appearance of these gentlemen, “Well then, I find we must spare our Beans, and send honest Benbow” His Majesty accordingly sent for him upon this occasion, and asked him whether he was willing to go to the West Indies, assuring him, that if he was not, he would not take it at all amiss if he desired to be excused. Mr. Benbow answered bluntly, that he did not understand such compliments, that bethought he had no right to druse his station, and that if his majesty thought fit to send him to the East or West Indies, or any where else, he would cheerfully execute his orders as became him. To conceal, however, the design of this squadron, and its force, sir George Rooke, then admiral of the fleet, had orders to convoy it as far as the Isles of Scilly, and to send a strong squadron with it thence, to see it well into the sea, aH which he punctually performed. It is certain that king William formed great hopes of this expedition, knowing well that Mr. Benbow would execute, with the greatest spirit and punctuality, the instructions he had received, which were, to engage the Spanish governors, if possible, to disown ling Philip, or in case that could not be brought about, to make himself master of the galleons. In this design it is plain that the admiral would have succeeded, notwithstanding the smallness of his force; and it is no less certain, that the anxiety the vice-admiral was under about the execution oi his orders, was the principal reason for his maintaining so strict a discipline, which proved unluckily the occasion of his coming to an untimely end. The French, who had the same reasons that we had to be very attentive to what passed in the West Indies, prosecuted their designs with great wisdom and circumspection, sending a force much superior to ours, which, however, would have availed them little, if admiral Benbow’s officers hatl done their duty. Bis squadron, consisting of two third and eight fourth rates, arrived at Barbadoes on | the 3d of November, 1701, from whence he sailed to the Leeward Islands, in order to examine the state of the French colonies and our own. He found the former in some confusion, and the latter in so good a situation, that he thought he ran no hazard in leaving them to go to Jamaica, where, when he arrived, his fleet was in so good a condition, the admiral, officers, and seamen being most of them used to the climate, that he had not occasion to send above ten men to the hospital, which was looked upon as a very extraordinary thing. There he received advice of two French squadrons being arrived in the West Indies, which alarmed the inhabitants of that island and of Barbadoes very much. After taking ’care, as far as his strength would permit, of both places, he formed a design of attacking Petit Guavas; but before he could execute it, he had intelligence that Monsieur du Casse was in the neighbourhood of Hispaniola, with a squadron of French ships, in order to settle the Assiento in favour of the French, and to destroy the English and Dutch trade for negroes. Upon this he detached rear-admiral Whetstone in pursuit of him, and on the 11 th of July, 1702, he sailed from Jamaica, in order to have joined the rear-admiral; but having intelligence that du Casse was expected at Leogane, on the north side of Hispaniola, he plied for that port, before which he arrived on the 27th. Not far from the town he perceived several ships at anchor, and one under sail, who sent out her boat to discover his strength, which coming too near was taken; from the crew of which they learned that there were six merchant ships in the port, and that the ship they belonged to was a man of war of fifty guns, which the admiral pressed so hard, that the captain seeing no probability of escaping, ran the ship on shore and blew her up. On the 28th the admiral came before the town, where he found a ship of about eighteen gnns hauled under the fortifications, which, however, did not hinder his burning her. The rest of the ships had sailed before day, in order to get into a better harbour, viz. Cui de Sac. But some of our ships between them and that port, took three of them, and sunk a fourth. The admiral, after alarming Petit Guavas, which he found it impossible to attack, sailed for Donna Maria Bay, where he continued till the 10th of August, when, having received advice that Monsieur du Casse was sailed for Carthagena, and from thence was to sail to Porto Bello, he resolved to follow him, and accordingly sailed that day for the Spanish | coast of Santa Martha. On the 19th of August, in the afternoon, he discovered ten sail near that place, steering westward along the shore, under their topsails, four of them from sixty to seventy guns, one a great Dutch-built ship of about thirty or forty, another full of soldiers, three small vessels, and a sloop. The vice-admiral coming up with them, about four the engagement began. He had disposed his line of battle in the following manner: viz. th^ Defiance, Pendennis, Windsor, Breda, Greenwich, Ruby, and Falmouth. But two of these ships, the Defiance and Windsor, did not stand above two or three broadsides before they loofed out of gun-shot, so that the two ster.imost ships of the enemy lay on the admiral, and galled him very much; nor did the ships in the rear come up to his assistance with the diligence they ought to have done. The fight, however, lasted till dark, and though the firing then ceased, the vice-admiral kept them company all night. The next morning, at break of day, he was near the French ships, but none of his squadron except the Ruby was with him, the rest being three, four, or five miles a-stern. Notwithstanding this, the French did not fire a gun at the vice-admiral, though he was within their reach. At two in the afternoon the French drew into a line, though at the same time they made what sail they could without fighting. However, the vice-admiral and the Ruby kept them company all night, plying their chase-guns. Thus the viceadmiral continued pursuing, and at some times skirmishing with the enemy, for four days more, but was never duly seconded by several of the ships of his squadron. The 23d, about noon, the admiral took from them a small English ship, called the Anne Galley, which they had taken off Lisbon, and the Ruby being disabled, he ordered her to Port Royal. About eight at night the whole squadron was up with the vice-admiral, and the enemy not two miles off. There was now a prospect of doing something, and the vice-admiral made the best of his way after them, but his whole squadron, except the Falmouth, fell astern again. At two in the morning, the 24th, the vice-admiral came up with the enemy’s stern most ship, and fired his broadside, which was returned by the French ship very briskly, and about three the vice-admiral’s right leg was broken to pieces by a chain-shot. In this condition he was carried down to be dressed, and while the surgeon was at work, one of his lieutenants expressed great sorrow for the loss of | his leg, upon which the admiral said to him, “I am sorry for it too, but I had rather have lost them both, than have seen this dishonour brought upon the English nation. But, do ye hear, if another shot should take me off, behave like brave men, and fight it out.” As soon as it was practicable, he caused himself to be carried up, and placed, with his cradle, upon the quarter-deck, and continued the fight till day. They then discovered the ruins of one of the enemy’s ships, that carried seventy guns, her main-yard down and shot to pieces, her fore top-sail yard shot away, her mizen-mast shot by the board, all her rigging gone, and her sides tore to pieces. The admiral, soon after, discovered the enemy standing towards him with a strong gale of wind. The Windsor, Pendennis, and Greenwich, ahead of the enemy, came to the leeward of the disabled ship, fired their broadsides, passed her, and stood to the southward. Then came the Defiance, fired part of her broadside, when the disabled ship returning about twenty guns, the Defiance put her helm a-weather, and run away right before the wind, lowered both her top-sails, and ran. in to the leeward of the Fahnouth, without any regard to the signal of battle. The enemy seeing the other two ships stand to the southward, expected they would have tacked and stood towards them, and therefore they brought their heads to the northward; but when they saw those ships did not tack, they immediately bore down upon the admiral, and ran between their disabled ship and him, and poured in all their shot, by which they brought down his main top-sail yard, and shattered his rigging very much, none of the other ships being near him or taking the least notice of his signals, though captain Fogg ordered two guns to be fired at the ship’s head, in order to put them in mind of their duty. The French, seeing things in this condition, brought to, and lay by their own disabled ship, remanned, and took her into tow. The Breda’s rigging being much shattered, she was forced to lie by till ten o’clock, and being then refitted, the admiral ordered the captain to pursue the enemy, then about three miles to the leeward, his line of battle signal out all the while; and captain Fogg, by the admiral’s orders, sent to the other captains, to order them to keep the line and behave like men. Upon this captain Kirkby came on board the admiral, and told him, “He had better desist, that the French were very strong, and that from what had passed he might | guess he could make nothing of it.” The brave admiral Benbow, more surprised at this language than at all that had hitherto happened, said very calmly, that this was but one man’s opinion, and therefore made a signal for the rest of the captains to come on board, which they did in obedience to his orders; but when they came, they fell too easily into captain Kirkby’s sentiments, and, in conjunction with him, signed a paper, importing, that, as he had before told the admiral, there was nothing more to be done; though at this very time they had the fairest opportunity imaginable of taking or destroying the enemy’s whole squadron; for ours consisted then of one ship of seventy guns, one of sixty-four, one of sixty, and three of fifty, their yards, masts, and in general all their tackle, in as good condition as could be expected, the admiral’s own ship excep-ted, in which their loss was considerable; but in the rest they had eight only killed and wounded, nor were they in any want of ammunition necessary to continue the fight. The enemy, on the other hand, had but four ships of between sixty and seventy guns, one of which was entirely disabled and in low, and all the rest very roughly handled; so that even now, if these officers had done their duty, it is morally certain they might have taken them all. But vice-admiral Benbow, seeing himself absolutely without support (his own captain having signed the paper before mentioned) determined to give over the fight, and to return to Jamaica, though he could not help declaring openly, that it was against his own sentiments, in prejudice to the public service, and the greatest dishonour that had ever befallen the English navy. The French, glad of their escape, continued their course towards the Spanish coasts, and the English squadron soon arrived safe in Port-Royal harbour, where, as soon as the vice-admiral came on shore, he ordered the officers who had so scandalously misbehaved, to be brought out of their ships and confined, and immediately after directed a commission to rear-admiral Whetstone to hold a court-martial for their trial, which was accordingly done, and upon the fullest and clearest evidence that could be desired, some of the most guilty were condemned, and suffered death according to their deserts. Although now so far recovered from the fever induced by his broken leg, as to be able to attend the trials of the captains who deserted him, and thereby vindicate his own honour, and that of the nation, yet he still continued in si declining way, | occasioned partly by the heat of the climate, but chiefly from that grief which this miscarriage occasioned, as appeared by his letters to his lady, in which he expressed much more concern for the condition in which he was like to leave the public affairs in the West Indies, than for his own. During all the time of his illness, he behaved with great calmness and presence of mind, having never flattered himself, from the time his leg was cut off, with any hopes of recovery? but shewed an earnest desire to be as useful as he could while he was yet living, giving the necessary directions for stationing the ships of his squadron, for protecting commerce, and incommoding the enemy. He continued thus doing his duty to the last moment of his life. His spirits did not fail him until very near his end, and he preserved his senses to the day he expired, Nov. 4, 1702. He left several sons and daughters; but his sons dying without issue, his two surviving daughters became coheiresses, and the eldest married Paul Calton, esq. of Milton near Abington in Berkshire, who contributed much of the admiral’s memoirs to the Biographia Britannica. One of his sons, John, was brought up to the sea, but in the year his father died was shipwrecked on the coast of Madagascar, where, after many dangerous adventures, he was reduced to live with, and in manner of the natives, for many years, and at last, when he least expected it, he was taken on board by a Dutch captain, out of respect to the memory of his father, and brought safe to England, when his relations thought him long since dead. He was a young gentleman naturally of a very brisk and lively temper, but by a long series of untoward events, his disposition was so far altered that he appeared very serious or melancholy, and did not much affect speaking, except amongst a few intimate friends. But the noise of his remaining so long, and in such a condition, upon the island of Madagascar, induced many to visit him; for though naturally taciturn, he was very communicative on that subject, although very few particulars relating to it can now be recovered. It was supposed by Dr. Campbell, jn his life of the admiral, that some information might have been derived from a large work which Mr. John Benbow composed on the history of Madagascar, but it appears from a letter in the Gent. Mag. vol. XXXIX. p. 172, that this was little more than a seaman’s journal, the loss of which may perhaps be supplied by Drury’s description of Madagascar, one of the fellow-sufferers with Mr. Benbow, of | which work a new edition was published a few years ago, Mr. Benbow’s ms. was accidentally burnt by a fire which took place in the house, or lodgings, of his brother William, a clerk in the Navy office, who died in 1729. The whole family is now believed to be extinct, and a great part of the admiral’s fortune is said to remain in the bank of England, in the name of trustees, among the unclaimed dividends. One William Briscoe, a hatter, and a member of the corporation of Shrewsbury, who was living in 1748, was supposed to be his representative, but was unable to substantiate his pretensions. 1


Biog. Brit. —Gent. Mag. vol. XXXIX. Some account of the ancient, and present state of Shrewsbury, 12mo, 1810. A view of the house in which he was, born, &c. —Gent. Mag. LXXIX. p. 1097.