WHEN Admiral Sir George Brydges Rodney was given the mission to attack St. Eustatius, he was commander of the Leeward Island station of the British fleet in the West Indies and had long been angered by St. Eustatius’ daily operation as the principal source of supply to Britain’s enemies. A man of unforgiving character and vigorous action, he welcomed the opportunity for punishment. His orders, received January 27, 1781, when he was stationed off Barbados, at the eastern edge of the Windwards, informed him that Britain was now at war with the United Provinces and that in view of the “many injurious proceedings of the States-General of the United Provinces and their subjects, and for procuring reparation and satisfaction by attacking and subduing such of the Dutch possessions in the West Indies as the commanders of his Majesty’s land and sea forces shall be of opinion may be attempted with success,” the Admiralty proposed immediate action. They recommended as “first objects of attack St. Eustatius and St. Martin’s, neither of which it is supposed are capable of making any considerable resistance.” Rodney was authorized to consult “on procedures” with General Vaughan, commander of land forces which had been sent out a few weeks previously in anticipation of action. Material gain, the necessary justification for all warlike enterprise of the 18th century, was not overlooked: Because great “quantities of provisions and other stores are laid up there,” the Admiralty pointed out, and “may fall into our hands if we got possession speedily, the immediate attack and reduction of those islands” is recommended. Strategically, as Rodney wrote to Sandwich, First Lord of the Admiralty, on December 25, Martinique, boasting the finest harbor in the Leeward Islands, “is the island most proper to attack.” British possession of that island could have made a real difference in the course of the war, but Britain’s immediate object was to cut off the contraband flowing from St. Eustatius to her enemies the French, as well as to the rebels in America. Two-thirds of the provisions and naval stores sent out from Britain under convoy, Sandwich had told the Cabinet in the September just past, ended up at St. Eustatius, from which they were shipped into French naval hands at Martinique. Well knowing this iniquitous trail, which his ships had often intercepted, and angered by the island’s withholding rope for repair of his rigging on a false plea of having none in stock, Rodney had conceived a hatred for St. Eustatius, and needed no prodding. He “lost not a moment’s time” in executing the order, he reported to the Admiralty. Troops were embarked, ships victualed and watered, guns and rigging inspected and readied, “the whole being kept a most profound secret” so that the blow should fall like “a clap of thunder.” Late in the evening of January 30, his squadron of fifteen ships sailed on its mission, reaching the harbor of St. Eustatius on February 3.
It was one of the peculiar malfunctions of technology that shore batteries on the islands were generally of inadequate caliber and range to knock out a ship approaching with hostile intent. One is moved to wonder why, if a 10-pounder gun could be mounted on the rolling deck of a sailing vessel, the same or larger could not be mounted on land? The fact is that the blind parsimony of the defense kept the shore batteries usually too few in number to equal in firepower the heavy guns of a ship of the line. When one of these big ships engaged in an exchange with shore batteries, it was more likely to knock out the land guns than vice versa. The guns of Fort Orange, like those of other islands, can still be seen mounted in the courtyard of the fort pointing right down at the harbor. If they could not defend against a landing force, what were they for? Silent, technology has no answer.
Rodney’s troops were disembarked and a summons issued to the island’s Governor for “instant surrender,” within an hour, “of the island of St. Eustatius and its dependencies with every thing in and belonging thereto for the use of his said Majesty. If any resistance is made you must abide by the consequences.” With only one Dutch warship in port and no prepared defenses against Rodney’s heavy guns and his land force of 3,000, de Graaff had no choice. After firing two rounds from the fort as a show of resistance for the honor of Admiral Bylandt, representing the Dutch Navy in the harbor, he yielded St. Eustatius. Fifty armed American merchantmen in the roadstead with no chance to prepare for battle were taken. Their papers supplied more evidence, Rodney wrote, of the importance of St. Eustatius in assistance to the rebels. “All their rigging, sails, cannon powder, ammunition and stores of all kinds were sent from this island without whose assistance American navigation could not possibly have been supported,” again making his point that St. Eustatius had been essential to the colonial rebellion. Two thousand American seamen and merchants on the island wanted to fight but, being cut off from food by the British troops, had to join in the surrender and were made prisoner. British capture and occupation were effected February 3, 1781.
“I most sincerely congratulate their Lordships,” Rodney wrote in reporting the success of the enterprise to the Admiralty, “on the severe blow the Dutch West India Company and the perfidious magistrates of Amsterdam have sustained by the capture of this island.” He hoped it “would never be returned to the Dutch as it has been more detrimental to England than all the forces of her enemies and alone had contributed to the continuance of the American war.”
The “surprise and astonishment of the governor and inhabitants,” he wrote further, “is scarce to be believed.” The arrival of Count Bylandt from the Admiralty of Amsterdam two days earlier had “allayed their fears of hostilities.” It might be supposed that Count Bylandt would have brought at this time a more acute warning of alarm when the prospect of war with England hung darkly over Holland. Presumably he saw no use in exciting efforts for defense when he had been given nothing to use for that purpose. In any case, the “surprise and astonishment” at a British demand for surrender was understandable, because Rodney reportedly sailed into the harbor flying the French flag, a report that lacks a verifiable eyewitness source. The deception, if true, seems a surprisingly dishonorable and unlikely procedure for an admiral of the Royal Navy, who might be expected to scorn disguise under the flag of the traditional enemy. Warriors through the ages who have talked so much about the honor and glory of combat are always quite ready to act on the dictum that all is fair in war, no matter how crooked. In fact, the use of false colors was not contrary to international law such as it existed at the time, and did not excite any umbrage. Rodney was to practice another deception when he kept the Dutch flag flying over the island for several weeks after the British occupied it, as a decoy to lead unsuspecting vessels to their capture.
Rodney descended upon Statia with devastation and confiscations that were to arouse the reproof of the Opposition at home, voiced by its supreme orator and master of outrage, Edmund Burke. To begin with, the seizing offshore of 130 merchantmen of all kinds, with their cargoes valued at £500,000, was normal enough as a prize of war. There followed the plundering of private property, in shops and houses, of naval stores and goods in the warehouses, arms and ammunition in the arsenals, crates of sugar, tobacco and rice on the beaches. The total proceeds have been valued at £3 million, excluding the captured ships. Asking for a list of merchants and their inventories, Rodney singled out the Jews, who had a small well-established community on the island, and ordered them stripped for cash or precious stones or whatever might be supposed to be secreted in their clothing. Acting out a common antipathy with unnecessary zeal, he ordered the Jews expelled on one day’s notice, without notice to their families or access to their homes. With more reason, French nationals as enemy citizens were all deported to neighboring French islands. With equal zeal Rodney pursued Governor de Graaff with penalties deserved by the “first man who insulted the British flag by taking up the salute of a pirate and a rebel, and who, during his whole administration has been remarkably inimical to Great Britain and a favourer of the American rebellion.…” Two American ships named de Graaff of 26 guns and Lady de Graaff of 18 “prove how much the Americans thought themselves obliged to him.… He has made an amazing fortune and, by all accounts, much by oppression. His plantation is seized for his Majesty” and de Graaff himself taken as an enemy prisoner to be sent with all his other household property to Great Britain. With due respect for a rich man, Rodney explained further that the Governor “will be allowed to take with him his household goods, furniture, plate, jewels, linen and all his domestic servants, and he will be conveyed to Great Britain in a good ship properly fitted for his own and his family’s reception.”
While loot was being counted, Rodney ordered two warships and a frigate to chase a Dutch convoy of thirty ships, “richly loaded,” which had sailed from St. Eustatius 36 hours before his arrival. The convoy’s Dutch commander, Admiral Krull, who resisted against hopeless odds for the honor of his flag, was killed in the fight and all his convoy taken. “Not one escaped,” Rodney reported with satisfaction. Three large Dutch ships from Amsterdam and a convoy from Guadeloupe came in later and were taken, and “a squadron of five sail of the line is hourly expected.” When the squadron arrived with a man-of-war, the Mars, of 38 guns and a crew of 300, it proved no match for Rodney’s squadron. The Mars would “now be commissioned and manned, and in a few days she will cruise as a British ship of war.” He could also report the taking of five American frigates of 14–26 guns. In the first month of the Dutch war as a whole, 200 of the Dutch merchant fleet, an objective as important as St. Eustatius, were taken by the English, paralyzing Dutch shipping in the process that accelerated the decline of the Republic. Occupied on land in collecting and disposing of the island’s riches and arranging for their safe convoy to England, and in pursuing the iniquitous English merchants who had been trading with the enemy,* Rodney was not at the head of his fleet patrolling the waters to intercept possible French intervention in America. While he has borne responsibility for this fateful omission, the fault did not in fact lie with him so much as in the casual management by his government and its war ministers, who did not foresee or consider French intervention as a serious concern. At no time did they issue any orders to Rodney that a primary mission of his fleet must be at all costs to prevent French reinforcements from reaching America to aid the rebels. If he or his government had been gifted with a talent for seeing into the future, and could have anticipated the fatal effect for Britain of future French presence at Yorktown, orders to the Admiral might have been more definitive in the Spartan tone of “Come back with your shield or on it.” Rodney was given no such urgent advice because the English never seriously considered that the Americans could win the war or that French help could or would be decisive. Ministers did not act to prevent a siege of General Cornwallis’ army at Yorktown because it was a contingency they never conceived of as happening.
The objects of Rodney’s sternest wrath were British merchants of both Statia and, particularly, St. Kitts who had been selling arms to the enemy for use against their own countrymen. He pounced upon their records in accountants’ offices, which had not been destroyed owing to the speed and surprise of the English attack, and sent them back to England to the war ministry of Lord George Germain. Two American agents of the Continental Congress, by name Isaac Gouverneur and Samuel Curzon or Courson, who had handled the purchases were sent with the papers as prisoners, in the hope of seeing them tried as traitors. Acquainted though he was with loose practice in English office, Rodney placed too much trust in government. When he needed the evidence to defend himself in court in lawsuits brought against him by the accused, the documents revealing the practices and profits of the British merchants trading with the enemy, which had been deposited with William Knox, Germain’s under-secretary for the Colonies, and would have been injurious to the government if made public, were found to have disappeared, proving the usefulness of the right “connections.” Rodney was able to produce in court only one which showed the trade at work. Goods would be shipped by English merchants across the Channel to Holland, where they would be transshipped to St. Eustatius and sold there to American agents, for use on the firing line against English soldiers. The two American agents were in fact tried for high treason, but in camera, and were afterward imprisoned. When the war in America was over, they were released and one of the two died soon thereafter. Their correspondence and business documents, which had been turned over for the trial to the House of Lords and might have proved embarrassing if not incriminating to important persons, could never be found. By this time the British surrender in America was embarrassment enough, leaving no one anxious to pursue the scandal of the traitorous merchants’ missing papers.
In gathering up the treasure of St. Eustatius, Rodney well knew that unlike a naval prize, which was customarily divided among admiral, captain, crew and shipowner after its value had been realized at an advertised auction of ship and cargo, the spoil of territory or treasure seized in the name of the nation belonged to the sovereign. Yet, eager to feel the clink of real money in his hands, he greedily or foolishly adopted the prize-court process, and advertised auction sales of the goods seized from the inhabitants. Because the sales allowed the goods to go below cost, the owners entered claims against Rodney for the deficits, creating the lawsuits that were to sour his victorious hour and harass his life thereafter.
For the moment all was glory. “Joy to you, my dear Sir George,” wrote his wife happily, “equal to what you have given your friends at home and I may say the whole nation, on your glorious successes.… Every countenance is lighted up with joy, every voice rings with your praises.… My house has been like a fair from the moment” his express arrived, on the 13th.… “Every friend, every acquaintance came.” At the drawing room on Thursday, “the attention and notice I received from their Majesties were sufficient to turn my poor brain. In the evening I went to Cumberland House, where the congratulations were equally warm and flattering.… This glorious news has been a thunderbolt to the Opposition, very few of whom appeared in the House of Commons. It is reported that you are to be made a peer.”
Equal and opposite was the shock in the Netherlands at the fall of St. Eustatius. “You can have no idea,” wrote John Adams, “of the gloom and terror that was spread by this event,” which also distressed, as Rodney was glad to report, the French West Indian islands “beyond conception. They are greatly in want of every species of provisions and stores” and he hoped “to blockade them in such a manner as, I hope, will prevent their receiving any.”
By his capture of St. Eustatius, Rodney reminded their Lordships, “the loss to Holland, France and America is greater than can be conceived.… The capture is immense and amounts to more than I can venture to say. All is secured for the King to be at his royal disposal.” By this time, in fact, the entry of France in the American war as an ally of the Colonies supplied most of their need of arms, so that St. Eustatius’ role was no longer crucial. Rodney’s capture of the island came too late for any larger purpose than loot.
Not a peerage but appointment as Knight Commander of the Bath was all that was forthcoming, which, considering that George III was always complaining of passive commanders and seeking bold men of action, was rather meager. Reports of Rodney’s dubious methods may have been the reason. He hopes that “if His Majesty is graciously pleased to bestow any part of it between the navy and the army, that he will dictate in what manner his gracious bounty may be bestowed, that all altercations may be prevented.”
The furor aroused by Rodney’s confiscation of British-owned property from the merchants found to have been trading with the enemy naturally reached the government’s critics at home and brought the most forceful voice of the Opposition, Edmund Burke, to his feet in the House to demand an inquiry. In denunciation, the power and passion and overflowing torrent of Burke’s rhetoric could make a man believe his own mother was an arm of Satan. His theme was “the cruelty and oppression” of Rodney’s treatment of the inhabitants of St. Eustatius which could provoke, he said, reprisals by their nations while “we were engaged in a most calamitous war in which we had many enemies and no friends.” Pursuing the happy notion that gentler methods toward the enemy instead of “pushing war to its extremes” would, Burke claimed, “soften resentment” and bring their minds to a “favourable inclination towards peace,” while neutrals “might be brought to applaud the dignity of our sentiments as a people and assist us in the conflict. But a contrary behaviour on our part was likely to provoke them to unite against us and make the protection of human nature from plunder and robbery a common cause.” For so keen a political mind and so well-informed an observer as Burke of the real behavior of states at war, this was moonshine in which it is hard to suppose that Burke believed or that it changed a single vote not already determined by party loyalty. Burke could indulge and hold the attention of the House in this kind of rhapsodizing by the force of his language and the hypnotizing magic of its flow. The terms used in declaring the Dutch war, he went on, “threatened no inhuman cruelty, no uncommon severity,” but “seemed rather to portend the short variance of old allies in which all their old friendship and affection would operate rather as the softener than the inflamer of the common calamities of war. It breathed expressions of kindness and long suffering” and its menaces “seemed to be torn by constraint from a heart bleeding under the affliction of unwilling strife.” Then the expedition against St. Eustatius was ordered close upon the “most melancholy and general disaster” of the recent hurricane, “which had involved all the islands in common suffering and common distress.” Here he had a point. “It might have been expected that the deadly serpents of war would for a time have been hushed into a calm in that quarter of the world … and would not have increased the stock of their distress.… Surely when human pride was levelled in the dust and we saw what worms we were beneath the hand of Omnipotence it became us to crawl from our holes with a feeling of brotherly love to each other; to abate a little of our rancour and not add the devastations of war to those of the hurricane. But it was not so with Great Britain.” He followed with a sobbing passage about the “unprepared, naked and defenceless” conditions of the islands, as if this were somehow Britain’s fault, adding to her guilt, and then moved to a peroration about the confiscations: “Without regard to friend or foe,” to neutrals or British subjects, “the wealth of the opulent, the goods of the merchant, the utensils of the artisan, the necessaries of the poor were seized on, and a sentence of general beggary pronounced in one moment upon a whole people. A cruelty unheard of in Europe for many years … a most unjustifiable, outrageous and unprincipled violation of the laws of nations … accompanied too with cruelties almost unheard of in the history of those barbarous times … warehouses were locked up, and access was denied to the proprietors,” depriving them of the “honest profits of their labours.… Was there known till that moment a more complete act of tyranny than this? … unparalleled in the annals of conquest, but it was surpassed by what followed.” The next step “was to seize upon all their letters and their private papers,” which made it impossible to apply for loans abroad … “merchants and inhabitants plundered and robbed of all that they possessed in the world and of all the hopes that they had of having their property restored.” In his compassion for the beggared merchants, living with their silver and servants and bulging warehouses, Burke seemed unmoved by their trading with the enemy. He said not a word about this aspect or the fact that the account books had been seized for that reason. Because the affair was being used to accuse the government, he made no attempt to be objective.
When, in his long speech, Burke came to Rodney’s treatment of the Jews, he showed the interest of a wide-ranging mind. Speaking of the order exiling them on one day’s notice, without their property and without wives and children, he described their vulnerability through statelessness eighty years before the Jews themselves were to formulate the nature of their problem. “If Britons are injured,” said Burke, “Britons have armies and laws to fly to for protection and justice. But the Jews have no such power and no such friend to depend on. Humanity then must become their protector and ally.” Burke perceived the problem, if not the solution in statehood. That had to wait for the next century, for Burke was not concerned with the Jewish problem but with the wrongdoing of his own government embodied by Rodney. His motion precipitated a vigorous debate about whether there was or was not a recognized law of nations.
Lord George Germain spoke as Rodney’s principal defender, saying that Burke showed himself a “perfect stranger” to the conduct of war, as there was scarcely an island captured or a territory seized that had not suffered the same circumstances as the “unavoidable and common consequences of capture” which, however “humanity might recoil at them,” could not be prevented; that the Dutch had made the island a very depot for the use of Britain’s enemies; “that without regular supplies from this island the French could not have carried on the war,” no more so the Americans; that when Rodney, in “great distress for rigging and stores” after the storms of October, had applied to purchase rope at St. Eustatius, he had been refused on the pretext that they had very little left when in fact they had several thousand tons in their store—enough to supply all the shipping that could have needed any for years to come; that as regards the confiscations, private property had been sealed and marked to show ownership to wait for disposition by the courts; that, in short, he “found nothing to blame in the conduct of the commanders.”
The debate swelled into the open in heated prosecution and defense. Charles James Fox, who had a lashing tongue for invective, began. With an elaborate bow to the persons and character of Sir George Rodney and General Vaughan, for whom he was sure the honorable gentleman who moved the inquiry (Mr. Burke) professed and “felt as sincere a regard as any men upon earth could possibly do,” he stated that their personal responsibility was not at issue, “but to pronounce on the great national question”—the reputation of Britain: “Would the nations of Europe wait for the slow decision of the Admiralty courts before they pronounced judgment on the case and proceeded to retaliate …? without taking the trouble to inquire … whether it was the lust of plunder or the profligate cruelty of an insatiate military or the barbarous system of a headlong government, they would instantly and justly pronounce it to be a violation of all the laws of war on the part of Great Britain and would hasten either to punish us for the horrid renewal of these savage practises which once buried England in ashes or remain with their arms across suffering us to be extirpated by those foes which our madness or impolicy had joined against us.” For this reason, Parliament must come to an immediate resolution “declaring their surprise and horror at such proceedings and condemning them in the most pointed and emphatical terms.…” He was glad to hear that the noble lord [Germain] saw nothing to condemn in the matter, for “now it was known and would be proclaimed all over Europe that ministers and not our commanders were the plunderers of St. Eustatius and the violators of the rights of war” and the army and navy [were] thus “rescued from the ignominious aspersion and the character of Sir George Rodney,” his colleague as fellow-member for Westminster, “was rescued from the obloquy which even great and good men must have otherwise thrown upon them.”
With heavy sarcasm, Fox declared he was “happy in the generous acquittal which the noble lord had given of the navy and army. The military of this country and particularly the navy was dear to him and their fame ought to be held sacred to every British heart. It was from that virtuous body of men that the empire had derived all its respect and strength and from which it must continue to receive its security and its fame. If they by some hasty act of rapaciousness or of avarice should blacken the purity of their character and stain their former deeds, Great Britain would sink to a state from which neither their future repentance nor their gallantry could be able to raise her, a state of ignominy more dreadful than disaster since enterprise might retrieve disadvantage but not restore reputation so destroyed.” Fox’s verbal vision of reprisals and contempt of nations flowed on with its wonderful command of words matched only by the exaggeration of its sentiments, which, one would think, would have been more likely to repel his listeners than win them. Following Fox, the Lord Advocate of Scotland entered into what the rapporteur described as a serious “defence of the proceedings at St. Eustatius,” which in his mind were “justifiable on the ground of necessity, policy, and by the laws of nations,” and that it was “good policy in the commanders to destroy that magazine from which the enemy were supplied with arms against us, it was in fact their duty … that as to the laws of war, it was a principle on which Grotius, Puffendorf, Vattel and every writer agreed, that it was just to destroy not only the weapons but also the materiels of war.”
Six more speakers carried the debate to late hours, until it was concluded by Burke with more of his magniloquent rhapsodizing. Upon the vote being taken, all the words might as well have gone unspoken. Burke’s motion for an inquiry was defeated by a safe government majority of 160–86. When the party system regulates, argument addresses the deaf.
Rodney’s savage feelings toward the English merchants’ greed and treason were genuine and profound, as would be those of any man who sees fellow-combatants facing bullets supplied by their own countrymen. He intended to remain on St. Eustatius, he wrote to the Governor of Barbados on February 27, three weeks after taking the island, until the iniquitous “English merchants, base enough from lucrative motives to support the enemies of Great Britain, will for their treason justly merit their own ruin … till all the stores are embarked and till the Lower Town, that nest of vipers, be destroyed, and lumber sent for the use of your unfortunate island and St. Lucie.” He was not going to leave until this “iniquitous island may be no longer the mart for clandestine commerce.”
While it is easy to say, and has frequently been said, that Rodney, mesmerized by the riches lying at hand on St. Eustatius, stayed too long on the island in his desire to gather them up, outrage and desire to punish the traitors were clearly as strong additional motives. “The Chief Judge of St. Kitts, Mr. Georges, is returning to expose the villainy of the English merchants who resided in this island of thieves,” he noted. “They deserve scourging and they shall be scourged,” Rodney wrote with passion to Lord George Germain, and that intention remained his abiding aim. The judge from St. Kitts “takes all their books and documents,” which Rodney had ordered to be seized and in which “all their base designs are brought to light. Fifty-seven English merchants of St. Kitts and Antigua were equally guilty.” To a commissioner of the government he writes that he had had “daily experience” of the “iniquitous practises and the treasonable correspondence” of the British merchants in this and neighboring islands by intercepting hundreds of letters, and he is “fully convinced that had it not been for their assistance the American war must have been long since finished.…” They made themselves Dutch burghers who had once been Englishmen—“Providence has ordained this just punishment.” Here the Admiral was succumbing to the luxurious temptation of equating Providence with himself.
The plunder of the island, packed in 34 merchant vessels, was sent home at the end of March and the Admiralty informed that a “very rich convoy” was sailing for England escorted by four ships of war: the Vengeance, of 74 guns, the former Dutch Mars, of 62 guns (renamed the Prince Edward), and two others, of 38 and 32 guns, all under the command of Commodore, later Admiral, Hotham, who “has my orders to be extremely attentive to their preservation.” Meanwhile “the enemy’s four line-of-battleships and four large frigates which still continue at Guadeloupe and Martinique are well watched. Every trick that can be devised has been attempted to induce General Vaughan and myself to leave this island in hopes of retaking it by a coup de main and thereby recover the stores.…” The treasonable merchants “will make no scruple to propagate every falsehood their debased minds can invent.…”
Despite all precautions, the precious convoy was lost. Having received correct intelligence of its departure and what it contained, the French had sent one of their leading admirals, La Motte Piquet, with a squadron of six major ships of the line, including one of 110 guns and two of 74, plus additional frigates to watch for it. They sighted it May 2, off the Scilly Isles, and gave hot pursuit. Admiral Hotham signaled to his convoy to disperse and save themselves, but the faster French warships gained on the merchantmen and captured twenty-two of them, the larger part. Outnumbered by and inferior to the French, Hotham could not or did not defend his charge to the bitter end; except for a few ships that escaped to Ireland, the rich plunder, valued at £5 million, went to the French. As one of the captains who had served under Rodney in the mismanaged fight of April 17 that so enraged the Admiral, and who, with no love lost between them, had later asked without success to be transferred to another command, Hotham felt no devotion to his commanding officer. While Rodney would certainly have been aware of ill feeling, he entrusted Hotham with the convoy because his ship was the Vengeance, strongest and largest of Rodney’s squadron.
At the same time, the Admiralty, having in its turn learned that La Motte Piquet had left the French naval base at Brest and was at sea, had sent out ships to intercept him or, alternatively, to detach frigates to meet Hotham and instruct him to return via the North of Scotland and Ireland, the old escape route of the Spanish Armada. But the searchers, after cruising for two weeks, failed to find the Eustatius convoy and send it out of danger. They put back to port in England without bringing home the expected treasure, to the sharp disappointment of ministers who would have welcomed a great prize to show off as a gain for the administration. Instead, Lord Sandwich in a letter to the King had to confess a sorry naval failure in what he calls “this unpleasant affair.”
For Rodney, who after dividing with General Vaughan would have stood to gain a one-sixteenth share, or an estimated £150,000 pounds, the disappointment was considerably deeper. Lost too was the more important prize of St. Eustatius itself. It was recaptured by the French in November, 1781, a month after the British loss of America at Yorktown. Rodney and General Vaughan had determined to make its defenses impregnable “to secure this important conquest to Great Britain that she might avail herself of all its riches as atonement for the injuries it has done her.” With some savagery, he writes that he and Vaughan will leave the island “instead of the greatest emporium upon earth, a mere desert and only known by report, yet, this rock … has done England more harm than all the arms of her most potent enemies and alone supported the infamous American rebellion.…” Regarding his own expectations, he writes, “If my great convoy of prizes arrive safely in England, I shall be happy as, exclusive of satisfying all debts, something will be left for my dear children.” Concern and affection for his two daughters and his sons repeats itself in his letters as one of the more sympathetic aspects of his character. “My chief anxiety,” he wrote to his wife after his ill-fated convoy had sailed for home, “is that neither yourself nor my dear girls shall ever again be necessitous nor be under obligations to others.” The humiliations of penury, however much of his own making, sound their painful note in this letter.
Believing he had left the captured island a Gibraltar of the West Indies, with land forces on guard and repaired fortifications, Rodney sailed to Antigua and then to Barbados. When St. Eustatius was retaken by the French six months later, they found the place in ashes, empty of population. Though rebuilt and repopulated during the French occupation, it never regained its former extravagant prosperity.
THE uneven career that brought Rodney to St. Eustatius and determined what he did there began with his entry into the Royal Navy at the age of twelve. He was the son of an old county family settled since the 13th century in Somersetshire, where they held the estate of Stoke Rodney. In the twenty generations leading down to the Admiral, his ancestors served in various military and diplomatic positions of no outstanding distinction, but fulfilling the duty expected of the landed gentry of England and establishing a record, as was said of them, of a family of greater antiquity than fame. In the process, they acquired a ducal connection in the person of James Brydges, first Duke of Chandos, who came into possession of Stoke Rodney through the marriage into the Brydges family of a daughter and heiress of an early Rodney. Chandos was a familiar at the court of George I and together with the King stood as joint godfathers to the Rodneys’ son, who was endowed with both their names, George and Brydges. Chandos’ grandson, who sueceededas third Duke in the period of Rodney’s maturity, remained a loyal adherent of the Hanovers and a supporter of George III and of his American policy until about 1780, when the policy’s futility became obvious enough to move the Duke gradually into opposition. He was evidently not a man impervious to change but rather one able to allow realities to penetrate. Though not belonging to one of the great Whig ruling families, Rodney could qualify as a young gentleman of “excellent connections.” Connections were the key to “place” in 18th century society, meaning a remunerative post in the official world, and “place” was of the essence, especially for a younger son, which Rodney remained until his older brother died, when the younger was about twenty.
Personal characteristics were both an aid and a drawback to his career. Slight and elegant in figure, he was more than handsome; if the portrait by Joshua Reynolds, painted at forty-two when Rodney was already a widower and a father of three, does not lie, he was frankly beautiful. With a strong sensual mouth, a broad brow and impressively large dark eyes, the face was youthful and seductive and would surely have promoted his amorous pursuits, of which the busy diarist, Sir William Wraxall, makes a point. “Two passions both highly injurious to his repose, women and play [gambling] carried him into many excesses,” Wraxall writes of his friend. According to Horace Walpole, the emperor of gossip, Rodney won the favor of the Princess Amelia, daughter of George III, and left of their liaison a “token.” The token grew to be a pretty young lady of small stature known in her circle as “little Miss Ashe.” Indefatigable investigators who edit 18th century letters and journals maintain, based on calculation of relative ages, that Rodney was too young to have been responsible for this royal fragment. Though Rodney was loquacious, Wraxall says, and particularly given to “making himself frequently the theme of his own discourse” and talking “much and freely upon every subject concealing nothing regardless of who was present,” he himself left no mention, as far as is recorded, of the Princess Amelia or the “token.” About his gambling, however, there is no question. He was never long absent from the gaming table at White’s, where the addiction ruled, and if his debts were not as spectacular as those of the rising political star Charles James Fox, it was only because Rodney did not have a rich father to pay them. The debts remained, and as many were owed to men in office or with political influence, they were to become stumbling blocks in his professional career, besides keeping him, combined with a spendthrift character, under tight pecuniary pressure all his life. “His person was more elegant,” Wraxall adds, “than seemed to become his rough profession. There was even something that approached to delicacy and effeminacy in his figure: but no man manifested a more temperate and steady courage in action.” Equally “fearless” in talk, “he dealt his censures as well as his praises … which necessarily procured him many enemies particularly in his own profession.”
The year of the Reynolds portrait was 1761, when Reynolds had burst, like Byron later, into glittering overnight celebrity. Everyone of fame and fashion, equipped with 25 guineas in hand, formed a line to his door. All of London, social, political and important, met on Reynolds’ canvases, from Admiral Anson, circumnavigator of the globe who had captured the richest Spanish treasure galleon and was afterward First Lord of the Admiralty, to sleepy Lord North, soon to endure his long confinement as reluctant Prime Minister, to exquisite duchesses in the gauzy gowns that exercised the brushes of Reynolds’ drapery painters, to the uncouth figure and sparkling talker Dr. Samuel Johnson. The full-length portrait of a hero of naval and political battle, Admiral Keppel, attracted the most attention. Standing upright in a statuary pose before a background of storm-filled sky and heaving waves, he dominated the group, but of the male portraits there was no close-up to equal the stunning head of George Rodney.
The possessor of these handsome features has been described by one historian as “the most enterprising and irascible, able and bombastic, intolerant, intolerable and successful naval officer between Drake and Nelson.” This is an exciting introduction but it is, one is obliged to say, a case of historian’s hype. Irascible yes, but so was every naval commander of the time, owing no doubt to the continual test of trying to navigate as a fighting instrument a cumbersome vehicle whose motor power was the inconstant wind not subject to human control, and whose action depended on instant and expert response by a rough crew to orders governing the delicate adjustment of sails through an infinity of ropes hardly identifiable one from another. That a commander who had to bring home success in battle under these conditions should be irascible is not to be wondered at. Or it may be that there is something about commanding a ship, sail or steam—a mysterious fungus on shipboard, as it were—that brings out ill-temper. Of a great wartime admiral of another age it has been said, “He was vindictive, irascible, over-bearing, hated and feared.” Not a man of the 18th century, this was Ernest J. King, Commander-in-Chief of American naval forces in World War II. Irritability was an occupational disease. “Intolerant and intolerable” belong in the same category, made no lighter by the foul physical conditions of life on a sailing vessel, with its reek of rotten meat and putrefied cheese, damp clothes, bilge water, open vats of urine in which the men were instructed to relieve themselves, on the theory that it would be used to retard fire, plus the smell of five or six hundred unwashed bodies packed for sleep in their hammocks below deck or rolling in rumsoaked drunkenness or in fornication with wives and doxies who were carried on board.
The stench of a ship wafted by an inshore breeze could often tell of its approach before it reached port. Reports of the bad tempers and quarrels of captains and admirals—with the exception of Nelson—are repetitious. John Paul Jones, apart from killing a mutineer who may have deserved death, carried on a furious vendetta with a captain of one of his ships—Landais of the Alliance—whom he accused of betrayal in combat. “His fault finding, nagging and perfectionism coupled with his unpredictable temper made him disliked by many shipmates” is the verdict of his biographer, Admiral Samuel Eliot Morison. Admiral Hyde Parker, commander at Barbados who served on several occasions with Rodney, had a “bitter choleric temper” and was called “Old Vinegar” on account of his harsh manner and speech. Richard Lestock, whose recriminations against his commanding officer, Admiral Mathews, became public after the Battle of Toulon had historic result, was “on malevolent terms” with Mathews from the start. Mathews, who had served at the court of Sardinia, was nicknamed Il Furibondo by the Italians because of his violent temper. Among the French it was the same. Count d’Estaing, active against the British in American waters and against Rodney in the West Indies, is called “brusque and autocratic” and not liked by officers and men, while Admiral de Grasse, the most important of all to the history of America, summoned his captains on deck to administer the “sharpest reproaches” to express his dissatisfaction for their failure to chase and engage the enemy in an encounter off Martinique. He would rather lay down his command, he said, unless they showed better conduct in obeying signals and fulfilling their duties. Rodney’s own notorious outbreak of anger at the errors and failure by his captains in the blundered battle off Martinique in 1780—expressed in his public statement to the Admiralty, the “British flag was not properly supported”—will appear in due time. If that was irascible, it was clearly not a matter of personal temperament. “There is no set ofmen who understand these matters so ill as sea officers,” lamented Lord Sandwich, suffering from his experience as First Lord of the Admiralty. “For it scarcely ever happens that after an action they do not call the whole world to hear what complaints they have to each other.” Irascibility in the navy was a recognized phenomenon, as attested in the journal of a French officer who, in describing a case of naval non-cooperation, refers casually to “the charming maritime ill-temper.”
More damaging than irascibility to effective management of a warship was the raging political partisanship that divided officers, and obstructed the collective will to win. The furious quarrel of Whig Admiral Keppel and Tory Admiral Palliser, over claims by Palliser of failure in battle by Keppel, carried over into an explosive court-martial that tore the body politic apart, brought angry pro-Keppel mobs in assault on the Admiralty and left permanent animosities in the navy so deep that officers believed each other capable (and perhaps they were) of deliberate errors or failures in combat on purpose to injure a fellow-admiral of the opposite party. These animosities lasted throughout the period of the American war when the administration’s belief in crushing the rebellion by force was the object of the Opposition’s deepest scorn.
Rodney entered the navy at twelve, taken from school at Harrow, where he had his only allotment of formal education. Though he became an ornament of the sophisticated world, known for pleasing conversation, he must have learned the manner spontaneously or from association with other sophisticates. The early removal from school of future officers of Britain’s sea power, leaving them unacquainted with the subject matter and ideas of the distant and recent past, may account for the incapacity of military thinking in a world that devoted itself to military action. With little thought of strategy, no study or theory of war or of planned objective, war’s “glorious art” may have been glorious but, with individual exceptions, it was more or less mindless. Native intelligence in the Royal Navy was no doubt as good as that of any other nation, but for achieving desired ends in an exacting profession it was not always enough. Admiral Alfred Thayer Mahan, father and pontiff of the theory of naval warfare, was to write that England’s failure to obtain the expected results from her naval superiority taught a lesson of the necessity of having minds of officers “prepared and stocked by a study of the conditions of war in their own time.” But what stock of knowledge has an adolescent officer acquired by the time he stops learning at the age of twelve?
Long before Mahan, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the great voyager Hakluyt spoke of the need for education of sailors. In his classic work The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffics, and Discoveries of the English Nation, he pointed out in his dedication to the Lord High Admiral of England that the late Emperor Charles V with “great foresight established a Pilot Major for the examination of such as sought to take charge of ships” and also “founded a notable lecture of the Art of Navigation which is read to this day … at Seville.” Hakluyt was thinking of seamanship, not strategy, much less the study of history and politics. His idea of education for seafarers was not thought to apply to the quarterdeck except in France, in its academies for training officers. Whether it would have made a difference to the inept British management of the war of the American Revolution no one can assert. It was America’s good fortune at this moment in her history to produce all at once, as everyone knows, a group of exceptionally capable and politically gifted men, while it has been less remarked that it was Britain’s ill fortune at the same time to have just the opposite. George III, Sandwich, Germain and the successive Commanders-in-Chief in the field, Sir William Howe and Sir Henry Clinton, both men without energy, were not the best Britain has produced in a crisis to conduct and win a war.
Through the influence of his patrons, Rodney entered the navy as a “King’s Letter Boy,” meaning with a letter of introduction from the King, which opened a place initially as no more than a captain’s servant, even lower than a midshipman, but highly desirable because it guaranteed officer’s status on the quarterdeck when the candidate had climbed enough rungs on the ladder of advancement. It was peacetime in England in 1730, the year of Rodney’s entry, when England and France, unable to afford the further expenses of war, were each endeavoring to stay quiet under the careful guidance of their respective ministers, Sir Robert Walpole and Cardinal Fleury, and this unaggressive condition offered an ambitious young apprentice no chance of action to start him on his climb. Peace, however, was not likely to, and did not, last long. War with Spain over control of the right to trade in Spain’s West Indies broke out in 1739, precipitated by public excitement at the grievance of a merchant captain named Jenkins, who had suffered the severance of his ear in a clash with a Spanish revenue officer. This War of Jenkins’ Ear, engaging France as an ally of Spain in the Bourbon Family Compact, began the period of colonial and continental conflict between France and England that was to last intermittently through Rodney’s lifetime, creating the opportunities for combat that made his career.
The war had old roots. By virtue of Columbus’ discoveries claimed in the name of Spain, followed by a Spanish Pope’s (Alexander VI) division, in 1493, of the New World between Spain and Portugal, with the larger part to Spain, the stage was set for Europe’s overseas conflicts. Needless to say, Spain after her conquest of Portugal in 1580 absorbed the whole, thus acquiring exclusive control of trade and empire from Brazil to Cuba. English smuggling into this region with the aim of breaking into the trade of the Spanish-American colonies provoked the insult to Jenkins’ anatomy.
Prize money to be divided among officers and crew was a motor power for navies as important as wind, and simple booty rather than strategic purpose was a more immediate object of the sea battles in the War of Jenkins’ Ear, as it was in most combats of the time. Without a clearly conceived strategic aim for dominance of the sea-lanes or land base for control of the Colonies, battle was engaged mainly for the money it would pay to the captains, who took their share in prize money, and to the state, which took a voracious bite out of the opponent’s commerce. In the spectacular convoy battle off Cape Finisterre, Spain, in May, 1747, against the French East India trade, the English under Admiral Anson, annihilating the French escort, took six French warships and, out of the convoy’s 40 ships, five armed East Indiamen and six or seven other merchantmen. The remainder escaped to Canada. Even so, the English haul included about £300,000 in treasure and stores, in addition to the captured ships. In a heroic defense by the French, the small 40-gun Gloire fought on until nightfall against three English ships of the line, until its captain was decapitated by a cannonball, 75 of the crew lay dead on the deck, masts and sails were in ruins, ammunition was reduced to the last cartridge and the hold was filling with water before the flag was struck in surrender. The obdurate refusal to yield may have owed something to the presence of an ensign of the Gloire, the twenty-five-year-old François de Grasse, a provincial nobleman known ever since he was a cadet for his energy and force. When the Gloire was captured, he was taken prisoner and held at Winchester in England for three months. Money and goods were loaded into twenty wagons at Portsmouth to be paraded through the streets to the cheers of the populace before the proceeds were deposited in the Bank of England. In a second encounter in June off Brest (often confused with Cape Finisterre because it lies in the department of the French Finistère), against a large French convoy bringing home the rich West Indian trade, an English squadron, including Rodney in the Eagle, captured 48 prizes loaded with valuable cargo. Although more than that number of French merchantmen escaped, Rodney and his fellow commanders gained a wealth of prize money. In the Seven Years’ War, 1756–63, the central conflict of the era, from which the English emerged sovereign of the seas, they took in the single year 1755, before even a formal declaration of war, 300 French merchantmen for an estimated total of $6 million.
Individual admirals and captains made their fortunes from their share of prize money, which was divided according to prize law of an extreme complexity that testified to its importance in the system. Ships’ captains of a victorious squadron divided ⅜ of the total value of captured ships and cargoes, depending on whether the squadron was under the orders of an admiral, with ⅛ reserved for a captain who was a flag officer if one was on board. Lieutenants, captains of marines, warrant officers, chaplains and lesser officers divided ⅛. Another ⅛ went to midshipmen and sailmakers, and the remaining 2/8, or 25 percent, to seamen, cooks and stewards. Prize law allowed an intricate adjustment based on size and armament to equalize the share of larger and smaller ships, on the theory that the stronger ships did most of the shooting and had more numerous crews. The adjusted rate was worked out by applying to each ship a factor calculated by multiplying the number of the crew by the sum of the caliber of the ship’s cannon. Clearly, prize money received more serious attention than scurvy or signals.
As Captain of the Eagle in the battle off Brest, Rodney’s share was £8,165, which enabled him to buy a country home and laid the basis of his fortune, which he was to gamble away.
From the capture of Havana in 1761, the distribution of prizes amounted to £750,000, of which Admiral Keppel, who was second in command, received £25,000 and his chief, Admiral Pocock, £122,000. Admiral Anson, the leading naval officer of the day, was believed to have made £500,000 in the course of his operations. The lure of such rewards drew young men into the navy despite its dangers and discomforts.
In the War of the Spanish Succession, ending in 1713, England had gained dominance in the Mediterranean by annexation of Gibraltar and Minorca. Colonial rivalry in America added to, even superseded, ancient conflicts in Europe. France, eager for colonial territory, had advanced overland through the American north woods down from Canada and Nova Scotia and down the Ohio to establish settlements that pushed against the English-settled colonies in the effort to block their westward movements. French colonies in India were also conflicting with the English. But France, sucked dry by the land wars of Louis XIV, had let her navy sink into shabby neglect that could not sustain a serious bid for the sea power on which trade and empire depended.
For the next fifty years, 1739–89, from the War of Jenkins’ Ear to the French Revolution, war in the 18th century continued in these terms through various phases and under various names, until the issues were shaken up and rearranged by the Revolution and fighting recommenced under Napoleon. As between France and England, it was basically a maritime war for overseas commerce and colonies in America and India. This was not fundamentally changed by the intrusion of the American Revolution, though it altered war aims politically.
A strange development of the three major maritime powers, Holland, England and France, was that each should have allowed its vehicle of sea power to decay through inadequate funding and indifference and the corruption that drained available funds into the pockets of bureaucrats and dockyard managers. Moreover, the Royal Navy of Britain was halved in effective power by having two functions: offense and defense. Honored by its countrymen as the “wooden walls of England,” it was also the only conveyance by which Britain’s military forces could be deployed against an opponent, whether it be colonial rebels or France. As an island, Britain could use land forces against a foreign enemy only to the degree that sea power allowed. Instead of being polished and fed and kept at the peak of perfection, for instant use upon call, the navy, which had enjoyed appropriations of more than £7 million in 1762, was cut in 1766, after the close of the Seven Years’ War, to £2.8 million, less than half, and cut by half again to a stingy £1.5 million in 1769. Sandwich, though he was not yet First Lord, was held to blame because he was a well-known figure detested by the public for his betrayal of the popular hero John Wilkes.
Sandwich at this time held office as Secretary of State for the so-called Northern Department, actually the department for foreign affairs. Although associated with the Admiralty because of his previous service and supposedly deeply devoted to the navy, he did not exert himself, as Choiseul was doing in France, to rebuild it as a proud and eminent fighting fleet.
Besides being splintered by politics and faction, the navy was administered not by a professional in the service, as was the army, but by a figure of political power chosen from the group known at this time as the King’s Friends. For eleven years, from 1771 to 1782, the First Lord of the Admiralty was the fourth Earl of Sandwich, called by some the most unpopular man in England, known for the venality of his administration and for personal sins, ranging from laziness to debauchery. A peer who inherited his earldom from a grandfather at the age of eleven, he thereafter followed a peer’s normal progress from Eton and Cambridge and the Grand Tour through a succession of government offices assigned for no particular merit other than the right “connections” and an intense loyalty to the King and support of a hard policy toward the Americans. This brought him to a place on the Admiralty Board at the age of twenty-six from which he advanced at the age of thirty to First Lord for a short term in 1748–51, and again for the longer term in the ’70s and early ’80s. His reputation was gained from a scandal of his own making, when he read to the House of Lords in 1768 an obscene verse entitled Essay on Woman, by his friend the notorious John Wilkes, who had already been arrested—illegally, as his partisans charged—for lèse majestè in a libelous critique on the King published in No. 45 of Wilkes’s journal the North Briton. On the obscenity charge he was now expelled as M.P. from the House and declared an outlaw, while his crony Sandwich was ever after known as Jemmy Twitcher, after the treacherous character in The Beggar’s Opera who turns in his friend. Naval appointments under his rule were determined by patronage, which answered to the seventeen votes that Sandwich and his group controlled in the House of Commons, the source of his power. As First Lord, he presided over the Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty, who were seagoing professionals as well as politicians with seats in the House of Commons.
Spain, nearly two hundred years since the lost Armada of Philip II, was still depressed, with no appetite for maritime battle, and the French Navy was at its lowest point of neglect. It was being renovated by the strenuous energies of Choiseul, chief minister of Louis XV and the most able public official to serve France in the 18th century. He established naval academies for the design and construction of ships of war and for the training of officers, ordered an inscription maritime for the regular draft of seamen to fill the crews, instead of relying like the British on impressment of drunks and vagrants and the victims of misery and want picked up from the streets; a corps of 10,000 gunners was rigorously trained for accuracy of fire; dockyards hummed with the building of new ships of larger and better design than Britain’s. In seamanship, the French trained for beauty of maneuvers, practicing so that the parts of a squadron would make their turns in unison or progressively with the precision of a ballet, with their sails billowing or furling in artistic design. Town by town, Choiseul organized a fund-raising campaign for shipbuilding, with each new ship, when launched, being named for the town that had donated the most. The fleet’s giant flagship of 110 guns named the Ville de Paris was the warship that Rodney would one day bring to surrender in his last and greatest battle. A spirit of enterprise prevailed, in contrast to the lethargy of Spain and in contrast, too, to the defensive doctrine of naval warfare that governed French tactics. On going into battle, the guiding principle for a French sea captain was to adopt the lee gauge, a defensive position, and by forcing the enemy to attack, to destroy his ships while keeping his own intact. The theory, in the words of the French Admiral Grivel, was that, of the inferior of two opponents, the “one that has the fewest ships must always avoid doubtful engagements … or, worst, if forced to engage, assure itself of favorable conditions.” In short, “circumspection, economy and defensive war” was the fixed purpose of French policy directed toward reversing the position of inferiority at sea that France had sustained by the defeats of the Seven Years’ War. Logically it would seem that such a course, when consistently followed for years, must affect the spirit and enterprise of the officers imbued with it. Yet if that were true of the average, the outstanding French seaman Admiral de Grasse, in his historic decision that saved America, had little difficulty in subduing the voice of caution and allowing the impulse of bold risk to make up his mind.
Rodney’s first active duty was at Newfoundland, from where he was promoted to Lieutenant and transferred to the Mediterranean and given command by Admiral Mathews of the Plymouth, a ship of the line of 64 guns—“ of the line” referred to the largest class of warships, of 64 guns or more, powerful enough in construction and in armament to fight in the single file of ships bearing down on the enemy and firing broadside as they passed, which was the conventional and only tactical formation used in the combat of fighting sail in the 18th century. The largest ships of the line, mounting 100 guns in three tiers, were 200 feet long, built of oak at a cost of £100,000. The largest, Nelson’s H.M.S. Victory built in 1776–77, was crewed by 875 men, and lesser ships by crews of 490–720. Victory, at 220 feet, required for construction 2,500 major trees, equal to sixty acres of forest. It carried a mainmast of fir standing 205 feet above waterline and three feet thick at its base. Constructed in three sections, the three mainmasts of a ship of the line could suspend 36 sails, amounting to four acres of fabric, and make a speed of ten knots. When masts were bent by a strong wind, the strain on floorboards caused the leaks that required constant pumping. Frigates used as commerce raiders were ships of 130–150 feet, usually manned by volunteer crews seeking the prize money.
Guns, measured by the weight of their cannonballs, were 12–42 pounders (frigates carried 4–6 pounders), with a maximum range of one mile when fired by 400 pounds of gunpowder. They fired not only cannonballs but all kinds and shapes of missiles—pails of nails or sharpened pieces of scrap iron—heated red hot to burn sails. Guns were mounted on wheeled gun carriages, secured by rope tackles used to run the guns in and out of the gunports and take up the recoil. Each firing required a succession of nine or ten orders to the gun crew: “Cast loose your guns”—the ropes removed and coiled; “Level your guns”—to make them parallel to the deck; “Take out your tompions”—to remove stoppers from the muzzles; “Load cartridge”—the cartridge of black powder in a cloth bag is rammed down the muzzle; “Shot your guns”—the cannonball or other shot is rammed down; “Run out your guns”—guns placed for muzzles to protrude through gunports; “Prime”—gunpowder from the powder horn is inserted in the touchhole; “Point your guns”—the slow match is brought to the breech while the cannoneer keeps it alight by careful blowing and the gun is adjusted on its base; “Elevate”—a bead is drawn on the target through the sights; “Fire!”—when the roll of the ship brings the top sights on the target, the lighted match is applied to the touchhole; firing is followed by the order “Sponge your guns”—a sponge fixed to a length of stiffened rope and dipped in a tub of water is thrust down the muzzle to extinguish any scraps of the powder bag that might be burning. Guns were then repositioned and the loading process repeated. In Nelson’s time a perfectly trained crew could complete this process at a rate of once every two minutes.
Management of sail in order to tack—that is, to shift direction or sail into the wind or to bear down on the enemy or to seize the weather gauge or to chase or fall back in any other maneuver requiring adjustment to the wind—demanded another precise set of orders governing braces, sheets, halyards set, bowlines at every edge of the square sails to keep them taut and flat, mainsails, top mainsails, topgallant mainsails, staysails, jib sheets, backstays and an infinite number of extras, whose names will offer no comprehension to the landlubber. A crew with officers or boatswain stands by each mast to haul or let go the sails while the captain, besides calling his orders, keeps in communication with the helmsman. To bring a ship about—that is, reverse or change direction—is an action keyed to a pitch of precision and excitement at the operative moment when the mainsail flaps over with a loud bang to catch the wind from the opposite side. As described by Admiral Morison—using as example a southeast wind for a turn to the southwest—it involves different orders for different sails and yardarms (the wooden poles suspended from the mast to which the sails are attached).
First, the seamen trim the yards as close as possible to the axis of the hull, and haul in taut the sheet of the fore-and-aft driver or spanker on the mizzenmast so as to kick her stern around. The officer of the deck shouts “Ready, about!” and the boatswains pass the word by piping. The man at the wheel turns it hard—all the way—to starboard, which puts the helm that connects with the rudderhead to leeward, and when he has done so, he sings out, “Helm’s hard a-lee, sir!” The jib and staysail sheets, which trim the headsails, are let go. As the rudder brings the ship up into the SE wind, the yards point directly into it, the sails shiver, and the lines, with tension released, dance about wildly. As soon as the ship’s head has passed through the eye of the wind and is heading about, SE by S, the port jib and staysail sheets are hauled taut; and their action, added to that of the foresail, fore topsail and fore-topgallant sail, which are now back-winded—that is, blown against the mast—act as levers to throw the ship’s bow away from the wind onto the desired new course. As soon as the wind catches the starboard leach (edge) of the square mainsail or maintopsail, the officer of the deck cries, “Mainsail haul!” This is the great moment in coming about.… All hands not otherwise employed then lay ahold of the lee braces on the main and mizzen yards and haul them around an arc of about seventy degrees until the sails catch the wind from the port side. If done at just the right moment, the wind helps whip them around. By this time, unless the ship is very sharp and smart and the sea smooth, her headway has been lost.…
The next important order is “Let Go and Haul!” This means let go fore braces and sheets, and haul the foreyards, whose sails have been flat aback all this time, until the wind catches them on their after surfaces. The weather jib and staysail sheets are let go and the lee ones hauled taut, and all other sails are trimmed so that she gathers headway and shoots ahead on her new course.… In a warship with a big crew this process would take at least ten minutes, probably more.…
This laborious process for every change of direction, called tacking, while it made for tense and exciting moments, cannot be called an efficient form of locomotion. To tack a big ship with its billowing mass of sail might be done in good weather with a trained crew in ten minutes, but otherwise could take several hours, and in rough weather as long as half a day or in a really bad blow might become impossible. To arrive at any place not lying in the direction of the wind meant tacking zigzag the whole way, exhausting ship and crew, so that it is hardly to be wondered why both were frequently weak and unfit for service.
In the renewed strife for supremacy of the sea that filled the mid-century, the opening clash of navies took place in the Battle of Toulon in 1744. It was not a heroic combat, like John Paul Jones’s against the Serapis, but a messed-up composite of all the troubles and defects that were to beset naval warfare in this period, and it evoked from a French minister, M. Maurepas, a disgusted dimissal of warfare with its waste of lives for some inconclusive result: “I don’t think much of these naval combats. C’est piff poff on one side and the other, and leaves the sea afterwards as salty as before.” At Toulon, England was engaged against France and Spain, allies in the Bourbon Family Compact, which suffered from the strains of most family efforts at union. Apart from colonial hostilities in America and India, which were the true source of conflict, the secondary struggle lay as usual in the complex of continental quarrels, this time known as the War of the Austrian Succession, in which remote and irrelevant Silesia was again in contention. It would be wasted effort to try to follow the twisted trails leading to this war, other than to say that in 1740 Frederick the Great had gained the throne of Prussia just as the Emperor of Austria, Charles VI, died, leaving the disputed sovereignty of his jigsaw of dominions to his eldest daughter, Maria Theresa, whose succession the European powers had guaranteed. For his own purposes, Frederick II was trying to dispossess her, and when he seized Silesia, among other inimical acts, Prussia and Austria went to war, with the several powers taking sides.
Out of this muddle, the three major sea powers, Spain, France and Britain, came to a focus at Toulon, the chief French naval base on the Mediterranean coast, located halfway between Nice and Marseilles. The Battle of Toulon in 1744 ensued, when Spain as an enemy of Austria moved to take over Italian territories ruled by Austria. The Spanish fleet entered Toulon, where it remained shut in for four months by an English blockade. When Spain applied to France for an escort to conduct her ships home, France complied, but, distrusting Spanish fighting efficiency, the French Admiral requested that the Spanish ships be scattered among his own, a proposal that the Spanish Admiral Navarro naturally refused. In a compromise, the Spanish ships kept their own group upon entering the line of warships, which was always formed in sections designated van, center and rear. With nine French in the van, six French and three Spanish in the center and nine Spanish in the rear, the Allies’ line of 27 warships sailed out of port to face the British line of 29, commanded by Admiral Mathews of the Mediterranean fleet squadron. He was seconded by a man he despised, Admiral Lestock, who fully returned his commanding officer’s sentiments. Their quarrel was personal and petty, not political, stemming from Lestock’s failure to send a frigate to meet Mathews on his arrival from England to take over his command. Described as an illiterate, ill-mannered and domineering officer, Mathews vented his displeasure in “coarse insults” to his subordinate, causing Admiral Mahan, as historian, rather timidly to suggest that a “possible taint of ill will” between the two played a part in the “fiasco” off Toulon.
Sighting the sails coming out of Toulon toward evening, Mathews, having the weather (or windward) gauge, raised the signal for a “general chase,” but when his van came up with the enemy next morning, his rear, under Lestock, was too far—some five miles—astern to join him and make the English squadron’s superior numbers tell. During the previous night, Lestock had already been out of position. When Mathews signaled for the fleet to “lie-to”—that is, stay put for the night—he also signaled for “close order,” which to a willing instead of a resentful subordinate would clearly suggest coming up during the night to take his position in the line. By morning Lestock was still several hours’ sailing time behind. Lestock chose to obey the stationary signal to lie- to rather than to close up.
Bursting with impatience for the laggard Lestock and fearing that his prey would sail away to escape their planned destruction, Mathews struck out for independence and left the line to attack the enemy by himself, in the belief or hope that he could overwhelm the Spanish rear and the French center before the French in the van could double back to rescue them. Whether by error or in the excitement of his dare, he raised the signal to engage while keeping the signal for the line flying, thoroughly confusing his captains, who could find no guide to his intentions in the signal books or in the ruling manual called Fighting Instructions. They knew only that the signal for “line ahead” supersedes all others. Some of his squadron followed Mathews with or without signals, but others hung back, leaving their Admiral unsupported and their fire at ineffective range. In the disorder, the enemy escaped; only one was taken, in a spirited action by a captain of later renown, the future Admiral Hawke. By nightfall Mathews had to withdraw and regroup with nothing to show for all his audacity except the satisfaction of having Lestock put under arrest and sent home.
This sorry tale was roughly debated in the House of Commons and, following severe criticism of the Admiralty, in a series of courts-martial which, with the irreproachable logic of men in uniform, punished Mathews, the man who fought, but acquitted Lestock, the man who did not. Mathews was condemned and dismissed from the service (on the ground of his having signaled for “line of battle” while by his own action making preservation of the line impossible), whereas Lestock, on his claim of obedience to signals, was held blameless.
At this point we must meet the paralyzing dragon known as Fighting Instructions, a tyrannical document that required each ship of the line to follow each other at a cable’s length (200 yards) and to engage its opposite number of the enemy’s line, van for van, center for center and rear for rear, and never to leave the line to do otherwise. The rule, called “line ahead,” was intended to prevent the confusion called a měleé, in which individual ships might come under the fire of their fellows, and to give a section of the line, if closely supported by the one next astern, a chance of destroying the enemy’s section opposite. Fighting Instructions was issued during the first Dutch wars under the regime of Oliver Cromwell, whose autocratic mentality it certainly reflected, although the instructions have also been attributed to that poor creature James I, who would not seem to have had the character to conceive a document of such intransigence. Because individual captains of the time had formerly used their own tactics, often resulting in unmanageable confusion, the Admiralty issued the Fighting Instructions to give a fleet greater effect by requiring its ships to act in concert under signaled orders of the commanding officer and prohibiting action on personal initiative. In general, the result did make for greater efficiency in combat, though in particular instances—as in Admiral Graves’s action in the crucial Battle of Chesapeake Bay preceding Yorktown—it could cause disaster by persuading a too submissive captain to stick by the rule when crisis in a situation could better have been met by a course determined by the particular circumstances. As deviations from the rule were always reported by some disgruntled officer and tried by a court-martial, the Instructions naturally reduced, if not destroyed, initiative except when a captain of strong self-confidence would act to take advantage of the unexpected. Action of this kind was not infrequent, even though no people so much as the British preferred to stay wedded to the way things had always been done before. In allowing no room for the unexpected that lies in wait in the waywardness of men, not to mention the waywardness of winds and ocean, Fighting Instructions was a concept of military rigidity that must forever amaze the layman.
Whether Lestock at Toulon held back from the rear of the battle line out of malice toward his commander, or whether, as he claimed at the subsequent court-martial, he had put on all possible sail but could not make up the distance, was not adjudicated. To the charge that he failed to attack later when he might have done so, he used the technicalities of the Fighting Instructions as a defense, saying that the signal for line ahead was flying at the same time as the signal to engage and that he could not leave the line to fight without disobeying the signal to form line.
As the core of naval battle, line ahead was conditioned by the structure of the ships themselves, whose main armament necessarily fired broadside. The line was necessary because it was the only formation that allowed all ships of a squadron to turn with beam facing the enemy and at the same time ensure that no one of its own would come between gun and target. The law of line ahead conditioned a battle of formal movements as of some massive minuet played upon the sea to the music of gunfire. The warships advanced, bowed and retreated while drums beat a tattoo summoning gun crews to their posts and explosives burst from the cannons’ mouths. The line advanced along the length of the enemy line drawn up opposite, each ship firing as it came into position. The English aimed at the hulls, the French at masts and rigging, loading their guns with chains and grapeshot and scraps of metal to tear the sails. Flames leapt, wood splinters flew causing nasty wounds, decks strewn with dead bodies and slippery with blood grew hazardous, the wounded lay helpless, fearful of being rolled overboard among the corpses to where sharks swarmed around the ship, their open jaws to be the sailors’ unmarked graves. The destructive violence wrought upon the empty sea was loud and satisfying, if not always of strategic value. Observing the performance, the proverbial visitor from another planet would have admired the beauty of the sailing maneuvers in their white-winged saraband but would have wondered, to what purpose?
Which side was the victor in the unfixed territory of a sea battle was usually decided, even by historians, on the basis of the relative number of killed and wounded suffered by either combatant. The numbers, often 700 or 800 killed in some pointless “piff poff,” were large. The only person to express any concern that appears in the records was curiously enough the King of France, Louis XVI, not known for his popular sympathies. In a speech to his Council he asked, “But who shall restore the brave sailors who have sacrificed their lives in my service?” This was a greater degree of interest than expressed by any official who received the count of losses or by any admiral who saw the bodies pile up on his decks.
The ultimate objective of any war is the gaining of political and material power, which at this period was considered to depend on colonies and commerce. Since these in turn depended upon free communication through control of the sea with bases for supply along the way—but not too many, as Mahan cautiously advises—and since holding the bases depended on their protection by the navy, therefore the objective of sea war was to prevail over the enemy’s navy and find occasion to meet and destroy his fleets. To take this argument to its logical end meant that the best result would be had by staying out of battle altogether. The French, being a logical people, had reached this conclusion and followed it when they could.
The battle of fighting sail as practiced in the 18th century troubles the rational mind. Clearly, line ahead depended on the enemy presenting himself in an equivalent line as target or opponent. But suppose he did not, refused to form a line, maneuvered for the weather gauge and, if successful, sailed away to a friendly base or home port. The French often did just that, or did not come out to meet the enemy at all, leaving the English with the frustration of empty claws.
A paradox of the 18th century, so admired for reason and enlightenment, is the senselessness it often exhibits, as in the case of the futile shore batteries on the islands and the unchanging tactics of line ahead, a maneuver which everyone on the ocean knew as well as he knew his own name, an old story that could have no surprises, although surprise is the sharpest weapon in the military arsenal.
Since medieval days of the sixty-pound suit of armor, in which, for the sake of combat, men roasted and could not arise if they fell, no contrivance for fighting has matched in discomfort and inconvenience and use contrary to nature the floating castle called a ship of the line in the age of fighting sail. With its motor power dependent on the caprice of heaven and direction-finding on the distant stars, and its central piece of equipment—the mast—dependent on seasoned timber that was rarely obtainable, and control of locomotion dependent on rigging and ropes of a complexity to defy philosophers of the Sorbonne, much less the homeless untutored poor off the streets who made up the crews, and communication from commander to his squadron dependent on signal flags easily obscured by distance or smoke from the guns or by pitching of the ship, these cumbersome vehicles were as convenient as if dinosaurs had survived to be used by cowboys for driving cattle. The difficulties men willingly contend with to satisfy their urge to fight have never been better exemplified than in warships under sail. Not a few contemporaries were bemused by the curiosities of naval warfare that had inspired M. Maurepas’ conclusive judgment as “piff poff.”
Hardly designed to invigorate naval spirit, the verdicts of the Toulon courts-martial succeeded in tightening the grip of Fighting Instructions while mystifying the public and deepening public suspicion of government. Eleven out of twenty-nine captains were accused and tried, of whom one died, one deserted and was never heard of again, seven were cashiered from the service and only two acquitted. Damage and discouragement in the navy, not unnaturally, followed.
In 1777, the Admiralty’s report of 35 ships of the line in the Grand Fleet was shown to be fiction when surveyors reported the majority unfit for sea and only six fit for service, and these, when inspected by the new Commander-in-Chief, Admiral Keppel, “no pleasure to his seaman’s eye.” Little had improved since the survey of 1749, when the inspector discovered lax and ignorant officers, crews left idle and unskilled, stores disorganized, equipment shabby and decaying, ships dirty, unseaworthy and inadequately manned. Leaving untouched the central problem of corrupt management at the top to which these deficiencies could be traced, the authorities were moved to enact a sterner version of the Fighting Instructions under the title Additional Fighting Instructions, or, more formally, the Naval Discipline Act of 1749, which added “negligence” in the performance of duty falling short of the last ounce of fighting effort as a punishable offense. Under this legislation was staged the navy’s most notorious act of the century, the execution in 1757 of Admiral Byng on being tried and convicted under the death penalty of negligence in what was judged to be a halfhearted fight to relieve Minorca. In the actual combat that made Byng’s tragedy, when ordered to relieve Minorca, the Admiralty had underestimated, as it so often did, the strength of the enemy and had sent Byng with a small inadequate and ill-equipped squadron to the defense. The enemy had already landed and overrun the island when he reached Gibraltar. The Governor of Gibraltar, supposed to assist with troops, refused to release them, on the ground that they could not be spared from his garrison. Although Byng had already complained at the inadequacy of his squadron, he made no protest and proceeded against the French, whose ships were larger with heavier guns than his own, but were keeping to the defensive. When the two fleets came within sight, the French were to leeward and Byng had the wind. He raised the signal for line ahead but did not follow it at once, while he had the advantage, with the signal to bear down (engage) because his ships had not yet completed the line formation. He was cramped by the effect of the Mathews court-martial, which had punished Mathews for engaging without his full force in line. Having himself sat on the bench in the Mathews-Lestock case, Byng cited the verdict to his flag captain, “You see, Captain Gardiner, that the signal for the line is out,” and he pointed out that two ships were still out of place. “It was Mr. Mathews’ misfortune to be prejudiced by not carrying down his force together, which I shall endeavor to avoid.” When Byng did raise the signal to bear down, his ships, still in some disarray, came in at an angle with the van taking the full blows of the French guns. The center and rear were still too far apart from the enemy to bring their firepower to bear in support. The van was crushed. The fleets separated as night fell. Byng, making no effort to regroup, summoned a war council and readily accepted the advice given under his command that nothing further could be done and Minorca must be left to its fate. Accordingly, without further action he returned with his fleet to Gibraltar, where he was superseded and sent home under arrest. He was charged under No. 12 of the Articles of War with not having done his utmost to relieve the garrison of Minorca or to seize and destroy the enemy’s ships as was his duty. Article 12 refers to failure of duty “through cowardice, negligence or disaffection,” and since Byng was explicitly acquitted of cowardice or disaffection, negligence was left as his implicit guilt. The verdict left Fighting Instructions more twisted than ever, for it meant that while Mathews had been court-martialed for leaving line ahead to bear down on the enemy, Byng was punished for refusing to do so. Admirals were in a forked stick. Command, deprived of personal judgment, can win no battles, and the most important one that would decide the fate of America was still to come.
Uproar at the death sentence was vociferous. Ministers were content to let Byng bear it, to cover their own failure to send adequate force to the defense. King George II, a stranger to the quality of mercy, granted no pardon. Rodney, always independent-minded, who could tell absurdity from utility when it stood in front of him, joined with the champion of Byng’s cause, Captain Augustus Hervey, in a campaign to solicit petitions for his pardon, in vain. The death kept discussion alive, one more bitterness to divide the navy. Byng was duly shot by a firing squad of brother officers for no discernible purpose except to “encourage the others,” as remarked by a mean-minded Frenchman. Voltaire’s comment would immortalize the act, whose peculiar excess was another aberration of the enlightened century. The execution could accomplish nothing, for even then nobody supposed that men can be made brave by enactment or deterred from weakness by fear of punishment.
If to no purpose, why was the death penalty imposed? Because it was there, on the statute books, decreed by the lawmakers in their wisdom for the particular failing for which Byng was judged and held guilty. Because it was there, offering no alternative punishment, it must not be evaded. The court’s discretionary power had been removed and it claimed to have no alternative. Exercising choice, however, is one of the burdens of being human and having a mind. Not to exercise it may be easier, but if unused it is likely to become sluggish, which may be one of the reasons British performance in the American war was not brilliant.
Byng suffered for his time. This was a period when the British went in fear of the wild assaults of the gin-soaked poor and feared anarchy rising from the so-called criminal class, which they believed to exist as an entity. To suppress it, they enacted laws of ferocious penalty, and no matter what suggestion of reason or compassion or common sense might be advanced against transporting for life and separating from home and family a boy of eleven for stealing a stocking, it would not be heard; the law must not deviate. In a sense, this non-thinking severity was a development of the very political liberty of which the British were the progenitors and had done so much to foster by their own revolution in establishing the principle of a government of laws not men, of constitutionalism not dictate. This was now what Britain’s children, the Colonies, were fighting for, and which the British insistently ignored, pretending that the American rebellion was some kind of misguided frenzy and thereby losing any chance of winning back allegiance or reconciliation.
Byng’s judges pronounced the death sentence expecting that the King or ministers would pardon him. In fear of the mob, angry at the loss of territory—Minorca, taken from Spain in 1708, had been British for only forty-eight years—and, shouting for blood, the government proffered no pardon; Byng was left to be shot as a scapegoat. The firing squad barked on command; the crumpled figure of the Admiral lay in a heap on the quarterdeck of the Monarch, a mute witness to one of the atrocities of law, the guardian of human conduct.
Given the angle of fire, line ahead may have had no alternative, yet innovative minds might have devised tactical variations or surprises, as Rodney himself was one day to do. But the navy was not a home for innovative minds, being considered the place to dispose of the unteachable or stupid son of a family whose more promising brothers qualified for the army or clergy. While breaking the line was the most radical and important contribution to tactics of the time, after which they were never the same again, it was the idea not of a professional seaman but of a schoolboy of Edinburgh, who made a hobby of sailing homemade toy boats in a pond as a child and eventually worked out his plan in a treatise, which Rodney had the nerve to employ when the chance offered. The boy, John Clerk, was first drawn to the ways of seagoing vehicles by the tale of the shipwreck in Robinson Crusoe. Studying the movement of ships in response to the wind blowing through Leith, Edinburgh’s harbor, he began experimenting for himself with a schoolmate’s model boat. Soon he was making model boats of his own to watch as they sailed across his father’s pond. Meanwhile, public attention had fastened on the Keppel-Palliser court-martial, and as he followed the testimony the boy learned about “line ahead” and the problems it raised in naval combat. Possessor of that alert Scottish intelligence that so often caused uneasiness below the Border, Clerk noticed the major flaw in line ahead: that if the enemy did not offer himself in a comparable line, there could be no fighting that day under the rules of Fighting Instructions. As he watched his little ships move as directed by the breezes, he evolved the solution for breaking the deadly grip of the line. It was to allow the full line to concentrate against one section of the enemy, instead of each ship against its opposite in line, thus smashing a gap through which to penetrate and “double” the enemy while it was caught in the slow process of coming about and sailing back into the wind to assist its companions. Drawing charts to accompany his text, John Clerk explained his thesis in a small book entitled An Essay on Naval Tactics, which, circulating among friends and naval enthusiasts, found a publisher and soon came to the notice of navy professionals, among them Admiral Rodney. Investigators were later to find that he had come into possession of a manuscript copy, which he had annotated and was to put to use at Cape St. Vincent and in the aborted battle off Martinique in 1780, and most distinctly in his ultimate triumph in the Battle of the Saints of 1782, in which he was to win a decisive victory over the French that restored British self-confidence after the loss at Yorktown. The battle’s name refers to two islands so named marking the channel between Guadeloupe and Dominica where the action took place.
Conditions that kept half the manpower of a ship in illness most of the time as a result of living between decks for months on end in fetid and stale air, on rotten food and brackish water in a hot climate, were other lazy submissions to old ways that could have been changed if the authorities had had the wit or the will to permit the entry of a ray of enlightenment. For two centuries, from 1622 to 1825, the official diet of the Royal Navy consisted of beer, salt pork and salt beef, oatmeal, dried peas, butter and cheese, usually rancid, and biscuit that walked by itself, as Roderick Random tells in Smollett’s novel, by virtue of the worms that made it their home. Since the diet supplied nothing of the body’s need of vitamin C, the result was widespread scurvy, whose symptom after the telltale skin lesions was generalized weakness deepening into exhaustion followed by death. It took the Admiralty forty years to adopt the known remedy of citrus fruit discovered within the navy itself by a ship’s surgeon, James Lind, who obtained wonderful cures by issuing oranges and lemons and limes to dying men and who published A Treatise on the Scurvy in 1754, prescribing a ration of lime juice for all. Because this was judged too expensive, it was not made compulsory until 1795. Enlightenment had not suggested that the burden of carrying and even minimally caring for a crew too weak to work was more costly than a keg of lime juice, which may account for the thought attributed to a legendary “philosopher” of 600 B.C. that there are three kinds of people in the world: the living, the dead and those at sea. Is it possible that admirals became resistant to change through some effect of life at sea? In the 20th century, hidebound inertia still ruled the flag deck. As First Lord in 1914, Winston Churchill, according to the authoritative naval historian Richard Hough, regarded “the professional hierarchy of the Royal Navy of the First World War as tradition bound, unadventurous, and underendowed with initiative and intelligence.”
Atypical, Rodney possessed both, in addition to abundant self-confidence that never deserted him. When he saw a condition clearly in need of improvement, he was an activist, prepared to innovate, in one case to his own detriment. During his service in Jamaica, he installed a system of piping water from reservoirs to the ships, sparing the sailors the long laborious work of rolling barrels all the way. Their blessings turned to resentment when they discovered that under the new system, the task was done so rapidly that it gave them no time for shore leave. As the sailors’ annoyance was one reason for denying Rodney the governorship of Jamaica, his innovation unhappily demonstrated the greater safety in inertia.
Tolerance of disgusting living conditions accepted with no effort at improvement bespoke a mental lethargy that underlay the general reluctance to change old habits. Alternatives were not beyond reach. To find friendly ports of call where fresh food could be obtained would have been difficult among so many belligerent relationships, but not impossible. Fresh air could have been introduced by opening hatches without the danger of the sea pouring in, if care had been taken to open them on the port side when the ship was heeling to starboard, or vice versa, but so much thinking in advance for the sake of comfort was not part of the plan. Preservation of food from rot may have had no alternative, but human filth was not incumbent. Given sweat, vomit, defecation and urination, sexual emission and the menstrual flow of women, the human body is not a clean machine, and when people are crowded together in an enclosed space, its effluents can create a degree of unpleasantness raised to the extreme. Means of improving hygiene and sanitation could have been devised if they had been wanted, for men can usually work out the technical means to obtain what is truly desired unless the refrain “it can’t be done” becomes their guide.
Innovations occasionally broke through—not for comfort, but to improve the functioning of the ships. The most important was copper sheathing of the hulls to prevent infestation of crustaceans and worms and plant growth that rotted the bottoms, slowing speed and often rendering a ship unusable altogether. Rodney was always asking for coppered ships, which, in the Admiralty’s rare moments of spending money, were sometimes forthcoming. A wheel on the bridge connecting by pulleys to the rudder and giving the helmsman mechanical control was another advance that by its sheer efficiency managed to introduce itself against the overwhelming power of inertia. Even the time-honored “castles” used by archers in medieval combat were eliminated to lower the center of gravity and make room for more sail. Triangular jib sails to catch an elusive wind were added, over the jeering of the old salts.
In 1742 on board his first ship, the Plymouth, in the Mediterranean, Rodney made his mark at once by bringing in safely an unwieldy convoy of 300 merchant ships of the Lisbon trade through the haunt of enemy privateers at the western end of the channel. This feat brought him to the attention of the public and of thankful merchants of London and Bristol as well as to the Lords of the Admiralty, by whom he was promoted to Captain and later given command of the Eagle, a ship of the line of 64 guns.
Active in commerce-destroying aboard the Eagle, Captain Rodney was not present at Toulon, where he might have supplied the needed vigorous action that he was to show in the second Battle of Finisterre three years later in October, 1747, and the earlier fight off Brest. That year Rodney was with a squadron under Admiral Hawke which the British had dispatched to cruise the Atlantic in search of French trade convoys. In the first engagement, Rodney’s unit under Commodore Thomas Fox fell upon four French warships escorting some 150 merchant sail coming from Santo Domingo, heavily loaded with sugar, coffee, indigo and other goods of the West Indies. During two days of chasing the widely dispersed convoy, Rodney took six ships, escorted his prizes home and put back to sea. He had rejoined Hawke when orders came to attack an outward-bound convoy of 250 French merchantmen, escorted by nine ships of the line. When the English intercepted the French in the waters off Finisterre in Spain, the westernmost point of Europe, there was nothing passive or negligent in the battle that followed. The French Admiral l’Etenduère, in order to give the ships he was escorting a chance to escape, placed himself between them and the English and fought for six hours, inspiring in his captains a fighting spirit as determined as if they were carrying the Dauphin himself on board. The French suffered terrible damages. On the 70-gun Neptune, seven officers and 300 men were killed before she was given up. Rodney fought for an hour against the more powerfulNeptune and a second Frenchman on his other side, until, disabled by a broadside that destroyed the steering wheel and tore sails and rigging, the Eagle drifted clear. Despite heroic resistance, six of the French warships had surrendered by evening. Only two escaped, pursued into the night by Rodney—who, after some repairs, was eager for further action—and by two other ships of the English fleet. The convoyed French merchantmen escaped.
Rodney’s captures raised him another rung in reputation, especially as the spirit shown at Finisterre helped to dispel the cloud of shame of the Toulon courts-martial and more especially as the English loot amounted to over £300,000, paraded, this time through London, for the customary delight of the citizens.
As the begetter of this happy fortune for the government, Rodney was taken up by the Pelhams—Henry Pelham, the First Minister, and his brother the Duke of Newcastle, who were the two ruling patrons of “place.” By them he was made a protégé of the governing party, and supplied with that equipment felt to be a necessity as the path to personal advancement by every man of ambition—a seat in Parliament. He was presented by Admiral Anson, overall commander of the fleet at Finisterre, to King George II, who was much impressed by Rodney’s youth, remarking, as attendant courtiers hastened to take note, that he had “not before imagine[d] that he had so young a man a captain in his navy,” to which Lord Anson replied, “I wish your Majesty had one hundred more such captains, to the terror of your Majesty’s enemies.”
“We wish so too, my lord,” replied the King with ready repartee.
As disciples of Robert Walpole, the Pelhams wanted an end of the war, and after the rich haul at Finisterre, fighting was nominally brought to a close at the peace of Aix-la-Chapelle in 1748. The peace treaty exchanged various territories, but was in reality only a temporary truce which resolved nothing in the struggle for colonial supremacy, because the powers were reluctant to negotiate carefully for fear of prolonging the war. The boundaries of Canada and Nova Scotia and the rights of trade and navigation vis-à-vis Spain were left unsettled, and belligerence continued in the West Indies and North America.
The next year, in 1749, with the smile of royal favor Rodney was named Captain of the Rainbow, carrying with it command of the Newfoundland station and title as Governor. In 1753, he married a sister of the Earl of Northampton, and even before taking on this domestic status he assumed what he saw as his proper place by building a handsome mansion on the grounds of an old manor house in Hampshire and, with due appreciation of the best in the business, had it landscaped by Capability Brown, just as he had selected Reynolds for his portrait. At the same time, he acquired, with rather lordly outlay for a naval captain, a private house on Hill Street in London.
On his return to England from Newfoundland, in 1752, he had to be carried ashore at Portsmouth and turn his ship over to his lieutenant owing to a severe case of gout, the first of the many attacks of illness that were to afflict and sometimes disable him for the remaining forty years of his life. At age thirty-three he was young to be gout’s victim, but the heavy drinking of the 18th century that was a cause of the disease was even heavier on shipboard, to suppress the sickening smells and distract the boredom of long empty days at sea. As gout destroyed the health of the Elder Pitt, Earl of Chatham, England’s greatest statesman of the century, it was to wreck Rodney’s eventually, too, though not until he reached 74. On his homecoming, his ill health was useful, for though ordered to sit on the court-martial of Admiral Byng in 1756, he was excused on the ground of a “violent bilious colic,” and, by an even more fortunate stroke of luck, when the execution was scheduled to take place on his own ship, the Monarch, he was transferred to the Dublinshortly before, and did not have to give the order to “fire!” to a firing squad on his own deck. Luck did not stay with him long, for in February, 1757, his wife, Jane, who had borne him two children, died in the childbirth of the third, a baby girl who survived. Without a wife, Rodney was eager again for action and was soon to find it in the “wonderful year” of 1759 in the full tilt of the Seven Years’ War, when England overcame her enemies in every encounter.
The Seven Years’ War, fought mainly between France and Britain in rivalry for sovereignty of the seas and for colonial dominion in America and to a lesser extent in India, was the central war of the century. In America it was known as the French and Indian War. With hindsight, later historians have seen it as the first real World War because of its subsidiary conflicts in Europe in the web of territorial and dynastic disputes and tangled alliances centering around the duel of Prussia and Austria for dominance. France on Prussia’s side was opposed to England allied with Austria, with Sweden, Spain and the United Provinces variously involved.
The outcome of the war confirmed Britain’s rule of the seas, and her maritime supremacy was soon taken for granted. Horace Walpole, reporting the return of a convoy from India, could calmly assert that it sailed homeward through “the streets of our capital, the ocean.” On land, the major gain was the ceding of Canada by France and the acquisition of Florida in exchange for the return of Havana to Spain. In succinct summary, Admiral Mahan was to state the results in one sentence: The “kingdom of Great Britain had become the British empire.”
Justifying Pitt’s confidence, British sea power during the Seven Years’ War secured an increase of trade reaching 500,000 tons, about one-third that of all Europe, carried by 8,000 merchant vessels filled with the products of new industry journeying to new markets. Convoy of delivery was sacred. Trade was power. It provided the income to maintain the fleet and 200,000 soldiers and mercenaries on British pay, including 50,000 in America. Britain’s priority was, in fact, trade and the income it provided. So much British trade traveled the sea-lanes that the inroads by French commerce raiders and privateers had no appreciable effect on the balance of the war. The West Indies, with their valuable produce, made a centerpiece of commerce directly re-represented by a number of West Indian planters who held twelve to fifteen seats in Parliament and exerted their influence through their wealth and connections rather than through numbers. The most prominent was Sir William Beckford, the largest landowner in Jamaica and twice Lord Mayor of London in the 1760s. How secondary were the colonies of North America was seen after the Revolution had become an armed struggle, when in 1778 Philadelphia was stripped of 5,000 troops for transfer to the West Indies to ward off French recapture, followed by a second convoy of four regiments to the Leewards and four more to Jamaica in 1779. When General Clinton in New York at this time was crying for reinforcements and England was scraping Ireland for recruits and mobilizing the inmates of prisons, a total of 22 battalions had been sent to the West Indies since the beginning of the American war.
The most significant feat of the “wonderful year” of 1759 was General Wolfe’s defeat of the French at Quebec, an indirect victory of the British sea power that Pitt had believed in and prepared as the instrument that would enable England finally to prevail over France in their centuries-old struggle for supremacy. Wolfe’s 9,000 troops were transported to Canada through the British control of the sea, and before they scaled the cliffs to the plains of Abraham the way had been opened by preliminary victories at Ticonderoga and Crown Point. Even at the cost of the loss of a hero, in General Wolfe’s death in the battle on the hilltop, the victory brought a decisive result, for it was followed by the occupation of Montreal, which in turn assured the British conquest of Canada. The French were thereby eliminated from a territory that had allowed them to dispute possession of America. Facing attack on Montreal from below and from behind by General Amherst’s forces coming from Lake Ontario, the Marquis de Vaudreuil, French Governor of Canada, in September, 1759, surrendered the Province of Quebec, or New France, to the English. French presence as a Catholic power and French collusion with the Iroquois, who were hostile to the settlers of the New England colonies, were always seen by both British and Americans as factors that would hold the Colonies loyal for the sake of British protection against the threat from the north. By one of the tricks that Fate likes to use to show the vanity of human expectation, the British by their own victory at Quebec and its removal of the Catholic threat gave the Americans the freedom for rebellion.
Although Rodney sailed in 1758 with the fleet under Admiral Boscawen that was sent against Louisburg, his vessel, the Dublin, was an unhealthy ship, with a crew laid low by an epidemic of fever. It was left behind at Halifax, with the men installed in sheds hastily erected on shore by the ship’s carpenters. Owing to the Dublin’s debility, Rodney missed the assault on the great French fortress whose capture opened the way to Quebec. He joined the victors just before the surrender and sailed home with them to England. He missed, too, in November, 1759, Admiral Hawke’s crushing of the French main fleet, intended for the invasion of England, in the Battle of Quiberon Bay, on the coast of Brittany. Called “the greatest victory since the Armada” by an unidentified enthusiast, it added more laurels to the “wonderful year.” Rodney was engaged at the time on a mission against another aspect of the invasion plan, commanding a squadron ordered to destroy by means of bomb ships a flotilla of flat-bottomed boats gathered at Le Havre as landing craft. These boats were 100 feet long, capable of carrying 400 men each. Promoted in May, 1759, to Rear Admiral of the Blue (blue, white and red were colors originally indicating squadron position in the line, and carrying minor progression in grade from blue through white to red), he took his 60-gun flagship, the Achilles, with four other gunships, five frigates and six bomb ketches to bombard the harbor of Le Havre and burn its boats. While Rodney received from the shore batteries a “very brisk fire indeed,” he inflicted damage on the French boats that left all masts gone and the “boats to all appearance broken-backed” and the port itself believed ruined as a naval arsenal for any further annoyance of Great Britain during the continuance of the war. His bombardment finished off what was left of the invasion plan after the smashing of the French at Quiberon Bay.
Upon his return from the fiery mission to Havre, Rodney found a new King in England. In October, 1760, George III had come to the throne. The first English-born native of the Hanover line, he was infused by belief in his own rectitude and by his mother’s prodding, “George be a King.” He wanted to be a good ruler to his country and a firm sovereign to his empire, especially to those restive Americans, so ungrateful for the war fought on their behalf against the French, as King George and most of his countrymen thought of it. American objection to being taxed for the cost of the war and for future defense was regarded as thankless ingratitude, not as a basic constitutional issue of taxation by a British Parliament in which they had no representation. Whether or not George III comprehended this view of the matter, he was determined to affirm the right of Parliament—or, as he saw it, of the Crown—to tax the Colonies, and he wanted action and active commanders.
A critical area of defense that the King did comprehend was the West Indies. “Our Islands,” George III wrote to Lord Sandwich twenty years later, in 1779, when the American Revolution had become a war, “must be defended even at the risk of an invasion of this island.” George was given to extreme statements, and “even at the risk of invasion” was certainly not a sentiment with which ministers would have agreed. But the navy could not be everywhere at once, and if held in home waters to repel a French invasion, it could not be in sufficient strength in the Caribbean to secure the islands there. “If we lose our Sugar Islands,” the King’s letter continued, “it will be impossible to raise money to continue the war.” While this too seems extreme, it had some basis in the revenue that flowed to the government from the abundant fortunes of the rich planters and merchants of the West Indies. Sandwich agreed that as the French grasp at sea power imperiled the Sugar Islands, Britain’s principal naval effort should be made in the Caribbean. Although the state of the fleet in the Leeward Islands in 1779 was “very deplorable” and needed reinforcements, a successful operation against Martinique was “the most to be wished,” because if it were taken, the other French islands would fall and the French would feel the blow so sharply that “it would probably put an end to the war.” Sandwich also was to recommend, in this 1779 memorandum to the King, action against St. Eustatius, from which the French could supply their West Indies fleet with provisions. If French sea power could be broken in the Caribbean and French islands taken, the full force of the British Navy and Army could be turned upon America and the rebellion put down. While in 1759 the Americans had not yet taken up arms against the mother country, and the letters of the King and the First Lord reflect the strategy of a later situation, they show the overriding importance that the West Indies held in British thinking. Always wanting “bold and manly” efforts and offensive operations to thwart the French instead of the “cautious measures” of his ministers, the King, in October, 1761, the year after he ascended the throne, was happy to approve the appointment of Rodney as Commander-in-Chief at Barbados of the Leeward Island station for the purpose of conducting the naval part of a joint land and sea attack on Martinique. The most populous and flourishing of the French islands, Martinique was the largest island of the chain sometimes called the Windward and sometimes the Leeward group. The nomenclature, as one historian of the region laments, “lacked precision.” Regardless of being nominally grouped with the Leewards, Martinique dominated the windward position. At Fort Royal it had the finest harbor and, as the most flourishing of the French islands, was the capital of the French West Indies and seat of the French Governor-General and the sovereign Council with jurisdiction over all the French Antilles. Barbados, further down the chain and further into the wind, had no good harbor. The English used English Harbor on Antigua, further up the chain from Martinique.
When Rodney on October 21, 1761, taking up his new command, sailed from Plymouth to join the fleet in the West Indies, plans for the attack had already been made, originally by Pitt when First Minister.
Touching at Barbados on November 22, a thirty days’ sail of the westward crossing of the Atlantic, Rodney joined the land forces of General Monckton. Together they reached Martinique on January 7, and the operation, despite the surprising strength of the defense, was a routine West Indian landing. Having “silenced the forts of the coast,” the fleet anchored in St. Pierre’s Bay with the loss of only one ship, not from enemy gunfire but from striking a reef of rocks. “We have saved all her people, all her stores, and I hope soon to get all her guns,” Rodney reported. The fleet having secured the landing and an excellent harbor, a squadron with two brigades was dispatched to the bay of Petite Anse to take up station there, and another squadron to Grande Anse. When Captain Hervey of the Dragon had silenced the battery, Rodney’s marines and seamen attacked and took possession of the fort. “On January 14th I followed with the whole fleet and army,” having again destroyed the enemy’s batteries on shore. After reconnoitering the coast here, he determined with General Monckton to attack Fort Royal on the 16th. And having “very successfully and with little loss silenced the batteries [which seemed to have registered on this occasion a more than ordinary record of uselessness], I landed General Monckton with the greatest part of his forces by sunset; and so the whole army was on shore a little after daylight next morning, without the loss of a man,” with all necessary supplies, and “all ships and transports anchored as much in safety as this coast will admit of.” Two battalions of marines of 450 men each were then landed and proceeded to ascend the heights from which they proposed to lay siege to the fort. On February 10, Rodney was able to congratulate their Lordships on the surrendering of the important citadel of Fort Royal, which had “given his Majesty’s forces possession of the noblest and best harbour in these parts.” He has also taken fourteen “of the enemy’s best privateers” and expects many more from other parts of the island to be delivered to him under the terms of the surrender. He is happy to report “the most perfect harmony” between the army and navy, each vying to serve King and country best. A lively account by an infantry officer with the land forces tells how the sailors dragged cannon and the heaviest mortars up the hills to secure the position, “and,” Rodney reported, “the service they did us, both on shore and on the water, is incredible.” Freedom from the miseries of their ships doubtless lent energy to the rugged pulling.
The surrender of Martinique, leaving the Lesser Antilles defenseless, caused the surrender to Rodney’s fleet of three islands, Ste. Lucie lying south of Martinique, St. Vincent, and Grenada at the bottom of the chain. These were valuable stations, on whose “peaceable possession” Rodney congratulated the Admiralty. Ste. Lucie, largest and considered loveliest of the British Windward Islands, which Rodney had long felt to be particularly desirable, abounded in good ports, while the “important island” of Grenada would provide a safe port in the hurricane months and a very strong citadel.
Meanwhile Jamaica sent him an urgent call for help against an expected combined French and Spanish attack. Anticipating lucrative prizes from this venture, Rodney prepared to go to the relief of Jamaica on his own responsibility, without orders from England, even though General Monckton, more submissive to authority, was not willing to detach forces to go with him without instructions from home. Rodney informed the Admiralty of his intention, on the ground that he believed himself “authorized and obliged to succour any of His Majesty’s colonies that may be in danger,” and assuring their Lordships that he had “no other view but the good of His Majesty’s service.” The Admiralty suspected otherwise and, to Rodney’s angry disappointment, orders arrived instructing him not to pursue his design, because a secret expedition was in preparation for which “everything else must give way” and which he must assist by remaining at his station. Sullen at being deprived of an opportunity of the kind from which fellow-admirals had made fortunes, he prepared his fleet to join the forces for the coming action at Havana, fulcrum of Spanish trade. In the successful outcome at Cuba, Admiral Pocock, who commanded the naval force in the attack, did indeed come away with a fortune in prize money, while Rodney in bitterness gained nothing. In his chagrin, he quarreled with General Monckton, with whom he had worked in such “perfect harmony” at Martinique, and now claimed the General had divided the prizes taken there unfairly.
A more general disappointment was felt next year, in the Peace of Paris of 1763, because of Britain’s softheaded yielding by treaty of almost every advantage she had won by arms in the Seven Years’ War. Martinique, jewel of the Antilles so newly won, and its neighbor Guadeloupe and Ste. Lucie were given back to France, in return for France ceding all of Canada with Nova Scotia and Cape Breton and islands of the St. Lawrence. Like England, France put the valuation of the West Indies over that of Canada. She was willing to cede Canada in exchange for retrieving Martinique, Guadeloupe and Ste. Lucie because she believed the loss to Britain of those islands would do more than anything to injure the commerce necessary to Britain’s life, which the French, like King George, believed was vital to her. The exchange was viewed with disgust by the British public as putting concern for the Colonies ahead of the immense wealth and commercial advantage of the Indies. A similar negative view was taken of the arrangements with Spain by which Cuba and the Philippine Islands were restored to Spain in return for her guarantee to Britain of Florida and all Spanish territory east of the Mississippi except New Orleans. As an exchange designed to safeguard the southern colonies, this too was seen as preferring the interest of the American Colonies before every other.
The British public viewed the Seven Years’ War as having been fought to protect the Colonies from French encroachment against which the Colonials were supposed not to have lifted a finger in their own defense. The fact of the Continentals having opened Wolfe’s way through Ticonderoga to Quebec and having launched the first siege of Louisburg and defended their own settlements against French-sponsored Indian attacks was ignored. As the British had emerged from the war in the strongest position and as unquestionably sovereign of the seas, the giveaway at Paris seemed all the more unnecessary. The fact that Britain obtained under the treaty virtually total control of the North American continent was not recognized as any great gain. The government was seen as placing a higher value on a wild uncleared land, thick with brush and trackless forest, than on the ready revenues of sugar and trade, an exchange that seemed absurd to contemporaries. If it meant a dimly grasped potential of America’s future, that was perhaps a first sign of common sense in the enlightened century—and, as such, thoroughly unpopular to the British citizen.
To persons of extra perception, the prospect presented by securing the Colonies from further encroachment by France or Spain was not favorable. When they “no longer required the protection of Great Britain,” “from that moment,” wrote Rodney’s biographer and son-in-law, admittedly with hindsight, “they may be said to have obtained independence.” He was hurrying history, for eventful years had to pass before a movement for independence took root. But insofar as the Colonies were freed from fear of French and Catholic rule, a turning moment had indeed come. For Rodney, who was promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Blue in October, 1762, the cessation of war meant a period of slowing advancement and frustration and involvement in debt leading to a strange and decisive episode in his life. For the moment, on his return to England after the Peace of Paris, his fortunes progressed quietly, if penuriously, while on half pay, the common fate of all officers and crew of a ship when it was paid off. In recognition of his addition of three valuable islands to the British Empire, he was made a Baronet in January, 1764. In the next year, after being a widower for seven years, he remarried—a lady named Henrietta Clies, about whom very little is told except that in due course she bore him his second son and three daughters. A land post was offered him in November, 1765, as Governor of Greenwich Hospital, a shelter for disabled and indigent seamen and a place affording many openings for jobbery (the contemporary term for bureaucratic graft). Rodney’s tenure was marked by a notable rebuke to his Vice-Governor for refusing to grant greatcoats to the pensioners in winter, especially as the Vice-Governor wore one himself when sitting by a good fire. His own rule, Rodney said, should be “to render the old men’s lives so comfortable” that younger visitors would say: “ ‘Who would not be a sailor, to live as happy as a prince in his old age!’ ” Greatcoats were accordingly ordered.
Without a ship and in proximity to London and the fashionable man’s life, the lures of gambling enveloped Rodney again, although it was less these than the lures of Parliament that were to be his undoing. He had held three seats in the gift of political patrons, but in 1768 Northampton, which he represented, was suddenly contested by an outsider and an election campaign had to be waged in order for Rodney to retain it. Even without television and modern expenses, the cost of a contested election for entertainment, drinks and direct payment for votes was ruinous. The mystique of Parliament was so powerful that Rodney was willing to spend £30,000 for an illusion of power where he exercised no influence and from which he obtained no benefit and which plunged him even more deeply in debt. In 1771, he was named to the honorary position of Rear Admiral of Great Britain and appointed Commander-in-Chief of Jamaica. Since half his designated salary as Rear Admiral was withheld until he had accounted to the Navy Board for expenditures of public money in Jamaica and to other claims upon his salary, he asked to retain his Greenwich Hospital post, as, he pointed out, three predecessors had been allowed to do before him. Lord Sandwich, showing signs of some unexplained grudge, refused to allow this and when, after his service in Jamaica, Rodney asked to be appointed Governor of that island, this too was refused. Embittered and resentful, he faced coming to the end of his three-year commission with the prospect of returning to England on half pay unless he was given another post. Advised upon his return in September, 1774, that he should leave the country rather than face a possibility of debtor’s prison, he fled to Paris. Here the pleasures of elegant life and sociable companions who admired the handsome English Admiral overcame him once more, until the burden of new debts he had incurred imprisoned him in the French capital, if not within stone walls. The French police made it plain that he would not be allowed to leave the city until his Parisian creditors were paid.
At this moment the shots at Lexington and Concord announced the American rebellion and put Rodney in a frenzy of impatience to take his part in action at sea. He was held immobile, however, for in spite of urgent letters to Lord Sandwich offering his service for active duty and his readiness “to go on any enterprise … at a moment’s warning,” no recall came from the Admiralty and nothing more than a formal and official reply from the First Lord, who in his fulsome correspondence had always professed himself Rodney’s true friend.
Rebellion against England of her primary colony was now a fact, bringing a foreboding of international conflict. That was realized when in February, 1778, France entered into alliance with the Colonies after the stunning American victory at Saratoga in October, 1777, that brought with it the nearly unbelievable surrender of General Burgoyne’s army of 5,700, who were shipped home as prisoners under oath not to resume arms against America. Four months later, in March, 1778, the French informed the British government that they recognized the independence of the United States of America, and had concluded treaties of alliance and of amity and commerce with the Continental Congress upon condition that neither party should make a separate peace before England acknowledged American independence. The alliance changed the war, putting a major power on the side of the rebels and embroiling Britain once more against her ancient enemy.
*Besides trading in their own right, many were acting as agents of merchants in England, who shipped their goods across the Channel to Holland, from where they were transshipped with Dutch cargoes to St. Eustatius and thence to America.