Tuesday, August 9, 2011

People: Brave Benbow

Every kid who has read Robert Lewis Stevenson’s Treasure Island remembers the inn where Jim Hawkins and his mother lived: the Admiral Benbow. In fact, the first chapter of the book is entitled “The Old Sea Dog at the Admiral Benbow”. This is no simple imagining on the part of Stevenson; many public houses were named after the famous British naval hero and pirate hunter, Admiral John Benbow.


John Benbow was born into country aristocracy some time in the mid-1600s. The National Museum of the Royal Navy states his date of birth as March 10, 1653 but there are other sources that say he was born in 1650. Either way, his family was very much attached to Charles I, which did not go well for them during the Cromwellian protectorate. One of Benbow’s uncles, Thomas, was executed either by the king himself or by Cromwell.

His family having fallen on hard times, Benbow decided to seek his fortune at sea in his early 20s. Though this makes him a late bloomer as seamen go, Benbow seems to have brought enthusiasm and audacity to his new profession and his successes mounted quickly. By 1678 he was master’s mate aboard HMS Rupert when she was sent to battle Barbary pirates on the Mediterranean coast of Africa. In 1679 he was promoted to master and sailing aboard HMS Nonsuch off Tangiers.

Nonsuch was quite successful in the taking of rich Barbary prizes, but when a dispute over how prize shares should be paid out arose with another ship, Benbow seems to have gotten a case of loose lips. He was court martialled for speaking ill of the officers of HMS Adventure and, of his own accord, left the service.

Around this time, Benbow married a woman named Martha (which was also his mother’s name). They would set up homekeeping in Stepney and eventually have seven children, five boys (three of whom died in childhood) and two girls.

Despite domestic bliss, Benbow by now had the sea bug and he turned to merchant service. He sailed a frigate, which he evidently owned and named eponymously, from Spain to Italy on regular runs. He continued to fight pirates, this time to protect his own ship and cargo. Dickens wrote in 1844 of seeing a silver cup made from a “Moorish skull-cap” which was inscribed:

First adventure of Captain John Benbow, and gift to Richard Ridley, 1687

Whether or not this was our John Benbow is somewhat in dispute as one of Benbow’s sons was also named John and followed his father into the service. The date, if accurate, would seem to point to the original Admiral Benbow.

For what ever reason, Benbow was welcomed back into the Royal Navy in 1688 with the rank of lieutenant. He was present at the Battle of Beachy Head, where his valor was noted against the French. He did a brief stint at Deptford Dockyard as master attendant but was again called to pirate hunting in 1693. This time, though, his talents would be used against the privateers of northern France.

Benbow’s particular foil was the Hero of Dunkirk, Jean Bart, who regularly slipped Benbow’s blockades of both his home port and Saint-Malo. Though Benbow led a bombardment of the latter city as captain of HMS Norwich, Bart’s flotilla of privateers managed to continue to harass English merchants in the Channel and elsewhere. Despite this, Benbow’s own taking of French prizes was noted by the Admiralty and he was promoted to Rear Admiral in 1695.

After a failed attempt to bombard the city of Dunkirk, Benbow was given new orders. He was sent to England’s American colonies in 1697 where he escorted merchants in the Caribbean and up and down the coast from Virginia to Newfoundland, protecting them from French buccaneers. This task kept the now Admiral occupied until 1700, when he returned to England and briefly commanded a fleet of ships in the Downs.

Benbow was in Jamaica by 1701 and poised to fight his most illustrious and well-remembered battle. In August of 1702, Vice-Admiral Benbow in command of HMS Breda and leading a squadron of heavily armed men-of-war, met the famous French Admiral Jean du Casse commanding a squadron of his own. The engagement began August 19 off Santa Marta and continued, either as a fire fight or a chase, for five days. In the course of the battle, Benbow was brutally injured; struck by chain shot that shattered the lower portion of one of his legs.

Though Benbow was insistent on keeping up the chase, he having finally put du Casse on the run, his captains intervened. They went so far as to draw up and mutually sign a paper stating that the action could not be won, and should be called off. Infuriated, Benbow bowed to their wishes and took his ships back to Port Royal. The incident caused uproar, and all of Benbow’s captains were called to a courts martial.

Meanwhile, Benbow received a letter from his old foe du Casse. According to the Age of Nelson online it read:

Sir, I had little hopes on Monday last but to have supped in your cabin; but it pleased God to order it otherwise. I am thankful for it. As for those cowardly captains who deserted you, hang them up, for by God they deserve it. Yours, Du Casse

In fact, none of the captains were hanged. After Queen Anne herself reviewed the findings of their trials, she approved dismissal for three of them and – in a curious twist not often seen in any navy – the death by shooting of captains Kirby and Wade. The sentence was carried out aboard HMS Bristol in April of 1703.

John Benbow, who was already being called brave for his heroism at the Action of August 1702, died of complications from his leg wounds on November 4, 1702. He was laid to rest in St. Andrew’s Church, Kingston.

Benbow’s career at sea was quite literally all over the board, much like that of Sir Francis Drake. This type of sailor for all seasons was on the wane when John Benbow died in Jamaica. His commitment to his calling though, and his bravery, can never be disputed. And, thanks at least in part to Stevenson, Admiral Benbow’s name will never be forgotten.

Header: John Benbow by Sir Godfrey Kneller c 1701

5 comments:

Mitch said...

I had no idea that the "Admiral Benbow" in Treasure Island was named after a real person... Thanks for posting this!

Pauline said...

My pleasure, indeed. The Admiral certainly packed a lot of living into his 50 odd years on earth (and at sea).

Timmy! said...

Ahoy Pauline! And with his "enthusiasm and audacity" he would make a good candidate for the "Deadliest Warror" show... Just saying.

Pauline said...

He would indeed. That said, I'm betting they'll never do a "high seas" "Deadliest Warrior" due to logistics. Although my first choice would be Nelson vs. Porter. I know who I'm championing (all apologies, Horatio, but you gotta support your team).

Charles L. Wallace said...

What a smashing idea! (Sadly, you are probably right about the logistics thing...)