Tuesday, November 20, 2012

People: The Fighting Admiral

Over at the ever popular History Crushes Tumblr site - if you're not following them, you really should - the above portrait of Admiral Sir John Harman popped up. The person who submitted him as their history crush indicated that they had Googled "British Admirals" in images and - without knowing anything about him - had promptly fallen in love with Sir John.

The serendipity here is amusing; at least to me. Back in college (when dinosaurs roamed the world) I did a paper analyzing Harman's contribution to the Four Days' Battle of June 1 through 4, 1666. Where that paper got off to I cannot say, but I have some vague memories of the Admiral and thought him a fitting, and swashbuckling, addition to Triple P's roll of famous fighting seamen.

Sir John Harman first shows up in written history in relation to the Battle of Portland fought at sea in February of 1652. At the time he was in command of HMS Welcome, a man-of-war of 40 guns and about 200 crewmen. This would indicate that Harman had been at sea for some time prior, placing his date of birth no later than the early 1630s. It is most probable that he was born earlier than that.

Some historians connect Harman's family with the Harmans of Suffolk, some of whose members commanded ships for Cromwell during the Commonwealth. If this is the case, Sir John may have come up the ranks in the Restoration navy rather than starting his career as an officer. Another hint in this direction is that his family may have built and owned ships used by Charles II's navy.

Whatever the case, Harman was an able naval thinker who did not shy away from a fight. Most of his life at sea was spent battling Holland in the First and Second Anglo-Dutch Wars. As frequently happened with capable commanders, Harman rose quickly in rank during war time. By1665 he was in command of Royal Charles, which flew the white flag of the Duke of York who was Admiral of the White at the time. It was in Royal Charles that Harman saw his first victory over the Dutch.

When the battle was winding down, the Dutch fleet began to flee and Harman gave chase with other Royal Navy ships following his lead. Admiral Sir William Penn, who was aboard Royal Charles and therefor technically outranking Captain Harman, had taken ill and retired to his cabin. He and the Duke of York, who was also aboard, ordered the chase called off. One of the Duke's gentlemen, a man named Henry Brouncker, was sent on deck to relay the order to Harman.

The Captain would not take orders from a man he would later refer to, in the ensuing enquiry, as a "genlteman-in-waiting" and continued the chase. Exasperated, no doubt, by the continuous harping of Penn and the Duke, Brouncker - on his third trip up to the quarterdeck - lied to Harman saying the Penn was gravely ill and in danger of death and that the Duke had strictly forbidden the chase. Harman, with much grumbling, shortened sail and allowed the Dutch to escape.

The later enquiry put all fault for the "shyness of the fleet" on Brouncker. Harman, on the other hand, was awarded a knighthood and made Rear Admiral of the White. His flag was hoisted aboard HMS Resolution and he promptly set out to escort merchant convoys from the far east. In early 1666, Harman and his flag were shifted to HMS Henry (or Henery according to Pepys diary). It was aboard this ship that his greatest adventure would occur.

During the Four Days' Battle, Henry was a particular target of the Dutch, doubtless owing to the accuracy of her guns and the fighting spirit of her crew. Fireships were sent against her, causing fire aboard her so severe that some 50 members of her crew jumped overboard. Most lost their lives to drowning, preferring that to burning alive.

They should have hesitated to end their lives, however. Harman roused his remaining crew and fought off and sunk the fireships while simultaneously putting out the fires aboard Henry. According to Pepys, Harman's leg was broken when a mast of one of the fireships fell across Henry's deck. Though Henry was obliged to limp home for a refit, the victory that claimed so many English lives - including Harman's superior Vice-Admiral Sir William Berkeley - was accredited in no small part to Harman.

Sir John's broken leg became troublesome, possibly festering as it healed, and he retired from service for six months. By March of 1667 he was back in action again. He took command of England's West Indies station. He spent time at Barbados and engaged the French on more than one occasion after their capture of Martinique. Through his efforts, England acquired the holdings of Cayenne and Surinam as well.

In 1673 he was back in English waters and promoted to Vice-Admiral of the Red. He again saw action against the Dutch, but his health was failing. One legendary story tells of Harman engaging the famous Dutch Admiral De Ruyter. Too ill to stand, Harman had an armchair nailed to the quarterdeck and there he sat throughout the battle, seemingly impervious to the shot the whizzed past him from every angle.

This was his last hurrah, however. After being appointed Admiral of the Blue that same year, he retired to his home where he died in October of 1673. He was survived by his wife, the heiress Katherine Harinan Harman, a son James who would die a captain battling Barbary corsairs, and a daughter. This daughter, curiously enough, married Dauntesey Brouncker, Earl of Stoke, a relative of her father's near nemesis, Henry Brouncker.

Regardless of setbacks and long years away from home, one would be hardpressed to find a more capable fighting captain than Admiral Sir John Harman. And yeah; he was dashingly handsome, too.

Header: Admiral Sir John Harman by Sir Peter Lely via FYHC on Tumblr


Timmy! said...

Cool post, Pauline. Harman seems like he was an ass-kicker... Kind of an ironic twist there with his daughter too.

Pauline said...

He was a pretty busy naval commander. The sad part is that his line kind of died out. His son had no children prior to his death and, though his daughter and Dauntesey had two daughters, neither of his grandchildren has "issue."

But hey, he was a sailor, right? There are probably some descendants of Admiral Sir John Harman running around somewhere...

Blue Lou Logan said...

Clearly a no-quarter kinda guy. And a chin worthy of Bruce Campbell.

Pauline said...

Big time; and excellent observation. One can hear the good Admiral saying "This is my boomstick!"

Charles L. Wallace said...

Nice one, Pauline, and thank you!
My knowledge of the good Admiral has just increased many-fold.