Today is the birthday (1653) of John Benbow, admiral of the Royal Navy, who is remembered in the names of a few pubs and inns, mostly along the south coast of England, and in a broadside ballad that used to be popular at folk clubs when I was (a lot) younger.
The Admiral Benbow is also the name of the inn where Jim Hawkins lives with his mother at the beginning of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island: a suitable salty dog name to set the stage for a pirate adventure. In reality, John Benbow was the scourge of pirates who were certainly not ever happy to come across him at sea. Benbow’s fame and success at sea earned him both public notoriety and promotion to admiral. He was involved in an incident during the Action of August 1702, where a number of his captains refused to support him while commanding a squadron of ships. Benbow instigated the trial and later imprisonment or execution of a number of the captains involved, though he did not live to see these results because he eventually succumbed to wounds he sustained in the battle – adding to his fame.
Benbow was born the son of William and Martha Benbow. The astrologer John Partridge recorded the exact time and date of his birth as being at noon on 10 March 1653, and this is the date used by the National Museum of the Royal Navy and the local historical accounts of Joseph Nightingale published in 1818. A biography within an 1819 publication of The Gentleman’s Magazine, however, records in a short biography entitled Life and Exploits of Admiral Benbow by D. Parkes that he was born in 1650, as does the 1861 Sea kings and naval heroes by John George Edgar. Edgar records that Benbow’s father died when Benbow was very young, while Parkes’ account describes his father as being in the service of the Army under Charles I and not dying until Benbow was in his teens. His uncle, Thomas, was executed by Charles I. Both Parkes and the National Museum of the Royal Navy concur that Benbow was born in Coton Hill outside Shrewsbury, and Nightingale asserts that the death of both uncle and father, and the family’s association with Charles I in the years following his execution, ensured that the “family were brought very low.” Hence, he pursued a career at sea.
Benbow entered the Royal Navy on 30 April 1678, aged 25 years. He became master’s mate aboard the 64-gun HMS Rupert under the command of Captain Arthur Herbert, whilst she was fitting out at Portsmouth. He sailed with her to the Mediterranean, where Herbert was promoted to the rank of vice-admiral whilst serving under the commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Admiral Sir John Narborough. During this period the English fleet was often in action against the Barbary pirates of North Africa that were actively preying upon European shipping. The Rupert herself captured an Algerine warship in 1678, which was later commissioned in the Royal Navy as the HMS Tiger Prize. Benbow distinguished himself in a number of actions against the Algerine vessels, and won Herbert’s approval. On Narborough’s return to England, Herbert was appointed acting commander-in-chief, and made Benbow master aboard HMS Nonsuch on 15th June 1679. The Nonsuch remained at Tangiers and off the African coast and had a number of successive captains who went on to achieve flag rank, including George Rooke, Cloudesley Shovell, and Francis Wheler. All were impressed by Benbow, and afterwards helped to advance his career.
The Nonsuch was paid off on 9th November 1681. Benbow left the Navy and entered the merchant service, sailing a merchant vessel from London and Bristol to ports in Italy and Spain. By 1686 he was described as a “tough merchant seaman” and the owner and commander of a frigate named the Benbow, trading with the Levant. In May 1687 he commanded a merchant vessel, the Malaga Merchant, and was aboard her when she was attacked by a Salé pirate. He mounted a successful defense and beat off the attack. It was claimed afterwards that he cut off and salted the heads of thirteen Moors who were slain aboard his ship, and then took them into Cadiz to claim a reward from the magistrates. A Moorish skull-cap, “coated with varnish and set in silver” and bearing the inscription “First adventure of Captain John Benbow, and gift to Richard Ridley, 1687” is referred to in 1844 by Charles Dickens in Bentley’s Miscellany.
Benbow returned to the Royal Navy after the Glorious Revolution in 1688. His first recorded commission was to the post of third lieutenant of HMS Elizabeth on 1 June 1689, under the command of Captain David Mitchell. His first command came on 20th September of that year, when he was appointed captain of HMS York. He was transferred to HMS Bonaventure on 26th October and then to HMS Britannia on 12th November. Benbow’s next post was as Master Attendant of Chatham Dockyard. He then moved to become Master Attendant at Deptford Dockyard in early March 1690, a post he intermittently held for the next 6 years. He was master of HMS Sovereign in summer 1690, under his old commander Arthur Herbert, now Lord Torrington. He was assigned to act as master of the fleet, and took part in the English defeat in the Battle of Beachy Head. After the defeat, a Royal Commission was held into the circumstances that led to it. Benbow was highly regarded as a specialist in both navigation and pilotage, and his evidence given in July 1690 to the preliminary investigation strongly favored his old patron, Torrington. He did not however testify during Torrington’s court-martial in December that year.
Benbow was promoted to rear-admiral of the red on 14th April, followed by vice-admiral of the blue on 30th June. He then flew his flag in the 70-gun HMS Breda. With the peace becoming increasingly uneasy, the English government became concerned over the possible fate of the Spanish silver fleet, due to arrive in European waters from South America. They were worried that the French would intercept the ships and use the treasure for war preparations. Benbow was issued secret instructions to find the fleet, and then “to seize and bring them to England, taking care that no embezzlement be made.” Benbow’s squadron was detached on 2nd September and sailed for the West Indies, arriving on 14th November, and was at the Jamaica station in mid-December. He remained there for several months, being joined on 8th May 1702 by several vessels under Captain William Whetstone. Whetstone was made rear-admiral under Benbow, who had been promoted to Vice-Admiral of the White on 19th January 1702.
By now, the War of the Spanish Succession had broken out, and news of its declaration reached Benbow on 7th July. He detached Whetstone and six ships to search off Port St Louis in Hispaniola for a French squadron under admiral Jean du Casse, which he believed would call at the port on his voyage to Cartagena, and from there he might raid English and Dutch shipping. After Whetstone had left, Benbow took his squadron and sailed for Cartagena, anticipating that either he or Whetstone would find Du Casse and bring him to battle.
By the time that Whetstone had reached Hispaniola, Du Casse had already departed. Benbow’s force subsequently sighted the French on 19th August, sailing off Cape Santa Marta. The French had three transports and four warships carrying between 68 and 70 guns, while Benbow commanded seven ships carrying between 50 and 70 guns. The English forces were heavily scattered, and the light winds meant that they were slow to regroup. They did not achieve a form of collective order until four in the afternoon, after which a partial engagement was fought, lasting about two hours, until nightfall caused the fleets to temporarily break off.
The action quickly revealed a breakdown in discipline amongst Benbow’s captains. He had intended that the 64-gun HMS Defiance under Captain Richard Kirkby would lead the line of battle, but Kirkby was not maintaining his station. Benbow decided to take the lead himself, and the Breda pulled ahead, followed by the 50-gun HMS Ruby under Captain George Walton. The two maintained contact with the French throughout the night, but the other five ships refused to close. The chase ensued until 24th August, with only Benbow, Walton, and Samuel Vincent aboard HMS Falmouth making active efforts to bring the French to battle. At times, they bore the brunt of the fire of the entire squadron. The Ruby was disabled on 23rd August, and Benbow ordered her to retire to Port Royal. The French resumed the action at two in the morning on 24th August, the entire squadron closing on the Breda from astern and pounding her. Benbow himself was hit by a chain-shot that broke his leg and he was carried below.
Benbow was determined to continue the pursuit, despite his wounds and despite Captain Kirkby’s arrival on board, attempting to persuade Benbow to abandon the pursuit. Benbow summoned a council of war, and the other captains agreed, signing a paper drafted by Kirkby which declared that they believed “that after six days of battle the squadron lacked enough men to continue and that there was little chance of a decisive action, since the men were exhausted, there was a general lack of ammunition, the ships’ rigging and masts were badly damaged, and the winds were generally variable and undependable.” They recommended breaking off the action and following the French to see if the situation improved. Benbow ordered the squadron to return to Jamaica. On their arrival, he ordered the captains to be imprisoned, awaiting a trial by court-martial.
Acting Rear-Admiral Whetstone returned to Port Royal, having spent 62 days cruising off Hispaniola, and preparations were made for the trial. Before it could begin, Captain Thomas Hudson, who had commanded HMS Pendennis, died.The remaining captains appeared at the court-martial which convened on the Breda, held between 19th and 23rd October. Due to his injuries, Benbow passed the role of presiding over the court to Whetstone, but he was present at the trial. The court found Captain Kirkby of the HMS Defiance and Cooper Wade of the Greenwich guilty of breach of orders, neglect of duty, and the “ill signed paper and consultation … which obliged the Admiral … to give over the chase and fight”, and condemned them to be shot.
John Constable of HMS Windsor was found guilty of breach of orders and drunkenness and was cashiered. Samuel Vincent of the Falmouth and Christopher Fogg of the Breda were initially sentenced to be cashiered for signing the six captains’ resolution, but Benbow personally declared that they had fought bravely, and their sentences were remitted by the Lord High Admiral. The sentences were deferred so that Queen Anne could have a chance to examine the proceedings. After her consideration in January 1703, she allowed the sentences to proceed and Constable, Kirkby, and Wade were returned to England as prisoners. Constable was imprisoned until 1704, when the Queen pardoned him. Kirkby and Wade were shot aboard HMS Bristol on 16 April 1703 while she was anchored in Plymouth Sound under Captain Edward Acton. Controversy slowly began to develop over the events of August 1702. Supporters of the disgraced Kirkby and Wade sought to discredit Benbow by publishing their own account of the action.
Benbow died at Port Royal, Kingston, Jamaica on 4 November 1702. Whetstone reported that the cause of death was “the wound of his leg which he received in battle with Monsieur Du Casse, it never being set to perfection, which malady being aggravated by the discontent of his mind, threw him into a sort of melancholy which ended his life as before.” He was buried on 16th November in the chancel of St Andrew’s Church, Kingston.
A marble slab was later laid over the grave, emblazoned with a coat of arms and inscribed:
Here lyeth the Body of John Benbow, Esq., Admiral of the White, a true pattern of English Courage, who lost his life in Defence of his Queene & Country, November the 4th, 1702, In the 52nd year of his age, by a wound in his Legg. Received in an Engagement with Monsr. Du Casse; being Much Lamented.
Benbow’s fame led to his name entering popular culture. A monument by sculptor John Evan Thomas was erected in 1843 by public subscription in St Mary’s Church, Shrewsbury commemorating Benbow as “a skillful and daring seaman whose heroic exploits long rendered him the boast of the British Navy and still point him out as the Nelson of his times.” A 74-gun ship of the line and two battleships since have been named HMS Benbow.
The incident of August 1702 also took hold on the popular imagination and was celebrated in a broadside ballad that has remained popular among folkies of a certain generation. This is a halfway decent rendition. Fair warning. I have just created a YouTube channel and when I get all the kinks ironed out I will be recording my own singing so that I do not have to settle for lesser versions of songs I like. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
Here is a 17th century recipe for shoulder of mutton stuffed with oysters from The Whole Duty of a Woman: Or a Guide to the Female Sex (1696). You will need a boned shoulder of lamb for this if you want to try it. Lay the shoulder out flat and spread on it a layer of oysters sprinkled with “sweet herbs.” In the 17th century they would have been parsley, lovage, rosemary, and thyme – possibly also chamomile, chives, fennel, lemon balm, sorrel, and wormwood. Make your choice. Then roll up the shoulder, enclosing the oysters and herbs, and roast. I always roast quickly in a very hot oven. Use the drippings so make the sauce by pouring them off into a skillet, adding flour to make a roux over medium heat, then adding in some red wine seasoned with pepper and nutmeg to taste. Slice the roast and serve it with the sauce.
Shoulder of Mutton with Oysters.
Stuff your Mutton with strong Oysters, of a moderate size, and sweet herbs, roast it before a pretty quick Fire, basting it with Butter, and saving the Gravy which falls from it, separate from the Fat, make it into a sauce, with Claret, Pepper, and grated Nutmeg, then lay the Oysters that you pull out about the Mutton, Garnish it with Parsley, and slices of Lemon; and so serve it up.