Corbet, Robert (DNB00)

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CORBET, ROBERT (d. 1810), captain in the navy, of an old Shropshire family, attained the rank of lieutenant on 22 Dec. 1796; and having served with distinction during the operations on the coast of Egypt in 1801, in command of the Fulminette cutter, was promoted to be commander on 29 April 1802. On the renewal of the war he was appointed to the Bittern brig, and sent to the Mediterranean, where he won high praise from Nelson, then commander-in-chief of the station, and especially by the capture of the Hirondelle privateer (Nelson Despatches, vi. 51, 58, 363). In April 1805 he was appointed, by Nelson, acting captain of the Amphitrite, but he was not confirmed in the rank till 24 May 1806. Shortly afterwards he commissioned the Néréide frigate, and in her took part in the operations in the Rio de la Plata. He then passed on to the Cape of Good Hope, and in August 1808 was sent to Bombay to refit. His conduct at Bombay, in taking on himself the duties of senior officer and breaking through the routine of the station, drew on him the displeasure of the commander-in-chief, Sir Edward Pellew, afterwards Viscount Exmouth, who represented that Corbet's letters and actions were unbecoming. The ship's company of the Néréide also preferred a complaint against him of cruelty and oppression. Corbet, in reply, demanded a court-martial; and Pellew, not being able to form a court at Bombay, ordered the ship to return to the Cape of Good Hope, in order that he might be tried there. This was, unfortunately, not explained to the men, who, conceiving that their temperate complaint had been unheeded, broke out into open mutiny. The mutiny was quelled, and when the ship arrived at the Cape, ten of the ringleaders were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death, protesting their innocence of any evil design, beyond a wish for the ship to return to the Cape, so that their grievances might be inquired into. One of the ten was left for execution, but the other nine were pardoned. When this trial was over, that on Corbet began. No charges of diabolical cruelty were ever more simply put, or more clearly proved, even if they were not admitted. It was acknowledged that the number of men flogged was very great; that the cat in ordinary use had knots on the tails, and that the backs of the sufferers were habitually pickled; that the boatswain's mates and other petty officers were encouraged to thrash the men without any formality—an irregular punishment known as ‘starting,’ and that these startings were administered with thick sticks. There were numerous other minor charges, and Corbet, making no attempt to refute the evidence, based his defence on the necessities of his position and the custom of the service. The ship's company, he urged, was exceptionally bad; drunkenness, malingering, and skulking were everyday offences; desertion was frequent; the petty officers were as bad as or worse than the men; ‘severity was necessary to reform their conduct, and perhaps it was used.’ The prisoner was, strangely, acquitted on all the counts except on that of having caused men to be punished ‘with sticks of an improper size and such as are not usual in his majesty's service,’ and for this alone he was reprimanded. The admiralty, however, wrote (4 Aug. 1809) to express high disapproval ‘of the manifest want of management, good order, and discipline’ in the ship, and strongly condemned and prohibited ‘starting,’ which they pronounced ‘unjustifiable,’ and ‘extremely disgusting to the feelings of British seamen.’ After the court-martial, however, Corbet resumed the command of the Néréide, and on 21 Aug. 1809 had an important share in the capture of the Caroline frigate and other vessels in St. Paul's Bay in the Isle of Bourbon (James, Nav. Hist. ed. 1860, v. 58). The Caroline was received into the service as the Bourbonnaise, and Corbet appointed to command her for the voyage to England. He arrived at Plymouth in the spring of 1810, and was immediately appointed to the Africaine, under orders to go out to the station from which he had just come. The Africaine had been some time in commission, and her men were extremely averse to receiving their new captain, who was reported to be a monster of cruelty. They forwarded a round-robin to the admiralty, expressing their determination not to let Corbet come on board. But the ship was in Plymouth Sound, and the Menelaus dropped alongside ready to fire into her. The mutiny was thus repressed almost before it broke out, and Corbet going on board read his commission and assumed the command. Some further display of ill-will was repressed without undue severity, and during the passage out to Mauritius the ship's company seem to have been well satisfied with their lot. On 11 Sept. 1810 they sighted Mauritius. During the previous month things had gone badly with the English squadron. The Sirius, Magicienne, and Néréide had been destroyed [see Willoughby, Nisbet Josiah], and the Iphigenia had been captured [see Chads, Henry Ducie]. Corbet learned at the same time that two sail seen in the distance were the French frigates Astrée and Iphigénie (the former Iphigenia). He stood towards them; was joined by Commodore Rowley in the Boadicea frigate, together with the Otter and the Staunch; and the capture of the French ships appeared probable. It was not till the morning of the 13th that the Africaine was close up with the French ships; they were then within two or three hours' sail of Port Louis, and the Boadicea was some five miles dead to leeward. Corbet, fearing they might escape, opened fire on the Astrée, which immediately returned it. In her second broadside a round-shot took off Corbet's right foot, and a splinter smashed his right thigh. He was carried below, and died a few hours afterwards. But meantime the Africaine, overpowered by the two French ships, all her officers being killed or wounded, having sustained a total loss of 163 killed and wounded out of a complement of 295, and being dismasted and helpless, struck her flag and was taken possession of. In the afternoon, when the Boadicea with the Otter and Staunch came up, the French fled, leaving their prize, which was recaptured without difficulty (James, v. 176). The loss of the Africaine and the death of Corbet have been fertile subjects for naval myths. It was currently said that the men refused to fight, and allowed themselves to be shot down by the dozen, sooner than endeavour to win a victory for their hated captain (Basil Hall, Fragments of Voyages and Travels, 2nd ser. iii. 322), a statement which is clearly disproved by the evidence of Captain Jenkin Jones, a master's mate on board the Africaine (Character and Conduct of the late Captain Corbet vindicated, 1839, p. 15). It was also reported that Corbet was shot by one of his own men, which the character of his wounds shows was impossible; and again that, refusing to survive his defeat, he tore the bandages off the stump of his leg, and so bled to death (Brenton, Nav. Hist. iv. 477), a story possible, but entirely unsupported by any evidence. It seems certain, however, that, notwithstanding the good behaviour of the men, which Captain Jones extols, and the discipline on which Corbet prided himself, the fire of the Africaine was wild and ineffective; that she fired away all her shot without inflicting any serious loss on either of her opponents, whose return, on the contrary, was deadly and effective. Of Corbet's courage there can be no doubt; but his judgment in engaging may be questioned, his neglect of the essential training of his men must be blamed, and the brutal severity of his punishments has left a stain on his character which even his gallant death cannot wipe away.

[Minutes of the courts-martial and official letters in the Public Record Office; the pamphlet by Captain Jenkin Jones which is referred to in the text is a collective reprint of articles which appeared in the United Service Journal, 1832, pt. iii. pp. 162, 397.]

J. K. L.