Gambier, James (1756-1833) (DNB00)

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GAMBIER, JAMES, Lord Gambier (1756–1833), admiral of the fleet, son of John Gambier, lieutenant-governor of the Bahamas, and nephew of Vice-admiral James Gambier (1723-1789) [q. v.], was born at New Providence on 13 Oct. 1756, and at the age of eleven was entered on the books of the Yarmouth, guard-ship at Chatham, then commanded by his uncle. He was made lieutenant on 12 Feb. 1777, while serving on the North American station, and a year afterwards was promoted to the command of the Thunder bomb, which a few months later was picked up by the French fleet under D'Estaing. Gambier was soon exchanged, and on 9 Oct. 1778 was posted to the Raleigh frigate, in which, in May 1779, he took part in the relief of Jersey, and in May 1780 in the capture of Charlestown by Arbuthnot. He had no further employment afloat till April 1793, when he commissioned the Defence of 74 guns for service in the Channel. Gambier's notions of religion and morality were much stricter than those in vogue at that time; the Defence was spoken of as ‘a praying ship,’ and it was freely questioned whether it was possible for her to be ‘a fighting ship’ as well. The doubt, if it really existed, was set at rest on 1 June 1794, when the Defence was the first ship to break through the enemy's line. She was then closely engaged by two or three French ships, and sustained heavy loss. All her masts were shot away. The story is told that towards the close of the battle, as she was lying a helpless log on the water, Captain Pakenham of the Invincible, passing within hail, called to Gambier in friendly banter: ‘I see you've been knocked about a good deal: never mind, Jimmy, whom the Lord loveth he chasteneth.’ Gambier's conduct had, however, attracted Howe's notice, and he was one of those specially recommended for the gold medal. In the following winter he was appointed to the Prince George of 98 guns, but did not go to sea in her, being nominated as one of the lords of the admiralty; and though he was promoted to be rear-admiral on 1 June 1795, and again, on 14 Feb. 1799, to be vice-admiral, he remained at the admiralty till February 1801, when he hoisted his flag in the Neptune, as third in command of the Channel fleet. In the spring of 1802 he went out to Newfoundland as governor and commander-in-chief on that station, and on his return after two years was reappointed to the admiralty, where he continued till the change of ministry in February 1806, during which time he, in concert with Sir Roger Curtis [q. v.], was mainly responsible for the omission from the revised ‘King's Regulations and Admiralty Instructions’ (1 Jan. 1806) of the order to enforce the salute to the king's flag from all foreign ships within the king's seas, an order that had been maintained since the time of King John, if not from the time of William the Conqueror.

Gambier seems to have been as ignorant of naval history as careless of naval prestige, and must be considered as one of the chief of the perpetrators of the official blunder which, in the warrant of 9 Nov. 1805, appointing admirals of the red, spoke of the rank as restored to the navy, whereas, in point of fact, it had never previously existed. By the extensive promotion accompanying this warrant Gambier became an admiral. He was recalled to the admiralty in April 1807, but hoisted his flag in July on board the Prince of Wales in command of the fleet which proceeded to the Baltic, and, in concert with the army under Lord Cathcart [see Cathcart, Sir William Schaw, first Earl Cathcart], bombarded Copenhagen on 2–5 Sept. On the 6th negotiations were concluded, and the surrender of the town and ships of war formally agreed to on the 7th. The ships, as many as were seaworthy, were hastily equipped, and on 21 Oct. the fleet, the transports, and the Danish navy sailed for England. The achievement was not one from which much glory accrued to either navy or army, for the British force was, both afloat and ashore, overpoweringly superior to the Danish. The strategical and political advantages were, however, very great, and the government bestowed rewards as though for a brilliant victory. Gambier was raised to the peerage as Lord Gambier; Cathcart was made a viscount; and the other flag or general officers were made baronets. Gambier resumed his seat at the admiralty, but vacated it in the following spring to take command of the Channel fleet. The period of his command, otherwise uneventful, was marked by the blockade of the French fleet in Basque Roads in the spring of 1809, and the attempt to destroy it by a flotilla of fireships and infernals, under the immediate orders of Lord Cochrane [see Cochrane, Thomas, tenth Earl of Dundonald], who had been sent out by the admiralty for the special purpose. Gambier had already expressed his horror of that mode of warfare, and had pronounced the attempt to be hazardous, if not dangerous. It may well be that he was annoyed at this slight to his sentimental and professional opinions, and at being virtually superseded by a junior officer; it may well be also that Cochrane's manner was not calculated to remove Gambier's prejudice. There is no doubt that they disliked each other; that Cochrane considered Gambier as a canting and hypocritical methodist, while Gambier looked on Cochrane as a rash and insolent youngster, and though obliged, by the orders of the admiralty, to give him nominal support, steadily refused to make that support effective. The success was, therefore, very partial, and Gambier, on learning from the first lord of the admiralty that Cochrane would oppose the vote of thanks for the destruction of the French ships, at once applied for a court-martial. The admiralty was unwilling to grant it, but, finding that it could not be withheld, resolved that at any rate the board and Gambier, as the board's nominee, should be held blameless. Care was taken to assemble a friendly court; the president, Sir Roger Curtis, was a personal friend of Gambier's; as many inconvenient witnesses as possible were sent out of the way; and thus, after a grossly partial trial, Gambier was ‘most honourably acquitted,’ 9 Aug. 1809. He retained the command of the Channel fleet till 1811, after which he had no naval service, though in 1814 he was one of the commissioners for negotiating a treaty of peace with the United States. On 7 June 1815 he was nominated a G.C.B., and on 22 July 1830 was promoted to the rank of admiral of the fleet. He died on 19 April 1833. His portrait, by Sir William Beechey (Royal Academy, 1809), was exhibited at South Kensington in 1868, lent by the family. He married in 1788, but left no issue.

Gambier's long connection with the board of admiralty, his command at Copenhagen, and the scandal of Basque Roads have given his name a distinction not altogether glorious. His conduct on 1 June 1794 prevents any imputation of personal cowardice, but emphasises the miserable failure in April 1809, which certainly suggests that he was out of place in command of a fleet. He seems, indeed, to have had a very distinct preference for life on shore, and one of the most noticeable features in his career is the shortness of the time he spent at sea, which between his promotions to lieutenant and to rear-admiral amounted in all to five and a half years. His experience was thus extremely limited, nor have we any reason to suppose that his ability in any one point had a wider range. His kinship with the Pitts and Lord Barham stood him in good stead.

[The Memorials, Personal and Historical, of Admiral Lord Gambier, by Henrietta Georgina, Lady Chatterton [q. v.], a daughter of Gambier's sister, is, for the most part, a crude collection of correspondence which has no reference to Gambier; its general interest is slight, and it has no naval or biographical value whatever. See also Ralfe's Naval Biography, ii. 82; Marshall's Roy. Nav. Biog. i. 74; Lord Dundonald's Autobiography of a Seaman; Minutes of the Court-martial, 1809; James's Naval Hist. 1860, iv. 201, 395.]

J. K. L.