Willoughby, Nesbit Josiah (DNB00)

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WILLOUGHBY, Sir NESBIT JOSIAH (1777–1849), rear-admiral, descended from a younger branch of the Wollaton family, and son of Robert Willoughby of Cossall, Nottinghamshire, by his second wife, Barbara, daughter of James Bruce of Kinloch, was born on 29 Aug. 1777. His christian names suggest some connection with the family of Lady Nelson's first husband [see Nelson, Frances Herbert, Viscountess Nelson], but there does not appear to be any record of it. He entered the navy in May 1790 on board the Latona, with Captain (Sir) Albemarle Bertie; he was afterwards in the Edgar and other ships on the home station, and in January 1793 went out to the coast of Africa in the Orpheus frigate, which, after a successful cruise against the French trade, was sent round to the East India station, where she captured the French frigate Duguay-Trouin on 5 May 1794. At the reduction of Malacca in August 1795 Willoughby had command of a boat, and in February–March 1796 was present at the occupation of Amboyna and Banda (James, i. 414–15), from which even a midshipman's share of the prize-money must have been considerable. He was afterwards in the Heroine and in the Suffolk, flagship of Rear-admiral Peter Rainier [q. v.], by whom he was promoted, on 13 Jan. 1798, to be lieutenant of the Victorious of 74 guns, then commanded by Captain William Clark. On 30 June Clark suspended him from duty and placed him under arrest for disrespectful behaviour. Afterwards he remitted the punishment and ordered him to return to his duty. This Willoughby declined to do without an acknowledgment that the arrest was unjust; and as Clark refused this, he applied for a court-martial. It was nearly twelve months before a court could be assembled, and Willoughby was then convicted of having ‘behaved to Captain Clark in a contemptuous and disrespectful manner;’ but, in consideration of his long confinement, only sentenced ‘to be dismissed his ship.’ Rainier, thinking probably that twelve months' confinement in the tropics had fully punished him, appointed him the next day, 14 June 1799, to command the Amboyna brig; but the imprisonment had told severely on Willoughby's health, and he was obliged to invalid, taking a passage in the Sceptre for the Cape of Good Hope. On the way thither he piloted the ship's boat through a reef of rocks at Rodriguez, and captured a French privateer brig which had sought safety within it. On 5 Nov. the Sceptre was blown from her anchor and driven on shore in Table Bay, with the loss of her captain and a great part of her crew. Willoughby, with many of the officers, was at a ball on shore, and so escaped.

In August 1800 he was appointed to the Russell, one of the fleet which went to the Baltic in the following spring, and of the squadron which, under the command of Nelson, fought the battle of Copenhagen on 2 April. In this, Willoughby's conduct in boarding under a heavy fire and taking possession of the Danish ship Provesteen was highly commended; and as he returned to his ship on the next day he was loudly cheered by his shipmates, on the order of the captain. But the captain was not a pleasant man to work with, and Willoughby repaid his overbearing conduct with studied insolence. Each applied for a court-martial on the other. The captain was tried for tyranny and oppression on 22 June, and was, notwithstanding the evidence, acquitted, the charges being pronounced ‘frivolous, scandalous, malicious, and totally unfounded, tending to lessen the dignity and to subvert the good order and discipline of his majesty's naval service.’ The next day Willoughby in turn was tried ‘for treating his captain with insolence and contempt,’ and, as this was proved by the evidence, he was dismissed the service; his previous trial for a similar offence and the judgment of the court on the previous day certainly telling against him (Courts Martial, vol. xcvi.)

On the renewal of the war in 1803 Sir John Thomas Duckworth [q. v.], then going out to the West Indies as commander-in-chief, received Willoughby on board his flagship as a volunteer; and on his report the sentence was remitted and Willoughby repromoted to be lieutenant on 26 Oct. 1803. In November Duckworth's flagship, the Hercule, to which Willoughby belonged, was sent to join the squadron under Commodore Loring, then blockading Cape Français, in co-operation with the revolted negroes under General Dessalines. By the end of the month the garrison had concluded a treaty with Dessalines, by which they were to embark on board their ships in the port and put to sea on or before the 30th. But as Loring would not accept anything but absolute surrender, and they could not elude his vigilance, they were obliged to capitulate. The ships were to come out of the harbour with their colours flying, fire a complimentary broadside, and strike their flags. M. Montalan, commanding the French frigate Clorinde, is described as refusing to accept this convention, and attempting to escape (Troude, iii. 300). In doing this his ship took the ground under the negro batteries, which were preparing to set her on fire with red-hot shot, or, as an alternative, put to death every soul that landed from her. Willoughby, who was in command of the Hercule's launch—one of the boats which had been towing the other ships out of the mole—seeing the Clorinde's imminent danger, went on board her, persuaded Montalan and the officer commanding the troops to surrender at once, hoisted the English flag, and eventually succeeded in bringing the ship off, to be added to the English navy. The preservation of nine hundred lives was thus owing, Duckworth wrote, to Willoughby's uncommon exertions and professional ability (James, iii. 206; cf. Travers, Sir Eaton Standard). Marshall thinks that it was for his conduct on this occasion that Willoughby was restored to his rank; but if so, the commission would have been dated 30 Nov.; it was, in fact, more than a month earlier, though he had not yet had the news of it.

In the operations against Curaçoa, in February 1804, Willoughby was in command of an advanced battery, exposed to the frequent assaults of vastly superior numbers, in repelling which and by sickness his little force was almost exterminated. Willoughby distinguished himself throughout by his daring and the reckless exposure of himself; frequently, it was said, taking his meals sitting in a chair upon the ramparts or breastwork of the battery (James, iii. 295). Willoughby seems to have denied the chair, and to have maintained that in the circumstances the example was necessary. This was perhaps an afterthought, for during the whole of his service danger, whether from storm, the sea, or the enemy, seems by itself to have been sufficient lure; but the instances of this are far too numerous to be even named here. In February 1805 Duckworth hoisted his flag in the Acasta frigate and appointed Willoughby her first lieutenant, intending to promote him on his arrival in England. The circumstances of his quarrel with Captain (Sir James Athol) Wood [q. v.] and the court-martial arising out of them prevented this; and Willoughby was appointed to the Prince on 8 July 1805, but was not able to join her till 8 Nov., eighteen days after the battle of Trafalgar.

Willoughby was afterwards in the Formidable, and in 1807 was in the Royal George, Duckworth's flagship, on the occasion of his forcing the passage of the Dardanelles; on 14 Feb., when the Ajax was destroyed by fire [see Blackwood, Sir Henry], he, in the Royal George's cutter, was one of the first to go to her assistance, and succeeded in saving many lives, but at the greatest personal risk. In July 1807 he was discharged to the Otter sloop for a passage to Monte Video and the Cape of Good Hope, where he was promoted to the command of the Otter on 10 Jan. 1808, though the commission was not confirmed by the admiralty till 9 April. The Otter was then sent for a cruise off Mauritius and to Bombay under the orders of Captain Robert Corbet [q. v.] of the Néréide; and on her return to Cape Town in the following January, Willoughby was brought before a court-martial on charges of ‘cruelty and unofficer-like conduct’ preferred against him in a letter to the admiral, signed ‘The ship Otter's company, one and all.’ It appeared from the evidence that there had been a great deal of flogging and starting—promiscuous beating with a stick or rope's-end—and that it had been commonly accompanied by violent threats; that Willoughby had said that ‘it was as much pleasure to him to punish a man when he comes to the gangway as it was to go to his breakfast,’ and that ‘he would flog like hell and start like hell.’ The trial lasted over five days, 9–14 Feb., and in the end Willoughby was acquitted, but was recommended ‘to adopt more moderate language on future occasions’ (Courts Martial, vol. cxxv.). In view of the evidence, the acquittal appears strange, for the punishments had certainly been excessive and irregular; still more open to censure seems the fact that one of the captains sitting on this court was Corbet, who, on the days immediately preceding, had been tried for a similar offence, and had been similarly acquitted with a slight reprimand.

After refitting, the Otter was again sent off Mauritius, and on 14 Aug. Willoughby, in the sloop's boats, brought out a vessel strongly anchored under the batteries of the Black river. On 21 Sept. he commanded the seamen who were put on shore at St. Paul's with the troops, and had an important share in the happy success of the operation [see Rowley, Sir Josias]. For his exertions at this time the commander-in-chief at the Cape, his old patron Albemarle Bertie, promoted him to command the Néréide frigate; but his commission as post-captain was not confirmed till nearly a year later (5 Sept. 1810), and then for another piece of service—the landing with a party of a hundred men on the night of 30 April, destroying two French batteries at Jacotel, and utterly routing a strong body of militia, Willoughby himself leading the onslaught in full-dress uniform. A few weeks after this (15 June) he narrowly escaped being killed by the accidental bursting of a musket fired in exercise. As it was, his right lower jaw was shattered, and his neck so lacerated that the windpipe was laid bare. For nearly three weeks he lay between life and death, but on 7 July he took part in the capture of Bourbon, and, with his face and neck still bound up, superintended the landing of the troops.

In August 1810 he was with Captain (Sir Samuel) Pym [q. v.] at the seizure of the Isle de la Passe on the 13th, and was left there when Pym went round to Port Louis. On the 20th the French squadron came in sight—four large ships and a sloop; and though two of the former proved to be East Indiamen prizes, the other two were 40-gun frigates, which, by going round to Port Louis to join the French ships there, would have placed Pym in a position of very great danger. With equal good judgment and boldness Willoughby, by hoisting French flags and signals, decoyed the enemy into the passage; when they found out their mistake they were no longer able to turn, and were obliged to go into the Grand Port, after a sharp interchange of broadsides with the Néréide. At the very first Willoughby had sent off the news to Pym, who joined him on the 22nd with three powerful frigates; the force was overwhelmingly superior to the French, and Pym resolved to go into the port and take or destroy them. But as he attempted to do so on the 23rd two of his ships ran aground and could not be moved; a third, going on the wrong side of a shoal, was unable to get close enough in; the Néréide alone succeeded in reaching her allotted station, and found herself the target for the whole French force. After one of the most obstinate defences on record, being reduced to a shattered wreck and having lost 222 men killed or wounded out of a total of 281, she struck her colours on the morning of the 24th. The terrible loss of men was partly explained by the fact that the upper works of the ship—a French prize—were lined with fir, which, on being broken through by cannon shot, gave off showers of dangerous splinters. At the very beginning of the action one of these struck Willoughby on the left cheek and tore the eye completely out of the socket. The first lieutenant was killed; the second lieutenant dangerously wounded; the lieutenant of marines was also wounded; two lieutenants of soldiers were killed. When, after the capture of the Isle of France in December, Willoughby recovered his liberty and was tried for the loss of the Néréide, the court declared that the ship had been ‘carried into battle in a most judicious, officer-like, and gallant manner,’ and formally expressed ‘its high admiration of the noble conduct of the captain, officers, and ship's company during the whole of the unequal contest.’ The sentence, concluding with a ‘most honourable’ acquittal, has been correctly described as ‘unprecedented’ (Marshall).

On his return to England Willoughby was surveyed by a medical board, and on their report was awarded (4 Oct. 1811) a pension of 300l. per annum, which was afterwards (1 July 1815) increased to 550l. Meantime, in 1812, having no immediate prospect of employment, he obtained leave to go abroad, and went to the Baltic, where he offered his services as a volunteer to Sir Thomas Byam Martin [q. v.], then commanding in the Gulf of Riga. Learning, however, from Martin that there was no immediate prospect of any active operations, he went on to St. Petersburg, where his offer to serve with the Russian army was accepted. He was then sent to Riga, from which, on 26 Sept., he accompanied Count Steinheil, who, with a force of fifteen thousand men, was marching to join Wittgenstein at Polotzk. Before this could be effected Steinheil was surprised by a very inferior French detachment, and utterly routed with the loss of some two thousand men killed or taken prisoners. Among these latter was Willoughby, who had put a wounded Russian on his own horse, and was himself leading it when he fell into the hands of a party of French hussars. A Dutch officer in the French service befriended him and supplied him with money, so that he was able to make the terrible retreat from Russia with comparative comfort. Even so, however, the hardships he underwent told severely on a constitution already tried by wounds and a tropical climate, and at Königsberg he was seized with a fever which confined him to bed for seven weeks. Special representations had been made on his behalf by order of the czar, but Napoleon refused to exchange him, and on his return to France ordered him to be confined au secret in the Château de Bouillon. Here he remained for nine months, till, on the advance of the allies, he was moved to Peronne, whence he managed to escape.

On 4 Jan. 1815 Willoughby was nominated a C.B.; from 1818 to 1822 he commanded the Tribune frigate on the coast of Ireland and in the West Indies; on 30 June 1827 he was knighted at the instance of the Duke of Clarence, then lord high admiral, and again, by a curious blunder of the king's, on 21 Aug. 1832, when he was invested with the insignia of a K.C.H.; on 14 Jan. 1839 he was awarded a good-service pension, and on 30 Nov. 1841 was appointed a naval aide-de-camp to the queen. He was promoted to be rear-admiral on 28 April 1847, and died, unmarried, at his house in Montagu Street, Portman Square, after a fortnight's suffering, on 19 May 1849. It is said that by the seamen of his day he was known as ‘the immortal.’

A portrait of Willoughby is at Wollaton, the property of Lord Middleton, by whom it was lent to the Naval Exhibition of 1891.

[The Memoir in Marshall's Roy. Nav. Biogr. vi. (suppl. pt. ii.) 111 is unusually long (eighty-four pages), written apparently from notes supplied by Willoughby himself; that in O'Byrne's Nav. Biogr. Dict. is merely an abstract of Marshall's. See also Gent. Mag. 1849, ii. 648; James's Naval Hist. (1861 edit., in vol. vi. is an engraving of the Wollaton portrait); Troude's Batailles Navales de la France; official documents in the Public Record Office, more especially the Minutes of Courts Martial.]

J. K. L.