1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Gambier, James Gambier, Baron
GAMBIER, JAMES GAMBIER, Baron (1756–1833), English admiral, was born on the 13th of October 1756 at the Bahamas, of which his father, John Gambier, was at that time lieutenant-governor. He entered the navy in 1767 as a midshipman on board the “Yarmouth,” under the command of his uncle; and, his family interest obtaining for him rapid promotion, he was raised in 1778 to the rank of post-captain, and appointed to the “Raleigh,” a fine 32-gun frigate. At the peace of 1783 he was placed on half-pay; but, on the outbreak of the war of the French Revolution, he was appointed to the command of the 74–gun ship “Defence,” under Lord Howe; and in her he had an honourable share in the battle on the 1st of June 1794. In recognition of his services on this occasion, Captain Gambier received the gold medal, and was made a colonel of marines; the following year he was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral, and appointed one of the lords of the admiralty. In this office he continued for six years, till, in February 1801, he, a vice-admiral of 1799, hoisted his flag on board the “Neptune,” of 98 guns, as third in command of the Channel Fleet under Admiral Cornwallis, where, however, he remained for but a year, when he was appointed governor of Newfoundland and commander-in-chief of the ships on that station. In May 1804 he returned to the admiralty, and with a short intermission in 1806, continued there during the naval administration of Lord Melville, of his uncle, Lord Barham, and of Lord Mulgrave. In November 1805 he was raised to the rank of admiral; and in the summer of 1807, whilst still a lord of the admiralty, he was appointed to the command of the fleet ordered to the Baltic, which, in concert with the army under Lord Cathcart, reduced Copenhagen, and enforced the surrender of the Danish navy, consisting of nineteen ships of the line, besides frigates, sloops, gunboats, and naval stores. This service was considered by the government as worthy of special acknowledgment; the naval and military commanders, officers, seamen and soldiers received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, and Admiral Gambier was rewarded with a peerage.
In the spring of the following year he gave up his seat at the admiralty on being appointed to the command of the Channel Fleet; and in that capacity he witnessed the partial, and prevented the total, destruction of the French fleet in Basque Roads, on the 12th of April 1809. It is in connexion with this event, which might have been as memorable in the history of the British navy as it is in the life of Lord Dundonald (see Dundonald), that Lord Gambier’s name is now best known. A court-martial, assembled by order of a friendly admiralty, and presided over by a warm partisan, “most honourably acquitted” him on the charge “that, on the 12th of April, the enemy’s ships being then on fire, and the signal having been made that they could be destroyed, he did, for a considerable time, neglect or delay taking effectual measures for destroying them”; but this decision was in reality nothing more than a party statement of the fact that a commander-in-chief, a supporter of the government, is not to be condemned or broken for not being a person of brilliant genius or dauntless resolution. No one now doubts that the French fleet should have been reduced to ashes, and might have been, had Lord Gambier had the talents, the energy, or the experience of many of his juniors. He continued to hold the command of the Channel Fleet for the full period of three years, at the end of which time—in 1811—he was superseded. In 1814 he acted in a civil capacity as chief commissioner for negotiating a treaty of peace with the United States; for his exertions in which business he was honoured with the Grand Cross of the Bath. In 1830 he was raised to the high rank of admiral of the fleet, and he died on the 19th of April 1833.
Lord Gambier was a man of earnest, almost morbid, religious principle, and of undoubted courage; but the administration of the admiralty has seldom given rise to such flagrant scandals as during the time when he was a member of it; and through the whole war the self-esteem of the navy suffered no such wound as during Lord Gambier’s command in the Bay of Biscay.
The so-called Memorials, Personal and Historical, of Admiral Lord Gambier, by Lady Chatterton (1861), has no historical value. The life of Lord Gambier is to be read in Marshall’s Royal Naval Biography, in Ralfe’s Naval Biography, in Lord Dundonald’s Autobiography of a Seaman, in the Minutes of the Courts-Martial and in the general history of the period.