Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Benbow, John (1653-1702)
BENBOW, JOHN (1653–1702), vice-admiral, was the son of William Benbow, a tanner of Shrewsbury, and nephew of that Captain John Benbow who, having served with some distinction in the parliamentary army, went over to the royalists after the death of the king, and, being taken prisoner at the battle of Worcester, was tried by court-martial and shot, 16 Oct. 1651 (Owen and Blakeway's Hist. of Shrewsbury, i. 489; ii. 39); Cal. of S. P. Dom. 1651, pp. 421-2, 457). The exact date of his birth has been recorded by Partridge, the astrologer as noon, on 10 March 1052-3 (Egerton MS. 2378, f, 295).
Of Benbow's early youth there are no authentic accounts, but the fact of his father having been a tanner gives credit to the local tradition that he was apprenticed to a butcher, from whose shop he ran away to sea. On 30 April 1678, he entered as a master's mate on board the Rupert, fitting out at Portsmouth under the command of Captain Herbert, afterwards Earl of Torrington. In the Rupert he went out to the Mediterranean, was engaged in some smart actions with Algerine corsairs, and so far won on the good will of Captain Herbert, the second in command of the squadron, that he obtained from him his promotion as master of the Nonsuch, 16 June 1079 (Paybooks of Rupert and Nonsuch; Log of Nonsuch), The Nonsuch continued at Tangier and on the African coast, under the successive command of Rooke, Shovell, and Wheler, then young captains. Wheler died early, but Herbert, Rooke, and Shovell were afterwards able to testify to their high opinion of Benbow, and to push his fortune. On 8 April 1681 the Nonsuch captured an Algerine cruiser which had been engaged by and had beaten off the Adventure, commanded by Captain Booth; and it would seem that the Nonsuch's men indulged in rude witticisms at the expense of the Adventure's. Benbow repeated some of these, reflecting on Captain Booth's conduct, which coming to Booth's knowledge, he brought Benbow to a court-martial, and the fault being proved, with the saving clause that he had 'only repeated those words after another,' Benbow was sentenced to forfeit three months' pay, 'to be disposed of for the use of the wounded men on board the Adventure;' and likewise to 'ask Captain Booth's pardon on board his Majesty's ship Bristol, declaring that he had no malicious intent in speaking those words; all the commanders being present, and a boat's crew of each ship's company' (Minutes of the court-martial, 20 April 1681. The three months' pay, amounting to 12l. 16s., appears duly checked against his name in the Nonsuch's pay-book).
In the following August Captain Wheler was superseded by Captain Wrenn, and on 9 Nov. 1681 the Nonsuch was paid off. Benbow for a time disappears: it is likely enough that he returned to the merchant service, and that in 1686 he owned and commanded a ship named the Benbow frigate, in the Levant trade, and that in her he made a stout and successful defence against a Sallee rover. The story that he cut off and salted down the heads of thirteen Moors who were slain on the Benbow's deck, that he carried these trophies into Cadiz, and displayed them to the magistrates in order to claim head-money, is not in itself improbable, though told with much grotesque exaggeration (Campbell, Lives of the Admirals, iii. 335), and is to some extent corroborated by the existence of a Moorish skull-cap, made of finely plaited cane, mounted in silver, and bearing the inscription, 'The first adventure of Captain John Benbo, and gift to Richard Ridley, 1687.' Ridley was the husband of one of Benbow's sisters, and sixty years ago the skull-cap was still in the possession of his descendants (Owen and Blakeway, ii. 392).
Benbow did not re-enter the navy till after the revolution, and his first recorded commission, dated 1 June 1689, was as third lieutenant of the Elizabeth, of 70 guns, then commanded by Captain (afterwards Sir David) Mitchell. On 20 Sept. he was appointed captain of the York, 70 guns; on 26 Oct. was transferred to the Bonaventure, 50 guns; and again on 12 Nov. to the Britannia. We may assume that he owed this rapid promotion to his former captain. Admiral Herbert, whose star was at this time in the ascendant; and it is almost allowable to conjecture that, during the critical months of the revolution, he had been in Herbert's service, and had piloted the fleet which landed William III in Torbay.
From the Britannia Benbow was appointed master attendant of Chatham dockyard;early in March 1689-90 he was removed to Deptford in the same capacity, and he continued to hold that office for the next six years, although frequently relieved from its duties and employed on particular service. In the summer of 1690 he was master of the Sovereign, bearing the flag of Lord Torrington, and acted as master of the fleet before and during the unfortunate battle off Beachy Head. In the court-martial held on 10 Dec. Benbow's evidence told strongly in favour of the admiral, and no doubt contributed largely to his acquittal, though it was not sufficient to convince the king, or to turn the verdict of posterity in his favour [see Herbert, Arthur, Lord Torrington]. Benbow was still in the Sovereign during the summer of 1691, and in the summer of 1692 was again master of the fleet under Admiral Russell, on board the Britannia, and had his share in the glories of Barfleur and La Hogue. It had been already ordered that whilst he was serving afloat his pay as master was to he made up to that of master attendant at Deptford. An order was now issued for him to be paid as master attendant in addition to his pay as master, presumably in direct acknowledgement of special services in the conduct of the fleet (Admiralty Minutes, 14 Aug. 1691, 12 Feb. 1691-2, 16 Oct. 1692).
In Sept. 1693 Benbow was again appointed away from his dockyard to command a flotilla of bomb-vessels and fireships ordered to attack St. Malo. The bombardment began on the evening of 16 Nov., and continued, though with frequent intermissions, till the evening of the 19th, when a large fireship was sent in. It was intended to lay this vessel alongside the town walls; but she took the ground at some little distance, where she was set on fire. Even so the damage done was considerable. Benbow himself was much dissatisfied with the result, and brought the commander of one of the bomb-vessels to a court martial for disobedience in not going in closer: he was not, however, able to procure a conviction. In September 1694 he was again appointed to a similar flotilla intended to act against Dunkirk. The bomb-vessels were to be supported by a number of so-called machines, invented by one Meester, an engineer. They would seem to have been explosive fireships, similar to, but smaller than, the one tried at St. Malo in the summer. The attacking squadron was covered by the fleet from the Downs, commanded by Sir Clowdisley Shovell, and the attempt was made on 12 and 13 Sept. No result, nowever, was obtained. The French had blocked the entrance to the port, and, the weather having set in stormy, the fleet and the flotilla returned to the Downs. In the following summer it was resolved to make a further attempt with these machines. Benbow was again appointed to the command of the bomb-vessels, which, supported by the English and Dutch fleet under Admirals Lord Berkeley and Van Almonde, appeared off St. Malo on 4 July, and immediately opened fire. They kept this up till dark, renewed it the next morning, and continued it till evening, when they drew off, without any decisive result, several houses having been knocked down or set on fire, whilst on the side of the assailants some of the bomb-vessels were shattered or sunk. In a council of war held the next day it was resolved that as much had been done as could be hoped for. Benbow, with the bomb- vessels and some frigates, was sent along the coast to attack Granville, which he shelled for some hours, alarming, but not seriously injuring, the inhabitants (P.R.O. Home Office (Admiralty) Records, ix., Brit. Mus. Addit. MS. 21494, ff. 29 et seq.). In the further attacks on the French coast during that summer Benbow had no share. He gave up his command on the return of the fleet to the Downs. 'Benbow is quitting his ship,' wrote Lord Berkeley on 23 July. 'I cannot imagine the reason. He pretends sickness, but I think it is only feigned.' And on the 28th he again wrote : 'As to Captain Benbow, I know of no difference between him and me, nor have we had any. He has no small obligation to me, but being called in some of the foolish printed papers "the famous Captain Benbow," I suppose has put him a little out of himself, and has made him play the fool, as I guess, in some of his letters. I will not farther now particularize this business, but time will show I have not been in the wrong, unless being too kind to an ungrateful man.' Notwithstanding this, however, Benbow's conduct was warmly approved of; the admiralty ordered him 'to be paid as rear-admiral during the time he has been employed this summer on the coast of France . . . as a reward for his good service' (Minutes, 12 Sept. 1695), and early in the following spring gave him the rank as well.' In May 1696 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the squadron before Dunkirk, and was ordered to stretch as far to the northward as he thought 'convenient for the intercepting of Bart's squadron and protecting the English and Dutch trades expected home northabout.' The orders to look out for Bart were repeated more than once (Minutes, 15 May, 29 July), but Benbow's efforts were unavailing. In the middle of September he did, indeed, manage to get a distant view of the object of his search, but Bart easily escaped into Dunkirk. Benbow, on learning this, returned to the Downs, and in December was appointed to command the squadron in the Soundings for the protection of the home-ward-bound trade. He continued on this service till the peace, when, with very short rest, he was (9 March 1697-8) appointed commander-in-chief of the king's ships in the West Indies, with special orders to hunt down the pirates. His sailing was delayed till November, and he did not reach Barbadoes till February of the next year, 1698-9. Thence he proceeded towards the Spanish main, and, by a threat of blockading Cartagena, induced the governor to restore two English merchant ships which he had detained to form part of a projected expedition against the Scotch colony at Darien. Benbow's action virtually put an end to this, and preserved the colonists for the time, This result would seem to have been displeasing to the home government, and in June stringent orders were sent out to Benbow and the governors in the West Indies 'not to assist the Scotch colony in Darien' (Adm, Min. 21 June 1699). The rest of the year was occupied in ineffectual efforts to persuade or constrain the Spanish commandants at Porto Bello, or St. Domingo, to restore some ships which had been seized for illicit trading, and in a vain attempt to induce the Danish governor of St. Thomas's to give up some pirates who had sheltered themselves under the Danish flag. He afterwards ranged along the coast of North America as far as Newfoundland, scaring the pirates away for the time, but failing to capture any, and towards the summer of 1700 he returned to England. He was almost immediately appointed to the command in the Downs, and continued there through the spring and summer of 1701, when he served for some months as vice-admiral of the blue, in the grand fleet under Sir George Rooke, and was then again sent to the West Indies as commander-in-chief. He arrived at Barbadoes on 3 Nov., and proceeded by easy stages to Jamaica, where a French fleet was expected. For several months Benbow remained at Jamaica, and on 8 May was joined by Rear-admiral Whetstone. Thus strengthened, he shortly afterwards proceeded for a cruise on the coast of Hispaniola. In August he received news of the French squadron having gone to Cartagena and Porto Bello. On 19 Aug. he sighted it in the neighbourhood of Santa Marta. It consisted of four ships of from 60 to 70 guns; one of 30, a transport, and four small frigates, all under the command of M. du Casse. The English force consisted of seven ships of from 50 to 70 guns, but was much scattered, and the commanders showed no great alacrity in closing. It was late in the afternoon before the ships were in any collected order, and a partial engagement, lasting for about a couple of hours, was put an end to by nightfall. The admiral in the Breda, of 70 guns, closely followed by Captain Walton in the Ruby, of 50 guns, kept company with the French all night, and was well up with them at daybreak; but the other ships did not close during the whole day. The 21st and three following days brought, no more resolution to the different captains of the squadron. Walton only, and Vincent of the Falmouth, supported the admiral in his continued attempts to bring Du Casse to action, and for some time these three sustained the fire of the whole French squadron, while the other ships held aloof. The Ruby was disabled on the 23rd, and ordered to make the best of her way to Port Royal. Early on the morning of the 24th Benbow's right leg was shattered by a chain-shot. He was carried below, but as soon as the wound was dressed he had himself taken up on to the quarter-deck. Captain Kirkby of the Defiance came on board and urged him to give up the chase. All the other captains being summoned on board concurred in this; they even put their opinion on paper; and the admiral was thus compelled to return to Jamaica. There he ordered a court martial to be assembled. Captains Kirkby of the Defiance, and Wade of the Greenwich, were condemned to be shot, and Captain Constable of the Windsor to be cashiered. Captain Hudson of the Pendennis died before the trial; Captain Vincent of the Falmouth, and Captain Fogg of the flag-ship, who had signed the protest, were suspended during the queen's pleasure. Kirkby and Wade were shot on board the Bristol in Plymouth Sound, 16 April 1703 [see Acton, Edward]. The admiral had succumbed to his wound some months earlier. He died at Port Royal on 4 Nov. 1702, and was buried in the chancel of St. Andrew's Church, Kington, where a slab of blue slate still marks his grave (Denny, Cruise of the St. George (1862), p. 95). The inscription on this is curiously inaccurate. It describes Benbow as admiral of the white—he was, in fact, at the time of his death vice-admiral of the blue; it overstates his age by two years, and it emblazons as his the arms of a family with which he had no connection (Owen and Blakeway, ii. 391). There is no record of the author of this inscription, but the mistakes show that it must have been written, probably at a considerable time after the admiral's death, by some one ignorant of naval distinctions, not intimately acquainted with the admiral, and yet desirous of exalting his social status. All this seems to point to Mr. Calton, the husband of Benbows daughter, whose extraordinary misrepresentations to Dr. Campbell have been sufficiently exposed by the authors of the 'History of Shrewsbury.'
The exact narration of Benbow's history may cause some wonder as to his high reputation. For in no one instance where he commanded was any success over the enemy obtained, and his engagement with Du Casse was the most disgraceful event in our naval records. He fought indeed bravely; but in commander-in-chief mere personal bravery goes for very little, and it was pointed out at the time that it was the admiral's plain duty to have at once superseded and confined the false-hearted officers (Burchett, 598). Now is it clear that the mutiny — for it was nothing less — was not largely due to his own want of temper and tact. Kirkby and the others were officers of good repute, and of good service. There are very good grounds for believing that their disaffection was personal to Benbow. The admiral, who is described as 'an honest rough seaman,' is said to have treated 'Captain Kirkby, and the rest of the gentlemen, a little briskly at Jamaica, when he found them not quite so ready to obey his orders as he thought was their duty' (Campbell, ii. 34); and we may very well believe that this 'brisk treatment' administered by an 'honest rough seaman' meant a good deal of coarse language. This is the view which seems to meet the facts of the case; and though it does not lessen the guilt of the captains, it does check our sharing in the traditional admiration of the admiral who goaded them to crime.
Benbow appears to have married early : his wife's name was Martha, and he had several children; three sons and two daughters are named (Owen and Blakeway, ii. 394), but the dates (1679, 1680, 1681) assigned to the birth of the three eldest correspond with the period of Benbow's service in the Mediterranean on board the Rupert and Nonsuch, and cannot be correct, unless we suppose that his wife accompanied him on board the ship, which is barely possible. The sons all died young and unmarried. Martha, the eldest daughter, was twice married, and died in 1719. The youngest, Catharine, said to have been born in 1687, married in 1709 Mr. Paul Calton, of Milton, in Berkshire. Mention is also made of a sister Eleanor, born 7 July 1646, who married Samuel Hind, a grocer in Shrewsbury, and died 24 May 1724, and of another sister, Elizabeth, who married Richard Ridley, possibly a companion of Benbow in some of his early adventures.
Evelyn has entered in his diary, under date 1 June 1696, that he had let his house at Deptford 'for three years to Vice (sic) Admiral Benbow, with condition to keep up the gardens;' and in a letter of 18 Jan. 1096-7, complained that having 'let his house to Captain (sic) Benbow, he had the mortification of seeing every day much of his former labours and expense there impairing for want of a more polite tenant.' As, however, during the greater part of this time, Rear-admiral Benbow was employed looking for Jean Bart, the neglect was not due to him individually. The admiral himself is always spoken of as a man of most temperate habits, and who was never seen disguised in drink (Owen and Blakeway, ii. 393 n.). His portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller, formerly at Hampton Court, is now in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, to which it was presented by George IV in 1824. It represents a man of lithe figure, dark complexion, and clear-cut features, very different from the idea we might otherwise form of one so especially described as 'a rough seaman.'
[Official letters and other documants in the Public Record Office; Burchett's Naval History; Lediar's Naval History; Baron du Casse's L'Amiral du Casse (1876). 257; Charnock (Biog. Nav. ii, 233) contributes some interesting and original matter; but the family and early history he has merely repeated from the memoir in Campbell's Lives of the Admirals, or in the Biog. Britanica, which professes to he written from materials supplied by Benbow's son-in-law, Mr. Calton. But Mr. Carlton's information is utterly untrustworthy. The well-known letter from Du Casse to Benhow is part of this: it has been quoted and requoted times without number, but only from this copy of an alleged translation given by Mr. Calton to Dr. Campbell, and first published by him. We have no account of the original letter ; no one — except Calton — has ever pretended to have seen it. The substance of it is utterly opposed to all French history and to French culture. It may possibly be a garbled extract, although there is no reason to suppose that it is : but nothing in verbal criticism can be more certain than that a French original of the letter, as published, never existed. Catherine Benbow, who married Mr. Calton, was certainty not more than fifteen years old at the time of her father's death. From his constant service she, personally, could have known very little about him, and she did not marry for seven years afterwards; it is therefore not to be wondered at that Calton was entirely ignorant of his father-in-laws early career, or very humble antecedents. But that he should devote himself to foisting on Campbell's credulity a romance, of which the greater part has not even a substratum of fact, and that his romance should have been very generally accepted as truth, are not the least curious of the many curious things connected with Benbow's history.]