Calder, Robert (1745-1818) (DNB00)

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CALDER, Sir ROBERT (1745–1818), admiral, directly descended from the Calders of Muirtown in Morayshire, was the fourth son of Sir James Calder, bart., who had settled in Kent, and who in 1761 was appointed by Lord Bute to be gentleman-usher of the privy chamber to the queen. His mother was Alice, daughter of Admiral Robert Hughes. In 1759 he entered the navy on board the Chesterfield, with Captain Sawyer, whom he followed to the Active, and thus participated in the capture of the Spanish register-ship Hermione on 21 May 1762, probably the richest prize on record, even a midshipman's share amounting to 1,800l. On 31 Aug. 1762 he was made lieutenant. On 27 Aug. 1780 he was advanced to the rank of post-captain, and during the next three years successively commanded the Buffalo, Diana, and Thalia, all on the home station. The Thalia was paid off at the peace, and Calder had no further employment till the outbreak of the revolutionary war, when he was appointed to the Theseus of 74 guns for service in the Channel. In 1796, when Sir John Jervis was appointed commander-in-chief in the Mediterranean, Calder was appointed captain of the fleet, and served in that capacity at the battle of Cape St. Vincent, after which he carried home the admiral's despatches, and was knighted, 3 March 1797. It has been positively stated, by writers in a position to know the opinions of the day, that the despatches, as first written, gave very high praise to Commodore Nelson for his conduct in the action; but that, at the instance of Calder, they were modified, and the name of Nelson left out. The story is, however, mere hearsay. Calder and Nelson were never intimate, but there does not seem to have been any bad feeling between them, nor is there any evidence that Nelson expected special notice in the ‘Gazette;’ and Sir John Jervis, who had the very highest opinion of Nelson, was a most unlikely man to yield to persuasion or submit to the dictation of an inferior (Nicolas, Nelson Despatches, ii. 337, vii. 120 n. 121).

On 22 Aug. 1798 Calder was made a baronet, and on 14 Feb. 1799 advanced to the rank of rear-admiral. In 1800 he hoisted his flag on board the Prince of Wales of 98 guns, in the Channel fleet, then commanded by Lord St. Vincent; and in February 1801 was detached in pursuit of a French squadron, which slipped down the coast into the Mediterranean, while Calder, with seven ships of the line and three frigates, followed an imaginary chase to the West Indies. It was only at Jamaica that he learned his mistake, and he did not rejoin the fleet till June. On 23 April 1804 he was advanced to the rank of vice-admiral, and shortly afterwards hoisted his flag, again in the Prince of Wales, in which he joined the fleet off Brest, under Admiral Cornwallis. In the following February he was detached off Ferrol, with five sail of the line, to keep watch over a Franco-Spanish squadron of ten ships ready for sea, and two more fitting. These, however, would not be tempted out, although Calder, notwithstanding occasional reinforcements, had never more than nine ships of the line under his command. It was not till 15 July that he was joined by the squadron from off Rochefort, bringing his numbers up to fifteen ships, with which he was ordered to stretch out to the westward of Cape Finisterre, in order to intercept the combined fleet of France and Spain on its return from the West Indies. It was understood that this consisted of sixteen ships, but when Calder fell in with it on 22 July he found it had twenty. The weather, too, was very thick, and the English fleet was to leeward; but, notwithstanding these disadvantages, Calder succeeded in bringing the enemies' fleet to action, and in cutting off and capturing two of the Spanish ships. The next day was clear; but though the combined fleet had still the advantage of the wind, Villeneuve conceived that his instructions forbade him to fight except under compulsion, while Calder was anxious to secure his prizes, to cover the Windsor Castle, which had sustained severe damage; and was, above all, nervously alive to the danger of his position if the fifteen ships in Ferrol and the five in Rochefort should come out and join the fleet with Villeneuve. On the 24th the hostile fleets lost sight of each other. On the 26th the combined fleet put into Vigo, whence Villeneuve slipped round to Ferrol, leaving behind three of the dullest sailers; and thus when on 9 Aug. Calder, with a squadron again reduced to nine ships, came off Ferrol, he found the allies there in vastly superior force, and on the point of putting to sea. In presence of such unequal numbers, his orders authorised him to retire, which he accordingly did, joining Cornwallis off Brest.

As Calder had expected, Villeneuve, with twenty-nine ships of the line, did put to sea on the evening of the 9th with the intention of carrying out his instructions and making the English Channel. It seems to be well established that till the 14th he steered a north-westerly course, but that on the 14th, being deceived by false intelligence of an English fleet of twenty-five sail of the line, his heart failed him, and he bore up for Cadiz, where he arrived on the 21st. His retreat has been generally and erroneously attributed to the result of the action of 22 July, with which, in point of fact, it had very little connection.

On 30 Aug. Calder, with the greater part of the Brest fleet, joined Vice-admiral Collingwood off Cadiz, and while cruising off that port he learned that his conduct on 23 and 24 July had been severely commented on in England. He immediately wrote to apply for a court-martial. The admiralty had, independently, given Nelson orders to send Calder home for trial. Nelson arrived off Cadiz on 28 Sept., and sent Calder back in his own ship. ‘I may be thought wrong,’ he wrote, ‘as an officer … in not insisting on Sir Robert Calder's quitting the Prince of Wales for the Dreadnought, and for parting with a 90-gun ship, but I trust that I shall be considered to have done right as a man and to a brother officer in affliction; my heart could not stand it, and so the thing must rest’ (Nelson Despatches, vii. 56).

Calder accordingly sailed a few days before the battle of Trafalgar. The court did not assemble till 23 Dec., and on the 26th found that Calder in his conduct on 23 and 24 July had been guilty of an error in judgment, and sentenced him to be severely reprimanded. This was the end of his active career; he never served again, though he rose by seniority to the rank of admiral, 31 July 1810. He was made K.C.B. January 1815. He died on 31 Aug. 1818. His portrait is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich. He married in May 1779 Amelia, daughter of John Michell of Bayfield in Norfolk, but had no issue. His wife survived him, but in a state of mental derangement, which necessitated special provision for her maintenance under her husband's will.

[Naval Chronicle, xvii. 89; Gent. Mag. (1818) lxxxviii. ii. 380, and (1819), lxxxix. i. 382; Minutes of the Proceedings at a Court-martial, &c. published by authority of the vice-admiral (1806, 8vo, 108 pp.); James's Naval Hist. (1860), iii. 356–79.]

J. K. L.