Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Rodney, George Brydges
RODNEY, GEORGE BRYDGES, first Baron Rodney (1719–1792), admiral, second son of Henry Rodney, was baptised in the church of St. Giles-in-the Fields, London, on 13 Feb. 1718–19. His grandfather, Anthony Rodney, son of George, youngest brother of Sir Edward Rodney of Stoke Rodney in Somerset, after serving through the wars of William III as captain in Colonel Leigh's regiment of dragoons, was in 1702 lieutenant-colonel of Holt's regiment of marines, and was killed in a duel at Barcelona in 1705. Anthony's brother George served during the reign of William III as a captain of marines, and died in 1700. Henry Rodney (1681–1737), son of Anthony, served with his father as a cornet in Leigh's dragoons, and afterwards as a captain in Holt's marines. The regiment was disbanded in 1713, and Henry settled down at Walton-on-Thames and married Mary, elder daughter and coheiress of Sir Henry Newton (1651–1715) [q. v.] (Mundy; information kindly supplied by Colonel Edye). The story that he was captain of the king's yacht is unsupported by evidence, and is in itself improbable. That the king was godfather to young Rodney is possible, but George was already a family name; Brydges, his second christian name, commemorated the relationship of his family with that of James Brydges (afterwards duke of Chandos) [q. v.], to whom the Stoke Rodney estates had descended by the marriage of Sir Edward Rodney's daughter and heiress.
George Brydges Rodney is said (Collins, Peerage, ed. Brydges, vii. 561) to have been brought up as a child by George Brydges of Avington and Keynsham. He was also for a short time at Harrow, and entered the navy in July 1732 as a volunteer per order, or king's letter-boy, on board the Sunderland of 60 guns, with Captain Robert Man. In May 1733 he joined the Dreadnought with Captain Alexander Geddes, who, in December 1734, was superseded by Captain Henry Medley [q. v.] In July 1739 he joined the Somerset of 80 guns, flagship of Rear-admiral Nicholas Haddock [q. v.], by whom, on 29 Oct., he was promoted to be lieutenant of the Dolphin frigate, with his uncle, Lord Aubrey Beauclerk [q. v.] In 1741 he was lieutenant of the Essex, one of the fleet in the Channel, under Sir John Norris (1660–1749) [q. v.], and in 1742 went out to the Mediterranean with Admiral Mathews, by whom, on 9 Nov., he was promoted to be captain of the Plymouth of 60 guns, then under orders for England. On his arrival his commission as captain was confirmed without his passing through the intermediate grade of commander.
In September 1743 Rodney was appointed to the Sheerness, a 24-gun frigate, from which, in October 1744, he was moved to the Ludlow Castle, employed during the following year in the North Sea under the orders of Admiral Edward Vernon [q. v.] In December 1745 he was appointed to the new 60-gun ship Eagle. During 1746 he was for the most part employed in cruising off the south coast of Ireland for the protection of trade; in 1747 he was with Commodore Fox in a successful and lucrative cruise to the westward, and had a brilliant share in the defeat of the French fleet under L'Etenduère on 14 Oct. [see Hawke, Edward, Lord]. He afterwards complained that at a critical period in the action he had not been properly supported by Fox, who, on his representations, was tried for misconduct and dismissed from his command. After the peace in 1748 Rodney was appointed to the 40-gun ship Rainbow as governor of Newfoundland, and with secret orders to support the colonists against the encroachments of the French in Nova Scotia. The Rainbow was paid off in the autumn of 1752, and during the following years Rodney successively commanded the Kent, Fougueux, Prince George, and Monarque, as guardships at Portsmouth. In December 1756 he was in London on leave, and although he was ordered to return to sit on the court-martial on Admiral John Byng [q. v.], his attendance was excused on the score of ‘a violent bilious colic.’ With equal good fortune he was moved to the Dublin in February 1757, a very few weeks before Byng was shot. In the autumn of 1757 the Dublin was one of the fleet with Hawke in the abortive expedition to the Basque Roads, and in 1758 was with Boscawen on the coast of North America, but, being very sickly, she was left at Halifax when the fleet sailed for the reduction of Louisbourg.
On 19 May 1759 Rodney was promoted to the rank of rear-admiral, and at once appointed, with his flag in the Achilles, to the command of a squadron including several bomb-ketches, with which, on 4, 5, and 6 July, he bombarded Havre, destroying the stores and flat-bottomed boats prepared for the contemplated invasion of England. He continued off Havre during the rest of the year, and again during 1760; and in 1761 went out to the West Indies as commander-in-chief on the Leeward Islands station, when, in concert with a large land force, he reduced Martinique in February 1762, and took possession of St. Lucia, Grenada, and St. Vincent. On 21 Oct. 1762 he was advanced to the rank of vice-admiral. In August 1763 he returned to England, and on 21 Jan. 1764 was created a baronet. In November 1765 he was appointed governor of Greenwich Hospital, and during the five years that he held this appointment is said to have suggested and insisted on several measures conducive to the comfort and well-being of the pensioners.
Since 1751 he had had a seat in the House of Commons as a nominee of the government or the Duke of Newcastle for Saltash, Okehampton, or Penryn. At the election of 1768 he was thrown on his own resources, and in securing his election for Northampton is said to have expended 30,000l. He was not a wealthy man, and this, added to social extravagance, completed his pecuniary ruin. Early in 1771, therefore, on the prospect of a war with Spain, he very readily accepted the command at Jamaica, hoping that he might also retain his appointment at Greenwich, as had, indeed, been usual. Lord Sandwich, however, refused to allow this, and as the difference with Spain was peaceably arranged, Rodney returned to England in the summer of 1774 no richer than when he went out, and much disgusted with the ministry which had refused to appoint him governor of Jamaica. He had been nominated rear-admiral of Great Britain in August 1771, but for some reason the emoluments of the office had not been paid to him. He now found himself so pressed by his liabilities in England that he retired to France in the beginning of 1775, and for the next four years or more lived in Paris; but, far from economising, he increased his indebtedness, and, when the war with England was on the point of breaking out, he was unable to leave France. There was more due to him as rear-admiral of Great Britain than would have cleared him twice over; but, in his absence, the navy board refused to pay it, and he was only relieved from his embarrassment by the friendly interposition of the Maréchal de Biron, who advanced him one thousand louis, and thus enabled him to return to England in May 1778 (Mundy, i. 180). The often repeated but incredible and unsupported story that Biron was commissioned by the French king to offer him a high command in the French fleet is contradicted by Rodney's letter to his wife of 6 May (ib.)
Rodney returned full of bitterness against Sandwich, who, as first lord of the admiralty, should, he thought, have ordered the navy board to satisfy his just claims. Sandwich cherished an equal resentment against Rodney. The latter had been promoted to the rank of admiral on 29 Jan. 1778, but it was not till towards the close of 1779, when no other officer of standing and repute would accept a command under his government, that Sandwich offered Rodney the command of the fleet on the Leeward Islands station; and Rodney believed that even then it was at the direct desire of the king. It appears certain that at the time and afterwards he considered himself in a peculiar degree the servant of the king. On his way to the West Indies he was to relieve Gibraltar, then closely blockaded by the Spaniards, and for this purpose took command of a fleet of twenty-one sail of the line, which, with frigates and some three hundred storeships and transports, sailed from Plymouth Sound on 29 Dec. On 16 Jan. 1780, to the southward of Cape St. Vincent, he caught the Spanish squadron under Don Juan de Langara, making its way towards Cadiz with a fresh westerly gale. It was of very inferior force, consisting of only eleven ships of the line, two of which were nearly out of sight ahead. Rodney at once grasped the situation and ordered a general chase, the ships to get between the enemy and the land and to engage as they came up with them. Night closed in as the action began, and through it a fearful storm was raging, but neither darkness nor storm stayed the brilliant rush of the English fleet, and the completeness of the result was commensurate with the vigour of the attack. Of the nine Spanish ships engaged, two only escaped: one was blown up, six (including Langara's flagship) were captured, and Gibraltar was relieved without the possibility of hindrance. The disproportion between the forces was so great as to deprive the action of much of its interest, but the peculiar circumstances of it—the darkness, the storm, and the rocks to leeward—enhanced the merit of Rodney's prompt decision. At home the victorious admiral was the hero of the hour, and Sandwich, with sublime impudence, wrote to him, ‘The worst of my enemies now allow that I have pitched upon a man who knows his duty, and is a brave, honest, and able officer.’ He was nominated an extra knight of the Bath; the city of London presented him with the freedom of the city in a gold casket.
From Gibraltar the bulk of the fleet returned to England. Rodney, with four sail of the line, went on to the West Indies, and reached St. Lucia on 22 March, five days before the Comte de Guichen took command of the French fleet at Martinique. On 13 April Guichen put to sea, and Rodney, having early intelligence of his movements, at once followed. The French fleet was still under the lee of Martinique when Rodney sighted it on the evening of the 16th. By the morning of the 17th the two fleets were abreast of, and parallel to, each other, though heading in opposite directions, the French towards the south, the English, some ten or twelve miles to windward, towards the north. Now, early in the century, it had been laid down by the admiralty as a positive order that when the fleet was to windward of the enemy ranged in line of battle, the van was to engage the van, and so on the whole length of the line. For a violation of this order Mathews had been cashiered; for not giving effect to it Byng had been shot; by attempting it in 1781 Graves was defeated and the American colonies were lost. Rodney was keenly alive to the absurdity of it, and risked departure from it. Two days before he had acquainted each captain in the fleet that it was his intention to bring the whole force of his fleet on a part—perhaps two-thirds—of the enemy's (Sir Gilbert Blane in Athenæum, 1809, a monthly magazine, v. 302); so that when, early in the morning of the 17th, he made the signal that he intended to attack the enemy's rear, he took for granted that his meaning was patent to every one. Unfortunately several signals and manœuvres intervened, and both fleets were on the same tack, heading to the north, when, a few minutes before noon, the order to engage was finally given. By that time the rear-admiral and captains in the van had quite forgotten both the earlier signal and the communication made two days before, which they probably never understood. The result was a grievous disappointment. Rodney felt that he had Guichen in his grasp. The French fleet was in very open order; their line extended to something like twelve miles; and he had thus the chance of falling, with his whole force, on half of that of the enemy. But Captain Robert Carkett [q. v.], who commanded the leading ship, and Rear-admiral Hyde Parker (1714–1782) [q. v.], who commanded the van, could not understand anything beyond the fatal ‘instruction,’ and stretched ahead to seek the enemy's van. Others followed their example; and others, again, between the contradictory signals of Rodney and Parker, were completely puzzled, and did nothing. There followed a partial engagement, in which several of the ships on either side were much shattered, in which many men were killed or wounded, but in which no advantage was obtained by either party.
In his letter to the admiralty Rodney laid the blame for the failure on several of the captains, and especially on Carkett. But the responsibility was largely his in not making it clear to at least the junior flag-officers that he proposed attempting something distinctly contrary to the admiralty fighting instructions. Guichen, on his part, was quick to realise that, with an enemy who refused to be bound by office formulæ, the lee gage might be a position of unwonted danger; and accordingly, a month later, when the fleets were again in presence of each other, to windward of Martinique, he obstinately retained the weather-gage which fortune gave him; and thus, though on two separate occasions, 15 and 19 May, Rodney, aided by a shift of wind, was able to lay up to his rear and bring on a passing skirmish, no battle took place. And so the campaign ended. A couple of months later Guichen returned to Europe, while Rodney, doubtful if he had not gone to the coast of North America, went himself to join Vice-admiral Arbuthnot at New York. There Arbuthnot received him with insolence and insubordination. Rodney behaved with moderation, but as Arbuthnot refused to be conciliated, he referred the matter to the admiralty [see Arbuthnot, Marriott]; and, having satisfied himself that he was no longer needed in North American waters, he returned to the West Indies, where he arrived in the beginning of December.
By the end of the month he was joined by Sir Samuel (afterwards Viscount) Hood [q. v.] with a large reinforcement, and a few weeks later, on 27 Jan. 1781, he received news of the war with Holland, and a recommendation to attack St. Eustatius. This coincided with Rodney's own wishes. The contraband and partial trade of St. Eustatius had been an annoyance and grievance to him during the whole of the past year, and he eagerly grasped the opportunity of vengeance. He seized the island and its accumulation of merchandise, to the value of from two to three millions sterling. This enormous mass of wealth seems to have intoxicated him. A large proportion of it belonged to English merchants, and against these Rodney was especially furious; they were traitors who had been gathering riches by supplying the enemies of their country with contraband of war. ‘My happiness,’ he wrote to Germain, ‘is having been the instrument of my country in bringing this nest of villains to condign punishment. They deserve scourging, and they shall be scourged.’ Unfortunately, he did not consider that, as the offenders claimed to be Englishmen, the scourging must be by legal process. He confiscated the whole of the property, sold some of it by auction, and sent a large part of the remainder for England. But as the convoy approached the shores of Europe it fell into the hands of a French squadron under Lamotte Picquet, who captured a great part of it [see Hotham, William, Lord]; and St. Eustatius itself, with the rest of the booty, including the money realised by the sales, was afterwards recaptured by De Bouillé. Rodney's dream of wealth thus vanished, and all that remained was a number of vexatious and costly lawsuits, which swallowed up the greater part of his lawful gains.
Meanwhile he had sent Hood with a strong force to blockade Fort Royal off Martinique. It was rumoured that a powerful French fleet was expected, and Rodney's post was clearly off Martinique. But he could not tear himself away from the fascinations of St. Eustatius, and he refused to believe the rumour. The result was that the French fleet, when it arrived, forced its way into Martinique, and that Hood, having been unable to prevent it, rejoined Rodney at Antigua. Rodney's ill-health was doubtless largely responsible for his blunder. He was obliged to resign the command to Hood, and on 1 Aug. he sailed for England. On 6 Nov. he was appointed vice-admiral of Great Britain.
A few months' rest at home restored his health, and on 16 Jan. 1782 he sailed from Torbay with his flag in the 90-gun ship Formidable. On 19 Feb. he rejoined Hood at Barbados. The position of affairs was critical. The French had just captured St. Kitts, and were meditating an attack in force on Jamaica. Some fourteen Spanish ships of the line and eight thousand soldiers were assembled at Cape Français, where they were to be joined by the Comte de Grasse from Martinique, with thirty-five sail of the line, five thousand troops, and a large convoy of storeships. But timely reinforcements had brought Rodney's force up to thirty-six sail of the line, with which he took up a position at St. Lucia, waiting for De Grasse to move. On the morning of 8 April he had the news that the French fleet was putting to sea. In two hours he was in pursuit, and the next morning sighted the enemy under the lee of Dominica, where the trade wind was cut off by the high land and blew in fitful eddies, alternating with calms and sea breezes. A partial action followed, without any result, and De Grasse, drawing off, attempted to get to windward through the Saintes Passage. Various accidents prevented his doing so, and, on the morning of the 12th, Sir Charles Douglas [q. v.], the captain of the fleet, awakened Rodney with the glad news that ‘God had given him the enemy on the lee bow.’
De Grasse was tempted still further to leeward to cover a disabled ship, and then, seeing that he could no longer avoid an action, he formed his line of battle and stood towards the south, while the English, on the opposite tack, advanced to meet him. About eight o'clock the battle began, the two lines passing each other at very close quarters. But as the French line got more to the southward, and under the lee of Dominica, it was broken by the varying winds, and at least two large gaps were made, through one of which the Formidable passed, and almost at the same moment the Bedford, the leading ship of the rear division, passed through the other [see Affleck, Sir Edmund]. The ships astern followed; the French line was pulverised, and endeavoured to run to leeward to reform. But for this they had no time; a rout ensued, and their rearmost ships, attacked in detail, were overpowered and taken. Just as the sun set, De Grasse's flagship, the Ville de Paris, surrendered to the Barfleur, and Rodney made the signal to bring to.
Hood was astounded. Douglas begged Rodney to continue the chase. He refused, on the ground that the ships, getting in among the enemy in the dark, would run great danger, while some of the French ships, remaining behind, might do great damage among the islands to windward; all which, as Captain Mahan has said, is ‘creditable to his imagination,’ for the French were thoroughly beaten and could not have had any idea of aggression (Influence of Sea-Power upon History, p. 497). Hood's opinion was that at least twenty ships might have been captured, and wrote, ‘Surely there never was an instance before of a great fleet being so completely beaten and routed, and not pursued.’ The neglect, he thought, was ‘glaring and shameful,’ and he did not scruple to attribute it to the admiral's childlike vanity in the possession of the Ville de Paris, which he could not bring himself to part from (Letters of Sir Samuel Hood, Navy Records Society, pp. 129, 130, 136–7). It is impossible to say that Rodney was not influenced by some such motive. Hood fully believed it, and his criticisms, though very bitter, are generally just. But it is probable that a large part of the neglect should be ascribed to the physical weakness and mental lassitude of a man prematurely old, racked by gout and gravel, and worn out with a long day's battle, following the three days' chase. That, having won a glorious and remarkable victory, he failed to make the most of it must be admitted. Still, the victory restored the English prestige, which had been sorely shaken by the defeat of Graves and the surrender of Cornwallis; and it enabled the government to negotiate on much more favourable terms. That the victory was Rodney's there can be no reasonable doubt. The attempt which was made to assign the credit of it to John Clerk (1728–1812) [q. v.] of Eldin, or to Sir Charles Douglas, is supported by no satisfactory evidence, and on many points is distinctly contradicted. It is of course quite probable that Douglas called his attention to the gap in the French line; but Rodney's whole career shows him as a man quick to see an opportunity, prompt to seize it, and tenacious to an extreme degree of his dignity and authority; while, according to Hood, Douglas—though unquestionably an able and brave officer—had neither fortitude nor resolution sufficient to open his lips in remonstrance against any order which Rodney might give (ib. p. 106; Mundy, ii. 303).
When the ships were refitted, Rodney proceeded with the fleet to Jamaica, and was still there, on 10 July, when he was summarily superseded by Admiral Hugh Pigot [q. v.], who had sailed from England before the news of the victory had arrived. That the whig government should supersede Rodney—whose conduct at St. Eustatius Burke had denounced—was natural; but the news of the victory showed them that they had made a mistake, and they did everything in their power to remedy it. On 22 May the thanks of both houses of parliament were voted to him; on 19 June he was created a peer by the title of Baron Rodney of Stoke-Rodney; and on 27 June the House of Commons voted him a pension of 2,000l., which in 1793 was settled on the title for ever. The committee of inquiry into the St. Eustatius prize affairs was discharged, and, when he arrived in England in September, he was received with unmeasured applause.
Rodney had no further service, and during his last years he lived retired from public life. He was sorely straitened for money; he was worried by lawsuits arising out of the St. Eustatius spoil; and his health was feeble. He suffered much from gout, which, it was said, occasionally affected his intellect, though it did not prevent his writing very clear notes in the margin of his copy of Clerk's ‘Essay.’ He died suddenly on 23 May 1792, in his house in Hanover Square. Rodney was twice married. First, in 1753, to Jane (d. 1757), daughter of Charles Compton, brother of the sixth earl of Northampton. By her he had two sons: George, who succeeded as second baron; and James, who was lost in command of the Ferret sloop of war in 1776. He married secondly, in 1764, Henrietta, daughter of John Clies of Lisbon, by whom he had issue three daughters and two sons, the elder of whom, John, is noticed below; the younger, Edward, born in 1783, died, a captain in the navy, in 1828. Lady Rodney survived her husband many years, and died in 1829 at the age of ninety.
According to Wraxall, who claimed ‘great personal intimacy with him,’ Rodney's ‘person was more elegant than seemed to become his rough profession; there was even something that approached to delicacy and effeminacy in his figure.’ In society he laid himself open to the reproach of ‘being glorieux et bavard, making himself frequently the theme of his own discourse. He talked much and freely upon every subject, concealed nothing in the course of conversation, regardless who were present, and dealt his censures as well as his praises with imprudent liberality. Throughout his whole life two passions—the love of women and of play—carried him into many excesses. It was believed that he had been distinguished in his youth by the personal attachment of the Princess Amelia, daughter of George II’ (Historical Memoirs, ed. Wheatley, i. 223–4).
A portrait of Rodney, by Reynolds, is in St. James's Palace; a copy of it, presented by George IV, is in the painted hall at Greenwich, and was engraved by W. Dickinson. Another small oval portrait by Reynolds was engraved by P. Tomkins and J. Watson in 1762. Another portrait, by Gainsborough, has been engraved by Dupont. A portrait by H. Baron was engraved by C. Knight and Green. A miniature by W. Grimaldi has also been engraved (see Bromley).
Rodney's elder son by his second wife, John Rodney (1765–1847), born on 27 Feb. 1765, affords a striking example of the abuse of favouritism. On 18 May 1778, at the request of Admiral John Byron [q. v.], he was admitted as a scholar in the Royal Academy at Portsmouth (Byron to the secretary of the admiralty, 20 April 1778, in Admiral's Despatches, North America, 7; secretary of the admiralty to Hood, 24 April 1778, in Secretary's Letters, 1778; Commission and Warrant Book). On 28 Oct. 1779 he was ordered to be discharged from the Academy, at Sir George Rodney's request, but not to any ship, ‘as he has not gone through the plan of learning, or been the usual time in the Academy’ (Minute on Sir G. Rodney's letter of 26 Oct. in Admiral's Despatches, Leeward Islands, 7). He was then entered on board the Sandwich, carrying his father's flag, and in her was present at the defeat of Langara, off Cape St. Vincent, at the relief of Gibraltar, and in the action of 17 April 1780. On 27 May his father, writing to the boy's mother, wrote with a customary exaggeration: ‘John is perfectly well, and has had an opportunity of seeing more service in the short time he has been from England than has fallen to the lot of the oldest captain in the navy. … He is now gone on a cruise in one of my frigates’ (Mundy, Life of Rodney, i. 296). On 30 July he wrote again: ‘John is very well, and has been kept constantly at sea to make him master of his profession. He is now second lieutenant of the Sandwich, having risen to it by rotation; but still I send him in frigates; he has seen enough of great battles. All he wants is seamanship, which he must learn. When he is a seaman he shall be a captain, but not till then’ (ib. i. 357). By 14 Oct. 1780, being then only fifteen, he was able to satisfy his father's requirements, and was promoted to be commander of the Pocahontas, and the same day to be captain of the Fowey. In compliment to his father these very irregular promotions were confirmed to their original date, on 22 May 1782 (Commission and Warrant Book). During 1781 he was captain of the Boreas frigate, and in April 1782 was moved to the Anson, in which he returned to England at the peace. In March 1795 he was appointed to the Vengeance, but in August, before she was ready for sea, he accidentally broke his leg. It had to be amputated, and he was superseded. In June 1796 he was appointed one of the commissioners of victualling, and in February 1799, on being passed over in the flag promotion, his name was removed from the list of captains. He continued a commissioner of victualling till August 1803, when he was appointed chief secretary to the government of Ceylon, in which office he remained till 1832 (Order in Council, 3 Dec.). He was then, on a memorial to the king in council, replaced on the navy list as a retired captain, and so continued till his death on 9 April 1847.
[Mundy's Life and Correspondence, in which last the language has been altered to suit the taste of the editor; Hannay's Rodney (English Men of Action); Rodney and the Navy of the Eighteenth Century, in Edinburgh Rev., January 1892; Official letters and other documents in the Public Record Office; Naval Chronicle, i. 354, xxxi. 360, 363; Charnock's Biogr. Nav. v. 204; Beatson's Naval and Military Memoirs; United Service Journal, 1830, vol. ii.; White's Naval Researches; Matthews's Twenty-one Plans of Engagements in the West Indies; Clerk's Essay on Naval Tactics (3rd edit.); Ekins's Battles of the British Navy; Sir Howard Douglas's Statement of some Important Facts, &c. (1829), and Naval Evolutions (1832); Sir John Barrow's Rodney's Battle of 12 April, in Quarterly Review, xlii.; Foster's Peerage; Chevalier's Hist. de la Marine Française pendant la Guerre de l'Indépendance Américaine; Troude's Batailles navales de la France.]