Elphinstone, George Keith (DNB00)

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ELPHINSTONE, GEORGE KEITH, Viscount Keith (1746–1823), admiral, fifth son of the tenth Lord Elphinstone and grand-nephew of Marshal Keith, earl Marischal, after whom he was named, was born at Elphinstone Tower, near Stirling, on 7 Jan. 1745-6. His second brother, Charles, was a midshipman of the Prince George, and perished with her on 18 April 1768 [see Brodrick, Thomas]. The third son, William, also entered the navy, but quitted it while still a lad for the service of the East India Company, in which he eventually acquired a considerable fortune. George determined on following his brothers' example, and in 1761 was entered on board the Gosport of 44 guns, under the care of Captain John Jervis, better known as Earl St. Vincent. He afterwards served successively in the Juno, Lively, and Emerald frigates, and in 1767 entered on board an East India Company's ship, commanded by his brother William, with whom he made a voyage to China, for a private venture in which his grand-uncle advanced him 2,000l., thereby enabling him, we are told, to lay the foundation of a pecuniary independence. In December 1769 he was appointed to the Stag frigate going out to the East Indies with the broad pennant of Commodore Sir John Lindsay, by whom, on 28 June 1770, he was promoted to a lieutenant's vacancy. In October he left the Stag and returned to England, and in the following May was appointed to the Trident, flagship of Sir Peter Denis in the Mediterranean. On 18 Sept. 1772 he was promoted to command the Scorpion sloop, and to bring her to England. In December he returned to the Mediterranean in the Scorpion, and commanded her, for the most part at Minorca and on the coast of Italy, till the summer of 1774. On 11 May 1775 he was posted to the Romney, in which he convoyed the trade to Newfoundland, and on his return was appointed in March 1776 to the Perseus frigate. In July he was sent out to New York in charge of convoy, and during the following years was actively employed in cruising against the enemy's privateers or blockade runners, and in co-operating with or supporting the troops on shore. In April and May 1780 he served on shore at the reduction of Charleston, and was afterwards sent to England carrying Captain Hamond with the despatches. On the Perseus paying off, he was immediately appointed to the Warwick of 50 guns, and during the autumn and early winter was principally employed cruising on the Soundings for the protection of the homeward-bound trade. In September 1780 he was returned to parliament for Dumbartonshire. On 5 Jan. 1781, he fell in with and captured the Dutch ship Rotterdam of 50 guns — a capture rendered more brilliant by the fact that a few days before the Rotterdam had beaten off the Isis, a ship of the same nominal force. A few weeks later, 27 March 1781, the Warwick sailed from Cork with a convoy for North America, and continued on that station till the peace. Towards the end of 1781 Prince William Henry, then a midshipman of the Prince George [see Digby, Robert], was placed for some time under Elphinstone's care, and was still with him on 16 Sept. 1782, when the Warwick, in company with the Lion, Vestal, and Bonetta sloop, drove ashore, at the mouth of the Delaware, and captured the Aigle, a powerful 40-gun frigate, together with two smaller vessels. The Gloire, another frigate, escaped up the river into shallow water. On the return of the Warwick to New York, Elphinstone, whose health was failing, was appointed to the Carysfort for the passage to England, where he arrived in the end of November.

For the next ten years Elphinstone lived at home or in London, attending to his duties in parliament as member for Dumbartonshire and after 1790 for Stirlingshire. During this time also he married, 10 April 1787, Jane, eldest daughter and coheiress of Colonel William Mercer of Aldie(Foster, Peerage, s.n. 'Nairne'). It was not till war with France was imminent that he applied for a ship; and on 2 Feb. 1793 he was appointed to the Robust of 74 guns, in which a few months later he went out to the Mediterranean with Lord Hood. By the middle of August the fleet was off Toulon, which after some little negotiation was delivered over to the English. On 27 Aug. Elphinstone was landed, with fifteen hundred men, to take possession of Fort La Malgue; and on the 30th, with a joint English and Spanish force numbering six hundred men, he attacked and routed a body of French, which had advanced as far as Ollioules. According to James (i. 77), 'the success of Captain Elphinstone in this affair gained him many compliments on his knowledge of military tactics, so little expected in an officer of the navy.' He had, however, already had some experience of shore fighting at Charleston; and through the whole period of the occupation, during; which he continued governor of La Malgue, be showed that be had fully profited by it. On the night of 17 Dec., when it bad been decided to evacuate the place, the embarkation of the troops and of the royalist fugitives was entrusted to Elphinstone; and several thousands were, by his care, conducted safely on board the fleet. In the following spring he returned home in charge of a squadron of the Toulon ships, and received the order of the Bath. 30 May 1794. On 12 April 1794 he was advanced to the rank of rear-admiral; and in the autumn he hoisted his flag in the Barfleur, under Lord Howe, in the Channel fleet. It was for a very few months, for it was decided to take immediate measures to prevent the several Dutch colonies falling into the hands of the French, and Elphinstone hnppened to have more knowledge of the East than any naval officer than available. It was hoped that the name of the Prince of Orange, who had sought refuge in England, might prevent any opposition; and it was determined, in the firat place, to secure the Cape of Good Hope, by friendly negotiation if possible, but if not by force.

Of this expedition and of the whole squadron in Indian waters, Elphinstone was appointed commander-in-chief, and sailed from Spitshead on 4 April 1795, with his flag on board the Monarch. His promotion to be vice-admiral was dated 1 June 1795. On 10 June he arrived off Cape Town, where he was joined by Commodore John Blankett [q. v.]; and the weather being stormy the ships went round to Simon's Bay, where the troops were landed. Negotiation proved fruitless, The troops expected from India had not arrived; but the attacks of the colonists became each day more daring, and it was resolved that an advance must be made as far, at least, us Muizenberg, which commanded the road to Cape Town and to the interior. The position held by the enemy was strong, but was exposed to seaward; and on 7 Aug. the guns of a detached squadron, with which Elphinstone was unofficially present, in a few minutes 'obliged the Dutch to abandon their camp with the utmost precipitation.' When the land forces came up, 'after a fatiguing march over heavy sandy ground,' they had little to do but take possession of the abandoned works, though further inland the Dutch held their ground stoutly for some time. For nearly a month longer the little party bad to maintain itself under great disadvantages against unceasing attacks of the Dutch militia. On 4 Sept. the long-looked-for reinforcements arrived; but even then bad weather rendered it for several days impossible to land the troops. By the 13th, however, they were assembled at Muizenberg; on the 14th they moved on, defeated the Dutch in a sharp skirmish at Wynberg, and on the 17th Cape Town capitulated, the garrison becoming prisoners of war. In the decisive result Elphinstone had little share; but the ability and energy which be had displayed in the occupation of Muizenberg won for him the acknowledgments both of his soldier colleagues and of the government. It had been intended that from the Cape Elphinstone should go on to India and seize the Dutch settlements there and in Ceylon; but the delay had given Rear-admiral Rainier time to anticipate him. The work there was already nearly finished, and there was still a good deal to do at the Cape. Elphinstone's health, too, was broken by the strain both of body and mind; and though in January 1796 he went on to Madras, he was unable to take any part in the operations, which came to an end on 15 Feb. with the surrender of Colombo and the whole of Ceylon. Having received intelligence of a Dutch expedition against the Cape, he returned to Simon's Bay in May, but it was August before the Dutch squadron was reported on the coast; and on the 16th he found it at anchor in Saldanha Bay. The force with Elphinstone was so superior that resistance was hopeless; he accordingly demanded the surrender of the ships, which struck their flags the following day, the officers and men becoming prisoners of war. This complete success permitted Elphinstone shortly after to sail for England; he arrived on 3 Jan. 1797, when he received the duplicate of a letter written 20 Nov. offering him an Irish peerage, the patent of which was ultimately issued on 7 March, creating him Baron Keith of Stonehaven Marischal.

A few months later, on the occasion of the mutiny at the Nore, Keith was specially appointed to the command at Sheerness. Both as captain and admiral he had always had the reputation of being lucky; and it was now supposed that his name would go a long way towards bringing the mutineers bock to their allegiance. His measures at Sheerness had the happiest effect; and within a week after his arrival the revolted ships began to come in and surrender themselves. Within a fortnight the mutiny was at an end, and Keith was ordered to go to Plymouth and hoist his flag on board the Queen Charlotte as second in command in the Channel. The spirit of disaffection was still strong at Plymouth, but Keith again happily succeeded in bringing the men to listen to reason and to deliver up the ringleaders. He continued on in the Channel till the close of the following year, when he was sent out to the Mediterranean, with his flag in the Foudroyant, as second, under his old chief Lord St. Vincent. The following February he shifted into the Barfleur, and until the beginning of May had the active command before Cadiz; St. Vincent, who was in failing health, remaining at Gibraltar. The divided command was a great misfortune, for St. Vincent was not the man to let his subordinate act independently; and Keith was thus greatly hampered. On 25 April Vice-admiral Bruix got to sea from Brest, with twenty-five ships of the line besides smaller vessels, taking advantage of an easterly gale which blew the blockading squadron off shore. On 8 May Keith had news that the French fleet had been seen two days before off Oporto. He immediately sent on the news to St. Vincent, preparing as he best could for what might happen. Next morning the French were in sight. Keith had with him only fifteen sail of the line, in presence of these twenty-five French ships and twenty-two Spanish in Cadiz. The position seemed critical; but the strong westerly wind prevented the Spaniards from putting to sea, and gave the French enough to do to take care of themselves. The gale freshened; during the night some of the French ships parted company, several were more or less disabled, all were scattered; and Bruix judged that the best thing he could do was to run through the Straits and get to Toulon ns fast as possible (Chevalier, Hist. de la Marine française sous la première République,; he anchored there on the 14th. St. Vincent had at once sent to Keith to join him with his whole squadron, but the westerly gale rendered the communication slow. Keith did not get tho message till the evening of the 9th, and it was the 12th before the English fleet could leave Gibraltar. Bruix had been a whole week in the Mediterranean, and whither he had gone, whither he meant to go, or what he meant to do, was a complete mystery. Starting in pursuit, St. Vincent had with him only sixteen sail of the line. At Minorca, on the 20th, he was joined by Sir John Duckworth with four more, and was on his way to Toulon when he learned that the Spanish fleet from Cadiz had also come into the Mediterranean. He did not know that it had put into Cartagena with most of the ships dismasted (ib. 411), and accordingly took up a station off Cape St. Sebastian with a view to prevent the two hostile fleets from joining. On the 30th he learned that Bruix had put to sea from Toulon on the 26th, but with what object was unknown. An attack on Nelson at Palermo seemed not improbable, and Duckworth was sent with four ships to reinforce him [see Nelson, Horatio, Viscount Nelson; Duckworth, Sir John Thomas]. The fleet was, however, joined by four other ships under Rear-admiral Whitshed in the Queen Charlotte, and continued off Cape St. Sebastian; but on 2 June St. Vincent, whose health gave way, turned the command over to Keith and sailed for Port Mahon. Keith, left to himself, and having, it may be, a clearer idea of the worthlessness of the Spanish fleet, resolved to quit his strategic station and go to look for the French. On the 3rd, off Toulon, he learned that they had certainly gone eastward; on the 5th that they had been seen only the day before in Vado Bay. The wind was foul, and he was still working up towards Vado when, off Cape delle Mele on the 8th, he received orders from St. Vincent to detach two ships to join Nelson, and to go himself off Rosas to prevent the junction of the French and Spanish fleets. That the order was a blunder is certain. Nelson thought that Keith, being where he was and with better information, ought not to have obeyed it (Nelson Despatches, vii. cxcii); Keith judged otherwise, but at the same time so far deviated from the letter of his orders as to take Minorca on the way, thus permitting Bruix, who had weighed from Valdo Bay on the 8th, and whom he must have met had he stood on, to hug the French and Spanish shore, and so, passing to the southward, to join the Spaniards at Cartogena on the 23rd. At Minorca, on the 13th, Keith shifted his flag to the Queen Charlotte, and on the 15th received St. Vincent's final resignation of the command. Standing over towards Toulon, he fell in with and captured a squadron of four French frigates returning from the Levant; he looked into Toulon, Genoa, Vado Bay, but could get no news of the French fleet. He returned to Minorca, where, on 7 July, he was reinforced by twelve sail of the line under Sir Charles Cotton, but not till some days later did he know that the French had gone to Cartagena. On 29 July he readied Gibraltar. The combined fleets had passed the Straits three weeks before. They had gone to Cadiz, and had sailed northwards on the 20th. Keith now thought the Channel might be their aim, and followed with all speed. On 12 Aug. he was broad off Ushant; the allies had gone into Brest on the 8th. From the mere fact that in this long and weary cruise he failed to find the enemy's fleet and to bring it to action, Keith's conduct was severely criticised; but he seems to have been in a great measure the victim of circumstances; and the divided command and St. Vincent's ill-health had enormously increased the inherent difficulties of the problem.

From Brest Keith wont with the fleet to Torbay, and in November was ordered to return to the Mediterranean, where the command had been temporarily held hy Nelson. He reached Gibraltar on 6 Dec., and was proceeding off Genoa to co-operate with the Austrians when, at Port Mahon, he received inteligence of the pending attempt of a French squadron to relieve their army in Egypt. At Leghorn he was met by Nelson, with the further news that the Russians had withdrawn from the blockade of Malta and gone to Corfu. He resolved, therefore, to occupy the station which these had vacated, in which he would also be well placed to intercept the rumoured French squadron. The speedy capture of the greater part of this set him at liberty to follow out his original design of going to Genoa. In the flagship alone, he went to Leghorn in order to concert measures with the Austrians, and while on shore sent the ship, the Queen Charlotte, to reconnoitre Capraja, which afforded shelter to a swarm of French privateers. The Queen Charlotte sailed from Leghorn at nightfall on 16 March 1800, but remained hove to, some three or four leagues off, waiting to be joined by some officers of the Austrian staff who were to take part in the reconnaissance. These were on their way off the next morning when the ship was seen in the distance enveloped in flames. It was known afterwards that the fire spread from some hay which had been carelessly stacked under the half-deck in the immediate neighbourhood of the match tub (Minutes of the Court-martial). The fire spread rapidly, and the ship, one of the largest in the English navy, was utterly destroyed; with her nearly seven hundred of her crew perished. No such terrible accident had occurred since the burning of the Prince George, in which Keith's elder brother had lost his life. Keith now hoisted his flag in the Audacious, and afterwards in the Minotaur. By the beginning of April the Austrians had closed round the French positions near Genoa,and by the 13th had completely hemmed them in. By sea, too, the strictest blockade was established, and after an unsurpassed defence the French capitulated on 4 June. On the 5th, what was left of the garrison marched out with the honours of war, the Austrians took possession of the town, and Keith entered the harbour in the Minotaur. On the 14th Bonaparte's victory at Marengo reversed the position. By the terms of the armistice which immediately followed, Genoa waa restored to the French, and they took possession of it with such celerity that Keith had barely time to get his ship outside the Mole before the French had manned the batteries [see Beaver, Philip]. His mortification was excessive, and the more so as he felt that, with the command of the sea, Genoa might have been held, for which purpose he had been urging General Fox at Minorca to send an English garrison. He was now obliged to withdraw, and, going to Leghorn, bade adieu to Nelson, who was going home overland, Keith having been obliged by the exigencies of the station to refuse him permission to go in the Foudroyant,or indeed in any line-of-battle ship.

It had been already determined to push the campaign in Egypt to a conclusion. Affairs there had been strangely complicated by the unwarranted action of Sir William Sidney Smith [q.v.], who had taken on himself to conclude a convention with the French, by the terms of which they were to have a free passage to France. The news of this convention, signed at El Arish on 24Jan., had reached Keith on his way from Malta to Leghorn, and, as it was contrary to positive orders which had been sent to Smith from Port Mahon on 8 Jan., Keith now referred the matter to the home government, suggesting that the circumstances might change their determination, but announcing his intention of following out his instructions till they were cancelled. Smith wrote to Kleber on 21 Feb. that the convention of El Arish was disallowed by the commander-in-chief, and that the French would not be permitted to quit Egypt except as prisoners, of war; expressing, however, his conviction that when the circumatances of the convention were known the difficulty would be done away with. This was, in fact, the case so far as the English government was concerned; and Keith, on 'receiving instructions to allow a passage to the French troops,' had immediately sent orders to Egypt 'to permit them to return to France without molestation.' But before his letter arrived hostilities had recommenced; fresh negotiations were neceesary,and were still pending when Kleber was assassinated on 14 June. Keith has been accused of having, in this business, violated the good faith of England (James, ii. 448). In point of fact, and according to the general agreement of jurists (see Nicholas, Nelson Dispatches, iii. 498 n.), the validily of the convention depended on the discretion of the commander-in-chief, and Keith was strictly within his right in declining to sanction it, as directly contrary to the orders he had received from home. He did, however, submit to the government the propriety of accepting it, and it was accepted accordingly, though too late to be of any service.

Meantime Sir Ralph Abercromby [q. v.] had been sent out to the Mediterranean with a large armament. He joined Keith at Leghorn on 1 July; but the plans of the government had been unsettled, and though the troops were there, nothing had been decided as to their destination. In August Keith went to Minorca, shifted his flag to the Foudroyant, and was ordered to prepare, in concert with Abercromby, for a descent on Cadiz. By 5 Oct. they were off Cadiz with a fleet numbering upwards of 130 vessels. A virulent pestilence was carrying off the inhabitants of the city by thousands; and the governor wrote off, deprecating any hostilities against a place in so lamentable a condition. Keith and Abercromby replied in a joint letter that they were 'little disposed to multiply unnecessarily the evils inseparable from war,' but unless the ships of war then in Cadiz were given up they should be obliged to carry out their instructions to take or destroy them. But when the governor's answer came, virtually refusing compliance, the joint commanders had arrived at the conclusion that the expedition was not equal to the undertaking. They accordingly returned straightway to Gibraltar. It is impossible to acquit the two commanders, but more especially Keith, of weakness and vacillation. On 25 Oct. they at length received orders for the invasion of Egypt, and after touching at Malta (which had surrendered on 5 Sept.), sailed for the coast of Caramania, where, in a gale which threatened imminent loss to the whole fleet, they arrived almost by accident in the harbour of Marmorice (Wilson, Hist. of the Expedition to Egypt, p. 3; Parson, Nelsonian Remniniscences, p. 80) on 1 Jan. 1801, on which day Keith was gazetted to the rank of admiral, on the general promotion accompanying the declaration of the union between Great Britain and Ireland. In Marmorice harbour they were detained till 22 Feb.; on 2 March they anchored in Aboukir Bay; and on the 8th the troops were landed. Keith's share in the ensuing operations was mainly limited to guarding the coast, till, on 2 Sept., the final capitulation was signed, and Alexandria, with all the shipping in the port, was surrendered. The service had been irksome and onerous to an extreme degree, without the redeeming opportunities of distinction. 'It fell to the lot of the army to fight and of the navy to labour,' was Nelson's happy phrase in seconding the vote of thanks in the House of Lords; 'they had equally performed their duty and were equally entitled to thanks.' From the city of London Keith received the freedom of the city and a sword of the value of a hundred guineas; the sultan conferred on him the order of the Crescent; and on 15 Dec he was raised to the dignity of a peerage of the United Kingdom, with the same title as before.

On the conclusion of the peace Keith was permitted to resign the command to Sir Richard Bickerton. He returned to England in July 1802; but on the fresh outbreak of the war, May 1803, he was appointed commander-in-chief in the Nortn Sea, where, throughout that and the following years, he was closely occupied with preparations for the defence of the coast, eventually extending into the Channel, as far west as Selsea Bill. It was not till after the enemy's scheme of invasion was finally disposed of at Trafalgar that the strain of this command was relaxed; but he continued to hold it till the spring of 1807. On 12 Dec. 1808 he married Hester Maria, daughter of Mrs. Thrale (Piozzi) [see Elphinstone, Hester Maria], now no longer young, and described as having 'strengthened her mental faculties by the severe studies of perspective, fortification, Hebrew, and mathematics.' Notwithstanding this she made Keith an excellent companion in his declining years.

In February 1812 he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Channel fieet, and on 14 May 1814 was advanced to the dignity of viscount. His command seems to have been exercised mainly by deputies afloat, he himself arranging the stations of the several squadrons and superintending the whole. The fleet, indeed, was broken up into numerous small detachments employed on the coast of France or Portugal, in convoy or transport service, the organisation of which was more properly settled in the home ports. It was thus that he had drawn a line of cruisers along the French coasts, even before receiving the news of the battle of Waterloo; and little further preparation was needed to prevent the escape of Bonaparte to America. He was at Plymouth when the news reached him of Bonaparte's having given himself up on board the Bellerophon, and was throughout the intermediary of the government in its correspondence with Bonaparte relative to his being sent to St. Helena. Bonaparte protested vehemently against the treatment to which he was subjected, and endeavoured to draw Keith into arguing the matter; but Keith maintained strict silence on his own part, considering himself merely the mouthpiece of the government. The departure of Bonaparte and the conclusion of peace permitted Keith to retire from active service. He had accumulated a handsome fortune, and for the remaining years of his life devoted himself to improvingand adorning the estate of Tullyallan, on the north bank of the Forth, which he had purchased some time previously, in reclaiming land, and in building embankments and piers, at a large outlay. In 1821 he received from the king of Sardinia the grand cross of the order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus, in recognition of his services at the siege of Genoa. Two years later, 10 March 1823, he died at Tullyallan, and was buried in the parish church, where he had constructed a mausoleum.

The numerous appointments of the first Importance which Keith held during his long service, and the many tangled and difficult affairs with which his name is connected, give his career an interest far above what his character seems to warrant. Steady, persevering, and cautious, equal to the necessities of the moment, but in no instance towering above them, he made few serious mistakes, he carried out satisfactorily the various operations entrusted to him, and left behind him the reputation of a good rather than of a great commander. His portrait by Hoppner has been frequently engraved; a copy of it in photogravure is given in Allardyce's 'Life.' Another portrait by Owen is in the Painted Hall at Greenwich, the gift of his widow.

By his first marriage Keith had one daughter, Margaret Mercer Elphinstone [q. v.], who in 1817 married the Comte de Flahault, aide-de-camp of Napoleon, and French ambassador in London. The Comtesse de Flahault was in her own right, on the father's side, Baroness Keith, and on the mother's side Baroness Nairne. On her death in 1867 the barony of Keith became extinct; that of Nairne descended to ber daughter Emily, wife of the late, and mother of the present, Marquis of Lansdowne. By his second marriage Keith had also one daughter, who married, first, the Hon. Augustus John Villiers, second son of the fifth Earl of Jersey; and secondly, Lord William Godolphin Osborne, brother of the eighth Duke of Leeds.

[Allardyce's Life of Admiral Lord Keith (1882), a clumsy, crude, and inaccurate compilation; Marshall's Royal Naval Biography, i. 43; Naval Chronicle, x. l; Nicolas's Nelson Despatches; James's Naval History (edit 1860); Chevalier's Hist. de la Marine Française; Official Documents in the Public Record Office.]

J. K. L.