Royal Naval Biography/Darby, Henry D’Esterre

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Admiral of the Blue; Knight Commander of the most honourable Military Order of the Bath.

This officer is a native of Ireland, and nephew of the late George Darby, Esq. Vice-Admiral of the Red, and Rear-Admiral of Great Britain. During the period his uncle commanded the Channel fleet, Mr. Darby served as Lieutenant in his flag-ship, the Britannia, of 100 guns, and thence was promoted to the command of the Infernal, fire-vessel, in which he accompanied Commodore Johnstone, on an expedition destined against the Cape of Good Hope; but the British squadron being surprised by a superior French force, whilst lying at anchor in Porto Praya, the Infernal unfortunately fell into the hands of the enemy[1].

Having at length regained his liberty, Captain Darby was advanced to Post rank Jan. 15, 1783; but we find no further mention of him until the commencement of the war with France, in 1793, when he obtained the command of the Amphitrite, of 28 guns; from which vessel he soon after removed into the Pomona frigate. His next appointment was to the Adamant, of 50 guns, employed in escorting the trade to and from the Mediterranean and West Indies, in which service Captain Darby continued until the summer of 1796, when he joined the Bellerophon of 74 guns; and after cruising some time with the Channel fleet, was sent to reinforce the fleet under Earl St. Vincent, on the Mediterranean station.

Previous to this, Captain Darby appears to have had a miraculous escape; for having been engaged to dine with Captain (now Sir Israel) Pellew, on board the Amphion, the day on which that ship blew up in Hamoaze, he had come round from Cawsand bay, where the Bellerophon lay, for the purpose of fulfilling his engagement; but having some business concerning his ship to transact with the Port-Admiral, it detained him about half an hour longer at Stone house than he intended; and he was just getting into his boat to proceed up the harbour, when he heard the fatal explosion!

The Bellerophon was one of the ships detached from Earl St. Vincent’s fleet, in May 1798, to reinforce Sir Horatio Nelson, then off Toulon, watching the motions of an armament about to sail from that port. At the battle of the Nile[2], she was opposed to l’Orient, of 120 guns, bearing the flag of the French Commander-in-Chief. The undaunted magnanimity with which Captain Darby placed her alongside her mighty antagonist, excited at the moment the highest admiration, and must ever be the theme of eulogium. The Bellerophon, however, sustained such serious damage from the overwhelming fire of l’Orient, that her brave commander was reluctantly compelled to withdraw from the action, himself being wounded, two Lieutenants killed, and one-third of his men slain or wounded. His only remaining mast falling soon after, and in its fall killing another Lieutenant and several of his people, he was never able to regain his station.

The total loss sustained by the Bellerophon on this memorable occasion was 49 killed, and 148 wounded. Our officer returned to England in the spring of 1800; and in addition to the gold medal, which was presented to him in common with the other Captains, who shared in the dangers and glories of the above battle, he received the flattering compliment of being appointed to the command of a new 74-gun ship, named after Earl Spencer, the nobleman under whose administration, as First Lord of the Admiralty, so many splendid victories had been achieved.

Towards the latter end of Jan. 1801, a French squadron, consisting of six sail of the line, two frigates, and a lugger, under the command of Rear Admiral Gantheaume, found means to escape out of Brest; a circumstance no sooner known, than Sir Robert Calder was detached in pursuit, with an adequate force, of which the Spencer formed a part. From the intelligence which he had received, Sir Robert was induced to shape his course for the West Indies; but on his arrival at Jamaica, he learnt that the enemy had entered the Mediterranean, whereupon he returned to England, and resumed his station in the Channel fleet.

Captain Darby was subsequently employed in the blockade of Cadiz, under the orders of Sir James Saumarez; and in the attempt made by that officer on a French squadron near Algeziras, July 6, 1801[3], the Spencer had 30 men killed and wounded.

In the month of Dec. following, Captain Darby and others were sent to Jamaica to watch the motions of an armament, which the consular government of France, taking advantage of the supension of hostilities occasioned by the treaty of Amiens, had sent to St. Domingo, to reduce the blacks in that island to submission.

In Sept. 1802, he returned to England with a broad pendant, as Commodore of a squadron sent home in consequence of the surrender of Toussaint to the French forces.

Our officer was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral, April 23, 1804; Vice-Admiral, July 31, 1810; and Admiral, August 12, 1819. On the 20th May, in the following year, he was nominated an extra K.C.B.[4].

  1. Commodore Johnstone with a squadron, consisting of a 74, a 64, and three 50-gun ships, with three frigates and eight smaller vessels, having under his protection ten outward bound Indiamen, on board of which were embarked 3000 troops, destined for an attempt upon the Dutch settlement at the Cape of Good Hope, sailed from Spithead March 14, 1781. The fleet reached Porto Praya without any accident; but whilst there, was unexpectedly attacked by two French 74’s, and three 64’s, under the command of M. de Suffrein, who had been detached in pursuit of the British armament. It appears to have been the opinion of Commodore Johnstone and most of his officers, that had the enemy stood in, and anchored in a seaman-like and judicious manner, the result of the battle would have been fatal to the English, who were not in the least prepared for such a visit. The whole of the Indiamen must inevitably have been either destroyed or taken; perhaps many of the squadron would have shared the same fate, unless they had put to sea. Fortunately, the French ships brought up without any order; their sails flying about, and in great confusion, firing at random among the British men of war and merchantmen. In about three quarters of an hour after Commodore Johnstone had opened his fire, M. de Suffrein cut his cable, and stood to sea, followed by the whole of his squadron, with the exception of his second a-head, the Hannibal of 74 guns, which remained some time longer exposed to a most tremendous fire from every ship in the British fleet. At length, her cable being either shot through or cut, she wore round, and drifted out of the bay a complete wreck; all her masts and bowsprit soon after fell overboard; in this shattered condition she proceeded on unmolested, and joined her companions, who went off before the wind in a line a-breast. So much time elapsed ere Commodore Johnstone went in pursuit, that it was late in the evening before he had approached near the enemy. Being then apprehensive that a further continuance of the chace would draw him so far to leeward as to preclude the possibility of regaining his anchorage, by which the merchantmen would be without protection, and the object of his expedition defeated; he came to the resolution of hauling his wind, and returning to Porto Praya. In this conflict, the Fortitude and Hinchinbrooke, Indiamen, were taken, and carried to sea; but the latter was recaptured the next day. The Terror bomb was also boarded by the enemy; but her Commander, Captain Wood, by his good management, extricated himself from the danger he was in of being taken, and escaped with the loss of his foremast and bowsprit. The Infernal put to sea, and was captured; but on the approach of the squadron, the enemy abandoned her, first taking out Captain Darby and several of his crew, one of whom was slain and two wounded. The loss sustained by the British in this action amounted to 32 killed, 130 wounded, and 20 made prisoners.

    Commodore Johnstone soon after proceeded towards the Cape of Good Hope; but learning on his approach, that M. de Suffrein had reached False Bay on the 21st June, and by landing a body of troops placed the colony in a state of security, he resolved to make an attempt on some Dutch Indiamen, in Saldanha Bay. In this he perfectly succeeded; for although the enemy, on the appearance of the British squadron, ran their vessels on shore and set fire to them, yet hy the activity of the assailants, four ships, from 1000 to 1100 tons each, were saved from the flames; a fifth blew up soon after she was abandoned. The Commodore, with his own ships and the frigates, then returned to England, leaving the rest of the squadron with the merchantmen, to proceed to India.

  2. See note †, at p. 180, et seq.
  3. See p. 187, et seq.
  4. See note §, at p. 116.