Royal Naval Biography/Elphinstone, George Keith

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Baron Keith of Stonehaven Marischal, co. Kincardine; Baron Keith of Banheath, co. Dumbarton, and Baron Keith in Ireland; Admiral of the Red; Secretary, Chamberlain, and Keeper of the Signet to the Great Steward of Scotland; a Counsellor of State for Scotland and the Duchy of Cornwall; Treasurer and Comptroller of the Household to H.R.H. the Duke of Clarence; Knight Grand Cross of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath; Knight of the Ottoman Order of the Crescent, and of the Royal Sardinian Military Order of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus; Fellow of the Royal Society, and a Vice-President of the Royal Western Infirmary.

The ancestor of this nobleman was a German of the name of Elvington, who settled in Scotland during the reign of Robert I., and married Margaret, daughter of Sir Christopher Seton, a lady related to the royal family, and who appears to have been an heiress, or to have obtained crown lands by way of dower, in the fertile shire of Lothian, which her husband called after his own name. From this gentleman, usually considered as the founder of the family, descended Alexander, who, in the 33d year of David II., exchanged his estate of Kinchibar for the lands of Arthberg, in the county of Stirling, which were called Elphinstone, and became the residence of his descendants.

Sir Alexander, one of these, was created a Baron in 1509, and the title has descended in regular succession during many generations. Charles, the tenth Lord Elphinstone, married Clementina, only surviving daughter and sole heiress of John, the last Earl of Wigtoun, a title now extinct, and niece of George Keith, hereditary Earl Marischal of Scotland, and of Field-Marshal Keith, whose family, with a noble attachment to learning, added to a degree of munificence befitting a sovereign house, founded the college of New Aberdeen, which is still called by their name[1].

The subject of this memoir was the fifth son by the above marriage. He was born in the year 1746; and, after receiving a suitable education at Glasgow, went to sea, in February, 1762, on board the Gosport, commanded by Captain Jervis, now Earl of St. Vincent; he subsequently served in the Juno, Lively, aud Emerald frigates, until the year 1767, when he went a voyage to China with his brother, the Hon. W. Elphinstone. In 1769 he proceeded to India, with Commodore Sir John Lindsay, by whom he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant. Soon after his return to England, whither he had been sent with important despatches, he was appointed to the flag-ship of Sir Peter Dennis, Commander-in-Chief in the Mediterranean; and in 1772, was advanced to the rank of Commander, in the Scorpion, of 14 guns. His commission as Post-Captain bears date March 11, 1775; and his first appointment as such appears to have been to the Marlborough, of 74 guns, stationed at Portsmouth, from which ship he soon after removed into the Perseus frigate, and served in her on the coast of America, under Lord Howe and Admiral Arbuthnot.

At the reduction of Charlestown[2] Captain Elphinstone commanded a detachment of seamen on shore; and his brave and spirited efforts obtained him honourable mention in the official letter of the Commander of the land forces, General .Sir Henry Clinton. He was also present at the attack on Mud Island, Nov. 15, 1777.

On his return to England, with Admiral Arbuthnot’s despatches, our officer was appointed to the Warwick, of 50 guns. In the month of January, 1781, he captured, after a smart action, the Rotterdam, Dutch ship of war, of 50 guns and 300 men. During the remainder of the war, Captain Elphinstone was employed on the American station under Admiral Digby. While there, H.R.H. Prince William Henry, (now Duke of Clarence) then a Midshipman in the Prince George, being desirous of a more active life than he spent at New York, requested permission to go to sea, in order that he might get practical experience; and added to this reasonable request, his wish to cruise in the Warwick; the Admiral acquiesced, and Captain Elphinstone had the honour of the Prince’s company till he was transferred to the care of Sir Samuel Hood[3]. On the 11th Sept. 1782, the Warwick, in company with the Lion, Vestal, and Bonetta, captured l’Aigle, a French frigate, of 40 guns, 24-pounders on the main deck, and 600 men, commanded by the Count de la Touche, who made his escape on shore with the Baron Viominil, Commander-in-Chief of the French army in America, M. de la Montmorency, Due de Lausan, Vicomte de Fleury, and some other officers of rank; they took in the boat with them a great quantity of specie; two small casks, and two boxes, however, fell into the hands of the captors. La Gloire, another frigate, which was in company with l’Aigle, from drawing less water, made her escape. La Sophie, armed vessel, of 22 guns and 104 men, was also taken, the Terrier sloop of war recaptured, and two brigs destroyed.

At the general election in 1786, Captain Elphinstone was chosen representative in parliament for Stirlingshire; he had previously sat for Dumbarton, in which county his family possesses considerable property and influence.

In 1793, soon after the war broke out with France, Captain Elphinstone obtained the command of the Robust, of 74 guns; and under his direction the troops were landed at Toulon when Lord Hood took possession of that place. He was afterwards appointed Governer of Fort la Malgue and its dependencies. In this arduous and difficult post Captain Elphinstone displayed not only the greatest personal intrepidity and exertion, but a consummate knowledge of military tactics. On one occasion, a detachment of the republican army, about 750 strong, appearing on the heights near Toulon, he marched out with 300 British and the same number of Spaniards, routed the enemy, and took four pieces of cannon, together with their ammunition, horses, two stands of colours, &c.

On the 1st Oct. the combined British, Spanish, and Neapolitan forces, under the command of Lord Mulgrave, Captain Elphinstone, and Rear-Admiral Gravina, obtained a complete victory at the heights of Pharon over a body of nearly 2,000 men, the flower of the Eastern army, of whom about 1,500 were either killed, wounded, or taken prisoners. The loss on the side of the allies amounted to only 8 killed, 72 wounded, and 50 missing.

The enemy soon recovering from these defeats, seized on the heights of Cape Brun; and on the junction of the victorious army, which had lately captured Lyons, they at length threatened to storm the forts, and by the aid of Buonaparte, then an obscure officer of artillery, found means to carry some, and annoy all our posts.

It was therefore reluctantly determined, in a general council of war, that Toulon was no longer tenable; measures were accordingly adopted for the evacuation of the town and arsenal, as well as for the destruction of the ships of war[4]. Early in the morning of the 18th Dec. the embarkation commenced; and by day-break on the 19th, the whole of the combined troops were safe on board. This service was effected under the superintendence of Captains Elphinstone, Hallowell, and Matthews, to whose indefatigable attention and good dispositions Lord Hood attributed the fortunate success of so important an operation; and it is to their unremitting efforts that many of the unhappy Toulonese were indebted for an asylum.

In the Spring of 1794, Captain Elphinstone returned to England with the trade from the Mediterranean, and three French men of war, under his protection. On the 12th April, in the same year, he was promoted to the rank of Rear-Admiral, and soon after hoisted his flag on board the Barfleur, of 98 guns, in the Channel Fleet. On the 30th May he was created a K.B., as a reward for his distinguished merits.

In the month of January, 1795, hostilities being about to take place between Great Britain and the Batavian Republic[5], Sir George Keith Elphinstone shifted his flag to the Monarch of 74 guns, and sailed from Spithead, April 2d, for the Cape of Good Hope, having under his command a small squadron destined for the reduction of that settlement. On the 1st of June following he was advanced to the rank of Vice-Admiral.

Sir George arrived in Simon’s Bay early in July, and was there reinforced by several men of war and Indiamen, having on board a number of troops under the command of Major-General Craig. The Dutch Governor, M. van Sluyskin, rejecting the proposals which were made to him for putting the colony under the protection of Great Britain, in trust for the Prince of Orange, the necessary measures were taken to reduce the place by force.

The Dutch troops were entrenched in a strong position at Muyzenberg, distant six miles from Cape-Town, and well furnished with cannon, having a steep mountain on their right, and the sea on their left, difficult of approach on account of shallow water, with a high surf on the shore; but the absolute necessity of securing the post, made it obvious to the British Commanders that it ought to be attempted.

For this service the Vice-Admiral prepared a gunboat, and armed the launches of the fleet with heavy carronades, landed two battalions of seamen, about 1000 strong, in addition to 800 soldiers and marines, and sent ships frequently round the bay, to prevent suspicion of an attack, when any favourable opportunity might offer.

On the 7th of August a light breeze sprung up from the N.W., and at twelve o’clock the preconcerted signal was made; when Major-General Craig instantly put the forces on shore in motion, and at the same moment Commodore Blankett, with a detached squadron, got under weigh, whilst the armed boats preceded the march of the troops about five hundred yards, to prevent their being interrupted.

About one o’clock the ships, being abreast of an advanced post of two guns, fired a few shot, which induced those in charge to depart; and, on approaching a second post, of one gun and a howitzer, the effect was the same. On proceeding off the camp, the confusion was instantly manifest, although the distance from the squadron was greater than could have been wished; but the shallowness prevented a nearer approach. The ships having taken their stations in a very judicious manner, opened so brisk and well-directed a fire, as to compel the enemy to fly with the greatest precipitation; leaving to the assailants two heavy guns, one brass 6-pounder, and two howitzers. In this attack the squadron had only two men killed and five wounded. Five Dutch East Indiamen were found in the bay, and taken possession of; three of them from Batavia, with valuable cargoes on board, and two from Amsterdam, which had delivered their lading previous to the arrival of the British.

The next day the enemy endeavoured to regain the important position they had lost, having drawn out their whole force from Cape-Town, with eight field-pieces; but were every where repulsed. Upon this occasion the seamen and marines particularly distinguished themselves, and manoeuvred with a regularity that would not have discredited veteran troops.

From this period no material circumstance occurred till the 4th Sept. when the Vice-Admiral was joined by fourteen sail of Indiamen, having onboard a large body of troops, under the command of Major-General Alured Clark. Upon this accession of strength, it was determined to make an immediate attack upon Cape-Town; accordingly the troops, artillery, and stores, were landed with the greatest expedition; and on the morning of the 14th the army began its march, each man carrying four days’ provisions, and the volunteer seamen from the Indiamen dragging the guns through a deep sand, frequently exposed to a galling fire from the enemy.

At Wyneberg, a post at a small distance from Cape-Town, the Dutch had planted nine pieces of cannon, and collected their forces, determined to make a firm stand; but they were so resolutely pushed by the British, as to be under the necessity of retreating; and nearly at the same time, they were alarmed by the appearance of Commodore Blankett, with several vessels which Sir George K. Elphinstone had detached into Table-bay, to cause a diversion on that side. Further resistance on the part of the enemy being now fruitless, M. van Sluyskin sent out a flag of truce, asking a cessation of arms for forty-eight hours, to settle the terms for surrendering the town; but only half that time was granted; and on the 16th, this valuable colony fell into the possession of Great Britain. The regular troops taken in the garrison amounted to about 1000 men.

In his despatches to the Secretary of State, General Clarke made the following honourable mention of his naval coadjutor: “The general character of Sir George Keith Elphinstone, and his ardent desire to serve his country, are too well known to receive additional lustre from any thing I could say on that subject; but I should do injustice to my feelings, if I did not express the obligations I am under for the ready and cordial co-operation and assistance that he afforded upon every occasion, which so eminently contributed to the success of our joint endeavours.” In a former despatch, Major-General Craig thus expressed himself: “My sense of the obligations I am under to Sir George Elphinstone is such as I should not do justice to in an attempt to express it; his advice, his active assistance, and cordial co-operation on every occasion, have never been wanting, and entitle him to my warmest gratitude.”

This conquest being finally secured, the Vice-Admiral proceeded to the Indian seas, and instantly commenced operations for distressing the enemy; and so rapid were the movements of his squadron, so well laid were all his plans, so admirably adapted were the means to the object, that in a very short time the islands of Ceylon[6], Cochin, Malacca, and the Moluccas, surrendered to the British arms. In the midst of this scene of success Sir George learned, by means of a spy at Trangubar, that a Dutch squadron was shortly expected at the Cape of Good Hope, having been despatched by the Gallo-Batavian government to make a strenuous effort for its recovery; upon which he immediately sailed thither, and fortunately arrived there before the enemy. On the 3rd Aug. 1796, he received intelligence that a hostile fleet was off the coast; but owing to the violence of the weather, it was not until the 6th that he could go in quest of them.

“On getting under weigh,” says Sir George in his official despatch, “an officer from the shore came on board to inform me, that a number of ships had been seen the preceding night in the offing, near False Bay; I then resolved to steer to the south-west, in expectation of their having taken that course.

“The squadron continued cruising, in the most tempestuous weather I have ever experienced, which damaged many of the ships, and at one time the Ruby had five feet water in her hold.

“On the 12th I returned, with a fresh breeze blowing from the south-east; and upon anchoring in Simon’s Bay, the master attendant came off with the information, that the ships seen, consisting of nine sail, had put into Saldanha Bay on the 6th, the same day on which I had proceeded to sea; that they remained there by the last advice, and that four ships had been despatched in quest of me, to communicate this welcome intelligence.

“I immediately made the signal to sail, but the Crescent had got ashore; the wind blew strong, and increased the following day to a perfect tempest, in which the Tremendous parted two cables, drove, and was in great danger of being lost; so that, notwithstanding every exertion, and the most anxious moments of my life, we could not get out till the 15th.”

On the 16th, at sunset, the Vice-Admiral arrived off Saldanha Bay, when the enemy’s squadron were descried, consisting of two ships of 66 guns each, one of 54, five frigates and sloops, and one store-ship. Sir George, seeing the inferiority of their force in point of numbers, came to anchor within gun-shot of them, and sent an officer to the Dutch commander, with a request that, to avoid the effusion of human blood, he would surrender to the British fleet; intimating at the same time, that resistance to a force so superior must expose his ships to certain destruction. The Dutch Admiral, Lucas, perceiving that it was impossible to escape, and that opposition would be of no avail, presented terms of capitulation; all of which were accepted by Sir George K. Elphinstone, excepting the second, wherein the Dutch commander required two frigates to be appointed cartels to convey himself, officers, and men to Holland. This was refused, in consequence of the cartel ships which had been sent from Toulon and various other places, under similar circumstances, having been detained, and their crews imprisoned, contrary to the laws and usage of war, and general good faith of nations. On the 18th, the whole of the Dutch ships were taken possession of by the British.

After the completion of these highly important and valuable services, Sir George sailed for Europe, and arrived at Spithead, Jan. 3, 1797. On the 7th March following, he was raised to the dignity of a Baron of the kingdom of Ireland, by the title of Lord Keith. And in the month of May, the same year, he superintended the naval preparations against the mutineers, who at that time unhappily held the command of several ships of war at the Nore, and had committed various acts of insubordination and outrage[7]. This storm being dispelled, his Lordship for a short time commanded a detachment of the Channel Fleet. He afterwards proceeded to the Mediterranean station, as second in command, under the Earl of St. Vincent, whom he joined at Gibraltar in December, 1798.

The Commander-in-Chief being seriously indisposed, gave charge of the fleet off Cadiz to Lord Keith, and our officer remained employed on the blockade of the Spanish Fleet, consisting of twenty-two ships of the line, until the 4th May 1799, when he discovered the Brest Fleet, consisting of twenty-four sail of the line and nine smaller vessels, which had escaped the vigilance of Lord Bridport, at some distance to windward, steering in for the land. The Vice-Admiral did not hesitate a moment what part to act, although the wind at this time was blowing extremely hard right on the shore; he instantly weighed, stood off, and, not discouraged by the numerical superiority of the enemy’s force[8], offered them battle, which they assiduously declined; neither did the French Admiral, Bruix, persevere in the attempt to join his friends at Cadiz, which port was not more than seven or eight miles to leeward. During the ensuing night the storm was so great, it was with much difficulty the ships could be kept together. At day light on the morning of the 5th, only four sail of the enemy were to be seen, to which chace was given, but without effect. Lord Keith remained on his station until the 9th, when he suspected, from not again getting sight of the French Fleet, that it had passed the Straits; he accordingly bore up to follow them, and steered for Gibraltar, from whence he accompanied the Commander-in-Chief up the Mediterranean.

On the 2nd June, the Earl of St. Vincent, finding his health getting worse, resigned the command of the fleet to Lord Keith, who after having in vain endeavoured to obtain a meeting with the enemy, returned to England on the l7th Aug. following.

Towards the latter end of November, in the same year, his Lordship sailed from Plymouth to resume the command of the fleet in the Mediterranean, and arrived at Gibraltar on the 6th December. The season for brilliant operations was in some degree over in that quarter, in consequence of the severe losses which the enemy had sustained, and were in no condition to repair; but much praise was due to Lord Keith for the excellent disposition of the force under his command, and the judgment with which he stationed his cruisers, so that few of the enemy’s vessels ventured out of port without falling into the hands of some of our ships of war.

On the 7th March, 1800, his Lordship anchored at Leghorn, for the purpose of co-operating with the Austrian army against the French, under the command of General Massena, who at that time occupied the city and territory of Genoa. On the 14th he issued a proclamation wherein he signified to all neutral powers, that the ports of Toulon, Marseilles, Nice, and the coast of the Riviera, were in a state of blockade.

Three days after the above event, Lord Keith had the misfortune to lose his flag-ship, the Queen Charlotte, by fire, between Leghorn and the island of Cabrera, which there was some intention of attacking. An account of this melancholy accident, by which upwards of 600 gallant men lost their lives, and one of the noblest ships in the British navy was totally destroyed, will be given under the head of the Hon. Captain G. H. L. Dundas, in our next volume. His Lordship was on shore at the time the conflagration happened; after which he hoisted his flag in the Audacious, but subsequently shifted it to the Minotaur, and proceeded in that ship, with part of his fleet, off Genoa. As there was little probability of being able to reduce that place by any other means than famine, it became an object of the first importance to cut off all supplies by sea; and this service was so effectually performed, that in the beginning of June the French General was obliged to capitulate, being reduced to the greatest extremity for want of provisions. This achievement in our naval annals would not have failed to shine forth as it deserved, had not the disastrous result of the battle of Marengo, and the convention of Alexandria, between the Austrian Baron de Melas and General Buonaparte, overwhelmed Europe with astonishment and dismay. It is here proper to remark, that the Austrians never fired a gun against Genoa, during the whole of the siege, and that its reduction was wholly caused by famine, which the vigilance and severity of our sea blockade had occasioned[9].

On the 4th September following, the island of Malta surrendered to a detachment of Lord Keith’s fleet; the particulars will be found in our memoir of Admiral Sir George Martin. In the beginning of the succeeding month, his Lordship appeared before Cadiz, and in conjunction with General Sir Ralph Abercrombie, made arrangements for attacking that place; but the attempt was subsequently abandoned, in consequence of a violent epidemic disease prevailing there, which in the extent of its ravages equalled the plague.

On the 1st Jan. 1801, a general promotion took place, in honour of the union between Great Britain and Ireland; and on that occasion his Lordship was advanced to the rank of Admiral of the Blue. His flag this year was on board the Foudroyant, of 80 guns, and he commanded the naval force employed against the French on the coast of Egypt. His conduct during that memorable campaign was fully equal to the high promise which his exploits, on former occasions held forth to his country; and on the surrender of the French army, he was created a Baron of the United Kingdom, received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament, and was presented by the corporation of London with the freedom of that city, in a gold box, and a sword of the value of 100 guineas. A detail of the services performed; by the navy in Egypt will be found under the respective heads of Admirals, Hon. Sir Alex. Cochrane; Sir W. S. Smith; and Sir Richard Bickerton. They were thus noticed in the despatches of General (now Lord) Hutchinson, who had succeeded to the command of the army on the death of the heroic Abercrombie. “During the course of the long service on which we have been engaged, Lord Keith has, at all times, given me the most able assistance and counsel. The labour and fatigue of the navy have been continued and excessive; it has not been of one day or of one week, but for months together. In the bay of Aboukir, on the New Inundation, and on the Nile, for 160 miles, they have been employed without intermission, and have submitted to many privations with a cheerfulness and patience highly creditable to them, and advantageous to the public service[10].”

On the re-commencement of hostilities, in 1803, Lord Keith was appointed Commander-in-Chief of all his Majesty’s ships employed in the North Sea, and in the English Channel, as far to the westward as Selsea-Bill. The nature of this extensive and complicated command, required that his Lordship should be established on shore, at some convenient station for maintaining his correspondence with the Admiralty Board, and with the commanding officers respectively employed under his orders, in the Downs, at Dungeneas, Sheeruess, Yarmouth, Leith, and upon the different stations within the limits of his flag; as well us for the purpose of regulating the distribution and stations of the blockships, which it had been judged necessary to employ for the defence of the entrance to the River Thames; in consequence of which he took up his residence at East Cliff, near Ramsgate, occasionally going on board his flag ship for the purpose of reconnoitring the enemy’s coast, and directing the attacks which it was, thought proper to make on the flotilla destined for the invasion of England.

Lord Keith continued to hold this important office until the month of May, 1807, when the Admiralty having determined to divide his command into three separate ones, he struck his flag. In 1812, his Lordship succeeded the late Sir Charles Cotton, as Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet. Qa the 14th May, 1814, he was created a Viscount of the united kingdom. During the period of the second invasion of France by the allied powers, the noble Admiral commanded in the Channel, and by the judicious arrangement of his cruisers, secured the person of Napoleon Buonaparte, who acknowledged that an escape by sea was rendered impossible an event which secured the peace and tranquillity of Europe. A portrait of his Lordship, by W. Owen, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1805. On the 23rd May, 1815, he laid the first stone of the Southwark Bridge.

Lord Keith married, first, April 9, 1787, Jane, daughter and sole heiress of William Mercer, of Aldie, co. Perth, Esq., and by her (who died Dec. 12, 1789,) had issue an only child, Margaret-Mercer Elphinstone, on whom the English Barony of Keith is in remainder, on failure of his Lordship’s issue male. Married, secondly, January 10, 1808, Hester-Maria, eldest daughter and co-heiress of Henry Thrale, of Streatham, co. Surrey, Esq. (the intimate friend of Dr. Johnson, the great lexicographer,) and M.P. for Southwark, in 1768, and 1775. By this lady the Viscount has issue, Georgiana-Augusta-Henrietta, born Dec. 12, 1809.

His Lordship’s eldest daughter married in 1817, to Count Flahault, who served as Aid-de-Camp to Buonaparte at the battle of Waterloo.

  1. Marshal Keith was one of the favourite Generals of Frederick II, King of Prussia.
  2. See Retired Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond.
  3. See p. 5.
  4. See Admiral Sir W. Sidney Smith.
  5. See Note †, at p. 20.
  6. Columbo, and its dependencies, in the island of Ceylon, submitted to a small squadron under the orders of Captain Alan Hyde, afterwards Viscount, Gardner, and a detachment of soldiers commanded by Colonel James Stuart. The spices and merchandize found in the warehouses, were estimated at 25 lacks of rupees, or upwards of 300,000l. sterling.
  7. See Admiral Sir John Knight.
  8. The British squadron consisted of one first rate, five other 3-deckers, two ships of 80 guns each, and seven 74’s.
  9. During the blockade of Genoa, the city and mole were frequently bombarded by the British flotilla; and on one occasion la Prima, the principal galley in the port, having on board two brass 36-pounders, 30 brass swivels, 257 men, and rowing 50 oars, was brought off in triumph.
  10. To perpetuate the services rendered to the Ottoman empire, the Grand Signor established an order of knighthood, which he named the Order of the Crescent.

    In the first class were Lord Hutchinson, Lord Keith, Admiral Bickerton, Major General Coote, Major General Baird, and Lord Elgin. In the second the general officers and naval officers of equal rank.

    The field officers had large gold medals given them; to the captains smaller gold medals were distributed; and to the subalterns still less. And finally, as a further proof of the sense he entertained of the services rendered him in that campaign, and the loyalty and good faith of the English nation, the Grand Signor ordered a palace to be built in Constantinople for the future residence of British ambassadors.