The Story Of Admiral Benbow


Admiral Benbow was descended from the ancient and honourable family of

the Benbows in the county of Salop; a family that suffered for their

loyalty to the cause of Charles I.

When the Civil War broke out, the king, relying upon the loyalty of the

inhabitants of this county, repaired in person to Shrewsbury, on

September 20th, 1642; whereupon the Lords Newport
nd Littleton, with

many of the gentry of the county, came in and offered His Majesty their

services; among these were Thomas Benbow and John Benbow, Esquires, both

men of estates, and both colonels in the king's service, of whom the

latter was the father of our admiral.

After the execution of Charles I. his followers retired into the country

and lived as privately as they could. But though their interests were

much reduced and their fortunes in a great measure ruined, their spirits

remained unbroken, and when the time came they acted as cheerfully for

the service of King Charles II. as if they had never suffered in the

cause of his father. When, therefore, Charles II. marched from Scotland

towards Worcester, the two Benbows, among other gentlemen of the county

of Salop, went to attend him; and after fighting bravely in his support

were both taken prisoners by the parliamentary forces.

After the battle of Worcester, which was fought September 3rd, 1651, a

court martial was appointed to sit at Chester, whereby ten gentlemen, of

the first families in England, were sentenced to death for complicity

with His Majesty, and five of them were executed. They then proceeded to

try Sir Timothy Featherstonhaugh, Colonel Thomas Benbow and the Earl of

Derby for being in his service. They were all condemned, and, in order

to strike the greater terror in different parts of the county, the Earl

of Derby was adjudged to suffer death on October 15th, at Bolton; Sir

Timothy to be beheaded on the 17th, at Chester; and Colonel Thomas

Benbow to be shot on the 19th, at Shrewsbury; all these sentences were

severally put in execution.

As for Colonel John Benbow, he made his escape after a short

imprisonment, and lived privately in his own county till after the

Restoration, when he was far advanced in years; and yet was so hard

pressed for a livelihood that he was glad to accept a small office

belonging to the ordnance in the Tower, which brought him an income just

sufficient to keep him and his family from starving. He was found in

this situation when, a little before the breaking out of the first Dutch

war, Charles II. came to the Tower to examine the magazines. The king,

whose memory was as quick as his eye, knew him at first sight, and

immediately came up and embraced him. "My old friend, Colonel Benbow,"

said he, "what do you here?" "I have," returned the colonel, "a place of

fourscore pounds a year, in which I serve Your Majesty as cheerfully as

if it brought me in four thousand." "Alas!" said the king, "is that all

that could be found for an old friend at Worcester? Colonel Legge, bring

this gentleman to me to-morrow, and I will provide for him and his

family as it becomes me." But the poor old colonel did not live to

receive, or so much as to claim, the effects of this gracious promise;

for his feelings so overcame him, that, sitting down on a bench, he

breathed his last before the king was well out of the Tower. Thus both

brothers fell martyrs to the royal cause, one in grief, and the other in


John, the subject of this sketch, who was then about fifteen, had been

bred to the sea; probably in some lowly capacity, although even in

Charles II.'s reign he was owner and commander of a ship called the

Benbow frigate, and made as respectable a figure as any man concerned

in the trade to the Mediterranean. He was always considered by the

merchants as a bold, brave, and active commander; one who took care of

his seamen, and was therefore cheerfully obeyed by them, though he

maintained strict discipline.

In the year 1686 Captain Benbow in his own vessel, the Benbow frigate,

was attacked in his passage to Cadiz by a Sallee rover, against which,

though greatly out-numbered, he defended himself with the utmost

bravery. At last the Moors boarded him, but were quickly beaten back,

with the loss of thirteen men, whose heads Captain Benbow ordered to be

cut off and thrown into a tub of pork-pickle. Arrived at Cadiz, he went

ashore and ordered a negro servant to follow him with the Moors' heads

in a sack. He had scarcely landed before the officers of the revenue

inquired of his servant what he had in his sack? The captain answered

salt provisions for his own use. "That may be," answered the officers,

"but we must insist upon seeing them." Captain Benbow alleged that he

was no stranger there, and pretended to take it very ill that he was

suspected. The officers told him that the magistrates were sitting not

far off and that if they were satisfied with his word his servant might

carry the provisions where he pleased; but that otherwise it was not in

their power to grant any such dispensation.

The captain consented to the proposal; and away they marched to the

custom-house, Mr. Benbow in the front, his man in the centre and the

officers in the rear. The magistrates, when he came before them, treated

him with great civility; told him they were sorry to make a point of

such a trifle, but that, since he had refused to show the contents of

his sack to their officers they were obliged to demand a sight of them;

and that if they were salt provisions the showing of them could be of no

great consequence either way. "I told you," said the captain sternly,

"they were salt provisions for my own use. Caesar, throw them down upon

the table; and, gentlemen, if you like them, they are at your service."

The Spaniards were exceedingly struck at the sight of the Moors' heads,

and no less astonished at the account of the captain's adventure, who,

with so small a force, had been able to defeat such a number of

barbarians. They sent an account of the whole matter to the court of

Madrid; and Charles II. of Spain was so pleased with it that he must

needs see the English captain, who made a journey to court, where he was

received with great show of respect and dismissed with a handsome

present. His Majesty also wrote a letter on his behalf to King James,

who, upon the captain's return, gave him a ship; which was Captain

Benbow's introduction to the Royal Navy.

After the Revolution, Benbow distinguished himself by several successful

cruises in the Channel, where he was employed at the request of the

merchants in protecting trade, and was very successful, and where his

diligence and activity recommended him to the favour of William III., to

whose personal kindness he owed his early promotion to a flag. After

this he was generally employed as the most experienced seaman in the

navy to watch the movements of the French at Dunkirk, and to prevent, as

far as it was possible, the depredations of Du Bart; in which he showed

such diligence and did such signal service that he escaped the slightest

censure at a time when libels flew about against almost every other

officer of rank in the fleet. The truth was, the seamen generally looked

upon Rear-admiral Benbow as their greatest patron; one who not only used

them well while under his care, but was always ready to interpose in

their favour when they were ill-treated by others.

Admiral Benbow's next employment was in the West Indies, where he met

with many difficulties and rendered valuable service, receiving on his

return home unmistakable marks of royal favour. Shortly after his return

it became necessary to send another expedition to the same place, and

when the subject of leadership was discussed the ministers suggested

Admiral Benbow. This, however, the king, who seems to have had some

affection for our admiral, would not hear of. "Benbow," he said, "had

but just come home from thence, where he had met with nothing but

difficulties; and it was but fair that some other officer should take

his turn." One or two were named and consulted, but excused themselves

upon various grounds; upon which the king said merrily, alluding to the

dress and appearance of these gentlemen, "Well then, I find we must

spare our beaux and send honest Benbow."

William, accordingly, sent for our admiral and asked him whether he was

willing to go to the West Indies, assuring him, if he was not, he would

not take it amiss if he desired to be excused. Mr. Benbow answered

bluntly, "That he did not understand such compliments; that he thought

he had no right to choose his station; and that if His Majesty thought

fit to send him to the East or West Indies, or anywhere else, he would

cheerfully execute his orders as became him." Thus the matter was

settled in very few words, and the command of the West India squadron

conferred on Vice-admiral Benbow.

He arrived at Barbadoes on November 3rd, 1701, from whence he sailed to

examine the state of the French and of our own Leeward Islands. He found

the former in some confusion, and the latter in so good a state of

defence, that he saw no necessity of remaining, and therefore sailed to

Jamaica. Here he received advice of two French squadrons having arrived

in the West Indies, much to the alarm of the inhabitants of Jamaica and

of Barbadoes. After arranging for the safety of both places as far as

his strength would permit, he formed a design of attacking Petit Goave;

but before he could execute it, received intelligence that Monsieur Du

Casse was in the neighbourhood of Hispaniola with a squadron of French

ships, to settle the assiento in favour of the French and to destroy

the English and Dutch trade for negroes.

After alarming Petit Goave, which he found it inexpedient to attack, the

admiral sailed for Donna Maria Bay, where he continued until August

10th; when, having received advice that Monsieur Du Casse had sailed for

Carthagena, and from thence was to sail to Portobello, he resolved to

follow him, and accordingly sailed for the Spanish coast of


On August the 19th, in the evening, he discovered ten sail of tall ships

to the westward. Standing towards them he found the best part of them to

be French men-of-war; upon which he made the usual signal for a line of

battle, going away with an easy sail, that his sternmost ships might

come up and join him, the French steering along-shore under their top

sails. Their squadron consisted of four ships, from sixty to seventy

guns, with one great Dutch-built ship of about thirty or forty, and

there was another full of soldiers; the rest small ones, and a sloop.

Our frigates astern were a long time in coming up, and the night

advancing, the admiral steered alongside of the French, endeavouring to

near them, yet intending to avoid attack until the Defiance was

abreast of the headmost.

Before he could reach that station the Falmouth, which was in the

rear, attempted the Dutch ship, and the Windsor the ship abreast of

her, as did also the Defiance; and soon after the vice-admiral himself

was engaged. But the Defiance and the Windsor stood no more than two

or three broadsides before they luffed out of gun-shot, whereupon the

two sternmost ships of the enemy lay upon the admiral and galled him

very much; nor did the ships in the rear come up to his assistance with

due diligence. From four o'clock until night the fight continued, and

though the French then left off firing, our admiral still kept them


On the 20th, at daybreak, the admiral found himself very near the enemy

with only the Ruby to assist him, the rest of the ships lying three,

four, or five miles astern. About two in the afternoon the sea-breeze

began to blow, and then the enemy got into a line, making what sail they

could; and the rest of his ships not coming up, the admiral and the

Ruby plied them with chase-guns and kept them company all the next


On the 21st the admiral was on the quarter of the second ship of the

enemy's line, within point-blank shot; but the Ruby being ahead of the

same ship was attacked by two of the enemy's line. The Breda, which

carried the admiral, engaged the ship that first attacked the Ruby,

and plied her so warmly that she was forced to tow off. The admiral

would have followed her, but the Ruby was in such a condition that he

could not leave her. During this engagement the rear ship of the enemy's

was abreast of the Defiance and Windsor; but neither of those ships

fired a single shot. On the 22nd, at daybreak, the Greenwich was five

leagues astern, though the signal for battle was never struck night or

day; about three in the afternoon the wind came southerly, which gave

the enemy the weather-gauge.

On the 23rd the enemy was six leagues ahead and the great Dutch ship

separated from them. At ten the enemy tacked with the wind at

east-north-east, the vice-admiral fetched point-blank within a shot or

two of them, and each gave the other his broadside. About noon they

recovered from the enemy a small English ship called the Anne galley,

which they had taken off the rock of Lisbon. The Ruby being disabled,

the admiral ordered her for Port Royal. The rest of the squadron now

came up, and the enemy being but two miles off, the brave admiral was in

hopes of doing something at last, and therefore continued to steer after

them; but his ships, except the Falmouth, were soon astern again. At

twelve the enemy began to separate.

On the 24th, about two in the morning, they came up within call of the

sternmost, there being then very little wind. The admiral fired a

broadside with double round below, and round and cartridge aloft. At

three o'clock the admiral's right leg was shattered to pieces by a

chain-shot, and he was carried below; but he presently ordered his

cradle to be carried to the quarter-deck, and continued the fight till

day. Then appeared the ruins of the enemy's ship of about seventy guns;

her main yard down and shot to pieces, her foretop-sail yard shot away,

her mizen-mast shot by the board, all her rigging gone, and her sides

bored to pieces. The admiral soon after discovered the enemy standing

toward him with a strong gale of wind. The Windsor, Pendennis, and

Greenwich, ahead of the enemy, came to the leeward of the disabled

ship, fired their broadsides, passed her, and stood to the southward;

then came the Defiance, fired part of her broadside, when the

disabled ship returning about twenty guns, the Defiance put her helm

a-weather, and ran away right before the wind, lowered both her

top-sails, and ran to the leeward of the Falmouth without any regard

to the signal of battle.

The enemy seeing the other two ships stand to the southward, expected

they would have tacked and stood towards them, and therefore they

brought their heads to the northward. But when they saw these ships did

not tack, they immediately bore down upon the admiral, and ran between

their disabled ship and him, and poured in all their shot, by which they

brought down his maintop-sail yard, and shattered his rigging very much;

none of the other ships being near him or taking the least notice of his

signals, though Captain Fog ordered two guns to be fired at the ships

ahead in order to put them in mind of their duty. The French, seeing

things in this confusion, brought to and lay by their own disabled ship,

re-manned and took her into tow. The Breda's rigging being much

shattered she was forced to lie by till ten o'clock; and, being by that

time refitted, the admiral ordered his captain to pursue the enemy, then

about three miles to the leeward, his line-of-battle signal out all the

while; and Captain Fog, by the admiral's orders, sent to the other

captains, to order them to keep the line and behave like men. Upon this

Captain Kirby came on board the admiral, and told him that "he had

better desist; that the French were very strong; and that from what was

past he might guess he could make nothing of it."

The brave Admiral Benbow, more surprised at this language than he would

have been at the sight of another French squadron, sent for the rest of

the captains on board in order to ask their opinion. They obeyed him

indeed, but were most of them in Captain Kirby's way of thinking; which

satisfied the admiral that they were not inclined to fight; and that, as

Kirby phrased it, there was nothing to be done, though there was the

fairest opportunity that had yet offered. Our strength was, at this

time, one ship of seventy guns, one of sixty-four, one of sixty, and

three of fifty; their masts, yards, and all things else in as good

condition as could be expected, and not above eight men killed, except

in the vice-admiral's own ship, nor was there any want of ammunition;

whereas the enemy had now no more than four ships, from sixty to seventy

guns, and one of them disabled and in tow. The vice-admiral thought

proper upon this to return to Jamaica, where he arrived with his

squadron, very weak with a fever induced by his wounds, and was soon

after joined by Rear-admiral Whetstone, with the ships under his


As soon as he conveniently could, Vice-admiral Benbow issued a

commission to Rear-admiral Whetstone and to several captains to hold a

court martial for the trial of several offenders. On October 6th, 1702,

the court sat at Port Royal, when Captain Kirby, of the Defiance, was

put upon his trial. He was accused of cowardice, breach of orders and

neglect of duty; which crimes were proved upon oath, by the admiral

himself, ten commissioned, and eleven warrant officers; by whose

evidence it appeared that the admiral boarded Du Casse in person three

times, and received a large wound in his face, and another in his arm

before his leg was shot off; that Kirby, after two or three broadsides,

kept always out of gun-shot, and by his behaviour created such a fear of

his desertion as greatly discouraged the English in the engagement; that

he kept two or three miles astern all the second day, though commanded

again and again to keep his station; that the third day he did not fire

a gun though he saw the admiral in the deepest distress, having two or

three French men-of-war upon him at a time; and that he threatened to

kill his boatswain for repeating the admiral's command to fire. He had

very little to say for himself, and therefore was most deservedly

sentenced to be shot.

The same day Captain Constable, of the Windsor, was tried; his own

officers vindicated him from cowardice, but the rest of the charge being

clearly proved he was sentenced to be cashiered and to be imprisoned

during Her Majesty's pleasure. The next day Captain Wade was tried, and

the charge being fully proved by sixteen commissioned and warrant

officers on board his own ship, as also that he was drunk during the

whole time of the engagement, he, making little or no defence, had the

same sentence with Kirby. As for Captain Hudson, he died a few days

before his trial should have come on, and thereby avoided dying as Kirby

and Wade did; for his case was exactly the same with theirs.

The reflections he made on this unhappy business threw the brave admiral

into a deep melancholy, which soon brought him to his end; for he died

on November 4th, 1702, of a fever engendered by his wounds and worries.

The condemned captains were sent home from Jamaica on board Her

Majesty's ship the Bristol, and arrived at Plymouth on April 16th,

1703, where, as in all the western ports, there lay a warrant for their

immediate execution, and they were shot on board the ship that brought

them home.

The mortification felt by the admiral at the failure of his officers is

indicated in the answer he gave to one of his lieutenants who expressed

sorrow for the fact that the admiral had lost his leg. "Why, yes," said

the fine old sailor, "I am sorry for it too, but I would rather have

lost them both than have seen this dishonour brought upon the English


The French accounts of this engagement represent the whole affair to

their own advantage; but M. Du Casse, who was a brave man, and withal by

far the best judge of the circumstances, has put the matter out of

dispute by the following short letter, written by him immediately after

his arrival at Carthagena; the original of which is said to be still in

the hands of Admiral Benbow's family.

"Sir,--I had little hopes, on Monday last, but to have supped in

your cabin; but it pleased God to order it otherwise; I am

thankful for it. As for those cowardly captains who deserted

you, hang them up; for, by God, they deserve it.