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On Board The Agamemnon

The Story Of Sir John Berry


As an illustration of the way in which a man could rise to the highest
honours of the navy in the good old days with no other influence or
recommendation than his own merit, the case of Sir John Berry may be
instanced here.

John Berry, who was the second son of the Rev. Daniel Berry, Vicar of
Knowestone, Devonshire--a clergyman who suffered for his loyalty to the
cause of Charles I.--was born at the Vicarage, Knowestone, in the year
1635. His father, after being expelled from his benefice and losing his
property by confiscation, died at the early age of forty-five, leaving a
widow with nine children, of whom John, aged seventeen, was the second.
Thrown entirely upon his own resources, John went to Plymouth, where he
bound himself apprentice to Mr. Robert Mering, a merchant and part-owner
of several ships. Going to sea in his service, he was extremely
unfortunate, being twice taken by the Spaniards, and suffering a long
imprisonment, which, however, did him no great harm. On his return to
England, his master, who was suffering from a reverse in circumstances,
released him from his indentures, upon which he came up to London;
where, by the help of some friends, he was preferred to be boatswain of
a ketch belonging to the Royal Navy, called the Swallow; which, under
the command of Captain Insam, was ordered to the West Indies in company
with two of the king's frigates. Both the frigates were lost in the Gulf
of Florida; but the Swallow, by cutting down her masts and heaving her
guns and provisions overboard, got clear, and in the space of sixteen
weeks, during which the crew had nothing to eat but the fish they
caught, or to drink but rain-water, the survivors arrived at Campeachy.
There they furnished themselves with provisions, and then sailed for
Jamaica, where they arrived in three weeks.

Sir Thomas Muddiford, a native of Devonshire, was then governor of that
island, and he ordered the Swallow to be refitted, put eight guns on
board her, and having intelligence that a pirate, who had taken one Mr.
Peach bound from Southampton to Jamaica, and marooned him and all his
crew, was still in those seas, he ordered the Swallow, now well
victualled and manned, to go in quest of her, and gave his countryman
Berry the title of lieutenant.

In three weeks after they sailed from Jamaica they found the pirate at
anchor in a bay off the island of Hispaniola. He had a force of about
sixty men and twenty guns, whereas the Swallow had but forty men and
eight small guns. Captain Insam, having considered the enemy's strength
and compared it with his own, called up all his men and addressed them
in these words: "Gentlemen, the blades we are to attack are men-at-arms,
old buccaneers, and superior to us in number and in the force of their
ship, and therefore I would have your opinion, whether----" "Sir,"
interrupted Lieutenant Berry, "we are men-at arms, too, and what is
more, honest men, who fight under the king's commission; and if you have
no stomach for fighting, be pleased to walk down into your cabin." The
crew applauded this speech, and declared one and all for Lieutenant
Berry, who undertook the affair with all its disadvantages.

The pirate rode at anchor to the windward, by reason of which the
Swallow was obliged to make two trips under her lee, in which she
received two broadsides and two volleys of small shot without returning
a gun. Mr. Berry then boarded her on the bow, pouring in his broadside,
which killed the pirate and twenty-two men on the spot: they then fought
their way to the main mast, soon after which the pirate was taken,
having only seven men left, and those all wounded, though they lived
long enough to be hanged afterwards in Jamaica; and all this with no
other loss than that of the boatswain's mate.

On their return to Jamaica Captain Insam confined his lieutenant and
brought him to a court martial; where, on the evidence of the men, the
court declared he had done his duty, and ordered the captain to live
peaceably with him in their voyage to England, which he did; and Mr.
Berry, notwithstanding what was past, behaved towards him with all
imaginable modesty and submission.

In a short time after he came home the Dutch war broke out, and Mr.
Berry had a sloop given him, the Maria, of fourteen guns, with the
king's commission. He held this small command for about four months, in
which time he took thirty-two prizes; and for his extraordinary
diligence had the command given him of the Coronation, a ship of
fifty-six guns.

In this ship he was soon after sent to the West Indies, where our
colonies were in no small danger, having both the French and Dutch upon
their hands. On his arrival at Barbadoes the governor bought some large
merchant ships, converted them into men-of-war, and having made up nine
sail, including the Coronation, manned and put them under the command
of Commodore Berry. With this little fleet he sailed for Nevis, in order
to protect it from the French, who had already made themselves masters
of St. Christopher, Antigua, and Montserrat. He had scarcely arrived
before he had intelligence that the French were preparing at St.
Christopher a very great force, which was intended for the conquest of
Nevis. They had twenty-two men-of-war and frigates, six large transport
ships of their own, and four Dutch. With these they sailed toward Nevis
as to a certain victory.

Commodore Berry sailed with his nine ships to meet them; and, as he
turned the point of the island, one of his best ships blew up, which
struck his men with astonishment if not dismay. "Now you have seen an
English ship blow up," said the commodore, "let us try if we can't blow
up a Frenchman. There they are, boys! and if we don't beat them they
will beat us." Having said this, he immediately began the fight with the
French admiral; and, after an engagement of upwards of thirteen hours,
forced this mighty fleet to fly for shelter under the cannon of St.
Christopher, whither he pursued them, sent in a fire-ship, and burnt the
French admiral. Seeing her in flames, he said to his seamen, "I told you
in the morning that we should burn a Frenchman before night; to-morrow
we will try what we can do with the rest." While he was refitting his
ships the enemy wisely stole away; the French to Martinico, and the
Dutch to Virginia.

In the third Dutch war he had the command of the Resolution, a
seventy-gun ship, in which he was present at the famous action in
Southwold Bay, on May 28th, 1672. In this battle, observing that the
Duke of York was very hard pressed, he left his station, and came in to
his relief, where the service proved so hot that in less than two hours
he had no fewer than one hundred and twenty men killed, as many more
wounded, and his ship completely disabled: upon this he was towed out of
the line, stopped his leaks, and fell into his place again in an hour,
and there did such service that when Charles II. came to meet the fleet,
and dined on board the Royal Sovereign at the Buoy in the Nore, he, of
his own thought, called for Captain Berry, and, having knighted him,
said very graciously, "As our thoughts have been now upon honour, we
will hereafter think of profit; for I would not have so brave a man a
poor knight."

In the year 1682 it was thought expedient to send the Duke of York down
to Scotland, and for this purpose the Gloucester frigate, under the
command of Sir John Berry, was ordered to be ready; and accordingly, on
April 28th, the Duke of York embarked on board that ship. In their
passage Sir John observed, on May 3rd, when in the mouth of the Humber,
as he apprehended, an error in the pilot's conduct, though he was looked
upon as a man of great ability in his employment. Of this he informed
the duke and desired they might lie to, at least for that night, which
the pilot opposed; and, being a great favourite of the duke, his advice
prevailed. But His Royal Highness was soon convinced of the superiority
of Sir John Berry's judgment; since, in three-quarters of an hour
afterwards, the ship was lost, and about three hundred people in her,
among whom were some persons of the first rank. The duke himself but
narrowly escaped in the long-boat, Sir John Berry standing with his
sword drawn in the stern of the boat to hinder people from crowding in,
which undoubtedly saved the duke, since a very few more would have
overset it.

During the reign of King James II. he was in as high favour as he could
desire, the king constantly consulting him in matters relating to the
management of the fleet. When it became known that the Dutch meditated
an invasion, Sir John Berry was appointed vice-admiral, and after the
landing of the Prince of Orange, when Lord Dartmouth left the fleet, the
sole command of it devolved upon him.

The change of the government wrought none in the condition of our
admiral. An experienced officer and a man of honour will be a welcome
servant to any prince. King William was one who valued abilities and
understood them, and therefore he often sent for Sir John Berry to
confer with him on naval affairs; and once particularly the king engaged
with him in so close and earnest a conversation, that it took up the
whole night, and Sir John was not dismissed from the royal closet until
it was far advanced in the morning. Yet this favour brought him no
accession either for post or profit; he kept what he had, and probably
thought that sufficient, being commissioner of the navy, governor of
Deal Castle, and captain of an independent company.

In February 1691 he was ordered to Portsmouth to pay off some ships
there; and, while thus employed on board one of them, he was taken
suddenly ill, and thereupon carried on shore, where it was given out
that he died of a fever. A post-mortem revealed that he did not die a
natural death, but as the result of poison, though by whom administered,
or for what reason, was never made public. His body, according to his
own direction, was carried from Portsmouth to London and interred in the
chancel of Stepney Church, where a monument is erected to his memory.

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