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

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.