H.M.S. RODNEY PART I

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16-Gun Sloop of War

While has been six Rodneys, officially only four British warships have borne the name, the first ‘official’ being a ship of the line commissioned in 1810, here are the first three (3). Bearing in mind the Admiralty’s reluctance to recognise the cutter, it is strange the earliest battle honour attributed to Rodney comes from that vessel, which, a decade after Captain Rodney’s governorship of Newfoundland, garnered the tribute ‘Quebec 1759’. The Rodney cutter supported General Wolfe’s brilliant assault on Quebec and while she carried a mere four guns, they were adequate enough for the job of carrying despatches to and from the scene of battle. However, while the cutter earned the battle honour she was not believed to have been present when Wolfe scaled the Heights of Abraham to confront Montcalm, the British general losing his life in the process of achieving a great victory, ending French hopes of establishing control over much of Canada.

During the Quebec campaign Rodney was commanded by Lieutenant the Honourable Philip Tufton Perceval, an aristocrat of Irish descent. His father was John Perceval, 2nd Earl of Egmont, at one time tipped to be a future Prime Minister of Britain but who, instead, became First Lord of the Admiralty, in 1763 and 1766.

The Rodney’s commander was born on 10 March 1741, his mother being Catherine Cecil, a daughter of the Earl of Salisbury. Lieutenant Tufton Perceval was therefore not even nineteen when he took charge of Rodney; he was made a Master and Commander on 5 September 1759, receiving his promotion, and captaincy of Rodney, eight days before the climactic battle for Quebec. After his time in command of the cutter, Tufton Perceval no doubt moved on to larger ships, but does not seem to have distinguished himself greatly in his subsequent naval career, dying at the age of 54, on 21 April 1795. His half brother, Spencer, found greater success, as a politician, but in 1812, while serving as Prime Minister, was assassinated in the House of Commons.

In the same year the Rodney cutter sailed the St Lawrence, the man she was named after received promotion to Rear Admiral of the Blue and an appointment to command a naval force charged with containing a French invasion force in Le Havre. By this time Rodney’s reputation was mixed, to say the least. In 1762 he had ignored Army claims that Martinique could not be taken from the French and landed troops with Royal Navy guns and gunners to take the island’s chief stronghold, Fort Royal. The British soon subdued the fortress; a notable triumph achieved against the odds.

Following the end of the Seven Years War, in August 1764 Rodney was made a baronet and, aside from serving as Governor of Greenwich Hospital for five years, entered politics. It was not his first such venture, for Rodney had been elected MP for Saltash in 1751, a borough just up the River Tamar from Plymouth Dock, today known as Devonport and future home port of the Second World War-era battleship Rodney. Rodney the man was by 1761 MP for Penryn, another Cornish constituency.

Rodney’s campaign to be elected MP for Northampton in 1768, while successful in that it gained him the seat, was ruinously expensive and, taken together with his addiction to gambling, plunged him into dire financial straits. An appointment to command in Jamaica did not solve his money problems and, when he retired from the Caribbean in 1775, Rodney sought refuge in France to avoid the indignity of a spell in a debtors’ prison. The admiral lived in Paris until May 1778 when, with hostilities about to break out between Britain and France over the latter’s support for rebels in North American colonies, Rodney went home, able to pay off his debts thanks to a very generous loan from a French general. Ironic then, that Rodney’s return would eventually lead to a defeat that brought ruin upon France’s designs to enrich herself by taking British colonies. Rodney was appointed to command in the Leeward Islands in 1779, mainly because, although not universally admired, he was the best available at a time when talent was thin on the ground, partly because the Keppel-Palliser affair had prompted many senior naval officers to refuse service at sea. On the way to his new posting, Rodney was tasked with relieving the siege of Gibraltar, the resulting victory in the ‘moonlight battle’ of January 1780 raising his reputation to a new high. Once he arrived in the West Indies, Admiral Rodney was hopefully preoccupied with saving Jamaica from Franco-Spanish invasion. With lingering financial problems that a share in lucrative captures might solve, he was particularly keen on ships under his command taking prizes. This motive cast further disrepute on Rodney’s name, for it is reckoned money-seeking prompted him to organize an operation to seize the island of St Eustasius from the Dutch. Although this venture yielded a lot of treasure, various legal issues meant Rodney personally benefited little. Most serious was the fact that it diverted him from providing a proper defence for Martinique, which was taken back by the French.

A combination of disgrace, over his putting lucre before securing British possessions, and ill health forced Rodney to resign in 1781 and return home, but, as is the way with such things, he was accorded the honorary rank of Vice Admiral of Great Britain in early November. Such was the poverty of talent among Britain’s available sea-going admirals, Rodney was soon sailing again for the West Indies, returning to the post of Commander-in-Chief in mid-January 1782.

The next HMS Rodney was a 16-gun brig-sloop, with a ship’s company of fifty-one, in 1781 commanded by John Douglas Brisbane, who had been promoted to Lieutenant on 1 April 1779. This Rodney, the second and final ‘unofficial’, had been purchased in the Caribbean that year and may previously have been an American customs vessel, or even a locally commissioned ship, like so many of the Royal Navy’s smaller craft. She was no doubt named in honour of the commander-in-chief, in order to give physical form to Admiral Rodney’s status (and seek advantage in his favours).

The master and commander of the Rodney sloop-brig was the son of Captain John Brisbane, who had distinguished himself in action during the on-going American War of Independence. No doubt it was Captain Brisbane’s influence that won his son command of Rodney. Possibly the elder Brisbane was held in high esteem by Admiral Rodney but Lieutenant Brisbane was not blessed with good fortune, for Rodney would be captured on 3 February 1782 by the French, during a vain defence of Demerara in what is today Guyana. The area was originally settled by the Dutch West India Company, which reclaimed stretches of the coast to develop sugar and cotton plantations, using slaves to harvest the crops. In the 1590s Sir Walter Raleigh had searched in vain for El Dorado, the fabled city of gold, in the region’s vast jungles and, in 1781, the British – probably acting under orders from the money-hungry Admiral Rodney – regarded Demerara as such rich territory they seized it. The main aim was to prevent the Dutch from shipping Demerera’s highly desirable goods to rebel American colonies and instead divert it into British hands.

The new rulers constructed a fort at the mouth of the river, Fort St George, and began laying out a settlement around it, the beginnings of Georgetown, the modern-day capital of Guyana. In early 1782, Rodney, the 20-gun frigate Oronoque, sloops Barbuda, 16-guns, Sylph, 18-guns and Stormont, 16-guns, together with the schooner Henry, 6-guns, failed to deter a French expeditionary force composed of five warships led by the 32-gun frigate Iphigenie. The Oronoque would appear not to have had a full complement, perhaps due to disease, and of the nominal guns available across the force only 75 were actually capable of being manned. French firepower amounted to 140 guns, out-gunning the British by 65 weapons. In terms of available manpower, there were 380 British sailors and marines while the French mustered 1,500 soldiers and matelots.

The story of this obscure moment in British naval history can be found in the ‘Lieutenant’s Log’ of Tudor Tucker, at forty-years old a rather elderly Lieutenant, from the loyalist side of a family whose rebel scions included the first Treasurer of the USA, also named Tudor Tucker. Lt Tudor Tucker RN joined Rodney at the end of July 1781. By mid-August, Rodney was alongside in Antigua, where she went into refit and then sailed for Barbados, which she soon left. On Friday, 19 October, Rodney dropped anchor in the lower reaches of the Demerara river, which flows north for 230 miles from its source in the rain forests. She stayed there through the early autumn and into winter, as war clouds loomed ever more ominously on the horizon.

Wednesday, 30 January 1782 dawned fair, but a storm approached in the form of the French naval force. The Rodney was hailed by the Oronoque’s Commanding Officer, who told Lieutenant Brisbane of the enemy ships, which ‘he supposed intended to attack the river at some time.’

Brisbane called Lt Tucker over and ‘ordered by him to go on shore and take charge of the fort . . .’

Not long after, it was decided it should be abandoned, with Tucker instructed to spike the guns, but before he could complete the task, he was hailed from Rodney and told to return to ship. An attempt to break out into the open sea was planned. The Sylph and Henry had earlier sailed out from the river to see if there was any chance of the British naval force making it, but the French were too well positioned. Sylph and Henry retreated and brought back gloomy news. There was probably a council of war where it was decided the best course of action was to surrender. On 31 January, Lieutenant Tucker’s log noted that at 1 am Rodney

. . . weighed and made sail up the river in company with the Oronoke [sic], Barbuda, Sylph, Stormont and Henry . . . at 5 anchored . . . at 11 am a Flag of truce flew off from the Oronoke [sic] . . .

On 2 February Lt Tucker was ordered to come on board Oronoque and, in the early hours, tasked with taking an offer of surrender to the French commander. Sent off in a boat under a Flag of Truce, at 8 am going on board Iphigenie, Tucker delivered the letter, two hours later receiving a verbal reply, then setting off back up the river. But, when he went aboard the Oronoque, Lt Tucker found two French officers already there, having arrived an hour before him. Subsequently, Oronoque’s captain and the governor of Demerara went down the river to agree final terms. Sunday, 3 February dawned fair but it was a black day for the Royal Navy as, at 10 am, Tucker was told by Brisbane that capitulation of British naval forces had been agreed, with Rodney’s guns to be discharged and secured.

Admiral Rodney gained revenge for the taking of Demerara by defeating a Franco-Spanish fleet at the battle of The Saintes, on 12 April 1782, so ending the enemy’s dreams of conquering further British colonies in the Caribbean. Rodney deployed the tactic of cutting the enemy line that would reach its apex when used by Nelson at Trafalgar more than two decades later. But, what of Rodney’s Brisbane and Tucker? Their lives were but footnotes of British naval history, forgotten in the shadows of great victories like The Saintes. Neither man was destined to reach a ripe old age.

Released from captivity, Lieutenant Brisbane was put aboard one of the French warships taken as prizes at The Saintes, the captured vessels sailing for Britain in company with a large convoy of merchant ships in July 1782. By mid-September, they were off the Newfoundland Banks, hit by severe gales for three days during which the Ville de Paris, French flagship at The Saintes, sank with the loss of all but one sailor and Glorieux went down with all hands. The Rodney’s Lieutenant Brisbane was among those drowned. Following his release from captivity Lieutenant Tucker returned to his unspectacular career in the Navy, getting married in December 1784 and not receiving promotion to Commander until February 1796. He died four years later.

The third Rodney of this story – the first ‘official’ vessel of the name – was a 74-gun third-rate ship of the line built by the private shipyard of William Barnard, on the River Thames, close to Deptford Royal Dockyard.

During an active warship construction life of some thirty-nine years, Barnard’s Deptford Green Yard, established in 1780, built twenty-six warships and a dozen East Indiamen. The Rodney was one of eight 74-gun ships constructed by Barnard, a type for which it had a good reputation.

Among them was the legendary HMS Orion, which saw action in the battles of the Glorious First of June (1794) Cape St Vincent (1797) and Trafalgar (1805).

The 1,754 tons third-rate Rodney was ordered by the Admiralty Board on 28 May 1808, for, despite the victory at Trafalgar nearly three years earlier, the French naval threat remained acute, particularly as the potential building capacity of shipyards under the sway of Napoleon remained even greater than Britain’s. To retain dominance of the oceans the Royal Navy needed supremely useful 74-gunners and so private yards like Barnard did well. The amount of wood devoted to constructing a ship like the 74-gun Rodney would make a modern-day conservationist weep, for 3,000 full-grown oak trees were used in the hull alone. Despite a heavy workload, Barnard completed Rodney in the remarkable time span of just 20 months. The new Rodney was launched on 8 December 1809, more than 17 years after Rodney the man had passed away.

The progression from humble cutter to a line-of-battle-ship, reflected the rise of the Admiral’s renown, for good or ill. It was no doubt hoped the name Rodney would indicate a good fighting spirit, rather than reflect the more controversial aspects of Rodney’s personality and reputation. After his success at The Saintes, Admiral Rodney was called home from the West Indies and dismissed from his post by a new government keen to show the country it meant to make up for the disastrous conduct of the war to retain America. When the success of The Saintes became widely known, and acclaimed throughout Britain, Rodney was given the freedom of many towns and cities, awarded the thanks of both the Commons and Lords, was made Baron Rodney of Stoke-Rodney and received the considerable pension of £2,000 a year. However, his financial difficulties pursued him into his retirement and he died on 24 May 1792, with debtors snapping at his heels.

As Rodney was being fitted out, rigged and also equipped with her weapons, and while her press gangs were scouring ports looking for sailors, many hundreds of miles to the south, British involvement in the Iberian Peninsula was hotting up.

Napoleon was attempting to use the Continental Blockade to shut European ports to British trade, from the Baltic to the Mediterranean. However, the British Army was not large enough to contest Napoleon’s might on land across several theatres. It had become clear, despite the disastrous retreat from Corunna in January 1809, which saw the Royal Navy lift thousands of troops off the beaches – a forerunner of Dunkirk 130 years later – that Spain and Portugal still offered the best means of sapping the strength of the French Army and destroying the myth of Napoleon’s invincibility.

The warships that saw service in support of Wellington’s army in Spain were true practitioners of what today is referred to as littoral warfare. By dominating waters just off the shore they were able to keep land forces supplied and leapfrog enemy obstacles by taking troops up and down the coast. British warships also influenced events on land directly through bombarding enemy forts, cutting sea lines of communication to Napoleon’s troops, and supporting isolated pockets of friendly forces. Transport of troops by sea, and their re-supply, was so much swifter, less dangerous and wearing, than using the often atrocious roads of the Iberian interior. Meanwhile, the Royal Navy denied the French every advantage offered by the sea and forced them into an ineradicably hostile terrain where Spanish guerillas picked at their entrails like voracious vultures.

The Rodney was by the early summer of 1810 at Plymouth, with orders to join the Mediterranean Fleet and, in preparation for her first voyage into a war zone, was receiving stores and also taking aboard impressed men to bring her complement up to its full strength of 700.

Among those delivered to her was eighteen-year old Joseph Bates, a young American who had already seen many adventures since first going to sea as a cabin boy in 1807. From the moment he stepped aboard, Bates found his card was marked by Rodney’s First Lieutenant, who had received reports of his several escape attempts. The officer glared at him and growled: ‘Scoundrel.’

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