Tour Of The Caribbean - Admiral John Benbow
( Originally Published 1925 )
IN the old Parish Church of Kingston there lies buried Admiral John Benbow. His grave, near by the chancel rails, is covered with a large black stone, embellished with a coat of arms. At the time of my visit this stone was hidden by the wreckage of the earthquake, but it was not difficult to find an unemployed negro who, with some little labour, laid it bare. The stone presents the following unpunctuated inscription :
HERE LYETH INTERRED THE BODY OF IOHN BENBOW ESQ ADMIRAL OF THE WHITE A TRUE PATTERN OF ENGLISH COURAGE WHO LOST HIS LIFE IN DEFENCE OF HIS QUEENE AND COUNTRY NOVEMBER YE 4T11 1702 IN THE 52ND YEAR OF HIS AGE BY A WOUND OF HIS LEGG RECEIUD IN AN ENGAGEMENT WITH MONS DU CASSE BEING MUCH LAMENTED.
The circumstance under which this admiral of the White received the " wound of his legg " belongs to " the story of one of the most painful and disgraceful episodes in the history of the British Navy."' The British and the French were, as was not unusual, at war. The campaign was that same war of the Spanish Succession which is associated with the name of Marlborough, and with the famous battles of Blenheim and Ramillies. Benbow found himself opposed in the West Indies by a French fleet under the command of Admiral Du Casse. The British battleships were collected together at Port Royal, and on July 11, 1702, the admiral set sail from that port in search of the enemy. He came up with the French on August 19, off Santa Marta, a cape on the Spanish Main between La Hache and Cartagena. The English mail steamers pass close to this point of land and through the very waters which were the scene of the engagement.
The French force consisted of five line-of-battle ships and four smaller craft. The composition of the English fleet is of some interest in view of what happened.
Ship. Guns. Commander.
Breda 70 Benbow.
Greenwich 54 Wade.
The fight began on August 21. It was a remarkable engagement, a running fight which was maintained for no less than four days, in which the Breda was practically left alone to do battle in the "defence of her Queene and country." The captains of the leading English vessels declined to come into touch with the French. In spite of urgent orders from the flagship they remained aloof. Although thus meanly deserted John Benbow fought on with bulldog obstinacy. He pounded away until his cannon were nearly red hot. He hung on to the enemy until spar after spar was carried away, until his sails were in holes, and his bulwarks jagged like a saw's edge. He would hear of no giving in, although his men were dropping from fatigue and although the carpenter continued to report a rising of water in the hold.
During the darkness of the night of the 23rd he was busy trying to repair some of the damage done, but as soon as there was light enough in the morning he was at the French again.
The cannonading had not long begun when the admiral's right leg was smashed by a chain-shot, and he was carried unconscious to his cabin. When he came to himself, he ordered his cot to be brought up the companion-way and placed on the quarter-deck, and here, from his bed, he gave orders for the fighting to be pressed on with to the end.
The end soon came. The odds were hopeless. The Breda, deserted by her consorts, was so fearfully mauled as to be almost a wreck, and it seemed doubtful if she had yards and sails enough left to carry her back to port. The admiral at last gave the order to retire to Port Royal, and sullenly withdrew from the enemy's fire.
It was a memorable episode ; the Breda, splintered and torn, creeping away to the north slowly, like a grievously wounded man who will not own that he is beaten. Behind were the French shouting with derision. Far away on the horizon were the craven British ships slinking home like a pack of whipped curs. On the deck of the Breda was the admiral, lying on his cot, white with loss of blood, almost blind from shock, but still able to curse the French, to curse his captains, and above all to curse the chain-shot that had prevented him from keeping on with the fight. Still flying above him, at the masthead of the Breda, was the order for a general attack, a command to which only the gallant Ruby had responded.
The Breda reached Kingston Harbour in the course of time, and there the wounded admiral was taken ashore. The leg was amputated. There is little doubt but that septicoemia supervened and that it involved a long and distressing illness, for the obstinate old fighter did not die until November 4, seventy-two days after the wound had been received.
As he fought alone, so he seems to have lived alone, for he was an unlovable man. He is described as rough and off-hand in his manner, very ready to bully his subordinates, and very unready to make friends of those who chanced to be his shipmates.
On October 8, 1702, Captains Kirkby, Constable, and Wade were tried by court-martial on the charges of "cowardice, disobedience to orders, and neglect of duty." Hudson, of the Pendennis, would have been indicted with the other prisoners, but he died before the court commenced. Vincent, of the Falmouth, a was put on his trial for minor offences, more or less discreditable. The only officer of the fleet who came out of this affair with other than disgrace was George Walton, the loyal captain of the Ruby.
As a result of the court-martial, Kirkby and Wade were sentenced to death, and were shot at Plymouth. Constable was cashiered, and thrown into prison, where shortly after he died. Vincent was suspended. Walton was probably forgotten. So ended a miserable business, which has happily no parallel in the glorious annals of the British Navy.