ADMIRAL BENBOW

Benbow Figurehead
The figurehead from the Admiral Benbow,
launched at Rotherhithe in 1813. Now at Portsmouth


The name of Admiral Benbow is well known from many public houses and perhaps the most famous of these is the fictional one that features in 'Treasure Island', by Robert Louis Stevenson. There is relatively little information on Admiral Benbow on the Internet and the Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD ROM has only a paragraph.  However, there is a pamphlet 'Brave Benbow was his Name', produced by the Churches Conservation Trust and available at The Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Shrewsbury. My interest was stimulated when I saw this monument. It reads:

Erected by Public Subscription to Commemorate the services of
JOHN BENBOW ESQre VICE ADMIRAL OF THE BLUE,
A skilful and daring seaman
Whose heroic exploits long rendered him the boast of the British Navy,
And still point him out as the Nelson of his times.
He was born at Coton Hill in this Parish and died at Kingston in Jamaica
November 4th 1702, aged 51 years
Of wounds received during his memorable action
With a French Squadron off Carthagena in the West Indies,
Fought on the 19th and five following days of August in that year.

Memorial plaque spacer Benbow at Greenwich
Monument to Admiral Benbow at St. Mary's
in Shrewsbury   
  Plaque at Old Royal Naval College,
Greenwich, Nov 2008   

 

John Benbow was born on 10 March 1653 and was the son of William, a tanner in Shrewsbury. They lived in the parish of St. Mary in Shrewsbury. According to one source, John began his career as a waterman along the River Severn in Shropshire. Another source claims that he was initially apprenticed to a butcher then ran away to sea. He rose through the ranks and by 1768 he was master's mate aboard the Rupert based at Plymouth. The following year he became master of the Nonsuch. He was a hot tempered young man and was court-martialled for insulting a fellow officer. He left the navy and took command of his own merchantman, the Benbow Frigate, hunting down pirates. He presented the heads of 13 of them to the authorities in Cadiz. Following the Glorious Revolution of 1688, Benbow was back in the Navy becoming Master Attendant of Chatham and then Deptford Dockyard. In 1690 he became Master of Fleet in the Sovereign under Admiral Torrington at the Battle of Beachy Head. Under Admiral Edward Russell he participated in an action at La Hogue in May 1692 which destroyed a French fleet. He attacked the French port of Saint Malo in November 1693. His efforts were recognised by promotion to the post of Vice Admiral in 1686.

Between 1698 and 1700 he commanded the English Fleet in the West Indies. He chased Captain Kidd from the West Indies up the coast to Boston, where he was caught. When war with France resumed in 1701, Benbow went back to the West Indies with the rank of Vice Admiral of the Blue to intercept Spanish ships. He was commanding a flotilla of seven vessels on 19 August 1702 when they encountered nine French ships under Du Case off what is now the coast of Columbia in South America. A five day chase ensued. However, four of Benbow's captains seemed reluctant to fight and lagged behind. Benbow himself was badly injured in the leg by chain short on 24 August but he remained in command aboard the Breda until his subordinates insisted on his return to Port Royal in Jamaica. Two of the captains were court-martialled for insubordination, returned to Plymouth and shot aboard HMS Bristol. Benbow died as as result of his wounds on 4 November 1702 and was buried at St. Andrew's church in Kingston, Jamaica. He was a popular Admiral with the ordinary sailors as he had risen through the ranks and had the nickname of 'The Brother Tar'. The monument shown in my photograph was erected in 1844 and was sculpted by Evan Thomas of Pimlico from a portrait by Sir Godfrey Kneller in the National Maritime Museum.

Several popular songs about Benbow were written in the 18th century and one is on the web. Here is the concluding verse of another.

Come all ye brave fellows, wherever you be,
And drink to the health of your King and country,
And another health to the girls that we know,
And a third for remembrance of brave Admiral Benbow

 

Source:

Brave Benbow was his Name: The Story of Admiral John Benbow, 1653-1702, produced in 2001 by the Churches Conservation Trust.
Encyclopaedia Britannica on CD ROM.

A biography entitled Brave Benbow: The Life of Vice-Admiral John Benbow by William A Benbow has been published but I have not seen it yet.

 

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