George Brydges Rodney 1st Baron

1718-92. He was born in London and baptised on 13 February 1718, the second son of Henry Rodney, a captain of marines from Walton-on-Thames, and of his wife Mary Newton, the daughter and co-heiress of the diplomat, Sir Henry Newton. He was apparently a godson of King George I, and of his relative, the Duke of Chandos, but despite this impressive patronage his family struggled financially after his father had lost a fortune to poor investments.

Upon leaving Harrow, Rodney entered the navy in July 1732 as a king’s letter boy volunteer aboard the guardship Sunderland 60, Captain Robert Man. In May 1733 he joined the Portsmouth guardship Dreadnought 60, Captains Alexander Geddes, and from the end of 1734 Henry Medley, who retained the command until 1737, serving for some time in the Mediterranean. From 1739-40 Medley was the commodore and governor of Newfoundland with his broad pennant aboard the Romney 50, and Rodney served under him before he was appointed to the Somerset 80, Captain John Barnsley, employed in the Mediterranean as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Nicholas Haddock. On the following 15 February, which under the calendar rules pertaining at that time was still in the year 1739, Haddock promoted him lieutenant of the Dolphin 20, commanded by his uncle, Lord Aubrey Beauclerk, and two years later he was serving with the Channel fleet aboard the Essex 70, Captain Richard Norris.

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Admiral Rodney depicted at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782

On 9 November 1742 Rodney was promoted captain in the Mediterranean by Vice-Admiral Thomas Mathews, having been employed on his flagship Namur 90, Captain Samuel Cornish. He brought home the Plymouth 60 in convoy and upon his arrival the Admiralty confirmed his posting as captain, even though he had never held the rank of commander. In the autumn of 1743 he commissioned the new Sheerness 20, seeing service in the Channel and the Shetland Isles for the next year. He then commissioned the new Ludlow Castle 44 in October 1744, attending the Portuguese convoy, serving in the North Sea under Rear-Admiral Edward Vernon, and joining the blockade of the Scottish coast during the Jacobite uprising of 1745.

In the winter of 1745-6 Rodney commissioned the new Eagle 60, in which he conveyed troops to the siege of Ostend before joining the Western Squadron and participating in the capture of the privateer Bellone 36 in the Channel Approaches during February 1747. He also took a number of prizes, including six ships out of a French West Indian convoy in June when serving under the orders of Captain Thomas Fox of the Kent 74, earning over £8,000 in prize money on that occasion. The Eagle performed outstandingly in Rear-Admiral Edward Hawke’s victory over Commodore l’Etenduère on 14 October 1747 off Cape Finisterre, but Rodney’s bitter condemnation of Captain Fox for failing to support him in the action contributed to the court martial and dismissal of that officer.

Following the peace of 1748, and with the Eagle having been paid off, Rodney briefly visited London and was presented to the King by Lord Anson. In the following March he sailed in the Rainbow 44 with secret orders to assist the colonists of Newfoundland in a dispute with the French settlers, and on 9 May 1749 he became governor and commander-in-chief of that station with the temporary rank of commodore. Each winter he returned to England, as was the norm, and he took the opportunity to move in high society. During May 1751 he was elected M.P for Saltash in the Whig interest, a seat he retained for the next three years.

After the Rainbow was paid off at Woolwich in the autumn of 1752 Rodney began to establish an estate at Old Alresford in Hampshire, being able to do so because of the frequent amounts of leave he enjoyed whilst holding the commands of various Portsmouth guardships. These included the Kent 64 from January 1753, the Fougueux 64 from 1754, the Prince George 90 from the spring of 1755, and the Monarque 74 from early 1756, with Rodney moving to each vessel as they became ready to join a fleet that was on patrol. In the latter year however war with France broke out once more.

Whilst on leave in London during 1756 Rodney managed to avoid sitting on Vice-Admiral Hon. John Byng’s court martial by claiming ill-health, and he was transferred from the Monarque to commission the new Dublin 74 shortly before Byng was executed aboard the former vessel in March 1757. Following service in Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Hawke’s fleet in operations against Rochefort during 1757 he took Major-General Jeffrey Amherst out to Louisbourg in March 1758 to assume command of the army campaign there, and he captured the privateer Montmartel on 21 March. He then served under Vice-Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen in North America, but his ship was detained at Halifax to recover from an outbreak of typhoid fever and he was unable to join the fleet when it sailed to conduct the reduction of Louisbourg. Rodney returned to England with a convoy and a number of captured French officers in the summer of 1758, and immediately went on sick leave.

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A portrait of Rodney as a rear-admiral

On 19 May 1759 he was promoted rear-admiral, and with his flag aboard the Achilles 60, Captain Hon. Samuel Barrington, he destroyed the flat-bottomed invasion flotilla at Le Hâvre over two days in early July. After transferring his flag to the Vestal 32, Captain Samuel Hood, he remained off Le Hâvre for the remainder of that and the next year in order to ensure that the port could not be rebuilt. In November 1759 he was elected M.P for the safe seat of Oakhampton, courtesy of the Duke of Newcastle, and two years later was elected M.P. for Penryn through the good offices of Viscount Falmouth and the Boscawen family, a seat he would retain until 1768.

Rodney was next appointed commander-in-chief of the Leeward Isles over the heads of more senior officers, sailing in October 1761 and taking as his flagship the Marlborough 80, Captain John Holwall, who was replaced temporarily in 1762 by Captain Molyneux Shuldham. In co-operation with the land forces led by General Hon. Robert Monckton he captured Martinique, St. Lucia, Grenada and St. Vincent during the early part of 1762. Later flying his flag aboard the Foudroyant 80, Captain Shuldham, and having been promoted vice-admiral on 21 October 1762, he returned to England in August 1763 after peace was declared and received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. On 21 January 1764 he was created a baronet.

In November 1765 Rodney accepted the position of governor at Greenwich Hospital and retained it for five years until employed again at sea, during which period he did much to improve the lot of the semen and pensioners, although he fell ill himself through malaria in 1766 and nearly lost his life. In 1768, having previously sat as a supporter of the Duke of Newcastle’s government in the safe seats of Saltash, Oakhampton and Penryn, he was obliged to use his own funds to seek election at Northampton, and in so doing expended thirty thousand guineas, the loss of which amounted to his financial ruin. He held this seat until 1774.

Most conveniently he was able to escape the bailiffs as a result of the Spanish dispute of 1770, being sent out to Jamaica as the commander-in-chief in early 1771 with his flag aboard the Princess Amelia 80, Captain Samuel Marshall. This was a prospectively enriching posting, the more so that he hoped to accede to the position of governor, but in the event the war with Spain did not materialise, he was criticised for unprecedentedly retaining a three-decked ship of the line as a flagship on a peace-time station, and his independence became distasteful to Earl Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty. At least he earned some acclaim for improving Jamaica’s naval yards, but when he returned to England on half-pay in 1774 with Captain Marshall aboard the Portland 50 he was no richer for his posting.

In early 1775 Rodney’s financial difficulties obliged him to escape his creditors by running for France. The debts amassed by election fees, gambling in high circles and unobtainable arrears in back-pay kept him abroad until October 1779, and typically he managed to increase his debt through living beyond his means on the Continent. A French friend, the aged Marshal Louis Antoine de Gontaut-Biron, eventually advanced him enough money to enable him to return home, and Rodney was later able to repay the nobleman with funds despatched from England, this being his back pay for the position of Rear-Admiral of Great Britain, to which he had been appointed in 1771, and which had been withheld by the Navy Board whilst he had remained unavailable for service.

Still maintaining a mutually resentful relationship with Lord Sandwich, Rodney could not accept that it was the first lord of the Admiralty who proposed that he take over the command of the Leeward Islands station on his return, preferring instead to believe that it was as a result of a direct order from the King. In reality Sandwich had alienated the other great admirals and had no one else of ability to turn to. Even so, his attitude to Rodney was illustrated in a letter to the King, in which he explained that a naval commissioner would be kept on Rodney’s station to ensure that the admiral did not indulge in any peculations.

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The aftermath of the Moonlight Battle 1780

Having been promoted to the rank of admiral on 29 January 1778, Rodney left England on 29 December with his flag aboard the Sandwich 90, Captain Walter Young, and in command of a fleet of twenty-two sail of the line and three hundred storeships, having been tasked with the relief of Gibraltar before assuming his Leeward Islands post. Suffering badly from gout and gravel, he engaged the services of the esteemed physician Gilbert Blaine to sail with him. On 8 January 1780 off Cape Finisterre he had the good fortune to fall in with and capture a number of Spanish storeships, together with their escort consisting of the Guipuscoana 64 and attendant frigates.

Passing Cape St. Vincent on 16 January, Rodney then fell in with the Spanish Admiral Don Juan de Langara’s eleven ships of the line, of which he captured six and destroyed one, although such was his infirmity that he directed the battle from his cot via Captain Young. Rodney may have been unpopular with his officers but when news reached England of his victory in this, the Moonlight Battle, the people proclaimed him a hero, and even Sandwich felt moved to write him a letter of praise. Gibraltar was subsequently relieved on 20 January, whereupon the majority of the fleet returned to England with Rear-Admiral Robert Digby and Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart-Ross.

On 13 February Rodney departed at last for the Leeward Islands with four sail of the line to join Rear-Admiral Hyde Parker at St. Lucia on 27 March. Receiving intelligence on 13 April that the Comte de Guichen’s fleet had put to sea, he followed with the Leeward Islands fleet of twenty sail of the line, but when he overtook the French off Martinique on 17 April he decided to concentrate his force on the enemy’s rear, a tactic that was contrary to his previous instructions. The attempt failed due to the misunderstanding of his signals, and this resulted in a great deal of acrimony with his officers, one of whom, Captain Nathaniel Bateman, was dismissed the service following a court martial, and another, Captain Robert Carkett, was reprimanded by letter. Over one week in May Rodney was in the vicinity of de Guichen’s fleet again, but frustratingly he could not bring about a decisive engagement, and the Leeward Islands campaign effectively drew to a close when having failed to achieve anything of note with his Spanish allies de Guichen sailed home in early July.

In September, despite his absence overseas,

, Rodney was elected M.P. for the stand-out borough of Westminster, the result being – Rodney 5,298 votes, Charles James Fox 4,878, and Lord Lincoln 4,157. A scrutiny of the votes followed which confirmed his victory, one in which his proxy, Admiral James Young, represented him.

From 14 September – 16 November Rodney was present without Admiralty authorisation in North America waters with fourteen sail of the line, having left the Leeward Islands in search of the French fleet which unbeknown to him had in fact returned to Europe. He soon fell out with the local commander-in-chief, Vice-Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot, who refused to accept Rodney’s seniority and was quite outspoken in doing so. Rodney, after superficially attempting conciliation, referred the matter to the Admiralty then sailed away, but although the affair reflected badly on both men it was Rodney whose conduct was most at fault, and there followed the usual accusations of his profiteering and hunting of prize-money. Nevertheless, the dispute did not prevent him being nominated a K.B.

Rodney arrived back in the Leeward Islands on 6 December to find that a number of his ships had been lost in the hurricane of 4-12 October 1780. Typically he had placed himself on bad terms with the commander-in-chief at Jamaica, Vice-Admiral Sir Peter Parker, and this officer refused Rodney’s weather-beaten ships the use of the Port Royal facilities to refit. Reinforcements did arrive in the form of eight sail of the line and the vigorous Rear-Admiral Sir Samuel Hood as his new second in command, but theirs too would prove to be a most fractious relationship.

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A depiction of Rodney’s controversial capture of the Dutch island of St. Eustatius in 1781.

On 27 January 1781 the sloop Childers arrived with news that Britain and the Netherlands were now at war, and with instructions for Rodney to attack St. Eustatius, a small island yet a major trading post that had long been a thorn in the British side. On 3 February he seized this and other Dutch settlements, together with three million pounds worth of booty and some one hundred and fifty ships, an action that would subsequently involve him in lawsuits with the British merchants who had been trading from St Eustatius. Rodney spent some time raping the island and in particular the Jewish population of its riches, and given his reputation for poor financial practices it was no surprise when he was later criticised by Edmund Burke and the Whigs for his inclination to amass wealth rather than attack a worthier target. His subordinate Hood even went so far as to label him a ‘mere thief’, and to accuse him both of ‘Flemish Accounting’, and of lining his pocket rather than advancing the war. Rodney was also accused by the Leeward Islands Commissioner, Captain John Laforey, of over-inflating the value of the captured stores sent to Antigua. Revelling in his new found wealth, the admiral cared little for the complaints, nor appeared too concerned at the prospect of the merchants seeking legal redress to get their property back. Unfortunately for his bank balance a greater part of his booty was captured by Admiral La Motte-Picquet’s squadron on its voyage home to England on 2 May whilst St. Eustatius itself was recaptured in November.

The year continued badly when his influential flag captain, Walter Young, died at St. Eustatius on 2 May, and when Rodney was unable to provide Hood with sufficient resources to attack an expected French fleet off Martinique. As a result Hood was brushed aside upon Admiral de Grasse’s arrival on 29 April. Some intimated that Rodney had been too busy sweeping up the booty at St. Eustatius to concern himself with this new threat, whilst Hood was furious that Rodney had insisted he place his fleet to leeward of Martinique, rather to windward, which would have made for a more decisive conflict with the French. de Grasse subsequently attacked Tobago where Rear-Admiral Francis Drake’s six sail of the line were forced to withdraw.

Thereafter Rodney found his new enemy shy of an engagement, and with his health breaking once more, and with the Sandwich being hove down at Jamaica, he departed for England on 1 August aboard the Gibraltar 80, Captain John Symons, leaving Hood to sail to North America in search of the French. Upon his arrival home on 19 September he was forced to defend his conduct at St. Eustatius in the face of a rampant Edmund Burke in the House of Commons, and he also had to justify his perceived lack of support of Hood at Martinique. The King at least was happy however, and he showed his appreciation by making Rodney the Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom on the death of the previous incumbent, Lord Hawke.

His health barely restored after surgery and a brief convalescence at Bath prior to his parliamentary battle, Rodney sailed from Plymouth on 14 January to resume command of the Leeward Islands in the brand new Formidable 98, and with eleven sail of the line in company. His departure had been delayed for three weeks through the vagaries of the weather and difficulties in fitting out, with Rodney blaming much of the latter on his flag-captain John Symons, who but for any other candidate he would have sacked. With the esteemed Captain Sir Charles Douglas joining Rodney as captain of the fleet they eventually reached Barbados on 19 February to rendezvous with Hood six days later off Antigua.

Rodney arrived to find the British cause in a desperate state. A thirty-five strong fleet under the Comte de Grasse was due to sail with five thousand troops from Martinique for Cape François, where it was to join up with a Spanish force of fourteen sail of the line and attack Jamaica. Rodney waited with thirty-six sail of the line off St Lucia, and on 8 April learned that the French were putting to sea. In typical fashion he set off to intercept de Grasse only after completing a flogging around the fleet and taking his protégé, Captain George Anson Byron to task for leaving his station to bring news of the French movements.

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The Battle of the Saintes

Once the two fleets met there followed the four day Battle of the Saintes, culminating in Rodney’s great victory of 12 April, when his own flagship, the Duke 98 and the Bedford 74 broke through the French line on the recommendation of Douglas and destroyed their rear division. Rodney was later severely criticised by Hood for not following up the victory with a chase of the defeated enemy, but it was beyond question that he was more than satisfied with the prize of de Grasse’s flagship, the Ville de Paris, and that being old and racked with illness he was in no shape to continue the fight. In reality Hood was one of the new breed of officers who believed that an enemy should be annihilated, and his school of thought would have its day twenty years later with the all consuming victories of Admirals Duncan and Nelson.

Before news of the Battle of the Saintes could reach home the new Whig government, contrary to the wishes of Rodney’s old friend Viscount Keppel, the first lord of the Admiralty, had despatched Admiral Hugh Pigot to supersede him. Although a fast express was sent to prevent the exchange it took place at Jamaica on 10 July whence Rodney had gone with the fleet. Returning home aboard the Montagu 74, Captain George Bowen, and with the Flora 32, Captain Samuel Marshall, in company, he landed at Bristol on 21 September 1782 to general acclamation.

The government had treated Rodney with contempt over the St. Eustatius fiasco, but his victory at the Battle of the Saintes made the ensuing peace talks that much easier, and on 19 June he was rewarded by being raised to the peerage as Baron Rodney of Stoke-Rodney. Additionally he was given the thanks of both Houses of Parliament and granted a pension of 2,000 guineas a year, whilst the committee of enquiry into his conduct at St. Eustatius was dissolved.

Thereafter Rodney lived in almost complete obscurity at Purbeck Park in Portsmouth, his withdrawal from society being partly due to his severe gout and ill-health which necessitated frequent visits to Bath, but also partly due to his lack of funds and the fear of lawsuits arising from the St. Eustatius merchants. He died on 24 May 1792 at Hanover Square in London and was buried at Old Alresford in Hampshire.

Rodney was married firstly in 1753 to Jane Compton, a niece of the Earl of Northampton, to whom he was devoted despite her reputation as being ‘very ugly’, and who died of consumption in February 1757. He had two sons from his first marriage; George, an officer in the Guards who became his successor as Lord Rodney, and James, who was lost in command of the sloop Ferret in the West Indies in August 1776. In 1764 Rodney married Henrietta Clies, daughter of a Lisbon merchant, who was still residing at Jamaica in the early 1800’s, and who lived until her ninetieth year in 1829. From his second marriage he had three daughters and two sons, Captain Hon. John Rodney, and Captain Hon. Edward Rodney. His youngest daughter, Sarah, married General Godfrey Mundy, and their son, George Rodney Mundy, entered the Navy in 1819 and was posted captain in 1837. Admiral Richard Bligh was his godson and friend, as was Viscount Keppel.

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Rodney, portrayed in 1791

A conceited, vain, selfish, nepotistic, deceitful, theatrical, pompous, autocratic, untrustworthy man with little respect for his subordinates, Rodney made their lives even more difficult by often countermanding his own orders and failing to adequately convey his intentions. He was well known for making disrespectful comments of people behind their backs despite greeting them with great civility and urbanity, hence his description of Hood as ‘an old apple woman’, which was followed face to face by a flattering and praiseworthy greeting upon his arrival in the Leeward Islands in 1780. Where good men were available he would transfer them to his ship to replace poor men, and he never hesitated to break the rules in his officious manner. In his younger days he thought nothing of reporting alleged misdemeanours by his contemporaries to the Admiralty, whilst the patronage he was later to dispense so liberally applied to him as a young man, his career rapidly advancing with the help of the Whig prime ministers Henry Pelham and the Duke of Newcastle. A poor judge of a man, and unscrupulous, he pursued his own interests before the requirements of the navy, as illustrated by appointing his son John a captain at fifteen, and promoting his son James from lieutenant to post captain in the course of his twentieth year against the wishes of Lord Sandwich. He also promoted Lord Robert Manners, a young man from an influential family, as soon as it was convenient to do so. His subordinates found it difficult to offer loyalty or respect, and even Walter Young and Sir Charles Middleton, both of whom he considered to be friends, criticised him greatly.

Even so his magnificent service far outweighed these bad points. Rodney was viewed as an able, brave and progressive commander, and a brilliant tactician who fought in the spirit of the chivalrous days, much to the chagrin of Hood. He did much to improve the health of his men by employing Sir Gilbert Blane as physician to the fleet in the West Indies, and scurvy was greatly reduced by Blane’s insistence on the dispensation of lemon juice.

Despite a small, slim figure, long nose, protruding chin and haughty visage Rodney was very elegant, and indeed almost effeminate. His health was always poor however, and he had first suffered gout as early as 1752. He had an arrogant look which by old age was replaced by a more austere expression. A ‘smooth’ man, he adored drama and women and was an early friend of Princess Amelia, sister of George III. High Society held no fears for him, and he was ever willing to indulge in affairs and gamble in his attempt to live the life of a rake, a desire that was quite contrary to his taciturn behaviour at sea. He adored prize money but was always profligate, a poor card player and unlucky to boot, and although he enjoyed the high life he never had the means to support it. Such was his reputation for being untrustworthy with money that in 1774 the government had actively feared he would spark a war with the Spanish in the Caribbean in order to line his own pocket. Similarly in 1775 the accounts for Jamaica were not signed off due to a discrepancy of some £1,500 relating to unsubstantiated intelligence payments.

Although he had once given the first lord of the Admiralty a loan, Rodney was a bitter enemy of both Lord Sandwich and the Whigs, but a friend of the slippery Lord Germain. A Whig in his early years, he had become a ‘King’s Friend’ by 1778 to the outrage of his old colleagues and the suspicion of his new. He was a keen parliamentarian, stating that ‘to be out of parliament is to be out of this world.’ He actively promoted officers if he thought such a move would benefit his political prospects, and was an advocate of the slave trade as it produced a ‘nursery of seamen’. His secretary in the 1780’s was William Pagett.