George Johnstone

1730-87. He was the fourth of seven sons and fourteen children of the M.P Sir James Johnstone Bt. of Westerhall, Dumfriesshire, and of his wife Barbara Murray, the daughter of the 4th Lord Elibank. He was the older brother of Captain Gideon Johnstone, and a number of his other brothers rose to prominence in Parliament, the East India Company, and by the accumulation of wealth.

Having served his early career in a number of vessels and spent time in the merchant service, Johnstone first came to notice as a midshipman when upon leaving the Lark 44, he challenged and wounded Captain John Crookshanks in the neck for refusing him a certificate. Next serving with the Canterbury 60, Captain David Brodie, he put his undoubted fearlessness to better use on 8 March 1748 when he boarded a fireship approaching his squadron off Port Louis, Hispaniola, and made fast a line in order that she could be towed to safety.


Johnstone’s complex and not altogether appealing character was caught perfectly in this portrait

He passed his lieutenant’s examination on 2 February 1749, but being unable to secure employment he returned to the merchant service. He was eventually commissioned lieutenant on 9 October 1755 of the Sutherland 50, Captain Edward Falkingham, moving a few months later to the Biddeford 20, Captain Hon. Robert Digby, on which vessel his brother Gideon was already employed, and which saw service in the West Indies. He embellished his notoriety by killing the captain’s clerk in a duel, and on 22 February 1757 he was court-martialled aboard the Dreadnought 60 in Port Royal, Jamaica, and found guilty of insubordination and disobedience, being severely reprimanded. He did not return to the Biddeford but was instead appointed to the Augusta 60, Captain Arthur Forrest, remaining on the Jamaican station. Having then been seconded to the Dreadnought, Captain Maurice Suckling, he was aboard that vessel in company with the Augusta and Edinburgh 64 when they drove off three French sail of the line, a 50-gun ship and three frigates near Cap François on 21 October 1757. Johnstone was praised by Suckling and Forrest for his bravery in this action, but typically he blotted his copybook in June 1758 by falling out with the commander-in-chief of the station, Rear-Admiral Thomas Cotes, over prize money.

From August 1758 he served aboard the Trial 10, Captain Thomas Cookson, whom he attempted unsuccessfully to bring to a court martial for incompetence, and after returning from Jamaican he saw further service in the Downs aboard the Preston 50, Commodore William Boys, prior to being invalided ashore. In June 1759 he briefly served as the acting captain of the Essex 70 in home waters for Captain John Campbell.

On 6 February 1760 Johnstone was appointed commander of the sloop Hornet 10, serving in the North Sea and the Downs, and delivering a convoy of soldiers from Shields to Germany in April. Despite the sluggishness of this vessel, he was to enjoy much success against enemy privateers by removing her mizzenmast at sea to disguise her as an easy target, four of his captures being the privateers Free Mason of Dunkirk 4 in June, which was sent into Yarmouth, the Chevalier D’Artesay off Granville on 8 January 1761, the Societé 6 of St. Malo off Portugal a week later, which he took into Lisbon, and the small Heureux and her prize off the Portuguese coast in October, which he again took into Lisbon. Upon learning of the Spanish declaration of war against England in January 1762, he again displayed his enterprise by commissioning a vessel and despatching her with the news to the West Indies, thereby allowing Rear-Admiral George Brydges Rodney to take offensive action against Spanish possessions that were in ignorance of the commencement of hostilities.

Johnstone was posted to the Hind 20 on 11 August 1762, but whilst awaiting her arrival at Chatham from Gibraltar he suffered a severe fall that left him in bed for three months with a broken ankle. During this period another captain, William M’Cleverty, took his commission and Johnstone was placed on half-pay prior to joining the Wager 20 towards the end of the year.


The Marquess of Rockingham

In 1763, Johnstone’s friendship with the secretary to the Prime Minister, the Earl of Bute, saw him appointed the governor and captain-general of West Florida. The posting was greeted on 17 September with a furious attack upon him in a radical newspaper, the ‘North Briton’, and led to him physically assaulting the presumed journalist, a Mr Brooks, with a fist and a large stick; indeed the latter was only saved from severe injury by members of the public who intervened when Johnstone managed to draw his sword. As a consequence of this assault, Johnstone was charged and bound over to keep the peace.

In March 1764 Johnstone was given a sumptuous farewell dinner by the merchants at the Kings Arms Tavern in Cornhill, and after attending to some East India Company business he set off for Portsmouth in mid-June to embark for Florida. As a pro-active governor of the territory, he attracted trade and immigrants by publicising its natural resources, and by building wharves and residences. He also constructed a survey vessel to explore the Straits of Bahamas, but typically he brought controversy on himself by failing to co-operate with the military, and by then planning a war against the Creek Indians in defiance of government policy. In early 1767, with his departure only briefly preceding his dismissal by the government he felt obliged to return home, and he was in London by April to hold a conference with the southern secretary of state, the Earl of Shelburne.

In May 1768 Johnstone was elected the M.P. for Cockermouth, and over the next few years he enjoyed an active role in the House of Commons, taking a particular interest in maintaining the independence of the East India Company from government interference, and in speaking out against the slave trade and naval impressment. He joined the opposition Rockingham group which bitterly opposed the government’s management of the American colonies, and he correctly predicted the troubles to come with rebellion and French intervention. On 17 December 1770 he fought a duel with Lord George Germain at the Ring in Hyde Park following one of his typical outbursts in the House of Commons, but after firing two pistols at each other from twenty paces neither party was injured. Thereafter, Johnstone continued to remain most active in parliament as the member for Appleby from 1774-80 in preference to Cockermouth, where he had been re-elected.

In late March 1778 he was appointed to treat with the American colonies, the government being aware of his sympathies towards the rebels, but accepting that he was now strongly opposed to the granting of independence. After kissing the King’s hand he sailed from Portsmouth on 16 April , aboard the Trident 64, Captain John Elliot with his fellow commissioners, the Earl of Carlisle and William Eden. Unsurprisingly, he soon managed to alienate the American Congress through a bungled attempt to win over one of their members, and with an accusation of bribery hanging over his head he was dismissed from the peace commission. He remained in the colony only long enough to condemn the American leaders whom he had previously praised for their virtue, and to urge every mode of warfare on the rebels, and by 28 October he was back in London to attend the King, having arrived at Portsmouth with his suite aboard the Tartar 24, Captain Cornthwaite Ommanney.

Crossing the floor in parliament, Johnstone vociferously defended the government’s employment of German mercenaries and made frequent verbal assaults in his typically un-gentlemanly manner upon Admirals Hon. Augustus Keppel and Lord Howe for their failure to annihilate their opponents, although in so doing he managed to display his lack of technical knowledge. Even the first lord of the Admiralty, Lord Sandwich, found his irksome conduct detrimental to the government, and so on 6 May 1779, and in order to get him out of the country, Johnstone was appointed the commodore and commander-in-chief of a squadron to operate in the Channel and the Bay of Biscay against the enemy troop transports. The fact that he contributed so many votes to the government allowed Sandwich to overlook the far more worthy Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Harland for this command, although at least the first lord paid no heed to Johnstone’s supporters who insisted that his talents actually merited the command of the Channel fleet.


The Battle of Porto Praya.

Departing Portsmouth on 9 July with his broad pennant aboard the Romney 50, and with Captain Robert Nicholas as his flag-captain, Johnstone’s squadron otherwise consisting of three frigates, a sloop and two cutters was off Cherbourg in July. He then served with the Channel Fleet during its retreat in August, and after the allies had left the Channel he briefly raised the flag of Rear-Admiral Sir John Lockhart-Ross at St. Helens in the second week of September aboard the Romney in order to investigate rumours of a French invasion force congregating in Cancale Bay. This threat proving groundless, the squadron returned to Spithead on 25 September after a bruising cruise that had been dominated by gales, during which the Romney ran aboard the Diana 32, Captain Hon. George Falconer, causing her a significant amount of damage.

On 11 November 1779, in proceeding to take up the command of a squadron stationed off Portugal, Johnstone’s pennant ship Romney, now commanded by Captain Roddam Home, stood by as the Tartar 28, Captain Alexander Graeme, and sloop Rattlesnake, Lieutenant John M’Laurin, captured the Spanish frigate Santa Margaritta 34. Johnstone resided ashore at Lisbon during 1780 whilst his squadron performed excellent service off Cape Finisterre, the most spectacular event being the capture of the excellent French frigate Artois 38 on 3 July, and the Perle 18 three days later. Typically, the government gave Johnstone the credit for the successes, and in December 1780 he was elected the M.P for Lostwithiel in their interest, the seat having been provided by a Treasury minister, John Robinson, who was the brother of Captain Hugh Robinson.

After briefly returning to England, and following the Dutch entry to the war, Johnstone was ordered to proceed on a secret mission with a strong force at the end of 1780 to capture the Cape, it having originally been mooted that he lead an expedition to the River Plate and perhaps attack the Spanish settlements in the Pacific Ocean. Clearly the government were keen to send him away as far as possible whilst harvesting the votes of his allies in parliament. With his broad pennant flying once more aboard the Romney 50, Captain Roddam Home, and joined by a convoy of East Indiaman and three thousand troops under Colonel William Medows, his squadron set sail from Spithead on 13 March in the company of the Channel fleet which was bound for the relief of Gibraltar.

Whilst on passage to the Cape, Johnstone’s squadron anchored off Porto Praya on the Cape Verde Island of St. Jago. Once more demonstrating his lack of professional knowledge, he neglected to form a defensive position against any possible assault by a French force under the Balli de Suffren, which was known to be taking the same route. On 16 April Suffren arrived, and upon noting the poor dispositions of Johnstone’s ships he sailed straight into the attack. Fortunately for Johnstone, the French captains were not as tactically astute as their commander, and in their failed assault only two vessels became fully engaged, these being easily beaten off and then subjected to a cursory pursuit by the British. Seeking a scapegoat to cover up his lamentable mistake, Johnstone returned to the bay and placed Captain Evelyn Sutton of the Isis 50 under arrest for failing to get his ship ready for the chase of the enemy, even though she was partially dismasted at the time. He also refused an instant court-martial on his subordinate, claiming that there was not the time to arrange it, and Sutton was therefore still under confinement when the squadron sailed for the Cape on 30 April.

In the event, Suffren got to the Cape first, and being thwarted in his mission Johnstone instead launched an attack on a rich Dutch East Indiamen convoy in Saldanha Bay on 21 July. Although the Dutch ran their ships ashore and set them alight, the assailants succeeded in putting the fires out on all but one vessel, which upon drifting down towards the squadron was grappled by a party personally led by Johnstone and towed away to explode ten minutes later. Following this event, the ships destined for the East Indies, including the Isis with the imprisoned Captain Sutton, continued on their passage, whilst Johnstone hoisted his broad pennant aboard the frigate Diana 36, Captain Sir William Burnaby, to sail for Lisbon and get married.

Johnstone later came home to England, and after being placed on half-pay he continued to sit in Parliament in the government interest, although he still advocated less interference in the affairs of the East India Company. He tried unsuccessfully to attack Admiral Lord Howe for his conduct following the relief of Gibraltar and the Battle of Cape Spartel in October 1782, yet he spoke out against the new government’s recall of Admiral Lord Rodney, whom he praised for the tactical brilliance of his victory at the Battle of the Saintes. In 1784 he was appointed a director of the East India Company, and after losing out on a Treasury borough and failing to get elected independently in 1784, he re-entered parliament as the M.P. for Ilchester in February 1786, becoming a supporter of William Pitt’s government.

Meanwhile, following his return to England Captain Sutton was justly acquitted of his alleged failings at a court martial in December 1783, and twelve months later Johnstone lost a legal claim for false imprisonment, being required to pay six thousand guineas in compensation to the victim. After two appeals, one of which saw the sum increased, the matter was referred to the House of Lords. In the meantime, Johnstone had been increasingly suffering from ill health and he resigned his parliamentary seat in February 1787. On 24 May 1787, after suffering two years as an invalid, he died at Hotwells, Bristol, having earlier that morning been advised by his wife, whom he had dispatched to London, that the lords had found in his favour in the case with Captain Sutton.

On 31 January 1782 Johnstone married Deborah Charlotte Dee, known as Charlotte, the daughter of the late vice-consul to Lisbon, and they had issue one son. After three years as a widow she married Admiral Sir Charles Edmund Nugent in 1790. Previously, Johnstone had fathered four illegitimate children with his American mistress, Martha Ford, one of whom, George Lindsay Johnstone, served as an M.P from 1800-13 and shared many of his father’s traits.

Known as ‘Governor Johnstone’, apparently ironically, he was certainly brave but was also insulting, tactless, stupid, arrogant, and foul-tempered. Despite his initial recommendation of sensible measures in order to placate the Americans, he proved to be overtly un-diplomatic, as was illustrated in his eventual demand that scalping and extermination be used on the rebellious colonists. He was clumsy and lacked grace, his language was direct and coarse if animated, but nevertheless it could be effective in parliament where Johnstone was recognised as a good orator. A proud man who followed his own course, his friends found him generous and loyal and he was even apparently able to display friendship to his enemies. Nevertheless, his conduct towards Captain Sutton illustrated that he was totally shameless in looking to his own interests.