1711-1794. He was born in Weymouth and baptised on 6 March 1712, the second son of Robert Arbuthnot and of his wife, Sarah Bury.
On 27 February 1726, Arbuthnot entered the Navy as a volunteer aboard the guardship Prince Frederick 70, Captain Edward Falkingham, remaining with that vessel for the usual three years. On 25 April 1733 he was appointed a midshipman aboard the Princess Amelia 80, Captain Edward Reddish, and in November he transferred to the Princess Louisa 40, Captain Thomas Bradley, where he remained until the end of the following year. He then spent eight months aboard the Winchelsea 36, Captain Vincent Pearce. Further service was aboard the Litchfield 50, Captain Sir Yelverton Peyton, which vessel was paid off in July 1736, and from August 1737 the Argyll 50, Captain Charles Dennison, in which he served some time as an acting lieutenant before leaving her in May 1739. A brief period followed aboard the Portland 50, Captains Hon. John Byng and Edward Hawke.
On 21 August 1739 he was commissioned lieutenant of the Tiger 50, Captain John Stanley, seeing service in home waters, and on 6 August 1740 he transferred to the Guernsey 50, Captain John Forbes, which was commissioning at Chatham. On 28 December 1743 he removed to the Somerset 80, Captain George Sclater, and he was present at the Battle of Toulon on 22 February 1744, remaining thereafter with that vessel until January 1745.
Arbuthnot was promoted commander of the sloop Jamaica 10 on 25 June 1746, and cruising in the Channel, he had the good fortune to take half a dozen French privateers within the space of six months including the Hermine on 10 October, the Boulogne-based Fly 6 on 12 October, which was taken into Weymouth, the Sérrione 12 on 11 November, the Boulogne cutter Furet 8 which was carried into Spithead, and the Mouche on 23 November. Similar success ensued in 1747 with his capture of the Dieppe-based Prudente Catherine on 15 March, which was taken into Cowes, and the Marie Ann on 15 June, whilst on 29 April the Jamaica chased the privateer Bellone from off Portland into path of the homeward-bound Advice 50, Captain Richard Haddock, to which she struck. A greater success had occurred just over two weeks previously on 12 April off St. Malo, when in company with the Surprise 24, Captain James Webb, the Jamaica had captured a richly laden South-Seas bound 36-gun French ship variously known as the Neptune or the Superbe. In a particularly bloody engagement, the French vessel put up a stout defence, suffering twenty-eight men killed and thirty-seven wounded in return for five men killed and seven wounded on the Surprise, and just one man wounded aboard the Jamaica, her low casualties being due to her arrival in the latter stages of the engagement. All three vessels were obliged to put into Guernsey in a shattered state, but the British were at least mollified by their share of the reported £70k prize money.
On 22 June 1747 Arbuthnot was posted captain of the Triton 24 in which he continued to cruise successfully, capturing the privateer Hornet 10 in October. During the same month his command was at Plymouth when news came in that the West Indies convoy had run into rough weather and had possibly been dispersed, and he was accordingly ordered to cruise in latitude 49-50N to meet any stragglers. Returning to her profitable cruising, the Triton captured the Reine on 6 November, the Bayonne privateer Tigre 14 to the west of the Lizard on 11 January 1748, and the Brest privateer Jean Joseph 16 days later, which vessel was taken into the Portland Roads. In April 1749 the Triton was fitting at Sheerness for the coast of Virginia, but after arriving at Plymouth on 23 May she instead sailed out to the Mediterranean.
On 12 October 1749 Arbuthnot was appointed to the Nightingale 20 in the Mediterranean. Six months later he became embroiled in a serious incident at Cadiz when seven Spanish soldiers were killed whilst attempting to seize a quantity of silver which hands from the Nightingale and two British merchantmen had been transporting to their respective ships. Taken prisoner with the merchant captains once the British had been overpowered, and being unsure as to how to proceed, Arbuthnot chose to remain in Spanish custody until the British consul was able to secure his release from confinement. The Nightingale ended her service in the Mediterranean when she arrived at Weymouth from Lisbon in November 1752 with a large quantity of money, and she was paid off at Deptford on 7 December.
Arbuthnot later commanded the Garland 20 from 5 June 1754, taking the governor of North Carolina out to Virginia from Plymouth in July, but enduring a terrible ten-week passage that saw his command dismasted and almost rendered a wreck. In 1755 he was brought to a court-martial on a series of charges by the Garland’s purser, the most serious of which was that of using the frigate to carry goods which he intended to re-sell. In the event, he was merely reprimanded for allowing two women to take passage from England to Virginia. Two days later, Arbuthnot had the purser arrested and clapped in irons for apparent drunkenness and embezzlement, on which charges the man was found partly guilty in relation to beer that had either been sold on or allowed to leak from the barrels.
Continuing in North American waters, the Garland visited New York in October 1755, and she carried several prizes into the Hampton Roads on 9 March 1756. During February 1757 she took a French ship bound from Marseilles to Cap François, reportedly valued at one hundred thousand dollars, although this estimate was later halved after the prize had been carried into New Providence. She remained on station at Virginia until September 1757, and Arbuthnot left her after returning home to pay her off in October.
On 15 November 1758 he was appointed to the Portland 50, going out to Portugal with a convoy and then proceeding to the Mediterranean during January 1759. In early April his command arrived at Leghorn with the remnants of the convoy, prior to collecting other merchant ships from that port. She was present at the Battle of Lagos on 19 August when two French sail of the line were destroyed and three captured, and on 15 September she arrived at Portsmouth with Admiral Hon. Edward Boscawen’s victorious fleet. During October she sailed from Portsmouth to Plymouth, and after fighting at the Battle of Quiberon Bay on 20 November she evidently required repairs, for she came out of the Hamoaze at Plymouth in February 1761 having been docked. During March she took an East Indiaman convoy out to St. Helena from the Devonshire port, visiting Madeira on passage, and she returned to the Downs with six homeward-bound East Indiamen on 20 September. It would then appear that on 5 October Arbuthnot was appointed to the Modeste 64, although if so, this was for but a very brief period.
On 11 November 1761Arbuthnot was appointed to the Orford 66, taking a couple of small prizes in the Bay of Biscay and giving passage home from Lisbon at the end of January 1762 to the British ambassador to Madrid, the Earl of Bristol. She then went out to the West Indies with a three-hundred strong convoy from Portsmouth on 24 February, and she was present at the reduction of Havana in the summer. On 6 November she arrived at Kingston with Commodore Hon. Augustus Keppel’s squadron, and shortly afterwards, in the company of several other men-of-war, she took two Spanish vessels bound from Caracas to Spain which were reportedly worth a considerable amount of money. Raising a commodore’s broad pennant in command of six sail of the line, Arbuthnot conveyed the five Spanish sail of the line taken at Havana to England, and following their arrival, his own vessel was paid off 20 September 1763.
In March 1764 it was rumoured that he would sail for the East Indies with six sail of the line and two frigates to relieve Vice-Admiral Samuel Cornish, but an appointment did not take place, and instead he was to spend the next six year on the beach.
During the Falkland Islands dispute with Spain in the latter part of 1770, Arbuthnot commissioned the new Terrible 74 at Portsmouth in October, and he retained her as a guardship for three years until 28 September 1773. In the course of this duty, he received orders at the end of May 1772 to take three other sail of the line under his command and cruise in the Bay of Biscay, and on 17 June these vessels were ordered to Plymouth to cruise under the orders of Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Spry. In November he assumed command at Portsmouth when Vice-Admiral Thomas Pye left to attend Parliament, and in December the Terrible entered the harbour to be docked. On the following 4 July, she sailed with Admiral Spry’s squadron of seven sail of the line on another summer cruise, returning to port a month later.
In the latter part of July 1775 Arbuthnot was appointed the commissioner of the navy at Halifax, Nova Scotia, with a commodore’s broad pennant, and he was also installed as the lieutenant-governor of the province. Fears that Halifax might have fallen to the colonial forces before he could arrive proved premature, and after arriving aboard the Roebuck at the end of the year following a passage of six weeks, he was immediately involved in strengthening his station’s defences. Gradually the threat against Halifax receded, and by the autumn of 1776 he had fitted out the privateer Tiger at his own expense to cruise against the rebellious Americans, which she did with some success. On 23 January 1778 he was promoted rear-admiral, and he was recalled to England. Setting sail from Halifax on 15 August with his family aboard the Thetis 32, Captain John Gell, he arrived at Plymouth on 13 September, whereupon he travelled up to London and reported on the state of the colony to the King.
In January 1779 he sat on the court-martial of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel which investigated that officer’s conduct at the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778, and he was one of those members of the board who condemned Captain Lord Mulgrave for his ‘disrespectful’ language towards the court.
Towards the end of February 1779 Arbuthnot was appointed the commander-in-chief in North America in succession to the hopeless Rear-Admiral James Gambier, and having been further promoted vice-admiral on 29 March, he was under sailing orders at Portsmouth by 5 April with his flag aboard the Europe 64, Captain William Swiney. Five days later he dropped down to St. Helens with three other sail of the line and a huge convoy, but with rumours suggesting that a French force had been deployed to intercept him, and with a West Indies convoy also preparing to go to sea, he waited for reinforcements. Eventually setting sail on 1 May with an additional 50-gun ship and the escort of two further 74’s down the Channel, he learned the next morning of a French attempt on Jersey which he resolved to thwart by breaking his standing orders, a decision which the Admiralty would subsequently approve. After detaching the Experiment 50, Captain Sir James Wallace, to rendezvous with a force of frigates sent out from Portsmouth, he wrote to the Admiralty on 6 May advising that there was now a sufficient force to defeat the French invasion, and so he set off to rejoin his convoy at Torbay. Contrary winds prevented his sailing from the Devonshire coast for some time, and when he did depart at the end of the month, it was with an escort down the Channel of ten sail of the line commanded by Vice-Admiral George Darby. A difficult thirteen-week passage ensued, and thus he didn’t reach New York until 25 August, although during this voyage his squadron at least had the satisfaction of capturing a valuable Spanish ship bound from Havana to Cadiz. Meanwhile, newspaper reports suggested, incorrectly, that he had diverted to Jamaica.
Even as late as December 1779, newspapers were reporting that Arbuthnot had sailed for the West Indies amidst fears that Jamaica would be attacked, but instead he sailed on 26 December from New York to co-operate with General Sir Henry Clinton in an attempt to capture the port of Charleston. Unfortunately, unfavourable winds, the wrecking of the Defiance 64, and the inability of the larger men-of-war to negotiate the shallow inlets around Charleston prevented an early success, and after shifting his flag into the Roebuck 44, Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, Arbuthnot returned the larger ships to New York under Commodore Francis Samuel Drake. Eventually, the town was taken on 11 May 1780, for which achievement he received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. Meanwhile reports of his presence in the West Indies persisted through to March.
On 10 July 1780 the French captured Rhode Island with a force of seven sail-of-the-line, four large frigates and six thousand troops. After ruling out the possibility of an assault on the well-defended enemy position, much to the chagrin of General Clinton, Arbuthnot with nine sail-of-the-line stood off in Gardiner’s Bay at the north end of Long Island and kept a watch on the enemy’s movements until the following January.
On 14 September 1780, he was temporarily superseded in the command of the North American station by Admiral Sir George Rodney, the commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands fleet, who had arrived at New York with fourteen sail-of-the-line in pursuit of the French fleet under the Comte de Guichen, and who had written to Arbuthnot assuming command of his station. Arbuthnot was not enamoured at the idea of turning over his profitable command to another equally avaricious officer, and he remained insolent and insubordinate to Rodney until the interloper’s departure on 16 November, even though the latter tried to behave with uncharacteristic moderation. When Arbuthnot refused to be conciliated, Rodney had to refer the matter to the Admiralty who found in his favour. Somewhat indignantly, Arbuthnot considered himself censured and wrote to the Admiralty requesting to be relieved on the grounds of ill health.
Following Rodney’s departure for the West Indies, the new French commander, Commodore Charles des Touches, with seven sail of the line, took advantage of the temporary loss of three of Arbuthnot’s fleet to sail for the Chesapeake. Arbuthnot, with his flag in the Royal Oak 74, Captain William Swiney, to which he had removed the previous August, followed with eight sail of the line, and forty miles east of Cape Henry on 16 March 1781 attempted to force an action. In the event he only succeeded in allowing his three lead ships to be hammered by the whole French fleet whilst the rest of his command failed to enter the engagement. His tactics may have been of the worst order, but the French were obliged to withdraw to Rhode Island where Arbuthnot followed them. British casualties in the action numbered thirty men killed and seventy-three wounded, French casualties were seventy-two killed and one hundred and twelve wounded.
During his employment in North America Arbuthnot had suffered a good deal of ill health, and at various times had claimed loss of speech, loss of sight, and seizures. These afflictions, in addition to his poor record, eventually resulted in his recall, and on 3 July 1781 he sailed for England with his flag aboard the Roebuck 44, Captain John Orde, to arrive at Portsmouth on 1 August prior to going up to the Admiralty the next day. The newspapers reported that he had come home in ‘disgust’, and when he attended a levee with the King several days later and was afforded a two-hour conference, he apparently advised the monarch that the war could not be won, and that peace should be made.
He was never employed again, and at the end of the war in 1783 he travelled to France with his protégé, Captain Thomas Macnamara Russell, who unbeknown to Arbuthnot, was seeking to fight a duel with Captain Théobald-René, the Comte de Kergariou Locmaria, following the controversial engagement between the Hussar and the Sibylle on 22 January. When Arbuthnot discovered Russell’s intentions, he persuaded him to drop the matter.
Arbuthnot was promoted admiral on 1 February 1793, and he died at his house in Great Suffolk Street, Charing-Cross, London on 31 January 1794. He was buried at Wyke Regis, Dorset, on 19 February
He married Martha Taver on 25 July 1745 at Fleet in Dorset. They had two sons, John, who survived him, and the elder, Captain Charles Arbuthnot of the 82nd Regiment, who predeceased him. Arbuthnot left a share of his fortune to his widowed daughter-in-law Elizabeth, the offspring of Rev Joseph Rumney of Berwick-upon-Tweed. Both sons had been entered to the books of the Garland when Arbuthnot had commanded that vessel in North America during the late 1750’s. His address in later life was given as Mitcham in Surrey.
A jaunty, distinguished looking man, Arbuthnot was nevertheless barely adept in his profession and devoid of any tactical skill, being described as a ‘tactless, coarse, blustering, foul-mouthed bully’ who had only been given the command of the North American station through the refusal of more worthy officers to accept a post under the stewardship of the Earl of Sandwich, the first lord of the Admiralty. During his command of the American station he indulged in far more petty peculations than was the norm, one of which even involved sequestering money intended for the care of the sick. The undoubtedly vitriolic Captain William Young wrote that Arbuthnot’s secretary, a man by the name of Green, induced Arbuthnot to get involved in the forging of bills, the serving of condemned meals to prisoners of war, and the collection of extortionate profits from the sale of fresh beef to the fleet. Notwithstanding this greed, his failure to co-operate with General Sir Henry Clinton seriously retarded the British war effort in North America. A less unflattering opinion was given of his time in Nova Scotia, with him being regarded as ‘well-meaning, but optimistic and gullible’.