1711-1794. He was born in Weymouth and baptised on 6 March 1712, the second son of Robert Arbuthnot and his wife Sarah Bury.
Arbuthnot was commissioned lieutenant in August 1739 and promoted commander of the sloop Jamaica 10 in June 1746. Cruising in the Channel, he had the good fortune to take half a dozen French privateers within the space of six months including the Furet and Fly.
On 22 June 1747, following his capture two months previously of the richly laden French frigate Superbe 36 in company with the Surprise 24, Captain James Webb, he was posted captain of the latter vessel. He removed shortly afterwards into the Triton 24, and he continued to cruise successfully, capturing a further three privateers in short order before going out to the Mediterranean and then the coast of Virginia in May 1749. From 1750-2 he commanded the Nightingale 20 in the Mediterranean.
He afterwards commanded the Garland 20 from 1754, taking her out to Virginia in July and returning home to pay her off in October 1757. In October 1758 he was appointed to the Portland 50, going out to the Mediterranean in January 1759 and commanding her at the Battles of Lagos on 19 August and Quiberon Bay on 20 November. In March 1761 he brought a convoy home from St. Helena, and thereafter joined the Orford 66 in August, taking a couple of small prizes in the Bay of Biscay before going out to the Leeward Islands in February 1762. He was present at the reduction of Havana in the summer of 1762, and conveyed the prizes home in command of six sail of the line.
During the Falkland Islands dispute Arbuthnot commissioned the new Terrible 74 at Portsmouth in October 1770, retaining her as a guardship thereafter for three years, and from 1775-8 he was commissioner of the navy at Halifax, Nova Scotia, also being employed as lieutenant-governor of the province for the latter two years. In January 1778 he was recalled to England upon his promotion to the rank of rear-admiral which occurred on the 23rd of that month, and the following year he sat on the court-martial of Admiral Hon. Augustus Keppel following the Battle of Ushant on 27 July 1778.
Arbuthnot was further promoted vice-admiral on 29 March 1779 and was appointed commander-in-chief in North America. He set sail for New York in the Europe 64, Captain William Swiney, with four other sail of the line and a huge convoy on 1 May, but was detoured by news of a French attempt on Jersey, which he was ordered to thwart. This resulted in the detachment of the Experiment 50, Captain Sir James Wallace, to rendezvous with a force of frigates sent out from Portsmouth and that officer’s subsequent victory over the French in Cancale Bay on 13 May 1779. Arbuthnot was thereafter detained with the convoy at Torbay by contrary winds for some time, and there being some concern that the delay would encourage a French attack on his ships he was eventually escorted out to sea at the end of the month by a fleet of ten sail of the line commanded by Vice-Admiral George Darby. Thus his convoy was late arriving in New York, not reaching the city until 25 August.
On 26 December he sailed from New York to co-operate with General Sir Henry Clinton in an attempt to capture the port of Charleston, but unfavourable winds, the wrecking of the Defiance 64 and the inability of the larger men-of-war to negotiate the shallow inlets prevented an early success. After shifting his flag into the Roebuck 44, Captain Sir Andrew Snape Hamond, and returning the larger ships to New York under Commodore Francis Samuel Drake, Arbuthnot directed the delayed assault from the sea on Charleston, and the town was eventually taken on 11 May 1780. This achievement led Arbuthnot to receive the thanks of both Houses of Parliament.
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.
In the meantime he had been 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 on 14 September 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 remained insolent and insubordinate to Rodney until the interloper’s departure on 16 November, even though the latter behaved 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 him 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 dismantled 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 time in North America Arbuthnot suffered a good deal of ill health, and on various occasions claimed loss of speech, loss of sight, and seizures. These afflictions, in addition to his poor record, eventually resulted in his recall, and on 4 July he sailed for England with his flag aboard the Roebuck 44, Captain John Orde, having been superseded by Rear-Admiral Thomas Graves.
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 became an admiral on 1 February 1793 and died at his house in Great Suffolk Street, Charing-Cross, London on 31 January 1794.
He had two sons, John, who survived him, and the elder, Captain Charles Arbuthnot of the 82nd Regiment who predeceased him, although Arbuthnot left a share of his fortune to his widowed daughter-in-law Elizabeth, the offspring of Rev Joseph Rumney of Berwick-upon-Tweed. His address was given as Mitcham in Surrey.
A jaunty, distinguished looking man Arbuthnot was nevertheless barely adapt 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’.