Sir Charles Brisbane

1769-1829. Descended from a long-established Renfrewshire family living in Bishopton, south of the River Clyde, he was the fourth son of Admiral John Brisbane and his wife, Mary Young. His youngest brother was Commodore Sir James Brisbane, and of his other brothers Captain John Brisbane drowned in 1782, Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Brisbane was killed on San Domingo in 1795, and Commander William Brisbane died on 29 November 1795 whilst commanding the prison ship Aurore at Gibraltar.

Brisbane entered the navy in late 1779 aboard the Alcide 74, captained by his father, and fought at the Moonlight Battle of Cape St. Vincent on 18 January 1780 and at the subsequent relief of Gibraltar by Admiral Sir George Rodney. The Alcide later went out to the West Indies where she again served under the orders of Rodney before Captain Brisbane returned home with dispatches in November, presumably taking Charles with him.

During the summer of 1781 Captain Brisbane recommissioned the Hercules 74 in home waters to participate in the Channel Fleet’s June-November campaign, but when this ship was ordered out to the West Indies at the end of the year his health obliged him to resign the command to Captain Henry Savage. Nevertheless, as Captain Brisbane was keen for Charles to progress his career on an active station, he placed his son under the care of the Hercules’ first lieutenant, William Nowell. Fighting at the Battle of the Saintes on 12 April 1782, the junior Brisbane suffered a serious splinter wound in his back which knocked him senseless, but he earned great admiration for returning to the deck before the end of the engagement. Subsequently he suffered almost a year of disability, being bent almost double.

Sir Charles Brisbane

Throughout the peace he remained employed, joining the Newfoundland-bound Thorn 16, Captain William Lechmere, in 1784, then the Druid 32, Captain George Anson Byron, which was employed in anti-smuggling operations off Cornwall until the spring of 1785. He afterwards served from 1786 aboard the Plymouth guardship Powerful 74, Captain Andrew Sutherland, the Adamant 50, Captain David Knox, which saw duty as the flagship of Rear-Admiral Sir Richard Hughes in Newfoundland from the spring of 1789, the Weazel 12, Commander Herbert Browell, and the Portsmouth guardship Colossus 74, Captain Hugh Cloberry Christian. On 18 November 1790 he was awarded his lieutenant’s commission, having been previously given an acting appointment by Hughes, and he joined the Brunswick 90, Captain Sir Hyde Parker, before moving on a year later to the fireship Spitfire, Commander John Woodley, which was employed in the preventative service off the South Wales coast.

In 1793 Brisbane was appointed to the frigate Meleager 32, Captain Charles Tyler, which for the next year served in the Mediterranean under the orders of Admiral Lord Hood. During the occupation of Toulon from August to December he commanded Fort des Pomet, which was some five miles from the city, until he was obliged to blow it up in the face of the French advance. He later served under Captain Horatio Nelson at the reduction of Bastia during the Corsican campaign from February 1794, suffering a serious wound to his left eye from an iron shot that had struck his gun, and which left him hospitalised aboard the Alcide 74, Captain Woodley, for six weeks. He was subsequently employed for a short period upon the Britannia 100, Captain John Holloway, the flagship of Vice-Admiral William Hotham in the Mediterranean.

After the French fleet had been chased into the Golfe Jouan on 12 June 1794, Brisbane volunteered to employ the captured sloop Tarleton as a fire-ship in an attack upon the enemy, but he was frustrated by the weather and ultimately the French defences, which were found to be too formidable. As a reward for his noble efforts, he was promoted commander on 1 July by Admiral Lord Hood and appointed to the Tarleton, which was rated as a 14-gun sloop. Thereafter he remained in employment off Genoa, and his vessel was present at the Battle of Genoa on 13-14 March 1795.

Transferring shortly after the battle to the sloop Moselle 16, Brisbane was sent to join a squadron under Captain Horatio Nelson of the Agamemnon 64, otherwise consisting of two frigates and a cutter, which was supporting the Austrian army at Vado Ligure, to the west of Genoa. Here on 7 July 1795 the squadron was pursued by five French sail of the line from Toulon, and Brisbane’s dull sailing sloop only escaped by navigating a tight passage off Cape Corse which the larger French ships could not make, although he did make preparations to burn his command should she ground or be captured. On 29 September, in company with the Southampton 32, Captain James Macnamara, he unsuccessfully chased the French frigate Vestale 36, which together with three corvettes had fought the British frigate off Genoa.

In the spring of 1796, whilst escorting two troopships from Gibraltar to Barbados, the Moselle fell in with a Dutch squadron, and surmising that they were bound for the Cape Brisbane immediately sent his charges on their passage and of his own initiative sailed thither to warn Vice-Admiral Sir George Keith Elphinstone of the threat to his command. On 17 August he was present at the capture of the Dutch ships in Saldanha Bay, and he was promoted captain by Elphinstone the next day, being appointed to the Dutch flagship Dordrecht 64, which became a guardship at the Cape. In the meantime, during his absence from the Mediterranean, he had also received a posting dated 22 July to the frigate Nemesis 28 from the new commander-in-chief on that station, Admiral Sir John Jervis. As a reward from the Admiralty for his prompt action in warning Elphinstone of the Dutch expedition his seniority was taken from the date of Jervis’ appointment, 22 July.

In October 1796 Rear-Admiral Thomas Pringle took command at the Cape and brought Brisbane aboard the Tremendous 74 to take over from Captain John Aylmer, who had gone home with despatches. This was but a short commission, for not long afterwards Brisbane was appointed to the twelve-pounder frigate Oiseau 36, which had been captured as the Cléopâtre by Captain Edward Pellew’s Nymphe in the first frigate action of the war. On 15 January 1797 he sent a Dutch East Indiaman from Batavia under American colours valued at three hundred thousand guineas into the Cape, and he later embarked on a cruise off the Rio de la Plata where he encountered two Spanish frigates. The circumstances of his withdrawal from these vessels were later subject to much conjecture, with some reports stating that the Oiseau had received a good deal of damage in chasing the Spaniards off, whilst others claimed that Brisbane had fled an engagement with every sail set.

After his return to the Cape in June 1797 Brisbane continued with the Oiseau before moving back to the Dordrecht in January 1798 in order to escort a merchant fleet to St. Helena. Here news was received of the fleet mutinies in England, resulting in an outbreak of dissidence aboard his own vessel which Brisbane, with the help of his officers, quelled by the force of his own personality, and more demonstrably by the threat to string up one mutineer with his own hands. Returning to the Cape, he once more became flag-captain to Pringle aboard the Tremendous 74, which itself had been subject to a mutiny in October 1797, with Captain George Hopewell Stephens and the officers being turned ashore. In the early spring of 1798 Brisbane departed the Cape in command of the frigate Crescent 36 flying Pringle’s flag, and in the second week of May he arrived at the Admiralty in London to deliver dispatches from the new commander-in-chief at the Cape, Rear-Admiral Hugh Cloberry Christian. The Crescent was paid off in July and Brisbane remained ashore for the best part of the next three years.

In January 1801 it was reported that he had been appointed to the Carnatic 74, but he did not join that vessel as she was still in the West Indies under Captain Edward Tyrell Smith. Instead, in May he was appointed to the eighteen-pounder frigate Doris 36, seeing service off Brest under the orders of Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis, and commanding the inshore squadron of frigates with his own vessel positioned three miles from the enemy, and her watch boat half as close again. In June he took to the Doris’ cutter and was rowed into Brest to evaluate the French dispositions with a view to burning their fleet, during which reconnaissance he remained on the water for four hours. Sent home with dispatches on 16 June, he arrived at Falmouth aboard the cutter Dolly three days later and on 21 June reported to the Admiralty in London.

Once Brisbane was back with the Inshore Squadron off Brest, a number of his men participated in Lieutenant Keith Maxwell’s brilliant cutting out of the French sloop Chevrette 20 from Camaret Bay on 22 July 1801, following which the Doris entered Plymouth four days later with the prize and the wounded men from the enterprise. On 6 August she set off for the Channel Fleet once more, and later that month she escorted four fireships to join Commodore Sir Edward Pellew’s squadron off Rochefort where an attack on six sail of the line and several frigates had been contemplated, although in the event such an attack was not undertaken. Towards the end of September tragedy struck when upon returning from a Spanish port near Corunna under a flag of truce, the Doris’ cutter overset in a squall and eight men were drowned including a lieutenant by the name of Ross. Sadly for the Doris’ wardroom, the latter’s loss followed the death just weeks earlier of another lieutenant, a Mr Burke, who had succumbed at Plymouth to typhus caused by wounds incurred at the taking of the Chevrette. The Doris continued to cruise off the Portuguese and Spanish coasts throughout October, she was at Spithead in early November, and in January 1802 was ordered from Portsmouth to join Rear-Admiral Cuthbert Collingwood’s division of the Channel Fleet at Torbay.

An image believed to depict the cutting out of the Chevrette in 1801

In February 1802 Brisbane joined the eighteen-pounder frigate Trent 36 in succession to the disgraced Captain Sir Edward Hamilton, and on 14 February he sailed for Jamaica with urgent dispatches to arrive on 29 March. Here he transferred briefly to the Sans Pareil 80 before exchanging with Captain William Essington of the Goliath 74 on the same station in July, by which time the French Revolutionary War had drawn to an end. This vessel was one of six sail of the line that arrived at Halifax on 14 September after a six-week voyage from the Jamaican station, during which she was struck by lightning at a cost of two men killed and fourteen wounded. After effecting repairs, she then departed for Jamaica in the following month rather than return to England, as had been expected.

On 28 June 1803, and following the resumption of hostilities, the Goliath captured the becalmed French corvette Mignonne 16 off Cape Nicholas Mole. Having been ordered home from Jamaica with a convoy in the company of the Calypso 16, Commander William Venour, the fleet was overtaken by a hurricane on 30 July off the Azores which caused the loss of the sloop with all hands after she had been fouled by another vessel. In the same storm twenty-one of the merchant vessels were dismasted. The Goliath arrived at Portsmouth on 26 August having deposited what remained of the convoy in the Downs, and Brisbane was notably thanked in the newspapers by the proprietors of Lloyds of London and the merchant captains for the attention shown to their ships during the desperate voyage home.

By the beginning of October 1803 the Goliath had come out of dock and her masts were being hoisted in from the sheer hulk, much to the approval of the Press who heralded the efforts of the crew in getting her ready for service in record time. On 7 November she made the signal at Portsmouth for the Gibraltar convoy, but although a day later her crew was completed by a draft from the Courageux 74, Captain John Okes Hardy, which had just been paid off on her return from the Caribbean, the convoy pendant was then removed and transferred to the Argo 44, Captain Benjamin Hallowell. Shortly afterwards the Goliath set sail from Portsmouth under sealed orders, and on 9 December she attacked a French squadron of gunboats which was working along the coast near Sables d’Olonne, capturing one and driving the other dozen ashore under the fire of the enemy batteries. With Christmas approaching the Goliath was to be found at Spithead, and once back off the French coast her boats assisted in the cutting out of a captured British merchant brig under the batteries of La Rochelle in January 1804 with the loss of a marine lieutenant and naval lieutenant, along with another marine.

At the end of January 1804 the Goliath sent a Dutch East Indiaman laden with coffee into Plymouth, and she was serving with the Channel Fleet under Admiral Hon. William Cornwallis in February before entering Plymouth on the 20th for a refit, having been at sea for four months, and with a number of men on the sick list for want of fresh vegetables. On 24 March she warped out of Plymouth in company with the Defiance 74, Captain Philip Durham, and sailed for Ferrol. During the summer she was employed off Rochefort under the orders of Vice-Admiral Sir Robert Calder, but in July Brisbane fractured two ribs and dislocated an arm when a man-rope failed as he was embarking on his command. In the middle of the same month the Goliath entered Plymouth from Rochefort and Lorient to undergo a refit, and after taking on bullocks and vegetables she sailed for the fleet at the beginning of August, although days later Brisbane took passage to Portsmouth from his station off Ferrol in a cutter to deliver dispatches to the Admiralty.

The Goliath subsequently joined the Inshore Squadron off Brest under Rear-Admiral Sir Thomas Graves in the autumn of 1804, which force had to put into Torbay on 19 October but was soon back on station. She returned to Torbay on 31 October with a large part of the Channel Fleet, went out again on 2 November, but was back with the fleet on 12 November. After going out again she was with the fleet when the Venerable 74, Captain John Hunter, went aground off Paignton on 24 November, with Brisbane sending off his boats to rescue the doomed ship’s crew. In December the Goliath was one of three ships of the line detached to the Irish station, reaching Cork on Christmas Eve, and remaining in these waters until 4 April when she sailed to rejoin the Channel Fleet off Brest

The capture of the Pomona off Havana in 1807

In April 1805 Brisbane was appointed to the eighteen-pounder frigate Arethusa 38 at Deptford, which at the beginning of August sailed down the Thames to Sheerness where she remained for the next two months. Sadly, in September a 14-year-old midshipman drowned when a boat belonging to the frigate overset at the Nore. After a brief cruise on the French coast the Arethusa entered Portsmouth in October and at the end of the month arrived at Cork where the West Indies convoy was congregating. On 12 December she sailed from the Irish port for the Caribbean in escort of a convoy of twenty-two ships in company with the Boadicea 38, Captain John Maitland, and the Wasp 14, Captain Buckland Stirling Bluett, but Brisbane separated with part of this fleet four days later to avoid Vice-Admiral Corentin Urbain Leissègues’ squadron of five sail of the line, two frigates and a corvette which had been discovered in the Atlantic some three-hundred miles north-west of Cape Ortegal. After dispatching his consorts to warn various British squadrons of the French position, the Arethusa and her charges arrived at Barbados towards the end of January 1806. Shortly afterwards the French force was defeated by Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth at the Battle of San Domingo on 6 February.

Early in May 1806 the Arethusa drove aground on the Coloradas Rocks off the north-west coast of Cuba and she was only heaved off after throwing all her guns overboard. Whilst still in this disarmed state a Spanish ship-of-the-line appeared in sight, but apparently not daring to tackle the frigate she made for Havana, thereby thwarting Brisbane in his professed determination to lay alongside her and board. After a refit at Jamaica the Arethusa returned to her station off Havana, but her crew was soon afflicted by a fever and she sailed for Bermuda to aid their recuperation. Back off Havana on 23 August, the Arethusa in company with the Anson 44, Captain Charles Lydiard, captured the Spanish frigate Pomona 34 within close range of a shore battery and twelve gunboats. During this action the battery blew up whilst attempting to ply heated shot on the British vessels, but only after it had inflicted some damage on the Arethusa, with Brisbane being severely wounded in his knees as one of thirty-two men wounded on the ship in addition to two men killed. The Pomona, which was found to be deeply laden despite having landed a good deal of cargo, was added to the Navy as the Cuba.

On 1 January 1807 whilst still in command of the Arethusa, Brisbane led a force of four frigates in the capture of the Dutch island of Curaçao in the southern Caribbean, the success being largely a result of taking the inebriated defenders by surprise whilst they were indulging in a New Year’s Eve revelry. At the behest of Vice-Admiral James Richard Dacres, the commander-in-chief at Jamaica, Brisbane acted as the governor of the island with a strong recommendation that he be appointed to the post permanently. The Arethusa briefly sailed for Jamaica with a frigate, corvette and schooner which had been taken at Curaçao, and after returning to the island with Admiral Dacres on 8 February she remained there. When news of the capture reached home, Brisbane was honoured with a knighthood on 10 April, but it was also announced that he would be superseded as governor by a diplomat, Sir James Cockburn. The issue of his displacement was discussed in the House of Commons that month, and it was resolved that the appointment of any military officer to a governorship of a conquered territory should remain temporary until a civilian governor could be installed. Having spent a great deal of his own money in furnishing the official residence, Brisbane thus found himself replaced by Cockburn on the new governor’s arrival in July.

In January 1808 the Arethusa returned to Jamaica from Curaçao, and on 1 May, having embarked between one million and two and a half million dollars from the Spanish Main, she set off for home with an eighty-five-ship convoy in the company of the sloop Wolf under the acting-command of Lieutenant Edmund Waller. Reports later suggested that the convoy scattered within days of its departure and some were captured, and after the Arethusa’s arrival at Portsmouth in the last week of June various claims stated that over two dozen merchant vessels were unaccounted for. On 1 July the Arethusa received orders to take a portion of the convoy around to the Downs, and after depositing them four days later she set sail within twenty-four hours for the Nore, prior to going up the Thames to enter dock at Sheerness. Within days of his arrival home Brisbane was presented to the King at the Queen’s Palace, and it was also announced that he had been appointed to the Blake 74, although it is unlikely that he even joined this ship. On 20 August he was further honoured with a dinner at Southampton where he was elected an honorary burgess of the Corporation.

On 8 October 1808 it was announced that Brisbane had been appointed the governor and commander-in-chief of the island of St. Vincent, and in November he attended a small levee with the King at the Queen’s House before being introduced to the Privy Council to be sworn in to his new position. Shortly afterwards he departed his residence in Berkeley Square for Portsmouth with his family, and after remaining windbound in early December he took up his post at St. Vincent on 21 January. From July 1810 until August 1812 he took leave in England, attending a levee at Carlton House for the Prince Regent in March prior to his return to the Caribbean, and he was also in England from July 1816 until December 1817 when he took the opportunity to visit France at the beginning of the latter year. Meanwhile on 2 January 1815 he had been created a K.C.B. and on 12 August 1819 he became a rear-admiral.

On 14 November 1829 Admiral Brisbane died on St. Vincent after a short illness which was described as an inflammatory disorder.

On 14 June 1792 He married Sarah Patey, the daughter of Sir James Patey of Reading, and obituaries have stated that he had two sons, one of whom, Major Charles Baillie Brisbane entered the Army and a second, John William Douglas, the Navy, being posted captain in 1846. However, in the winter of 1811/12 it was reported that a third son, TSJ Brisbane, had recently died. He also had two daughters; Lavinia, who married Lieutenant-General John Frederick Ewart and had issue General Sir John Alexander Ewart and Lieutenant-General Charles Brisbane Ewart, and Arethusa. In 1806 his wife was residing at Mortimer near Reading.

Brisbane was fair-haired with heavy sideburns and of a slightly vain appearance. He was of middle height with a strong frame, and he was described as sound with an excellent intellect, although he had suffered from a want of education. In furnishing a history of his service to biographers, and even to the King, Brisbane allegedly added colour to his own exploits and detracted from those of his contemporaries. This was particularly the case in his relating of the attack on Curaçao, where he apparently not only denigrated the efforts of Captain James Athol Wood of the Anson, but also claimed to have personally hauled down the enemy colours. As a governor he sought to improve the religious and civil conditions of the slave workers on St. Vincent, and his influence put an end to the practice of the flogging of female slaves.