The Admiral Benbow: The Life and Times of a Naval Legend

Jeremy Black enjoys a biography of a naval pioneer

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Reviewed by: Jeremy Black
Author: Sam Willis
Publisher: Quercus
Price (RRP): £20

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In this, the second of his promising Hearts of Oak trilogy exploring iconic but largely unexplored stories of the ‘Great Age of Sail’, the talented Sam Willis sets himself a tougher challenge than in the first, The Fighting Temeraire (2009).

That first-rate biography of a ship dealt with a subject that is better known than the heroic career of Admiral John Benbow, who won great fame from his ‘Last Fight’ in 1702 when he engaged a French squadron off the Spanish Main.

A large fleet had been sent to the Caribbean the previous year as Spain was no longer the British ally she had been in the Nine Years’ War (1688–97). Seizure of her treasure offered profit to naval commanders, bullion for Britain, and the dislocation of the Bourbon financial system.

French warships, however, convoyed the treasure ships and fought Benbow off Santa Marta on 19–24 August 1702. Before Benbow was fatally injured by a chain-shot, he had lost control of his captains, and most failed to give him sufficient support in the battle.

This failure fed into a politicised controversy over the state of the navy, and two of the captains were court-martialled and shot, which helped to encourage a sense of duty, but also risked leading to caution and buck-passing. As Willis points out, there was a more general concern about naval command.

Indeed, in 1708 when Charles Wager more successfully attacked the Spanish treasure ships off Cartagena, two of his captains were court-martialled and dismissed for failing to press home the pursuit.

Willis successfully positions his account of the battle as the culmination of a biography that throws much light on the Royal Navy in the later Stuart period as well as indicating the difficulties of making a career in this period.

He makes it clear that there is so much more to Benbow than his last fight. Benbow was involved in ship design, high-level strategic decisions, the construction of Greenwich Hospital and the Eddystone Lighthouse, corsair control, and pirate hunting, which was crucially important in the protection of the trade on which the navy depended.

There is also a fascinating discussion of Benbow’s posthumous importance and reputation, notably in the 18th and 19h centuries respectively. As far as the former was concerned, Benbow’s heroism was linked to the aggressive fighting spirit shared by Hawke and Nelson. In 1838, a three-act play called Admiral Benbow opened, and ships named HMS Benbow were launched in 1813, 1885 and 1913.

One of the best naval biographies to appear for many years. 

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Jeremy Black is the author of Naval Power (Palgrave, 2009)