Admiral John Benbow
Victory Gate, Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, Portsmouth, England
Admiral John Benbow was the stuff of maritime legend. He chased pirates, he fought off the Barbary Corsairs and the magnificent naval fleets of Louis XIV of France, he designed ships, helped found Greenwich Hospital, and even sub-let his London home to the visiting Tsar Peter the Great of Russia (a sub-let John Benbow would come to regret as his royal tenant destroyed much of the house’s furniture and fittings during a very long and very boisterous party). And then there was his death in 1702. The Spanish War of Succession had broken out, and Benbow, in command of HMS Breda, engaged a French squadron off the Spanish Main. The ensuing battle was a disaster for Benbow. While the French had four warships, the British had seven. But the British forces were scattered and slow to regroup as battle loomed. Discipline had disappeared, communication broken down. When Benbow on the Breda lead the other ships into the fray, those other ships didn’t follow. Benbow was on his own. And despite knowing he’d lose, he fought on. Even when he was injured by a chain-shot, he fought on. In the end, it was that chain-shot that killed him. The wound wasn’t properly cleaned. So, for all that heroism, it’s no wonder the Royal Navy named the HMS Benbow after him in 1813, of which this was once the proud figurehead at the ship’s prow. Two more navy ships have been named after Benbow in the years since then, the original 1813 ship having fallen into disrepair and taken apart in 1895. And ships aren’t the only thing to be named after Admiral John Benbow. The inn that features in the first chapter of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1883 novel, ‘Treasure Island’, where Jim Hawkins finds Captain Flint’s treasure map, is called the Admiral Benbow. But John Benbow was a man whose ambition could make him cruel. In 1694, when British forces came under a wave of attack from French privateers John Benbow was charged by the British government to retaliate. He did so by loading a 300 tonne merchant ship with twenty thousand pounds of gunpowder, and with exploding mortars, shards of glass, metal bars and nails. This he sailed into the civilian harbour of Saint-Malo and detonated. The explosion was heard 100miles away, and a great many civilian lives were lost. Which perhaps wasn’t fair on the poor civilians of Saint-Malo. But a ‘successful retaliation’ nevertheless did wonders for Admiral John Benbow and his reputation back home.