Admiral Benbow (I)
DESCRIPTION: Despite being badly outnumbered, Benbow prepares for battle (against the French), but captains Kirkby and Wade flee the contest. In the fight that follows, Benbow loses his legs, but orders his face to be turned toward the fight even as he dies
EARLIEST DATE: 1841
KEYWORDS: battle sea death abandonment
1702 - Death of Admiral John Benbow in battle in the West Indies
FOUND IN: Britain(England(South))
REFERENCES (8 citations):
CopperSeason, pp. 266-267, "Admiral Benbow" (1 text, 1 tune)
PBB 76, "The Death of Admiral Benbow" (1 text)
Sharp-100E 87, "Admiral Benbow" (1 text, 1 tune)
KarpelesCrystal 81, "Admiral Benbow" (1 text, 1 tune)
Chappell/Wooldridge II, pp. 92-93, "Admiral Benbow" (1 text, 1 tune)
DT, ADBENBOW* ADBENBW2
ADDITIONAL: Bertrand Bronson, "Samuel Hall's Family Tree,'" article published in the _California Folklore Quarterly_ (1942); also published in Bertrand Harris Bronson, _The Ballad as Song_ (essays on ballads), University of California Press, 1969, pp. 18-36; republished on pp. 30-47 of Norm Cohen, editor, _All This for a Song_, Southern Folklife Collection, 2009. The article discusses "Sam Hall," "Captain Kidd,,""Admiral Benbow," and related songs, with all or part of 16 texts and 9 tunes
C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 149, "The Death of Admiral Benbow" (1 text)
NOTES [701 words]: The story outlined here is true in its general details. John Benbow (1653-1702), commanding the British in the West Indies, and was mortally wounded in battle with the French after two of his captains deserted him (the two were later tried and executed for cowardice). The battle took place off Cartagena (the one in Columbia, not the one in Spain; Mahan, p. 207). Benbow became a naval hero, and several later battleships were named for him.
One version of the story is briefly told in Herman, pp. 245-246. Herman argues that Benbow was wrong and his captains right: The British squadron of six ships was not strong enough to fight the French. But Benbow (who lost only his right leg, not both) lived long enough to order the court martial of the rebellious officers. The leader, Richard Kirkby of the Defiant, was executed, as was one of the other captains. This firmly established the principle of obedience to orders no matter how stupid.
Not everyone agrees with Herman's interpretation. Woodman devotes pp. 48-58 to Benbow and his subordinates, and draws a very different picture. Benbow was a very unusual admiral, in that he was a "tarpaulin" officer -- that is, one drawn from the ranks of the sailors, rather than a noble who went straight into the officer class (Woodman, p. 48). He didn't even come up through the naval ranks; he had gone to sea as a merchant sailor, and risen to captain, and then been offered a naval command by James II because he had done an impressive job of beating off a pirate attack (Brumwell/Speck, p. 48).
That background as a merchant sailor and a privateer as well as in the navy, and seems to have developed a very high opinion of his own judgment as a result (Woodman, p. 49). Woodman, p. 49, says that the French fleet under Ducasse had a fleet with a total of 258; Benbow's force he lists as having 456 guns. If true, then Benbow's decision to attack was reasonable.
Bruce/Cogar, p. 40, sum up Benbow's career as follows: "Although Benbow came to be regarded as a hero in popular legend, there remains a doubt about his place in British naval history and whether his high reputation was well deserved."
Clark, p. 317, summarizes the whole incident as follows: "Vice-Admiral John Benbow, with seven English ships, had a good opportunity of attacking a weaker French squadron which remained to operate against English and Dutch commerce. Unfortunately four of his captain failed to join the fight, and it was a failure. Benbow was mortally wounded. Two of the captains were court martialed and shot. There is a still popuar folk-song about this dramatic but unimportant event."
Brumwell/Speck, pp. 48-49, also considers Benbow's squadron superior to the French, and speculates that his officers refused orders because they considered him their social inferior.
Stokesbury, p. 108, also declares the French squadron "weak." He makes the interesting note that Benbow's story did not immediately inspire firm obedience by future captains; in 1708. Admiral Wager could not make his captains fight at Porto Bello.
Most texts of this fit the tune of "Captain Kidd" (and the only one I've seen which doesn't appears to have been fiddled with), though the tune in Chappell isn't quite the standard "Captain Kidd." It is also said to be used for "A Virgin Most Pure." We might note that Kidd went to the scaffold at the time Benbow was fighting his fight with the French.
This is not the only song about Benbow; Firth (who calls this one "The Death of Admiral Benbow") prints another, "Admiral Benbow," on p. 148. That is said to date from at least 1784, though it appears less popular than this (which seems to have first been printed in Halliwell's Early Naval Ballads). And Benbow's 1693 attack on St. Malo is the subject of "The Siege of St. Malo."
Benbow's reputation as a stickler seems to have been richly deserved; in addition to his conduct in the battle that caused his death, he was tough on people who showed up in the West Indies without leave -- even if they were subjects of the British crown! When the Scottish Darien expedition resulted in disaster, a shipful of colonists fled to the Indies -- and were refused help by Benbow (Thomson, p. 88). - RBW
Last updated in version 5.0
- Bruce/Cogar: Anthony Bruce and William Cogar, An Encyclopedia of Naval History, 1998 (I use the 1999 Checkmark edition)
- Brumwell/Speck: Stephen Brumwell and W. A. Speck, Cassell's Companion to Eighteenth-Century Britain, Cassell & Co., 2001
- Clark: G. N. Clark, The Later Stuarts 1660-1714, corrected edition, Oxford, 1944
- Herman: Arthur Herman, To Rule the Waves: How the British Navy Shaped the Modern World, 2004 (I use the 2005 Harper Perennial edition)
- Mahan: Alfred Thayer Mahan, The Influence of Sea Power Upon History 1660-1783, 1890 (mine is a reprint edition, but -- astonishingly -- it does not say who is the modern publisher!)
- Stokesbury: James L. Stokesbury, Navy & Empire, Morrow, 1983
- Thomson: Oliver Thomson, The Great Feud: The Campbells & The Macdonalds, Sutton Publishing, 2000
- Woodman: Richard Woodman, A Brief History of Mutiny, Carroll & Graf, 2005.
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