George Brydges Rodney (1718-1792)
George Brydges Rodney, 1st Baron Rodney, KB (bap. 13 February 1718 – 24 May 1792) was a British Royal Naval Officer. He is best known for his commands in the American War of Independence, particularly his victory over the French at the Battle of the Saintes in 1782. It is claimed that Rodney was the commander to have pioneered the tactic of “breaking the line”.
Rodney came from a distinguished but poor background and went to sea at the age of fourteen. His first major action was the Second Battle of Cape Finisterre in 1747.
Rodney made a large amount of prize money during the 1740s, allowing him to purchase a large country estate . During the Seven Years’ War Rodney was involved in a number of amphibious operations such as the raids on Rochefort and Le Harvre and the Siege of Louisbourg and became well-known for his role in the capture of Martinique in 1762. Following the Peace of Paris, Rodney’s financial situation stagnated, with him spending large sums of money pursuing his political ambitions. By 1774 he had run up large debts and was forced to flee Britain to avoid his creditors. He ended up imprisoned in a French Jail, where he was when war was declared in 1778. Thanks to a benefactor, Rodney was able to secure his release and returned to Britain where he was appointed to a new command.
Rodney successfully relieved Gibraltar, then under siege, defeating a Spanish fleet during the Moonlight Battle. He then proceeded to the West Indies where he became involved in a controversial Capture of Sint Eustatius in 1781. Later that year he briefly returned home suffering from ill health and during his absence the British lost the crucial Battle of the Chesapeake leading to the surrender at Yorktown.
To some Rodney was a controversial figure, accused of an obsession with prize money and nepotism. This was brought to a head in the wake of his taking of Sint Eustasisas for which he was heavily criticised in Britain. Orders for his recall had been sent when Rodney won a decisive victory at the Battle of the Saintes in April 1782, ending the French threat to Jamaica. On his return to Britain, Rodney was made a peer and was awarded an annual pension of £2,000. He lived in retirement until his death in 1792.
The use of Rodney as a first name originates with the Admiral, becoming a popular name for boys at the end of the eighteenth century.
George Brydges Rodney believed to have been born in Walton-on-Thames, though the family seat was Rodney Stoke, Somerset. He was most likely born sometime in January 1718 . There is a house still standing in Church Street Walton-on-Thames called Admiral Rodney House as it is believed to be the house where he was born.
Rodney was the third of four surviving children of Henry Rodney and Mary Rodney (born Mary Newton). His father had served in Spain under the Earl of Peterborough during the War of the Spanish Succession, and on leaving the army served as captain in a marine corps which was disbanded in 1713. A major investment in the South Sea Company ruined Henry Rodney and impoverished the family. In spite of their lack of money, the family was well-connected by marriage. It is sometimes claimed that Henry Rodney had served as commander of the Royal Yacht of George I and it was after him that George was named, but this had been discounted more recently.
George was sent to Harrow School, being appointed, on leaving, by warrant dated 21 June 1732, a volunteer on board Sunderland.
After serving with the Sunderland, Rodney switched to the Dreadnought where he served from 1734 to 1737 under Captain Henry Medley who acted as a mentor to him. Around this time he spent eighteen months stationed in Lisbon, a city he would later return to several times. He then changed ships several times, taking part in the navy’s annual trip to protect the British fishing fleet off Newfoundland in 1738.
He rose swiftly through the ranks of the navy helped by a combination of his own talents and the patronage of the Duke of Chandos. While serving on the Mediterranean station he was made lieutenant in Dolphin, his promotion dating 15 February 1739. He then served on the Namur, the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief Sir Thomas Mathews.
The War of the Austrian Succession had broken out by this point and in August 1742 Rodney had his first taste of action when he was ordered by Matthews to take a smaller vessel and launch a raid on Ventimiglia where the Spanish army had stockpiled supplies and stores ready for a planned invasion of Britain’s ally the Republic of Genoa, which he successfully accomplished. Shortly after this, he attained the rank of post-captain, having been appointed by Matthews to the Plymouth on 9 November. He picked up several British merchantmen in Lisbon to escort them home, but lost contact with them in heavy storms. Once he reached Britain his promotion was confirmed, making him one of the youngest Captains in the navy.
After serving in home waters learning about convoy protection he was appointed to the newly-built Ludlow Castle which he used to blockade the Scottish coast during the Jacobite Rebellion in 1745. Two of Rodney’s midshipman aboard the Ludlow Castle were Samuel Hood, later to become a distinguished sailor, and Rodney’s younger brother James Rodney. In 1746 he obtained command of the 60-gun Eagle. After some time spent blockading French-occupied Ostend and cruising around the Western Approaches, where on 24 May he took his first prize a 16-gun Spanish privateer, the Eagle was sent to join the Western Squadron.
Battle of Cape Finisterre
The Western Squadron was a new strategy by Britain’s naval planners to operate a more effective blockade system of France by stationing the Home Fleet in the Western Approaches, where they could guard both the English channel and the French Atlantic coast.
The Eagle continued to take prizes while stationed with the Squadron being involved directly, or indirectly, in the capture of sixteen enemy ships. After taking one of the captured prizes to Kinsale in Ireland, the Eagle wasn’t present at the First Battle of Cape Finisterre when the Western Squadron commanded by Lord Anson won a significant victory over the French. While returning from Ireland, the Eagle fell in with a small squadron under Commodore Thomas Fox which sighted a French merchant convoy heading for the Bay of Biscay. In total around 48 merchantmen were taken by the squadron, although Rodney ignored an order of Fox by pursuing several ships which had broken away from the rest in an attempt to escape managing to capture six of them. Afterwards the Eagle rejoined the Western Squadron now under the command of Edward Hawke.
On 14 October 1747 the ship took part in the Second Battle of Cape Finisterre a victory off Ushant over the French fleet. The French were trying to escort an outgoing convoy from France to the West Indies and had eight large ships-of-the-line while the British had fourteen smaller ships. Rodney was at the rear of the British line, and the Eagle was one of the last British ships to come into action engaging the French shortly after noon. Initially the Eagle was engaged with two French ships, but one moved away and for next two hours battle Rodney engaged the seventy gun Neptune until his steering wheel was struck by a lucky shot, and his ship became unmanageable. Rodney later complained that Thomas Fox in the Kent had failed to support him, and testified at Fox’s court martial. The British took six of the eight French ships, but were unable to prevent most of the merchant convoy escaping, although much of it was later taken in the West Indies.
The two Battles of Cape Finisterre had proved a vindication of the Western Squadron strategy. Rodney later often referred to “the good old discipline” of the Western Squadron, using it as an example for his own views on discipline. For the remainder of the war Rodney took part in further cruises, and took several more prizes. Following the Congress of Breda, an agreement was signed at the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ending the war. Rodney took his ship back to Plymouth where it was decommissioned on 13 August 1748. Rodney’s total share of prize money during his time with the Eagle was £15,000 giving him financial security for the first time in his life.
On 9 May 1749 he was appointed governor and commander-in-chief of Newfoundland, with the rank of Commodore, it being usual at that time to appoint a naval officer, chiefly on account of the fishery interests. He was given command of the Rainbow and had two smaller ships under his overall command. It was extremely difficult for naval officers to secure commands in peacetime, and Rodney’s appointment suggests that he was well-regarded by his superiors. Rodney’s role as Governor was rather limited. Each summer a large British fishing fleet sailed for Newfoundland, where it took part in the valuable cod trade. The fleet then returned home during the winter. Rodney oversaw three such trips to Newfoundland between 1749 and 1751.
Around this time Rodney began to harbour political ambitions and gained the support of the powerful Duke of Bedford and Lord Sandwich. He stood unsuccessfully in a 1750 by-election in Launceston. He was elected MP for Saltash, a safe seat controlled by the Admiralty, in 1751. After his third and final trip to Newfoundland in the summer of 1751 Rodney sailed home via Spain and Portugal, escorting some merchantmen. Once home he fell ill, and was then unemployed for around ten months. During this time he oversaw the development of an estate at Old Alresford in Hampshire, which he had bought with the proceeds of his prize money. In 1753 he married his first wife, Jane Compton (1730–1757), sister of Charles Compton, 7th Earl of Northampton. He had initially been undecided whether to marry Jane or her younger sister Kitty who he had met in Lisbon, where their father Charles Compton was consul, during his various visits to the city. The marriage proved happy, and they had three children together before she died in January 1757. From 1753 Rodney commanded a series of Portsmouth guard ships without actually having to go to sea before the onset of the Seven Years War.
Seven Years War
Portrait of Rodney by Joshua Reynolds showing him after his appointment as a Rear Admiral in 1759.
The first fighting broke out in North America in 1754, with competing British and French forces clashing in the Ohio Country. Despite this fighting formal war wasn’t declared in Europe until 1756 and opened with a French attack on Minorca, the loss of which was blamed on Admiral John Byng who was court-martialled and executed. He was shot on the quarterdeck of the Monarch, which until recently had been commanded by Rodney. Rodney excused himself from serving on the court martial by pleading illness. While Rodney disapproved of Byng’s conduct, he thought the death sentence excessive and unsuccessfully worked for it to be commuted.
Rodney had in 1755 and 1756, taken part in preventive cruises under Hawke and Edward Boscawen. In 1757, he took part in the expedition against Rochefort, commanding the 74-gun battleship Dublin. After an initial success, the expedition made no serious attempt on Rochefort and sailed for home. Next year, in the same ship, he was ordered to serve under Boscawen as part of an attempt to capture the strategic French fortress of Louisbourg in North America. He was given the task of carrying Major General Jeffrey Amherst, the expedition’s commander to Louisbourg. On the way Rodney captured a French East Indiamen, and took it into Vigo. This action saw the beginning of criticism of Rodney that he was obsessed with prize money ahead of strategic importance, with some claiming he spent two weeks or more in Vigo making sure of his prize money instead of carrying Amherst to Louisbourg. This appears to be untrue, as Rodney sailed within four days from Vigo.
Rodney and his ship played a minor role in the taking of Louisburg, which laid the way open for a British campaign up the St Lawrence River the following year, and the fall of Quebec. In August 1758 Rodney sailed for home in charge of six warships and ten transports carrying the captured garrison of Louisbourg who were being taken to Britain as prisoners of war.
On 19 May 1759 he became a Rear Admiral and shortly afterwards he was given command of a small squadron. The admiralty had received intelligence that the French had gathered at Le Havre, at the mouth of the River Seine, a large number of flat-bottomed boats and stores which were being collected there for an invasion of the British Isles. After drawing up plans for an attack on Le Havre, Lord Anson briefed Rodney in person. The operation was intended to be a secret with it being implied that Rodney’s actual destiniation was Gibraltar. This soon became impossible to maintain as Rodney tried to acquire pilots who knew the Normandy coast.
Rodney received his final orders on 26 June, and by 4 July he was off Le Havre. His force includes six bomb-vessels which could fire at a very high trajectoy. In what become known as the Raid on Le Havre, he bombarded the town for two days and nights, and inflicted great loss of war-material on the enemy. The bomb ships fired continuously for fifty two hours, starting large fires. Rodney then withdrew to Spithead, leaving several ships to blockade the mouth of the Seine. Although the attack hadn’t significantly affected French plans, it proved a morale boost in Britain. In August Rodney was again sent to Le Havre with similar orders but through a combination of weather and improved French defences he was unable to get his bomb-vessels into position, and the Admiralty accepted his judgement that a further attack was impossible. The invasion was ultimately cancelled because of French naval defeats at the Battle of Lagos and Battle of Quiberon Bay.
From 1759 and 1761 Rodney concentrated on his blockade of the French coast, particularly around Le Havre. In July 1760, with another small squadron, he succeeded in taking many more of the enemy’s flat-bottomed boats and in blockading the coast as far as Dieppe.
Rodney was elected MP for Penryn in 1761. Lord Anson then selected him to command the naval element on a planned amphibious attack on the lucrative and strategically important French colony of Martinique in the West Indies, promoting him over the heads of a number of more senior officers. A previous British attack on Martinique had failed in 1759. In October of that year he was formally appointed commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands station. The land forces for the attack on Martinique were to be a comibination of troops from various locations including some sent out from Europe and reinforcements from New York, who were available following the Conquest of Canada which had been completed in 1760. During 1761 Martinique was blockaded by Sir James Douglas to prevent reinforcements or supplies from reaching it.
Within the first three months of 1762 had reduced the important island of Martinique, while both St Lucia and Grenada had surrendered to his squadron. During the siege of Fort Royal (later Fort de France) his seamen and marines rendered splendid service on shore. Afterwards Rodney’s squadron, amounting to 8 ships of the line joined the British expedition to Cuba bringing the total number of ships of the line to 15 by the end of April 1762. However he was later criticised for moving his ships to protect Jamaica from attack by a large Franco-Spanish force that had gathered in the area, rather than waiting to support the expedition as he had been ordered.
Following the Treaty of Paris in 1763, Admiral Rodney returned home having been during his absence made Vice-Admiral of the Blue and having received the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. In the peace terms Martinique was returned to France.
Years of peace
In 1764, Rodney was created a baronet, and the same year he married Henrietta, daughter of John Clies of Lisbon. From 1765 to 1770, he was governor of Greenwich Hospital, and on the dissolution of parliament in 1768 he successfully contested Northampton at a ruinous cost. When appointed Commander-in-Chief of the Jamaica station in 1771, he lost his Greenwich post, but a few months later received the office of Rear-Admiral of Great Britain. Until 1774, he held the Jamaica command, and during a period of quiet, was active in improving the naval yards on his station. Sir George struck his flag with a feeling of disappointment at not obtaining the governorship of Jamaica, and was shortly after forced to settle in Paris. Election expenses and losses at play in fashionable circles had shattered his fortune, and he could not secure payment of the salary as Rear-Admiral of Great Britain. In February 1778, having just been promoted Admiral of the White, he used every possible exertion to obtain a command to free himself from his money difficulties. By May, he had, through the splendid generosity of his Parisian friend Marshal Biron, effected the latter task, and accordingly he returned to London with his children. The debt was repaid out of the arrears due to him on his return. The story that he was offered a French command is fiction.
In London he suggested to Lord George Germain that George Washington could “ceirtainly be bought – honours will do it”.
American War of Independence
George Brydges Rodney, by Joshua Reynolds in 1789
Sir George was appointed once more commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands late in 1779. His orders were to relieve Gibraltar on his way to the West Indies. He captured a Spanish convoy off Cape Finisterre on 8 January 1780, and eight days later at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent defeated the Spanish Admiral Don Juan de Lángara, taking or destroying seven ships. He then brought some relief to Gibraltar by delivering reinforcements and supplies
On 17 April an action, which, owing to the carelessness of some of Rodney’s captains, was indecisive, was fought off Martinique with the French Admiral Guichen. Rodney, acting under orders, captured the valuable Dutch island of St Eustatius on 3 February 1781. It had been a great entrepôt of neutral trade, and was full of booty, which Rodney confiscated. As large quantities belonged to English merchants, he was entangled in a series of costly lawsuits. Rodney ordered that all male Jewish merchants be deported to England without their wives or children. He even went so far as to order his men to strip the lining of their coats in an effort to prevent them from taking any gold coins with them.
Battle of the Saintes
A 1785 engraving of Rodney accepting the surrender of de Grasse.
After a few months in England, restoring his health and defending himself in Parliament, Sir George returned to his command in February 1782, and a running engagement with the French fleet on April 9 led up to his crowning victory at the Battle of the Saintes off Dominica, when on 12 April with thirty-five sail of the line he defeated the Comte de Grasse, who had thirty-three sail. The French inferiority in numbers was more than counterbalanced by the greater size and superior sailing qualities of their ships, yet five were taken and one sunk, after eleven hours’ fighting. This important battle saved Jamaica and ruined French naval prestige, while it enabled Rodney to write: “Within two little years I have taken two Spanish, one French and one Dutch admirals.” A long and wearisome controversy exists as to the originator of the manoeuvre of “breaking the line” in this battle, but the merits of the victory have never seriously been affected by any difference of opinion on the question. A shift of wind broke the French line of battle, and the British ships took advantage of this by crossing in two places.
Rodney arrived home in August to receive unbounded honour from his country. He had already been created Baron Rodney of Rodney Stoke, Somerset, by patent of 19 June 1782, and the House of Commons had voted him a pension of £2000 a year. From this time he led a quiet country life until his death in London. He was succeeded as 2nd Baron by his son, George (1753–1802).
At least four serving warships of the Royal Navy have been named HMS Rodney in his honour.
One of the five houses of British public school Churcher’s College is named for him.
Admiral Rodney Monument
Monument of George Brydges Rodney in Memorial in Spanish Town
In February 1783, the government of Jamaica commissioned John Bacon, a renowned British sculptor, to create a statue of Admiral Lord Rodney, as an expression of their appreciation. The Assembly spent $5,200 on the statue alone and a reputed $31,000 on the entire project. Bacon sourced the finest marble from Italy to create the Neo-classical sculpture of the Admiral, dressed in a Roman robe and breastplate. On its completion, the statue was fronted with a cannon taken from the French flagship in the battle.
Due to his popularity with citizens of Newfoundland as governor, small round-bottomed wooden boats, propelled by oars and/or sails, are often referred to as a “Rodney” up to the present day in Newfoundland. Also there is a Rodney Bay named after him on the Caribbean island of St Lucia. St Lucia Distillers also have an award winning rum named ‘Admiral Rodney Extra Old’.
Reminders of Admiral George Brydges Rodney in Walton today
As mentioned earlier in this article, there is a house still standing in Church Street Walton-on-Thames called Admiral Rodney House as it is believed to be the house where he was born. In addition a road in the town, Rodney Road, was also named after Admiral.