[1703:] News of Vice-Admiral Benbow's conflict with the French fleet in the West Indies, in which he gallantly behaved himself, and was wounded, and would have had extraordinary success, had not four of his men-of-war stood spectators without coming to his assistance; for this, two of their commanders were tried by a council of war and executed; a third was condemned to perpetual imprisonment, loss of pay, and incapacity to serve in future. The fourth died. (John Evelyn, Diaries, January)
[1859:] Admiral Benbow was a thoroughly gallant seaman. He received his commission in the navy for his bravery in beating off a corsair, while in command of a merchant vessel. He was twice sent to the West Indies by King William. On the second occasion, he fell in with the French Admiral, Du Casse, in August 1702, near the Spanish coast. A skirmishing action continued for four days, but on the last the Admiral was left alone to engage the French, the other ships having fallen astern. Although thus single-handed, and having his leg shattered by a chain-shot, he would not suffer himself to be removed from the quarter-deck [...], but continued fighting until the following morning, when the French sheered off. The Admiral made signal for his ships to follow, but his orders received no attention, and he was obliged to return to Jamaica, where he caused the officers who behaved so basely to be tried. The report of the court-martial will be found in The Harleian Miscellany, vol. I, 1744. There was a treasonable conspiracy among the officers of his fleet, not to fight the French. Admiral Benbow did not survive this disappointment; it aggravated the effects of his wound, and he expired. The tune of Admiral Benbow is the vehicle of many country songs at the present time (1859), and used for Christmas carols. In the month of January last, Mr. Samuel Smith noted it down from the singing of some carollers in Marden near Hereford, to the words commencing,- "A virgin unspotted the prophets foretold." (Chappell, Popular Music of the Olden Time, Vol 2, p 641)
[1967:] The early eighteenth century was distinguished by the
victories of Rooke and Leake, but the song that lived on is the
one recording Benbow's disastrous battle with the French squadron
under Ducasse in 1702. Only one captain [Reuben] stood by the
rear-admiral; the rest hung back, notably Kirby and Wade.
Benbow's right leg was shattered by chain-shot, and the wound was
mortal, but he had Kirby and Wade hanged before he died. The folk
admired the pluck of this son of the people (he was formerly a
butcher's apprentice) [...]. It is hard to account for Benbow's
enduring fame, but his story seems to have haunted the
imagination of singers with peculiar intensity, and his ballad
remained in wider circulation and better shape than any song
commemorating more celebrated and more successful commanders,
Nelson included. (Lloyd, England 257f)
[1979:] John Benbow was born at Shrewsbury in 1653. He ran away to sea as a boy, and at the age of 33 was in command of his own ship, called The Benbow Frigate. On passage to Cadiz he was attacked by a 'Sally Rover' full of Moorish pirates. A boarding party was repulsed by Benbow's men, and left thirteen dead Moors behind, 'whose Heads Captain Benbow ordered to be cut off, and thrown into a Tub of Pork-Pickle'. When he went ashore at Cadiz the sack in which the heads were carried excited the curiosity of 'the Officers of the Revenue', in answer to whose questions Benbow declared that he was carrying 'Salt Provisions for his own Use'. Eventually, he was compelled to show the contents of the sack to magistrates, who were duly impressed. The news got to Charles II of Spain, who summoned Benbow to Madrid. Charles wrote to James II of England, who was in turn impressed enough to offer a command to Benbow in his navy.
A master of the fleet under Admiral Russell, Captain Benbow helped to destroy the French fleet at the Battle of La Hogue (1692). In his own right, so to speak, he bombarded the French port of Saint Malo (1693; this is commemorated in a song, The Siege of Saint Malo, for which see I. Gundry, Canow Kernow, 1966, p. 19). Off Dunkirk he saved the West India and Virginia merchant fleets from falling into the hands of French privateers (1697).
Such success could not go unrewarded, and Benbow was sent to the West Indies by William III, first merely as commander of the British fleet there, then as admiral.
Benbow was a 'tarpaulin', a captain and commander of humble origins who had risen through his own efforts. In so doing, he had not forgotten those whom he had left behind: 'the Seamen generally considered Rear-Admiral Benbow as their greatest Patron; one, who not only used them well, while under his Command, but was always ready to interpose in their Favour, as far as his Interest went, when they were ill-treated by others'. Benbow's officers did not apparently share the sentiments of his seamen, however. In August 1702, his seven ships sighted nine French vessels off Santa Marta, in what is now Colombia. For five days Benbow gave chase, across the Caribbean, but four of his captains lagged behind, refusing to engage the enemy. Even his flag-captain on the Breda was reluctant. Nevertheless, Benbow did engage the French fleet as best he could. On 24 August, 'the Admiral's Right Leg was shattered to Pieces by a Chain-shot, and he was carried down; but he presently ordered his cradle on the Quarter-Deck, and continued the Fight till Day'.
After returning to Port Royal (now Kingston), Jamaica, Benbow ordered courts martial. The two worst offenders, Kirby and Wade, were found guilty of 'Cowardice, Breach of Orders, and Neglect of Duty', and were sentenced to be shot. The two men were sent home by frigate and the sentence was duly carried out on board as soon as they had docked at Plymouth, in April 1703. In the meantime, Benbow himself had died at Kingston, in November 1702, of wounds, fever, and, I think, chagrin. Ever since, he has been remembered: by historians, of course - and I have been quoting from one, John Campbell (Lives of the Admirals, 4 vols, 1742-4); but also by his 'brother tars' and their descendants. Our ballad continued in the oral tradition at least until the 1950s. By the same token, Kirby and Wade have been held up to obloquy for an equally long time. If they had suspected, would they have behaved differently? (Palmer, Ballad History 39)
[1982:] Tune known as the Admiral Benbow air though it was
already used for a broadside about Captain Kidd's execution in
1701. In 1702 Benbow defeated the French fleet after a four-day
battle in the Caribbean, and the tune was used again for a
broadside about the victory. (Pollard, Folksong 6)
See also :
Campbell, John et. al, "Lives of the British Admirals," 8 volumes
Lee, Colbert, "Famous British Admirals"
Wm. A. Benbow, "The Life of Vice Admiral John Benbow, 1653-1702"
Callender, Geoffrey, "Sea Captains of Britain"
Brahms and Sherrin, "Benbow Was His Name" (good semi-fictional book)
broadsheet in the Bodleian Ballad Library
Folklore: Brave Benbow