Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Benbow, John (1681?-1708)

BENBOW, JOHN (1681?–1708), traveller, son of Vice-admiral John Benbow [q. v.], was, on 29 June 1696, appointed a volunteer on board their Majesties' ship Northumberland. He did not, however, remain long in the navy, and in February 1700-1 sailed for the East Indies as fourth mate of the Degrave merchant ship. As his father was at this time commander-in-chief in the Downns, and was a few months later appointed commander-in-chief in the West Indies, and thus had it in his power to advance him in the navy, it is difficult to avoid the concluaion that there was some breach between the two. The Degrave, a ship of 700 tons, duly arrived in Bengal, where the captain and first mate died and thus, in ordinary course, Benbow was second mate when she started for her homeward voyage. In going out of the river the ship grounded heavily, and though she was got off without difficulty, and, as it was believed, without damage, she was scarcely well to sea, with a fresh northerly monsoon, before she was found to be leaking badly. With the pumps going constantly they reached Mauritius in a couple of months, but with a singular rashness started again for the Cape without having even discovered the leak. The ship, coming into a more stormy sea, was in imminent danger of sinking, and the captain, officers, and ship's company determined to make for the nearest land, which was the south end of Madagascar. There they ran the ship ashore ; she became a complete wreck, little or nothing was saved, and the men got to land with considerable difficulty. They wvre almost immediately made prisoners by the natives. Benbow, together with two or three of his companions, managed to escape ; he reached Fort Dauphin, and was eventually rescued by a Dutch ship and brought home. The rest of the ships company were killed, with the exception of one boy, Robert Drury, then fifteen years old, who, after fifteen years' captivity, was rescued by an English ship, and spent the rest of his life as porter in a London warehouse. We may suppose that Benbow's constitution was broken by the hardships of his savage life; he seems to have lived for a few years at Deptford, in very humble circumstances, and died 17 Nov. 1708.

He had written some account of Madagascar which remained in manuscript, and was accidentally burnt in 1714. It had, however, been seen by several, and the hazy recollections of it, together with Drury's story, were worked up, not improbably by Defoe, and published under Drury's name with the title of 'Madagascar, or Journal during Fifteen Years' Captivity on that Island' (1729).

[Campbell's Lives of the Admirals, iii. 349; Gent. Mag. (1769), xxxix. 172.]

J. K. L.