Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Arbuthnot, Marriot

ARBUTHNOT, MARRIOT (1711?–1794), admiral, was a native of Weymouth. About his birth, parentage, and early years, nothing is certainly known. It has been supposed that he was related to Dr. John Arbuthnot, but apparently on no stronger grounds than the similarity of name; and the fact that up to 1763 he always wrote it Arbuthnott, as the family of Viscount Arbuthnott still does, may perhaps suggest a nearer connection with that stem. He did not attain the rank of lieutenant till 1739, when he was twenty-eight years of age. In 1746 he was made a commander, and in 1747 a captain. In 1759 he commanded the Portland, one of the ships employed under Commodore Duff in the blockade of Quiberon Bay, and was present at the total defeat of the French on 20 Nov. From 1771 to 1773 he commanded the guardship at Portsmouth, and in 1775 was appointed commissioner of the navy at Halifax; but he was recalled in January 1778 on his advancement to flag rank. He reached home in September, and in the following spring, after sitting as a member of the court-martial on Admiral Keppel, he was appointed to the command of the North American station, for which he sailed in the Europe of 64 guns on 1 May. He reached New York on 25 August. Here he remained through the autumn and winter, for some time expecting the attack of the Count d'Estaing, which however broke without much harm on Savannah. Afterwards, in concert with Sir Henry Clinton, he undertook the expedition against Charlestown, which surrendered without further resistance, when the passage into the harbour had been forced by the fleet. On 10 July 1780 a squadron of seven ships of the line and four heavy frigates, with a body of 6,000 soldiers newly arrived from France, captured Rhode Island, and Arbuthnot, reinforced at the same time and with a squadron now numbering nine ships of the line, took up his station in Gardiner's Bay at the north end of Long Island, whence he could keep watch on the enemy. He was still here at the latter end of September, when he unexpectedly received a letter from Sir George Rodney, acquainting him that he had arrived at Sandy Hook and taken on himself the command of the station. Sir George was at this time the commander-in-chief at the Leeward Islands, and having reason to believe that the Count de Guichen, the French admiral, had brought his fleet on to the coast of North America, had also come with ten ships of the line. Arbuthnot resented this supersession, and expressed himself upon it with much temper and insolence, Rodney submitted the whole matter to the admiralty. The admiralty approved Rodney's view, and Arbuthnot, nettled by the implied censure, requested, on the plea of ill-health, that he might be relieved from the command which had again devolved on him, since Rodney had gone back to the West Indies as soon as he knew that Guichen had certainly returned to France.

Through the first two months of 1781 the French and English squadrons lay opposed to each other at Rhode Island and Gardiner's Bay. It was only with the beginning of March that M. Destouches, the French senior officer, was persuaded by Washington to attempt a movement against the Englisli positions at the mouth of the Chesapeake. The time was well chosen, for one of the English ships had been wrecked a few weeks before, and another dismasted [see Affleck, Edmund]. Arbuthnot, however, got to sea very shortly after Destouches, and on the morning of 16 March, beingthen some forty miles to the eastward of Cape Henry, the French squadron was sighted to the north-east. It was now to leeward; but as Arbuthnot steered towards it the wind gradually drew round from west to north-east. Throughout the forenoon he endeavoured to get to windward of the enemy, and about 1.30 p.m. Destouches, finding that he was losing ground and apprehensive of having his rear doubled on, gave up the weather-gauge, and running down to leeward formed his line on the starboard tack. As the English squadron, on the opposite tack, was now nearly abreast and to windward of the enemy, Arbuthnot began to wear in succession; and the three leading ships, opposed to the enemy's van, found themselves engaged by the whole enemy's line before the rest of their squadron could support them. In this way these three ships were dismantled; whilst the enemy, passing by them and wearing in succession, reformed their line on the larboard tack and waited for a renewal of the action. But this was out of the power of the English to attempt; for of their eight ships three were disabled, and all that could be done was to make for the Chesapeake and, anchoring in Lynnhaven Bay, prevent any operations the French might have in view. But these, on their part, had also suffered severely, and were unable to attempt anything further. Their expedition had miscarried, and they returned to Rhode Island, where they anchored on the 30th. A fortnight later the English took up their old position in Gardiner's Bay, and Arbuthnot, having received permission to return home, surrendered the command to Rear- Admiral Graves, and sailed for England on 4 July. He had no further employment at sea, but, advancing in rank by seniority, was, on 1 Feb. 1793, promoted to be admiral of the blue. He died in London on 31 Jan. 1794 at the age of 83.

Admiral Arbuthnot may be considered as, in some respects, a late survival of the class of officer described under the name of Flip or Trunnion. That he was ignorant of the discipline of his profession was proved by his altercation with Sir George Rodney; that he was destitute of even a rudimentary knowledge of naval tactics was shown by his absurd conduct of the action off Cape Henry; and for the rest he appears in contemporary stories (cf. Morning Chronicle, 18 May 1781) as a coarse, blustering, foul-mouthed bully, and in history as a sample of the extremity to which the maladministration of Lord Sandwich had reduced the navy.

[Charnock's Biographia Navalis, vi. 1; Ralfe's Naval Biography, i. 129; Beatson's Naval and Military Memoirs; Mundy's Life of Lord Rodney; Official Letters and Documents in the Record Office.]

J. K. L.