Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Johnstone, George

JOHNSTONE, GEORGE (1730–1787), commodore, born in 1730, was fourth son of Sir James Johnstone of Westerhall, Dumfriesshire, third baronet, by Barbara Murray, daughter of Alexander, fourth lord Elibank. He passed his examination for lieutenant in the navy on 2 Feb. 1749–50. He was then described as apparently twenty-one, as having served upwards of six years at sea, part of the time in the merchant service, and the rest, amounting to nearly six years, in no less than eleven different ships, under different captains. Yet he had certainly distinguished himself on some occasions, and notably in the Canterbury, under Captain David Brodie [q. v.], at the attack on Port Louis on 8 March 1747–8, when he boarded a fireship and made fast a chain, by which she was towed off clear of the squadron (Beatson, Naval and Military Memoirs, i. 402; A Letter to Lord Viscount Howe, &c., p. 38 n.) He was also in the Lark with Captain John Crookshanks [q. v.] on her meeting with the Glorioso on 14 July 1747; and on leaving her is said to have challenged, fought, and wounded Crookshanks, who had refused to give him a certificate. In October 1755 he was promoted to the rank of lieutenant and appointed to the Sutherland, from which he was moved a few months later into the Bideford on the West Indian station. While in her he is said to have killed the captain's clerk in a duel, and on 22 Feb. 1757 he was tried by court-martial for insubordination and disobedience; he was found guilty, but ‘in consideration of his former gallant behaviour in the service’ was only reprimanded. In October 1757 he was transferred to the Augusta with Captain Arthur Forrest [q. v.]; in August 1758 to the Trial; and on 6 Feb. 1760 was promoted to command the Hornet sloop, in which he was employed in the North Sea and afterwards on the Lisbon station. On 11 Aug. 1762 he was advanced to post rank, and appointed to the Hind, then at Gibraltar. While waiting for her return he fell over ‘a precipice’ seventeen feet high at Chatham, spraining his foot and ankle badly, so as to be confined to bed for twelve weeks. When the Hind came home he was thus unable to join her; another captain was appointed; and Johnstone was placed on half-pay.

On 20 Nov. 1763 he was formally appointed governor of West Florida, ceded by Spain on the conclusion of the peace. Virtually, however, the appointment had been made some months before, Colonel James Grant (1720–1806) [q. v.] being at the time appointed governor of East Florida. A ‘North Briton’ extraordinary of 17 Sept. commented on the appointments of the two Scotsmen with customary scurrility; they were, it said, ‘partial and flagrant,’ ‘incongruous to justice,’ ‘repugnant to policy,’ and ‘baneful to liberty.’ Grant was in America, but Johnstone wrote to the writer of the article to request ‘the favour of a meeting,’ when, he said, he ‘would endeavour to convince the writer, by arguments best adapted to his sensations, how much he was mistaken in the man he had endeavoured to injure without provocation.’ The ‘North Briton’ considered this a challenge, but being impersonal, no one answered it. Johnstone's friends denied that it was a challenge, for a hostile meeting, they declared, could not be called a favour, nor could a sword and pistol be termed arguments. Johnstone, however, afterwards insisted on a Mr. Brooke saying whether he was the author; and upon Brooke's declining to answer, a scuffle took place, in which Johnstone drew his sword, but was disarmed by some bystanders. Brooke laid an information before a magistrate, and it would appear that Johnstone was bound over to keep the peace.

Early in 1767 (Addit. MS. 21673, f. 4) Johnstone came back to England. In the general election of 1768 he was returned to parliament for the borough of Cockermouth by the influence of Sir James Lowther, afterwards first earl of Lonsdale [q. v.], and at once distinguished himself by his shameless and scurrilous utterances, while his total want of fear and his adroitness with the pistol rendered him a useful addition to his party. In December 1770, by a gross public insult, he forced a duel on Lord George Germain [q. v.], fortunately with no fatal result. In 1774 he was returned to parliament by Appleby; and in 1778 was appointed one of the commissioners, with the Earl of Carlisle [see Howard, Frederick, fifth Earl of Carlisle], to treat with the American colonies. In the course of the negotiations Johnstone endeavoured, by a private arrangement offered in writing, to win over one of the American members, who promptly reported the circumstance to congress, and congress as promptly passed a resolution, 11 Aug., that it was incompatible with its honour to hold any manner of correspondence or intercourse with the said George Johnstone, especially to negotiate with him upon affairs in which the cause of liberty and virtue was interested. This drew from Carlisle and the other commissioners a public declaration that they had no knowledge, direct or indirect, of the correspondence and conversation referred to; though adding that they did not imply any assent to the construction which congress had been pleased to put on a private letter (B. F. Stevens, Facsimiles of MSS. … relating to America, 1773–83, vol. i. No. 90). Johnstone, however, was obliged to withdraw from the commission, and a few months later returned to England, where, in parliament, he posed as one intimately acquainted with naval and American affairs, loudly and confidently supporting the government and the government's friends, notably Sir Hugh Palliser [q. v.], and reviling the government's opponents, more especially Keppel and Howe [see Keppel, Augustus, Viscount; Howe, Richard, Earl], in a series of speeches which prove his ignorance of his profession (Parliamentary History, vol. xx. freq.) At the time it was felt by Lord Sandwich that Johnstone had gallantly sustained the cause of the government, and on 6 May 1779, having never had command of a post-ship, he was appointed commodore and commander-in-chief of a small squadron to be employed on the coast of Portugal, with his broad pennant in the 50-gun ship Romney. For a few months he was attached to the Channel fleet under Sir Charles Hardy the younger [q. v.], but towards the end of the year went to Lisbon, where, during the greater part of 1780, he resided on shore, while the Romney and the other ships of his squadron cruised on the coast, making some important captures, and among them the Artois, a remarkably fine French frigate of 44 guns, the credit of all which was assigned by the government to the commodore.

Early in 1781 he was appointed to command a small expedition against the Cape of Good Hope and to convoy the East India trade so far on the way. With a strong squadron of ships of war and a numerous fleet of transports and Indiamen, Johnstone sailed from Spithead on 13 March, and, arriving in the latitude of Cape Verde, put into Port Praya in St. Jago to water; but, though knowing that a French squadron for the relief of the Cape was to sail about the same time as his own, he anchored in the bay in a manner that would be considered unseamanlike even in time of peace. When, on 16 April, the French squadron, also in want of water, came in sight, his ships were lying confusedly crowded together. The commander of the French squadron, M. de Suffren, saw the blunder, resolved to attack immediately, and stood into the bay. Johnstone had barely time to get his men and officers on board, and to make hasty and insufficient preparations for battle. His squadron and convoy were thus at a very great disadvantage, although much superior in point of numbers and force. Had the French ships followed in with the prompt decision of their commodore, they might have inflicted a crushing blow. There had, however, been no time to explain the commodore's intentions, which were quite beyond the experience of his captains; and thus while Suffren's own ship and one other anchored alongside the two largest English, and closely engaged them, the rest, after firing some random broadsides, and taking possession of two of the merchant ships, were carried by the tide to leeward. The two ships which did engage were thus beaten off with severe loss, one of them dismasted. They cut their cables and drifted out to sea. Johnstone was apparently too much astonished at his success to think of following them till more than three hours afterwards. He then did get under way, and recovered the captured merchantmen; after which he lay to for the greater part of the afternoon, waiting for the 50-gun ship Isis, which had been partially dismasted, and was not in condition to put to sea; and Johnstone, instead of pursuing the retreating enemy, hauled to the wind to return to the bay. This proved the work of some days; but as soon as he had anchored, he placed Captain Evelyn Sutton [q. v.] of the Isis under arrest. Sutton desired that he might be tried by court-martial; but Johnstone replied that there was then no time, alleging the necessity of putting to sea at once. Sutton therefore remained a prisoner, though the squadron did not sail till 30 April.

On 9 July Johnstone had intelligence from a Dutch prize that Suffren had arrived in Simon's Bay on 21 June, and had landed five hundred men for the defence of Cape Town. This was considered to render the proposed attack unadvisable; but as five Dutch East Indiamen, richly laden, were reported to be lying unprotected in Saldanha Bay, Johnstone determined to seize on them as a partial equivalent. On 21 July the English squadron stood into the bay; the Dutchmen forthwith ran their ships on shore, set them on fire, and made their escape. The boats of the squadron immediately boarded four of the ships, extinguished the flames, and towed them off. The fifth was burning too fiercely, and she presently floated and drifted towards the English ships. But under the personal command of Johnstone the boats succeeded in grappling her, and so towing her outside. She blew up within ten minutes of their casting her off.

After this, the Indiamen, transports, and several ships of the squadron under orders for the East Indies parted company; the rest with the prizes were sent home from St. Helena. Johnstone himself, hoisting his broad pennant on board the Diana frigate, went to Lisbon, where he married. On his return to England he was placed on half-pay, and resumed his seat in parliament, this time as member for Lostwithiel, for which he had been elected in 1781. His attacks on Lord Howe, and his criticisms on the relief of Gibraltar, however, fell flat. In 1783 he was chosen a director of the East India Company; and in the election of 1784 was returned to parliament for Ilchester. About this time Captain Sutton came home in the Isis, and, being honourably acquitted by a court-martial, brought an action against Johnstone for false and malicious imprisonment, and obtained a verdict giving him 5,000l. damages. In a new trial an appeal was dismissed; in a further trial the verdict was reversed, but being brought before the House of Lords was again confirmed. Johnstone, who for the last two years had been a confirmed invalid (see his letter to Warren Hastings, 6 Oct. 1785, Addit. MS. 29169, f. 56), died at Bristol on 24 May 1787 (European Magazine, xi. 375), aged 57 (Burke, Baronetage; Foster, Baronetage), and the money which Sutton was awarded in the law courts was never paid. By his wife, Charlotte Dee, Johnstone left one son, John Lowther Johnstone, who succeeded to the baronetcy on the death of his uncle, Sir William Johnstone-Pulteney, Johnstone's elder brother, in 1805, and himself died in 1811.

Johnstone is often spoken of as ‘a noted duellist,’ but only three duels are named, of which one was bloodless, one is doubtful, and one fought when he was a mere boy. It has been said that he challenged Wilkes (Trevelyan, Early History of C. J. Fox, 1st edit., pp. 166, 347), but the story seems to have sprung out of his ‘civil’ letter to the ‘North Briton’ and his assault on Mr. Brooke. He used to be commonly styled ‘Governor’ Johnstone, though with very little reason; he is, even now, sometimes described as a politician, with less. That he was commodore and had command of a squadron was unfortunately true; he seems to have had courage, but was without self-restraint, temper, or knowledge.

[Charnock's Biog. Nav. vi. 494; Beatson's Naval and Military Memoirs, v. 117, 312–28; Laughton's Studies in Naval History, p. 104; An Appeal to the Public in behalf of George Johnstone, esq., Governor of West Florida, in answer to the North Briton Extraordinary, and in consequence of other matters not taken notice of in that extraordinary publication, 8vo, 1763; Blake's Remarks on Commodore Johnstone's Account of his Engagement with a French squadron … in Port Praya Road, in the Island of St. Jago, 2nd edit. 8vo, 1782, with an additional letter and plan of the bay; Letters which passed between Commodore Johnstone and Captain Evelyn Sutton in 1781 with respect to bringing Captain Sutton to Trial, 8vo, n.d.; Considerations on the Question now in litigation between Commodore Johnstone and Captain Sutton, 8vo, n.d.; The Speeches of the Judges of the Court of Exchequer upon granting a new trial in the case of Captain Evelyn Sutton against Commodore Johnstone, on the 30th day of June, 1785; A Letter to Lord Viscount Howe, first Lord of the Admiralty, on the subject of a late determination at the Cock-pit in a Prize Cause, 8vo, 1787. His letters to Warren Hastings (Addit. MSS. 29168 f. 309, 29169 f. 56, 29193 f. 232) and to Wilkes (30873, f. 4) contain some interesting and curious matter.]

J. K. L.