Royal Naval Biography/Brisbane, Charles

Rear-Admiral of the White.

Rear-Admiral of the White; Knight Commander of the most honorable Military Order of the Bath; Governor, Captain-General, and Vice-Admiral of the island of St. Vincent and its Dependencies.

This officer, the fourth and eldest surviving son of the late Admiral John Brisbane[1], entered the naval service about the year 1779, on board the Alcide, of 74 guns, under the auspices of his father, whom he afterwards accompanied into the Hercules, another third rate. This latter ship formed part of Sir George B. Rodney’s fleet, in the memorable battle of April 12, 1782, and was on that occasion commanded by Captain Henry Savage. Her loss, as already stated at p. 602, amounted to 7 killed and 19 wounded; among the latter was Mr. Charles Brisbane[2].

From 1784 to 1790, the subject of this memoir served as a Midshipman in various ships; but it being a period of profound peace, we meet with no occurrence worth mentioning. In the latter year he was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant, and soon after appointed to the Spitfire fire-ship, in which he remained till she was paid off.

In 1793, Lieutenant Brisbane proceeded to the Mediterranean, with Captain (now Sir Charles) Tyler, in the Meleager frigate. On that station, from the arrival of Lord Hood at Toulon, to the period of its evacuation, and subsequently, during the whole of the operations against the French in Corsica, he was very actively employed, as will appear by the following outline of his services in that quarter.

At midnight, on the 27th Aug. when Captain Elphinstone, now Viscount Keith, had been authorised by the Commander-in-Chief to take the command at Fort la Malgue, Lieutenant Brisbane assisted at the disembarkation of the troops; and in the succeeding month, when it was found necessary to erect a battery upon the Hauteur de Grasse, for the better protection of the outer road and naval hospital, it was owing, in part, to his active zeal and great exertion, that three 24-pounders were expeditiously dragged up a very steep ascent. Lieutenant Brisbane’s conduct on these and other occasions of a similar nature, attracted the notice of Lord Hood, by whom he was shortly afterwards appointed to the command of Fort Pomet, one of the most dangerous out-posts in the neighbourhood of Toulon, about five miles from the city.

This was an appointment extremely suitable to the display of his talents. He assisted in repulsing the French at Fort Mulgrave, in November; and, after several other skirmishes on the heights of Pharon, he remained at Fort Pomet, till it was found necessary to destroy the enemy’s ships, and to evacuate the town and harbour of Toulon. He was then ordered to make the best retreat in his power from the post he commanded, but, although the republican troops were pouring down in considerable force, and were within a very short distance, he stopped to set fire to a train, which communicated with five hundred barrels of gunpowder. The explosion blew the fort to atoms; and, from the situation of himself and his men, it was supposed, at a distance, that they had all perished. Amidst his ardour, however, Lieutenant Brisbane’s judgment had not forsaken him. Himself and his party were safe; and after surmounting many difficulties and dangers, they effected their retreat without loss.

Early in 1794, Lieutenant Brisbane proceeded to Corsica; and, with 100 men belonging to the Britannia under his command, effected a landing at St. Fiorenzo. A body of troops, commanded by Liuetenant-General Dundas, were disembarked about the same time; and on the night of the 17th Feb., the heights of Fornelli were vigorously attacked, and carried by assault[3].

During the siege of Bastia, which was soon afterwards commenced, Lieutenant Brisbane had the honor of serving under the heroic Nelson, who commanded a brigade of seamen on shore, and of sharing in the extensive variety of services in which he was at that period engaged. There was even a similarity in their fate; for, having been entrusted by Nelson with the command of a small battery, our officer was dangerously wounded in the head while at his gun, a circumstance which reduced him to the mortifying necessity of being taken on board the Alcide, one of the ships then lying off the town . Several pieces of iron were extracted from the wound, (which had been occasioned by the collision of one of the enemy’s shot with Lieutenant Brisbane’s gun,) and a cure was at length effected; but his left eye sustained nearly a total deprivation of sight.

Lord Hood, in his official letter, announcing the surrender of Bastia, speaks very highly of the merits of Lieutenant Brisbane. “The Lieutenants Gore, Hotham, Stiles, Andrews, and Brisbane,” says his Lordship, “have an ample claim to my gratitude; as the seamen under their management worked the guns with great judgment and alacrity; never was a higher spirit or greater perseverance exhibited; and I am happy to say, that no other contention was at any time known, than who should be most forward and indefatigable in promoting his Majesty’s service; for although the difficulties they had to struggle with, were many and various, the perfect harmony and good humour that universally prevailed throughout the siege overcame them all.”

In the month of June following, Lieutenant Brisbane, then on board the Britannia, a first rate, bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral Hotham, proposed a plan for destroying a French squadron which had been chased into Gourjon Bay, and was there protected by several strong batteries. His scheme was immediately adopted by Lord Hood, who ordered the Tarleton and another vessel to be fitted as fire-ships, and entrusted him with the command of the former; but on approaching the bay, our officer and his companion, Lieutenant R. W. Miller, found the enemy so well prepared, and so strongly posted, that the enterprise was abandoned as impracticable. Lord Hood, however, entertained so high an opinion of the merit of the plan, that he rewarded its projector by advancing him to the rank of Commander, in the same vessel to which he had already given him a temporary appointment.

Subsequent to the action with the French fleet, on the 14th March, 1795[4], Captain Brisbane was removed into the Mozelle sloop of war; and on the arrival of Sir John Jervis in the Mediterranean, in the ensuing autumn, he received orders to proceed to Gibraltar; from whence he was sent by Rear-Admiral Mann, to convoy two troop-ships to Barbadoes. On his passage thither he fell in with a Dutch squadron; and conceiving it to be of more importance to watch their motions, than to proceed on his original destination, he sent the transports forward, and followed the enemy, acting upon his own responsibility, till he found that they were going to the Cape of Good Hope. He then crowded sail, and gave the requisite information to Sir George Keith Elphinstone, the Commander-in-Chief on that station.

The perseverance of Captain Brisbane, upon this occasion, was entitled to much praise. From leaving Gibraltar, till his arrival at the Cape, five months had elapsed; and during a great part of that time he and his crew were on short allowance of water and provisions; for a considerable period, indeed, they had only a pint of water per day, and must have been reduced to much less, had they not obtained a supply of rainwater on the line.

Our officer was present at the capture of the Dutch ships in Saldanha Bay, Aug. 18, 1796[5]; and, for his extraordinary exertion in conveying the important intelligence of their approach, Sir George K. Elphinstone was pleased to advance him to post rank, in the Dortrecht, of 66 guns, one of the prizes. Sir John Jervis also sent him out a Post-Captain’s commission for the Nemesis, dated July 22, 1796, from which he takes his seniority; and he had likewise the satisfaction of receiving the thanks of the Admiralty, for the part which he had taken in the capture.

Captain Aylmer, of the Tremendous, having been sent to England with the official account of this fortunate event, Rear-Admiral Pringle applied for Captain Brisbane to succeed him; and when that officer assumed the chief command on the Cape station, he removed him into l’Oiseau frigate, and sent him to cruise off the Rio de la Plata.

Whilst thus employed, Captain Brisbane fell in with two large Spanish frigates, one of them bearing a Commodore’s broad pendant. A severe engagement ensued; but, notwithstanding the disparity of force, l’Oiseau had the good fortune to beat off her opponents.

On his return to the Cape> Captain Brisbane was removed into the Dortrecht, and sent to St. Helena as convoy to some homeward bound Indiamen. While there, his fortitude and presence of mind were put to a severe test. Intelligence of the mutiny which had taken place in the Channel and North Sea fleets, having reached that island, his crew, inspired by the same mischievous spirit which had by this time diffused itself throughout the royal navy, rose upon their officers, and menaced them with general destruction. The utmost promptitude and vigour became necessary; and, seizing one of the ring-leaders, Captain Brisbane placed a rope about his neck, and apparently was proceeding to immediate execution. His object, however, being only to inspire terror, and to convince the crew that he was not to be intimidated, he relaxed from the threatened infliction of justice; but, while the rope was yet round the culprit’s neck, he solemnly declared to him, that, if he ever again ventured to open his mouth against his King or Country, or in disobedience to the commands of his officers, the yard-arm should inevitably be his portion. This imperative proceeding on the part of Captain Brisbane shook the guilty resolutions of the mutineers; and by a continued firmness, they were happily restored to a state of subordination.

The mutiny having also broken out at the Cape, Rear-Admiral Pringle sent a 20-gun ship down to St. Helena, expressly to recall Captain Brisbane, that he might resume the command of the Tremendous; the crew of that ship having risen upon their officers, and turned their commander on shore[6].

Captain Brisbane immediately complied with the wishes of the Commander-in-Chief, and continued in the Tremendous till 1798, when he accompanied that officer to England in the Crescent frigate. His next appointment was to the Doris, of 38 guns; and in that ship, under the orders of Admiral Cornwallis, he was invested with the command of a squadron of frigates, to watch the motions of the French fleet in Brest harbour.

Zealous for the honor of the service, and anxious to perform some act that might add to his professional fame, Captain Brisbane, while thus occupied, took an opportunity of entering the port, and of rowing round the enemy’s fleet, to ascertain whether its destruction might be practicable. Conceiving it to be so, with that fertility of expedient by which he has always been distinguished, he formed a plan for burning the ships, which was accepted by the Admiral; but in consequence of some difficulties which arose, in the appointment of officers for carrying it into effect, the attempt was not made.

In the month of July, 1801, the boats of the Doris and other ships cut the French corvette la Chevrette out of Camaret Bay. The undaunted bravery of British seamen was perhaps never more firmly resisted by an enemy than on this occasion; but the heroic determination of the assailants overcame every resistance that could be opposed to them by superior force, and complete success crowned at length their gallant exertions. An account of this dashing exploit will be found in our next volume, under the head of Captain Keith Maxwell, who commanded the boats; but it is proper to remark in this place, that the plan of the enterprise, and the orders for its execution, emanated solely from the subject of this memoir.

The truce of Amiens having rendered Captain Brisbane’s services in the channel no longer necessary, he was appointed to the Trent, another frigate, and ordered to the West Indies. While there, he was removed, first into the Sans Pareil, and afterwards into the Goliath, both ships of the line.

At the commencement of the late war, our officer captured la Mignonne, a fine corvette, of 16 long 18-pounders, and 80 men, off St. Domingo. On the preceding evening, one of his boats took a French schooner, laden with sugar, and having on board 3,476 dollars.

Some time afterwards, the Goliath returned to England as convoy to the homeward bound trade. On her passage, she was overtaken by a violent hurricane, which threatened the whole fleet with destruction. The Calypso sloop of war, and one of the merchantmen, sunk, and the Goliath was in imminent danger of sharing the same fate. In addition to these misfortunes, twenty-one vessels were dismasted, and the total loss of many of them was apprehended; but by the most assiduous attention on the part of Captain Brisbane, he had the satisfaction of bringing them all safe into port. The Goliath was subsequently employed in the blockade of Rochefort.

In the spring of 1805, our officer was appointed to the Arethusa, a fine frigate[7]; and at the latter end of the year, escorted a fleet of merchantmen to the West Indies.

On their passage thither, the convoy fell in with and was chased by a French squadron, of five sail of the line and three frigates. By the judicious arrangements of the commodore, however, his charge was rescued from the impending danger, and conducted in safety to Barbadoes, from whence the Arethusa proceeded to Jamaica, and was afterwards employed in cruising off the Havannah, where she captured several trading vessels.

On this station an accident happened to the Arethusa, which, had it not been for the greatest exertions on the part of her commander, officers, and crew, would in all probability have proved fatal. Early in the year 1806, she by some means run on shore among the Colorados, a numerous cluster of small islands or rocks, near the N.W. coast of the island of Cuba; and it was not until after twelve hours of severe and unremitting labour, in the course of which all her guns were obliged to be thrown overboard, that she was got off, and cleared from danger.

The cause of the Arethusa’s getting on shore has never, we believe, been satisfactorily ascertained. While some are disposed to impute blame to the officer who had charge of the watch at the time when the disaster happened, others contend, that, as the currents are very variable in those seas, the ship might have been carried nearer to the land by them than was expected, and that the accident might have befallen the most careful officer.

A circumstance occurred immediately after this unfortunate event, which served to place the dauntless bravery of the Arethusa’s crew in the most conspicuous light. In working up to the Havannah, she fell in with a Spanish line-of-battle ship; when Captain Brisbane, confident in his men, although without a single great gun, told them, that it was his determination to lay the enemy on board, and that in the attempt to carry her they should be led by their officers. Three cheers from every man in the ship, was all the answer that these brave fellows gave to their commander, who immediately ordered all possible sail to be set; but unfortunately, the enemy stood for the Moro Castle, and it was found impracticable to reach her before she had got under its protection.

Captain Brisbane, disappointed in his intention of boarding the Spaniard, returned to Jamaica, to get fresh guns on board, and to refit, after which he resumed his former station; and on the morning of Aug. 23d, discovered a sail, which afterwards proved to be the Pomona, a Spanish frigate, of 38 guns and 347 men, from Vera Cruz. When Captain Brisbane first perceived her, she was within two miles of the Moro Castle, standing for the Havannah, under a press of sail. He immediately made the signal to Captain Lydiard, of the Anson, then under his orders, to lay the enemy on board on coming up with her; but his design was frustrated by the Pomona bearing up, having been joined by twelve gun-boats, from the Havannah, (each carrying a 24-pounder and 100 men,) and anchoring within pistol-shot of a castle mounting sixteen 36-pounders, in three fathoms and a half water, the gunboats advanced from her in a line a-breast.

Not deterred by the formidable line of defence which was thus presented, added to a lee-shore, Captain Brisbane, supported by the Anson on his larboard bow, anchored the Arethusa close alongside the Pomona, in only one foot more water than she drew. The action immediately became general, and in 35 minutes the Pomona struck her colours; three gnn-boats blew up, six were sunk, and three driven among the breakers. The castle, by firing red-hot shot, set fire to the Arethusa; but the flames were speedily extinguished, and the Pomona instantly taken possession of. Shortly after, a melancholy and dreadful explosion took place in the castle, and the contest ceased.

In the course of the action, Captain Brisbane was wounded in the knee; but, though he suffered excruciating pain, he refused to quit the deck till victory had decisively proclaimed herself in favor of the British flag. The loss sustained by the Arethusa upon this occasion, amounted to 2 killed, and 32 wounded. Vice-Admiral Dacres, the Commander-in-Chief at Jamaica, in his official letter to the Admiralty, announcing the capture of the Pomona, justly observed, that “the success attending this bold enterprise Captain Brisbane was well entitled to, for the promptness and decision with which he anchored in such shoal water, to attack a force of such magnitude.”

The Pomona was laden with specie and merchandize. The money belonging to the King had been landed at the castle only ten minutes before the action commenced; but the freight belonging to the merchants fell into the hands of her captors. The Captain of the Pomona and 20 men were killed, and 32 officers and men wounded. The loss of men in the gun-boats must have been considerable, as very few reached the shore from those that were blown up and sunk. The Anson had not a man hurt.

Towards the latter end of the same year, 1806, Captain Brisbane was despatched from Jamaica, with a squadron of frigates, consisting of the Arethusa. Latona, and Anson, to reconnoitre the island of Curaçoa, and to ascertain, by a flag of truce, whether the inhabitants were disposed towards an alliance with Great Britain.

It was on the 1st Jan. 1807, that this little squadron, reinforced by the Fisgard frigate, arrived off Curaçoa. No orders whatever had been given to attack the island; but, having by means of the pilots taken on board at Aruba, perfectly ascertained the situation of the place, Captain Brisbane formed a plan for carrying it by a coup-de-main; and imparting his intention to the respective Captains under him, with a zeal for the service which would have done honor to the character of a Nelson, taking the sole responsibility of the act upon himself, he led his ships into the harbour, passing the formidable line of sea batteries by which its entrance was protected, and came to an anchor. It is well deserving of remark, that previously to this, and unknown to their officers, the men, participating in the spirit of their gallant leader, had arranged themselves for attack , and, when called to quarters, they were found with the words “Victory or Death” chalked upon their hats! As an additional stimulus, Captain Brisbane instantly put on his full uniform, and proceeded as we have already stated. The harbour, as he describes it in his official letter, was defended by regular fortifications, of two tier of guns, Fort Amsterdam alone mounting 66 pieces of cannon , the entrance only fifty yards wide, athwart which was the Dutch frigate Hatslar, of 36 guns, and Surinam sloop, of 22, with two armed schooners; a chain of forts was on Misleburg, a commanding height; and that almost impregnable fortress, Fort Republique, within the distance of grape-shot, enfilading the whole harbour.

The enemy were panic-struck at such unexpected gallantry, and all was confusion. A severe and destructive cannonade commenced on the part of the Arethusa and Latona, which ships had entered the harbour in close order, and taken their positions before they fired a shot. The larboard broadside of the former bearing upon Fort Republique; the latter placed athwart the hawse of the Dutch men-of-war, and in a position to enfilade the guns of Fort Amsterdam, the fire of which was soon silenced. The Anson, on her arrival, ran alongside of the Surinam; but the Fisgard, less fortunate, got a-ground upon the rocks on the west side of the harbour. Captain Brisbane had by this time landed with his boat’s crew; but learning from Captain Wood of the Latona, that the Hatslar had called for quarter, he pushed off from the shore with 4 or 5 men, and got on board in time to haul down the enemy’s colours with his own hands[8]. The boats of the squadron were now ordered to land, and Fort Amsterdam was instantly taken possession of without resistance, although the garrison consisted of 275 regular troops. The Commodore was the first person who scaled the walls, and on this occasion also struck the Dutch flag. About this period the Governor of Curaçoa arrived in a boat from his country house, accompanied by a lady; and stopping under the Latona’s stern, was desired by her commander to proceed to the fort, where he would find Captain Brisbane, and receive no molestation. He accordingly went thither, and after half an hour’s deliberation, during which preparations were made for warping the frigates up against Fort Republique, agreed to surrender the island and its dependencies to the crown of Great Britain.

By ten o’clock the British flag was hoisted on Fort Republique; the whole of the island, defended by 1200 militia, besides a considerable number of regular troops, having been reduced, and brought into the quiet possesion of the English, by a force not exceeding 800 effective men, in less than four hours.

The splendour of this achievement might well excite the astonishment of the Commander-in-Chief; who, it is said, had calculated that no less a force than ten sail of the line, and 10,000 land forces, would be necessary for the capture of the island, which had been thus subdued by a mere handful of men. The entire loss of the British was only 4 seamen killed, and 14 wounded. Two of the former, and 5 of the latter, belonged to the Arethusa.

Vice-Admiral Dacres, in his official despatches announcing the event to government, thus handsomely expressed his approbation of the gallant conduct of the captors:

Whilst I contemplate the immense strength of the harbour of Amsterdam, and the superior force contained in the different batteries opposed to the entrance of the frigates, I know not how sufficiently to admire the decision of Captain Brisbane in attempting the harbour, and the determined bravery and conduct displayed by himself the other three Captains, and all the officers and men under his command.

Immediately after the capture, Captain Brisbane proceeded to disarm the militia – a most politic measure, considering the very slender state of the British force; and to administer to the inhabitants of the island, the oath of allegiance to his Britannic Majesty. The Dutch Governor having refused to take that oath, Captain Brisbane constituted himself his successor, pro tempore, and assumed the functions of government accordingly.

As a reward for their distinguished conduct, his late Majesty was graciously pleased to present each of the Captains engaged in the conquest of Curaçoa, with a gold medal; and to confer the honor of knighthood upon Captains Brisbane and Wood, to the former of whom, as an especial mark of his royal favor, he also granted an honorable augmentation to his armorial bearings, together with supporters[9].

In commemoration of his gallant behaviour, the House of Assembly of the island of Jamaica presented our officer with a handsome sword, accompanied by an appropriate address; and after his return to England, he had the pleasure of receiving a similar compliment from that admirable and truly praiseworthy institution, the Patriotic Fund at Lloyd’s.

On quitting the government of Curacoa, Sir Charles Brisbane rejoined his old ship the Arethusa, and remained in her until the autumn of 1808, when he was appointed to the Blake, of 74 guns. At the latter end of the same year he obtained the government of the island of St. Vincent, which post he still retains. He was nominated a K.C.B. Jan. 2, 1815; and advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral, Aug. 12, 1819.

Sir Charles married Sarah, one of the daughters and co-heiresses of the late Sir James Patey, late of Reading, in Berkshire, Knt.; and has several children. His only surviving brother, James, was knighted for his gallantry at Algiers, in 1816, on which occasion he commanded the flag-ship of Lord Exmouth. His three elder brothers, John Douglas, Thomas Stewart, and William Henry, died in the service of their country; the former, a Captain R.N., was drowned in 1782; the second, a Lieutenant-Colonel in the army, fell at St. Domingo, in 1795; and the latter, a naval Captain, died in the following year.

A portrait of the subject of this memoir, executed by J. Northcote, representing his attack on Curacoa, was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1809.

  1. Admiral Brisbane died at Southampton Dec. 10, 1807. He was a descendant of Allans de Brysbane, who obtained a grant of the lands of Mucherach, in Stirling, from Donald Earl of Lennox, who lived in the time of King David Bruce, anno 1329.
  2. Captain Brisbane on leaving the Hercules, confided his son Charles, then about nine years of age, to the care of her first Lieutenant, the present Rear-Admiral Nowell, whose brother officers, as a mark of the respect and esteem they had for their late commander, agreed that he should mess in the ward-room. Mr. Nowell appointed him his little aide-de-camp; but as he could not bring himself to acquiesce in the youngster’s wishes so far as to assign him a station on the quarter-deck, in the event of coming to action, he placed him with the officer who commanded on the lower-deck. During the engagement with the French fleet under Count de Grasse, a shot came through the Hercules’ counter, and carried away the rudder case, one of the boards of which knocked Mr. Charles Brisbane down. One of the seamen took him up in his arms and carried him in a state of insensibility to the cockpit. He soon afterwards came to himself, and on the Surgeon asking him where he was hurt, he pointed to his breast, but said he was well enough to return to his quarters. The wound, however, proved of a very serious nature, and kept him in a crippled state, bent almost double, for nine months.
  3. See p. 250. et seq.
  4. See p. 340.
  5. See pp. 50, 51.
  6. It was on board the Tremendous, that the mutiny first made its appearance at the Cape of Good Hope. The ship’s company, charging her commander, Captain George Hopewell Stephens, with cruelty and misconduct, at first threatened to bring him to a court-martial, composed of members chosen from amongst themselves. Captain Stephens, feeling this as an imputation upon his honor and character as an officer, afterwards requested a court-martial upon his conduct, which was accordingly held on board the Sceptre, in Table Bay, and he was honorably acquitted.

    For a time, the mutineers, having obtained a pardon, returned to their duty; but the flame of discontent having been only smothered, not extinguished, it burst forth again with redoubled violence, extending to the Sceptre, and to some other ships. A council was immediately held on shore, wherein it was wisely determined by Admiral Pringle, Lord Macartney, the Governor of the colony, and General Dundas, who commanded the military stationed at the Cape, to use force, and the most decisive measures, for quelling it and bringing the ring-leaders to punishment; all the batteries were instantly manned, and upwards of 100 pieces of cannon pointed at the Tremendous, the Admiral’s ship, on board which the mutiny was at the greatest height; the furnaces were heated, and hot shot prepared to fire on her as she lay at anchor off the Amsterdam battery, if the mutineers should refuse to deliver up the ringleaders, and return to obedience. A proclamation was issued, and only two hours were allowed for them to deliberate, whether they would accept the terms offered. Ten minutes before the expiration of the time granted, the mutineers finding that it was positively determined to sink the Tremendous, in case of refusal, hoisted the flag of submission on board that ship, which was immediately followed by all the others. The delegates were given up, many of them tried and executed, others severely flogged, and good order and discipline once more restored in the squadron.

    Captain Stephens was afterwards advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral. He died at Great Ealing, in Middlesex, Dec. 25, 1819.

  7. On the 31st July, 1804, the officers of the Goliath gave Captain Brisbane a grand dinner at the Pope’s Head hotel, Plymouth. About the same period, he had the misfortune to fracture two of his ribs, and dislocate his arm. This accident was occasioned by the breaking of the man-, rope, just as he was stepping over the ship’s side.
  8. The Dutch frigate had previously been boarded by Mr. Grint, Master’s Mate of the Latona; but her colours being foul, afforded Captain Brisbane the opportunity of striking them.
  9. The privilege of bearing Supporters is limited to Peers of the Realm, the Knights of the several Orders, and the Proxies of Princes of the Blood at Installations, except in such cases wherein, under particular circumstances, especial license is granted for the use thereof, as in the case of Sir Charles Brisbane.