Royal Naval Biography/Canning, George


Is the third son of the late Robert Canning, of Hertford, Esq. He entered the royal navy under the auspices of the late Rear-Admiral John Willet Payne[1], by whom he was placed, as midshipman, on board the Russel 74, bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral M‘Bride, on the North Sea station, in the summer of 1796. From this ship he was soon afterwards removed into l’Impetueux 78, commanded by his patron, and attached to the Channel fleet; where he continued until that officer’s promotion to a flag, in Feb. 1799. He then joined the Tamar frigate, Captain Thomas Western, fitting out for the reception of Lord Hugh Seymour, the newly appointed commander-in-chief at the Leeward Islands, to whose patronage he was most strongly recommended.

Shortly after his arrival in the West Indies, Mr. Canning witnessed the surrender of the Dutch colony at Surinam, to the naval and military forces under Lord Hugh Seymour and Lieutenant-General Trigge[2]; and six days subsequent to that event, he assisted at the capture of the French frigate Republicain, mounting 34 guns, with a complement of 250 men, some of whom, however, were absent in prizes. In the short but close action which took place on this occasion (after an anxious chase of more than fifty hours), the enemy’s ship was reduced to a mere wreck, and sustained a loss of nine men killed and twelve wounded. The Tamar also suflFered much in sails and rigging, but had not a man slain, and only two of her crew wounded. On board le Republicain were found about seventy slaves, taken out of English guineamen.

The Tamar subsequently cruised with considerable success, and, together with numerous other prizes, captured the French ship privateer General Massena, of 16 guns and 150 men. Mr. Canning, who had been rated master’s-mate immediately after the above action, continued in her until about June 1801 ; when he was received on board the Leviathan 74, bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Duckworth, at Martinique. We next find him commanding a tender, and successively visiting Jamaica, Curaçoa, and Trinidad. His first commission (appointing him junior lieutenant of the Desirée frigate, Captain Charles B. H. Ross,) bears date Aug. 24th, 1802.

During the peace of Amiens, Lieutenant Canning was frequently despatched in the command of boats up Augusta River, many miles from the ship, to procure bullocks for the squadron of observation then cruising off Havannah. On those occasions he was sometimes absent several days and nights, his party sleeping either in the boats or in tents rigged on shore. On the renewal of hostilities, he was employed both day and night in pressing men from the shipping in harbour on the north side of Jamaica, while the frigate remained in the offing; and he succeeded in securing the services of many able fellows. During the subsequent blockade of Cape François, he commanded the boats of the Desirée at the capture of twelve merchant vessels, respecting which services the following official letters were written by Captain Ross:

Desirée, Manchineel Bay, Aug. 19th. 1803.

“Sir,– Having fetched into this anchorage last evening, and seeing from the mast-head, over the land, several vessels at anchor in Monte Christe roads, I despatched the boats armed, under Lieutenant Canning, to bring them out, which service he performed with credit, under a heavy fire from the batteries, and returned at daylight this morning, with five schooners and a sloop. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)C. B. H. Ross.”

To Captain Bligh, H.M.S. Theseus.

Desirée, Manchineel Bay, Sept. 4th. 1803.

“Sir,– I have pleasure in informing you, that your boats, accompanied by those of H.M. ship I command, returned early this morning, having brought out of Monte Christe all the vessels at that anchorage, to the amount of six sail of schooners, under a smart fire from the batteries, without loss. I have the honor to he, &c.

(Signed)C. B. H. Ross.”

To Captain Bligh, &c. &c. &c.

On the publication of these letters, in the London Gazette, the Committee of the Patriotic Fund resolved to present Lieutenant Canning with a sword of £50 value.

On the 8th Sept. 1803, the Desirée was present at the surrender of Port Dauphin, and a French frigate, la Sagesse, of 28 guns. Mr. Canning was afterwards placed in charge of a detained Spanish slave ship; and, on his arrival at Port Royal, appointed, by Rear-Admiral Duckworth, first lieutenant of la Creole frigate. Captain Austin Bissell, then about to sail for England, in company with the Cumberland 74, and homeward bound trade.

On the 25th Dec. following, in lat. 33° 18' N. long. 66° 12' W., la Creole sprung a leak, which soon gained on the pumps, although a number of invalided seamen and French prisoners worked cheerfully and hard at them, in conjunction with her crew. All the guns (except four kept for making signals), and a large quantity of shot and ballast, were then thrown overboard, which, together with a thrummed sail under her bottom, had a temporary good effect. Unfortunately, however, the wind, which had been blowing hard from the S.W., suddenly chopped round to N.W., making a heavy cross sea, causing the ship to labour prodigiously, and her leak greatly to increase. On the morning of the 2d Jan. 1804, the weather having moderated, a survey was held on her by some officers from the Cumberland, in consequence of whose report it was immediately determined that she should be abandoned. By p.m. the water in the hold had nearly reached the orlop-deck; and it was evident that the upper works were parting from the lower, somewhere about the water-line. By 4 o’clock, she was entirely deserted; and about dusk, she for ever disappeared.

Mr. Canning’s next appointment was, in Feb. 1804, to the Veteran 64, Captain (now Sir Richard) King, fitting out at Chatham, for the Boulogne station. In the ensuing year, he followed that officer into the Achille 74; of which ship he was fourth lieutenant at the memorable battle of Trafalgar. On his return to England, in Dec. 1805, he was appointed first of the Princess Charlotte frigate, Captain George Tobin, then at the Leeward Islands, whither he proceeded in the Mediator 44, taking with him an introductory letter to Rear-Admiral Cochrane, commander-in-chief on that station.

Shortly after Mr. Canning’s arrival at Barbadoes, the Princess Charlotte was ordered to see the homeward bound trade safe past Bermuda, and then to return to the West Indies, in company with the Unicorn frigate. Captain Lucius Hardy man. Unfortunately for her first lieutenant, the unexpected appearance of four French frigates, on the 28th May, 1806, in lat. 31° N. long. 68° 38' W., and their continuing for several days to hover about the convoy, induced the senior officer to keep the whole of the protecting force together, and thereby caused his return to England without promotion. After refitting at Plymouth, the Princess Charlotte was attached to the Irish station, from whence she sailed for Davis’s Straits, in company with the Dryad and Diana frigates. Captains Adam Drummond and Thomas James Maling. Not having had the good fortune to come across the object of their pursuit (a French squadron sent to interrupt the Greenland fishery), these ships returned home by the banks of Newfoundland, where they encountered a violent storm, in which the Diana lost her fore-mast, and the Princess Charlotte her maintop-mast, by the fall of which several persons were very severely hurt, and others, then aloft, placed in the greatest jeopardy.

Lieutenant Canning’s next appointment was to be third of the Brunswick 74, Captain Thomas Graves, which ship he commissioned at Portsmouth, early in 1807. During the siege of Copenhagen, in the autumn of the same year, he frequently commanded her boats, and displayed great activity and bravery, in preventing supplies from being thrown into that city from the islands of Amak and Saltholm. On the surrender of the Danish navy, he was directed to assist Lieutenant Boyd (second of the Brunswick) in fitting out and bringing to England a prize 74, the preservation of which from impending destruction may justly be attributed to his foresight and perseverance.

The ship in question, deeply laden with stores, and full of troops, was passing Huen island, between Copenhagen and Elsineur, when Lieutenant Canning, standing on the forecastle, observed another prize, the Neptunos 80, at no great distance on the lee-bow, sticking fast with all sail set. Having noticed the track of other large ships, and the wind blowing off the Swedish shore, he immediately called out “luff,” but was contradicted by the pilot, who desired the helm to be put up, for the purpose of passing to leeward of the ship aground. There was not a moment to be lost; it might have been fatal: he therefore promptly urged the necessity of keeping more to windward. Lieutenant Boyd, handsomely confiding in him, complied with his desire, and thereby succeeded in getting through the Sound without any accident. The Neptunos, notwithstanding every exertion, remained fast, and was ultimately destroyed.

In Sept. 1808, Lieutenant Canning was appointed first of the Centaur 74, bearing the flag of Sir Samuel Hood, then returning from the Baltic, and whom he subsequently followed into the Hibernia 110, on the Mediterranean station. On the 17th Feb. 1811, he addressed that officer as follows:

“Sir,– What I beg now to submit for your consideration is the destruction of the enemy’s fleet at Toulon; and as I have taken the liberty of stating the object I have in view, I presume it will be incumbent on me also to state the means by which I propose to effect that object. They are as follow, viz. by fire-vessels, of which I would employ a certain number, not less than twenty, about 250 tons burthen each, to swim as light as possible, and as taunt and square rigged as the hulls will admit, grappling-irons, &c. with two fast rowing boats, towed one on each side, so that, in case of any accident happening to one, the crew may find resource in the other; one commissioned officer, one petty officer, and seven seamen in each; the whole to be under the command of a captain, either in a line-of-battle ship or a frigate; to proceed (being previously in the day time kept out of sight of the enemy to avoid suspicion, and the enemy’s fleet in the outer road), wind and weather favorable, for the entrance of the harboar, ten in a line abreast, each having another in tow, chained together at a distance of fifteen fathoms, and firmly secured with hawsers: in that position bear down on the enemy, on a signal made by the commodore; the headmost one to go on the starboard bow, and sternmost on the larboard bow of the ship to be attacked, by means of which the enemy will he placed between two fires, and if he attempt to tow off one vessel, it will but the more entangle him with the other. It may be proper the attack should be made between the hours of one and two in the morning, and if possible at the setting of the moon. In order effectually to ensure success to an enterprise of such moment, and in which, from the nature of the place, ships of war cannot assist, I farther propose the vessels should be so fitted with combustibles, and have trains so placed, that they should not be set fire to until actually on board the enemy’s ships, when the fire must be so sudden and extensive as to preclude all possibility of extinguishing it. The boats are then to put off, and make the best of their way to the commodore, which, from the confusion that must inevitably take place among the enemy, appears probable may be done with trifling loss on our part, particularly as the whole force to be engaged will not amount to 200 men. To prevent, as far as possible, the enemy gaining information of such design, let the vessels be collected and equipped at sea; but I beg to add, that what I have taken the liberty of offering may be liable to alterations and improvements, by abler and more experienced heads than mine; yet I cannot conclude without making a request, if such an enterprise should be undertaken while I have the honor of being under your command, I may be employed on that service, when I will do my best to destroy one of the enemy’s ships. With every sentiment of respect and esteem, I have the honor to remain. Sir, your most obedient and humble servant,

(Signed)George Canning.”

A few days after, Sir Samuel Hood was pleased to inform Lieutenant Canning, that he had communicated the contents of his letter to the commander-in-chief, Sir Charles Cotton, who expressed much approbation thereat.

In May 1811, Sir Samuel left the Mediterranean, he having been appointed to the chief command in India; but as Lieutenant Canning was on Mr. Yorke’s list for promotion, he remained in the Hibernia until June 1812, when he was appointed, by Sir Edward Pellew, acting commander of the Swallow sloop, at Port Mahon. In August following, we find him commanding the Kite sloop, employed in the Archipelago, on which station he continued, under the orders of Captain Henry Hope and his successor, Captain John Clavell, until July 1813, an officer appointed by Lord Melville to supersede him not having been able to reach Smyrna at an earlier period. In answer to the application made by a friend, for his confirmation, the following answer was given:

Admiralty, 19th Aug., 1812.

“I have had the honor to receive your L____’s note of yesterday, requesting that Lieutenant Canning may be confirmed in the command of the Kite. I have had much pleasure, in compliance with your wishes, in recommending this officer for an Admiralty vacancy in due season, but I regret that my engagements did not admit of his confirmation on the present occasion, and he had therefore already been ordered to be superseded.


The following are the official details of an affair which gave rise to a discussion between the British ambassador at Constantinople and the Turkish Government:

H.M. sloop Kite, Oct. 22d, 1812.

“Sir,– I beg to acquaint you, that, in obedience to your instructions, cruising in the Archipelago, on the 20th inst. about 5 P.M., a lateen vessel of very suspicious appearance was observed off the south end of Amorgo, the wind light and inclining to calm. I immediately hoisted all the boats out, and sent them, under the command of Lieutenant Williams, in chase of her: it may be proper for me to add, that, before they left the Kite, I plainly saw part of the vessel’s hull from the deck. About 7-20 p.m. we heard the report of three guns, and saw the flashes of several muskets in the direction of the boats: at 9 o’clock they returned, bringing the vessel with them.

“Hardly, Sir, do I know how to express my feelings, when I acquaint you, as it is my duty to do, the vessel was manned with nine men and one boy, Turks, belonging to Candia, and, as they said, bound to Scala Nova, who having hailed the boats when within pistol-shot, though at peace with all nations, immediately opened what might have proved a most destructive fire upon them, from small carriage guns, by which Thomas Williams, sailmaker, being in the headmost boat with Mr. Hall, the master, received a musket-shot, which passed through the left shoulder and out at the right breast. On boarding the vessel, the Turks threw down their arms. I have now further to inform you, with the deepest concern, for, as on the one hand I felt all the respect due to the flag and the subjects of a nation with whom we are at peace, so, on the other hand, I felt equally for the honor of my country; therefore, as the firing directly into the boats when close to, and when boarded calling out they were Turks, which under those circumstances could only be considered as calling for quarter, evidently appeared to me an act no better than wilful murder and piracy, I have, though with great reluctance, sunk their vessel: their persons have been held sacred; not a man has received the slightest injury; their property has all been given them, except four small bags of dollars, sealed up, said to contain about 800, which have been reserved as a small remuneration for the wounded man, should he recover. * * * * * *.

(Signed)George Canning.”

To Captain Clavell, &c. &c. &c.

Respecting this affair, the British ambassador at Constantinople wrote to the senior officer in the Archipelago as follows:

March 12th, 1813.

“Sir,– I received in due time your letter of the 29th January, enclosing a copy of Captain Canning’s report of the circumstances which attended the destruction of the Turkish vessel off the island of Amorgo, concerning which a complaint had been made to me by the Turkish Government, and I have made the best use in my power of the materials furnished by Captain Canning, with a view to inculpate the master of the vessel, and to prove that his conduct had been such as deservedly to draw upon him the punishment he suffered; but, I am sorry to say, I have not succeeded.

“The man appears to have convinced the Turkish Ministers of his entire innocence. They think it not unnatural, that in the night he might mistake the English boats’ crews, imperfectly seen, for pirates or robbers, of whom they know there are a number in those seas. They say that all that could be expected of him was that he should cease firing the moment he discovered his error, which he accordingly did; that, however excusable the English might have been, had they sunk the boat in the first moment of irritation, the captain could not be justified in destroying her the next day, in cold blood, when he found that her crew were not pirates or robbers, but peaceable subjects of a friendly power.

“Both the Reis Effendi and the Capitan Pasha have therefore made, and continue to make, urgent applications to me for compensation to the poor man for the loss of his vessel; and I do not think it will be possible ultimately to reject the demand. All that seems practicable is to compound with the sufferer for a part instead of the whole of the sum he asks, and I own it appears to me that it would be advisable to arrange the matter in that way, rather than to make it a subject of public discussion between the two national Governments. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)Rob. Liston.”

In a private letter to the same officer, dated May 31st, 1813, Mr. Liston says:

“The Turkish boatman teazed and bullied the Ottoman ministers, and the Reis Effendi harrassed me so much respecting a compensation for the boat sunk by Captain Canning, that I was at last obliged to pay the man the 3000 piastres for which he was willing to compound the matter. I have got a receipt in full, signed by the boatman, which I am willing to put into Captain Canning’s hand when he thinks proper.”

On the 19th Feb. 1813, the acting commander of the Kite made the following report to Captain Clavell:

“Sir,– I beg to acquaint you, that being obliged to anchor some days in the Gulf of Smyrna, occasioned by a gale of wind from the N.E., I arrived in the Straits of Scio yesterday morning, and anchored the Kite in the roads, about a mile from the town; I proceeded to examine the state of the privateers in that port, and received information that the large settee which has been lying there some months, was nearly ready for sea. The very great protection and encouragement afforded the enemy’s privateers in Scio, is a fact of such general notoriety, that it will be perfectly useless in me to dwell on that subject; but as the injury they have thereby been enabled to do our commerce can be equalled only by the impudence with which they boast of it, I need only mention one single instance, which happened about two weeks ago, among many others, of so flagrant a nature that it attracted the general attention of all concerned in English trade: I allude to the ship belonging to Mr. Hayes, of Smyrna, taken by a rowboat out of Scio, from under the castle of Fojos, being carried to Patmos, where the cargo was sold, the money received, and the privateer’s men returned to Scio, ready to commit new depredations of a similar nature, in defiance of all laws which regulate neutral nations, and which have so rigidly been attended to on our part. Duly considering the above circumstances, it appeared to me the most likely means to benefit our general commerce in these seas, if, by retaliating on our enemies, they might be brought to a more civilised mode of warfare, or driven from this neighbourhood as robbers and pirates. For these reasons, I gave to Lieutenant Williams the command of the Kite’s boats, having under him acting Lieutenant Booth, and Mr. Edgar, purser, whose services are always voluntary, with instructions to bring out the settee from Scio. The boats left the brig about 2 o’clock this morning, and, I am happy to say, the service was accomplished in a masterly style, without the smallest accident or any kind of alarm. Before day-light, the Kite was under sail, with the privateer in tow, several miles distant from the port; her rudder was on deck, and sails unbent. I judged it prudent to see her part of the way out of the Archipelago. She is a very fine vessel, about a year old, mounting eight carriage guns, and four others in the hold; near 100 stand of muskets, complete with powder, &c. &c. &c.; seventeen men on board; sails so remarkably fast, that I apprehend few of H.M. ships would have been able to have caught her at sea, therefore calculated to do much mischief to our trade, if in the hands of an enemy. I hope my conduct in this instance will meet your approbation, and that of the commander-in-chief. I send her on to Malta, with a copy of this letter, to Admiral Laugharne. I have the honor to be, &c.

(Signed)George Canning.”

This vigorous proceeding also became a subject of discussion with the Divan, as will be seen by the following extract of Mr. Liston’s private letter, dated May 31st, 1813.

“I shall think it fortunate if the measures you have taken to prevent the sale of Captain Canning’s prize have the desired effect, and put it In my power to offer conditional restitution to the Porte. But I am sorry to say, things are now so deeply embroiled, that I almost despair of getting out of our difficulties in the way we could wish.

“The French, in consequence of the irregularity committed at Scio, have had the audacity to land at Syra, and take forcible possession of the greater part of the cargo of the ship Carniola, which was deposited in that island, under the seal of the parties and of the Turkish Government, awaiting the issue of a difference that had arisen respecting the legality of the capture, by the French, near the island of Milo. This outrage exceeds any thing hitherto perpetrated, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs has sent a message to the French Ambassador, demanding the restitution of the articles carried off. But I have little confidence in the ultimate success of this measure. Buonaparte is not yet low enough to embolden this Government to hold the language it ought upon the occasion.”

In Mar. 1813, acting Commander Canning was despatched to the coast of Karamania, where he recovered possession of a polacre ship which had been piratically seized in the Adriatic, and plundered of all her cargo except two butts of oil. This ship he conducted to Smyrna.

On the morning of the 5th June, 1813, a most disastrous affair took place between the boats of the Kite and some pirates, assisted by the inhabitants of Kilidromi, a small island, situated near the entrance to the Gulf of Salonica. Of forty officers and seamen employed in the boats, twenty were killed and eighteen wounded[3]; including Lieutenant C. Williams (to whom strict orders had been given not to land), Mr. Edgar (purser), and the senior midshipman.

On the 23d of the following month, acting Commander Canning was superseded, at Smyrna, by the present Captain Rowland Mainwaring; and received on board the Orlando frigate, for a passage to Malta, where the plague was then raging. Having previously obtained permission from Sir Edward Pellew to return home, coupled with an offer of an appointment in the fleet under his command, he there determined upon proceeding to England, where, after a detention of some time at Gibraltar, occasioned by a violent inflammatory complaint which had nearly proved fatal, he arrived in the beginning of Jan. 1814. His promotion to the rank of commander took place on the 15th June in the same year, previous to which he had been sent back to the Mediterranean, and thereby afforded an opportunity of visiting Palermo, Leghorn, Pisa, Genoa, and Marseilles. He finally returned to Portsmouth, in the Edinburgh 74, Captain John Lampen Manley, in Nov. 1814; since which he has not been employed. The following is extracted from a letter addressed to him by Viscount Exmouth:

Ashley House, Plymouth, 25th. Dec. 1819.

“My dear Sir,– I am much obliged, and indeed pleased, that you have written to me, for I very well recollect, that my opinion and feeling about you, when under my command, was that of conviction that you had merited promotion, and had lost it only by unforseen changes and events.

He subsequently received another proof of the estimation by which his conduct, while serving as a lieutenant, was held by his superiors:

London, 6th Nov. 1820.

“My dear Sir,– You may depend on it, I never had in my possession a medal for you, or I would not, I hope, have done you so much injustice as to have thus long detained it from its proper owner. Any certificate I can give towards the attainment of such an emblem of honor I will with pleasure. Believe me, my dear Sir, faithfully yours,

(Signed)Richard King.”

To Commander Canning, R.N.[4]

In 1818, and the two following years, Commander Canning made strenuous endeavours to procure an alteration in the tonnage laws, with a view to the improvement of ship-building; and a few years afterwards, to draw public attention to the very dangerous rapidity with which steam-vessels navigated narrow channels and crowded rivers, in order that the same might be regulated; also, in 1839 and 1830, to procure an alteration in the machinery used on board those vessels, in order to facilitate their movements in turning and winding, which has since been done.

Commander Canning’s eldest brother, Jacob, held a commission in the Hertfordshire militia, and died on the 18th June, 1827.

  1. See Suppl. Part I. note at p. 57 et seq.
  2. Aug. 20th, 1799.
  3. See Nav. Chron. vol. xxxi p. 26.
  4. Mr. Boulton, the scientific and venerable proprietor of Soho, whose public exertions were so uniformly distinguished by a patriotism the best directed, solicited the permission of Government, that he might be allowed to strike a medal, at his own expence, in commemoration of the brilliant victory off Cape Trafalgar, and to present one to every officer, seamen, marine, &c. who served that day on board the British fleet. The permission was immediately granted, with the warmest approbation of so laudable a design.