Royal Naval Biography/Gambier, James


Knight Grand Cross of the most Honourable Military Order of the Bath; President of the Church Missionary Society, and a Vice-President of the Naval Charitable, Marine, and other Societies: also of the Lock Hospital, the Asylum, and the African and Benevolent Institutions.

This nobleman is the second son of the late John Gambier, Esq., formerly Lieutenant-Governor of the Bahama Islands, by Miss Deborah Stiles, of the Island of Bermuda. His Lordship’s great-grandfather, Nicholas Gambier, left Caen in Normandy, on the revocation of the edict of Nantes, and settled in England, 1690; his eldest son was a Barrister at Law, and one of the counsel to the city of London.

The subject of this memoir, the second Admiral of the same name in the British Navy, was born at the Bahamas, Oct. 13, 1756, and went to sea at an early age. In 1778, we find him commander of the Thunder bomb, in which vessel he had the misfortune to be captured by the French fleet under Count d’Estaing. He was promoted to the rank of Post-Captain, Oct. 9, in the same year, and appointed to the command of the Raleigh, of 32 guns. In this frigate he was engaged in repelling the French attempt upon Jersey[1], and afterwards proceeded to the coast of America.

At the reduction of Charlestown, in South Carolina[2], Captain Gambier served on shore with the brigade of seamen and marines. In 1781, he captured the General Mifflin, American ship of war, mounting 20 guns, with a complement of 115 men.

From this period we find no mention of him until the year 1793, when a long, sanguinary, and expensive war with France took place[3], on which occasion Captain Gambier was immediately selected for employment, and appointed to the command of the Defence, of 74 guns, under the orders of Earl Howe.

On the 18th Nov., the fleet, being on a cruise in the Bay of Biscay, got sight of a French squadron, to which chace was immediately given; but the enemy being considerably to windward, and the weather thick and squally, they effected their escape. The Defence in the pursuit carried away her top-masts.

It was not until the month of May, 1794, that the Brest Fleet put to sea, and then only for the express purpose of protecting a fleet laden with corn; the pressure of want throughout France being so great, that the party then in power determined rather to risk a defeat than be exposed to a famine. In the actions that ensued[4], Captain Gambier bore a most distinguished share. On the glorious 1st June, the Defence was the first vessel that cut through the enemy’s line, passing between the seventh and eighth ships. She had successively three or four ships engaging her; the men being almost from the first divided at their quarters to fight both sides at once; her masts were all shot away; the main-mast fell in-board, and the whole of the quarter-deck and forecastle guns were rendered useless. The loss she sustained on that and the preceding days, amounted to 18 men killed and 39 wounded.

A general promotion followed this important victory, on which occasion Captain Gambier was nominated a Colonel of Marines; and on the 1st June, 1795, he was advanced to the rank of Rear-Admiral. About the same time, we find him holding a seat at the Board of Admiralty, in which office he continued until the month of February, 1801, when he was appointed third in command in the Channel Fleet, and hoisted his flag on board the Neptune, of 98 guns.

In the spring of 1802, our officer proceeded to Newfoundland, as Governor of that island, and Commander-in-Chief of the squadron employed for its protection. About May 1804, he resumed his seat at the Admiralty, and continued there under the two naval administrations of Viscount Melville and Lord Barham, until the change of ministry that took place on the demise of that great statesman, the Right Hon. William Pitt, in the month of Feb. 1806. On the 14th April, 1807, Admiral Gambier was again appointed to assist in the direction of naval affairs, under Lord Mulgrave; and in the following summer was entrusted with the command of a fleet sent to demand possession of the Danish navy; a measure rendered absolutely necessary by the perfidious counsels and conduct of the French government, through whose machinations, powers which had hitherto been neutral, were induced to join her already formidable host of enemies.

The first division of the armament sailed from England on the 26th July, and the second on the 29th; the whole arrived off Wibeck, a village situated about midway between Elsineur and Copenhagen, on the evening of the 15th Aug. where the army, under Lieutenant-General Lord Cathcart, was disembarked without the smallest opposition; and on the following day the joint commanders issued the following proclamation;

“Whereas the present treaties of peace, and the changes of government and of territory, acceded to by so many foreign powers, have so far increased the influence of France on the continent of Europe, as to render it impossible for Denmark, though it desires to be neutral, to preserve its neutrality, and absolutely necessary for those who continue to resist French aggression, to take measures to prevent the arms of a neutral power from being turned against them;

“In this view, the King cannot regard the present position of Denmark with indifference; and his Majesty has sent negotiators with ample powers, to his Danish Majesty, to request, in the most amicable manner, such explanations as the times require, and a concurrence in such measures as can alone give security against the farther mischiefs which the French meditate, through the acquisition of the Danish Navy.

“The King, our royal and most gracious master,, has therefore judged it expedient to desire the temporary deposit of the Danish ships of the line, in one of his Majesty’s ports.

“This deposit seems to be so just, and so indispensably necessary, under the relative circumstances of the neutral and belligerent powers, that his Majesty has farther deemed it a duty to himself and to his people, to support the demand by a powerful fleet, and by an army amply supplied with every preparation necessary for the most determined and active enterprize.

“We come therefore to your shores, inhabitants of Zealand! not as enemies, but in self-defence, to prevent those who have so long disturbed the peace of Europe, from compelling the force of your navy to be turned against us.

“We ask deposit, we have not looked to capture; so far from it, the most solemn pledge has been offered to your government, and is hereby renewed in the name, and at the express command of the King, our master, that if our demand be amicably acceded to, every ship belonging to Denmark shall, at the conclusion of a general peace, be restored to her, in the same condition and state of equipment, as when received under the protection of the British flag.

“It is in the power of your government, by a word, to sheath our swords, most reluctantly drawn against you; but if, on the other hand, the machinations of France render you deaf to the voice of reason and the call of friendship, the innocent blood that will be spilt, and the horror of a besieged and bombarded capital, must fall on your own heads, and on those of your cruel advisers.

“His Majesty’s seamen and soldiers, when on shore, will treat Zealand, as long as your conduct to them permits it, on the footing of a province of the most friendly power in alliance with Great Britain, whose territory has the misfortune to be the theatre of war.

“The persons of all those who remain at home, and who do not take an hostile part, will be held sacred.

“Property will be respected and preserved, and the most severe discipline will be enforced.

“Every article of supply furnished or brought to market, will be paid for at a fair and settled price; but as immediate and constant supplies, especially of provision, forage, fuel and transports, are necessary to all armies, it is well known, that requisitions are unavoidable, and must be enforced.

“Much convenience will arise to the inhabitants, and much confusion and loss to them will be prevented, if persons in authority are found in the several districts, to whom requisitions may be addressed, and through whom claims for payment may be settled and liquidated.

“If such persons are appointed, and discharge their duty, without meddling in matters which do not concern them, they shall be respected, and all requisitions shall be addressed to them, through the proper channels, and departments of the navy and army; but as forbearance on the part of the inhabitants is essential to the principle of these arrangements, it is necessary that all manner of civil persons should remain at their respective habitations, and any peasants, or other persons, found in arms, singly, or in small troops, or who may be guilty of any act of violence, must expect to be treated with rigour.

“The government of his Danish Majesty having hitherto refused to treat this matter in an amicable way, part of the army has been disembarked, and the whole force has assumed a warlike attitude; but it is as yet not too late for the voice of reason and moderation to be heard.

“Given in the Sound, under our hands and seals, this 16th day of August, 1807.


“Commanders in Chief of his Majesty’s forces by sea
“and land employed in the expedition.”

On the same day the Commandant of Copenhagen issued the following proclamation; “Hostilities having commenced, I herewith command, in consequence of the order of the King, that all British property shall be sequestered, and that every one, who is in possession of English money or property of any kind, shall announce it to the police, who will carry the necessary measures into execution. Every one, who does not act according to this order, shall be regarded as a traitor to the country.”

After some ineffectual attempts of the Danes to annoy the left wing of the army, by the fire of their gun-boats, and to impede its progress by sallies, which were always repulsed with loss, the city of Copenhagen was closely invested on the land side. The fleet removing to an advanced anchorage, formed an impenetrable blockade by sea.

On the 2nd Sept. the British Commanders summoned the Danish General for the last time to surrender the ships of war on the before mentioned conditions, and in an amicable manner, repeating, that the horrors of a bombardment would be the immediate consequences of a refusal, and that it must fall on the head of those, in whose power it was to avert the evil by a single word. General Peymann persisting in his refusal, the mortar-batteries which had been erected by the army in the several positions they had taken around Copenhagen, together with the bomb-vessels, which were placed in convenient situations, opened their fire with such power and effect, that in a short time the town was set on fire, and was kept in flames in different places till the evening of the 5th, when a considerable part of it being consumed, and the conflagration having arrived at a great height, threatening the speedy destruction of the whole city, the enemy sent out a flag of truce, desiring an armistice, to afford time to treat for a capitulation. After some correspondence had passed between General Peymann, Admiral Gambier, and Lord Cathcart, certain articles were agreed upon; by which all the Danish ships and vessels of war, consisting of nineteen sail of the line[5], twenty-three frigates and sloops, and twenty-five gun-boats, with the stores in the arsenal, were to be delivered up. This great object was attained with very trifling loss on the part of the British. During the whole of the siege the number of killed, wounded, and missing, of both services, did not exceed 259 men.

Admiral Gambier immediately began fitting out the ships that filled the spacious basins where they were laid up in ordinary, and at the expiration of the term limited in the capitulation, they were all, together with the stores, timber, and every article of naval equipment found in the arsenal and storehouses, conveyed to England, where, with the exception of one line-of-battle ship, that grounded on the isle of Huen, and was destroyed, they arrived safely in the latter end of the month of October.

The intended hostility of Denmark against this country, is beyond a doubt; consequently, though the sacrifice of human blood which occurred is to be lamented, not the slightest sentiment of commiseration for the Danish government can be entertained. So cordial was the friendship of the Crown Prince towards Buonaparte, and so anxiously did he anticipate his wishes, that he actually issued orders for the destruction of the Danish fleet, rather than it should fall into the hands of the English. Fortunately, however, those orders were intercepted. Nothing could more strikingly evince the chagrin and disappointment which Buonaparte sustained by this measure, than the strictures of the Moniteur, and of other continental papers under the influence of France.

For the able manner in which Admiral Gambier had conducted the above expedition, the dignity of a Baron of the United Kingdom was conferred upon him soon after his return[6]; and in the spring of 1808, he was appointed to the command of the Channel Fleet, on which occasion he vacated his seat at the Admiralty.

During the period this officer resided at the Admiralty, he suggested the plan upon which the Plantagenet, a 74-gun ship, was built. She was launched at Woolwich, Oct. 23, 1801, and considered by judges of naval architecture to be of singularly fine mould, and exquisite proportions. Being without a poop, she passed at a distance for a large frigate. He also, with much labour and close attention, compiled a code of signals for the Navy; no regular one authorized by the Admiralty having been established since the very imperfect Sailing and Fighting Instructions issued by the Duke of York, afterwards James II. In that code the Admiral inserted the list of the ships of the Navy, with numbers against their names, an invention of his own, for the purpose of their making themselves known to each other at sea and on other occasions; with several improvements in the signals and evolutions. He also drew up the ‘General Instructions’ for the direction and guidance of officers in the internal discipline and government of the King’s ships, with the duty of every officer clearly pointed out. This was a work greatly needed, as the old instructions had become obsolete and almost useless, being very deficient and confused.

Nothing material occurred until the month of April, 1809, when a detachment of his Lordship’s fleet, preceded by some fire-ships, attacked a French squadron at their anchorage in Aix Roads, and succeeded in destroying the Ville de Varsovie, of 80 guns, Tonnerre and Aquilon, of 74 guns each, and the Calcutta, of 56 guns; several others, from getting on shore, if not rendered altogether unserviceable, were at least disabled for a considerable time[7].

A difference of opinion respecting the practicability of destroying the remainder of the enemy’s squadron was productive of a serious misunderstanding between the Commander-in-Chief and Lord Cochrane, who had had the direction of the fire-ships; which terminated in a court martial held on the noble Admiral, at his own request, to enquire into his conduct when in presence of the enemy.

The court assembled on board the Gladiator, at Portsmouth, July 26, 1809, and continued by adjournments till Aug. 9, when the following sentence was pronounced;

“The Court agree, that the charge, ‘That Admiral the Right Hon. Lord Gambier, on the 12th April, the enemy’s ships being then on fire, and the signal having been made that they could be destroyed, did, for a considerable time, neglect or delay taking effectual measures for destroying them,’ has not been proved against the said Right Hon. Lord Gambier; but that his Lordship’s conduct on that occasion, as well as his general conduct and proceedings as Commander-in-Chief of the Channel Fleet, employed in Basque Roads, between the 17th March and the 29th April, 1809, was marked by zeal, judgment, and ability, and an anxious attention to the welfare of his Majesty’s, service, and do adjudge him to be most honourably acquitted; and the said Admiral the Right Hon. Lord Gambier is hereby most honourably acquitted accordingly.”

The President, Sir Roger Curtis, then desired his Lordship’s sword to be handed to him, which he returned to him, with the following address: “Admiral Lord Gambier, I have peculiar pleasure in receiving the command of the Court to return you your sword, in the fullest conviction, that, as you have hitherto done, you will on all future ocasions use it for the honour and advantage of your country, and to your own personal honour. Having so far obeyed the command of the Court, I beg you will permit me in my individual capacity, to express to you the high gratification I have upon this occasion.”

To this honourable acquittal was added the thanks of both Houses of Parliament. The Lord Chancellor, in conveying those of the Peers, passed a great encomium upon the life and services of the noble Admiral, and concluded by testifying his personal respect.

Lord Gambier retained the command of the Channel Fleet until 1811, when the system of relieving Admirals from their stations, at the expiration of three years, which was enforced by the Right Hon. Charles Yorke, on his accession to the Admiralty department, subjected his Lordship to resign a station that is at once the most honourable, and the most important, at the disposal of the Board.

On the 30th July, 1814, Lord Gambier was nominated the head of a commission for negociating a treaty of peace with the plenipotentiaries duly authorized for that purpose on the part of the United States of America. The first meeting took place at Ghent on the 8th of the following month; and the preliminaries of peace were signed at the same place on the 24th Dec., and ratified at Washington, Feb. 17, 1815.

On the 7th June following, his Lordship was honoured with the insignia of a G.C.B. He married in July, 1788, Louisa, second daughter of Daniel Mathew, of Felix-hall, co. Essex, Esq.

A portrait of his Lordship, by Beechy, was exhibited at the Royal Academy, in 1809.

Residence.– Iver, co. Bucks.


LORD GAMBIER, (p. 79.) Joined the Prince George, of 98 guns, fitting at Chatham in the winter of 1794.

  1. Jan. 6, 1781.
  2. See Retired Captain, Sir A. S. Hamond.
  3. See note at p. 18.
  4. On 19th May, Earl Howe having obtained certain intelligence that the enemy had some days before put to sea, and were then not many leagues to the westward of him, went immediately in pursuit of them. On the morning of the 28th, being then about 100 leagues distant from Ushant, the French fleet was discovered to windward, it then blowing fresh from the S.S.W. with a rough sea. Upon their perceiving the British fleet, they bore down in a loose order, and soon after hauled again to the wind, and began to form in order of battle. The British fleet still continuing in the order of sailing, excepting the division under Rear-Admiral Pasley, who had advanced a considerable distance to windward of the main body, and was coming fast up with the enemy’s rear. About a quarter before two P.M., Earl Howe made the signal for a general chace, and to engage the enemy. Towards the evening, Rear-Admiral Pasley, in the Bellerophon, 74 guns, closed with the rear ship of the French line, the Revolutionnaire, of 110 guns, on which he commenced a firm and resolute attack, supported occasionally by the ships under his orders. The Bellerophon being soon disabled, bore down to the main body of the fleet; her opponent, also, having had her mizen-mast shot away, fell to leeward of her station. While in this state, she was intercepted by the Leviathan, another 74, commanded by Lord Hugh Seymour, who engaged her until the coming up of the Audacious, a ship of the same force; then passed on, fired a broadside at the next French ship, and dropped to the rear. Captain William Parker continued to engage his huge opponent for two hours without intermission, when the Revolutionnaire, having lost her lower yards and main-top-sail yard, and being otherwise much shattered, fell athwart hawse of the Audacious; but the ships soon getting clear of each other, the enemy put before the wind; neither was it in the power of Captain Parker to follow her, his rigging and sails being cut to pieces, and the ship for some time quite unmanageable. At day-light on the following morning, he discovered nine of the enemy’s ships about three miles to windward of the Audacious; two of them gave chace; her situation for some time was very alarming, but by the active exertions of the officers and men, she was soon capable of making such sail as to preserve her distance; the Revolutionnaire was at the same time observed about a mile and a half to windward, totally dismasted. The weather being thick and hazy, Captain Parker soon lost sight of the enemy; and as the Audacious was in too disabled a state to give him hopes of rejoining the Commander-in-Chief, he bore away for the Channel, and arrived safely at Plymouth.

    On the 29th May, a partial engagement took place between the hostile fleets, in which some of the enemy’s ships were much crippled, and the advantage of the weather-gage obtained by the British. Thick foggy weather prevented any operations on either side for the two following days; at intervals the fleets were in sight of each other, and not many miles distant.

    At day-break on the 1st June, the French fleet was descried on the lee bow, consisting of twenty-six line-of-battle ships, mounting 2158 guns, (the whole of whom, excepting one or two, appeared complete in their masts and rigging,) six frigates and corvettes. The force under Earl Howe was at this time composed of twenty-five ships of the line,

    Queen Charlotte   Admiral Earl Howe, who on this occasion wore the Union at the main.
    First Captain, Sir Roger Curtis.
    SecondSir And. Snape Douglas
    Royal George   Admiral Sir Alex. Hood.
    Captain William Domett.
    Royal Sovereign   Admiral Thomas Graves.
    Captain Henry Nicholls.
    Barfleur   Rear-Admiral George Bowyer.
    Captain Cuthbert Collingwood.
    Glory John Elphinstone.
    Impregnable   Rear-Admiral Ben. Caldwell.
    Captain George B. Westcott.
    Queen   Rear-Admiral Alan Gardner.
    Captain John Hutt.
    Caesar Captain Anthony J. P. Molloy.
    Gibraltar Thomas Mackenzie.
    Brunswick John Harvey.
    Valiant Thomas Pringle.
    Leviathan Lord Hugh Seymour.
    Alfred John Bazely.
    mounting 2098 guns, seven frigates, one brig, one hospital-ship, one fire-vessel, and two cutters. At half past seven A.M., his Lordship made the signal to bear up, and for each ship to engage her opponent in the enemy’s line, who seemed to wait for the attack with great resolution. In a short time, a most tremendous cannonade commenced from van to rear, which raged with unceasing fury for about an hour. The enemy’s line having been forced through in several places, they began to give way; their Admiral, Villaret Joyeuse, in the Montagne, of 120 guns, on board of which ship was the Conventional Deputy Jean Bon Saint André, vigorously attacked by the Queen Charlotte, bore up in great confusion, and was followed by all those of his ships which were able to carry sail, leaving the rest which were crippled, at the mercy of their enemies. Upon the clearing up of the smoke, twelve French vessels were seen, some totally dismasted, and others with only one mast standing, endeavouring to make off under their spritsails. Seven of these were taken possession of; one, le Vengeur, of 74 guns, sunk before the whole of her crew could be taken out, not more than 213 of whom were saved. A distant and irregular firing was continued at intervals between the fugitive and British ships, till about four P.M.; the French Admiral by this time had collected most of his remaining vessels, and steered off to the eastward.

    The loss sustained by the British in these battles, amounted to 290 men killed, and 858 wounded. Captain Montagu was the only officer of his rank who was slain. Rear-Admirals Bowyer and Pasley, and Captain Hutt, had each a leg, and Captain John Harvey an arm amputated. The latter died a few days after his arrival at Portsmouth. The killed on board the enemy’s ships which were captured, amounted to 690, wounded 580, exclusive of about 320 lost in le Vengeur when she sunk; and the total loss sustained by the republican fleet, must have been at least double, if not treble that amount.

    Bellerophon   Rear-Admiral Thomas Pasley.
    Captain William Hope.
    Culloden Isaac Schomberg
    Defence James Gambier.
    Invincible Hon. Thomas Pakenham.
    Majestic Charles Cotton.
    Marlborough Hon. G. C. Berkeley.
    Montagu James Montagu.
    Orion John Thomas Duckworth.
    Ramillies Henry Harvey.
    Russell John Willet Payne.
    Thunderer Albemarle Bertie.
    Tremendous James Pigott.
    On the 11th June, Earl Howe entered the Channel with the prizes in tow [see below]; and two days after arrived at Spithead with part of his fleet, and the trophies of his victory, having ordered a detachment under Admiral Graves to put into Plymouth. On the 26th, their late Majesties arrived at Portsmouth, and went on board the Queen Charlotte. The King held a levee, and presented the veteran Chief with a diamond hilt sword, valued at 3000 guineas, also a gold chain with a medal suspended, to be worn round the neck. The royal party dined with his Lordship, and in the evening returned on shore.
    Sans Pareil 84
    Juste 84
    Amérique 78
    Impétueux 78
    Northumberland 78
    Achille 78

    Earl Howe in his public despatches, made particular mention of the following officers. His Majesty on the 30th Nov. 1796, was pleased to order a gold medal emblematical of the victory, to be presented to each, to be worn round the neck by the Admirals, suspended from a gold chain; and by the Captains attached to a blue and white ribbon through the third and fourth button-holes, on the left side. Admirals Graves and Sir Alexander Hood, Rear-Admirals Bowyer, Gardner, and Pasley. Captains Lord Hugh Seymour, Sir Roger Curtis, Sir A. S. Douglas, James Gambier, Hon. Thomas Pakenham, Hon. George Berkeley, John Harvey, Henry Harvey, Thomas Pringle, J. W. Payne, William Parker, I. T. Duckworth, Henry Nicholls, John Elphinstone, and William Hope. We have reason to believe that Captain William Domett also received a medal, though his name does not appear in the above list.

    His Majesty’s approbation of the conduct and bravery of the officers and men in the above actions was also made known in public orders, together with the thanks of both houses of parliament.

    A most liberal subscription was opened for the relief of the wounded officers, seamen, and marines; and also the widows and children of those who so gloriously fell on these days in the service of their king and country. The city of London subscribed 500l. The Corporation of the Trinity House gave 200 guineas; and the cities of Edinburgh and Dublin also contributed very liberally.

    As a further mark of encouragement and favour to the fleet, the legislature repealed the duty of five per cent, on prize ships, as far as relates to ships of war, or privateers taken from the enemy.

  5. Two of the line-of-battle ships and two frigates were destroyed, being unserviceable.
  6. On the 28th Jan. 1808, the thanks of both Houses of Parliament were voted to the naval and military commanders, officers, seamen, &c. employed in the late expedition, to the Baltic. Lord Hawkesbury proposed the resolutions to this effect in the House of Lords, and Lord Castlereagh in the Commons. The motion was opposed in both houses, simply on the ground, that the enterprise was not of such a nature as to merit the proposed honours, for the officers by whom it was accomplished. The policy of the measure was not taken into discussion. The motion was carried without a division in the Lords; in the Commons the proposer had a majority of 100 against 19.
  7. L’Indienne, frigate, was afterwards burnt by her crew.