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Royal Naval Biography/Larkan, Robert

A Captain of the Royal Hospital at Greenwich.
[Retired Captain.]

This officer was born at Athlone, in Ireland, Dec. 27, 1756, and at the age of fourteen years was placed by his uncle, the late Captain John P. Ardesoif, R.N. under the protection of Captain George Vandeput, commanding the Solebay frigate. He subsequently served as a Midshipman on board the Terrible and Ramillies, third rates; Argo 44; Pelican sloop of war; and Prince of Wales 74, the latter bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Barrington, on the Leeward Islands station.

Whilst serving under that distinguished commander, Mr. Larkan was present at the capture of St. Lucia[1], and bore a part in the action between Vice-Admiral Byron, and the Count d’Estaing, off Grenada, July 6, 1779[2]. On the 28th April, 1780, after having acted for some time as a Lieutenant in the Diana frigate, he was confirmed to that rank in the Culloden 74. From the following months until Nov. 1783, he served as such under the late Lord Hugh Seymour in the Diana, Ambuscade, and Latona, principally attached to the grand fleet, at that period employed cruising in the Bay of Biscay, and escorting supplies to the besieged garrison of Gibraltar.

The last named frigate afforded such essential service, during the relief of that fortress by Earl Howe, that we think it proper to enter into a more minute account of what passed on that memorable occasion, than we did in our first volume.

On the 9th Oct. 1782, being then abreast of Cape St. Vincent, Lord Howe sent a Lieutenant into Faro to gain intelligence; who returned with the news that the enemy had failed in their grand attack, and that the combined fleets of France and Spain, consisting of forty-seven sail of the line, three ships of 56 guns each, besides frigates, &c. were lying off Algeziras, for the purpose of preventing any supplies being carried to the rock. At five P.M. on the following day, the British fleet, consisting of thirty-four sail of the line, five frigates, three fire-vessels, and twenty-nine transports, brought to on the starboard tack, about fourteen leagues from the entrance of the Gut. At eight A. M. on the 11th, it having blown hard the preceding evening, the signal was made to close; and at 10h 30’ to form the line of battle a-head; the transports, under protection of the Latona, preceding the fleet to the eastward. The same evening the Latona anchored in the bay, and Lord Howe, in the Victory, passed the rock. On the 12th the Latona came out and brought Captain Curtis of the navy to the Commander-in-Chief; only four of the transports fetched into the bay; the remainder were driven by the current up the Mediterranean, whither the fleet also repaired. Oct. 13th, the Panther of 60 guns, anchored off the garrison. At eleven A.M. the Latona, abreast of Europa point, informed the Admiral by signal that the enemy were in motion, and bore up to close with the fleet. At sun-down the enemy were seen about six leagues to windward, in line-of-battle on the larboard tack, forty-nine sail of square-rigged vessels, forty-two of which appeared to be of the line. The Latona and another frigate were ordered to reconnoitre.

At two A.M. on the 14th, the Latona made the signal for the enemy having tacked. At six they were not in sight from the decks of the British ships. Oct. 15, Gibraltar distant about ten leagues. The next day very thick weather with a heavy swell; Latona informed Lord Howe that eighteen more of the transports were safe in the Mole. At four P.M. on the 17th, the fleet stood over for Tetuan Bay, with intention to anchor there, but found it was not sufficiently capacious. On the 18th, Captain Holloway of the Buffalo, who had been sent to the Zaffarine islands, hove in sight, and got safe into the bay with all the remainder of the transports under his protection, one brig alone excepted[3]. In the evening Captain Curtis again went on board the Latona, charged with the final communications the Governor had to make to Earl Howe. At six A.M. on the 19th, wind about east, the Crown made the signal for the enemy’s fleet. His Lordship attempted to form, but finding it impracticable, ran through the Gut with his colours flying as a challenge. At four P.M. the Captain of the Latona went on board the Victory, with the news of his having captured’and destroyed a Spanish fire-vessel , he also carried with him Captain Vallotton, aid-de-camp to General Elliot, and Captain Curtis, returning to England with despatches. The loss sustained by the British in the ensuing skirmish has already been stated in a note at p. 42, of this volume.

The Spanish fire-vessel just alluded to was taken possession of, and conducted into Gibraltar Bay, by Lieutenant Larkan, who appears to have had a most miraculous escape from destruction, she being actually on fire in several places, and her hatches all battened down, when boarded by him. On searching the prize several lighted matches were discovered in various parts, some of which had communicated their fire to rags and other combustibles, whilst one was found sticking in a barrel of filled cartridges placed under the cabin. The man who had been ordered to inspect that part of the vessel, was so much alarmed, that instead of attending to Lieutenant Larkan’s order enjoining him to be steady, to take up the match gently and hand it to him, he threw it up the scuttle with such force that it fell down an adjoining hatchway where a large quantity of combustible matter was deposited; and but for the promptitude of Lieutenant Larkan, who seeing another man standing near, instantly pushed him down upon the match, which was thereby fortunately extinguished, the most alarming consequences might have followed. Others, however, being secreted in different parts, as was evident from the increased smoke, Lieutenant Larkan having succeeded in reaching Gibraltar Bay about mid-night, and reported the condition of the vessel to his Captain, was ordered to destroy her without delay, a service which he performed so effectually, that in little more than a quarter of an hour the water for some distance was covered with her burning wreck.

On the appearance of hostilities with Spain in 1790, Lieutenant Larkan again joined Lord Hugh Seymour, in the Canada of 74 guns; and at the commencement of the French war in 1793, he accompanied him to the Mediterranean in the Leviathan, a ship of the same force.

During the memorable actions of May 29 and June 1, 1794, the Leviathan, at that period attached to Lord Howe’s fleet, bore a distinguished part. The veteran Admiral, in his supplementary official letter, dated June 21, thus notices her conduct on the 28th of the former month:

“The quick approach of night only allowed me to observe, that Lord Hugh Seymour Conway in the Leviathan, with equal good judgment and determined courage, pushed up alongside of the 3-decked French ship, and was supported by Captain Parker of the Audacious, in the most spirited manner. I have since learnt that the Leviathan stretched on farther a-head, for bringing the second ship from the enemy’s rear to action, as soon as her former station could be occupied by a succeeding British ship; also that the 3-decker in the enemy’s rear, as aforesaid, being unsustained by their other ships, struck to the Audacious, and that they parted company together soon afterwards.” Respecting the Leviathan on the ensuing day, his Lordship adds: “The Queen Charlotte was therefore immediately tacked; and followed by the Bellerophon, her second astern, and soon after joined by the Leviathan, passed through in action, between the fifth and sixth ships in the rear of the enemy’s line.”

On the 1st June, the Leviathan engaged l’Amérique of 74 guns, bearing the broad pendant of a French Commodore, and fairly beat her out of the enemy’s line; but such was the obstinacy of her commander, that although she had been rendered perfectly defenceless, and her firing had entirely ceased, he could not be prevailed on to strike. Lord Hugh was at length obliged to leave his antagonist, and close with the British Admiral, in obedience to a signal then flying: l’Amérique soon after struck to the Russel, without making any further resistance. The Leviathan had 10 men killed and 33 wounded, whilst the French ship, in the different actions, had 134 slain and 110 wounded.

Mr. Larkan’s conduct, as first Lieutenant of the Leviathan, on those eventful days, procured for him almost immediate promotion; and we subsequently find him commanding the Hornet sloop of war. His advancement to the rank of Post-Captain took place Sept. 16, 1796; and from this period till the peace of Amiens, he was employed in the Camilla, a 20-gun ship, principally on the North Sea and American stations.

Captain Larkan appears to have been doomed to a state of painful inactivity during the whole of the late war. He wasappointed to the Royal Hospital at Greenwich, in Jan. 1818, and placed on the retired list in Aug. of the following year. His brother was first Lieutenant of the Defence in the battle of the 1st June, and is now a Commander on half pay.