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Royal Naval Biography/Vansittart, Henry

[Post-Captain of 1801.]

This officer is a son of George Vansittart, Esq., formerly M.P. for Berkshire (which county he represented many years), by Sarah, daughter of the late Rev. Sir James Stonhouse, Bart.

He was born at Bisham Abbey, near Marlow, co. Berks; entered the naval service under the protection of the late Admiral Sir George Bowyer[1]; and served his time as a Midshipman on board the Pegasus of 28 guns, commanded by Captain William Domett, on the Newfoundland station; Hannibal 74, Captain John Colpoys, in the Channel; Romney 50; and Princess Royal 98, bearing the flag of the late Admiral Goodall; l’Aigle frigate, Captain Samuel Hood; and Victory of 100 guns, the flag ship of Lord Hood; the four latter ships employed in the Mediterranean, from whence he returned to England at the latter end of 1794.

During the siege of Toulon by the republican army, Mr. Vansittart, although very young, was allowed, after repeated entreaties, to serve as a volunteer in a floating battery, where he received a very severe wound in the head, from a heavy oak splinter, which cut through the skull to the thin membrane that covers the brain, and passing on, took off the thigh of a Spanish bombardier. He was at the same time slightly wounded in several places by smaller splinters[2]. In 1794, we find Mr. Vansittart employed for several weeks in an open boat belonging to l’Aigle, at the siege of Calvi; on which service he was also a volunteer. For his zealous conduct and severe sufferings at this early period of life, he was rewarded with a Lieutenant’s commission, and appointed to the Stately of 64 guns, in Feb. 1795.

The Stately formed part of the squadron under Sir George Keith Elphinstone, at the capture of the Cape of Good Hope, in Sept. 1795. During the operations carried on against that colony, Lieutenant Vansittart commanded a company of seamen belonging to the second naval battalion, landed to assist the army. The Stately was subsequently ordered to assist in reducing Columbo; but that place appears to have surrendered whilst she was at Trincomalee. Previous to her quitting the Indian seas, the scurvy made such ravages among her crew, as obliged her to put into St. Augustin’s bay, Madagascar, where Lieutenant Vansittart had the charge of preparing tenta for the use of the sick, more than 100 of whom were unable to move from their hammocks. The disease being at length subdued, she returned to the Cape of Good Hope in time to assist at the capture of a Dutch squadron in Saldanha bay; after which the subject of this memoir returned to England as signal Lieutenant of the Monarch 74, bearing the flag of Sir George K. Elphinstone, under whom he continued to serve in that ship and the Queen Charlotte, a first rate^ till the commencement of 1798, when he was appointed first Lieutenant of the Maidstone frigate, commanded by Captain (now Rear-Admiral) Donnelly.

Lieutenant Vansittart was promoted to the rank of Commander in the Hermes sloop of war, about Aug. 1798; removed into the Bonetta about Oct. following; and during the ensuing year, was employed convoying the trade to and from Newfoundland and America, In 1800, he captured several of the enemy’s armed vessels on the Jamaica station, where he obtained post rank in the Abergavenny of 54 guns. He subsequently commanded the Thunderer 74, and Magicienne frigate; the former returned to Europe with the squadron under Sir Robert Calder, who had gone to the West Indies in pursuit of the French fleet under M. Gantheaume; the latter was employed conveying a number of disbanded Dutch troops from Lymington and Jersey, to. the Texel and Helvoetsluys, after the peace of Amiens. His post commission bears date Feb. 3, 1801.

At the renewal of the war in 1803, Captain Vansittart commissioned the Fortunée frigate, and during the remainder of the year we find him blockading the rivers Elbe and Weser, and cruising off Boulogne. On the 2d Feb. 1804, he sailed for the Jamaica station, where he was most actively employed upwards of four years; during which, and the two years previously spent there, he had three severe attacks of the yellow fever[3].

In the summer of 1806, Captain Vansittart sailed for England, in company with the Surveillante frigate, Hercule 74, an armed schooner, and a large fleet of merchantmen. When off the Havannah, a number of Spanish vessels were discovered, under the protection of a 74-gun ship and two gun-boats. The Fortunée was immediately detached in pursuit by signal from the senior officer, Captain (now Rear-Admiral) John Bligh, and assisted by the schooner, succeeded in capturing the gunboats, and upwards of twenty sail, deeply laden with sugar, &c. The line-of-battle ship being close in with the Havannah, succeeded in effecting her escape. Captain Vansittart on this occasion exhibited a noble spirit of disinterestedness, by destroying the whole of those valuable prizes, in order that the convoy might not be detained, although the Spaniards offered to bring off from the shore in the course of twelve hours a sum sufficient to ransom them. A few days after this event, he obtained intelligence that six French ships of the line were cruising to intercept the homeward bound fleet; this squadron was subsequently seen, but successfully avoided through the able management of Captain Bligh and his brother officers.

Among the vessels taken by the Fortunée during her various cruises in the West Indies, we find le Vautour, French privateer; a Spanish brig laden with cocoa; le Grand Juge Bertolio, French schooner, of 7 guns and 51 men; and two Spanish feluccas laden with beef and flour: the latter were destroyed.

In 1807, and the three succeeding years, Captain Vansittart was employed on Channel service, and the Irish station. Towards the latter end of 1810 he conveyed Rear-Admiral Freemantle to the Mediterranean; and after serving for some weeks with the inshore squadron off Toulon, was ordered to Algiers, where he embarked an ambassador, with presents from the Dey to our late Sovereign. Whilst there he was presented with a sword, some other trifling articles, and a bag of dollars; the latter he instantly returned to the Dey, at the same time informing him that a British officer would never receive money for his own use from any foreign power, but that the sword he should retain, and ever value as a mark of the honor conferred on him by his Highness.

On the llth Oct. 1811, Captain Vansittart, being on a cruise to the westward, with the Saldanha frigate under his orders, fell in with and captured the famous French ship privateer le Vice-Amiral Martin, of 18 guns and 140 men; a vessel which, by the superiority of her sailing, and the dexterity of her manoeuvres, had often escaped from other British cruisers, and committed great depredations on our commerce. In the spring of 1812 he was appointed to the Clarence 74; and from that period till the conclusion of the war he appears to have been employed blockading the Texel, Brest, and Rochefort.

We cannot close this memoir without remarking that the subject of it, with the exception of a very few months in 1802-3, was never a day out of commission from the summer of 1791, when he first went to sea, till the peace of 1814, a period of twenty-three years.

Captain Vansittart married, in 1809, a daughter of the Rev. John Pennefather, by whom he has three sons and two daughters now living. His surviving brothers are George Henry, a General in the army, and Edward, in holy orders; the latter has added the surname of Neale to that of his own family. His first cousin, the Right Hon. Nicholas Vansittart, many years Chancellor of his Majesty’s Exchequer, an upright statesman, and an amiable private character, has recently been created a peer, by the title of Baron Bexley.

Agent.– Thomas Stillwell, Esq.

  1. See Vol. I. note * at p. 720.
  2. The floating battery mounted four heavy guns and two brass mortars, the latter of which were worked by Spanish bombardiers. She was commanded by Lieutenant Moriencourt of the Princess Royal, who had 2 midshipman and 48 men under his orders. The first of the enemy’s batteries to which she was opposed, was soon effectually silenced; but the fire from a second, erected on a rising ground, proved so destructive that only 9 men were left fit for duty ou board the float.
  3. When the yellow fever made its appearance on board the Fortunée, Captain Vansittart was about to return to Jamaica from a cruise off the Havannah. Six men having died before he cleared the Gulf of Florida, he pushed for the Bermudas, and landed all the sick on one of those islands, which being uninhabited was humanely lent to him for that purpose by Mr. Tucker, the President (the Governor being absent). The fever went through the whole of his crew, but fortunately not a man died of that disorder from the time of his arrival there, nor indeed during the remainder of his stay in the West Indies.