From American Ship Portraits & Marine Painting, 1970, edited by Ruth S.Wilkins
Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse, New York
Admiral Vernon & Sir Robert Walpole
"Apart from Sir Robert Walpole and his colleagues, most of Vernon's contemporaries honoured him as an upright man and brave and able officer. Walpole, who held that 'every man had his price', found in Old Grog an inconvenient exception to his cynical summary. He hated him accordingly, and his political henchmen followed suit." From Admiral Vernon & the Navy, 1907, by Douglas Ford.
Cyril Hughes Hartmann's biography of Admiral Vernon, The Angry Admiral, 1953, remarks on Horace Walpole as an "inveterate detractor" (p.105) of everything the Admiral did or said over many years. Horace was invariably the strenuous defender of his father, Robert.
In many ways the paintings of Peter Monamy (1681-1749) offer a visual expression of the naval ideals of valour, self-reliance, freedom and independence, which drove Vernon (1684-1757) --- Monamy's close contemporary --- on his controversial and embattled career. Both men were exceptionally popular with the seamen, middle classes and general public of their era, and both came to experience the sustained hostility and denigration of what in recent years has come to be called the "establishment". Robert Walpole personified the political establishment, from a year or two before the accession of George II in 1727 until his resignation in 1742; and Horace Walpole was the dominant arbiter of aesthetic taste from, say 1740, for at least the next century and beyond. More than ever one comes to appreciate what a disaster it is that this man's name should be perpetuated in "The Walpole Society"; and even more in the "The Lewis-Walpole Library". The irony here is that it was the resolute opposition to everything that the Walpoles stood for which led eventually to the foundation of America and its Independence.
Left, Vernon. Right, Walpole, by Kneller, 1710-15:
probably painted before Walpole's imprisonment for misappropriation in 1712.
Below is a lifeline for Vernon, distilled from Harding's biography in the ODNB, Hart's Admirals of the Caribbean, Wikipedia, and several other sources. Vernon has remained a controversial figure ever since the failure of the British attack on Carthagena in 1741. There is copious information about him and his life on the internet. Not all of this is reliable, or even convincing: it was news to me, for instance, that Vernon was a "Prime Ministerial aspirant". See this site, by Glen David Short. The site in question nevertheless contains many interesting details about the heroic defence of Carthagena, led by Don Blas de Lezo. As heroes go, the Don went one better even than Horatio Nelson, since he was minus not only an eye and an arm, but also a leg. The information given below is necessarily subject to sustained editing and and revision.
Birth of Edward Vernon on 12th November. His father, James Vernon, might fairly be described as a Revolution Whig, since he had been private secretary to the Duke of Monmouth, secretary of state to William III, and subsequently editor of the London Gazette.
Edward attended Westminster School from 1692 until 1700, and was therefore better educated than the great majority of his naval contemporaries.
Joined the Fleet, aged 16, as a volunteer in the Shrewsbury, the flagship of Admiral Rooke. Rooke commanded an Anglo-Dutch squadron which aided Charles XII of Sweden in conflict with Denmark, at the outbreak of the Great Northern War.
Vernon moved to the Ipswich, then the Boyne, which formed part of the force sent to capture Cadiz in 1702.
Appointed third lieutenant on the Lennox, engaged on convoy duties during 1703, including a visit to Smyrna with the Levant trade.
Wikipedia notes that he was then appointed to the Barfleur, which at the time was the flagship of Admiral Cloudesley Shovell in the Mediterranean. The ship was present at the capture of Gibraltar and the Battle of Malaga. See also here for Malaga.
Present at the capture of Barcelona, as third lieutenant of Shovell's new flagship, the Britannia.
In command of the Jersey (50 guns), Vernon sailed in February with Byng's squadron to blockade Dunkirk. He was with the fleet that pursued the Comte de Forbin-Gardanne to Scotland and helped secure the only prize, the French warship the Salisbury, off Edinburgh.
After this action Vernon was sent south with some of the French prisoners. He was already under orders to proceed to Jamaica to reinforce Commodore Wager's squadron and he was ordered to take as many supernumeraries as he could. Vernon arrived at Port Royal on 6 September 1708 and spent the next year with Wager's squadron, cruising. He observed the Spaniards' failure to challenge the British at sea. In October 1708 he first saw Cartagena de las Indias, the great city of the treasure ships, where Wager had won what Harding calls "a spectacular, if not very profitable, victory" in May. Carla Rahn Phillips recounts the circumstances of this encounter in exemplary detail, in The Treasure of the San Josť (2007).
In September Vernon sailed for England.
Throughout the first half of 1710 he commanded the Jersey on a range of duties in the channel and then went back to the West Indies, arriving at Port Royal in December. He remained on that station until March 1712, when he was ordered home again.
From March 1712, for the next two years, Vernon remained unemployed as the prospect of imminent peace and, possibly, his Whig credentials militated against him. [Noted by Harding]. George Byng was to experience similar political discrimination at about the same time: see here.
Peace of Utrecht.
In January this year George Byng was deprived of office as Lord Commissioner of the Admiralty, because of his adherence to the Whig cause. After the arrival of George I, in October, Byng returned as Commissioner. Vernon's re-employment follows Byng's re-instatement.
On 2 March Vernon was given command of the Assistance (50 guns), a two-year-old ship then at Sheerness. After fitting and manning his ship in the spring he spent the summer on duties in the channel and the North Sea.
By early 1716 he was the most senior captain in the Downs and had command of that station in the absence of a flag officer. In July he was ordered to take Edward Wortley Montagu, the new British ambassador, to Constantinople. The voyage involved a number of diplomatic complexities regarding the status of British warships in Ottoman waters.
In March Vernon sailed to Genoa, where he took up the matter of Venetian impressment of British sailors directly with the Grand Duke of Tuscany at Pisa. Later he sailed to Cadiz, where again he took up the matter of detaining British seamen with the local authorities. Returned to England in October.
Wikipedia states that the Assistance was paid off in 1717, and that after this Vernon was put on half pay for the next eighteen months.
War with Spain broke out in December 1718. Click for the Battle of Cape Passaro.
Vernon's commission this year was to the Mary (60 guns), attached to the Earl of Berkeley's squadron at Portsmouth. On 15 May Vernon was appointed Commander-in-Chief of his majesty's ships at Jamaica. On 4 October he arrived at Port Royal. During the remainder of the year he cruised around Jamaica, protecting the homeward-bound trade.
Vernon cruised up to Havana. On 20 March he sighted three Spanish sail in line. Followed closely by the Ludlow Castle he bore up to meet them. He found that he could not use his lower tier of guns effectively in his first pass and tacked to pass again to leeward, but meanwhile the Ludlow Castle lost her foretop mast and fell out to leeward. Vernon followed to protect her stern as the Spaniards prepared to attack. He took in sail to meet them and this display induced the Spaniards to break off and make a course for Havana. (Harding).
He sailed for England in June. Harding notes that "throughout Vernon's time in the West Indies the Spaniards had not shown much appetite for a fight."
General Election. "In Vernon's day there were probably more naval members than at any other time before or since". [Hartmann.] Vernon was elected to Parliament as member for Dunwich in Suffolk, and Penryn in Cornwall. His father, James, had stood for this small borough, and won the seat three times in 1695, 1705, and 1708. The chief political interest was held by Hugh Boscawen, first Viscount Falmouth, who was then the government's main political manager in Cornwall. Hugh Boscawen died in 1734, and was the father of Edward Boscawen, known as Wry-necked Dick, or, more flatteringly, Old Dreadnought, one of Britain's most admired admirals. Vernon was returned unopposed and in this parliament he spoke and voted with the Whig ministry.
In April 1726 Vernon was appointed to command a new 70-gun third rate, the Grafton, in a squadron under Admiral Sir Charles Wager, sailing for the Baltic to counter a potential Russian threat to the peace there. He remained in command of the Grafton when the squadron returned.
In 1727 he was sent back to the Baltic with another squadron under Sir John Norris. There is a painting by Monamy, in a private collection, of the departure of Sir John Norris for the Baltic. On 19 June, at Copenhagen, news arrived of the death of George I. Vernon was relieved of his command and sent back to England with a loyal address from the fleet.
The accession of George II brought about a wholesale change in the political climate of the nation, much to the dismay of a large proportion of the population. Popular resentment of Walpole's manipulation of the nominal authority of the Crown rose steadily throughout the 1730s, until the capture of Porto Bello in 1739 toppled his premiership and sent him packing in 1742. Lord Hervey's Memoirs, p.38, comment that George II made only one change "contrary to the will and representation of Sir Robert Walpole." Perhaps the most remarkable of Walpole's actions was the removal of Lord Berkeley from the head of the Admiralty, and the appointment of George Byng, now Lord Torrington, to succeed him. Torrington was a man who, having demonstrated his adherence to the Whig cause, nevertheless never scrupled to put his own personal interests first. His politics at this juncture deserve close scrutiny.
In January 1729, during the debate on the loyal address, Vernon made his celebrated accusation that the death of Admiral Francis Hosier and the decimation of his fleet in the West Indies during 1726 could have been avoided had the ministry not ordered Hosier merely to blockade the Spanish treasure fleet. Vernon's experience of the Spaniards indicated that a blockade was unnecessary. Porto Bello, the staging post of Spanish silver from Panama to Havana, could have been taken easily with three hundred men. (Harding).
On 15 July 1729 Vernon married Sarah Best, daughter of a Kent brewer.
According to the Earl of Egmont, Vernon was so passionate in his views about the French fortifications at Dunkirk that during the debate on 12 February 1730 'He brought up the Pope, the Devil, the Jesuits, the seamen, etc., so that the House had not patience to attend him, though he was not taken down. He quite lost his temper and made himself hoarse again' (Egmont Diary, 1.43-4: quoted by Harding, ODNB).
In 1732 his inflammatory rhetoric earned him a rebuke from the speaker and an accusation from one of the targets of his criticism, Sir John Eyles, that he hid behind parliamentary privilege. My own reaction to this accusation is that, although his tactics may not always have been of the cleanest, "hiding" is not a word I would normally associate with Vernon.
Vernon's marriage, and the death of his father in January 1727, may have secured his financial position. He had purchased an estate at Nacton, near Ipswich in Suffolk. However, his political position at Penryn was looking fragile. His disillusion with Walpole's ministry and the replacement of Lord Falmouth as government election manager in Cornwall undermined his position. In the 1734 election he lost Penryn and was also defeated in his local borough, Ipswich. (Harding).
This year has been cited as the nadir for the Opposition to Walpole.
In December 1738 Vernon approached Sir Charles Wager, then the first Lord of the Admiralty, for a command. Wager's political orientation requires investigation. His voting record on the Customs & Excise Bill in 1733, coupled with his position at the Admiralty, suggests that he was very much in Walpole's pocket. Credence is added to the widespread contemporary suspicion that Walpole hoped that Vernon would fail at Porto Bello. Wager appears to have trod a delicate political line. It may very well be that he thought Vernon would not succeed. It was a gamble.
In what must have been early 1739 the pamphlet, left, appeared, attributed to William Pulteney (1684-1764).
After having supported Walpole during his period in the Tower, 1712, Pulteney fell out with Walpole, terminally, in 1725. In 1726, Pulteney, with Bolingbroke, started The Craftsman, which made sustained attacks on Walpole from then on until it ceased --- when exactly I'm not sure. Walpole was continually presented as tyrannical and corrupt, and a pacifist appeaser of Spain.
Pulteney's pamphlet contains a clear suggestion that included in Walpole's plans for sealing a treaty with Spain, among a whole raft of unacceptable pecuniary measures, was the outrageous proposal that Georgia was to be surrendered to England's ancient enemy. See excerpt, below.
It is small wonder then, that after his success at Porto Bello, and the widespread national rejoicing, the British colonists in America, and perhaps especially in Georgia, revered Vernon in perpetuity; quite regardless of their later independence.
Pulteney, whatever his character as a politician, had the mentality of a statistician and accountant, and was the author of highly sophisticated studies in national economics. Karl Marx quoted his work as that of a "predecessor of Adam Smith". (See P.D.Groenewegen, introduction to Some Thoughts on the Interest of Money 1738, reprinted 1982.) He was born the same year as Vernon, and attended Westminster School. The two men would therefore have been exact contemporaries, and have known each other since boyhood.
On the 9th July Vernon was promoted to Vice-Admiral; and on the 20th July he set sail for Jamaica. On the 23rd October war was declared against Spain. This war later merged with the war of the Austrian Succession. On the 21st November Porto Bello was captured by Vernon.
The report of Vernon's success reached London on 12th March. National delirium followed. First performance of Rule Britannia!: the words by Thomson, the music by Arne.
The crucial importance of Vernon's exploit, for the future unfolding of British history, can hardly be over-estimated. A platform of rock-solid confidence and certainty, on which all subsequent global endeavour could be based, had been laid in concrete. It took another 19 years for the construction to prove itself, but by 1759 there was no longer any doubt. Nor can it be doubted that throughout British colonial America Vernon's actions had wholesale support, since, along with the writings of William Pulteney, they were perceived to be fully in the colonists' interest.
On 23 March Vernon attacked Carthagena. This was anticipated to be a successful action, but its failure has been the subject of embittered debate ever since. Vernon blamed Brigadier-General (aka Major-General) Wentworth for failing to support him with his siege troops. Initial rejoicing in London was followed by disillusionment. Vernon withdrew from Carthagena on 17th May.
It becomes clear that the British failure at Carthagena was of a magnitude exceeding the failure of the Spanish Armada in 1588, and it figures as largely in British history as the Armada figures in Spanish history: ie hardly at all.
The vitriolic pen of (it is believed) Smollett wrote in 1756 that: "The admiral was a man of weak understanding, strong prejudices, boundless arrogance, and over-boiling passions; and the general, though he had some parts, was wholly defective in point of experience, confidence and resolution." See Viets. While not fingering either party, the short answer to the reason for the debâcle was that, with the death of Lord Cathcart, the appointed overall commander, en route for Jamaica, the chain of command became unclear. This, in naval as in military affairs, is a recipe for disaster: the classic precedent being the Battle of Poltava, 1709, where the incapacitation of Charles XII resulted in two incompatible subordinates unable to sustain a clear united objective. "Between the pride of one, and insolence of another, the enterprize miscarried": Smollett, Roderick Random, Chapter XXXIII.
Caricature by Bickham
In Admiral Vernon and the Navy, 1907, Douglas Ford comments (p.148) on some curious, but incredible, evidence that Robert Walpole was involved in an intrigue to betray the House of Hanover; and goes on to say that "if the English leader was really in league with the Pretender, it certainly would go far to explain his conduct in reference to the war with Spain". (See Morley; pp 229-233)
Apparently preposterous, this extraordinary accusation ought to be assessed in conjunction with some equally astonishing material contained in The Byng Papers, by Brian Tunstall. See Vol. III, pp 67-83. For obscure reasons George Byng had been intriguing with the Jacobites in 1715. Byng had died in 1733: could Walpole have taken a leaf from his book, whatever his intentions?
The fall from office of Sir Robert Walpole took place in 1742. Bickham's triumphal caricature appeared in 1743.
Death of Sir Robert Walpole on 18th March.
On 8 August Vernon transferred to the Downs, where recent intelligence suggested French invasion forces were assembling to support the Jacobite rising in Scotland. He kept a close watch on the Flanders (?) coast throughout the late summer and autumn of 1745. Here Vernon was replicating the defence operations of George Byng in 1708, regarded by contemporaries as one of the most important naval actions of the age. This forgotten episode was reckoned on a par with the defeat of the Spanish Armada in 1588, when Thornhill completed the Painted Hall at Greenwich, in 1727.
Copies of Vernon's correspondence with the Admiralty during the previous year appeared in print under the titles Seasonable Advice from an Honest Sailor and A Specimen of Naked Truth from a British Sailor.
Installation of a monument commemorating Wager in Westminster Abbey. The choice of scene, Wager's "spectacular, if unprofitable" action at Carthagena in 1708, almost 40 years earlier, together with the choice of Scott as contributing painter, might be thought a snide comment on Vernon's failure at the same place in 1741. See 1708, above. Also here.
Publication of Original Letters to an Honest Sailor. The last letter is reproduced below, the initials presumably those of the Secretary to the Admiralty, Thomas Corbett. FINIS is apt: Vernon's career as an Admiral was over.
Admiralty print, by Samuel Wale (Whale), from Dodsley's London & its Environs, 1761
Death of Monamy.
Death of Vernon. He was thus denied, by a margin of two years, the experience of seeing his political and naval agitations vindicated by the wonderful year of 1759.
Sunday, 12th November, saw a celebration, at Flamstead, Jamaica, of the anniversary of the 316th birthday of the famous Port Royal Commodore and Admiral of the White, Edward Vernon. Vernon apparently left more than memories in Jamaica, and the website which records the junketing (it seems now to have been removed) names at least four living Jamaican descendants of the passionate Admiral.
Mount Vernon, USA
Some notes from Wikipedia are of interest in connection with George Washington's home, Mount Vernon: see here; and another site here. Edited summary:
Augustine Washington decided to erect a farm house overlooking the Potomac in 1741-42. His son Lawrence, then serving under Vernon, probably received news of these plans while at Jamaica, and seems to have written to his father asking him to call the new home "Mount Vernon". The name first appears in a surviving letter in August 1742. Lawrence Washington returned from the war in late 1742, buried his father in April 1743, and took up residence in July 1743.
On Lawrence's death in 1752, George Washington was already living at the house and probably managing the plantation. In 1754, as executor of his brother's estate, George arranged to lease the house. In 1757 he began the first of two major additions and improvements. The second expansion was begun shortly before the outbreak of the Revolutionary War. He entirely rebuilt the main house atop the original foundations, doubling its size each time. Most of the work was performed by slaves and artisans. It is important to note that while he twice rebuilt the home, George never changed its famous, and very obviously British name. My suspicion is that this loyalty to Vernon's memory is partly linked with the Admiral's political activities, especially his vigorous opposition to the appeasement policies of Sir Robert Walpole. It makes sense to assume that Vernon's objectives were very much in line with those of the British settlers in America, as well as the majority of the British nation: ie to rule the global waves.
When George Washington died in 1799, it is estimated that more than 300 slaves lived on the Mount Vernon estate. After the Revolution, and the Declaration of Independence, of course, they were no longer Britons, and were therefore not at liberty to swell the chorus of Rule Britannia!, with its assertion that "Britons never, never, never, shall be slaves". The American Revolution succeeded in prolonging slavery until the American Civil War. So much for "Liberty", and its Bell.