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Augustus, Viscount Keppel (1725-1786)

This article was written by John Knox Laughton and was published in 1892

Augustus Keppel, who became an admiral, was the second son of William Anne Keppel, second earl of Albemarle. He was born on 25 April 1725. After a few years at Westminster School, he entered the navy in 1735, on board the Oxford, in which he served for two years on the coast of Guinea. He was afterwards for three years in the Mediterranean, on board the Gloucester, carrying the broad pennant of Commodore Clinton. On his return to England in the summer of 1740 he was appointed to the Prince Frederick, and in September was moved to the Centurion, under the command of Commodore Anson.

In her he served during the celebrated voyage round the world, and is specially mentioned as having been landed at the sacking and burning of Payta, 13 November 1741, where the peak of his cap ‘was shaved off close to his temple’ by a musket bullet. In March 1742 he was promoted by the commodore to be acting lieutenant, in which rank he was confirmed on the Centurion's arrival in England and his passing his examination, on 25 July 1744. On 4 August he was appointed to the Dreadnought, on 7 November was promoted to be commander of the Wolf sloop, and on 11 December was posted to the Greyhound frigate. In February 1744-1745 he was appointed to the Sapphire of 40 guns, in which he cruised with some success on the south coast of Ireland. In November 1745 he was moved to the Maidstone of 50 guns, and in her was again employed in continuous cruising in the Soundings and in the Bay of Biscay till, on the morning of 27 June 1747, having chased an enemy's ship in-shore off Belle Isle, he ran aground, and the Maidstone being a total wreck, Keppel and his men were made prisoners. After a few weeks he was permitted to return to England on parole, and, on being exchanged, was tried by court-martial and honourably acquitted on 31 October. He had already been promised the command of another ship still on the stocks, which was launched in October and christened the Anson. He was now formally appointed to her, and on 25 November and following days sat as a member of the court-martial on Captain Fox of the Kent, notable as the first in which depositions taken beforehand were disallowed.

The Anson was employed in active cruising till the peace of 1748, and, being then made a guardship, Keppel with his officers was transferred to the Centurion, reduced from 60 to 50 guns, and in her was sent out as commodore to the Mediterranean, with a special mission to treat with the dey of Algiers, or, if necessary, to compel him to restrain the insolence of his cruisers. The story goes that the dey angrily expressed surprise that ‘the king of Great Britain should have sent a beardless boy to treat with him;’ to which Keppel replied, ‘Had my master supposed that wisdom was measured by the length of the beard, he would have sent your deyship a he-goat.’ Thereupon the dey threatened him with instant death, but Keppel, pointing to the squadron in the bay, said there were Englishmen enough there to make him a glorious funeral pile. The dey then consented to treat; but it was not till June 1751 that the points at issue could be arranged, and in July the Centurion returned to England and was paid off.

In the latter part of 1754 Keppel was ordered to hoist a broad pennant on board the Norwich, and to take command of the ships on the North American station. He arrived in Hampton Roads in February 1755, and during the next few months co-operated with General Braddock and the governors of the several colonies in the measures for the summer campaign. The arrival of Boscawen on the station with several senior captains necessarily superseded him, and he returned to England with the intelligence of Braddock's defeat and death. Keppel was then appointed to the Swiftsure of 70 guns, and in June 1756 was moved to the Torbay of 74, in which, in command of a small squadron, he cruised off Cape Finisterre during the autumn, returning to Spithead in December. In January he sat as a member of the court-martial on Admiral John Byng, and, finding that the recommendation to mercy was not likely to receive attention, he vainly exerted himself to procure the intervention of parliament.

In September 1757 the Torbay was one of the fleet under Sir Edward (afterwards Lord) Hawke in the expedition to Basque Roads, and continued attached to the grand fleet, under Hawke and Anson, till in September 1758 Keppel was appointed to the command of a squadron of ships of war and transports sent out to reduce the French settlement of Goree. The service was effected with little loss on 29 December, and, having reinforced the garrison of Fort Louis on the Senegal, Keppel returned to England. During the summer and autumn of 1759 the Torbay was again attached to the grand fleet off Brest under Hawke, and on 20 November was the leading ship in the battle of Quiberon Bay, and was closely engaged with the French Thésée, which ultimately sank, though whether from the effect of the Torbay's fire, or swamped through her lower deck ports, has been doubted. The Torbay herself took in a great deal of water through the lee ports, and for a short time was in danger of a similar fate.

In March 1761 Keppel was moved from the Torbay to the Valiant, and appointed to command the squadron co-operating with the troops sent to reduce Belle Isle. This squadron, supported by another off Brest under Captain Buckle, and a third under Sir Thomas Stanhope off Rochefort, completely covered the military operations, and the island surrendered in June. Keppel continued in command off Brest and Belle Isle till the following January, when a violent gale forced him to bear up for Torbay. Most of his ships were much damaged; the Valiant, in particular, was making a great deal of water, and had to go round to Portsmouth for repairs. Almost at the same time war was declared with Spain, and Keppel was appointed commodore and second in command, under Sir George Pocock, of the expedition against Havana, his brother, George Keppel, third earl of Albemarle, being the commander-in-chief of the land forces employed.

The fleet arrived off Havana on 5 June, the landing was effected on the 7th, and after a two months' siege by sea and land, in which the climate proved the deadliest enemy, the place surrendered on 14 August The prize-money was estimated at upwards of three millions sterling, of which nearly £25,000 fell to Keppel's share. His younger brother, a general officer serving on the staff, probably received the same, while the elder brother received about five times as much. Notwithstanding the blow inflicted on the Spanish navy and on Spain, it was not unnaturally said that ‘the expedition was undertaken solely to put money into the Keppels' pockets.’ Immediately after the reduction of Havana Pocock returned to England, leaving the command of the remaining ships with Keppel, who on 21 October 1762 was advanced to be rear-admiral of the blue, the promotion being, it is said, extended so as to include his name. At the peace Havana was restored to the Spaniards, and the troops were sent home; but Keppel retained the command at Jamaica till the beginning of 1764, when he was relieved by Sir William Burnaby. In May he sailed for England.

From July 1765 till November 1766 he was one of the lords commissioners of the admiralty, and in September 1766 hoisted his flag on board the Catherine yacht, to convey the Princess Caroline Matilda to Rotterdam, on the occasion of her unfortunate marriage to the king of Denmark. He seems, too, to have attached himself closely to the political party of the Marquis of Rockingham and the Duke of Richmond, and during the years immediately following to have identified himself with the intrigues and schemes of which they were the centre. On 24 October 1770 he was promoted to the rank of vice-admiral, and was nominated for the command of the fleet fitting out against Spain; the dispute was, however, arranged, and Keppel did not hoist his flag.

During the following years, in which party animosity raged with great virulence, Keppel was closely associated with the opponents of the government, and the relations between him and the Earl of Sandwich, then first lord of the admiralty, would seem to have been the reverse of friendly. Still, his standing in the service was so high that it was impossible to pass him over, and as early as November 1776, on the probability of war with France, he was asked by the king in person to undertake the command of the Channel fleet. Keppel felt bound to accept it, but he represented to his majesty the hostility with which the ministry regarded him. He had an uneasy feeling that the offer might be a trap of his political enemy. ‘If Lord Sandwich has but a bad fleet to send out,’ wrote the Duke of Richmond to him, ‘'tis doing him no injustice to suppose he would be glad to put it under the command of a man whom he does not love, and yet whose name will justify the choice to the nation. If we meet with a misfortune, he hopes to get off. — If blame is to be borne, he will endeavour by every art he is but too much master of, to throw it on your shoulders.’ It was, however, more than a year before Keppel was called on to serve. On 29 January 1778 he was promoted to be admiral of the blue, and on 22 March received his commission as commander-in-chief of the grand fleet. At Portsmouth everything was still unprepared; and in spite of Sandwich's boast in the House of Lords, 18 November 1777, that ‘there were thirty-five ships of the line completely manned and fit for sea at a moment's warning,’ Keppel found there were not more than six ‘fit to meet a seaman's eye.’ The dockyard, too, was depleted of stores, and it was only by the most unremitting exertion that by the beginning of June twenty ships could be got ready. With these he sailed from St. Helens on 13 June, with instructions to prevent the French fleet in Brest from putting to sea, or the Toulon fleet from joining it. To either of these singly he was supposed to be superior.

Presently, however, on detaining the French frigates Licorne and Pallas, he obtained certain intelligence that the fleet at Brest consisted of thirty-two ships of the line ready for sea, and acting on the spirit of his instructions, he fell back to Spithead, 27 June, to wait for reinforcements. His instructions were kept strictly secret; but to naval men it was clear that, under the circumstances, no other line of conduct was open to him, and the admiralty tacitly admitted as much by continuing their efforts to strengthen the fleet. The government, however, was much enraged at the imputation which his return to Spithead cast on them, and, as the Earl of Bristol said in the House of Lords, 23 April 1779, ‘Instead of applause and testimonies of approbation for his conduct, the tools and scribblers of power were employed in every quarter of the town to whisper and write away his exalted character. — The pensioned vehicles of infamy, detraction, and villany poured forth the dictates of their more infamous and profligate protectors and paymaster, not only by asserting that Admiral Keppel's return to port was in hopes of ruining the ministry, but also by a constant abuse on all those whose experience and whose judgment in naval matters justified the admiral's conduct.’

On 9 July Keppel again put to sea with twenty-four ships of the line, a fleet which was raised to thirty two days later. On the 8th the French fleet of thirty-two sail, under Count d'Orvilliers, had also put to sea, apparently on the report that the English fleet consisted of only twenty ships. The weather was very thick; but on the afternoon of the 23rd the fog clearing discovered the two fleets to each other, distant only some four or five miles. Both formed line of battle, and an engagement appeared imminent; but as D'Orvilliers made out the numbers of the English, he acted more cautiously, and, aided by a slight shift of wind, while Keppel was lying to for the night, succeeded in passing ahead of the English line and obtaining the weathergage, though in the manoeuvre two of his ships were partially dismasted and obliged to return to Brest. At daybreak on the 24th the fleets were still in sight of each other; but Keppel being now to leeward was unable to bring on the engagement which D'Orvilliers no longer offered. And thus in foggy, squally, unsettled weather the fleets continued in presence of each other till the forenoon of the 27th, when a sudden shift of wind enabled Keppel to lie up for the French line and to engage it, as the two fleets passed each other on opposite tacks. ‘Our van,’ wrote Jervis, who commanded the Foudroyant, next astern of the Victory, Keppel's flagship, ‘passed the French line without receiving heavy damage; but this firing brought the enemy down so much that most of their centre and rear passed the greatest part of our centre and rear within musket shot, and the wind having been quite abated by the concussion of the air, a very sharp cannonade continued on the centre till near one o'clock, and on the rear till forty minutes after one, when the firing ceased.’

As the two lines drew clear of each other D'Orvilliers made the signal to wear in succession. The signal was not obeyed, a blunder which popular report attributed to the cowardice of the Duc de Chartres, who commanded the van. On the side of the English a part of the van, under Sir Robert Harland, had tacked at once, and was standing towards the enemy; the rest of it was too much disabled, and dropped to leeward. The ships of the centre also were much disabled, those of the rear perhaps still more so; and though both Keppel in the Victory, and Sir Hugh Palliser, who commanded the rear, in the Formidable, wore as soon as they were well clear of the enemy's line, it was at once apparent that the fleet could not be got together for an immediate renewal of the action, and they wore back again.

About three o'clock the French fleet had got round, and was standing to the south, with the apparent intention of cutting off five ships much disabled, which had fallen to leeward. Keppel, seeing the danger, hastily formed so much of his line as he could, and stood towards them, a manoeuvre which was afterwards described as flying before the French. The action was not renewed, for the French bore away to leeward and formed their line, waiting for the attack which was not made. It was in vain that Keppel made the signal for the line of battle, and for ships to windward to come into the admiral's wake. Palliser did not obey. The Fox frigate was sent with a distinct message to Palliser that the admiral was only waiting for him to renew the attack, but it was not till after dark that Palliser and his division bore down. The next morning, 28 July, the fleet was in line of battle, but the French were no longer there. They could only be seen from the masthead, hull down to the eastward. It was clearly useless to follow them, for Brest was under their lee and offered them a ready shelter; while in the uncertain and squally weather it might be dangerous to take so many crippled ships near a hostile lee shore. On the 29th the French went into Brest, and Keppel, leaving a few ships to cruise for the protection of trade, drew back to Plymouth, where he anchored on the 31st.
The fleet was ordered to refit without delay. Keppel was deeply hurt by the conduct of Palliser on the 27th, but the emergency called for haste, and he conceived that to institute an inquiry or to hold a court-martial would destroy the possibility of unanimous exertion. He therefore expressed no dissatisfaction, and even wrote to the admiralty in praise of ‘the spirited conduct of Vice-admiral Sir Hugh Palliser.’ ‘I do not conceive,’ he said afterwards in his defence, ‘that a commander-in-chief is bound to disclose to all Europe, in the midst of a critical service, the real state of his fleet, or his opinion of any of his officers.’ There can, however, be no doubt that he ought to have referred the matter at once to the admiralty, and his failure to do so was mainly, if not entirely, due to his distrust of Lord Sandwich.

But the real circumstances were known to too many to admit of any possibility of concealment. On 23 August the fleet put to sea, cruised vainly off Ushant for a couple of months, and anchored at Spithead on 28 October, when Palliser, learning that a full statement of the case had appeared in a London paper, wrote to Keppel, ‘requiring’ him to contradict the ‘scandalous report;’ and as he received no reply he called on him to insist on his doing so. An angry quarrel was the result; other letters appeared in the papers; the subject was mentioned in the House of Commons; and Palliser applied for a court-martial on Keppel on a charge of misconduct and neglect of duty. Palliser was one of the lords of the admiralty, and his colleagues had no hesitation in complying with his request. His official letter was dated 9 December, and the very same day the secretary of the admiralty notified the decision of the board to Keppel. The conduct of the admiralty in thus ordering the trial of the commander-in-chief on charges exhibited by an inferior, five months after date, and under circumstances which were strongly suggestive of a personal motive, called forth an expression of surprise from Keppel, and of disapproval from the House of Commons and the country at large. A memorial to the same effect was addressed to the king by Lord Hawke and most of the senior admirals; but no notice was taken of it, and the court assembled at Portsmouth as ordered, on 7 January 1779; for the first day on board the Britannia, and afterwards, through a period of five weeks, at the governor's house on shore, in consideration of Keppel's infirm health, and in accordance with a special act of parliament.

He was charged with not marshalling his fleet, going into the fight in an unofficer-like manner, scandalous haste in quitting it, running away, and not pursuing the flying enemy — each one a capital offence. Palliser in person was the prosecutor; Sir Robert Harland, Rear-admiral Campbell, most of the captains, some lieutenants, and several masters were the witnesses. Of these, whether called for the prosecution or defence, the unanimity was remarkable. With scarcely an exception they were agreed that if the admiral had waited to form his fleet in line he could not have brought the enemy to action at all; that the enemy was very far from being in a perfect line; that after passing the enemy the admiral had turned towards them as soon as he could do so without blocking the course of the ships astern; that he turned from them and hauled down the signal for battle only when it was evident that many of his ships were too shattered to renew the fight at once; that his standing towards the south was a judicious manoeuvre, and neither was, nor had the appearance of being, a flight from the enemy; and that any chase on the morning of the 28th would certainly have been unavailing, and would probably have been dangerous. And after examining and considering an enormous body of technical evidence, the court, on 11 February, pronounced the charge to be ‘malicious and ill-founded;’ that Keppel had behaved as became ‘a judicious, brave, and experienced officer;’ and thereupon unanimously and honourably acquitted him.

Keppel became the hero of the hour. It was honestly believed that he would have won a victory had not Palliser prevented him, and Palliser's backwardness was attributed to the malign influence of Lord Sandwich. Keppel's acquittal was thus not only a triumph of innocence over vice and fraud, it was a triumph of the popular party over the unpopular ministry. The admiralty gates were torn down; the windows of the official residences were smashed; Palliser's house in Pall Mall was gutted, and his effigy was burnt. Bonfires blazed in Keppel's honour; the rioters drank Keppel's health; and the publicans painted Keppel's head on their signs.

On the conclusion of the court-martial Keppel addressed a letter to the king personally, relating the facts of the conduct of the admiralty towards him, and imploring his majesty's permission not to go again to sea under men on whom, as he had learned by experience, he could not depend for support. ‘I am ready,’ he wrote, ‘to quit my command to-day, or to preserve it as long as may be convenient for your majesty's arrangements and consistent with my own honour; but I trust your majesty will see my reputation cannot continue safe in hands who have already done all they could to ruin it.’ The king would seem to have handed the letter over to the admiralty, who wrote on 12 March expressing their desire to know with certainty whether he intended to continue in his present command. Keppel replied that he had laid his situation and the treatment he had received before the king; and after a further exchange of acrimonious letters he was ordered, 18 March 1779, to strike his flag.

He had naturally no further service under Lord Sandwich. But he had long been a member of the House of Commons, being elected for Windsor to the parliaments of 1761, 1768, and 1774, and for Surrey to the parliament of 1780, and from his place in the house he lost no opportunity of criticising the misconduct of naval affairs. On the fall of Lord North's administration, 20 March 1782, and the formation of Rockingham's, Keppel was appointed first lord of the admiralty, and on 26 April was raised to the peerage as Viscount Keppel and Baron Elden. After the death of Rockingham Keppel was succeeded at the admiralty by Lord Howe, but resumed office on the formation of the coalition ministry. On its downfall, 30 December 1783, he was again succeeded by Howe, and retired altogether from public life. His health, which had suffered severely from the climate of Havana, had never been quite re-established, and during his later years was very much broken. In the autumn of 1785 he was advised not to risk the winter in England, and went to Naples, from which he returned in the spring of 1786. The change, however, effected no lasting good, and he died a few months later, on 2 October He had not married, and the title on his death became extinct.

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