Benbow’s Last Fight

Date Posted: 16/08/2010

308 years ago on Wednesday, Admiral John Benbow fought his last fight in which he was wounded and later died. He was abandoned by his captains and ‘Benbow’s Last Fight’ has since become a famous example of naval cowardice that represents the bottom of the scale of British naval competence. Curiously, however, Benbow has never received any blame. As a fleet commander he was expected to take his fleet into battle and to win, which he failed to do, and his captains got the blame and two were executed. Very few fleet commanders in history have been so fortunate.

 The real story is very complex. Benbow’s fleet was poorly manned and his men riddled with sickness. His ships were in a terrible state and his officers inexperienced. It was therefore convenient for both Benbow and the fleet administrators who had sent the fleet to the Caribbean so poorly equipped to cry treachery to deflect any blame. And we so often forget the other fleet. Benbow’s enemy was the wily Admiral du Casse, an experienced corsair captain who knew everything there was to know about chasing ships and evading capture. His ships were fresh and he knew the coastline. Benbow, moreover, had fought with great distinction and valour against the French in the previous wars, but he had never before commanded a fleet in action against the enemy. He had led bombardment squadrons and coastal raids; he had led blockades and he had fought corsairs, but he had never commanded a fleet in fleet battle. This was not Benbow’s last fight so much as his first.

 The result was inevitable failure, just one of several failures in that period and just one of several British naval failures in the Caribbean. In 1702, British naval failure was not an exception but the rule.