“Admiral Benbow”

Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1841
Keywords: battle sea death abandonment
Found in: Britain(England(South))


Despite being badly outnumbered, Benbow prepares for battle (against the French), but captains Kirkby and Wade flee the contest. In the fight that follows, Benbow loses his legs, but orders his face to be turned toward the fight even as he dies


The story outlined here is true in its general details. John Benbow (1653-1702), commanding the British in the West Indies, and was mortally wounded in battle with the French after two of his captains deserted him (the two were later tried and hanged for cowardice). The battle took place off Cartagena (the one in Columbia, not the one in Spain; see Alfred Thayer Mahan, _The Influence of Sea Power Upon History_, p. 207). Benbow became a naval hero, and several later battleships were named for him.

One version of the story is briefly told in Arthur Herman, _To Rule the Waves_, pp. 245-246. Herman argues that Benbow was wrong and his captains right: The British squadron of six ships was not strong enough to fight the French. But Benbow (who lost only his right leg, not both) lived long enough to order the court martial of the rebellious officers. The leader, Richard Kirkby of the _Defiant_, was executed, as was one of the other captains. This firmly established the principle of obedience to orders no matter how stupid.

Not everyone agrees with Herman's interpretation. Richard Woodman, _A Brief History of Mutiny_, Carroll & Graf, 2005, devotes pp. 48-58 to Benbow and his subordinates, and draws a very different picture.

Benbow was a very unusual admiral, in that he was a "tarpaulin" officer -- that is, one drawn from the ranks of the sailors, rather than a noble who went straight into the officer class (Woodman, p. 48). He spent time as a merchant sailor and a privateer as well as in the navy, and seems to have developed a very high opinion of his own judgment as a result (Woodman, p. 49). Woodman, p. 49, says that the French fleet under Ducasse had a fleet with a total of 258; Benbow's force he lists as having 456 guns.

Anthony Bruce and William Cogar, _An Encyclopedia of Naval History_, 1998 (I use the 1999 Checkmark edition) on p. 40 sum up Benbow's career as follows: "Although Benbow came to be regarded as a hero in popular legend, there remains a doubt about his place in British naval history and whether his high reputation was well deserved."

G. N. Clark, _The Later Stuarts 1660-1714_, corrected edition, Oxford, 1944, p. 317, summarizes the whole incident as follows: "Vice-Admiral John Benbow, with seven English ships, had a good opportunity of attacking a weaker French squadron which remained to operate against English and Dutch commerce. Unfortunately four of his captain failed to join the fight, and it was a failure. Benbow was mortally wounded. Two of the captains were court martialed and shot. There is a still popuar folk-song about this dramatic but unimportant event."

Most texts of this fit the tune of "Captain Kidd" (and the only one I've seen which doesn't appears to have been fiddled with), though the tune in Chappell isn't quite the standard "Captain Kidd." It is also said to be used for "A Virgin Most Pure." We might note that Kidd went to the scaffold at the time Benbow was fighting his fight with the French.

This is not the only song about Benbow; Firth (who calls this one "The Death of Admiral Benbow") prints another, "Admital Benbow," on p. 148. This is said to date from at least 1784, though it appears less popular than this (which seems to have first been printed in Halliwell's _Early Naval Ballads_). - RBW

Historical references


  1. PBB 76, "The Death of Admiral Benbow" (1 text)
  2. Sharp-100E 87, "Admiral Benbow" (1 text, 1 tune)
  3. Chappell/Wooldridge II, pp. 92-93, "Admiral Benbow" (1 text, 1 tune)
  5. ADDITIONAL: C. H. Firth, _Publications of the Navy Records Society_ , 1907 (available on Google Books), p. 149, "The Death of Admiral Benbow" (1 text)
  6. Roud #227
  7. BI, PBB076