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naval officer who earned distinction in three separate wars
George Brydges Rodney was born at Walton-on-Thames in January 1718, the third of four surviving children of Henry and Mary (Newton) Rodney. His father served in Spain during the War of the Spanish Succession, and on leaving the army served as Captain in a marine corps which was disbanded in 1713. A major investment in the South Sea Company ruined the family financially, but Henry Rodney's connections by marriage prevented total poverty. George was educated at the Harrow School until 1732, when he joined the Royal Navy.
After spending two years as a volunteer aboard HMS Sunderland, Rodney became a midshipman on HMS Dreadnought, on which he was mentored by Captain Henry Medley. After spending time in Lisbon, he saw service aboard several ships over the next few years, and, in 1738, voyaged to Newfoundland to aid in protecting the British fishing fleet.
Rodney rose swiftly through the ranks of the Navy, helped by a combination of his own talents and the patronage of the Duke of Chandos. On February 15, 1739, while serving in the Mediterranean on HMS Dolphin, he was made Lieutenant. He then served on HMS Namur, the flagship of the Commander-in-Chief Sir Thomas Mathews.
War of the Austrian Succession
With the beginning of the War of the Austrian Succession, Rodney was dispatched to attack a Spanish supply base at Ventimiglia in 1742. Successful in this endeavor, he received a promotion to Post-Captain and took command of HMS Plymouth. After escorting British merchantmen home from Lisbon, Rodney's promotion was confirmed. After serving in home waters learning about convoy protection he was given HMS Ludlow Castle and directed to blockade the Scottish coast during the Jacobite Rebellion (1745). In 1746, Rodney took over HMS Eagle and patrolled the Western Approaches. On May 24, he captured his first prize, a 16-gun Spanish privateer. Fresh from this triumph, he received orders to join Admiral George Anson's Western Squadron.
Operating in the Channel and off the French coast, the Eagle was involved, directly or indirectly, in the capture of sixteen enemy ships. In May 1747, the Eagle was taking one of the captured prizes to Kinsale, Ireland, when the Western Squadron, now under the command of Admiral Edward Hawke, won a significant victory over the French at the First Battle of Cape Finisterre. The Eagle was present, however, at the Second Battle of Cape Finisterre, which was fought off Ushant on October 14. The French were trying to escort an outgoing convoy from France to the West Indies and had eight large ships-of-the-line while the British had fourteen smaller ships. Rodney was at the rear of the British line, and the Eagle was one of the last British ships to come into action engaging the French shortly after noon. Initially the Eagle was engaged with two French ships, but one moved away. Rodney engaged the seventy gun Neptune for two hours, until the steering wheel was struck by a lucky shot and his ship became unmanageable. The British ultimately took six of the eight French ships, but were unable to prevent most of the merchant convoy escaping.
right: the Second Battle of Cape Finisterre
For the remainder of the war Rodney took part in further cruises, and took several more prizes. After the Treaty of Aix-la-Chapelle ended the war, Rodney took his ship back to Plymouth, where it was decommissioned on August 13, 1748. Rodney's total share of prize money during his time with the Eagle was £15,000, giving him financial security for the first time in his life.
On May 9, 1749, Rodney was appointed Governor and Commander-In-Chief of Newfoundland, with the rank of Commodore. His role as Governor was rather limited, however. Each summer, a large British fishing fleet sailed for Newfoundland, where it took part in the valuable cod trade, then returned home for the winter. Rodney oversaw three such trips to Newfoundland between 1749 and 1751.
Around this time Rodney began to harbor political ambitions and gained the support of the Duke of Bedford and Lord Sandwich. He stood unsuccessfully in a 1750 by-election in Launceston, but was elected MP for Saltash, a seat controlled by the Admiralty, in 1751. After his final trip to Newfoundland, Rodney sailed home via Spain and Portugal, escorting some merchantmen. Once home he fell ill and was unemployed for several months. During this time he oversaw the development of an estate at Old Alresford in Hampshire, which he had bought with his prize money. In 1753, he married Jane Compton, sister of Charles Compton, 7th Earl of Northampton. They had three children together before she died in January 1757. From 1753, Rodney commanded a series of Portsmouth guard ships without actually having to go to sea.
Seven Years' War
In 1757, Rodney sailed aboard HMS Dublin as part of Hawke's raid on Rochefort. The following year, he was directed to carry Major General Jeffery Amherst across the Atlantic to oversee the Siege of Louisbourg. Capturing a French East Indiaman en route, Rodney was later criticized for putting prize money ahead of his orders. Joining Admiral Edward Boscawen's fleet off Louisbourg, Rodney delivered the general and operated against the city through June and July. In August 1758, Rodney sailed for home in charge of a small fleet carrying the captured garrison of Louisbourg into captivity in Britain.
Soon after being promoted to Rear Admiral on May 19, 1759, Rodney was given command of a small squadron and began operations against French invasion forces at Le Havre, at the mouth of the River Seine. Employing bomb vessels, he attacked the French port in early July, inflicting significant damage. He struck again in August, but with far less success due to a combination of weather and improved French defenses. The French invasion plans were cancelled later that year after major naval defeats at Lagos and Quiberon Bay. Detailed to blockade the French coast until 1761, Rodney was then given command of a British expedition tasked with capturing the rich island of Martinique.
Crossing to the Caribbean, Rodney's fleet, in conjunction with Major General Robert Monckton's ground forces, conducted a successful campaign against Martinique, and also captured St. Lucia and Grenada. Completing operations in the Leeward Islands, Rodney moved northwest and joined with Vice Admiral George Pocock's fleet for an expedition against Cuba.
Second Inter-War Career
Returning to Britain at the end of the war in 1763, Rodney learned that he had been promoted to Vice-Admiral. Made a Baronet in 1764, he elected to remarry and wed Henrietta Clies later that year. From 1765 to 1770, Rodney served as Governor of Freenwich Hospital, and on the dissolution of Parliament in 1768 he contested a seat for Northampton. Although he won the election, the victory cost him a large portion of his fortune. After three more years in London, he accepted the post of Commander-In-Chief at Jamaica, as well as the honorary office of Rear Admiral of Great Britain. He held the Jamaica command until 1774, at which time he was so far in debt that he had to settle in Paris instead of returning to London. In 1778, a friend, Marshal Biron, fronted him the money to clear his debts. Returning to London, Rodney was able to secure back pay from his ceremonial offices and repay Biron. That same year, he was promoted to Admiral.
Appointed Commander-In-Chief of the Leeward Islands in late-1779, Rodney was ordered to relieve Gibraltar on his way to the West Indies. He captured a Spanish convoy off Cape Finisterre on January 8, 1780, and eight days later defeated Spanish Admiral Don Juan de LŠngara at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent, taking or destroying seven ships. He then brought some relief to Gibraltar by delivering reinforcements and supplies.
Reaching the Caribbean, Rodney's fleet met a French squadron, led by the Comte de Guichen, on April 17. Engaging off Martinique, a misinterpretation of Rodney's signals led to his battle plan being poorly executed. As a result, the battle proved inconclusive, although Guichen elected to call off his campaign against British holdings in the region. With hurricane season approaching, Rodney sailed north to New York. Sailing back to the Caribbean the following year, Rodney and General John Vaughan captured the Dutch island of St. Eustatius, in February 1781. In the wake of the capture, the two officers were accused of lingering on the island to collect its wealth rather than continuing to pursue military objectives. Arriving back in Britain later that year, Rodney defended his actions. As he was a supporter of Lord North's government, his conduct at St. Eustatius received Parliament's blessing.
Resuming his post in the Caribbean in February 1782, Rodney moved to engage a French fleet under the Comte de Grasse two months later. After a skirmish on April 9, the two fleets met at the Battle of the Saintes on the 12th. In the course of the fighting, the British fleet managed to break through the French battle line in two places. One of the first times this tactic had been used, it resulted in Rodney capturing seven French ships of the line, including De Grasse's flagship Ville de Paris. Though hailed as a hero, several of Rodney's subordinates, including Samuel Hood, felt that the Admiral did not pursue the beaten enemy with sufficient vigor.
left: Rodney accepting the surrender of the Comte de Grasse
Sailing for Britain soon after defeating de Grasse, Rodney arrived in August to find that he had been elevated to Baron Rodney of Rodney Stoke and that Parliament had voted him an annual pension of £2,000. Electing to retire from the service, Rodney also withdrew from public life. He died on May 23, 1792, at his home on Hanover Square in London.
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This page was last updated on June 11, 2017.