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Significant Scots
Sir Robert Calder


CALDER, SIR ROBERT, Bart.—It has been truly remarked by Hallam, that the state trials of England exhibit the most appalling accumulation of judicial iniquity that can be found in any age or country. And why? Because, as he adds, the monarch cannot wreak his vengeance, or the nobles vent the bitterness of their feuds, except in a law court, and by a legal process. The trials connected with the history of the British navy, and the iniquitous sentences passed upon some of our most heroic and deserving admirals, attest too fully the truth of Hallam’s observation. Byng, Matthews, Cochrane—the first shot, the second cashiered, and the third imprisoned, from no adequate cause, or without cause whatever, are cases that seem to carry us back, not to the dark ages, when heroism at least was fairly appreciated, but to the old Carthaginian periods, when the bravest generals were crucified as often as their rivals entered into place and power. A fourth British admiral, who was the victim of an unjust trial and most undeserved punishment, was Sir Robert Calder, the subject of the present notice. And we judge it the more necessary to introduce him with the preceding remarks, as it is only now, after the lapse of many years, that men are disposed to render full justice to his memory and worth.

Robert Calder was the second son of Sir Thomas Calder of Muirton, Moray-shire, and was born at Elgin on the 2d of July, 1745. At the age of fourteen he entered the navy as midshipman. At the age of twenty-one he had attained the rank of lieutenant on board the Essex, commanded by the Hon. George Falkner, and served on the West India station. Promotion, however, was long in coming, for it was not until many years had elapsed that he obtained the command of a ship. In 1782, he was captain of the Diana, which was employed as a repeating frigate to Rear-Admiral Kempenfelt. At this period, also, he was an unwilling sharer in one of those events which the British historian is compelled to record to the shame of our glorious navy. The united fleets of France and Spain had appeared upon our coasts; but Sir Charles Hardy who commanded the English fleet, was ordered not to risk an engagement, so that he was obliged to retire between the Wolf-rock and the Main. Such an inglorious retreat, at a time when the flag of Rodney was triumphant, so maddened our gallant tars, that they muffled with their hammocks a figure-head of George III., swearing that his majesty should not be witness of their flight. Captain Calder, who belonged to the rear-division, so fully sympathized in their feelings, that, although his vessel was within a short distance of a large French two-decker, that could have blown him out of the water by a single broadside, he kept his place, until he was peremptorily ordered by signal to retire.

On the renewal of war with France, Captain Calder was employed in various services, from which little individual distinction was to be acquired; but in these he acquitted himself so well as to establish his character for naval skill and courage. He was finally appointed captain of the fleet by Sir John Jervis, and was present at the memorable engagement of the 14th of February, 1797, off Cape St. Vincent, when the Spanish fleet of twenty-seven sail of the line and twelve frigates was completely defeated by Jervis, with only fifteen ships and six frigates. On this great occasion, where Nelson and Collingwood were the heroes of the encounter, Captain Calder acquitted himself so ably, that on being sent home with the despatches, he was honoured with knighthood, and afterwards made a baronet. On the 14th of February, 1799, he rose in the service by seniority to the rank of rear-admiral; and, in 1801, was sent with a small squadron in chase of Admiral Gantheaume, who was carrying supplies to the French army in Egypt. A short-lived peace soon followed, and Sir Robert Calder retired to his residence in Hampshire, from which he was quickly recalled to sea by the renewal of hostilities with France; and, in 1804, he was raised to the rank of Vice-admiral of the White.

This fresh commencement of war was an event of more than common importance to Great Britain. Its liberty, its very existence as a nation, was now at stake; for Bonaparte, hitherto so successful in all his enterprises, had resolved to invade it, and for this purpose was making preparations at Boulogne commensurate with what he meant to be his crowning enterprise. An immense flotilla was constructed and put in readiness to convey an army of 150,000 veteran soldiers from Boulogne to the shores of Kent, after which, a march upon London was deemed an easy achievement. Still further to insure the facilities of such an invasion, these flat-bottomed transports were ostentatiously armed, as if they alone were intended to force a passage across the British Channel, and thus the attention of our statesmen was withdrawn from the real point where danger was to be apprehended. This consisted in the contemplated junction of the French and Spanish fleets, which was to be effected while the eyes of England were exclusively fixed upon the land show of preparations going on at Boulogne. While these warlike boats were intended for transports, and nothing more, Napoleon’s real design was to collect forty or fifty ships of the line in the harbour of Martinique, by operations combined in the harbours of Toulon, Cadiz, Ferrol, and Brest; to bring them suddenly back to Boulogne; and while thus making himself for fifteen days master of the sea, to have his whole army transported into England without interruption.

Never, perhaps, since the days of William the Conqueror, had England been in such imminent jeopardy. While her statesmen were still thrown off their guard, and imagining that the only danger lay in the flotilla, the vessels preparing in the ports of Ferrol, Cadiz, and Carthagena consisted of thirty-eight French, and thirty Spanish ships of the line; and these, if combined, would have been sufficient to hold the English Channel against all the force which our nation could muster. To attempt a blockade of the hostile harbours was the only expedient that occurred to the British government in this emergency, and the important task of blockading the ports of Ferrol and Corunna was intrusted to Sir Robert Calder. Even yet, however, the design of Bonaparte was so little surmised, that Sir Robert’s force on this occasion was utterly incommensurate with the greatness of the crisis, for only seven sail were allowed him, which were afterwards raised to nine; and with these he was to prevent five French ships of the line and three frigates, and five Spanish ships of the line and four frigates, from leaving the hostile harbours. Thus the blockade was to be maintained by a force which was greatly inferior to that of the enemy. Undismayed by this disparity, Sir Robert entered his appointed station, and maintained it, notwithstanding the manoeuvres of the Brest squadron to entice him into the open sea.

At length the moment arrived which Bonaparte had so keenly anticipated. The imperfect blockades of the British had been in several cases eluded; the West Indies had been reached by several hostile squadrons; and Nelson, who had gone in pursuit without being able to reach them, only learned at the last moment, that the combined French and Spanish fleets had set sail from Martinique, and were in full return to Europe. A swift sailing vessel, which he sent with this intelligence, happily outstripped the combined fleet, and thus, at the last moment, and by an intervention truly providential, the British government was put upon its guard. The first movement of the enemy, to which they were directed in consequence of the express command of Bonaparte, was to raise the blockade of Ferrol, and that accomplished, to proceed with the French and Spanish ships lying there to the relief of the other ports, by which their whole combined navy would be collected in full force in the English Channel. Sir Robert Calder was thus to abide the first brunt of the onset, and upon the stoutness of his resistance the issue of the great trial between France and England would mainly depend. Conscious of this, the British government despatched instant orders to rear-admiral Stirling, who commanded a squadron before Rochefort, to raise the blockade of that harbour, join Sir Robert Calder off Ferrol, and cruise with him off Cape Finisterre, to intercept the allied fleet of the enemy on their homeward passage to Brest.

As soon as the junction between the two British squadrons was effected, Sir Robert Calder stood out to sea, and quickly reached the station appointed for his cruise. Although the addition of Stirling’s squadron raised his whole force to nothing more than fifteen ships of the line, two frigates, a cutter, and a lugger, he had little fear of the issue, as the French and Spanish fleet was supposed to amount to only sixteen ships. But as soon as the enemy hove in sight, looming through a fog that had concealed their approach until they were close at hand, it was found that they consisted of twenty line-of-battle ships, a fifty gun ship, seven frigates, and two brigs. This was an unexpected and startling disparity; but Sir Robert boldly entered into action although the fog that had commenced in the morning made it necessary for his ships, which bore down in two columns, to tack before they reached the enemy. A close action of four hours ensued, in which the British, notwithstanding their inferiority of numbers, behaved with such gallantry and spirit that a signal victory would probably have been the consequence, had it not been for the haze, which became so dense, that Sir Robert was scarcely able to see his ships either ahead or astern. As it was, he had already captured two large Spanish ships, the Rafael of eighty-four, and the Firme of seventy-four guns; and judging it imprudent to continue the fight, he brought-to, for the purpose of covering his prizes, and waiting an opportunity to renew the engagement. On the following day, the French and Spanish fleet, having the advantage of the windward, advanced within a league and a-half of the British, upon which, Sir Robert hauling on the wind, offered them battle; but Villeneuve, the admiral of the combined fleet, refused the challenge, by hauling to the wind on the same tack as his adversary. On the third day, Sir Robert once more offered battle, but in vain: and being now justly apprehensive of the union of the enemy with the Rochefort and Ferrol squadrons, under whose combined force his own would have been overwhelmed, he fell back, relying upon the support of the Channel fleet, or that of Lord Nelson, while Villeneuve, instead of holding on in his course, was fain to retire into Ferrol. This meeting, that was fraught with such momentous consequences, occurred in lat. 43 degrees 30’ north, and long. 11 degrees 17’ west, or about forty leagues from Ferrol, on the 22d of July, 1805.

Nothing could exceed the rage and vexation of Napoleon at this engagement and its result. He saw, that by this single stroke, all his preparations at Boulogne were frustrated, and the projected invasion of England rendered hopeless. As soon as he received the tidings, he summoned Count Daru, his private secretary, into the apartment, who, on entering, found the emperor traversing the room with hurried steps, and exclaiming, "What a navy! What sacrifices for nothing! What an admiral! All hope is gone! That Villeneuve, instead of entering the Channel, has taken refuge in Ferrol! It is all over: he will be blockaded there. Daru, sit down and write." Daru took up his pen accordingly, and, with the rapidity of lightning, Napoleon dictated the details of the breaking up of the army at Boulogne, the routes and movements of the different corps, and all the complicated minutiae of the campaign that ended so triumphantly at Austerlitz. In this manner, the terrible storm that was to have gathered and burst over London, was suddenly wafted away to the shores of the Danube and the devoted palaces of Vienna. Speaking of his disappointment in after years, Bonaparte said, "If Admiral Villeneuve, instead of entering into the harbour of Ferrol, had contented himself with joining the Spanish squadron, and instantly made sail for Brest and joined Admiral Gantheaume, my army would have embarked, and it was all over with England."

While such was the judgment of Napoleon upon this event—and certainly no one was so fitted to tell its consequences--a very different estimation was made of it in England. There, a long series of naval victories had so pampered the public vanity, that the defeat of a British fleet was deemed impossible, and any thing short of its full success a proof of the most culpable negligence and shortcoming. It was the counterpart of that land-delusion which made our countrymen imagine that every British soldier was able to beat three Frenchmen, until subsequent events reduced them to a more reasonable calculation. Of this overweening estimate Sir Robert Calder was soon to taste the bitter fruits. He had encountered a fleet, no matter how superior to his own, and not annihilated it; he had allowed it to slip through his fingers, and find shelter in a friendly harbour. In the meantime, the unconscious victim of such unreasonable obloquy was congratulating himself on his services, and anticipating nothing less than the approbation of his country. With an inferior force he had blocked up the enemy in port for nearly five months; he had afterwards encountered and held the combined fleet at bay when their ships greatly outnumbered his own, and made two valuable captures without losing a single vessel. These advantages were so justly appreciated by Lord Cornwallis, his superior in command, that on the 17th of August (1805), Calder was sent back with twenty ships to Ferrol, from which Villeneuve had ventured out at the express command of Napoleon, to join the French fleet at Brest; but, on hearing of Sir Robert Calder’s approach, instead of pursuing his course, he tacked about and made sail for Cadiz, which he reached on the 21st. Thus Calder had the honour of baffling, for the second time, an expedition, upon which the fate of England was at stake; and Villeneuve, shut up in Cadiz, was obliged to remain at anchorage there, until all was ready for the crushing disaster at Trafalgar.

But the same winds that carried Calder against his antagonist, and enabled him once more to baffle the most cherished of Napoleon’s objects, also bore to his ears the murmurs of the Admiralty at home, and made him acquainted with the public prints in which his courage as a British sailor, and his loyalty as a British subject, were equally called in question. Indignant at these iniquitous aspersions, and the eagerness with which they were received, he resolved to right himself by a public trial. He therefore demanded from the Lords of the Admiralty the sitting of a court-martial upon his conduct, notwithstanding the earnest entreaties of Nelson that he should remain on the station, and await the expected engagement, in which his reputation would be fully cleared. On finding, however, that his brother-admiral was impatient of an hour’s delay until his character was vindicated, the hero of the Nile sent him home in the Prince of Wales, his own ship of ninety guns, to do Calder the greater honour, although such a diminution from the fleet could be ill spared at that period. On the arrival of the vessel at Spithead, the court-martial was held on board, on the 23d of December, 1805. After the witnesses had been examined, Sir Robert entered upon his defence. He quoted several recent cases in which our best naval commanders had refrained from the renewal of an encounter without any impeachment of the propriety of their forbearance. He stated that the Rochefort and Ferrol squadrons, to the number of twenty sail of the line, were supposed to be at sea when the battle of the 22d of July occurred; and that had he waited for their junction with the enemy, whose force already so greatly exceeded his own, he must have been utterly overpowered. Even had he been only disabled in the encounter, these united squadrons might have pressed onward for Ireland, or even for England, and thus have facilitated the long-threatened invasion of our country. In this case, it was necessary to preserve his fleet for ulterior operations, instead of risking a renewal of the action, and the more especially so, that on the morning after the battle, he found himself eight or nine miles to leeward, while some of his ships were so greatly disabled, that they could not carry sufficient sail to windward, and others were wholly out of sight. Matters being such, and believing that the design of the enemy was to reach Ferrol, and there unite with the blockaded squadron, he had done what he could: he had thrown himself between the port of Ferrol and the combined fleet for two days under an easy press of sail, neither offering nor shunning an encounter; and as often as the enemy menaced a renewal of action, he had accepted the challenge by hauling up his wind. All this he stated at large, and with the most convincing perspicuity; and, at the close, he burst forth with the indignant eloquence of injured worth upon the wrong with which himself and his brave companions had been treated, and the manner in which his despatches had been mutilated, and some important parts of them suppressed, for the purpose of deepening the odium under which they were now suffering. But his arguments and his eloquence were in vain; a scape-goat was needed to carry off upon its innocent head the manifold blunders of the Admiralty, and Sir Robert Calder had been selected for this office. His defence accordingly was overruled, and on the 26th, the following sentence was pronounced:—"The Court is of opinion, that the charge of not having done his utmost to renew the engagement, and to take and destroy every ship of the enemy, has been proved against the said vice-admiral Sir Robert Calder; that it appears that his conduct has not been actuated either by cowardice or disaffection, but has arisen solely from error in judgment, and is highly censurable, and doth adjudge him to be severely reprimanded; and the said vice-admiral, Sir Robert Calder, is hereby severely reprimanded accordingly."

It would be ridiculous, in the present day, when the conduct of this gallant admiral is so well understood, and the greatness of his services so thoroughly appreciated, to allude to the injustice of such a sentence. It stands solitary and aloof, with the brand upon its forehead, and can only now condemn none but its authors. And happy will it be for them if their names can escape into utter obscurity, with the names of those who sat in judgment upon Miltiades and Scipio. In the defence of Sir Robert Calder, we perceive that he had made an indignant allusion to the mutilation and curtailment of his despatches. This serious charge unfortunately was too true, and the admiralty itself was guilty of the crime. In their published account, the following passage of Sir Robert was retained:—"The enemy are now in sight to windward; and when I have secured the captured ships, and put the squadron to rights, I shall endeavour to avail myself of any further opportunity that may offer to give you a further account of these combined squadrons." In consequence of this announcement, a meeting between the hostile fleets for the renewal of the contest was anticipated; and as the hours went onward, the public ear in London was on the alert for the firing of the Tower guns, to announce a glorious victory. But the following passage, which would have abated this ardour, was omitted:— "At the same time, it will behove me to be on my guard against the combined squadrons in Ferrol, as I am led to believe that they have sent off one or two of their crippled ships last night for that port; therefore, possibly I may find it necessary to make a junction with you immediately off Ushant with the whole squadron." Had the admiralty published this part of Sir Robert’s despatch, as they ought to have done, the nation would have seen at once that it was impossible, with only fourteen ships ready for action, to encounter the opposite eighteen, should the latter be joined by the twenty line-of-battle ships whose arrival was hourly expected. But a sensation was to be produced, and hope excited, and therefore the chilling paragraph was fraudulently withheld. And when no victory ensued, the perpetrators of this deed endeavoured to conceal their blunder, and avert the public wrath by a condemnation that ought to have fallen, not upon Calder, but upon themselves.

Although the sentence of the court-martial was expected to soothe the popular disappointment, and for a short time succeeded, yet let no statesman venture upon such experiments with the British public. John Bull is reckoned indeed the very type of gullibility, and with good reason; but the honesty of heart in which this weakness originates is sure to recover the ascendancy, and examine the trial anew, in which case, the false witness and unrighteous judge have equally cause to tremble. Thus it was in the case of Sir Robert Calder. The public began to suspect that he had been unjustly dealt with, and further inquiry only strengthened the suspicion. The same feeling, although more tardily, at length obtained an entrance into head-quarters; and, in 1810, Mr. Yorke, then first lord of the Admiralty, ventured to express his conviction that Sir Robert had deserved very different treatment. In parliament, also, the same sentiment was expressed by the Duke of Norfolk and the Earl of Romney. The result of this return to a proper feeling upon the subject, was the offer to Sir Robert, on the part of Mr. Yorke, of the important command of Plymouth. which the former accepted as a full testimony of his acquittal and recognition of his public services and worth. After Sir Robert Calder had held the appointment for three years, he died at Holt, near Bishop’s Waltham, in Hants, on the 31st of August, 1818, in the 74th year of his age.


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