“What, are there two of them?”
In 1757 the Cornish Pellew family celebrated the birth of their second son, Edward. The following year his younger brother Israel was born. Both brothers would go on to join the Royal Navy as youngsters and have highly successful careers. They were both promoted quickly through the service on merit, would each be knighted and would end their careers as admirals. Just as they were born within a year of each other, so they died together in their seventies, Israel in July 1832, and Edward six months later.
It was Edward who was the first to go to sea, running away from a hated headmaster at Truro Grammar School when only fourteen to join the navy. As a midshipman he was a member of the naval contingent who took part in General Burgoyne’s ill fated Hudson River campaign in 1777, which ended in defeat at the Battle of Saratoga. Captured by the American rebels, he spent the next year as a prisoner of war. It was the only time in his career he would taste defeat. Returned to the navy he rose rapidly, first to lieutenant, then commander and finally post captain in the space of just four years. In each case promotion came as a reward for acts of conspicuous gallantry.
His brother Israel joined the navy a year after his brother, but had an altogether quieter American War of Independence, serving in the West Indies and on the North American station. He was promoted to lieutenant during the war, and to commander during the peace that followed. The brothers’ naval careers were to come together again when the French Revolutionary war broke out in 1793.
On the outbreak of war Edward was given command of the 36 gun frigate Nymphe. When no suitable vessel was available for Israel, he chose to ship with his brother as a volunteer. As a result both Pellew brothers fought side by side when the Nymphe engaged and defeated the French frigate Cleopatre in the Channel. It was the first successful naval action of the war, and the brothers were both rewarded, Edward with a knighthood and Israel with promotion to post rank.
Over the following years the older Edward developed an extraordinary reputation for personal bravery and became a legend across the navies of Europe. Examples of his valour are too numerous to list, but can best be demonstrated by two contrasting examples. In 1796 he was present in Plymouth Sound when the troop ship Dutton stuck the rocks in heavy seas and began to break up. A competent swimmer who had rescued numerous shipmates over the years, he swam out to the stricken vessel through the storm with a rescue line. Thanks to this rope, almost all of the four hundred soldiers and dependents on board were saved.
His most famous exploit came the following year when he was in command of the frigate Indefatigable. In company with the smaller frigate Amazon he encountered the French 74 gun Droits de l’Homme in stormy winter weather off the treacherous coast of Brittany. An epic running battle followed that lasted through the night, with the two frigates remorselessly harassing their huge opponent. The battle ended the following day with both the Droits de l’Homme and the Amazon driven ashore, and only the Indefatigable surviving.
Israel again had a quieter war than his brother, at least until 1805, when he had his most notable engagement. He was captain of the 74 gun Conqueror, which was the fourth ship in the line behind Nelson’s Victory at Trafalgar. It was to the Conqueror that the French commander, Admiral Villeneuve surrendered his flagship Bucentaure. The Frenchman asked the name of his captor, and when told it was Captain Pellew replied that he was glad to have struck to such a renowned commander as Sir Edward. The young lieutenant in charge of the prisoner then had to explain that it was actually to Israel that he had surrendered. ‘What!’ exclaimed Villeneuve, ‘are there two of them! Helas!’
The brothers were to fight together once more before their careers were done. Edward had become an admiral in 1804, and commanded first the East Indian station, then the North Sea fleet and finally the Mediterranean fleet. In the Mediterranean his brother served as his flag captain, and both men were involved in an attempt to negotiate an end to the use of Christian slaves by the Dey of Algiers in 1816. When negotiations failed, the two brothers led a powerful Anglo-Dutch fleet into Algiers Bay, where they bombarded the recalcitrant ruler into surrendering. For both men it was to be their last naval battle.