What should the world make of Admiral George Rodney? On the one hand he was undoubtedly a vain, grasping, selfish man who actively supported the slave trade. On the other hand he promoted John Perkins, the Royal Navy’s first black commanding officer; saved thousands of lives by introducing lime juice into the diet of his men, and was one of the best admirals in the years before Nelson.
He was born into a wealthy family in 1718, the third child of a captain in the marines. Two years later his father lost everything in the South Sea Bubble, leaving the young Rodney impoverished but with a life-long avarice for money. At the age of fourteen he joined the Royal Navy. This was a logical step for the family. Although now poor they were still well connected, with a number of relatives serving as officers, including an uncle who commanded a warship. Through a combination of patronage and ability, Rodney was rapidly promoted, becoming the youngest captain in the navy in 1742, just as the War of Austrian Succession broke out.
Rodney did well over the next six years of warfare. He was part of the Western Squadron of the Home Fleet, first under Admiral Anson and then Admiral Hawke. This was a force of recently built weatherly ships that were attempting the new tactic of blockading the French Atlantic coast. This was very successful and resulted in two naval victories off Cape Finisterre, in one of which Rodney’s ship, the Eagle, played a distinguished part. It also provided Rodney with an opportunity to capture large numbers of French merchantmen. By the end of the war he had accumulated the fortune in prize money he had always dreamed of.
Accumulating wealth was one thing, retaining it quite another. Rodney bought a country estate and began to move in London’s High Society. He married Jane Compton, the daughter of the Earl of Northampton and decided to pursue a political career. He became a Member of Parliament, at a time when MPs received no salary, and getting elected was an expensive business. Even his three years as Governor of Newfoundland could do little to stem the flow of cash. By the mid 1750s Rodney’s fortune was running low, but fortunately for him the Seven Years War broke out, with a renewed opportunity for prize money.
Rodney served his country well during the war. He helped in the capture of the fortress of Louisbourg during the British conquest of Canada. By 1759 he had become a Rear Admiral, and successfully attacked and destroyed a French fleet of invasion craft that had been gathered at Le Havre. He was then given command of the Leeward Islands in the Caribbean, where he captured the French sugar islands of Martinique, St Lucia and Grenada. Once again, Rodney succeeded in both serving his country, and replenishing his empty bank balance. Rumours circulated in the service that he placed a love of money above duty. For example, while rushing General Amherst (the commander of the expedition against Louisbourg) across the Atlantic, he captured a valuable French East Indiaman. He then diverted his ship to escort this prize into Vigo, where he spent four days haggling over the prize money he was due for her.
During the peace that followed the end of the Seven Years War, Rodney received a number of plum appointments. He was made Governor of Greenwich hospital for three years. Then he was sent as Commander in Chief of the Jamaica Station, but predictably got into trouble with the Admiralty over a large, un-receipted sum of money that he claimed has been spent on “intelligence.” When he returned home, Rodney’s problems remained the same – he could not resist spending money at an appreciably faster rate than it came in. By 1778, in spite of now being a full Admiral, a combination of gambling debts and the ruinous cost of running for parliament forced him to flee from his creditors. He went to live in Paris, until his debts were paid off by a generous French friend, and he was able to return home. He arrived back in London just in time for the outbreak of the American War of Independence.
Rodney led the Royal Navy to several victories during the war, notably the Moonlit Battle against the Spanish, and the Battle of the Saintes against the French. In this second battle Rodney used a number of new innovations. These included a more sophisticated flag signalling system to control his ships, and the tactic of breaking the enemy’s line, which Nelson would perfect at Trafalgar. But just as before, his triumphs came in tandem with controversy. He led the invasion of the rich Dutch Caribbean island of St Eustatius, which was being used to supply the American Rebels. Once Rodney was in control, he proceeded to ruthlessly strip the captured island of anything of value, capturing a 150 ships and over three million sterling in booty, whether he was legally entitled to it or not. His deputy, Admiral Hood was so shocked by his behaviour that he called him a ‘mere thief’ and accused him of lining his pocket rather than advancing the war. His behaviour was to cost Rodney dear.
If he had assumed that his actions at St Eustatius would solve his financial woes, he was unfortunately mistaken. When he returned home on the grounds of ill health, he was hauled before parliament to explain himself, and would spend the rest of his life mired in legal disputes with the merchants whose goods he had seized. Hounded by creditors and fresh legal actions, he was forced to flee from London, and lived as a virtual recluse on his estate in the country, until he died in 1792.