Bravebenbow Admiral John Benbow, biography, mutiny, script, screen play, art, documentary

March 17, 2010


Filed under: — W.A.Benbow @ 8:39 am


The Courts martial were conducted on board the Bredah, October 8 to 12. Because of his own ill health and personal involvement Benbow appointed Rear -Admiral Whetstone to preside over the trial, with the Solicitor General of Jamaica acting as Judge advocate or prosecutor. The trials were required to determine the guilt or innocence of Benbow’s captains on the main charge of mutiny, and the related charges of breach of orders, neglect of duty, and cowardice.

Perhaps of equal importance for us is an understanding of the causes of the Captains’ questionable behaviour.

Captain Hudson died before he could be brought to trial. He chose a self-imposed death to avoid the shame of the impending trial.

This collage is composed from works by McCormick and Skelton, with other contemporary figures. It shows Kirkby standing before a table of the court martial judges made up of the President, William Whetstone in the middle with George Walton to the left. The Judge Advocate and his clerk are at the far end questioning a witness seated in the foreground. Benbow is in the background keeping a keen eye on proceedings.

Kirkby court martial watercolour collage; by W.A.Benbow


The first trial set the tone. The Defiance Gunner was convicted of concealing 43 barrels of powder. The prosecution successfully discredited the Captains’ contention that they were short of powder.

The same day Capt. Kirkby’s trial was held. Of 28 witnesses, only 4 were in any way supportive of Kirkby. The third lieutenant of the Defiance, under pressure, changed his testimony and admitting that the Defiance did not keep the battle line. The Master, under cross examination, also was forced to change his testimony: he admitted to altering his journal to suit Kirkby.

The Surgeon, Carpenter and Boatswain of the Defiance gave damning evidence of Kirkby’s reticence to fight. The Boatswain testified that as well as commanding his men not to fire upon the enemy, Kirkby demonstrated his own cowardice by ducking behind the mizzen mast and falling down upon the deck.

Kirkby’s defence for not firing at the enemy was that they did not fire at him, because they had a respect for him. He also argued that the Admiral was remiss in not immediately replacing his Captains if he was dissatisfied with them. And he faulted the Admiral for continually attacking the rear most enemy ships, and so impeding the rest of his line from coming abreast of the French.

The court concluded that Col. Kirkby had endeavoured to poison the rest of the Captains. He was found guilty of breach of orders for not keeping his line of battle, guilty of cowardice for withdrawing from the battle, guilty of neglect of duty for not pursuing the enemy or assisting his friends, and guilty of mutinous actions for drafting and signing a paper that hindered her Majesty’s fleet then engaged.

He was sentenced to be shot, with the caveat that the sentence would not be carried out until confirmed by her majesty.


The court martial of Captain Constable of the Windsor followed that of Kirkby. The charges were the same with the exception that Constable was not charged with cowardice. Evidence was presented by 17 witnesses that showed Constable never kept his first nor second line of battle despite the Admiral firing two guns to so command him. The Admiral twice sent his Lieutenant to command he close the line.

Both the 1st Lieutenant and the Purser of the Windsor testified to Constable’s backwardness in pressing the fight.

The court found that Constable through drunkenness and ignorance was guilty of breach of orders and neglect of duty, and of mutiny for signing the paper which was a hindrance and disservice of her Majesty’s fleet then engaged.

He was sentenced to be cashiered and for ever after rendered incapable of serving her Majesty and to be imprisoned during her Majesty’s pleasure.

He was returned to England in April 1703 and imprisoned in the Marshalsea in London. He had influential friends and received a Royal Pardon in June 1703.

This engraving shows the Marshalsea Prison.

Marshalsea prison: John Constable 1703


Following Constable’s trial, which concluded on the 10th of October, the court proceeded with the court martial of Cooper Wade. As with Kirkby, a complaint was brought against him for high crimes and misdemeanours of cowardice, breach of orders, neglect of duty and other ill practices.

Sixteen witnesses deposed that Captain Wade of the Greenwich never kept the line of battle during the six days engagement, and fired all his shot in vain, not reaching half way to the enemy. When his lieutenants questioned him he commanded them to continue firing, “saying they must so do, or the Admiral would not believe they fought.”

During the whole fight he received only one shot from the enemy. As well witnesses testified he was drunk during the greatest part of the engagement and made disparaging remarks about the Admiral.

Wade was found guilty under the same articles of war as Kirkby and so received the same sentence, death. As with Kirkby, his sentence was to await the Queen’s pleasure.


Kirkby and Wade were returned to England on April 13, 1703 on board the Bristol. They had hopes that their friends and relations would successfully persuade the Queen to pardon them. They were thus surprised when they reached Plymouth and were told that the Queen had signed a warrant for their execution. To be carried out immediately.

They were shot on the forecastle of the Bristol at 6:00 p.m. on April 16 and buried in Plymouth. Kirkby died with some dignity; Wade did not.

Execution on the Quarter Deck: NMM BHC0380

This painting shows a similar execution of Admiral John Byng in 1757 for neglect of duty and not doing his utmost to take, sink, burn and destroy the enemy ships.

Charles Church, Plymouth: burial of Kirkby and Wade

Their final resting place is just before the altar of Charles’ Church, Plymouth. To-day, only the bombed out shell remains as a war memorial.


Lastly the court tried Captains Samuel Vincent and Christopher Fogg for signing Kirkby’s paper.

They testified that they signed because they believed that given the backwardness of the other Captians, if they engaged the French any more either the Bredah or Falmouth or both of them would have been sunk or taken by the French.

Admiral Benbow spoke on their behalf saying that during the six days battle Captain Fogg behaved with great courage, bravery and good conduct, like a true Englishman and lover of his Queen and country, and that Captain Vincent valiantly and courageously behaved himself during the said action, and came to his aid when he was deserted by all the rest of the ships, which the Admiral said saved him from falling into the hands of du Casse.

For signing Kirkby’s paper they were suspended from her Majesty’s service. However, Benbow wrote the Lord High Admiral requesting that the suspension be lifted and so it was.

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