General-at-Sea Blake

Tuesday, March 16th, 2010

The Father of the Royal Navy, Admiral Robert Blake, was then known not as Admiral Blake, but as General-at-Sea Blake:

Blake’s business was to demand reparation for all the injuries done to the English during the civil wars. Casting anchor before Leghorn, he exacted from the Duke of Tuscany satisfaction for the losses which English commerce had sustained from him. He then sailed to Algiers, and demanded, and obtained, reparation for the robberies committed upon the English by the pirates of that place, and the release of the captives of his nation.

He next appeared before Tunis, and having there made the same demands, the Dey answered him with scorn, and bade him behold his castles. Blake’s answer to this bravado soon convinced the Dey that times were changed since Buckingham was Lord High Admiral of England. He sailed into the harbour within musket-shot of the castles, and tore them in pieces with his artillery; he then sent out his long boats, well manned, and burned every ship which lay there.” This bold action,” says Hume, “which its very temerity, perhaps, rendered safe, was executed with little loss, and filled all that part of the world with the renown of English valour.” He sent home, it is said, sixteen ships laden with the effects which he had received from several States, and no doubt in part with the English captives whom he had restored to liberty. One can hardly imagine a stranger scene than the casual presence of some of those liberated English captives, and of some of his old seamen who had shared in his unexampled achievements, in St. Margaret’s churchyard, on that memorable day, when the bones of the hero were taken from their grave and cast, like those of a masterless dog, into a pit, where they still lie.

The respect with which Blake obliged all foreigners to treat his countrymen, appears, as Dr. Johnson has observed, from the story told by Bishop Buniet, which has been often repeated since. When Blake lay before Malaga, before the war broke out with Spain, some of his sailors went ashore, and, meeting a procession of the Host, not only refused to pay any respect to it, but laughed at those who did. The people, incited by one of the priests to resent this indignity, fell upon them and beat them severely. When they returned to their ship, they complained of their ill-treatment; upon which Blake sent to demand the priest who had set the people on. The viceroy answered that, having no authority over the priests, he could not send him; to which Blake replied, “that he did not inquire into the extent of the viceroy’s authority, but that if the priest were not sent within three hours, he would burn the town.”

The viceroy then sent the priest, who pleaded the provocation given by the seamen. Blake answered, that if he had complained to him, he would have punished them severely, for he would not have his men affront the established religion of any place; but that he was angry that the Spaniards should assume that power, for he would have all the world know “that an Englishman was only to be punished by an Englishman.” So having used the priest civilly, he sent him back. This conduct greatly pleased Cromwell. He read the letter in council with great satisfaction, and said, “he hoped to make the name of an Englishman as great as ever that of a Roman had been.”

Blake certainly seems fearless:

On the 13th of April, 1657, he departed from Cadiz, and on the 20th arrived at Santa Cruz Bay, in which he found the Spanish fleet of sixteen ships disposed in a very formidable position. Blake had twenty-five ships; but the bay of Santa Cruz, shaped like a horseshoe, was defended at the entrance by a strong castle, well provided with cannon, and in the inner circuit with seven forts, all united by a line of communication, manned with musqueteers. The Spanish admiral drew up all his smaller ships close to the shore, and stationed six great galleons with their broadsides to the sea.

This formidable aspect of things, which those who did not know Blake might have thought would at least make him pause before beginning his attack, whatever sense of the danger “of the enterprise it may have produced, caused no irresolution. And the wind, blowing full into the bay, in a moment brought him among the thickest of his enemies. Here, having, with his twenty-five sail, fought for four hours with seven forts, a castle, and sixteen ships, of six of which the least was bigger than the biggest of his own ships, he silenced the castle and forts, and destroyed the whole of the Spanish fleet. The Spaniards abandoned their ships, which were sunk or burned, with all their treasure; the English ships being too much shattered in the fight to bring them away. And then the wind, suddenly shifting, carried them out of the bay.

“The whole action,” says Clarendon, ” was so incredible, that all men who knew the place wondered that any sober man, with what courage soever endowed, would ever have undertaken it; and they could hardly persuade themselves to believe what they had done; while the Spaniards comforted themselves with the belief that they were devils and not men who had destroyed them in such a manner. So much a strong resolution of bold and courageous men can bring to pass, that no resistance or advantage of ground can disappoint them; and it can hardly be imagined how small a loss the English sustained in this unparalleled action, not one ship being left behind, and the killed and wounded not exceeding two hundred men; when the slaughter on board the Spanish ships and on shore was incredible.”

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