RODNEY, George Brydges (1719-92), of Great Alresford, Hants.
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Family and Education
bap. 13 Feb. 1719, 1st surv. s. of Henry Rodney of Walton-on-Thames, Surr. by Mary, da. and coh. of Sir Henry Newton, envoy to Tuscany and later judge of the court of Admiralty. educ. Harrow c.1730. m. (1) 31 Jan. 1753, Jane (d. 28 Jan. 1757), da. of Hon. Charles Compton of Eastbourne, Suss., sis. of Charles, 7th Earl of Northampton, 2s.; (2) 1764, Henrietta, da. of John Clies of Lisbon, merchant, 2s. 3da. suc. fa. 1737; cr. Bt. 22 Jan. 1764; K.B. 14 Nov. 1780; Baron Rodney 19 June 1782.
Entered R.N. 1732; lt. 1739; capt. 1742; gov. Newfoundland 1749-50; r.-adm. 1759; c.-in-c. Leeward Is. 1761-3; v.-adm. 1762; gov. Greenwich Hosp. 1765-70; r.-adm. G.B. 1771; c.-in-c. Jamaica 1771-4; adm. 1778; c.-in-c. Leeward Is. and Barbados 1779; v.-adm. G.B. 1781.
As a young officer during the war of the Austrian succession Rodney acquired fortune and reputation. Already well-connected, he was taken up by the first lord of the Admiralty, the Duke of Bedford, and at the general election of 1754, having been disappointed in his hopes of renomination by Administration at Saltash, contested Camelford on Bedford’s interest in opposition to the ministerial candidates. ‘Having formerly offered to come in at one of the court boroughs at his own expense’, Hardwicke wrote to Newcastle, 19 Apr., ‘he may possibly be a little piqued.’1 Though Rodney was willing to spend at least £3,000 at Camelford, he could make no headway, and withdrew without a poll. By November 1755 he was again on amicable terms with Newcastle,2 and in 1759 was returned unopposed for Okehampton as an Administration candidate.
Though constant service kept him away from the House, he was anxious to remain in Parliament, and on 27 Feb. 1761 wrote to James West of his ‘inexpressible concern’ that Newcastle would not nominate him again at Okehampton. ‘For God’s sake, sir, what have I done to gain his Grace’s displeasure. You know full well, sir, that it was to serve him that I came into Parliament ... I ... beg of him not to let me suffer in the eye of the public as a person obnoxious to him, and unworthy his protection.’3 In the end Rodney successfully contested Penryn on the Edgcumbe interest. He was on friendly terms with Bute and Grenville, and counted as an Administration supporter, though his successful command of the fleet in the Leeward Islands kept him in the West Indies till August 1763. Back in England, he set about looking for a lucrative office, and on 28 Nov. 1763 he applied to George Grenville for the governorship of Greenwich Hospital in case of a vacancy: ‘I am the only commander-in-chief who has returned from a successful expedition, and not (as yet) tasted of his Majesty’s bounty.’4 He did not obtain the appointment till 1765, but early in 1764 was made a baronet. In Rockingham’s list of July 1765 Rodney was classed as ‘doubtful’, and on 18 Dec. 1765 he was among the minority supporting an Opposition motion for the production of American papers, but he did not vote with the Opposition on the repeal of the Stamp Act, 22 Feb. 1766. He subsequently supported Chatham, and remained with Administration till the fall of North.
In 1768 Rodney contested Northampton on the interest of his brother-in-law, Lord Northampton, and was returned after a ruinously expensive contest. His financial position, already impaired by gambling and general extravagance, now became critical. His appointment as commander-in-chief Jamaica at the time of the Falkland Islands dispute gave him hopes of settling his most pressing commitments, though he was upset by the Admiralty’s refusal to allow him to retain his appointment as governor of Greenwich; and when war with Spain was averted his application to Sandwich for the governorship of Jamaica was also unsuccessful.
In 1774 he returned to England to settle his affairs, but, failing to get a Government seat at the sudden dissolution of Parliament, he fled to France to avoid his creditors. From Calais he wrote to Sandwich on 4 Oct.5 that he hoped his friends would find him ‘some foreign employ’, and reported pointedly that he had declined an invitation to stand against the ministerial candidates at Dover, where his chances would have been good. His duty obliged him to ‘submit to the determination of the King’s ministers’—
All I wanted to be in Parliament for, was only to have time to settle my private affairs, and if employed abroad, to have resigned my seat whenever the King’s ministers pleased. Surely after so long and faithful attendance in Parliament I might have been indulged in such a request.
But Sandwich and his other friends proved broken reeds, and Rodney was still living in Paris early in 1778. Then the imminent war with France seemed to him to provide ‘the means of my serving my country, and at the same time the only method by which I can have an opportunity of honourably settling with my creditors’, and he applied to Sandwich for a command. Some weeks later, on 1 Apr., he still had received no reply, and wrote despairingly to his wife: ‘If they would order the Navy Board to deliver but half what is due to me as rear-admiral of England it would sufficiently satisfy everybody.’ Then on 6 May he wrote to Lady Rodney: ‘I have this day accepted of the generous friendship of the Marechal Biron, who has advanced one thousand louis in order that I may leave Paris without being reproached ... it was impossible for me to remain in this city at the risk of being sued by my creditors who grew so clamorous it was impossible to bear it.’ Back in England he obtained financial help from Drummond’s Bank but found that all the commands had been filled; and it was not till October 1779 that he was appointed commander-in-chief of the Leeward Islands. On 16 Jan. 1780, on his way to take up his command, Rodney captured a Spanish convoy and effected the relief of Gibraltar. In recognition of his victory the Administration offered him either the lieutenant-generalcy of marines or a pension of a thousand a year with the reversion to his wife and children. He elected for the pension. ‘But I hope it will not prevent my being in Parliament’, he wrote to Lord George Germain, 2 Aug. ‘If it does, I must beg your Lordship will be so good as to speak to Lord North upon the subject, and I beg that I may decline the pension, for in my opinion to be out of Parliament is to be out of the world, and my heart is set upon being in.’ At the general election Rodney, though still absent in the West Indies, stood as Administration candidate at Westminster and topped the poll. On 7 Apr. 1781 he was granted a pension of £2,000 per annum with reversion to his wife and children.6
On 22 Dec. 1780, after a brief visit to America, Rodney wrote to Germain severely criticizing the procrastination which he considered was hampering the conduct of the war:7
Believe me ... you must not expect an end of the American war till you can find a general of active spirit who hates the Americans from principle. Such a man with the sword of war and justice on his side will do wonders, for in this war I am convinced the sword should cut deep. Nothing but making the Americans feel every calamity their perfidy deserves can bring them to their senses. These, my Lord, are my real sentiments; these ... I will dare avow in the face of the representatives of Britain unawed by the factious declarations of Fox, Barré, and Burke, or any of those who by their pernicious principles are endeavouring to ruin their country.
Two months later, after capturing St. Eustatius, Rodney put his tough policy into practice. Denouncing ‘the treasonable correspondence carried on by those calling themselves British merchants’, which, he claimed, had significantly prolonged the war, he made a general seizure of property in the island. ‘I do not look upon myself as entitled to one sixpence, nor do I desire it’, he declared on 4 Feb. ‘My happiness is having been the instrument of my country in bringing this nest of villains to condign punishment.’8 But Samuel Hood, Rodney’s second in command, prophesied correctly that Rodney and his colleague, General Vaughan, ‘notwithstanding they talk aloud of their disregard of money ... will find it very difficult to convince the world they have not proved themselves wickedly rapacious’.9 And when in September 1781 Rodney returned to England he was widely accused of having plundered the island for his own gain. On 30 Nov. Burke gave notice that he would move for an inquiry, whereupon Rodney, in his only reported speech in the Commons, stated his willingness to meet any charges, and upheld his actions. The Opposition continued its agitation after Rodney sailed again in January 1782, and on the fall of North he was superseded by the Rockingham Administration before the news of his great victory at the battle of the Saints, 12 Apr. 1782, reached this country. The news at once established him as a popular hero, and on 30 May his recall was criticized in the Commons. Fox, replying, asserted:
[It] had certainly been determined upon before his late glorious victory was known; and if called upon to deliver an opinion against that noble Admiral he would say that his conduct at St. Eustatius had raised prejudice against him ... but the glory of his late victory was sufficient to make him [Fox] totally forget that conduct; he was therefore satisfied to balance the merits of this victory with the demerits of that conduct; and bury in oblivion all inquiry into that conduct.10
But for the remainder of his life Rodney continued to feel the effects of his action at St. Eustatius, being dogged by lawsuits brought against him by men whose goods he had confiscated. Wraxall, who seems to have known Rodney well, gives the following description of him:11
He justly incurred the reputation of being glorieux et bavard, making himself frequently the theme of his own discourse. He talked much and freely upon every subject, concealed nothing in the course of conversation, regardless who were present, and dealt his censures as well as his praises with imprudent liberality, qualities which necessarily procured him many enemies, particularly in his own profession.
Rodney’s naval career was virtually ended in 1782. He has been strongly criticized for failing to follow up his victory at the battle of the Saints, but his reputation as an innovator in naval tactics has given him a secure place amongst British naval commanders.
He died 24 May 1792.
Ref Volumes: 1754-1790
Author: Mary M. Drummond
- 1. Add. 32735, f. 104.
- 2. Robt. Andrews to Rodney, 19 Nov. 1755, PRO 20/30/25.
- 3. Add. 32919, f. 324.
- 4. Grenville Pprs. ii. 170.
- 5. Sandwich mss.
- 6. Mundy, Life of Rodney, i. 175, 176, 180, 356-7; HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 173; T14/16/88-89.
- 7. HMC Stopford-Sackville, ii. 192.
- 8. Mundy, ii. 13, 30.
- 9. Hood Letters (Navy Recs. Soc. iii), 23.
- 10. Debrett, v. 70, 71; vii. 219.
- 11. Mems. i. 223.