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Edward Vernon

Edward Vernon (1684-1757), admiral, second son of James Vernon, secretary of state under William III, was born in Westminster on 12 Nov. 1684. At, the age of seven Edward was sent to Westminster school, where, in the course of eight or n'lifi years, ho acquired a familiar knowledge of Latin and Greek ; he is said to havts also studied mathematics and astronomy. He entered the navy on 10 May 1700, as volunteer per order, or king's letter-boy, on board the Shrewsbury, flagship of Sir George Rooke, in the operations in the Sound. In March 1700-1 he was appointed-again as a v.p.o. - to the Ipswich ; in June he was discharged to the Mary galley, and afterwards from her to one of the ships forming the fleet off Cadiz in the summer of 1702. On 16 Sept. he was promoted by Rooke to be lieutenant of the Lennox with Captain (afterwards Sir William) Jumper.

On 22 Jan. 1705-6 he was made captain of the Dolphin frigate, and ten days later was moved into the Rye, which he commanded in the Mediterranean during 1706 and 1707, returning to England in October with the fleet commanded by Shovell, but escaping Shovell's fate. On 21 November 1707 he was moved from the Rye to the Jersey of 50 guns, which he took out to the West Indies in the following April, and commanded on that station for the next four years, under Commodore (afterwards Sir Charles) Wager and Commodore James Littleton, whom he helped to break up a Spanish squadron off Cartagena, July 1710, and with whom he returned to England in the autumn of 1712.

In March 1715 he was appointed to the 60-gun ship Assistance, one of the fleet in the Baltic under Sir John Norris in 1715-16, and under Sir George Byng in 1717. She was paid off on 22 Oct. 1717, and for the next eighteen months Vernon was on half- pay. In March 1719 he was appointed to the Mary, a 60-gun ship, and was again with Norris in the Baltic in the summers of 1719-1720,21. He then went on half-pay. and in 1722 was returned to parliament as member for Penryn.

It is now not diflicult to see that the treaty of Seville insured a speedy renewal of war. Its commercial clauses necessarily led to smuggling on the one hand, to violent repression on the other. The well-known case of Robert Jenkins occurred in 1731, and there were others of a similar kind both before and after. Rear-admiral Stewart, the naval commander-in-chief, could see that the fault lay largely with the merchants at Jamaica; but at home the merchants whose goods were seized could make their complaints heard in parliament, and the angry feeling against the Spaniards gave Walpole's enemies a definite point of attack on the government. In these debates Vernon distinguished himself by his vehement invective. He specially insisted on the weakness of the Spanish colonies; and as Porto Bello was the most hateful of these, being the port from which the guarda-costas fitted out, he urged that Porto Bello should be destroyed. Nothing but determination was needed ; it might be done, he himself would undertake to do it, with six ships. It was natural to believe that in promoting Vernon to the rank of vice-admiral, 9 July 1739, and appointing him to the command of an expedition to the West Indies, the government was gladly getting rid of a man who had made himself obnoxious.

On 19 July Vernon received his instructions 'to destroy the Spanish settlements in the West Indies and to distress their shipping by every method whatever;' and on the 23rd he put to sea with eight ships of the line and one frigate. The frigate and three of the line-of-battle ships were, however, detached and it was with only five ships that Vernon arrived at Jamaica, where he was shortlv afterwards joined by Commodore Charles Brown in the Hampton Court. This gave him exactly the six ships that had been spoken of, and with these he came off Porto Bello on the night of 20 Nov. The fortifications were nasty enough to look at; but they had been neglected during the long peace; and without any further opposition such of the Spaniards as had not already escaped surrendered at discretion. The next day the other forts and the town capitulated ; all the ships in the harbour, including three guarda-costas, were taken possession of; the brass guns were carried off; the iron guns were destroyed, and the forts were blown up. This was the celebrated capture of Porto Bello, the news of which caused the people of England to go mad with excitement and joy. Vernon's Head was, for many years, a favorite sign for the public-houses.

From a naval point of view, the event of the year 1740 was the issue on 21 Aug. of the celebrated memorandum forbidding the serving out of raw spirits to the ships' companies. In home waters the established daily ration for each seaman was a gallon of beer, and for this a quart of 'beverage' wine had been substituted on the coast of Portugal or in the Mediterranean ; but in the West or East Indies brandy, rum, or arrack had taken its place, and the equivalent measure was half n pint. This was served out 'neat' a little before noon. In the West Indies new rum was so issued, with the result that there was a very great deal of drunkenness and of crime. It was also the unanimous opinion that the best remedy was to mix the rum with water, and this was accordingly ordered. Rum was to be no more served in species, but the daily allowance was to be mixed with water in the proportion of one quart of water to each half-pint of rum, and to be M,rvcd out at two servings in the day, about eleven in the forenoon and about five in the afternoon. It was perhaps the greatest improvement to discipline and efliciency ever produced by one stroke of the pen, and though, as issued by Vernon, only a station order, was very quickly accepted throughout the service and adopted by the admiralty. The seamen did not altogether approve of the curtailment of their privileges, and called the official mixture 'grog,' which is said to have been Vernon's nickname in the squadron -derived, it is said, from his having a gro-gram boat-cloak. The drink, however, soon became popular, and the name has been hallowed in naval memory by hundreds of traditions.

The failure of his joint expedition (1741) with the incompetent General Wentworth against Cartagena and Santiago de Cuba led to his recall. Vernon returned to England in 1742, where during his absence Vernon had been again elected member of parliament for Penryn: he had also been elected for Ipswich, and had preferred to sit for that place, having bought Nacton, an estate in Suflolk. After his return he was on shore for a couple of years, attending pretty constantly in parliament, making himself, as an independent member, obnoxious to the government, and writing many pamphlets on matters relating to the navy : but, as these were anonymous, it is only possible to identify a few of them, and those doubtingly.

After his return to England, Vernon continued unemployed till the memorable year 1745. That Vernon was passed over without promotion was perhaps less the result of any design to underrate his gallantry and talents, than the ordinary consequence of a general state of peace. That his capacity was fully rated, is proved by the fact that, upon the first prospect of danger, in April 1745, Vernon was promoted to the rank of admiral of the white, and appointed to command the ships in the North Sea. The threatening rebellion which broke out in the latter part of the year rendered this command one of peculiar importance; and though the French proved unable or unwilling to attempt any further naval operations in the Stuart interest, Vernon was considered to have prepared for all possibilities with skill and judgment.

He became, however, extremely dissatisfied with the treatment he received from the admirally, which refused him the title and privileges of commander-in-chief. On 1 Dec. 1745 he wound up his complaint by assuring their lordships that their relieving him from the command by a successor would be the onlv favor he would think of troubling them with. He was accordingly superseded bv Vice-admiral William Martin.

He died suddenly at his seat at Nacton, in Suffolk, on the 30th of October, 1757, in tfce 73d year of his age.

Such was Admiral Vernon; in his actions always commanding respect, and often exciting admiration; and; yet he lived the sport and died the prey of political rancour. Highly as every Briton must value the institutions of his country, exult in theii liberality, and uphold their justice; yet is he undeserving of the blessings they confer, who can reflect upon the life and neglect of Vernon without a mingled feeling of sorrow and indignation. Here was a man, courageous to excess, and in the skill of hi profession without a superior, whose integrity was as unimpeachable as his intrepidity was unconquerable; a man who had fought and bled and conquered for his country over and over and over again ; and yet, during the whole course of his long career, no one post of honour or emolument - no, nor one title or distinction was ever conferred upon him in acknowledgment of the important benefits he rendered to his country.

And how miserable is the only reason to be assigned for all this ingratitude and insult Vernon honestly disapproved of the political measures pursued by the minister of the day; and for this, and nothing but this, he was first denied employment, and after he had deserved it for a constancy, still for the same reason degraded from his rank and dismissed from the service of his country. But that country was more just, more generous, and more grateful, than either the king it had so flatteringly chosen to govern it, or the ministers whom it permitted to direct his affairs and dispense his favours. That country always did justice to the extraordinary merits of Admiral Vernon, and never heard his name but with acclamation. His conscience was his solace, and. his fame his reward. Such are the honours of a patriot and a hero.

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Page last modified: 11-07-2011 03:08:39 ZULU