Stories From English History: III - Alfred J. Church

Soldier and Sailor

Every one would be very much astonished now-a-days if a man who had never been even a midshipman, perhaps had never been to sea, were appointed to the command of a fleet. Yet this was what was done when in 1649 Robert Blake was appointed, together with two other officers in the army, to command the fleet, and yet no one was surprised. Blake had showed himself an excellent soldier, and that was thought a good reason for supposing that he would make an excellent sailor.

His first service was to blockade Prince Rupert in Kinsale Harbour. War had ceased everywhere in Great Britain and Ireland, but the Prince was still carrying it on by sea, somewhat in the fashion of a pirate. Reduced to extremities by the blockade, he had no choice but to attempt an escape. He took the opportunity of a strong gale of wind, and succeeded in breaking out, but with the loss of three ships. He sailed to Lisbon, and made his way up the river Tagus, where he was under the protection of the King of Portugal. Blake followed him, but was fired on from the castle which commanded the river when he attempted to come to close quarters. The King of Portugal sent him a present of fresh provisions, with a polite message, but begged him not to come higher up the river, unless he should be compelled to do so by bad weather. Before long Blake was, or pretended that he was, so compelled, and came; but he anchored his ships a good way from Prince Rupert's, and, for the time, contented himself with sending to the King a statement of reasons why Prince Rupert was not worthy of protection. The King still refused to give him permission to attack, and Blake began to seize Portuguese ships, both coming from Brazil—for that country then belonged to Portugal—and going thither. In September he took seven outward-bound ships, and in October sunk or took eleven out of a home-bound fleet of twenty-three, with a cargo of 10,000 chests of sugar. Prince Rupert now contrived to get out of the Tagus, and made his way to Cartagena. Blake followed him thither, and asked the governor of the city for leave to attack. The governor referred the matter to Madrid, but while he was waiting for an answer, the Prince escaped again, and got into Malaga. Here Blake entered the harbour without asking leave, and destroyed the whole squadron excepting two, with which the Prince escaped to the West Indies. English traders had nothing more to fear from him.

Naval engagement


But a more formidable enemy was at hand. England and Holland were the chief trading nations of the world, and there was, of course, much jealousy and many quarrels between them. It is not easy to say which was in the right. Even when the two fleets fought, as they did before war had been regularly declared, we do not know which was to blame. The Dutch Admiral, Van Tromp by name, was told by the Dutch Council to refuse to allow his ships to be searched—the English had lately claimed the right to do this—and to salute or not, as he thought best. Van Tromp came over to the Downs (a place in which ships lie at anchor between Dover and Deal), with forty men-of-war. Blake, who had fifteen only, but these of a larger size, came up from the westward to meet him, and fired a gun, thus demanding a salute. Van Tromp replied with a broadside. A regular battle began, and the English fleet was in danger of being surrounded, when another squadron, commanded by Bourne, came up. After four hours of fighting, the Dutch lost two ships. This happened on May 19. For some months afterwards there was much discussion between the two governments. But they could not agree upon terms, perhaps because, as has been said before, the Dutch would not give to the Parliament what they had been willing to give to the King. Some fighting took place, mostly to the advantage of the English. In August, Blake took a whole fleet of merchantmen and six of the men-of-war which were protecting them. On September 29 there was a battle in which the Dutch fleet would have been destroyed but for the darkness coming on. At this time Van Tromp was in disgrace, and De Ruyter was in command of the Dutch fleet. The result of all this was that the trade of Holland was almost entirely stopped. The Dutch, in their distress, repented of the injustice with which they had treated Van Tromp, who had not really been to blame, and restored him to his command, and made so great an effort that he was able to put to sea with a fleet of eighty ships. Blake had only thirty-seven with which to meet him. Whether he did not know the real strength of the enemy, or felt himself bound to fight, whatever the odds, the English admiral joined battle. He attacked De Ruyter, who was in command under Van Tromp, in his flag-ship the Triumph, and was backed up by some but not by all of his fleet, for some of the captains were not well disposed to the Government. In the end Blake had to retreat into the Thames. Three of his ships were taken and two blown up. Many of the others were greatly damaged, none worse than the Triumph. It was after this battle, which took place on November 29, that Van Tromp sailed down the Channel with a broom at his main-top mast, to signify that he had swept the sea of his enemies. This was, of course, a great blow to Blake, but it did not break his spirit. The Government at home, knowing when it had got a good man, did not think of taking away his command, but appointed the best officer they could find to help him, while they exerted themselves to the utmost to equip a new and stronger fleet. Very early in the year (1652) Blake sailed out of the Thames with seventy ships, and took up a position near the Isle of Portland. On February 18 Van Tromp came up from the westward with about as many ships of war, and a convoy of three hundred merchantmen. The English fleet was divided into three squadrons, which were not near enough to help each other. Van Tromp attacked Blake's flag-ship, which was still the Triumph, and for a time had the best of the fight. Blake was severely wounded and his captain killed. But the other squadrons came up and the two fleets were now on equal terms. So they remained till nightfall. The next day Van Tromp made sail eastward, with his convoy in front, and his war-ships behind. Blake and his colleagues followed close behind. A running fight went on for two days, until the Dutch reached the shallower water further east. The English had decidedly the better of the fighting. Four Dutch ships were taken and five sunk, and between twenty and thirty merchantmen were captured. Blake was so disabled by his wound and by sickness, that he had to be put on shore. Both sides were busy in getting together and equipping all the ships they could. The Dutch had one hundred and twenty ships, with Van Tromp still commanding, the English nearly as many. The two fleets met on June 3 off the North Foreland. The first day neither obtained much advantage; on the second Blake came up with a squadron of seventeen fresh ships to the help of his colleagues. In the end Van Tromp lost one-and-twenty ships, 1300 prisoners, and a large number of killed and wounded.

This was the last time that Blake was to meet his old enemies. He had to be put on shore again, and before he was fit for service, his colleague Monk, of whom we shall hear again, had defeated the Dutch in a great action off the mouth of the Texel. In this action Van Tromp was killed.

Blake was not a man who would let politics interfere with the business of fighting. It was reported that when he heard of Cromwell having turned out the Parliament, and made himself Chief of the State, he said to his officers—"It is not for us to mind state affairs, but to keep foreigners from fooling us." Still, we can easily believe that he was not altogether pleased with having to fight the Dutch, who had once been the allies of England, and who might well be so again. Anyhow, he had next to do with very different enemies. The towns of Algiers, Tunis, and Tripoli, on the northern coast of Africa, were the habitation of pirates who were the terror of all the nations of Europe. Blake sailed to Algiers, and demanded that the Dey—this was the title of the governor, who was nominally subject to the Sultan of Turkey—that he should set free all Christian captives, and promise not to interfere with any English ships in the future. The Dey gave a civil answer. He would give up all the captives that were in his hands for a certain price apiece, and would promise to keep the peace. The Bey of Tunis, which Blake visited next, was insolent. "Look at my castles," he said. "Do you think I am afraid of your fleet?" Blake sailed into the Bay of Porto Ferino, bombarded the castle till it was in ruins, silenced all the enemy's guns, and then sent the long-boats of his ships into the harbour with orders to set fire to the fleet in it. All the Bey's ships, nine in number, were destroyed. This was done with the very small loss of twenty-five killed and forty-nine wounded. Tunis, after this, was glad to make peace, and Tripoli followed its example.

His last exploit was against Spain. News was brought to him that a fleet laden with silver was in the harbour of Santa Cruz, in the island of Teneriffe. It was protected by sixteen men-of-war; the forts of the harbour were fully armed; in fact, every preparation in the way of defence had been made. Yet Blake, though his force was but small, boldly attacked, and burnt, blew up, or sunk every Spanish ship, without losing one of his own. His strength was now rapidly failing; he sailed home, but died on August 17, 1657, just as his fleet was entering Plymouth Harbour.

He was buried in Westminster Abbey, but all that he had done for England did not prevent the Royalists from taking his body out of its grave and hanging it on a gibbet.