George Johnstone (Royal Navy officer)

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Johnstone's stance on conciliation probably led to his selection by North to form part of the peace commission sent to America in 1778 under Frederick Howard, 5th Earl of Carlisle. [1] Confident of success Johnstone attempted to sway influential Americans with the argument that reconciling with Britain was preferable to dependence on France. In his communications he made vague hints of rewards to those who helped secure this outcome, and was eventually accused of attempting to bribe American general Joseph Reed with 10,000 guineas. [1] The charge was never proved, but the Continental Congress voted to have nothing more to do with him, and Johnstone returned home in 1778, before the rest of the commissioners. [1]

Return to the Navy

In 1779 Johnstone was offered, and accepted, a post as commodore of the Lisbon Station , despite his previous attacks on the ministry, and his support for conciliation over military intervention. He justified himself with the argument that since France had entered the war on the American side, he could no longer support staying out of the war. [1] He was promised an assignment on the Portuguese station, before which he cruised off the French coast in his flagship HMS Romney, looking for evidence of invasion preparations. [1] It soon became known that the French and Spanish fleets intended to unite and form a large single fleet to invade England. Johnstone took Romney to join Admiral Sir Charles Hardy's Channel Fleet, and pressed him to seek battle. [1] Hardy instead preferred to avoid action at first, wearing down the enemy fleet at sea while his own continued to refit and resupply from the naval bases along the English coast. Hardy's tactics were successful, and rather than confront a fresh and well-equipped British fleet, the enemy armada abandoned their plans and returned to French ports. [1]

Johnstone went on to cruise off the Portuguese coast, making several captures that brought him a sizeable sum of prize money. [1] In particular Romney, while cruising with HMS Tartar and HMS Rattlesnake, chased down and captured the 34-gun Spanish frigate Santa Margarita on 11 November 1779. [7] [10] The following year his ships captured the 38-gun Artois on 3 July 1780, and the 18-gun Perle on 6 July 1780, both off Cape Finisterre. [7] [10] Despite these successes he still tried to maintain his influence in politics, suggesting that Spain be offered Gibraltar in exchange for leaving the war, but achieved no apparent backing or result. [1]

Assignment to the Cape

Johnstone was then given command of a squadron that was assigned to carry out an expedition to the River Plate, but in 1780 the Dutch entered the war against Britain and allied with France. [11] Immediately Dutch possessions around the world became valuable targets for the British, and taking advantage of Johnstone's expedition, it was quickly reinforced with more warships, transports and East Indiamen, and assigned to carry out a secret expedition to capture the Dutch colony at the Cape of Good Hope. [11] Johnstone sailed on his expedition from Spithead on 13 March 1781 in command of 46 ships, including five ships of the line (the 74-gun HMS Hero, the 64-gun HMS Monmouth, and the 50-gun HMS Isis, HMS Jupiter and HMS Romney), four frigates (the 38-gun HMS Apollo, the 36-gun HMS Jason, HMS Active and the 28-gun HMS Diana), the fireship HMS Infernal and the bomb vessel HMS Terror. He also had seven light armed cruisers, two cutters and a sloop to serve as despatch vessels, four transports, eight storeships, and thirteen Indiamen. Also with the expedition were 3,000 troops under General Sir William Medows. [12] The expedition at first went well, with the cutter HMS Rattlesnake capturing a Dutch merchant ship on the fourth day out of port. [12] However the French had learned of the expedition's intent through the services of the spy François Henri de la Motte, based in London, and quickly prepared an expedition under Admiral Pierre André de Suffren to foil Johnstone by beating him to the Cape and reinforcing it. [a] [11]

Battle of Porto Praya

Johnstone at first made for the Cape Verde Islands, anchoring at Porto Praya to take on fresh water. Assuming there was no danger, despite records from the port office that a French frigate had arrived a month earlier and warned the inhabitants to prepare for the arrival of a larger French force, Johnstone anchored his fleet so that the warships were moored inshore, and the transports and merchants were outside the defensive lines. [11] [12] He further hampered his ability to fight his ships by sending his best men ashore to collect water, and leaving his decks encumbered with lumber and casks. [13] On 16 April strange sails were seen approaching the harbour. These were the ships of Suffren's squadron, who also intended to take on water and was equally as surprised to discover an enemy fleet. Taking advantage of the situation he quickly ran up to HMS Isis with his 74-gun ships Annibal and Héros, and the 64-gun Artésien, fired broadsides into her, and raised the French colours. [14] Moored as he was Johnstone could not easily bring his remaining warships to engage the French, while his smaller ships were useless against the large French warships. In the smoke and confusion several of the transports fired into the East Indiamen. [13]

Combat de la baie de la Praia dans l'ile de Santiago au Cap Vert, le 16 avril 1781, by Pierre-Julien Gilbert Battle of Porto Praya.jpg
Combat de la baie de la Praia dans l'île de Santiago au Cap Vert, le 16 avril 1781, by Pierre-Julien Gilbert

Recovering from their initial shock the British soon began to fight back effectively. Captain Ward of HMS Hero took men from nearby ships and used them to bring his ship into range of the French, whereupon he boarded Artésien, killed her captain, Cardaillac, and took twenty-five of her men away as prisoners. [15] After two hours of heavy cannonading the French found themselves in a dangerous position, as Annibal lost her mizzen mast, followed shortly afterwards by her main and foremasts. She had by now sustained casualties of two hundred dead or wounded, and with the British preparing to board her, Suffren decided to retreat. [15] He brought Héros in to tow Annibal to safety and made for the open sea, taking with him as prizes the East Indiamen Hinchinbroke and Fortitude, the fireship Infernal, and the storeship Edward. [15] Johnstone immediately ordered a pursuit, but his heavily damaged ships took some time to get out of the harbour, by which time Suffren's fleet had disappeared. [14] The British ships taken by Suffren were all recaptured over the next few days, as they were considered too badly damaged to be of use and were abandoned. Though Johnstone had beaten off the superior French force, the race was now on for the Cape. Johnstone assumed that Suffren would either make for the West Indies or Brazil to refit and resupply, but was mistaken. Suffren simply rigged temporary masts on Annibal and made for the Cape. [14] Johnstone stayed at Porto Praya to carry out repairs, thus abandoning any chance of beating Suffren to his destination. [14]

Arrival at the Cape and Saldanha Bay

Johnstone's forces arrived at the Cape, where he sent HMS Active ahead to reconnoitre. Active found a Dutch merchant, the Held Woltemande, which had recently departed the Cape, and after fooling her into thinking Active was a French frigate, captured her. [16] From her Johnstone learnt that Suffren's forces had already reinforced the Cape, and that an attack would be futile. However he also learnt that a small convoy of richly laden Dutch merchants had been moved to the safety of Saldanha Bay. Johnstone decided to capture them, and on the morning of 21 July, arrived off the entrance to the bay. [17] The Dutch squadron consisted of Dankbaarheid, Perel, Schoonkop, Hoogscarspel and Middleburg, under the command of Captain Gerrit Harmeyer of Hoogscarspel. Their stores and equipment had been stored on the packets Zon and Snelheid, which were sent further into the bay, near to Schapen Island. They had been given orders to burn their ships if attacked, while even if they were captured, the loss of their equipment on Zon and Snelheid would make them useless. [17] [18] However the Dutch were largely unprepared, and only on Middleburg had stores of combustible material been prepared. They cut their anchor cables and ran onshore, where their crews set fire to them, but the British were able to board them in their boats and extinguished the fires on all but Middleburg, to which Johnstone personally attached a line to, repeating the success of his youth, and had towed away from the remaining Dutch ships. [18] The five ships fell into British hands, as did the two packets, which were captured without any attempt being made to destroy them. After equipping his ships, Johnstone left the bay with his prizes, leaving only Zon and Snelheid, which were considered too old to be of any use. [19]

Having failed in his objective to capture the Cape, Johnstone decided to send the troops and supplies on to the East Indies station, detaching his best warships under Captain James Alms of HMS Monmouth to escort them, while he returned to Britain with the ships Romney, Jupiter, Diana, Jason, Terror, Infernal, one light cruiser, two victuallers, and the Dutch prizes. [19] He stopped on his voyage home at Lisbon, where he married Charlotte Dee, daughter of the British vice-consul, on 31 January 1782. [1]

Aftermath and return to politics

Johnstone attempted to place much of the blame for his delay in chasing the French on a subordinate, Captain Evelyn Sutton of HMS Isis, and deprived him of his command and substantial prize money. Sutton was arrested and court-martialed, but acquitted. [20] In response Sutton brought a suit against his former commander. [1] Johnstone had to contest this suit, protracted by appeals, for the rest of his life, with it only being settled in his favour two days before his death. Johnstone was by now probably suffering from Hodgkin's disease, which may have been responsible for some of his lapses in judgement. [1] He was elected as member of parliament for Lostwithiel in 1781, and continued to be an active member, opposing American independence, and government interference in the running of the East India Company. [1] He opposed Charles James Fox's proposals for tighter controls on the company, but in a move contrary to his earlier views, supported William Pitt the Younger's scheme. Pitt's was more moderate than Fox's, allowing the Company directors to retain power over company appointments, and Johnstone may have made a deal with Pitt to support this measure in exchange for Pitt's supporting Johnstone's bid to be elected to the directorship of the company, which he achieved in 1784. [1] The two did not collaborate closely after this, and Pitt neither brought him into his government, nor offered him a pocket borough to represent in the 1784 general election. Johnstone instead attempted to win the seat of Haddington Burghs, but was defeated. [1] He contested Ilchester the following year, but was again defeated. [21] After a petition however his opponent John Harcourt was declared not to have been elected, and Johnstone was elected in his stead. [b] By now in poor health Johnstone remained only a year in Parliament, before applying for Chiltern Hundreds in 1787 to resign his seat. [1]

Death and legacy

George Johnstone died at Hotwells, Bristol, possibly from Hodgkin's disease, on 24 May 1787. [1] He was survived by his wife Charlotte, by whom he had one son, John Lowther Johnstone. He also had four illegitimate children, including George Johnstone (1764–1813), who became an MP. [22]

John later succeeded his uncle, Sir William Pulteney Johnstone, as 6th Baronet of Westerhall. George Johnstone had achieved small-scale success as a naval officer, serving with undoubted courage, but had not been able to succeed when given a major command. [1] His poor strategic planning had led to his force being badly surprised at Porto Praya, and despite having rallied and successfully beaten off the French, his assumption that Suffren would not head immediately to the Cape proved his undoing and handed the French an important strategic victory. He achieved some successes as the founder of the colony of West Florida, despite ultimately failing to win the support of his political masters and the wider civil society, and would later rate his time in Florida more highly than his comparatively greater success as a director of the East India Company. [1] He was a renowned orator when speaking in opposition, but was never asked to join an administration and several of the high-profile causes he supported ultimately failed. [1]


a. ^ de la Motte was later uncovered, and tried for treason. Found guilty, he was executed at Tyburn on 27 July 1781. [11]

b. ^ The death of sitting MP Peregrine Cust on 2 January 1785 forced a by-election. Harcourt was declared duly elected by a majority of 17 votes when the polls closed after five days on 9 February (118 votes to 101), but a petition led to an investigation that uncovered evidence of bribery and corruption. Harcourt was declared not to have been elected, and Johnstone took the seat in his stead. [21] [23]


  1. 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13 14 15 16 17 18 19 20 21 22 23 24 25 26 27 28 29 30 31 32 33 34 35 36 37 38 39 40 41 42 43 44 "Johnstone, George (1730–1787)". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (online ed.). Oxford University Press. 2004. doi:10.1093/ref:odnb/14960.(Subscription or UK public library membership required.)
  2. Haden-Guest, Edith (1964). L. Namier; J. Brooke (eds.). "JOHNSTONE, John (1734-95), of Denovan and Alva, Stirling". The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1754-1790. Boydell and Brewer. Retrieved 19 June 2014.
  3. 1 2 Ralfe. The Naval Biography of Great Britain. p. 364.
  4. Fabel, R. F. A. (April 1976). "Governor George Johnstone of British West Florida". The Florida Historical Quarterly. Florida Historical Society. 54 (4): 499. JSTOR   30147364.
  5. Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail. p. 46.
  6. Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail. p. 304.
  7. 1 2 3 4 Charnock. Biographia Navalis. p. 497.
  8. Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail. p. 252.
  9. Ralfe. The Naval Biography of Great Britain. p. 365.
  10. 1 2 Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail. p. 148.
  11. 1 2 3 4 5 Couzens. Battles of South Africa. p. 18.
  12. 1 2 3 Theal. History and Ethnography of Africa South of the Zambesi. p. 134.
  13. 1 2 Theal. History and Ethnography of Africa South of the Zambesi. p. 135.
  14. 1 2 3 4 Couzens. Battles of South Africa. p. 19.
  15. 1 2 3 Theal. History and Ethnography of Africa South of the Zambesi. p. 137.
  16. Theal. History and Ethnography of Africa South of the Zambesi. p. 140.
  17. 1 2 Theal. History and Ethnography of Africa South of the Zambesi. p. 141.
  18. 1 2 Couzens. Battles of South Africa. p. 20.
  19. 1 2 Theal. History and Ethnography of Africa South of the Zambesi. p. 142.
  20. Winfield. British Warships in the Age of Sail. p. 150.
  21. 1 2 Cobbett. Cobbett's Parliamentary History of England. p. 788.
  22. Stokes, Winifred; Thorne, R. G. (1986). R. Thorne (ed.). "JOHNSTONE, George (1764-1813), of Hanover Square, Mdx". The History of Parliament: the House of Commons 1790-1820. Cambridge University Press. Retrieved 18 June 2014.
  23. Burke. Annual Register. p. 225.

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George Johnstone
British School - Captain George Johnstone (1730-1787) - BHC2808 - Royal Museums Greenwich.jpg
3rd Governor of British West Florida
In office
Oct 1764 Jan 1767
Parliament of Great Britain
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Cockermouth
With: Sir George Macartney to 1769
Sir James Lowther 1769–74
Fletcher Norton 1774–75
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Appleby
With: Philip Honywood
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Lostwithiel
December 1780 – 1784
With: Hon. Thomas de Grey to 1781
Viscount Malden 1781–84
Succeeded by
Preceded by Member of Parliament for Ilchester
With: Benjamin Bond-Hopkins
Succeeded by
Political offices
Preceded byas Governor of Spanish Florida Governor of British West Florida
Succeeded by