The British Navy during the Age of Sail produced more than it’s share of exemplary combat commanders.
One of those was certainly Vice Admiral Sir Richard Goodwin Keats. A man of whom Nelson wrote, “I esteem his person alone as being equal to one French 74…”
Keats proved he was equal to much more than a French 74 in the aftermath of the Battle of Algeciras.
Keats was the son of a Church of England clergyman and born at Charlton, Hampshire, England in 1757. He went to sea as a midshipman in 1770. He was at the debacle that was the
first battle of Ushant and shortly thereafter joined the HMS Prince George (80) where he became close friends with another midshipman, the Duke of Clarence who was the future King William IV.
Keats was promoted to lieutenant in 1782 and served aboard HMS Lion (64) on the North American station and was made Commander into the HMS Bonetta (14) in 1783. In 1785, HMS Bonetta returned to England and was paid off. Commander Keats was placed on half pay. His independent means were limited and so he chose to live in France because the cost of living was lower than it was in England. He remained there until 1789 when he was promoted to Captain at the insistence of his old friend, the Duke of Clarence.
When war broke out with Revolutionary France in 1793 he was recalled to the navy and given command of HMS Galatea (36) in 1794. Galatea worked under the command of both Sir Edward Pellew and Sir Borlase Warren off the coast of France.
Keats served seven years in frigates and demonstrated on many occasions that he was a savvy seaman and a fighter. For instance, in 1796 he outfought the heavier French Andromaque (40), driving her ashore and burning her (this will be the subject of a separate feature at some point in the future). In 1798, now in HMS Boadicea (38), it was his early information which enabled Warren to intercept Hoche’s attempted invasion of Ireland.
In 1801 he took command of HMS Superb (74). Ordinarily a 74 would have 24-pounders as its main battery. The officer who commissioned Superb, Captain John Sutton, believed the weight of the 24-pounders caused Superb to excessively heel over under sail, a condition known as crank, and asked the Navy Board to approve substituting 18-pounders.
July 1801 saw Superb joining the Gibraltar squadron of Admiral Sir James Saumarez after completing a convoy from the Cape Verde Islands. That squadron was engaged in blockading the port of Cadiz. On July 5, Saumarez received word that the French squadron thought to be in Toulon had sortied and was now in the Spainish port of Algeciras. Saumarez set off with six ships of the line
Caesar (80) (flag of Rear-Adm. Saumarez, with Captain Jahleel Brenton), Pompee (74) (Captain Charles Stirling), Spencer (74) (Captain Henry d’Esterre Darby), Venerable (74) (Captain Samuel Hood), Hannibal (74) (Captain Solomon Ferris), and Audacious (74) (Captain Shuldham Peard).
He left Superb, Thames (32) and Admiral Pasley (16) to watch Cadiz.
Saumarez attacked the Franco-Spanish fleet in Algeciras on July 8 and was repulsed, losing HMS Hannibal in the process. While Saumarez was repairing and refitting his ships and preparing for another go at Algeciras. On July 9, the Spanish squadron at Cadiz responded to the request for assistance by the the French Admiral Linois at Algeciras and sortied. It was a powerful squadron consisting of Real Carlos (112), Hermenegildo (112), San Fernando (96), Argonauta (80), San Augustin (74), and the Sabina frigate.
Keats fell back before them sending the hired brig, Admiral Pasley, ahead to warn Admiral Saumarez. Saumarez expedited his refitting but the two enemy squadrons joined together. On the morning of July 12, the Franco-Spanish fleet got underway. By 7 pm Saumarez thought his ships sufficiently repaired and rearmed to begin pursuit. It soon became obvious that the enemy ships were faster. Superb was only a year removed from a refit and had not been involved in the first battle at Algeciras. As a result she was the faster sailer on the British side. Around 9:30 pm Admiral Saumarez hailed Keats and told him to take up the pursuit of the enemy alone.
This is a prime example of the psychological ascendancy the British fleet had achieved over its European foes. After dealing with Admiral Saumarez pretty severely on July 8, to the extent of taking one of his ships of the line, and then being reinforced which brought his strength up to nine ships of the line versus the six English ships, Admiral Linois declined combat and fled.
The last three ships in the fleeing gaggle were the mammoth 112-gunned Carlos Real and Hermenegildo. By 11:30 Keats, now having sailed all the British ships out of sight, had brought Superb alongside Carlos Real at a range of about 300 yards. The general picture was this: lined up roughly abreast from upwind to downwind were Superb, Carlos Real, Hermenegildo and the French 74 Saint Antoine. The enemy ships were fairly tightly grouped, all of them being in range of Superb.
Superb was apparently undetected and began engaging Carlos Real.
Superb’s first broadside dealt Carlos Real as severe blow, knocking away here fore topmast. The unexpected benefit was that a lot of shot passed over Carlos Real and hit Hermenegildo and Saint Antoine. They thought Carlos Real was an enemy and returned fire. Carlos Real then assumed she was surrounded by foes and began firing from both sides. In short order all three enemy ships were firing broadsides from both sides. By the time Superb had fired three broadsides Carlos Real was on fire. She lost steering, fell off downwind and collided with Hermenegildo, setting her afire.
Superb quickly made more sail and fell upon the Saint Antoine shortly before midnight. In the dark and with a rising sea Superb beat Saint Antoine into submission in thirty minutes. A boat crew along with one marine officer and five marines under one of Superb’s officers, Lieutenant Samuel Jackson, took possession of Saint Antoine which astonishingly held some 300 Frenchmen and 500 Spaniards, at least 200 of which were refugees from the two burning first rates.
By now Caesar, Venerable, Spencer, and Thames had arrived. In the confusion they thought Saint Antoine was still resisting and inflicted more slaughter before order prevailed.
About 12:15 am Real Carlos blew up and sank. Hermenegildo suffered the same fate about 15 minutes later.
Captain Keats was worth at least one French 74.
Anyway, Superb and Keats were part of Nelson’s fleet which chased Villeneuve to the West Indies and back in 1805, but she greatly needed a refit on her return, and so missed Trafalgar. Keats was on hand for Duckworth’s victory at San Domingo in 1806.
In 18o8 Keats hoisted his flag in his old Superb, in Danish waters. He enabled a whole Spanish army division, serving unwillingly in northern Europe, to escape to Sweden, whence they were taken back to Spain (courtesy of the RN), and Keats received a knighthood. He continued to serve afloat until 1812, when his health gave way.
He served as Governor of Newfoundland and Governor of Greenwich Naval Hospital where upon his death in 1834 he was buried.