Admiral of the Fleet Sir Henry Keppel, GCB, OM (14 June 1809 – 17 January 1904) was a British admiral and son of the 4th Earl of Albemarle. “A man might achieve great legislative results, do great deeds, and be a most useful member of society, but unless he possessed the gift of personality he would be to the general public as sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal.” Henry Keppel undoubtedly possessed that gift.
Below is the seventh installment in our series of a selection of his memoirs, others will follow over the coming weeks.
Memoirs of Sir Henry Keppel – 1850
During an interesting visit to Botany Bay, then a convict establishment, Keppel’s boat was upset, and a convict rushed into the surf to rescue him. By one of those strange and so-called chance coincidences, which are always perplexing and baffling us, the man turned out to have been his father’s servant at Newmarket, and recognised him at once. Keppel offered him three guineas, which were declined with courtesy, they being, as he said, of no use to him there.
Shortly before entering the harbour, late in the afternoon, a sail was reported, which they made out, from the round sort of baskets at the fore- and main-topmast heads, to be a whaler; she had boats in the water, and on approaching her she hoisted American colours. Her captain came on board – a respectable-looking old salt, with grey hair. Keppel at once invited him to his cabin, where, with accompaniments of Manilla cheroots and Jamaica rum, they had an agreeable chat. Keppel told him that the ‘Maeander’ had been six months without European news, on which the captain ‘guessed’ that he must be aware of the war between France and England. He evidently noticed Keppel’s astonishment, and added that the French Admiral was at sea, looking for the English fleet, so he had better keep his eyes open. They shook hands, and so parted. Keppel immediately invited the first lieutenant to consult him on the important news they had received, and it was decided that they would load every gun with round shot, grape, and canister, to be prepared for meeting the French ships.
Soon after daylight they were off the harbour of Tahiti, and at about seven the English pilot, accompanied by a French officer, came aboard and undertook the steerage. Keppel at once saw that his American guest had taken him in; but he was so interested in the navigation between coral banks, the beauty of the harbour, the merchant ships – two fine frigates, with sundry craft – that he quite forgot that his guns were loaded, so he had his gig manned, and directed Bowyear, his first lieutenant, to salute the Admiral’s flag, and when he saw him leaving to salute the Governor and French flag.
The first lieutenant replied: ‘You forget, sir, that we have round shot, grape, and canister in every gun. I have nothing but this scoop to draw them, nor can we get outside against the sea breeze to empty them. I could not fire a pistol here without hitting someone.’
This was embarrassing. Keppel had, however, to call on the Governor, and when he got alongside the flagship an officer informed him that he would find him at the Government House, where on landing he was received by His Excellency in full dress, a guard of honour with band playing our National Air, and all officers attending. He never felt so guilty or so small.
Excerpt from Sir Henry Keppel – Admiral of the Fleet – by Sir Algernon Edward West – 1905
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