The British admiral George Brydges Rodney, 1st Baron Rodney (1718-1792), by winning notable victories in Caribbean waters over French, Spanish, and Dutch forces, contributed substantially to British command of the seas in the late 18th century.
Born in February 1718, George Rodney attended Harrow before volunteering for naval service at the age of fourteen. Stationed in the Mediterranean, he became first a lieutenant and then a post captain. In October 1747, in command of the 60-gun Eagle, he took part in Adm. Edward Hawke's victory over the French off Ushant and was cited for gallantry. Two years later he was named governor and commander in chief of Newfoundland with the rank of commodore. In 1751 he was elected to Parliament.
During the Seven Years War, Rodney commanded the 74-gun Dublin and took part in the expedition against Rochefort in 1757; served under Adm. Edward Boscawen in 1758 at the siege and capture of Louisbourg, Nova Scotia; in 1759 and 1760 destroyed French transports collected along the Normandy coast for an invasion of Britain; was appointed commander in chief of the Leeward Islands station in 1761; and in 1762 reduced Martinique and forced the surrender of St. Lucia and Grenada.
Rodney was promoted to vice admiral of the blue and created a baronet. Governor of Greenwich Hospital from 1765 to 1770, he was appointed rear admiral in 1771. From then until 1774 he commanded the Jamaica station. Having fallen into debt, he lived in Paris for 3 years in order to escape his creditors.
Recalled to England in 1778, Rodney was promoted to admiral of the white. Late in 1779, named commander in chief of the Leeward Islands, Rodney was ordered to sail with 22 ships of the line and a large convoy of transports to the West Indies and on the way to relieve Gibraltar, which had been under Spanish siege since July 1779. In January 1780 he captured a Spanish convoy off Cape Finisterre and defeated Adm. Don Juan de Langara's 11 ships in the so-called Moonlight Battle, fought off Cape St. Vincent at night. These feats relieved Gibraltar and brought Rodney international fame.
In September 1780, leaving half of his fleet in West Indian waters, Rodney sailed to New York and foiled George Washington's designs for a Franco-American land and sea assault on the city. Returning to the Caribbean in February 1781, Rodney captured the Dutch islands of St. Eustatius and St. Martin and confiscated huge stocks belonging to British merchants trading illegally with American Revolutionists, thereby crippling a contraband trade on which the Americans depended. For the rest of his life he was involved in lawsuits with British merchants over this action.
In April 1782, after a running engagement with a fleet of 29 ships under Adm. François de Grasse, Rodney and his 34 ships defeated the French off Dominica by bursting in an unorthodox manner through the middle of the French formation and fragmenting it. Called the Battle of the Saints, this action was Rodney's greatest victory. Britain thereby won supremacy of the seas, but the action was too late to affect the outcome of the American Revolution.
When Rodney returned to England, he received a barony and a pension. A bold and irascible man who had been addicted to expensive tastes and to gambling, Rodney lived quietly in the country until he died in London on May 24, 1792. Dominating the waters of the West Indies during his periods of active service, Rodney personified the might of British naval power.
Further Reading on George Brydges Rodney
The standard biography is Donald Macintyre, Admiral Rodney (1962). Francis Russel Hart, Admirals of the Caribbean (1922), contains a chapter on Rodney. See also Alfred T. Mahan, The Influence of Seapower upon History, 1660-1783 (1890).