Augustus Keppel, 1st Viscount Keppel

From Academic Kids

Augustus Keppel, 1st Viscount Keppel (25 April 1725 - 2 October 1786), was a British admiral who held sea commands during the Seven Years War and the War of American Independence. During the final years of the latter conflict he served as First Lord of the Admiralty.


Early life and career

The second son of Willem Anne van Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle, he went to sea at the age of ten, and had already five years of service to his credit when he was appointed to the Centurion, and was sent with Lord Anson round the world in 1740. He had a narrow escape of being killed in the capture of Paita (13 November 1741), and was named acting lieutenant in 1742. In 1744 be was promoted to be Commander and Post Captain.

Until the peace of 1748 he was actively employed. In 1747 he ran his ship the Maidstone (50) ashore near Belleisle while chasing a French vessel, but was honorably acquitted by a court martial, and reappointed to another command. After peace had been signed he was sent into the Mediterranean to persuade the Dey of Algiers to restrain the piratical operations of his subjects. The Dey is said to have complained that the King of England had sent a beardless boy to treat with him, and to have been told that if the beard was the necessary qualification for an ambassador it would have been easy to send a Billy goat. After trying the effect of bullying without success, the Dey made a treaty, and Keppel returned in 1751.

The Seven Years War

During the Seven Years War he saw constant service. He was in North America in 1755, on the coast of France in 1756, was detached on a cruise to reduce the French settlements on the west coast of Africa in 1758, and his ship the Torbay (74) was the first to get into action in the battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759. In 1757 he had formed part of the court martial which had condemned Admiral Byng, but was active among those who endeavoured to secure a pardon for him; but neither he nor those who had acted with him could produce any serious reason why the sentence should not be carried out. When Spain joined France in 1762 he was sent as second in command with Sir George Pocock in the expedition which took Havana. His health suffered from the fever which carried off an immense proportion of the soldiers and sailors, but the 25,000 of prize money which he received freed him from the unpleasant position of younger son of a family ruined by the extravagance of his father.

Achievement of flag rank

He became Rear Admiral in October 1762, was one of the Admiralty Board from July 1765 to November 1766, and was promoted Vice Admiral on 24 October 1770. When the Falkland Island dispute occurred in 1770 he was to have commanded the fleet to be sent against Spain, but a settlement was reached, and he had no occasion to hoist his flag.

The American Revolutionary War

The most important and the most debated period of his life belongs to the opening years of the American Revolutionary War. Keppel was by family connection and personal preference a strong supporter of the Whig connection, led by the Marquess of Rockingham and the Duke of Richmond. He shared in all the passions of his party, then excluded from power by the resolute will of George III.

As a member of Parliament, in which he had a seat for Windsor from 1761 until 1780, and then for Surrey he was a steady partisan, and was in constant hostility with the King's Friends. In common with them he was prepared to believe that the king's ministers, and in particular Lord Sandwich, then First Lord of the Admiralty, were capable of any villainy. When therefore he was appointed to command the Western Squadron, the main fleet prepared against France in 1778, he went to sea predisposed to think that the First Lord would be glad for him to be defeated.

It was a further misfortune that when Keppel hoisted his flag one of his subordinate admirals should have been Sir Hugh Palliser (17231796), who was a member of the Admiralty Board, a member of parliament, and in Keppel's opinion, which was generally shared, jointly responsible with his colleagues for the bad state of the Royal Navy. When, therefore, the battle which Keppel fought with the French on 27 July 1778 (the First Battle of Ushant) ended in a highly unsatisfactory manner, owing mainly to his own unintelligent management, but partly through the failure of Sir Hugh Palliser to obey orders, he became convinced that he had been deliberately betrayed.

Though he praised Sir Hugh in his public despatch he attacked him in private, and the Whig press, with the unquestionable aid of Keppel's friends, began a campaign of calumny to which the ministerial papers answered in the same style, each side accusing the other of deliberate treason: The result was a scandalous series of scenes in parliament and of courts martial. Keppel was first tried and acquitted 1779, and then Palliser was also tried and acquitted. Keppel was ordered to strike his flag in March 1779.

Service in Parliament

Until the fall of Lord North's ministry he acted as an opposition member of parliament. When it fell in 1782 he became First Lord, and was created Viscount Keppel and Baron Elden. His career in office was not distinguished, and he broke with his old political associates by resigning as a protest against the Peace of Paris. He finally discredited himself by joining the Coalition ministry formed by North and Fox, and with its fall disappeared from public life.

Last years and legacy

He died unmarried on 2 October 1786. Burke, who regarded him with great affection, said that he had something high in his nature, and that it was a wild stock of pride on which the tenderest of all hearts had grafted the milder virtues. His portrait was six times painted by Sir Joshua Reynolds. The copy which belonged originally to Burke is now in the National Gallery.

Preceded by:
The Earl of Sandwich
First Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by:
The Viscount Howe
Preceded by:
The Viscount Howe
First Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by:
The Viscount Howe

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