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The unfortunate history of George Walker, commander of the ‘Royal Family’

Posted in Adventure, Historical articles, History, Ships, War on Thursday, 29 August 2013

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This edited article about privateer Captain George Walker originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 388 published on 21 June 1969.

George Walker, picture, image, illustration

As the wind billowed the sails of the becalmed man-o'-war, Walker took one last precaution of hailing it; the reply was a crashing broadside, by Paul Rainer

For five hours, George Walker’s 32-gun frigate King George had pursued the huge ship which bobbed ahead of him. It was October, 1747, and Walker had forged boldly ahead of his squadron of privateers, convinced that the man-of-war he had sighted off Cape St. Vincent was laden with treasure.

From a distance, Walker had been unable to make out the other ship’s colours, but the uncanny instinct of a hunter for its prey had urged him to the chase. To do this without the full support of his squadron against such a mighty ship was perhaps a reckless gamble to take, but it was just such disregard for his own safety and contempt for unfavourable odds that had already won Walker renown.

This time, however, it seemed he had gone too far and that his luck had run out. As he drew alongside the man-of-war, the wind unexpectedly dropped and both ships were becalmed. As they swayed gently on the sea’s mirror-smooth surface, the gun ports of the larger ship opened and her guns poked provocatively towards the frigate.

Walker was certain now that she was a Spaniard and that she was warning him to leave her alone. This convinced him that she was brimful with treasure which she did not want to risk in battle, and that, if she did have to risk it, she would fight grimly.

As soon as the wind rose, she was obviously going to make a run for the coast, and Walker had to make up his mind whether or not to engage her. His spirit of daring gave him no doubts about the answer. With the first puff of breeze, he was going to attack!

The wind came at last. As a final precaution, Walker hailed the stranger in English and Portuguese. He got no answer.

Then he called out his own name and did receive a reply. Once more the gun ports opened, and this time the guns delivered a crashing broadside into the King George from close range.

The most memorable battle of Walker’s naval career had started.

* * * *

Before assuming command of the King George, George Walker had led the sort of eventful sea-life that well qualified him to become a successful privateer.

As a lad and a young man, he had served in the Royal Dutch navy, and later he fought in the Middle East to protect trade from Greek and Turkish pirates. After that, he had decided to settle for a less adventurous life as the owner of a merchantman which he commanded. In 1739, he owned and commanded the Duke William which traded between London and South Carolina.

It was a dangerous run, because the coast of the Carolinas was infested with Spanish pirates. Because of this, Walker took out letters of marque (a licence to fit out an armed vessel and use it in the capture of enemy merchant shipping). Since there was no English man-of-war in the vicinity, Walker offered his services to the colonial government.

Once more the man of action had emerged. And, before long, Walker and his growing number of men had succeeded in driving the Spaniards from the coast. His reputation was starting to grow.

But then there began to emerge a strange streak of misfortune in Walker’s life. It seemed that for all his exploits and all his efforts, he was throughout his life to be denied successful endings to them.

Towards the end of 1742, he sailed for England in a small convoy. But as they approached the English Channel, a December gale unleashed its fury and the Duke William began to break up. She was only kept afloat with difficulty while Walker and his crew managed to scramble aboard one of the other merchantmen.

As if this weren’t enough, when Walker finally reached London, he learned that his agents had allowed his insurance to lapse.

He was completely ruined.

For the next year he was master of a vessel trading in the Baltic. Then, in 1744, war broke out with France, and Walker was put in command of the Mars, a private ship-of-war which carried 26 guns. This was to sail in company with another larger ship, the Boscawen.

Less than two months after setting sail, the Boscawen hastily deserted the Mars during an encounter with two French ships, and Walker was taken prisoner. Fortunately he secured his release and returned to England, where he was put in command of the Boscawen. But once more luck deserted him. His ship, weakly-built and iron-fastened, almost fell to pieces as it was entering the Channel. Only Walker’s initiative and determination kept the Boscawen afloat, and he finally managed to run it ashore on the Cornish coast.

This was a turning point in his career. It was realised in London that, but for his efforts, the ship would have gone down with all hands in open seas, and for his courage he was rewarded with a far more important command.

This was a squadron of four ships known as the Royal Family.

Carrying a total of 121 guns and 970 men, the King George, Prince Frederick, Princess Amelia and The Duke (plus two smaller ships, the Prince George and Prince Edward) were all empowered to attack and plunder the King’s enemies in wartime. They were owned by “managers,” who fitted out the vessels, manning them with officers and crews who received a share of the prize-money instead of wages.

The “family” had already earned a high reputation for taking rich prizes, but in recent months its spirit had deteriorated, and on one occasion the crews had come close to mutiny.

Walker’s fame, however, attracted better men, among whom were many who had sailed with him on other ships, and who had come to respect his skill and daring.

The Royal Family’s first cruise under its new commander justified the men’s confidence in Walker. The fleet took station off Cape St. Vincent and soon intercepted a Spanish ship out of Cadiz filled with wealthy officials who were good prospects for ransom.

Then, in Lisbon, Walker heard of better prey. Two rich Spanish ships, the Nympha and the St. George, were skulking in Cadiz harbour, frightened to sail while the British marauder was at large. Walker at once spread a rumour that his ships were unseaworthy and made a great show of laying them up. Jubilantly the Spaniards emerged.

Immediately Walker set off in pursuit and captured the Nympha, although the exploit once again ended in near-disaster. Sailing to England under a prize-crew, the Nympha was wrecked on the coast of Cornwall. Walker’s managers arrived just in time to stop Cornish smugglers and wreckers from looting her completely.

This was another manifestation of the hoodoo that seemed to haunt the courageous Walker. Even so, within a year, he and his squadron had taken substantial prizes.

* * * *

With the Spanish man-of-war, it seemed that Walker had taken on more than he could handle. For three hours the battle raged, and, as if Walker did not have trouble enough with his Spanish adversary, the Portuguese fort at Cape St. Vincent determined to show its neutrality and fired indiscriminately on both ships!

Though badly battered, the King George somehow hung on. And, at last, the sails of the rest of Walker’s squadron came into sight. The Spaniard was forced to flee.

While the Prince George and the Duke followed the Spaniard, the Prince Frederick stayed behind to watch over the King George while emergency repairs were carried out.

Soon afterwards, two British men-of-war, the Russell and the Dartmouth, approached.

Walker explained the position to their captains and they set off at once in support of the leaderless “family.” King George limped painfully behind.

Unfortunately the Dartmouth was blown up in the engagement, but some hours later the Russell succeeded in taking the Spaniard.

Walker hurried aboard to examine his prize. She was the Glorioso, of 70 guns and 760 men. Few privateers could boast of such a victim. Then Walker’s luck turned. The Spanish captain came forward, smiling ruefully.

“Though your honours be my misfortunes,” he said, “I wish they had found some better reward than the bare glory only of reducing so great a ship. She carries nothing but great guns, having landed all our treasure . . . before she met you.”

It was a terrible blow. Privateers were expected to make their seafights pay!

When sold, the Glorioso fetched only £12,000, and Walker’s managers attacked him savagely for taking on an empty man-of-war.

Walker’s bitter reply seemed justified. “Had the treasure been aboard, as I expected,” he said, “your complaint had been otherways.”

This was only one of several quarrels which arose between Walker and his managers. When he led the Royal Family on a third cruise, to intercept the Spanish treasure-fleet from Havannah, his supply system failed because of the incompetence of his managers, and the voyage was a fiasco.

Soon afterwards the war ended.

Walker’s career lay in ruins. He had squandered his prize-money on unlucky commercial ventures, and he also became involved in a quarrel with his managers about money they owed him. Eventually he was arrested for debt and left to languish in the squalor of King’s Bench Prison, London.

Four years passed before he won his case. He then got his money and was released. But by this time his spirit was broken.

Though the public renewed their interest in him when accounts of his adventures were published (in 1760 and 1762) he died in obscurity in 1777.

His battle with the Glorioso, however, was commemorated in an oil-painting by Charles Brooking. This now hangs in the Maritime Museum, Greenwich.

The painting bears testimony to two things: George Walker’s uncrushable gallantry, and his remarkable bad luck.

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