24 January 2009

Remembering Admiral George Rooke

There is an old saying that one can take a man out of the Navy, but never the Navy out of the man (who served in it for years). This is quite true, and I freely admit that even many years after my retirement from active sea service I have still a very strong interest in all matters maritime.

Besides my work as editor of the encyclopaedia of ships and my involvement with the international Tall Ships' Races I also do a lot of research into maritime history. And from this area I want to give you a little piece today, remembering a man who is nowadays widely forgotten.

This man is George Rooke, a distinguished English naval officer from the 17th century, who died on this day exactly 300 years ago.

Rooke was born in 1650 (the exact date is uncertain and disputed) at St. Lawrence, his family's estate near Canterbury in Kent.
He entered the Royal Navy as a young volunteer and served in the wars against the Dutch with great courage and distinction.
In 1673, at the very young age of 23, he was made a post captain. Over the following 17 years he became one of the most successful and best known English naval officers of his time, commanding several frigates and ships of the line in war and peace.

In 1690, aged 40, George Rooke was appointed Rear Admiral and shortly after he fought against the French in the crucial Battle of Beachy Head (also known as the Battle of Bévéziers), which ended with a heavy defeat for the Royal Navy and their Dutch allies and gave the French Navy control of the Channel for a considerable time.

Two years later, in May 1692, Rooke served under Admiral Russell in the Battle of Barfleur and greatly distinguished himself in a night attack on the French fleet at La Hogue, where he burned six of their ships. For this action he was knighted and received a reward of £ 1000 (which was an enormous sum of money at the time).

Until the peace of Rijswijk in 1697 Sir George Rooke continued to serve in both the Channel and the Mediterranean.
He then commanded the Anglo-Dutch Squadron that attacked Copenhagen in conjunction with the Swedish fleet under Admiral General Hans Wachtmeister in 1700, which facilitated the landing of King Charles XII of Sweden and his army in Denmark in the opening phase of the Great Northern War.

But the deeds for which Rooke is best remembered by historians were yet to come. When the War of the Spanish Succession began in 1702, he commanded an unsuccessful allied expedition against Cádiz, but on the passage home he spotted and destroyed the Spanish treasure fleet in Vigo Bay. The spoils taken from the Spanish were so substantial that Parliament passed a special vote of thanks for Rooke, an honour very rarely awarded to anyone.

As the overall commander Admiral Sir George Rooke then led the allied forces in the capture of Gibraltar on July 21st, 1704, the most lasting of his many military achievements.

After a brief spell as military governor of Gibraltar from July 24th to August 4th, the Admiral returned to sea and attacked the French fleet off Málaga on August 13th, 1704. This battle ended with a tactical draw, but was a strategic success for England, as it secured the newly won position at Gibraltar.
305 years later the rocky outcrop at the southern tip of Spain is still in British hands and a major naval base that controls the western entry to the Mediterranean. And five years ago, during the celebrations of the 300th anniversary of British rule over Gibraltar, a fine statue of Admiral Sir George Rooke was errected there in his memory.

The battle against the French off Málaga was to be George Rooke's last active engagement at sea and he retired - due to ill health - in February 1705 after more than four decades of service in the Royal Navy. He spent the last four years of his life quietly at his estate at St. Lawrence in Kent, where he died on January 24th, 1709 aged 58.

Even though he is widely forgotten these days, George Rooke deserves to be remembered, as his fearless and determined actions at sea set the standard for two centuries of English maritime leadership. Without him and his equally famous colleague Sir Cloudesley Shovell the great British naval heroes like Nelson, Collingwood and Pellew, who fought with distinction a century later, might never have emerged.
And without Rooke's capture of Gibraltar England - and later Britain - would have never been able to establish the great influence it had in and around the Mediterranean for three centuries (and still has today, even though on a much lower level).

The Emerald Islander
(wearing the old tricorn naval hat for a while today)

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