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It is all too easy to view the Honourable George Cadogan as a caricature of the stereotypically brutal and incompetent naval captain, promoted to a position of command through little more than privilege, patronage and interest. Like all caricatures though, this is an exaggeration and the reality is considerably more complex.

By 1806, when George Cadogan took command of the Ferret he had been at sea for over ten years, all of which he had served on the quarter deck, not on the ships books. For six of these years he served with a charismatic and supportive captain, Sir Edward Pellew, who took a close personal interest in the wellbeing and careers of all his officers and young gentlemen. However even under Pellew’s protective wing it had been far from plain sailing. While still little more than a child, Cadogan had already survived several ferocious frigate actions, long periods of blockade duty and “promotion”, along with his captain, from the close knit crew of the frigate Indefatigable to the malcontent ship of the line Impetueux. And it was aboard the Impetueux that Cadogan witnessed Captain Pellew defending his quarter deck from mutineers, three of whom were subsequently court martialed and hung.

Cadogan certainly had considerable experience of the vicissitudes of naval service by the time he reached the West Indies Station in 1804. His first command, the Cyane began promisingly, but after taking several impressive prizes he must have been bitterly disappointed to loose his sloop to two vastly superior French frigates. Although Cadogan was a prisoner of war for less than two months, his letter of complaint to his Commander-in-Chief reveals that he was deeply affronted by the treatment he and his men received at the hands of their French captors. The fact that he would face a court martial for the loss of his ship on his release from captivity may also have weighed heavily on Cadogan. Under Admiralty regulations all captains who lost their ship were subject to court martial, regardless of the circumstances. And Cadogan had the ignominy of knowing that he had struck his colours without firing a shot, after throwing his guns overboard and running for it. In the event, any fears he might have had were unfounded and Cadogan, his officers and his crew were all honourably acquitted. The verdict may seem like a foregone conclusion given that the Cyane had only 18 guns, while the two French frigates carried 40 a piece, however one has only to read C. S. Foresters’ Flying Colours to glimpse what the threat of an impending court marital could do to the spirits and moral of a prisoner of war.

Despite his honourable acquittal, Cadogan had to wait six months for a new command and one can easily imagine the impact on his morale of the rapid breakdown of discipline aboard the Ferret, and the subsequent mutiny, court martial and inevitable capital sentence. Indeed there is one extraordinary personal letter that testifies to Cadogan’s state of mind at this time. The existence of this letter in the Grenville archive at the Huntington Library, California 1, is remarkable as very little of George Cadogan’s personal correspondence has survived. A handful of letters from later in his life exist in the Cadogan Family Archive but it appears that any earlier correspondence that may have existed in the family collection was likely to have been destroyed in a fire in 1874.

The letter from George Cadogan to his father, the 1st Earl Cadogan, survives among the papers of Thomas Grenville, First Lord of the Admiralty, 1806 – 1807.

Thomas Grenville

Grenville had received the letter from his friend and predecessor at the Admiralty, Earl Spencer, who in turn had received it from the 1st Earl Cadogan. The letter was written on the 13th of October 1806, five days after the court martial and the day before the execution of the mutineers, and it is painfully clear that events had taken a considerable toll on Cadogan, as he writes to his father:

My mind is really in so agitated and wretched a state that if the packet did not sail tomorrow I would not attempt to put matters to paper…To add to my late misfortunes what to you think of my ship almost being all but carried in to a Spanish port by the most mutinous lot of rascals that ever existed?

Cadogan proceeds to give a short account of the mutiny, similar to that contained in his court martial statement, adding:

And altho’ I never could have consented to accept my life at such scoundrels hands nothing but Providence sav’d my ship.

He then explains that he has received a flattering acquittal on the charges of tyranny and oppression and goes on to lament the fate of the mutineers:

Have since tried all unfortunate deluded wretches who are all doomed to suffer here tomorrow morning. I have not the words to express my feelings upon the occasion – and am only upheld by the conscious rectitude of the cause for which they suffer, and of having done justice to my country, and having acquitted myself, I trust, with personal credit. They are all thank God sensible of their guilt and in their last moments acknowledged their ingratitude to me and their treachery to their country – I have hardly spirit to proceed here father.

Cadogan then goes on to express his “astonishment” at not having received a letter from his father in the last packet and his disappointment at not yet having received a promotion to post captain despite a vacancy having become available.

He then concludes the letter:

I am very low, & unwell, & only hope somebody will say something for me for I really have neither health nor strength to go through much more here. I have taken nothing nor do I think there is much to be done here altogether…..God send this may find you in better spirits and health than it leaves your unfortunate and wretched son.

The contrast between the anguished tone of this extraordinary personal letter and the stiff formality of Cadogan’s Admiralty reports and correspondence is marked and gives a rare insight into the impact that the rigours of the service could have on a young man.

Charles Sloane, 1st Earl Cadogan

The 1st Earl received his son’s despairing letter on the 27th November 1806 and was sufficiently moved to immediately forwarded it to Lord Spencer with a covering letter:

I here enclose a most melancholy letter from Poor George I rec’d this day, & shall make no other observations on it except that I flatter myself as he has been honourably acquitted of the charges bro’t against him, & has bro’t his ships Crew to condign punishment that no obstacle can now be brought forward to his preferment on that score.

The earl then goes on to confide:

What I most fear for is his health in that cursed climate and the misfortune of Admiral on that station not having rec’d the order I understand were sent for his coming home a long time ago.

Earl Spencer

Earl Spencer

Spencer clearly had not forgotten the young lad who he had recommended to Captain Sir Edward Pellew eleven years previously and two days later on the 29th of November 1806 he wrote a characteristically dry letter to Thomas Grenville enclosing the correspondence from both Cadogan and his father.

Dear Grenville,
I sent you a letter I have received from poor old L’d Cadogan inclosing one from his Son, and I really hope that it may melt your hard heart & that you will send him out a commission for the Pomona or some other frigate on the station.

He then adds, rather callously:

Though from the tenor of this letter, I really would not be surprised to hear that he had died of the yellow fever which always seizes people when they are in low spirits.

With remarkable lack of irony, Spencer then spends the remainder of the letter detailing his wife’s recent recovery from illness and complaining that:

I myself have been a good deal out of order with my Cold.

Although Spencer makes no reference to an order to recall George Cadogan, research at the National Archives has shown that the 1st Earl Caodgan was indeed correct, an order for his son’s recall had been issued by the Admiralty earlier that autumn. An Admiralty minute of 5th September 1806, directs Admiral Dacres and Sir Alexander Cochrane to send home Captain Cadogan in His Majesty’s sloop Ferret the first occasion they shall have to send a sloop to England. On the 6th of September a letter was duly issued by the Admiralty to Dacres and Cochrane as per the minutes, however for reasons unknown this letter did not reach Dacres until the 14th of December, 12 weeks after the Ferret mutiny. On receiving the letter form Admiral Cochrane, Dacres proposed to order Cadogan to take command of the Honduras Convoy, which was due to leave Belize on the 27th January 1807, but once again, for reasons unknown, this order does not appear to have been issued.

Despite his wretched spirits, George Cadogan survived to confounded Lord Spencer’s expectations, although his health clearly suffered, he did not succumb. He finally made post on the 27th March 1807 and on the 10th June 1807 he was discharged from the Ferret and the West Indies Station. The reason for his discharge recorded in the Ferret’s muster book is “Invalided”.

In two years on the West Indies Station from the 11th July 1805 to the 10th June 1807 Captain the Honourable George Cadogan experienced perhaps the best and the worst of Naval service on board a ship of war. He took command of his own vessel, captured several rich prizes, lost his first ship to the French and almost lost his second to mutiny, he spent two months as a prisoner of war, witnessed two courts martial and saw eleven of his men condemned as mutineers and hung at the yardarm. He had served over ten years at sea and yet when George Cadogan returned home to England in June 1807 he was still only 23 years of age.


1. We would like to acknowledge and thank the Huntingdon Library for providing us with copies of these remarkable letters for research purposes only. Copyright of the letters of the 1st Earl Cadogan, George Cadogan and Lord Spencer resides with the Huntingdon Library.