Admiral Sir Roger Curtis, 1st Baronet, GCB (4 June 1746 – 14
November 1816) was an officer of the British Royal Navy, who saw
action in several battles during an extensive career that was
punctuated by a number of highly controversial incidents. Curtis
served during the
American Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War and the French
Revolutionary Wars and was highly praised in the former conflict for
his bravery under fire at the Great Siege of Gibraltar, where he saved
several hundred Spanish lives at great risk to his own. His career
suffered however in the aftermath of the Glorious First of June, when
he was heavily criticised for his conduct by several influential
figures, including Cuthbert Collingwood. His popularity fell further
due to his involvement in two highly controversial courts-martial,
those of Anthony Molloy in 1795 and
James Gambier in 1810.
Ultimately Curtis' career stalled as more popular and successful
officers secured active positions; during the Napoleonic Wars, Curtis
was relegated to staff duties ashore and did not see action. He died
in 1816, his baronetcy inherited by his second son Lucius who later
Admiral of the Fleet. Modern historians have viewed Curtis
as an over-cautious officer in a period when dashing, attacking
tactics were admired. Contemporary opinion was more divided, with some
influential officers expressing admiration of Curtis and others
1 Early career
2 American Revolutionary War
3 French Revolutionary War service
4 Staff service
5 Named in his honour
7.1 Book sources
7.2 Web sources
8 External links
Roger Curtis was born in 1746 to a gentleman farmer of Wiltshire, also
named Roger Curtis, and his wife Christabella Blachford. In 1762 at
16, Curtis travelled to
Portsmouth and joined the Royal Navy, becoming
a midshipman aboard HMS Royal Sovereign in the final year of the Seven
Years' War. Curtis did not see any action before the Treaty of Paris
in 1763, and was soon transferred aboard HMS Assistance for service
off West Africa. Over the next six years, Curtis moved from Assistance
to the guardship HMS Augusta at
Portsmouth and then to the sloop HMS
Gibraltar in Newfoundland. In 1769, Curtis joined the frigate HMS
Samuel Barrington before moving to the ship of the line
HMS Albion in which he was promoted to lieutenant.
Shortly after his promotion, Curtis joined the small brig HMS Otter in
Newfoundland and there spent several years operating off the Labrador
coastline, becoming very familiar with the local geography and the
Inuit peoples of the region. In a report he wrote for Lord Dartmouth,
Curtis opined that although the inland regions of
barren, the coast was an ideal place for a seasonal cod fishery. He
also formed a good opinion of the native people, applauding their
healthy and peaceful lifestyle. Curtis made numerous exploratory
voyages along the
Labrador coast and formed close links with the Inuit
tribes and Moravian missionaries in the region. His notes and
despatches were presented to the
Royal Academy by
Daines Barrington in
1774, although accusations later surfaced that many of his
observations were plagiarised from the notes of a local officer,
Captain George Cartwright.
During his time in Canadian waters, Curtis became friends with
Molyneux Shuldham who became Curtis' patron and in 1775
assisted his transfer into HMS Chatham off New York City. The
following year, with the
American Revolutionary War
American Revolutionary War underway, Curtis
was promoted to commander and given the sloop HMS Senegal. Curtis
performed well in his new command and a year later was again promoted
after being noticed by Lord Howe. Howe made Curtis captain of his own
flagship HMS Eagle, and the men became close friends.
American Revolutionary War
In 1778, Curtis returned to Britain in Eagle, but refused to carry out
an order to sail the ship to the Far East, a refusal which earned the
enmity of Lord Sandwich. In December of the same year he was married
to Jane Sarah Brady. As punishment for his disobedience Curtis was
unemployed for the next two years, before he secured the new frigate
HMS Brilliant for service in the
Mediterranean in 1780. Ordered to
Gibraltar, Brilliant was attacked by a superior Spanish squadron close
to the fortress and was forced to escape to British-held Menorca.
Curtis's first lieutenant Colin Campbell complained extensively about
his captain's refusal to leave port while enemy shipping passed by the
harbour, but Curtis was waiting for a 25-ship relief convoy which he
met and safely convoyed into Gibraltar, bringing supplies to the
defenders of the
Great Siege of Gibraltar
Great Siege of Gibraltar then in progress.
Curtis attempting to rescue Spanish sailors in their doomed assault on
Gibraltar in 1782
Although Curtis was personally opposed to British possession of
Gibraltar, he took command of a marine unit during the siege, and in
the attack by Spanish gunboats and floating batteries in September
1782, Curtis took his men into the harbour in small boats to engage
the enemy. During this operation, Curtis witnessed the destruction of
the batteries by British fireships and was able to rescue hundreds of
burnt and drowning Spanish sailors from the water. This rescue effort
was carried out in close proximity to the enemy force and in constant
danger from the detonation of burning Spanish ships, which showered
his overcrowded boats with debris and caused several casualties
amongst his crews. When Lord Howe relieved the siege, he brought
the much-celebrated Curtis back to Britain, where he was knighted for
his service and became a society figure, featuring in many newspaper
prints. He came under attack however from
Lieutenant Campbell, who
published a pamphlet accusing him of indecision and a lack of nerve
during his time in Brilliant.
During 1783, Curtis was sent to
Morocco to renew treaties with the
country and then remained in Gibraltar, accepting the Spanish peace
treaty delegates at the war's end. Brilliant was paid off in 1784,
although Curtis remained in employment during the peace, commanding
HMS Ganges as guardship at Portsmouth. In 1787 he was placed on
half-pay, although it has been speculated that during this period he
conducted a secret mission to Scandinavia to ensure British supplies
on naval materials from the region in the event of war. In the
Spanish armament of 1790, Curtis was briefly made flag captain of HMS
Queen Charlotte under Howe, but soon transferred to HMS Brunswick. As
captain of Brunswick, Curtis had to deal with an outbreak of a deadly
and infectious fever. He was successful in controlling the disease and
later published and advisory pamphlet on techniques for other officers
to follow when faced with contagion aboard their ships.
French Revolutionary War service
In 1793 at the outbreak of the French Revolutionary Wars, Curtis
returned to Queen Charlotte and joined Lord Howe at the head of the
Channel Fleet. In May 1794, Howe led the fleet to sea to search for a
French grain convoy and after a month of fruitless searching,
discovered that the French Atlantic Fleet under Villaret de Joyeuse
had left harbour and was sailing to meet the convoy. Howe gave chase
and gradually closed on Villaret's rearguard, fighting two
inconclusive actions during the Atlantic campaign of May 1794. On 1
June 1794, Howe caught the French fleet and brought them to battle in
the battle of the Glorious First of June. The action was hard fought
and Curtis' ship was heavily engaged, fighting several French ships of
the line simultaneously.
What a cur 'tis!, a satirical etching portraying Curtis as Lord Howe's
James Gillray, 1795
In the closing stages of the battle, the aged Howe retired to his
cabin and Curtis was given responsibility for the flagship and
consequently the fleet over the next day. Exactly how much of what
transpired was Curtis's fault has never been established, but in a
series of unusual decisions the British failed to pursue the defeated
French fleet, allowing many battered French ships to escape. Even more
controversially, a despatch was sent to the
Admiralty concerning the
action which praised certain officers and excluded others. The awards
presented to the captains who had served at the battle were given
based on the praise each captain received in this report, and those
omitted were excluded from the medal celebrating the victory and other
honours. Although Howe had ultimate responsibility for the
despatch, many blamed Curtis for this slight and he was rumoured to
have taken the decision to abandon pursuit and subsequently penned the
report himself in Howe's name.
Curtis's subsequent actions increased the distrust felt by his fellow
officers. While Curtis was granted a baronetcy for his role in the
action, another captain, Anthony Molloy, faced a court martial and
national disgrace for what was considered to be his failure to engage
the enemy during the battle. Curtis stood as prosecutor in the
case, and Molloy was subsequently dismissed from his ship and
effectively from the service as the result of Curtis's prosecution.
Cuthbert Collingwood, one of the captains overlooked by the despatch,
subsequently described Curtis as "an artful, sneeking creature, whose
fawning insinuating manners creeps into the confidence of whoever he
attacks and whose rapacity wou'd grasp all honours and all profits
that come within his view".
During the two years following the battle, Curtis had brief periods in
command of HMS Canada, HMS Powerful, HMS Invincible and HMS
Formidable. In 1796, he was promoted to rear-admiral and raised his
flag on HMS Prince. In Prince, Curtis led the blockade of Brest when
most of the fleet was paralysed by the Spithead Mutiny. He was also
in overall command of the naval operations which succeeded in
destroying or driving off much of the French force sent to support the
Irish Rebellion of 1798
Irish Rebellion of 1798 culminating in the Battle of Tory Island, at
which he was not present. Later in the year he joined Lord St
Cadiz with a squadron of eight ships of the line, and was
soon afterwards made a vice-admiral. In 1799, he retired ashore.
Curtis's remaining career was based at a series of shore stations,
initially as commander-in-chief
Cape of Good Hope Station
Cape of Good Hope Station at Cape Town
between 1800 and 1803, which he reportedly hated. In 1804 he was
promoted to full admiral, and subsequently employed in Britain
from 1805 to 1807 as part of the "Commission for revising the civil
affairs of His Majesty's navy". This latter role was an important
position and Curtis performed well, introducing many beneficial
reforms to the service. In 1802 Curtis's eldest son Roger, a post
captain in the navy, died suddenly while on duty. In 1809, after 40
years of naval service, Curtis took his final command, that of
Commander-in-Chief, Portsmouth. In 1810, he performed his last
significant duty, when he presided over the highly controversial court
martial examining the conduct of Lord Gambier at the Battle of Basque
Roads. At the battle, Gambier had failed to support Captain Lord
Cochrane and missed an opportunity to destroy the French Brest Fleet.
Infuriated, Cochrane attempted to block the proposed vote of thanks
awarded to Gambier for the reduced victory from Parliament.
Gambier responded by demanding a court martial to pass judgement on
his actions. Gambier and Curtis had fought together at the Glorious
First of June and had been friends for many years, and Curtis could be
counted on by those in authority to "show strong partiality in favour
of the accused." Under instructions from the Admiralty, Curtis and
the other officers judging the case found in Gambier's favour and the
trial inevitably ended with the court pronouncing that Gambier's
behaviour "was marked by zeal, judgement, ability, and an anxious
attention to the welfare of his majesty's service".
Curtis retired after the trial and died six years later after a
peaceful retirement, followed a year later by his wife. In 1815,
shortly before his death, he was made a Knight Grand Cross of the
Order of the Bath. His surviving son, Lucius Curtis, inherited the
baronetcy. Lucius was an experienced post captain who had lost his
ship at the
Battle of Grand Port
Battle of Grand Port but was exonerated at the subsequent
court martial and eventually became an
Admiral of the Fleet. Roger
Curtis's highly controversial career was noted for a number of
prominent public disputes, that resulted in bitterness between Curtis
and several of his fellow officers. He was however, brave and
resourceful: his actions at
Gibraltar even prompted the naming of the
Curtis Group, an archipelago of small islands in the Bass Strait
Australia and Tasmania: The islands were apparently given the
name because of their physical similarity to Gibraltar. Modern
authors have criticised Curtis for his caution at a time when officers
were applauded for bravery, but contemporary opinion was more divided:
despite his many detractors, Horatio Nelson, who knew him well from
their service together in the Mediterranean, described him as "an able
officer and conciliating man".
Named in his honour
Port Curtis in Queensland, Australia, was named after him by Matthew
Flinders. Curtis had assisted
Matthew Flinders with repairs to his
ship the HMS Investigator in
Cape Town in October 1801.
Curtis Island, in northern
Bass Strait between mainland
Tasmania, was named by
Lieutenant James Grant sailing on the Lady
Nelson in December 1800.
^ a b c d e Curtis, Sir Roger, Dictionary of Canadian Biography,
William H. Whiteley, Retrieved 25 November 2008
^ a b c d e f g h i j Curtis, Sir Roger, Oxford Dictionary of National
Biography, Roger Knight, Retrieved 19 January 2008
^ "No. 12392". The London Gazette. 26 November 1782. p. 5.
^ "No. 12457". The London Gazette. 12 July 1783. p. 1.
^ James, Vol. 1, p. 158
^ a b Gambier, Fleet Battle and Blockade, p. 39
^ James, Vol. 1, p. 181
^ "No. 13693". The London Gazette. 12 August 1794. p. 828.
^ James, Vol. 2, p. 23
^ James, Vol. 2, p. 152
^ Hiscocks, Richard. "Cape Commander-in-Chief 1795-1852".
morethannelson.com. morethannelson.com. Retrieved 19 November
^ "No. 15695". The London Gazette. 21 April 1804. p. 495.
^ History in
Portsmouth Archived 27 June 2015 at the Wayback Machine.
^ Gambier, The Victory of Seapower, p. 47
^ Clowes, p. 269
^ James, Vol. 5, p. 125
^ "No. 17003". The London Gazette. 15 April 1815. p. 697.
Port Curtis - port (entry 9103)".
Queensland Place Names.
Queensland Government. Retrieved 9 December 2015.
^ Grant, James (1803). The narrative of a voyage of discovery,
performed in His Majesty's vessel the Lady Nelson, of sixty tons
burthen: with sliding keels, in the years 1800, 1801, and 1802, to New
South Wales. Printed by C. Roworth for T. Egerton. p. 77.
Clowes, William Laird (1997) . The Royal Navy, A History from
the Earliest Times to 1900, Volume V. Chatham Publishing.
Editor: Gardiner, Robert (2001) . Fleet Battle and Blockade.
Caxton Editions. ISBN 1-84067-363-X. CS1 maint: Extra text:
authors list (link)
Editor: Gardiner, Robert (2001) . The Victory of Seapower.
Caxton Editions. ISBN 1-84067-359-1. CS1 maint: Extra text:
authors list (link)
James, William (2002) . The Naval History of Great Britain.
Conway Maritime Press.
The Naval Chronicle, Volume 6. J. Gould. 1801. (reissued by
Cambridge University Press, 2010. ISBN 978-1-108-01845-6)
"Curtis, Sir Roger". Oxford Dictionary of National Biography,
(subscription required), Roger Knight.
"Curtis, Sir Roger". Dictionary of Canadian Biography, William H.
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