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REAR-ADMIRAL SIR CHARLES CUNNINGHAM,
When Dr. Johnson indulged his fancy with the horrors of sea life, and pronounced that all who saw a cabin would envy a gaol, he was speaking from the experience of a row across the Thames, by way of varying the scenes of Bolt Court. But it is a proud characteristic of England, that so far from her sons participating in such apprehensions, they are scarcely to be restrained from betaking themselves to the element which has so enlarged the power and resources of the country. Thus it was with the excellent officer whose professional career we are about to relate. No sooner had he mastered the reading of Robinson Crusoe than he felt a violent inclination for a maritime life; and the nation being then at peace, he went as a “sea-boy” into the merchant service, and had become a smart seaman when the American war broke out. That event called forth other aspirings; and though he was now twenty years of age, he entered the royal navy as a midshipman in 1775. His first ship was the Æolus, of 32 guns, which, under the able discipline of Captain William Bennett, who commanded her upwards of seven years, had acquired the character of a “ crack” frigate.
The Æolus sailed for the West India station early in 1776, then commanded by Captain Christopher Atkins; and on joining the squadron of Sir Peter Parker, the activity and seamanship of Mr. Cunningham had already been so conspicuous, that he was recommended to the Rear-Admiral as an officer fully equal to the charge of a watch. This recommendation was effective, - he was received on board the Bristol, of
years in the
50 guns, Capt. Tobias Caulfield, which ship bore the flag, and was soon put into a way of advancing himself. In 1778 he was lent into the Ostrich, of 14 guns and 110 men, a vessel of the squadron cruising off Savannah Point, Jamaica. Here, on the morning of the 8th of July, they fell in with a rakish French privateer of 16 guns and 150 men, which instantly “ showed fight.” A desperate and sanguinary engagement followed, in which the Captain and Lieutenant of the Ostrich were disabled, besides four of her men killed and twentyeight wounded; but after three hours' attack, the privateer was so riddled and cut up, that she surrendered, having then thirty dead upon her deck, and a great number wounded. This led to Mr. Cunningham’s being appointed Acting Lieutenant to the Port Royal, a sloop of war of 18 guns, in the following year, although he had not then served quite four
navy. From this vessel he was soon removed to act as First Lieutenant of the Hitchinbroke, an armed ship of 14 guns, commanded by the gallant Nelson, who, also recently made out of the Bristol, had become acquainted with Cunningham's worth. An attack on the island of Jamaica being apprehended, Captain Nelson was appointed to command the important batteries which defended Port Royal. In consequence of this arrangement, and being anxious to serve in a sea-going ship, in the beginning of 1780 Mr.Cunningham joined the Pallas, a fine frigate of 36 guns, at the express request of Captain J. D. Spry, with which officer he served till the ship was ordered home with the Jamaica fleet, in the summer of 1782. The misfortunes of the ill-fated squadron which convoyed that fleet are well known; a threedecker and three other line-of-battle ships foundered, the Pallas was driven on one of the Western Islands, and all the other ships were disabled.
Fortunately for Mr. Cunningham, on the frigate's being ordered to England, he had determined to remain on the station until his promotion was secured; and therefore joined the Ajax, of 74 guns, just before the Pallas sailed. In this ship he served, as Second Lieutenant, with Captain Charring
ton, till, on the 4th of September of the same year, he obtained his confirmation, and was, at the same time, appointed to command the Barrington, a little hired brig of 12 guns. Here his talent was put into immediate requisition ; for the Admiral, Joshua Rowley, sent him, with the Racehorse schooner under his orders, to put a stop to the American salt trade with the Bahamas. He here acquitted himself so well, that, by keeping off Turk's Island, he effectually prevented all communication with the subjects of the United States, though the local authorities seemed by no means inclined to second his efforts. Want of supplies, however, compelled him to return to Jamaica ; and, during his temporary absence, the French fitted an expedition from Cape François, effected a landing upon Turk's Island, and took possession of it. Their force consisted of two small frigates and two transports, under the command of the Marquis de Grasse, nephew to the Admiral who surrendered to Rodney; and he himself was captured in the Coquette, but not till he had fortified his conquest, and garrisoned it with 550 men. A couple of days after the capture of the Coquette, the circumstance of the fall of Turk's Island was made known to Captain Nelson, who then commanded the Albemarle frigate, and had arrived off there with the Tartar, Resistance, and Drake, on the very day that Lieutenant Cunningham had returned in the Barrington to resume his duties. It was now resolved that an attempt should be made to retake the island. To carry this object, a detachment of 250 seamen and marines were disembarked, under the command of Captain Dixon of the Drake, whilst that vessel and the Barrington were to cover the landing, and dislodge the enemy from the houses; but a battery, which the Marquis de Grasse had mounted with guns from the Coquette, being unexpectedly opened against them, they were compelled to retire, the Drake having seven men wounded, and the Barrington two. Captain Dixon, at the same time, finding that the enemy were strongly intrenched, and greatly superior to him in numbers, drew off his men, and re-embarked them without loss. Nelson, however, was resolved on
reducing the fort, and placed great reliance on the knowledge of the localities which had been acquired by Mr. Cunningham. But on the following night the Tartar was driven off the bank by a squall, and went to sea with the loss of an anchor. It was next determined upon to attack the battery with the large ships; but the wind coming about to the westward, and blowing so hard that it was difficult to clear the ships from the lee shore, the enterprise was abandoned.
The peace now followed: the Barrington was paid off at Jamaica in 1783; and we hear little of the professional pursuits of Mr. Cunningham till 1788, when he joined the Crown, 64, bearing the broad pendant of that worthy and veteran officer, the Honourable W. Cornwallis, with whom he had become acquainted while they were on the Jamaica station. Having served in the East Indies about a couple of years, he was made a commander into the Ariel, a sloop of war of 16 guns. On being confirmed in this rank, he returned to Europe by the opportunity offered on the Crown's being ordered home, Commodore Cornwallis having then shifted his broad pendant to the Minerva.
Captain Cunningham was not destined to experience much repose on his return; for the French revolution having taken place, he obtained command of the Speedy, a brig of 14 guns, and was despatched, at the commencement of the war, to join the fleet under Lord Hood, in the Mediterranean. On his arrival, in April, 1793, he was immediately and actively employed in keeping up the communication between the fleet and the diplomatic agents on the station; some of which enterprises required both address and ability, especially one wherein he had to convey the celebrated Monsieur Colonne on a political visit to Naples. The Genoese having allowed a French faction to preponderate in their councils, to the gross violation of several engagements, it was resolved by the English Admiral that the neutrality of their ports should be no longer respected. Accordingly, on the 5th of October in the same year, the Speedy accompanied the Bedford, 74, Captain R. Mann, and the Captain, 74, Captain S. Reeve,
into the harbour of Genoa, where the line-of-battle ships seized upon a French 36-gun frigate, called the Modesté, while the Speedy secured two armed tartans, of 4 guns and about 70 men each. Immediately after this, the Captain and Speedy proceeded to the Gulf of Spezia, where they had heard another French frigate, the Impérieuse, of 38 guns, was at anchor. This fine ship, on the approach of her enemies, was scuttled and abandoned by her crew; but being weighed again was purchased for the King, under the name of the Unité, there being an Impérieuse already in the service.
For his alacrity on these occasions, Captain Cunningham was posted into the prize, and confirmed by a commission dated the 12th of October, 1793, the day on which she was captured.
Early in 1794 Captain Cunningham exchanged ships with Captain W. Wolseley, of the Lowestoffe, of 32 guns, in which he was employed in the reduction of Corsica. Here he again met his old friend Nelson, and acquitted himself so much to the satisfaction of Lord Hood, that he was charged with the public despatches announcing the conquest of that island, and in which he was thus handsomely mentioned :-“Captain Cunningham, who has cruised with infinite diligence, zeal, and perseverance, under many difficulties, for three months past, off Calvi, is charged with my despatches, and is competent to give any information their Lordships may wish to have. I beg to recommend him as an officer of great merit, and highly deserving any favour that can be shown him.”
Captain Cunningham afterwards commanded the Clyde, a fine 38-gun frigate, for six years, and distinguished himself as a smart and active cruiser. During this time his ship's company acquired a degree of discipline and attachment to the service which reflected equal credit on the commander and on the commanded. Of this a memorable instance was shown during the alarming mutiny at the Nore, on which occasion Captains Cunningham and Neale were the only officers of their rank who remained on board their ships, or could exert any influence over their crews. The notorious Parker went on board the Clyde, and endeavoured to prevail on the men