The Corbett One Name Study

Robert Corbet and the Africaine

The following has been extracted from a variety of sources. The main body is from the Dictionary of National Biography. That which appears in square brackets comprises additional material.

As far as Robert's lineage is concerned no connection to the ancient Shropshire Corbet family has so far been discovered. His great grandfather was Thomas Corbet, a merchant from Dunganon, Tyrone. His grandfather was the Reverend Francis Corbet, Dean of St Patrick's, Dublin; his parents were Robert Corbet of Wexford, Ireland, a captain in the Royal Navy and Susannah Woodward.


Robert Corbet (d.1810), captain in the navy, of an old Shropshire family', attained the rank of lieutenant on 22 December 1796; having served with distinction during the operations on the coast of Egypt in 1801, in command of the Fulminette cutter, was promoted to be commander on 29 April 1802. On the renewal of the war he was put in commandof the Bittern brig, and sent to the Mediterranean, where he won high praise from Nelson, then commander-in-chief of the station, and especially by the capture of the Hirondelle privateer. (Nelson Despatches, vi. 51, 58, 363)) In April 1805 he was appointed, by Nelson, acting captain of the Amphitrite, but he was not confirmed in the rank till 24 May 1806. Shortly afterwards he commissioned the Nereide frigate, and in her took part in the operations in the Rio de la Plata.

[George III (known as Farmer George) was on the throne of England (25 October 1760 to 29 June 1820) and Napoleon Buonoparte ruled France. Wellington was pursuing the Peninsular (War) campaign which became part of Britain's second war with Napoleon which lasted from 1805 to 1815. Napoleon (1808) invaded Portugal and crowned his brother as king of Spain. Portugal and Spain being the peninsula referred to earlier. The two countries had appealed for assistance from Britain.]

He then passed on to the Cape of Good Hope, and in August 1808 was sent to Bombay to refit. His conduct at Bombay, in taking on himself the duties of senior officer and breaking through the routine of the station, drew on him the displeasure of the commander-in chief, Sir Edward Pellew, afterwards Viscount Exmouth, who represented that Corbet's letters and actions were unbecoming.

[GENTLEMEN'S MAGAZINE: Volume 79: Admiralty Office - April 1 1809:
This Gazette (London Gazette) announces the capture of the French letter of marque L'Iphigenie, pierced for 18 guns, and 26 men, by the Franchise, Captain Dashwood, and also La Gola Mouche Imperial corvette, pierced 14 guns, and 80 men, by the Nereide, Capt. Corbett.]

The ship's company of the Nereide also preferred a complaint against him of cruelty and oppression. Corbet , in reply, demanded a court-martial; and Pellew, not being able to form a court at Bombay, ordered the ship to return to the Cape of Good Hope, in order that he might be tried there. This was, unfortunately, not explained to the men, who, conceiving that their temporate complaint had been unheeded, broke out into open mutiny. The mutiny was quelled, and when the ship arrived at the Cape, ten of the ringleaders were tried, found guilty, and sentenced to death, protesting their innocence of any evil design, beyond a wish for the ship to return to the Cape so that their grievances might be enquired into. One of the ten was left for execution, but the other nine were pardoned. When this trial was over, that on Corbet began. No charges of diabolical cruelty were ever more simply put, or more clarly proved, even if they were not admitted. It was acknowledged that the number of men flogged was very great; that the cat (of nine tails) in ordinary use had knots on the tail, and that the backs of the sufferers wer habitually pickled; that the boatswain's mates and other petty oficers were encouraged to thrash the men without any formality - an irregular punishment known as 'starting,' and that these startings were administered with thick sticks. There were numerous other minor charges, and Corbet, making no attempt to refute the evidence, based his defence on the necessities of his position and the custom of the service. The ship's company, he urged, was exceptionally bad; drunkenness, malingering and skulking were everyday offences; desertion was frequent; the petty officers were as bad as or worse than the men; 'severity was necessary to reform their conduct and perhaps it was used.'

The prisoner was, strangely, acquitted on all the counts except on that of having caused men to be punished 'with sticks of an improper size and such as are not usual in his majesty's service,' and for this alone he was reprimanded. The admiralty, however, wrote (4 Aug. 1809) to express high disapproval 'of the manifest want of management, good order, and discipline' in the ship, and strongly condemned and prohibited 'starting,' which they pronounced 'unjustifiable,' and 'extremely disgusting to the feelings of the British seamen.'

After the court-marshal, however, Corbet resumed the command of the Nereide, and on 21 Aug. 1809 had an important share in the capture of the Caroline frigate and other vessels in St Paul's Bay in the Isle of Bourbon. (JAMES, Nav. Hist. ed. 1860 v. 58)

The Caroline was received into the service as the Bourbonnaise, and Corbet appointed to command her for the voyage to England. He arrived at Plymouth in the spring of 1810, and was immediately appointed to the Africaine, under orders to go out to the station from which he had just come. The Africaine had been some time in commission, and her men were extremely averse to receiving their new captian, who was reported to be a monster of cruelty. They forwarded a round-robin to the admiralty, expressing their determination not to let Corbet come on board. But the ship was in Plymouth Sound, and the Menelaus dropped alongside ready to fire into her. The mutiny was thus repressed almost before it broke out, and Corbet gpoing on board read his commission and assumed command. Some further display of illwill was repressed without undue severity, and during the passage out to Mauritius the ship's company seem to have been well satisfaied with their lot. On 11 Sept. 1810 they sighted Mauritius.

[By the 16th of September Corbet and his ship the Africaine were involved in action against the French at St Paul, Isle of Bourbon. The Isle of Bourbon is now called Reunion and is at long. 22'S and lat. 56'E. (420 miles to the east of Madagascar.) It is still a French possession. It covers an area of 970 sq. miles. The capital is St. Denis.


St Paul's, Isle of Bourbon, Sept. 29th.
Sir, My letter of the 16th inst. with its inclosures from Commodore Rowley, will have prepared the Honourable the Governor in Council for the detailed account of our operations since that period; and which in justice to the steadiness, bravery and good conduct of his Majesty's and the Honourable Company's troops, I feel it my duty to enter into minutely; trusting that the names of those excellent officer's, whom it has been my particular good fortune to have had the honour to command, may be noticed, in proportion to the great national service which they have performed, and the honour acquired by his Majesty's and the Honourable Company's troops, in an attack upon the town, batteries, posts, and shipping of St Paul's - His Majesty's ships: Nereide and Otter, and the Honourable Company's cruizer Wasp, with 168 Officers and men, who were embarked on the 16th inst. at Fort Duncan, island of Roderiques, arrived off Fort Lewis, Isle of France, on the evening of the 13th, and joined his Majesty's ship Raisonable, Commodore Rowley, and Sirius; early the next morning, the 19th, the seamen and troops destined for the attack, amounting to 604, were, according to an arrangement made by Capt. Corbet, and approved by the Commodore, put on board the Nereide, and towards evening, the squadron stood for the Isle of Bourbon; on the morning of the 26th being off the East end of the island. - At five A.M. on the 23d inst. the troops were disembarked to the southward of point de Galotte, seven miles from St. Paul's, and immediately commenced a forced march, with a view of crossing the causeways that extend over the lake, before the Enemy should discover our debarkation or approach to the town, which we were fortunate enough to effect; nor had they time to form in any force until we had passed the strongest position. By seven o'clock we were in possession of the first and second batteries, Lambousiere and La Centiere, when Capt. Willoughby of the Royal Navy, who commanded a detachment of about a hundred seamen on shore, and to whose zeal, activity and exertions I feel most indebted, immediately turned the guns upon the Enemy's shipping, from whose fire, which was chiefly grape and well directed, within pistol shot of the shore, we suffered much being necessarily exposed to it during our movements upon the beach, and through the town. From the battery La Centiere, Capt. Imlack was detached with the second column, composed of one hundred and forty-two of the 2d battalion of the 2d regiment of Bombay Native Infantry and 12 Europeans, to take possession of the 3d, or battery of La Neuf, deserted by the Enemy. On his way thither, he fell in with and was opposed by the entire force of the French, who had concentrated and taken up a very strong position behind a stone wall, with eight brass field pieces, six-pounders, upon their flanks. This post was instantly charged in the most gallant manner by that Officer and his men. - The Enemy however maintained their position; and Capt. Hannor, of the 56th regiment, was ordered to proceed with the third Column to his support, who charged, and took two of the Enemy's guns. The action now became warm, but never doubtful. The Enemy being reinforced from the hills, and having also received one hundred and ten troops of the line from the French frigate La Caroline, and the squadron not being able to stand in to support us, our movements being endangered by their fire, except at intervals, which they always took advantage of, Capt. Willoughby was directed to spike the guns of Lambousiere and La Centiere, and with the seamen to man the third battery La Neuf, continuing to fire upon their shipping. By this arrangement, Capt. Forbes, who with the reserve had covered those batteries, was enabled to advance against the Enemy. who, after an honourable resistance, were compelled to give way. Their remaining guns being carried by that excellent officer, a sufficient number of men were ordered to act as light troops, and to pursue the Enemy, whilst the 2d column, with part of the reserve, advanced against the 4th and 5th batteries, La Pierre and La Caserne, which fell into our hands without opposition, and whose entire fire was immediately directed against the Enemy's shipping. By half past eight o'clock, the town batteries, magazines, light brass field pieces, 117 new and heavy iron guns of different calibres and all the public stores, were in our possession, with several prisoners. The instant the squadron perceived that the object in landing had succeeded, and that they could, with safety to the troops, stand in effectually, they immediately anchored close to the Enemy's shipping, which, after a short firing, surrendered. The entire of the batteries being destroyed, and the town completely commanded by our squadron, the troops were re-embarked by eight o'clock that evening. - Herewith I have the honour to annex a return of the shipping, guns and stores taken and destroyed upon this occasion. I have also the honour to enclose a return of the killed, wounded and missing; and though our loss has been severe, it is not equal to what might have been expected from the nature of the attack, the position and the strength of the Enemy, and the number of guns, to which our little force was exposed at different times during the morning. - To the judicious arrangements of Commodore Rowley, the cordial cooperation and support of the rest of the officer's of his Majesty's navy, and personal exertions and assistance of Capt. Corbett in landing the entire force from his Majesty's ship La Nereide, I impute the happy termination and ultimate success of this enterprize. On the 22d, late in the evening, the enemy appeared in some force upon the hills, and a heavy column was observed advancing from St. Denis, which I since understand to have been under the immediate command of Gen. De Bruslyes; the Commodore and myself now agreed upon the propriety of landing a sufficient force to destroy all public property; and accordingly the marines, with a few sailors under Capt. Wiloughby, were ordered upon this service, when I had an opportunity of again witnessing the the steadiness and good conduct of the seamen and Royal Marines, who effectually burnt an extensive Government store of considerable value; the remaining stores were only saved, from some doubt existing respecting their being public property. - On the morning of the 23d the entire force was put in boats to re-land and attack the Enemy, whose retreat, however, to St. Denis, during the night, prevented the necessity of any farther debarkation. The Commandant, St Michel, being disposed to enter into negotiations, with the concurrence of Commodore Rowley the preliminary articles were drawn up, a copy of which is enclosed; and the Commandant accompanying me on board his Majesty's ship Raisonable, they were signed, subject to the confirmation or rejection of the Commander in Chief General De Brusleys. on the 24th all the remaining stores were delivered over by the head of the police, and fatigue parties from the squadron and troops were ordered to embark on board the Honourable Company's re-captured ship Streatham, which together with the Europe were placed under the orders of their former commanders. From the 25th to the 28th, the whole of the guns, &c. were finally destroyed, our guards continuing to mount regularly in the town for the protection of the inhabitants and their property. The frigate, La Caroline, with the other shipping, are making all possible preparation for sea; and it is hoped that all the necessary arrangements will be made for the troops returning to Roderiques by the 3d of next month. - I cannot conclude this dispatch without mentioning the obligations I am under to Lieut. Reman, of the Bombay Engineers, through whose exertions I was enabled to give a plan of attack to the Officers in command of columns, and who, upon the entire of this service, has been zealous and indefatigable. I beg also to notice the exertions of Ensign Pearce, of the 56th regiment, who, being attached to my personal Staff, has rendered me the most essential services.
(Further mention of Lieutenant-Colonel Henry Keating is to be found in 'Rivals in Eden' by William McAteer, p.328. This is a history of the French sett;ement and British conquest of the Seychelles (1742-1818). There it says that letters from him, at St Denis, 17 May 1811 are filed with the India Office Library, London.)
To Francis Warden, Esq. Chief Secretary to Government, Bombay.
(Here follows the Articles of Capitulation, which are of no importance, as the Island was not retained; and also an account of the Artillery and Stores captured.)
Total of killed, wounded, and missing, Sept. 22, Isle of Bourbon: 15 killed, 58 wounded, 3 missing.
Names of Officers wounded. - Royal Marines, Lieut. J.R. Pye; second Lieutenant Matthew Howden. - 2d Batt. 3d Native Infantry, Lieut. Grant; Subidam Shaik Solomon. (Signed)
H. O'NEIL, Major of Brigade.

Transmitted by Admiral Bertie.
Raisonable, St Paul's Road, Sept. 29 (1809).
Sir, Having acquainted you by my letter of the 28th August with the reason which induced me to request the assistance of Lieut.-col. Keating, commanding the troops at Roderique, to co-operate with his Majesty's ships in an attack on St Paul's, I have now further to acquaint you, that being joined by the Nereide, Otter and Wasp schooner, having on board a detachment of the 56th regiment, and of the 2nd regiment Native Infantry, amounting in the whole to 368 men, under the command of Lieut.-col. Keating, and the Sirius having joined, we proceeded at dusk, on the evening of the 20th, for the Isle of Bourbon. The force intended to be landed were, the detachment of his Majesty's and Company's troops, reinforced by the marines of the squadron, and a party of about 100 seamen from this ship and the Otter, under the command of Capt. Willoughby, whose zeal induced him to volunteer the command of so small a party. As secrecy and dispatch were esential to the success of the Expedition, the whole of this force, amounting to 604 men, were embarked with five additional boats on board the Nereide, Capt. Corbet, who from his perfect acquaintance with the coast, as well as his known skill and activity, was intrusted (sic) with this important service. - On our approach towards the bay of St Paul's, to prevent suspicion, the Nereide preceded the other ships; and being anchored close to the beach, the whole of the detachment were landed with the greatest celerity, without any alarm being given to the Enemy, and proceeded towards the batteries, which were successionally stormed and carried with the greatest gallantry, and several of the guns pointed on the ships in the roads. In the mean time the squadron stood into the bay, and according to the plan agreed upon, when the movements of the troops enabled them to act, opened their fire on the shipping, which was warmly returned by La Caroline frigate, the Indiamen, her prizes, and those batteries which, from their distance from the first point of attack, were enabled to continue their fire; but these being finally carried, our ships prepared to anchor, and the Sirius having already taken a close raking position a-head of La Caroline, they found it necessary to surrender, having made an honourable resistance; and by nine o'clock the whole of the batteries, town, and shipping, were in possession of his Majesty's troops and squadron. - The squadron having anchored in the Roads close off the town of St Paul's, immediate exertions were made to secure La Caroline and the rest of the shipping, whose cables being cut had drifted on shore, and they were hove off without material injury. - The guns and mortars at the different batteries and on the beach being spiked, their carriages burnt or destroyed, and magazines blown up under the directions of Capt. Willoughby, the whole of the troops, marines, and seamen, were embarked soon after dark on board of the different ships. Thus, Sir, have we completely succeeded in the objects of the Expedition, by the capture of the Enemy's shipping, the destruction of all the defences of the only safe anchorage on the Island, and which has always been a place of shelter for their cruisers and prizes, when prevented from entering the ports of the Isle of France, besides the rescue of property to an immense amount out of the hands of the Enemy. - It is impossible for me to do justice to, or sufficiently express the high sense I entertain of the gallantry and skill of Lieut.-col. Keating, which were equally conspicuous in planning and conducting this affair; and the bravery shewn by the troops, in successively carrying the batteries, was eminently distinguished. - I beg leave to refer you for details, to Lieut.-col. Keating's letter; and am happy to say he mentions in high terms the conduct of Capt. Willoughby, the officers, seamen and marines, employed on this occassion. I need scarcely say that I received every support and assistance from the Captains of his Majesty's ships whom I had the good fortune to have placed under my command. That might be expected from officers of their known merit and experience; and I have only to regret that their ability and zeal had not more room for exertion, as, to prevent interference with the movements of the troops on shore, the services of the ships were necessarily much limited. - The loss of the detachment in killed and wounded, considering the nature of the service the troops had to perform, and the advantages of the position on the part of the Enemy, was not so great as might have been expected: I herewith enclose a list of the killed and wounded of the ships of the squadron: among the latter I have particularly to regret Lieut. Lloyd and Lieut. Howden, of the Royal Marines, both of the Raisonable, with the party on shore, who have been always zealously forward on occasions for service; the damages sustained by the ships of the squadron are immaterial. - On the morning of the 22nd we could have but little communication with the shore, on account of the surf on the beach; but we observed the Enemy collecting on the heights, and in the afternoon they appeared in force, advancing to the town from St. Denis, upon which it was considered advisable by Lieut.-col. Keating and myself, to destroy the stores containing the public property. From the state of the surf on the beach, the marines were selected for this service, with a small party of seamen: and Capt. Willoughby again volunteered his services on the occasion. The Lieut.-col. himself accompanied the party; and a large and valuable magazine, the only one we could ascertain to be public property, was fired, and the party re-embarked without loss. On the morning of the 23d, the troops, marines, and seamen, all in boats, were in readiness to land under cover of the Nereide, when we were informed that the Enemy, under the command of Gen. de Bruleys, had retreated to St. Denis in the night. The Commandant St. Michael being disposed to negotiate, the Lieutenant-col. and myself agreed to sign the terms, of which the enclosed is a copy, since which time the troops and seamen have been actively employed in shipping the property found in the public stores, consisting of provisions and some ordinance stores, and a part of the cargoes of the captured Indiamen, which had not been fired at the same time as the others, the supposition of its being private property; the cargoes of the Indiamen alone being valued by them at 3,000,000 of dollars. - As the Captains of the captured Indiamen were found in this place, I have replaced them in their former situations, with such of their people as we can collect, and are fitting their ships for sea. A strong party has also been employed completing the destruction of the batteries, by bursting the guns and mortars, or heaving them off into deep water, carrying off the shot and shells, &c. I have given the charge of the Caroline to Lieut. Bluett, first of this ship, to whose steadfness and good conduct I feel much indebted, but on this and many other occasions. The Sapphire sailed on the 24th, and the Boadicea on the 25th, to resume the blockade of the Isle de France. [Isle of France or Isle de France was originally, and is now, Mauritius.] I had to regret the loss of the services of the former, which from baffling winds did not join us until the 23d. - I forward these dispatches by the Nereide; and beg to refer you for farther particulars to Capt. Corbet, who can give you every information relative to these islands, and to whom I feel highly indebted for the assistance I have received from him on every occasion. - The Wasp schooner will be dispatched this evening for Bombay. I beg to add, that the Commander, Lieut. Watkins, has shewn much zeal and attention in the performance of every duty he has been employed upon. A Return of Officers, Seamen, and Marines killed, wounded, and missing, belonging to his Majesty's ships under the command of Josias Rowley, Esq.; Captain of his Majesty's ship Raisonable, in action with the Enemy at St. Paul's and its Vicinity, Island of Buonoparte, 21st September.

Killed. - Raisonable, 1 able seaman, 1 private marine. - Boadicea, 1 private marine. - Sirius, 2 private marines. - Nereide, 1 able seaman. - Otter, 1 private marine.- Total 7.
Wounded. - Raisonable, 1 Lieutenant (4th), 1 able seaman, 1 Lieutenant of marines (2d), 3 private marines. - Boadicea, 1 Lieutenant of marines (1st), 1 Corporal, 2 private marines. - Nereide, 1 Corporal, 4 private marines. - Otter, 1 able seaman,. - Sirius, 2 private marines. - Total 18.
Missing. - Sirius, 1 ordinary seaman.
Names of Officers wounded. - Raisonable, Lieut. Lloyd (4th), Matthew Howden, Lieutenant of Marines. - Boadicea, --- Pye, Lieutenant of marines.]

12 October, one month after the sighting of Mauritius by Corbet and the officers and crew of the Africaine:

During the previous month things had gone badly for the English squadron. The Sirius, Magicienne, and the Nereide had been destroyed. (see WILLOUGHBY, NISBET JOSIAH), and the Iphigenia had been captured. (see CHADS, HENRY DUCIE)
[Rivals in Eden by William McAteer: In a daring attack on a French squadron anchored in the natural harbour of Grand Port, on the Isle de Franc'es sputh-east coast, two British frigates, the Sirius and Magicienne, were grounded and destroyed and two others, the Iphogenie and Nereide were taken. About 2000 British seamen were captured. (The references given in the notes: British source material Admiralty dispatch to Ranier, ADM 2/937 PRO, and captains logs ADM 51 PRO.]
Corbet learned at the same time that two sail seen in the distance were the French frigates Astree and the Iphigenie (the former Iphigenia). He stood towards them; was joined by Commodore Rowley in the Boadicea frigate, together with the Otter and the Staunch; and the capture of the French ships appeared probable. It was not till the morning of the 13th that the Africaine was close up with the French ships; they were then within two or three hours' sail of Port Louis,and the Boadicea was some five miles dead to leeward. Corbet, fearing they might escape opened fire on the Astree, [Editorial Note: But the aim was wild and ineffective and she inflicted no serious loss to the French.) which immediately returned it. [Their aim, however was deadly and effective.] In her second broadside a roundshot took off Corbet's right foot, and a splinter smashed his right thigh. He was carried below, and died a few hours afterwards. But meantime the Africaine, overpowered by the two French ships, all her officers being killed or wounded, having sustained a total loss of 163 killed and wounded out of a complement of 295, and being dismasted and helpless, struck her flag. In the afternoon, when the Boadicea with the Otter and the Staunch) came up, the French fled, leaving their prize, which was recaptured without difficulty. (JAMES, v. 176)

Admiralty Office - February 12 1811
This Gazette contains a Dispatch from Vice-Admiral Bertie, Commander-in-Chief of all vessels at the Cape of Good Hope, with inclosures from Commodore Rowley and Captain Gordon. The dispatch of Admiral Bertie, which is dated Africaine, Isle of Bourbon, October 13, refers to the late gallant but unfortunate attack on the Isle de Passe, the details of which have already been published.
The Admiral observes, that the momentary superiority obtained by the Enemy in consequence of that unfortunate event, had been promptly and decisively crushed by the zeal, skill and intrepidity of Captain Rowley, of the Boadicea, who, left alone, and unsupported but by the never failing energies and resources of his active and intelligent mind, in a few hours not only retook his Majesty's ships, Africaine and Ceylon, but captured also the largest frigate possessed by the Enemy in the Indian seas, and had thus restored the British naval pre-eminence in that quarter. To the gallant Corbett of the Africaine, who's meritous eagerness to check the truimph of an exulting Enemy impelled him to an unequal conquest, in which he nobly fell, the Admiral pays a just tribute of praise.
The capture of the Ceylon and Windham Indiamen by the Enemy is also noticed - the first dispatch from Captain Rowley which is dated St Paul's Road, September 21 notices as having been chased off the Isle of France. The second dispatch relates that the Boadicea in company with the Otter, sloop and Staunch, gunbrig, sailed to attack the Astrea and Iphigenea frigates then in the offing and that being joined in the chase by the Africaine and that her, by her superior sailing closed with the Enemy and becoming unmanageable under the fire of both ships, was, after a gallant contest compelled to strike. The Boadicea, being prevented by light and variable winds, from affording her the least assistance.
The Africaine had 36 killed and 71 wounded including Captain Corbett among the former.
(Editorial Note: Captain R Corbett, R.N., commander HMS Nereide, Cape (of Good Hope) Station, 1808-10. Killed in action October 1810 Mauritius while Captain of HMS Africaine.)
It was suggested that the reason the Africaine fell to the enemy was because the men refused to fight, preferring to die rather than win Corbett a victory. However this was disproved by the evidence of the master's mate on the Africaine, Captain Jenkin Jones.
Rumour also suggested that Corbett had been shot by his own men but this was also disproved along with the idea that unwilling to survive the loss of his ship he tore the bandages from his wounds and allowed himself to bleed to death. (Records of Corbett's Court-Martial and official letters can be seen at the Public Record Office.)

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