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Augustus Keppel

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Title: Augustus Keppel  
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Subject: Joshua Reynolds, The Gambia, John Dunning, 1st Baron Ashburton, HMS Centurion (1732), Keppel Bay, George Keppel, 3rd Earl of Albemarle, 1749 in art, William George Fairfax, John Bazely
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Augustus Keppel

The Viscount Keppel
Joshua Reynolds's first painting of him,
produced on Menorca
Born 25 April 1725
Died 2 October 1786(1786-10-02) (aged 61)
Allegiance  Kingdom of Great Britain
Service/branch  Royal Navy
Years of service 1735-1786
Rank Admiral of the White
Battles/wars War of the Austrian Succession (Voyage round the world),
Seven Years' War (Quiberon Bay),
War of American Independence (Ushant)

Admiral Augustus Keppel, 1st Viscount Keppel PC (25 April 1725 – 2 October 1786) was an officer of the Royal Navy during the Seven Years' War and the War of American Independence. During the final years of the latter conflict he served as First Lord of the Admiralty.

Early life

A member of a leading Whig aristocratic family (which had come to England with William of Orange in 1688), Augustus Keppel was the second son of Willem Anne van Keppel, 2nd Earl of Albemarle and Anne van Keppel, a daughter of the 1st Duke of Richmond (himself an illegitimate son of King Charles II). Augustus Keppel went to sea at the age of ten, and had already five years of service to his credit when he was appointed to the Centurion and sent with Lord Anson round the world in 1740. He had a narrow escape from being killed at the capture of Paita (13 November 1741), and was named acting lieutenant in 1742. Also on this voyage, he made friends with John Campbell, and lost many of his teeth to the scurvy prevalent on the voyage. After their return from the circumnavigation, in 1744, he was promoted to be Commander and Post Captain. He was actively employed throughout the rest of the War of the Austrian Succession, until peace was signed in 1748. In 1747 he ran his ship the Maidstone (50) ashore near Belleisle while chasing a French vessel, but was honourably acquitted by a court martial, and reappointed to another command.

Early in 1749, he was introduced by Lord Edgecombe to Sir Joshua Reynolds. When, on 11 May 1749, Commodore Keppel sailed from Plymouth to the Mediterranean, as Commodore commanding the Mediterranean Fleet,[1] (with his pennant in his old ship HMS Centurion intending to persuade the Dey of Algiers to restrain the piratical operations of his subjects) Reynolds travelled with him as far as Minorca and there painted the first of his 6 portraits of Keppel, left,[2] along with others of officers of the British garrison there.[3] After trying the effect of bullying without success, the Dey made a treaty, and Keppel returned to England in 1751.[1]

Seven Years' War

During the Seven Years' War he saw constant service. He served as Commander-in-Chief, North American Station from 1751 to 1755[4] He was on the coast of France in 1756, was detached on an expedition to conquer Gorée, a French island off the west coast of Africa in 1758, and his ship the Torbay (74) was the first to get into action in the Battle of Quiberon Bay in 1759.

In 1757 he had formed part of the court martial which had condemned Admiral Byng, but was active among those who endeavoured to secure a pardon for him; but neither he nor those who had acted with him could produce any serious reason why the sentence should not be carried out. In March 1761, Keppel transferred to HMS Valiant and was put in command of a squadron to reduce Belle Isle, which was successfully completed in June.

Havana expedition

When Spain joined France in 1762 he was sent as second in command with Sir George Pocock in the British expedition against Cuba which took Havana. His health suffered from the fever which carried off an immense proportion of the soldiers and sailors. The £25,000 of prize money which he received freed him from the unpleasant position of 'younger son of a family ruined by the extravagance of his father'.

Achievement of flag rank

He became Rear Admiral in October 1762, was one of the Admiralty Board from July 1765 to November 1766, and was promoted Vice Admiral on 24 October 1770. When the Falkland Island dispute occurred in 1770 he was to have commanded the fleet to be sent against Spain, but a settlement was reached, and he had no occasion to hoist his flag.

American War of Independence

The most important and the most debated period of his life belongs to the opening years of the American War of Independence. Keppel was by family connection and personal preference a strong supporter of the Whig connection, led by the Marquess of Rockingham and the Duke of Richmond. He shared in all the passions of his party, then excluded from power by the resolute will of George III.

As a member of Parliament, in which he had a seat for Windsor from 1761 until 1780, and then for Surrey he was a steady partisan, and was in constant hostility with the King's Friends. In common with them he was prepared to believe that the king's ministers, and in particular Lord Sandwich, then First Lord of the Admiralty, were capable of any villainy. When therefore he was appointed to command the Channel Fleet,[1] the main fleet prepared against France in 1778, he went to sea predisposed to think that the First Lord would be glad for him to be defeated.

It was a further misfortune that when Keppel hoisted his flag one of his subordinate admirals should have been Sir Hugh Palliser (1723–1796), who was a member of the Admiralty Board, a member of parliament, and in Keppel's opinion, which was generally shared, jointly responsible with his colleagues for the bad state of the Royal Navy. When, therefore, the battle which Keppel fought with the French on 27 July 1778 (the First Battle of Ushant) ended in a highly unsatisfactory manner, owing mainly to his own unintelligent management, but partly through the failure of Sir Hugh Palliser to obey orders, he became convinced that he had been deliberately betrayed.

Though he praised Sir Hugh in his public despatch he attacked him in private, and the Whig press, with the unquestionable aid of Keppel's friends, began a campaign of calumny to which the ministerial papers answered in the same style, each side accusing the other of deliberate treason: The result was a scandalous series of scenes in parliament and of courts martial. Keppel was first tried and acquitted 1779, and then Palliser was also tried and acquitted. Keppel was ordered to strike his flag in March 1779.

A column was built in the late 18th century to commemorate his acquittal, commissioned in 1778 by Charles Watson-Wentworth, 2nd Marquess of Rockingham and designed by John Carr.

Political career

Until the fall of Lord North's ministry he acted as an opposition member of parliament. He was MP for Chichester from 1755 to 1761, then for Windsor from 1761 to 1780 and finally for Surrey from 1780 to 1782.

When North's government fell in 1782 he became First Lord, was raised to the peerage as Viscount Keppel, of Elveden in the County of Suffolk,[5] and sworn of the Privy Council.[6] His career in office was not distinguished, and he broke with his old political associates by resigning as a protest against the Peace of Paris. He finally discredited himself by joining the Coalition ministry formed by North and Fox, and with its fall disappeared from public life.

Last years and legacy

Lord Keppel died unmarried on 2 October 1786. Burke, who regarded him with great affection, said that he had something high in his nature, and that it was a wild stock of pride on which the tenderest of all hearts had grafted the milder virtues. The peerage died with him.

In popular culture

Keppel appears in Patrick O'Brian's The Golden Ocean as a midshipman aboard the Centurion. He is often the comic relief, winding up bald and toothless due to the various privations of the voyage.


See also

Named after Keppel:


  • Template:1911
Preceded by
John Page
Viscount Bury
Member of Parliament for Chichester
with John Page

Succeeded by
John Page
Lord George Henry Lennox
Preceded by
Henry Fox
John Fitzwilliam
Member of Parliament for Windsor
with John Fitzwilliam 1761-1768
Lord George Beauclerk 1768
Richard Tonson 1768-1772
John Hussey-Montagu 1772-1780

Succeeded by
John Hussey-Montagu
Peniston Portlock Powney
Preceded by
Sir Joseph Mawbey
James Scawen
Member of Parliament for Surrey
with Sir Joseph Mawbey

Succeeded by
Sir Joseph Mawbey
Viscount Althorp
Political offices
Preceded by
The Earl of Sandwich
First Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by
The Viscount Howe
Preceded by
The Viscount Howe
First Lord of the Admiralty
Succeeded by
The Viscount Howe
Peerage of Great Britain
New creation Viscount Keppel

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