Captain John Bentley and his crew were found not guilty at the Court Marshall into the sinking of the Royal Navy’s favorite ship, HMS Invincible. The Admiralty weren’t pleased about the
verdict, but Captain Bentley continued his glittering career. He went on to become Vice Admiral Sir John Bentley.
A slow start
John Bentley was born to middle class parents in Deal, Kent in 1703. At 14 he joined the Royal Navy as a ‘Snotty’, or young Midshipman. As an officer in training his job was to learn how to sail and run a large sailing ship and its crew, study for Lieutenant’s exams and serve the Captain – and put up with insults and jibes like ‘Snotty’. This rather rough apprenticeship lasted about eight years. He finally passed his Lieutenant’s exams in 1725.
Lots of men and not a lot of vacancies
It took another nine years for Bentley to get his first commission as Lieutenant at the age of 31. This wasn’t unusual. It was hard for Midshipmen to get a promotion in peace time. Not all Royal Navy ships were fully manned and sailing the ocean blue, so there were a lot of men and not a lot of positions. The best time to receive a commission was during battle, when vacancies opened up as a result of heavy losses. Some Midshipmen never made it to Lieutenant at all.
Lieutenant Bentley proved good at his job. He was promoted to the position of Flag Captain for Admiral Anson on board His Majesty’s Ship the Prince George during the first battle of Cape Finistrare in 1747. Bentley was in charge of the flag ship, while his boss was in charge of the fleet. (Co-incidentally, this was the same battle at which the French ship L’Invincible was captured by the English.)
Somebody to blame
After Invincible sank, Captain Bentley and his crew faced a routine Court Marshall – a military trial. They were accused of sinking one of the Royal Navy’s best ships. The Port Admiral, Vice Admiral Holbourne and eleven other Captains presided at the trial. This was a lucky break for Bentley -these men would have had direct experience of how easily things can go wrong out to sea in a large sailing ship.
Bentley’s personal journal records, ‘I, my officers and the whole ship’s company were acquitted.’ The Admiralty was not impressed by the verdict. They demanded an explanation – how could no-one be to blame for the sinking of such a ‘Capital’ ship?
A second Court Marshall for ‘Mutiny and Desertion’
Immediately after the first Court Martial a second one took place. Fifty sailors were charged with ‘Mutiny and Desertion’. They were Invincible’s longboat crew, accused of failing to return to help save the ship – and the accusation was probably made by none other than a very angry Bentley. But all 50 men were acquitted. The records explain that ‘they were prevented from doing by wind and sea’.
There really was nobody to blame for the sinking of Invincible.