A famous sea disaster’s Jewish aspects

March 2, 2020 by Hilary Rubinstein
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Bound for the relief of the British base at Gibraltar, which was under siege by France and Spain, HMS Royal George of 108 guns was awaiting sailing orders on a fine summer’s morning in 1782, part of a large fleet assembled at the Spithead anchorage off Portsmouth.

Hilary Rubinstein

The heavily-laden great ship was on a heel having repair work done to a pipe on her starboard side when she capsized and sank in a matter of minutes with many hundreds of casualties, including Rear-Admiral Richard Kempenfelt, whose flagship she was.

Many readers may be aware that Kempenfelt was writing in his cabin when she went down: William Cowper’s celebrated poem The Loss of the Royal George, once known to almost every schoolchild in Britain and her Dominions — and a set text in the English examination for intending teachers in Queensland early last century — tells us so. But, explains Melbourne historian Dr Hilary Rubinstein, whose book Catastrophe at Spithead: The Sinking of the Royal George, has just been published by Seaforth in the UK, that scenario was not necessarily accurate.

Dr Rubinstein, whose many previous books include several on the history of Australian Jewry, points out that there were Jewish aspects to the story of what was the worst naval disaster in British coastal waters.

“Portsmouth was and is Britain’s premier naval port, and its Jewish community originated during the 1730s, the first outside London since the Readmission”, she observes. “Its members derived their livelihoods largely from commercial and financial transactions with naval personnel, selling sailors’ clothing, lending money, and purveying trinkets and watches, cheap timepieces proving especially popular with sailors who had a bit of cash to spend.”

In 1758 eleven Portsmouth Jews returning to shore from a ship aboard which they had been hawking their wares drowned when their boat overturned.  When the Royal George capsized, she had a complement of about 850 men but was swarming with civilian visitors: wives, children, prostitutes and traders. A seaman who survived noted that he couldn’t estimate the total number of casualties “because of there being so many Jews” and other people not belonging to her.  One report claimed there were 200 Jews on board.  “I very much doubt that figure”, says Dr Rubinstein, “for one so high would have caused a sensation in Anglo-Jewish annals.  It may well be that the writer was lumping all traders under the term Jew. However, Anglo-Jewry was as shocked as the rest of the nation by the ship’s sudden sinking.  At London’s Ashkenazi shul in Leadenhall Street, following an appropriate rabbinic sermon based on the Book of Jonah, donations were pledged for the families of the drowned seamen and marines. The Sephardi synagogue, Bevis Marks, soon followed suit.  The Goldsmid brothers, bullion brokers later known as friends of Lord Nelson,  generously subscribed to a major fund started under other auspices.”

“Admiral Kempenfelt was very clever,” she says, “and how the disaster could have occurred while he was aboard her is well nigh inexplicable.  The son of a Swedish-born British army officer and an English mother, he was scholarly, much voyaged, an astute naval tactician and Britain’s preeminent expert in fleet manoeuvring, with a sharp scientific mind.”   She was intrigued to find that his maternal grandfather, whom she describes as “evidently a Puritan philosemite”, had studied Hebrew under eminent rabbis in Holland and was acknowledged as the ablest English Hebraist and orientalist of his time. “The admiral’s maternal uncle, a well-known nonconformist divine in London, was cast in the same mould, also studying Hebrew in Holland”, she adds.  “Since he enthusiastically took lessons in Mishnah, some acquaintances, convinced he was becoming Judaised,  addressed him facetiously as Rabbi.” Dr Rubinstein also found that Kempenfelt was a cousin of the famous Admiral Rodney, whose inhumane behaviour in 1781 towards the Jews of St Eustatius in the Dutch West Indies has fuelled a perception that he was an antisemite.  “Very different in character from Kempenfelt” is Dr Rubinstein’s comment.  “While researching I came across a Shoah survivor called Abraham Kempenfelt. Presumably no relative to the admiral, whose surname was adopted by his grandfather on becoming a minor member of Sweden’s nobility. Unnerving, nevertheless, since one or two of the family seem to have migrated to other countries bordering the Baltic.”

Incidentally, there is at least one Australian postscript to the sinking of the Royal George. Allegedly, just as the ship was sinking, a seaman, impulsively tempted, helped himself to ten guineas (about £1200 today) left behind by fleeing midshipmen interrupted in the middle of a card game. He made it to shore, and, then deserted to London with his loot. There, he got into bad company and was eventually transported, becoming a ferryman at Sydney’s Cockle Bay.


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