When we think about the Balearic island of Minorca (or Menorca) today, we tend to imagine sunny beach holidays. Perhaps we might also have heard a little about the island’s long and turbulent history, which goes all the way back to classical antiquity and beyond. What is not as well known is that the island was captured and held by the British on more than one occasion. The last time was between 1798 and 1802 during the early French Revolutionary Wars. And it is here that we find one member of the Grisdale family.

The Battle of the Nile

The Battle of the Nile

When Admiral Horatio Nelson had audaciously and convincingly defeated the French in a naval engagement off the coast of Egypt in August 1798, known to history as the Battle of the Nile or the Battle of Aboukir Bay, France’s power in the Mediterranean had been destroyed – at least for the time being. Britain wanted to recapture Napoleon’s Mediterranean conquests and they needed bases other than Gibraltar to make the sea a British lake.

The British “quickly chose Minorca and its fabulous harbour of Port Mahon where its whole fleet could safely anchor. This was against the advice of Nelson who had written to the Admiralty in July, ‘I have no scruple in deciding that it is better to save the kingdom of Naples and risk Minorca, than to risk the kingdom of Naples to save Minorca.’”

Bay of Fornells, Minorca

Bay of Fornells, Minorca

Janet Sloss in Exit Britannia (2002) tells us that Admiral St Vincent, the Commander of the British Mediterranean fleet, informed the Secretary of State for War, Viscount Henry Dundas, that the British forces then based in Gibraltar and Lisbon would be sufficient to capture Minorca. Even before Nelson’s victory in Egypt, St Vincent had advised London:

We can take possession of Minorca without awaiting the finale of Sir Horatio Nelson’s exploit. Two line of battle ships and a few frigates will achieve it by pushing the transports at once into Fornells. I feel the importance of General Stuart being at the head of them. No man can manage Frenchmen so well as him and the British will go to Hell for him.

General Sir Charles Stuart was the commander of the British forces defending Portugal against a French and Spanish attack and had impressed both Admiral St Vincent and London. In August 1798, London appointed Stuart to lead the capture of Menorca. Henry Dundas told him: ‘From the good correspondence which subsisted between His Majesty’s troops and the inhabitants of Minorca during the time that island was under the dominion of this country (1763-1782), His Majesty hopes and expects that no material opposition will be made by them to your gaining a footing on the island, and that every practicable measure will be adopted to secure to His Majesty the possession of that very important island.’

Leaving Lisbon, Stuart sailed for Gibraltar at the end of September, collected three regiments and embarked with them at the end of October, heading for Menorca. And Rear-Admiral Duckworth was ordered to go with the Powerful, the Majestic, the Vanguard and the Swallow corvette to Mahon, followed a week later by two more ships of the line, the Bellerophon and the Zealous.

Admiral John Duckworth

Admiral John Duckworth

By the 7th of November, Duckworth had assembled a squadron of 25 English ships. He approached the island from the south, heading for the north coast. Sir Charles Stuart was in command of the troops.

They made a feint at Fornells, while the real landing took place at Addaya. When they saw that the Spanish battery at the entrance of the bay had been evacuated and the powder magazine blown up, 800 British troops went on shore. At that moment, 2,000 Spanish troops approached from different directions, but were repulsed on the left and checked on the right by the guns of the Argo. The 800 men kept their positions until more divisions were put on shore. As darkness fell, the Spanish troops disappeared.

On the 7th of November, Duckworth, with a squadron of 25 English ships, approached the island from the south, heading for the north coast. Sir Charles Stuart was in command of the troops. They made a feint at Fornells, while the real landing took place at Addaya. When they saw that the Spanish battery at the entrance of the bay had been evacuated and the powder magazine blown up, 800 British troops went on shore. At that moment, 2,000 Spanish troops approached from different directions, but were repulsed on the left and checked on the right by the guns of the Argo. The 800 men kept their positions until more divisions were put on shore. As darkness fell, the Spanish troops disappeared.

I won’t retell the ensuing events here because many excellent histories exist. Suffice it to say that on 14 November 1798 the Spanish forces surrendered. The terms of capitulation were negotiated by Major General Sir James St. Clair Erskine:

The garrison shall not be considered as prisoners of war but shall march out free with their arms, drums beating, colours flying, with twelve rounds of cartridge per man. The said garrison shall be sent with all due convenience to Spain at the expense of His Britannic Majesty to one of the nearest ports of the Peninsula, excepting the first battalion of the Swiss regiment of Yann and the detachment of dragoons to Numancia. Deserters will be restored to the British army. The inhabitants of this island shall be allowed to live in the free exercise of their religion, enjoying peaceably the revenues, property and privileges which they possess and enjoy at present. The ‘universities’ or Corporation of the Island shall be maintained in the enjoyment of the particular privileges and franchises which have been granted to them by the ancient Kings of Spain as they now possess them, and as they have been allowed to them in the treaties which have taken place as often as this island has passed from one dominion to another.

British capture of Minorca, 1798

British capture of Minorca, 1798

The British had taken possession of the island without losing a single man. But Charles Stewart was concerned about his position. He wrote to Admiral Nelson:  ‘To fortune alone we owe the possession of Minorca, while I sincerely and from the bottom of my heart congratulate you upon a victory which does such credit to your judgement and resolution. My situation is extremely critical for I learn that the whole of the Spanish army has approached the court in consequence of the surrender of this island, and that they mean to make a descent before a reinforcement arrives…In regard to troops, I have scarcely 3,000 men. St Philip’s Castle is demolished, and… Ciudadela Sound by no means answers the purpose of securing either of the ports of this island… Consequently, I shall resist their landing in the first instance and, if I have time, erect temporary posts at the mouth of the harbour of Mahon, to which I will retire… and await a reinforcement or effect a retreat.’

Reinforcements soon started to arrive, including in May 1800 the 17th Regiment of Foot (the Leicestershire Regiment) and with it a young 23 year old Lieutenant  called Joseph Grisdale. With the start of the French Revolutionary Wars the regiment found itself in Ireland. It soon added a second battalion in Deptford and both battalions were then sent to North Holland to fight under the Duke of York against the French Revolutionary Army. Given his age it’s quite likely Joseph Grisdale was already with them. Returning soon to Dover they then departed for Minorca.

In Minorca the British had converted the island into one of their principal Mediterranean bases. ‘Many expeditions were launched from the island, and (Britain) used the island as a base for its operations along the Spanish Coast.’

Charge of the 17th Regiment at the Battle of Princeton

Charge of the 17th Regiment at the Battle of Princeton

Who was Joseph Browne Grisdale, to give him his full name? He was in fact the first son of the Rev. Dr. Browne Grisdale (1750—1814), the eminent Chancellor of the Diocese of Carlisle, Chaplain in Ordinary to His Majesty and a powerful local Justice of the Peace. Joseph was born in Carlisle in 1777. I have written briefly about Browne’s family in earlier articles. Browne’s brother Benjamin had also become a priest and, as the chaplain of the 33rd Regiment of Foot under General Charles Cornwallis, had participated in the American Revolutionary War and been captured by the American at the Siege Of Yorktown in 1781. Joseph’s  17th Regiment had also been taken into captivity at Yorktown and it is possible that it was through this connection that Joseph had got a commission. We don’t know. Joseph’s younger brother John  (born 1780 in Carlisle) was an extremely talented young man. He went to Cambridge University, gained high academic honours there as ‘second wrangler’, became a London lawyer; only to die prematurely in London in 1812; aged just 32.

Whether Joseph had attended Carlisle Grammar School like his brother I don’t know. But joining the army, like joining the Church, was always an option for sons of up and coming families. It was the option that Joseph had chosen. Sometime in the last years of the eighteenth- century, Joseph got (or bought) a commission in the British army; in (as we have seen) the 17th Regiment of Foot.

Dr. Browne Grisdale and his wife Ann Dockray weren’t very lucky with their children, for in April 1801 an announcement appeared in The Monthly Magazine which, under ‘Deaths Abroad’, reported:

At Minorca, J. B. Grisdale, esq, lieutenant in the 17th regiment of foot, much lamented by his brother officers.

Signing Peace of Amiens

Signing Peace of Amiens

We don’t know how young Lieutenant Joseph Grisdale died. Was it an accident, from disease or during a skirmish with the local Minorcans? As the French or Spanish threat to the island diminished the regiment’s 1st battalion soon shipped out of Minorca for Dover and from there moved to Madeira. The second battalion stayed till 1802 when the Treaty of Amiens was signed and it was agreed to hand Minorca back to the Spanish. They were then sent to Ireland and subsequently disbanded at Cork.

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