Mr. Nobbs was born in Ireland, in 1799. He was in his youth a midshipman in the British navy, having first gone to sea when not much more than eleven years of age. He had been entered in 1811 on the books of H.M.S. Roebuck, through the interest of Rear-Admiral Murray; by whose means he was, in 1813, placed on board the Indefatigable, naval store-ship, the master of which was Captain Bowles. In this vessel the young sailor went to New South Wales, and Van Diemen's Land. Having quitted Van Diemen's Land and visited Cape Horn, and from thence proceeded to the Cape of Good Hope, he returned, after a short stay at St. Helena, to England. He then left the navy. After residing at home a few months, he received a letter from his old commander, offering to procure him a berth on board a ship of eighteen guns, designed for the use of the patriots in South America; He accepted this offer, and left England early in 1816, for Valparaiso; but the Royalists having regained possession of that place, he could not enter it until 1817. He afterwards held a commission in the Chilian service, under Lord Cochrane, now Earl of Dundonald, and became lieutenant in consequence of his services.
Among other important adventures which took place during this period, and in which Mr. Nobbs bore a part, was the courageous enterprise of cutting out the Spanish frigate Esmeralda, of forty guns, which was lying in the bay, under the batteries of Callao, in Peru. The capture was accomplished late at night on the 5th of November, 1820. An address from Lord Cochrane had been delivered to the marines and seamen, which concluded with an injunction, that the Chilenos should act with valour, "and that the English should do as they had always done, both in their own country, and elsewhere." A very spirited account of this remarkable transaction, the success of which surpassed all that could have been imagined, is met with in Lady Callcott's "Journal of a Residence in Chili in 1822."
Lieutenant Nobbs was also engaged in a severe conflict with a Spanish gun-brig, near Arauco, a fortress of Chili. He had been ordered up a river near the town; the object being to recover a quantity of property belonging to British and American merchants, which had been seized by the piratical general Benevideis. Mr. Nobbs, when in command of a gun-boat, after sustaining the loss of forty-eight men, in killed and wounded, out of a party of sixty-four, was taken prisoner by the troops of that desperate adventurer and robber.
The sixteen unhappy captives were marched off to prison, and were all shot, with the exception of Lieutenant Nobbs, and three English seamen. These four, after remaining for three weeks under sentence of death, were quite unexpectedly exchanged for four officers attached to Benevideis' army; one of the officers, a major, being fortunately a brother-in-law of Benevideis. Mr. Nobbs had seen his fellow-prisoners, from time to time, led out to be shot, and had heard the reports of the muskets consigning them to death. He retains to this day a vivid memory of that dreadful fusillade.
Lady Callcott states that Benevideis was the son of the inspector of a prison, and had been a foot-soldier in the first army of the Chilenos in the cause of South American independence. From the descriptions given of this man's character and actions, the reader will rejoice at Mr. Nobbs's rescue from his hands.*
∗ See Captain Basil Hall's "Notes on Chili, Peru, and Mexico."
Having been made prisoner by the Royalists, Benevideis entered their army, and, being taken soon after, was sent to be tried as a deserter; but he escaped by setting fire to the hut in which he was confined; and he soon distinguished himself among the Royalists by his talents and bravery. Again he was taken prisoner, and sentenced to be shot, in company with many others, in the Plaza of Santiago. He fell with the rest; but, though thought to have been executed, was not killed. He lay like a dead man amongst the others, until it became dark. He. then contrived to extricate himself from the heap, and in a most miserable plight, covered with wounds, crawled to a neighbouring cottage, the generous inhabitants of which received and attended him with the greatest care.
General San Martin, who was at that time planning an expedition to Peru, and was looking about for able and enterprising individuals, heard of Benevideis being still alive; and knowing his talents and courage, considered him a fit person to serve some of his desperate purposes. The bold ruffian himself actually gave information of his being alive, and invited San Martin to hold a secret conference at midnight, in the centre of the great square of Santiago. The appointed signal was to strike fire from their flints three times; a mark sufficiently conspicuous for the purpose of distinction, yet of a nature calculated to excite no suspicion. San Martin, accordingly, alone, and provided with a brace of pistols, went to the spot, where he encountered Benevideis, similarly armed. After a long conference with the desperado, whom he finally engaged in his service, he settled that Benevideis should, for the present, serve in the Chilian army employed against the Araucanian Indians in the south; but should be ready to join the army in Peru when the expedition sailed.
Benevideis soon quarrelled with the Chilian General, and once more changed sides, offering his services to the Indians, who were glad to obtain so brave and unrelenting an associate. In a short time his experience and congenial ferocity gave him so great an ascendency amongst this warlike race, that he was elected Commander-in-chief. Hence arose the atrocities with which Benevideis is justly charged. He murdered his prisoners in cold blood. His great delight was to invite the captured officers to an elegant entertainment, and, after they had eaten and drunk, march them into his court-yard, whilst he stood at the window to see them shot. Some, to whom he had promised safety, he delivered over to the Indians, of whose barbarous treatment of prisoners of war he was well aware; and they were cruelly murdered.
His cause having failed, Benevideis fitted out a privateer, to provide himself with food and ammunition; and at length, on the 1st of February, 1822, finding he could hold out no longer, he attempted to escape to one of the Spanish ports in a small boat. But he was recognised, seized, and sent to Santiago, where, on the 21st, he was tried, and sentenced to death. The awful sentence was fulfilled. He was tied to the tail of a mule, dragged from prison, and then hanged in the palace-square.
Mr. Nobbs having quitted the Chilian service, after many hardships and dangers, went to Naples in October, 1822. On his passage from that city to Messina in a Neapolitan vessel, she foundered off the Lipari Islands; and, with the loss of everything, he reached Messina in one of the ship's boats. In May, 1823, he returned to London in the Crescent, commanded by William Pitt, a Navy Lieutenant; and in the same year he sailed to Sierra Leone as chief mate of the Gambia. Of nineteen persons who went out in that vessel, none but the captain, Mr. Nobbs, and two coloured men, lived to return. In June, 1824, he again went to Sierra Leone, commander of the same ship, and was six weeks on shore ill with fever; but it pleased God to restore him to health in time to return with his ship, the command of which he resigned on his arrival in England.