Richard Howe, later to be Admiral Lord Richard Howe and Viscount Howe of Langar, was born in London in 1726. His father was a prominent public official who served as the governor of Barbados. His mother was the daughter of a mistress of George I. These parental connections, plus Howe’s considerable talents, led to a fast start in a distinguished career.
Howe attended Eton and, as was common for that day, began his naval career at age 14. He later saw service in the Pacific and the West Indies. In July 1758, during the French and Indian War, Howe’s older bother George was killed in fighting near Fort Ticonderoga. The General Court of Massachusetts honored the fallen general by voting funds for a memorial to be established in Westminster Abbey, a highly unusual move in a time when the typical relationship between British army officers and the colonists was often one of contempt. Richard Howe, who succeeded his brother as viscount, long remembered this act of kindness.
In 1762, Howe was elected to Parliament, where he would later oppose many of the taxation and regulatory efforts imposed by that body. He also shouldered other responsibilities, serving on the Admiralty Board from 1763 to 1765 and as treasurer of the navy from 1765 to 1770. His service was rewarded in 1770 when he was named rear admiral and again in 1775 with a promotion to vice admiral. During this time, Howe became acquainted with Benjamin Franklin, who regularly played chess with Howe’s widowed sister. The two men worked together to foster a peace plan, but were thwarted by the government of Lord North.
While maintaining his sympathies for the Americans, Howe’s devotion to peace did not extend to accepting independence. In July 1776, he accepted the command of British naval forces in North American waters, teaming with his brother, Major General William Howe, three years his junior, who commanded the British Army in the colonies. They sought to stem the fighting by holding a peace conference on Staten Island in September, but the meeting ended in failure. Lord Howe chafed under what he regarded as a lack of support from home and submitted his resignation. Before his replacement arrived, the French entered the conflict on the American side, forcing Howe to adopt a defensive stance. His forces performed well at New York and Newport, but after the arrival of Admiral John Byron, Howe returned to England.
In 1782, when his rivals fell from power in London, Howe resumed public service by accepting command of the English Channel fleet. He successfully relieved the garrison at Gibraltar, which had been under siege for two years by combined Spanish and French forces. Later in the 1780s, Howe twice served as first lord of the Admiralty. In 1794, Howe again commanded the Channel Fleet and disrupted the French fleet at the beginning of the Wars of the French Revolution in the Battle of the First of June. In 1797 he quelled a mutiny at Spithead, where he drew on the trust he had developed with the common sailors over many years.
Howe was known to his men as “Black Dick," a reference to his swarthy complexion that had developed from years of exposure to the elements and perhaps also to his somber nature.