A national hero in England whilst still alive, his accomplishments were the theme for many productions in the variety theatres of that time. His name was sung and recited in verse, in numerous pamphlets published in London, and distributed throughout the land. No other naval commander, with the exception of Nelson killed at the Battle of Trafalgar, received so much glory so soon. Yet, whilst the hero Nelson was recognized as such on a scale never before or afterwards seen, the same did not happen to Sidney Smith.
Nelson was remembered by a statue on a majestic pedestal in one of London's most important squares. His mortal remains were buried in St. His funeral procession was led by the six royal dukes and thirty two admirals! England was slow to officially recognize Sidney Smith's triumphs. Why these so evident differences? We hope that, in describing his life, filled with many victories and a few defeats, and his complex character, we may contribute to answer this enigma. The little known history of this hero, who so much contributed in the fight against Napoleon and who was closely connected with Brazil during the years , began in London, in , where he was born.
His first few years were very complicated. His father, Cornelius Smith, was considered an adventurer and a libertine. They eloped and her father, Pinkney Wilson, promptly disinherited her and renounced any contact with her and the three children that she bore. The intervention of an aunt was needed in order to persuade the grandfather to pay for the education of his grandson. His naval career began at the age of thirteen. Today, this method of entering the royal navy appears strange; at that time, however, it was considered the most convenient way.
Every naval captain had the right to 4 servants for each men, crew of the ship he commanded. In practice the majority of these posts were kept for the captain's friends, who wanted to start off their sons in a naval career. His first posting was to the Tortoise, a 32 gun store ship. Three months later they left for America, escorting merchant ships. There Smith was transferred to the Unicorn for the return trip. Whilst still off the American coast, he had his first exposure to battle.
Whilst sailing in company with the Experiment, they sighted the American frigate Raleigh and gave chase. Unicorn, arriving first, faced the Raleigh alone during three hours, until the Experiment could reach them. Smith, below in the sail locker, managed to scramble up to the top deck and help jettison the guns to right the ship! In January they captured a convoy of 23 merchant ships together with her escorting Spanish battle ship.
A week later, near Cape St. Vincent, in an action that lasted a whole night in a gale, they captured 5 Spanish ships of the line leaving another on fire, which subsequently blew up.
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The behaviour, during action, of the young Sidney Smith did not go unnoticed. In September he successfully passed the examination for lieutenant. He must have lied about his age, as the legal lower age limit for 19; in addition 6 years of service were required.
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He was 16 and had had but 3 years of service. Now, as an officer, he was on the first rung of the ladder that would lead him to the post of admiral.
Next he participated, near Dominica, in an engagement known as 'All Saints', against 34 French ships of the line. Smith's behaviour must again have been noted as he was given the command of the schooner Fury and the task of carrying dispatches with the news of the victory. In February of he returned to England, now in command of the frigate Alcmene, 32 guns and a crew of He was still short of his 20th birthday by 4 months!
How would a 19 years old son of ours behave with that kind of responsibility? A peace treaty had been signed in ; with hindsight we know that it would only be temporarily. The need for officers was greatly reduced. However, those who so desired could continue with their careers, even though they would be temporarily laid off. They could place themselves at the disposal of the admiralty and, in exchange, receive half-pay.
Not surprisingly Sidney Smith, whose heart was in the navy, did so. He thought that this would be a good opportunity to better his knowledge of the French language and try his hand as an amateur spy! Whilst visiting Normandy he made notes of the coastline and of its defences. He verified that France was proposing to develop the port of Cherbourg as a naval base 'on the scale pf Portsmouth' the main English base. He described, in detail, the method being used to construct a breakwater.
His observations were sent to the admiralty. His French, that was already fairly good, became excellent.
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Extending his activities as an amateur spy, he moved on to Morocco. There, in addition to reporting on the coastline and shipping, he suggested a change in strategy. No squadron based in Gibraltar, he wrote, could control both sides to the entrance of the Mediterranean. A second squadron was needed based, for instance, in Lagos Portugal. But hiss overbearing manner, that was to be his 'Achilles heel', was already beginning to show itself. He wrote to the Admiralty that he, Sidney Smith, with his unrivalled knowledge of Morocco's Atlantic coastline, would be the ideal person to command such a squadron.
He did not mention that he was only 23 years old! Always restless, his next target was Sweden. That country was at war with Russia but , due to winter and its frozen seas, their squadrons were temporarily useless.
I won't describe the battles in which he participated as I would like to concentrate on his character. His style of acting, described below, reflected his character, it was repeated on numerous occasions, throughout his career, with highly negative consequences. Reports indicate that he did not spare praise for himself, when offering his services! King Gustavus then invited 'Colonel Smith', as he became known, to join his forces.
But, before accepting, he had to obtain permission from the admiralty. In peace times this permission was usually given for a period of six months, provided the navy in question was not that of a potential enemy.
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He imagined that he was the bearer of important documents, but on arrival the authorities virtually ignored him. After 6 frustrating weeks of unsuccessfully trying to obtain permission and, fearing that the ice would be melting, so that hostilities would soon commence, he set off to return to Sweden.
Well impressed by the young British officer, the king appointed him chief advisor as well as commander of the flotilla of smaller ships. This appointment, as can be imagined, greatly upset Swedish officers. When war was renewed, in , Smith was serving as a volunteer with the Turkish navy; a pretext for continuing his activities as an amateur spy in that corner of the Mediterranean Sea. The news reached him when he was in the port of Smyrna. His immediate reaction, on noting that many unemployed British seamen were at the quay side, was typical. He purchased, with his own money, a small lateen sail boat, renamed her Swallow and, hiring a crew of 40 English sailors, set sail.
In December they reached the outskirts of Toulon, the principal French naval base in the Mediterranean. Under the command of Admiral Hood a British squadron was blockading the port. Smith was an unemployed naval officer on half-pay and, for this reason, his plan was to make his way to London, present himself to the admiralty and eventually be given the command of a ship. Whist outside the bay, waiting to start on this last lap of his journey, Hood invited him to participate at a meeting onboard his flagship, the Victory.
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The captains present were greatly offended by his presence. Not only was he unpopular but, as unemployed, he had no right to be there. He defended himself saying that whereas they commanded ships of the navy with sailors paid by that institution, he owned the ship he command and his sailors were paid from his own pocket. Even though he was officially unemployed, Hood appointed him commander of a small flotilla; he would have under him 2 captains, 14 lieutenants and 7 midshipmen. His orders, in writing, were to enter the harbour and set fire to as many French ships as possible. I won't describe the details of this operation, just its results.