Home Riggs Popham was one of the Royal Navy’s more controversial officers. His military record contained a sprinkling of both triumphs, and disasters. He was an exceptional surveyor and chart maker, who gave the navy the signalling system that Nelson used at Trafalgar. On the other hand, he also showed a number of lapses in judgement, especially where money was concerned, was court marshalled, and was thoroughly disliked by most of his brother officers.
Popham was born in Gibraltar in 1762, the sixteenth child of a family that would eventually consist of twenty one offspring. He joined the Navy in 1778 as a volunteer, and played an active role in the final years of the War of American Independence. His career seemed to start well, when he took part in Rodney’s victory in the “Moonlight Battle” off Cape St Vincent, but then it took a downturn shortly afterwards when his ship was captured and he spent the last months of the war as a prisoner. It was a foretaste of what was to follow.
Released when the peace came, he was employed charting the coast of southwest Africa. It quickly became apparent that the young Popham had a real talent as a cartographer, and he began to gain a reputation as a scientific officer. However, when he returned from Africa, there was no further work for him and he was put on half pay. Not content to stay at home, he bought a merchant ship, the Madonna, and sailed for India under a Tuscan flag of convenience. He spent the next four years in Asia, being employed to produce some excellent charts and surveys by the East India company. Meanwhile, he was also engaged in various lucrative trading activities with his ship, that bordered on smuggling. In 1792 he sailed to Europe from Canton with a valuable cargo. Unfortunately, his ship and its cargo was seized by a Royal Navy frigate in the Channel for breaking the East India Company’s trading monopoly, which left Popham almost bankrupt.
With the outbreak of war with France, he rejoined the navy, and was put in charge of the transports that were to carry the army commanded by the Duke of York to Flanders. The campaign was a military failure for Britain, ending with defeat at the Battle of Tourcoing, with the army’s pointless marching being satirised in the nursery rhyme “The Grand Old Duke of York.” Once Popham had collected the survivors, including the grateful Duke, he set to work charming the Royal Duke. He persuaded him to use his influence to have Popham rapidly promoted up the naval hierarchy from lieutenant to the rank of full captain. This cheating of the promotion system caused outrage amongst his naval colleagues and he was scornfully called “The Duke of York's admiral.”
In May 1799 Popham was sent to St Petersburg to persuade Tsar Paul to provide troops for a fresh campaign in Flanders. He made friends with the Tsar, took his family sailing, and returned with a promise of ten thousand soldiers to help the invasion. True to form, Popham also lined his own pockets, receiving gifts of a gold snuff-box, a valuable diamond ring, and the Tsar dubbing him a knight of Malta. The Anglo/Russian expedition landed on the Helder peninsula, but was another continental campaign that ended in failure, with Popham again having to supervise an evacuation.
The following year, while captain of the Romney (50), he started work on his signalling system. His Marine Vocabulary was a system of letters, words, and common phrases that captains could use to communicate. Simple and secure, it was this system that Nelson used at Trafalgar, and it became the basis of all subsequent flag communications. As ever with Popham, however, a triumphant achievement had to come tainted with failure. While he perfected his signalling system, the Romney was sent on an unsuccessful diplomatic mission to various North African states, after which Popham submitted “enormous and extraordinary” expenses to the Admiralty. This prompted a long running dispute that took several years to resolve.
He was then appointed to the Diadem (64), and in August 1805 he sailed as commander-in-chief of an expedition to the Cape of Good Hope. Having captured the Cape from the Dutch, Popham decided to invade South America, on his own initiative, with a force of under two thousand troops. Assured by supporters of independence from Spain that Argentina was ripe to fall, he attacked Buenos Aires. His invasion failed, and Popham was sent home in disgrace, charged with both abandoning the Cape and invading Spanish territory, all without orders. He was found guilty and severely reprimanded, although oddly he continued to be given posts. Perhaps the influence of the Duke of York was at play once more?
He continued to command ships, through both triumphs and disasters. His 1809 attack on the Scheldt estuary was a notable failure, but his campaign of costal raids in Spain from 1810 to 1814 in support of Wellington was a conspicuous success. Unfortunately he was now so unpopular, that he received little recognition for his triumphs. He continued in the service after the war, eventually becoming a rear admiral. He was sent as commander-in-chief to Jamaica in 1817, but his health broke down, and in 1820 he died, shortly after he returned home. His wife was to outlive him by 46 years.
So what are we to make of the curious career of Home Riggs Popham? Full of misjudgements, certainly, it also contained some considerable successes. His achievements as a cartographer should not be underestimated, and his signalling system long outlived him. He was a good seaman, a brave fighter, who was also elected a fellow of the Royal Society in 1799. Perhaps the last word should come from Argentina, where he endured the lowest point in his career. There he is widely regarded as an independence hero, who set in train the events that eventually led to their liberation from Spanish rule.