Sir William Sidney Smith
No age of sail commander divides opinion quite like Sir Sidney Smith. On the one hand he was an arrogant, pompous, spendthrift who was a nightmare to command. On the other, he was a brave,highly intelligent opponent of slavery who was feared by his French opponents.
Smith was born in 1764, into the privileged aristocratic circle that surrounded the British court. His father was a gentleman usher to Queen Charlotte, while his mother was the daughter of a leading politician. At thirteen he joined the navy as a midshipman, initially serving onboard the sloop Unicorn in the American War of Independence. But well-connected officers like Smith do not long serve in little ships. In 1779 he was transferred to the flagship of Admiral Sir George Rodney, never a man to overlook a useful contact, even one who was just fifteen years old. Smith fought with Rodney in all his major fleet actions, earning promotion to lieutenant.
In May 1782 Smith, who was still a teenager, was promoted to commander by Rodney and given the 16-gun sloop Fury for the last months of the war. It was in this ship that his reputation for daring began. He captured a number of enemy prizes, including three armed merchantmen in one attack on Flamand Bay in St Domingue. He achieved this by disguising the Fury as an American privateer, tricking his way ashore and leading his boat crew in a successful surprise attack on the guns guarding the bay.
Smith was a man with restless energy, who was unable to remain idle during the years of peace that followed American independence. In 1785 he moved to Caen to study French, becoming fluent and passing his time reconnoitring the sea defences of the north coast of France. Two years later he was in Morocco, again on his own initiative learning the language and familiarising himself with her coast. Smith next took six months leave to visit Sweden during 1789, which was at war with Russia at the time. A few months later he was back with a message from the Swedish King Gustav III, requesting that he be allowed to serve in his fleet. This was refused because a number of his Royal Navy colleagues were serving in the Russian Navy at the time, helping it to modernise. Undeterred Smith returned to Sweden and told the King that he had the required permission. He then became Gustav’s naval advisor, taking an active role in the naval Battle of Viborg, and was knighted by the Swedish king. Although Gustav appreciated his services, the precocious twenty-six-year-old’s role was deeply resented both by the senior Swedish admirals forced to listen to him by their monarch and by his fellow Royal Navy officers, six of whom were killed fighting on the Russian side during the war.
The following year Smith left Sweden for Potsdam, where he met with the King of Prussia and agreed to help him build a flotilla of naval craft. He spent the next year there, leaving in 1792 when he upset his Prussian hosts by telling them how much he disapproved of their role in the ongoing partition of Poland. He left Berlin and headed for Constantinople where he hoped to join the Turkish navy as a advisor. But before he could do this, war broke out between Britain and France.
Back home, he used his connections to secure the command of the brand new 38-gun frigate Diamond, joining Sir John Warren’s crack squadron in the Channel. Over the next few years Smith took part in a variety of daring actions using a combination of raw courage and a lot of good fortune. But in April 1796 that luck ran out when he led a cutting out expedition against a French privateer sheltering in Le Havre. He succeeded in taking the prize, but was then carried up the Seine estuary by the flooding tide. As dawn broke, he was surrounded by French gunboats and taken prisoner. He was to spend the next two years incarcerated in the Temple Prison in Paris.
When it became clear that the French had no intention of exchanging such a dangerous officer, he decided to escape. Using forged release papers provided by a French royalist colonel, and his ability to speak the language fluently, he crossed France in disguise, stole a fishing boat in Honfleur, and returned home. In London Smith was feted as a returning hero and given command of the recently captured 74 Tigre. In October 1798 he was sent out to on a diplomatic mission to Constantinople to offer the Turks help in resisting the French. After Nelson’s recent victory at the Nile, Napoleon’s trapped army was advancing out of Egypt towards the Turkish province of Syria.
Rear-Admiral Lord Nelson was in command in the Levant, but was engaged in the siege of Malta, so Smith decided he would assume command of the squadron the admiral had left guarding Egypt. He set himself up as an independent commander, even flying a commodore’s pennant that he wasn’t entitled to, much to Nelson’s fury. He then led these ships against the French army, capturing its siege train (which was being transported by sea). He used the guns, together with marines and sailors from his ships, to help the Turks stop the French advance at Acre, for which he was praised both at home and in Constantinople.
But then Smith overreached himself. In August 1799, while his ships were refitting in Cyprus, he left the coast of Egypt unguarded. This allowed Napoleon to escape back to France where he took power with appalling consequences for the peace of Europe. Next, Smith took it on himself to negotiate a truce with Napoleon’s successor in Egypt that included the French Army being transported back to France with all their arms, terms that were rejected by his superiors. Eventually the French were defeated by a British army under General Abercromby in March 1801. Smith took part in the invasion, flamboyantly dressed in Arabic garb as he led a party of seamen.
Returning home and still in his Arab dress, he was lionised by the press although the government took a less rosy view of his efforts. When a temporary truce was signed with France, he settled effortlessly back into the upper echelons of society, had several affairs including one with the Princess of Wales, gambled frequently and lived well beyond his means. In 1802 he ran for parliament, becoming MP for Rochester, which made him immune from arrest for debt.
On the resumption of hostilities with France in 1803, Smith expect a plum appointment, but was instead given command of a small squadron in the Downs reporting to Admiral Lord Keith. He proved to be a trying subordinate for the elderly Scot, bombarding him with proposals for adventurous assaults on the enemy coast and innovative designs for new weapons to attack Napoleon’s invasion camp at Boulogne. Eventually, in November 1805, Smith was promoted to rear-admiral and put in charge of a force to carry out his proposed attacks on French landing craft gathered across the Channel, but the assault was never made. News of the complete British victory at Trafalgar ended any chance of a successful invasion. Smith’s attack was cancelled, and Napoleon marched his army away to invade Austria. When Nelson’s body returned home the following January, Smith was almost the only senior officer in home waters who chose not to attend his funeral.
The years that followed were not happy ones for the prickly Smith. In 1806 he was sent to the Mediterranean to serve under Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood, who detached him with a squadron to protect Sicily from invasion by the French. His attempts to raise insurrections against the French army occupying the Italian mainland failed and he managed to fall out both with the King of Naples, an ally and Major-General Sir John Stuart, the British army commander. In 1807 he served under Vice-Admiral Sir John Duckworth in the Dardanelles, who he also quarrelled with. The resulting operation was a failure, although the only bright spot was Smith’s successful defeat of a Turkish squadron. In 1808 he commanded the British fleet in South America but he had to be recalled early because he had alienated the Portuguese’s royal family, who were important allies of Britain then in exile in Brazil. Back in England he re-entered high society, racking up more debts and marrying Caroline Shanakill, a rich widow four years his senior. He was not employed again until 1812, when he was sent back to the Mediterranean, this time as the second-in-command to Vice-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew. It was not a happy relationship, largely because Smith was incapable of playing a subordinate role to anyone. He was sent home in 1814 and was never employed at sea again.
But quiet requirement was not Smith’s style. As soon as the war ended, he was off to the Congress of Vienna in a private capacity to lobby for the abolition of slavery. When Napoleon escaped from Elba he rushed to Belgium, arriving at Brussels on the day that the Battle of Waterloo was fought. He rode out to meet the Duke of Wellington as the battle ended and accompanied his army to Paris.
In the years following Waterloo, Smith cut a rather sad figure. In spite of his admiral’s salary, various pensions he had been granted and all the prize money he had won, he was incapable of living within his means. He was forced to live in Paris to escape his debts, parading around the French capital in hi highly decorated uniform. Smith died on 26 May 1840 in Paris, and is buried there, bringing to a close his remarkable career. To the end he remained a passionate opponent of slavery.