Popham

This is a fun chapter containing all the articles that refer to Captain Home Popham of the East India Company and later Royal Navy. He is a close supporter of the King, a smuggler, saboteur and skilful seaman.

There is a genre of boy’s fiction devoted to naval officers – Horatio Hornblower, Jack Aubrey , et al – which is said to be based on the exploits of Sir Sidney Smith. I think there might well be some attention given by those authors to Home Popham too, although he was perhaps more pragmatic and less overtly honourable than the usual boy’s hero.

The unpredictable, opinionated and somewhat unprincipled frigate captain that Hornblower meets in the Mediterranean in ‘Mr Midshipman Hornblower’ may very well be C S Forester’s portrayal of Popham.

Sat 19th Sept 1795

Captain Popham, late of the Company’s service in India, has been based on Norderley, a sand bank in the North Sea off the Ems estuary, which the British are holding whilst they evacuate some of their men. Popham is daily breaking the ice to permit communications with Great Yarmouth by sea. Five ships have been dispatched via this route up to May this year.

Sir Robert Laurie, Sir Charles Asgill and many other officers have been saved by Popham’s work. Their laudatory comments have won Popham a frigate command in the Mediterranean.

Sat 18th August 1798

Capt Home Popham has raised a company of Sea Fencibles at Hastings. They use grapeshot and pikes to prevent an enemy landing.

His idea has been adopted by the government. The Admiralty has provided six Captains to recruit locals and extend the initiative along the coast from Beachy Head to Selsea Bill. The Kentish coast is picketed every night. Cavalry patrols visit the pickets regularly.

Sat 1st Sept 1798

A British expedition to the mouth of the Scheldt is preparing in Margate. It is said the Dutch people are disaffected and likely to support the English cause. This is based on the arrival of some Dutch transports from the Texel, which crews reported the general unhappiness.

The fleet comprises 5 capital ships, 5 frigates, 8 gunboats and two bomb ketches under Captain Popham and about 2,000 troops, mostly from Kent, under Generals Coote and Burrard.

Sat 29th Sept 1798

Capt Home Popham’s secret expedition returned in late May. He was sent to destroy the sluice gates on the Bruges Canal which regulates water flow to the canals between Holland, Flanders and France. Popham lost 1,300 men who were taken prisoner (he could not get them back on the ships) but he reported that his object was obtained and the canal between Flushing, Dunkirk and Ostend was made unnavigable.

The sluices control a basin of water a mile behind Ostend. The overflow is through Ostend to the sea. With the sluices opened, the surrounding countryside is submerged. These water works took five years to build. They serve the route through which vessels assembled for the invasion of England are to travel.

Now France will have to use the sea to assemble its force and be exposed to our naval presence.

Popham also destroyed the magazines in Ostend and burned the shipping in the harbour.

Mon 31st Dec 1798 Extraordinary

Mr William Wenham was charged some time ago with forging British Customs returns and a reward of £200 was offered for his arrest. He adjourned to Flushing where he conducts a smuggling business. Thomas Barry was one of his boat pilots.

Sir Home Popham employed Barry as his local expert on the recent expedition against the Ostend sluices. His local knowledge was very valuable. After the attack, Barry was trapped at Ostend and only escaped by swimming out to his boat. Government offered him a reward. He asked for a pardon for Wenham which was granted but by the time Barry got the information to Wenham he had already died.

Sat 14th March 1801

Yarmouth, 14th Sept 1800 – Vice Admiral Dickson has returned from Copenhagen with Ambassador Whitworth. They have briefed the Danes on our views on the rights of neutral shipping and obtained their agreement to provide satisfaction for the past and security for the future. This should disrupt the Armed Neutrality that the Baltic states were trying to construct.

Sir Home Popham in HMS Romney reconnoitred the Danish port and assessed its defences. Three Danish 74s were moored across the narrowest part of the sound with springs on their cables. A 40-gun frigate was guardship.

The British fleet had sailed to Elsinore to give weight to the ambassador’s negotiation. It anchored there on 19th August. Whitworth told the Danes on 12th August that he would leave in a week unless he got his way. This produced a Danish suggestion for the Russian Tsar to arbitrate. It was politely declined.[1]

The Danish fleet commander Leiken invited Dickson’s fleet into Elsinore Roads. We anchored above the Danish fort and line. HMS Romney went into Copenhagen and four bomb ships and two gun ships took up positions between Romney and the shore, in order the establish telegraphic contact with the ambassador, it was said. When the Danes saw we had bomb ships positioned to strike Copenhagen, they started talking seriously.

The Danish fleet moved to cover us, saying they had been on bad holding grounds. We used the same excuse to position ourselves better in respect to them. They eventually ran up to Copenhagen harbour and moored across its mouth but by that time the Danish Court was persuaded that we meant business and the diplomatic negotiation was concluded satisfactorily.

In the Commons Sheridan told MPs we have asserted the right of ‘stop and search’ for two centuries and its too late for the Baltic states to complain now. It is the reason we have become so powerful at sea.

Sat 18th April 1801

Tsar Paul has made Home Popham a Knight of Malta. The appointment is recognised in the British Gazette.

Sat 6th June 1801

The Asiatic Mirror of 13th May lists the ships in the squadron under Sir Home Popham. They number 15 and carry nearly 600 cannon.[2]

Sat 23rd Nov 1805

The accusations of corruption against Sir Home Popham have been rejected by a Select Committee of the House of Commons. They have concluded he tried to get the best rates for the Navy Bills on London that he negotiated overseas.

Mon 23rd Dec 1805 Extraordinary

Sir Home Popham has taken command of HMS Diadem. She is to take £500,000 in silver to Constantinople.

Sun 20th April 1806 Extraordinary

28th January 1806 – Sir David Baird and Sir Home Popham have conquered the Cape of Good Hope and replaced the Dutch government. A large part of the Dutch force has retired northwards into the Karoo; they do not plan to leave.

Sat 11th Oct 1806

The Cape, 12th August – Colonel Lane of the Company’s St Helena establishment arrived at the Cape today with news that Sir Home Popham has captured Buenos Aires.

When Popham arrived at the River Plata he found a bar about 18” shallower than some of his ships. He sounded all around but could find no way to circumnavigate it. He then crowded on sail and drove straight through it. ‘It was a bit bumpy,’ he said.

He sailed on to Montevideo but that city looked too strong to attack. He continued to Buenos Aires where he seized several ships in harbour and secured a valuable amount of treasure.

Apparently, after Sir Home’s squadron sailed from the Cape, he put in to St Helena and borrowed an extra 500 troops from Governor Robert Patton to reinforce his men from the Cape and ensure the capture of the Spanish settlement at Buenos Aires.

These infantrymen were under Col Lane’s command.[3]

Sat 15th Nov 1806

Sir Home Popham has obtained $2½ millions loot (70 tons of silver) from Buenos Aires. His attack was lightly opposed and only one of his officers lost a leg. Spanish casualties are unreported. HMS Narcissus has taken the silver to London.

Popham has asked for a large reinforcement and a complete regiment is being prepared at the Cape.

Sat 6th Dec 1806

The prize money for Popham’s capture of the Cape has been assessed by Thomas S Sorel, the Army Prize Agent, at Rix $1.2 millions. The CiC gets 47,500 Rupees, Brigadier Generals 23,750 Rupees, Field Officers 5,785 Rupees, Rank & File 32 Rupees.

Sat 31st Jan 1807

HMS Narcissus has arrived at London from Buenos Aires with £300,000 in silver from the Company’s expedition led by Sir Home Popham. Five of the King’s regiments are ordered to South America to consolidate Popham’s foothold.

Popham has indicated where he took the silver from. $200,000 came from the Philippine Company and about the same from the Spanish King’s treasury. The Post Office, Tobacco Bureau and Customs yielded another $200,000. The balance of $500,000+ was seized at Luxam by Capt Arbuthnot’s party. $1.05 million has been sent to London on HMS Narcissus and the rest is kept here for expenses. (none of the financial accounts of prize-taking add-up)[4]

Sat 7th Feb 1807

Popham’s Buenos Aires silver arrived at the Bank of England from Portsmouth in eight wagons escorted by Popham’s agent Colonel Davison[5] and a column of troops. When the column passed the Mansion House the Lord Mayor turned-out in his civic uniform attended by several of his officers.

Sat 14th Feb 1807

The government has assembled two squadrons of the 6th Dragoon Guards, the 9th and 17th Light Dragoons, the 5th, 38th, 40th 47th, 87th, 88th and 95th Foot and two companies of artillery and will send this force to Buenos Aires to reinforce Popham’s small army there.

Sat 21st Feb 1807

The Fortitude (Hughes) is taking a cargo of Chinese settlers to Trinidad. It called into St Helena for provisions and the emigrants assisted in off-loading the ships in port. St Helena has lost its cargo-workers – they could not be deterred from joining Popham’s South American expedition.[6]

Sat 18th April 1807

Sir Home Popham is pinned down at Buenos Aires and both sides are racing reinforcements to the city in an attempt to defeat the other. Using the small reinforcement he received from the Cape, Popham has taken Maldunado, a fort near Buenos Aires, and will hold out there.

Sat 25th April 1807

Admiral Stirling has arrived at Buenos Aires and assumed command of Popham’s expedition. Sir Home has loaded one of his prize ships with his loot and sailed for London.

The people of Buenos Aires prepared an insurrection against Popham in July. On 2nd August the first attack occurred and was well dispersed by our artillery. Unfortunately these attacks continued.

The people got cannon into the tops of the churches and kept up a fire. Our chaps could hardly venture outdoors without being shot. Eventually, with the whole populace opposed to us, we hoisted the white flag.

It was agreed that the English march out with full honours of war (we keep our loot) and be exchanged for Spanish prisoners. But in the course of 2-3 days those treacherous Spaniards killed over a 100 of our force of 1,000 troops.

Popham embarked his men and sailed to Montevideo but his bombardment of that port was ineffective – the shallow water frontage obliged him to keep his distance. The reinforcement from London is expected soon. In the meantime, Popham has gone home.

Thurs 25th June 1807 Extraordinary

Sir Home Popham has been court-martialled for the invasion of Buenos Aires. His support is in the Company, in the members of Pitt’s old ministry and in the City whereas his bosses are formally in the armed forces. Nine admirals are to give evidence against him. It will start on 3rd March on board HMS Gladiator.

Sir Home has called Lord Melville to give evidence on his behalf. His defence is that Melville, on behalf of the cabinet, delegated a discretionary power to Sir Home to act as he thought appropriate (the power also attributed to Sir Sidney Smith, above, and some others).

From Sat 29th Aug 1807 edition ….

Many army officers and ministerial insiders turned up at Portsmouth to listen to Popham’s Court Martial. Generals Auckland, Gower, Elliot and Eveleigh and Admiral Patten were amongst the audience. So were the politicians Huskisson, Sturgess Bourne and Harrow. The President of the Court was Admiral Young. He was assisted by Admirals Stanhope, Fowley and Sir Richard Strachan.

Popham was offered a seat for the duration but chose not to accept. The prosecution case was straightforward and was completed in a morning but Popham’s defence is expected to take days. In fact, Popham’s trial lasted five days. No transcript is available. The Court found him guilty and reprimanded him.

Whilst the Admirals thought a reprimand appropriate, the City merchants have a different view of his conduct. The Chamberlain of the City has presented him with a sword in the Guildhall and given him the keys to the City of London.

Mon 16th Nov 1807 Extraordinary

There is a horrendous row in London between General Beresford and Sir Home Popham concerning the division of prize money from both the re-occupation of the Cape and the invasion of the River Plata.

Beresford says Popham should not have the same share as he himself because he is not a flag officer. The Attorney General supports Popham and Beresford has taken the matter to the Privy Council.

Sat 28th Nov 1807

Sir Home Popham has been rehabilitated and given a roving commission from the Lords of the Admiralty. He is to take command of a small vessel and cruise off the rivers and shores of Europe, taking prizes or descending on the coasts to raid as he thinks fit.

Sat 23rd Jan 1808

The Hanoverian troops under Baron Linsingen have left England for the north of Europe. The newly elevated Lord Cathcart is in command of the entire expedition. It is supposed they will enter the Baltic, perhaps for Stralsund.

Sir Home Popham has a command in this expedition.

Sun 28th Feb 1808 Extraordinary

The British expedition (mentioned in the preceding article) arrived at Denmark and demanded the surrender of Copenhagen. We need Denmark on-side to ensure our merchants have easy access through the Sound. There is no other reason for our invasion.

The water supply and provisions to the town were cut off to expedite agreement. Cathcart permitted the Royal Family to leave through the English lines. They have gone to Holstein.

This attack completely surprised the Danes. Like the Spanish at Buenos Aires, they had no idea we would invade them. Both actions were commanded by Popham.

The initial Danish response was to order the confiscation of all English property throughout the country and the arrest of all English merchants. The assumption throughout continental Europe is that England is satisfied to see Europe in turmoil and wishes it to continue whilst she consolidates her monopoly of global trade.

Sat 21st May 1808

The English government has established a Maps and Charts Committee of the Admiralty to collect all the information we have on the World’s islands and harbours. Sir R Barlow is Chairman and Home Popham is on the Board.

Sat 2nd July 1808

Popham has been in dispute with General Beresford about the division of the Buenos Aires loot. Capt Donnelly of HMS Narcissus, which brought the silver home via Rio, offered to pay Popham a third but Beresford stopped him. They could not agree and Popham brought a petition before the Privy Council. He has already tried the Courts and been denied. He applied for a retrial and that was denied too. Popham’s position is he expects to be ranked as a Flag Officer to get a third share of the freight but the Courts say he is just a Captain and was only acting in command of the unauthorised Buenos Aires invasion.

The Privy Council has delayed commenting on the petition as Popham is being investigated on precisely this subject, but under a prior agreement with Sir David Baird at the Cape. Apparently he gave Baird a commitment to a share in order to get the ships and men for South America. Baird wants his money. It seems Popham thought he would be getting the lion’s share and thus was rather too generous in his promise to Baird.

This all happened before his attack on Copenhagen which is worth £50,000+ to him personally in prize money. Perhaps that money will mollify him or perhaps he will use it to prosecute his Buenos Aires claim further.

Sat 9th July 1808

In the debate concerning droits of the Crown and of Admiralty (see the Prize-taking chapters), Lushington (one of the India Company’s MPs) incidentally revealed some historical information about Popham in the course of his motion to censure that naval officer. It appears the Company is endeavouring to distance itself from Popham’s acts:

Lushington says Popham left the navy on half-pay. In 1787 he applied to go to India, agreeing to abandon his half-pay and reside in a Danish town. On these undertakings he got a licence from the Company to reside in India. He then went to Ostend, the centre of smuggling of India goods into Europe, where he bought a ship and sailed East. He visited every British settlement in India in breach of his undertaking to the Company and in 1789 carried on an illegal trade at Calcutta in the Ville de Vienne.

He returned to Europe and formed a business connection with Charlotte & Co, a notorious smuggling business in Ostend, and made a second voyage East under false colours without the consent of the Company in which he delivered a cargo of cannon and ammunition to unidentified buyers in Asia. He made a voyage from Calcutta to Penang and back and then bought the American ship President Washington which he renamed as Etrusco. He went to Canton in 1792 and loaded a cargo of tea in a joint venture with a French supercargo Constant and a Monsieur Peron, the French Resident at that port. He off-loaded some tea and rhubarb into small boats at Dungeness for sale in the British market and continued to Ostend where he was intercepted by HMS Brilliant (Robinson) and his ship and the balance of its cargo came before the Admiralty Court for condemnation as part French property.

Popham told the Judge he was a friend of both Cornwallis and Sir Charles Stuart in an attempt to avoid the consequences of his acts. This failed to obtain the effect he sought and the ship was condemned. Popham absconded. Soon after the King issued him a Treasury Warrant for £25,000 representing his share of the cargo. Capt Robinson got no prize money for his capture of the ship and cargo. Lushington considered this had been an abuse of the droits Fund and comprised reasonable grounds for parliamentary investigation of its control and disbursement.

Popham is now an MP and was in the House of Commons when Lushington told MPs this story.[7] Popham replied that whilst in India he had been commended by Governor General Cornwallis for his survey of Penang and was therefore doing good for his country. He regretted going to India under a neutral flag but many other officers had done the same and it was twenty years ago. He himself had never smuggled anything but some of his crew may have taken dutiable goods ashore in an informal way.

The Attorney General said it seemed Popham had broken the law and infringed the Company’s monopoly in which case the confiscation of his ship and cargo was an inevitable process of law and not really a prize. Captain Robinson had lost nothing. The Speaker called the Attorney General to order for creating a defence for Popham.

Sat 16th July 1808

Tierney has spoken in the Commons debate whether to give the thanks of parliament to Lord Gambier and Sir Home Popham for the attack on Copenhagen and the capture of the Danish fleet. The House has voted 100/19 to do so but Tierney raised some opposition.

He says Popham draws his support from the City (Tierney calls them ‘Lloyd’s Coffee House Men,’ i.e. insurance brokers) and the Mayor of Birmingham. The merchants applauded, indeed may have instigated, he says, his invasion of Buenos Aires.

Popham has been on the one hand court martialled and on the other appointed to the command of the Danish invasion fleet over the heads of his seniors. That may have prevented the formation of a great Baltic fleet of the navies of Russia, Sweden and Denmark which might have opposed our maritime hegemony (the prophecy of the ministry but disbelieved in light of constant Danish neutrality since the French Revolution) but caused the capture of the British merchant fleet in Russian ports which must have been a disappointment to the City.[8]

Sat 6th Aug 1808

Popham’s recent mercantile war at Buenos Aires has turned-out to not be original. In 1762, in the course of the Seven Years War (the French and Indian War in American histories), another group of private merchants from England and Portugal bought two British frigates and did the same. They renamed the frigates, both 50-gunners, Lord Clive and Ambuscade and placed the expedition under Captain MacNamara, the ex-commander of an East Indiaman. They were joined by two Portuguese warships and five merchant ships carrying stores.

Regrettably, on that occasion they were beaten off by the Spanish defenders and the Lord Clive was lost.

Sat 24th Sept 1808

Lushington’s motion in the House of Commons to censure Popham was lost on a division 57/126.

Sat 25th Sept 1813

The new Governor-General of India, Moira (Hastings), has arrived at Calcutta. He was carried here on HMS Stirling Castle, the ship commanded by his friend and fellow Mason Sir Home Popham.[9]

Sat 29th Jan 1814

HMS Hussar (Elliot) has arrived Madras with the ex-Governor General and another relative, J E Elliot. It will load £80,000 of bullion which private British merchants of Madras are sending to London.

HMS Stirling Castle (Home Popham) has also loaded bullion at Madras for London. It belongs to the Company. He will sail to Trincomalee via Pondicherry and then convoy the home-bound fleet of Indiamen.

Sat 6th Nov 1819

Le Pilote, Paris 15th June – Spain is selling Cuba. Our old friend Sir Home Popham is in Havana with a fleet of three capital ships and two frigates. He has told the Governor he wants to buy the island and it is to be delivered to him once the home government confirms the deal. Ratification is expected in about 9 months. British possession of Cuba will counter the expansion of USA into the Floridas and the threat that expansion poses to our valuable West Indian colonies.

Apart from the usual agricultural productions, Cuba is the main market for slaves into the USA, West Indies and some of the South American states. This provides an argument the ministry can use to bring the liberal Whigs on board in its purchase – control of the main slave market will make the elimination of trading in slaves more easy to accomplish.

Subsequent to the sale of the Floridas to USA, the British were concerned and interested. It is rumoured in London that the ministry would like Panama, Chiloé (off south Chile) or Monte Video. Popham’s jaunt in Cuba seems unauthorised like his previous venture in Buenos Aires that commenced the independence struggles in South America.

Before advancing a territorial claim however the minister has notified the Spanish government that he expects repayment of the immense costs incurred in removing the French. He values British military services from 1808 to 1814 at £265 millions. That demand, coming from the Hegemon of the high seas, should loosen Ferdinand’s grasp on his American lands.[10]

Sat 20th May 1820

Kingston Jamaica, 25th October 1819 – Rear Admiral Sir Home Popham, in command of the Jamaica fleet, has been elevated to the red and changed his flag accordingly.

Sat 28th Oct 1820

In a speech by Brougham in the Commons during a debate on the King’s income from droits – extract:

…. One of the major recipients of benefit from the droit income was Sir Home Popham who did some peculiar things in South America and elsewhere which the minister of the day did not permit to be debated in the House of Commons. Accordingly Popham got his reward in several payments from the Civil List. That better than anything illustrates the type of payment that the Civil List might be applied to. It could be used as a slush fund for official bribery.

Sat 10th March 1821

The late Sir Home Popham’s Will bequeaths all his Estate to his wife and thereafter to the children equally. The personal property has been sworn at under £18,000.

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. Russia embargoed British shipping and 250 – 300 English ships are trapped in her harbours apparently resulting from British occupation of Copenhagen – the Tsar says he is upset that England has occupied Malta which should be his. He says it’s a breach of the 1798 Convention between our countries. He is the eminence grise behind the Armed Neutrality.
  2. This concerns the pre-emptive attack on Copenhagen.
  3. This is a King and Company thing. It appears to have no direct connection with published ministerial policy in London. The Company is interested in securing the South American silver supply whilst Spain is in anarchy.
  4. Popham’s invasion of Buenos Aires and Montevideo looks informal. He has taken the only capital ship from the Cape and diverted a frigate that was carrying specie to India (to pay H M regiments) and used these warships and the gold for his war. The Company’s governors (at the Cape and St Helena) have assisted him. He got water and provisions at Rio on the way – that gets Portugal into trouble with her bigger neighbour, although Portugal and Brazil are more or less British colonies too.
    Popham is promoting the views of the Patriotic Society at Lloyd’s which supports any profitable commercial initiative. The Society takes the view that England is now at war with Spain, Spain has wealth in South America, England should take that wealth to reduce Spanish effectiveness. Popham has written circulars to the manufacturing towns reporting the opportunities of South American trade.
    He says the Patriotic Society holds out greater opportunities for British merchants than the government. The ministry worries that every commander of a fleet or an army will adopt his own causes for war and central direction of the war effort will be lost. Effectively the merchants are taking over the conduct of the war and finding commanders to fight it on commercial considerations. In fact Popham’s stimulation of commercial interest in Buenos Aires results in immense losses to British manufacturers – they send all sorts of stuff there and little of it is appropriate for sale – but the prize money is lucrative for the naval force.
  5. See the Economy chapter for the commercial activities of Colonel Davison.
  6. The Fortitude carries an opium cargo to test the South American market. Trinidad has become a major smuggling centre with distribution ability throughout South America.
  7. Between 1804 – 1812 he was successively MP for Yarmouth, Shaftesbury and Ipswich.
  8. In fact the Danish King becomes an implacable foe of England and will in future embrace every means of defeating our commercial aims.
  9. There is now a dedicated chapter to Masonry in this edition, mainly in India.
  10. See the Iberia chapter for this ‘British ulcer’ in the war with Napoleonic France.

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