Persona Naval Press is pleased to welcome the first two articles from a new contributor, Marjorie Rear, MA (Oxon) who has edited the letters of her husband’s ancestor, Captain Charles Barker RN, 1811-1860. Watch this space for the concluding two articles.
Much of naval life for Lieutenant Charles Barker in the years between 1839 and 1846 might be described as pleasant but unexciting. Excitement, when it at last came, proved more than a little dangerous. This article will attempt to show the Royal Navy acting – sometimes a little too forcefully – in its role of peacemaker in the interests of Britain overseas.
The euphoria which must have resulted from receiving his commission probably soon faded. Charles Barker seems to have been passed as “additional Lieutenant” from ship to ship on the North America and West Indies Stations. He appears in the Navy List for June1839 as part of the complement of Cornwallis, Inconstant and Seringapatam.1 No letters remain from the first two ships, though it is perhaps significant for his later career that on board Cornwallis was a fellow lieutenant, John Baker Porter Hay.
At least, as a lieutenant he had suddenly become an eligible catch in the eyes of the ladies he met in the ports where his ships touched. He wrote from Seringapatam off Barbados that:
We found Barbados in exactly the same place we left it and with little or no change except that the prettiest girl I knew here has taken it into her head to get married during our absence. I was accused of being in love at Antigua and the receipt of six bottles of the best shrub I have ever tasted having arrived the day before we sailed has caused my shipmates a good deal of amusement. The young lady is very pretty but I expect I have seen her for the last time as it is not likely I shall visit Antigua again. I was very sorry to leave the place as the people are exceedingly civil to us and there was always amusement of some kind.
The reason for the farewell to Antigua was because, as he says in the same letter
This morning I have received from the Admiral a commission for the Snake, 16 gun brig, the same vessel [Joseph] Denman was on before the Castor. I am very sorry to leave this ship particularly to join one so small, but I believe she is the most comfortable small craft on the station & I believe being in an active vessel will be much better for me than remaining in one which is so much in harbour. She is at present in the Jamaica station and I go to join her in the Crocodile which sails in about a week. I do not know if I shall be a First or just a Second Lieutenant – most likely second.
The Snake’s time is up in December next but I do not expect to be home for a year from this time as the small vessels are generally kept in commission a good deal over their time.
The Snake, a sixteen-gun brig-sloop, had been launched as recently as 1832 and was commanded, when Charles Barker joined it, by the now Commander John Hay. The only letter from that ship, dated July 1840, finds her at Halifax with orders to transport troops to St. John’s Newfoundland “with all convenient expedition”. If Captain Alexander Milne and Crocodile were not to be found in that port, Captain Hay was “to put to sea and use his best exertions” to find him and deliver dispatches. After that they were to embark any “military invalids awaiting passage to England” and then proceed with “all convenient expedition to Spithead”. Not much excitement, it appears, was to be found in a small ship being used as a troop carrier.2 Nor did she have the same good fortune as she had had when commanded by Milne a year earlier, to capture a Spanish slaver.
We next find Charles Barker two years later on board HMS Monarch back in Malta on the Mediterranean Station. Monarch was a second-rate, commanded by Captain Samuel Chambers, who appears to have had his wife living in Malta. Barker had returned to the social round of dinners and balls on shore and on board, as well as “the races, which for Malta were good”. The letter gives an impression of his spending time executing commissions on behalf of relations and friends and indulging in gossip about fellow naval officers. Boredom probably led, for example, to excusable interest in the fate of Commander Edward John Carpenter of the Geyser steamer which had run aground and had, as a consequence, to have her guns thrown overboard to lighten her sufficiently to be refloated. (“I am not surprised at her getting on shore, Capt. C. being such an ass”), and a comment on the fate of Formidable [Captain Charles Sullivan] which had gone on shore near Barcelona: “I fear it will prove to have been a bad business and that there was a good deal of neglect to be attributed somewhere.”
A wistful note was struck that “The China promotion . . . has been a very liberal one. Those who were out there were in the thick of it.” This was, of course, a reference to the ending of the [First] China or Opium War by the Treaty of Nanking by which Hong Kong was ceded to Britain and five Chinese ports were opened to trade. This had been signed in the cabin of one of his earlier ships, Cornwallis, which by then had become the flagship of Rear-Admiral William Parker. No doubt Charles Barker regretted not having been able to stay with her since her complement of officers had achieved the most important piece of naval good fortune – that of having found themselves in the right place at the right time to distinguish themselves.
After this there occurs a long gap before the next letter and therefore there is no immediate comment on his appointment, dated 24 September 1844, as First Lieutenant aboard the steam-frigate Firebrand. This ship, commanded by Captain Armar Lowry Corry, must have seemed initially shocking to a veteran of sail. The ugly smoke-belching, smut-strewing steam ships, lines marred by funnels and paddle wheels, were ugly to the eye and an affront to one used to the spit and polished smartness of sailing ships. Initially the advantages of steam, particularly in peacetime, were not so obvious. Propulsion by paddle-wheel was inefficient compared by propulsion by wind power except – and this could not be argued against – when wind conditions required the use of a tug or when extra manoeuvrability close inshore was needed. Firebrand (launched in 1842) was powered by paddle, but by that date the invention of the screw propeller had already made it out-of-date. However by 1846, when steam had fully shown its worth in action, Charles Barker, writing to his brother, Frank, was completely converted. He believed that
Our heads of department certainly seem to have awoken from their deep sleep and to be now thoroughly alive to the necessity of preparing their shore defences as well as to having a powerful and efficient steam navy. Firebrand will soon be considered as quite a second-rate vessel as I see there are many building with greater proportional horse power than any we have. However she has done her work well and proved herself a much better vessel than she originally got credit for.
In December 1844 Captain Corry was superseded by Captain James Hope. Firebrand was his first ship as Captain and his first in command of a paddle steamer. His orders were for the south-east coast of America where Argentinean army and navy operations were taking place against the neighbouring republic of the Banda Oriental (now Uruguay) whose independence was guaranteed by both Britain and France. Full details of the proceedings against “the monster Rosas” (as Charles Barker refers to the President of Argentina) can be found elsewhere,3 but it is clear that such British and French diplomats and naval commanders as were out there became increasingly out of patience at Rosas’s refusal to withdraw his troops from outside Montevideo and guarantee the safety of foreigners caught up in the blockade. In spite of Foreign Secretary Lord Aberdeen’s continued and known reluctance to the use of force to compel the belligerents to make peace, William Gore Ouseley, British Plenipotentiary in the region, and his French counterpart, Baron Anton Deffaudis, became more and more involved in supporting the Uruguayans. Eventually, the Argentinean squadron in the River Plate was captured and Colonia cleared of enemy troops, thus dealing with the immediate threat to the Banda Oriental. Ouseley, however, wished to go further. Encouraged by him, Rear-Admiral Samuel Hood Inglefield determined that, on the basis that commerce was being interrupted, the Parana River (still blockaded) should be re-opened.4 Aberdeen had in fact sent instructions ordering the squadron to withdraw, but these had not yet been received in Montevideo.
A squadron, made up of five French ships, two British paddle steamers (Gorgon under Captain Charles Hotham (Senior Officer), and Firebrand), and sailing ships Philomel (Commander Bartholomew J. Sulivan), Comus (Commander Edward Inglefield), and the schooner, Fanny, under Lieutenant Astley Cooper Key, was marshalled to break the blockade. In addition the squadron took with them a mere seventy British Marines. The expedition set off from Martin Garcia on November 8th and, ten days later, anchored below Punta Obligado where Rosas had concentrated his opposition, setting a boom (made up of several hulks linked by three chains) across the river and protecting it with gunboats and shore batteries. The steamers were originally to be kept in reserve until the boom had been broken, but the sailing ships had trouble manoeuvring in the river, which at that point was only about half a mile across, and eventually Captain Hope, with three small boats, volunteered to take on the dangerous job of destroying the boom, leaving Firebrand under the temporary command of Charles Barker.
Map of the Parana River
The boom successfully destroyed, the steam ships were able to pass through quickly and eventually to silence the Argentine batteries on either bank. Firebrand lost one man killed and had one injured in the action, having taken a good number of shots in her hull. Still under her Acting-Captain she continued up-river, chasing the enemy three-gun schooner, Chacabuco, which, with two others was being towed by horses in an effort by the Argentine forces to save them. After a long chase and near to her quarry Firebrand struck a bar, but not knowing this, the enemy panicked and blew up the schooner. Apparently no blame attached to Barker for this unfortunate happening in very shallow waters. Captain Charles Hotham was immediately complimented by his Commander-in-Chief who hoped that
. . . you will express to Captain Hope and all those who were engaged in the attempt to capture or destroy that vessel my approbation & thanks for their praiseworthy efforts to accomplish the service upon which they were employed.
Rather more tardily, Captain Hotham5 wrote to Captain Hope, then back in command of Firebrand, on February 21 1846 enclosing a copy of the above letter and adding
I have to desire that you will in addition give my personal thanks to Lieutenant Barker for the ability he displayed on that occasion.
Meanwhile, with Firebrand left behind to take charge of the river between Punta Gorda and Baxada, some of the squadron continued to advance slowly up the river, reaching Corrientes in on 20 January 1846. Dolphin and Fanny meanwhile returned to Montevideo to collect a convoy of merchantmen which had been previously prevented from reaching their destinations to the north, and that delay allowed Rosas to reassemble his forces on the four miles of cliffs at San Lorenzo with the aim of destroying the ships on their descent of the river and preventing others from coming up. The channel, at that point, passes within a quarter of a mile of them. Writing from a position just below San Nicholas on February 11th in a temporary period of calm, Charles Barker described the passage of the squadron as “another game at balls with the field pieces”, omitting to mention to his mother that the ship had lost two men in the action and had received twenty-two shots in her hull. In a postscript on March 10th, he writes of “this day which has been a most anxious one to us as we have not felt our heads safe on our shoulders for a single minute during one hour of it.”6 By June the squadron was safely back in the River Plate with a convoy of about one hundred merchantmen, having suffered no further losses.
Barker had no doubts about the virtues of his ship in dealing with the attacks:
Our armament I consider perfect except that all steamers ought to have rockets. A shot the other day knocked off the muzzle of one of our 24 calibre cannon and our beauty is just now considerably impaired by sundry shot holes through the bulwarks, none as yet managed to get through our sides.
At this stage in the operation, he seemed very optimistic and confident that further naval and military support from England could be expected at any time. Writing to his brother, Frank, he says:
I hope and trust the result of this war will be of incalculable benefit to thousands. You are right in your idea of the difficulty of making an attack, except by sea with vessels of light draught of water on Buenos Ayres when every house is a small castle, but I think the strong feeling which there is against Rosas must oblige him to give in if Paz [Commander of the army in Corrientes province] is only able to advance, as I expect desertion would then go on to an immense extent amongst his troops. Oribe [Argentinian Army General] will give trouble yet as it will not do to attack him without plenty of troops and artillery. His position is a very strong one, but a mortar or two would soon do the business . . . I suppose troops from England and France are on their way out. I expect we shall want them, as with as many more ships and no upsets to plan at the principal points, then navigation would be kept up much more easily . . .The officers of the big ships are, I hear, more than jealous of our good luck for everyone looks on our promotions as certain. We, I think, deserve it as much as most who have obtained that boon lately, and I think the new Admiralty will not begin by refusing a promotion for Obligado.
The new government 1846 which followed the resignations of Sir Robert Peel and Lord Aberdeen did indeed not refuse the promotions, Charles Barker, in company with Lieutenants Inglefield, Levinge, Richards, Doyle (who later died of his wounds) and Key were made Commanders.7 However, there was no change from Aberdeen’s policy in the matter of further action against Rosas and, privately, the instigators of the Parana Expedition were reprimanded. Diplomatic negotiations, lead by Martin T. Hood, British Consul at Buenos Ayres, were opened to enable a discreet withdrawal. By September 1846 when Firebrand had returned to Buenos Ayres, Charles Barker’s tone was very different.
I hope your shooting season will be a better one than ours promises to be as I see no chance of either shooting or being shot at . . . Nothing is known for a certainty about the negotiations, but the general opinion is that affairs are on the point of being settled. The terms spoken of are the evacuation by the Argentine troops of the Bonde Oriental, the disarmament of all foreigners, and the restitution of the Argentine Squadron and of all prizes taken by both parties. These are the principal articles. A president for Monte Video is to be chosen in three months after the withdrawal of the troops, but the blockade to be immediately raised. I have no doubt there will be a row amongst the M.Videans, but hope we shall take no part in their own rows. A cessation of hostilities has taken place and both parties are meeting amicably outside and even in the Town, hugging and kissing . . .
Needless to say, not everyone was delighted at the terms of the Treaty, particularly the re-closure of the Parana:
We hear the Admiral and Mr. Ousley are very jealous about Mr. Hood’s mission, indeed the former is anything but civil to him. This is bad, but I have no doubt they have had a pretty severe rub about our hide-hunting expedition up the Parana, which river is to be a closed one as formerly.
The excitement, the danger, the privations – many of the men suffered from scurvy due to the lack of fresh provisions – all seemed to have been for nothing. It was a salutary lesson for the younger officers. Higher command involved having a full understanding of the relevant political considerations behind any action. Neither Aberdeen nor his successor, Lord Ellenborough, would have condoned what was an “act of aggression upon the territory of the Argentine Confederation”, nor would they ever have sent military back-up to the River Plate. (Ousley had in fact already been requested to send back troops but had ignored that.) There was in fact little danger to British persons8 and there was urgent need of the over-stretched naval forces in other parts of the globe. However, there was a comforting effort made to uphold British prestige.
I see the Herald (good naval authority) says that the present Ministry have altered the plan of distributing the Rear Squadron, instead of which the Commodore is to concentrate them and wait for further orders. Should this be correct it would appear as if we were determined not to allow Rosas to butcher officers with impunity nor to set at defiance the power of England and France.
So, in the end the only real gainers from the actions in the Parana River were the newly-made commanders. By September 1846 Levinge had sailed as commander in Devastation under Captain Charles Hotham for the west coast of Africa, the pursuit of slavers and the dangers of disease, and by the end of October Charles Barker was aboard Curacoa at Rio de Janeiro on his way home by the packet Swift. The most welcome news that he was to take up command of the brig-sloop, Serpent, came from “our Second Lieutenant who had been lent to the Vernon and came back on the Spider which did not arrive at Buenos Ayres until after dark. He walked into the upper room and said ‘Captain Barker, I am come to relieve you’.”
The lesson from the Parana campaign was that the British Government was had neither the resources nor the willingness to involve itself beyond its treaty obligations in the internal affairs of other countries. The function of the Navy was primarily to protect the growing Empire and to make the oceans secure for legitimate traders. The suppression of piracy was a vital part of the latter and it was in that activity that Captain Barker found himself involved in the next stage of his career.
- A letter from Captain Leith of Seringapatam to Sir Thomas Hervey, Commander-in-Chief on the North American and West Indies Station states that he had retained “Lieutenants Barker and [John Oldenshaw] Bathurst” because he otherwise had only one lieutenant on board.
- Logbook of HMS “Snake” 27 July 1840 [ADM 50/210].
- E.g. Henry Norton Sullivan, The Life & Letters of Admiral Sir B.J. Sulivan KCB, John Murray, 1896, pp. 52-70; W.L.Clowes, The Royal Navy: a history from the earliest times to the death of Queen Victoria, Sampson Low, Marston & Co., 1901, vol. 6, pp. 336-345.
- For the political background, see for example, David McLean, War, Diplomacy & Informal Empire: Britain & the Republics of La Plata, London, 1995, British Academic Press.
- He wrote from HM Schooner Obligado, presumably one of the captured Argentinian ships which later had to be handed back under the negotiated peace terms.
- Firebrand ran the gauntlet of the batteries, was hulled eight times and had a man killed. (W.L.Clowes, The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to 1900, vol.6, p.343n.
- Clowes, op.cit. does not mention Charles Barker’s promotion to Commander “for services in the Parana”, although he does list those who received their promotion for Obligado. All were made on the same date.
- Charles Barker, 1 Sept 1846: “I heard a few days ago from Mr. Barton giving me a very good account of all my friends at Buenos Ayres . . . British property has been most strictly preserved throughout all our rows which says much for Rosas, brute as he is. I doubt much if under similar provocation foreign property would have been as safe even in our own country.”
Marjorie Rear MA (Oxon) April 2008