Commanding a ship in the Royal Navy of the 19th century was a role not confined to length and breadth of a single ship. A Royal Navy captain had to reflect in his decision-making the foreign policies of Great Britain with regards to nations outside of the British Empire and often this with little or no contact with London. There were regional governors and fleet admirals commanding operational areas but often it was not possible to communicate with them in a timely fashion and so it was down to the captain’s judgement to interpret what action British policy required in any given situation. With the Royal Navy enforcing Pax Britannica across the globe the Royal Navy’s ships often found themselves getting caught up in local disputes that if handled wrongly could drag them and the empire in to war.
Royal Navy captains were often men of privilege and aristocratic breeding in Britain. While frowned upon when viewed through modern eyes, the policy somewhat suited the Victorian-era mindset. Many men were raised in naval families where they were prepared for their role to eventually command a vessel in the Royal Navy and be on the frontlines of British foreign policy.
One such man was Edward Southwell Sotheby. The son of an admiral, Sotheby followed in his father’s footsteps and entered the Royal Navy at 13 in 1826. Reflecting the global nature of the Royal Navy at that time, Sotheby’s career saw him serve from postings as varied as being based in Portsmouth to the Mediterranean and eventually as far afield as China. In 1846 he was granted his first command, the colonial sloop HMS Racehorse, which was immediately dispatched to participate in the New Zealand War against the Māori before being deployed back to China the following year. In 1850 he took command of HMS Sealark, an eight-gun brig, and was deployed to the west coast of Africa to combat slave traders.
While having held the post of captain he was finally afforded the rank of captain in 1852 and within three years he was assigned to command the newly completed 21-gun corvette, HMS Pearl. Pearl was the first of her class among which was the famous HMS Challenger which undertook the first global maritime research expedition between 1873 and 1876. During the expedition the vessel recorded the deepest sounding ever taken up to that point in history over the Marianas Trench and the spot is now known as Challenger Deep.
The Pearl and her sisters such as Challenger represented the technological changes taking place in the Royal Navy in the middle of the 19th century. At first glance she appeared like so many warships that had come before her with three tall masts covered in webs of ropes for the sails but upon closer inspection a short, stubby funnel between the fore and main masts revealed the technological revolution that was taking hold in warship design. Pearl was fitted with a two-cylinder trunk steam engine that drove a single propeller generating a maximum of 1,300hp that could propel the 2,100ton vessel along at 11.5 knots.
Steam propulsion was not new to the Royal Navy it having been used in British warships since the 1830s but it was still only serving a complementary role to sail which remained the predominant form of propulsion. Steam allowed the ship to leave port when the wind wasn’t favourable and was also used for increased speed and agility in battle. Pearl’s steam engine also allowed her to catch the faster sailing craft used by pirates and smugglers across the globe; something of high importance for being a Royal Navy corvette she was primarily used for policing the sea lanes that were the lifeblood of the British Empire.
When Pearl was first laid down at the Woolwich Dockyard on the River Thames the Crimean War was in full swing and it was expected that she would join the Royal Navy fleet in the Baltic to combat the Russians. However, the war ended in February 1856 before she was completed and so the Admiralty decided to relegate her to the Pacific via the South Atlantic and around Cape Horn. In the last days of May 1856 the vessel was outfitted for a long voyage and on May 30th 1856, Sotheby and his crew left Spithead, calling in at Plymouth for just a few hours the next day before setting off for the South Atlantic.
Over the coming months the vessel would put in at Madeira, an island off the Portuguese coast, before crossing the length of the Atlantic to reach Rio de Janeiro on July 12th. After a week and a half in Brazil the Pearl continued south before anchoring off the Patagonian coast of Argentina on August 8th where the ship’s company prepared to pass through the Straits of Magellan. The journey took Sotheby and his crew four days during which they noted the weather being uncharacteristically calm and favourable as the southern hemisphere’s winter was drawing to a close allowing the Pearl to enter the Pacific Ocean almost unchallenged by nature. After a brief stay at the Chilean military base at Sandy Bay the Pearl assumed her duties patrolling Latin America’s Pacific coast for the remainder of 1856 supporting British interests in the region and protecting the large numbers of trading ships traversing the sea lanes to the empire. For Sotheby and his men, the twilight months of 1856 would prove routine and largely uneventful but unknown to them events were taking place to the north that would have consequences for them later.
Arica has long been one of the most important port cities on the South American Pacific coast. Today it resides in northern Chile but in the middle of the 19th century it was under Peruvian control. Independence from Spain in the early 1820s had not been an easy transition for the Peruvian people many of whom had wished to remain loyal to the Spanish crown even when most of Peru’s neighbours had wrestled for their own freedom. Following a painful birth, the remaining aristocratic powers and rich land owners all turned on one another politically and often violently. By the 1840s these had largely subsided thanks in no small part to a growing economy under the on/off presidencies of Ramón Castilla y Marquesado. During this period the Peruvian Navy went through a period of expansion and modernisation courtesy of British shipyards which built capable and modern warships to help repel attempts by the Spanish Navy to recapture their lost colony.
However, Castilla had his rivals and one of the most important was Manuel Ignacio de Vivanco. Vivanco (right) had made several attempts to gain absolute power through both legal and violent means succeeding briefly in 1843 before two political opponents joined forces to oust him. In the 1850s he campaigned for the presidency again gathering significant support until in 1856 his forces became poised to seize power if necessary. In October 1856 Castilla passed the 1856 Constitution proposal in to law which granted more rights and services to the people but weakened the ruling class’ power forcing Vivanco and his followers to rise up in armed revolt.
On November 16th 1856, the Peruvian frigate Apurimac was anchored in Arica bay and her captain, José María Salcedo, went ashore for a meeting with the British consul. The Apurimac was one of a number of British-built warships sold to the Peruvians and was also the most advanced. Like the Pearl she had both sail and steam propulsion and was capable of reaching 14 knots. Due to the Peruvians inexperience with maritime steam technologies a number of their engineers were hired from Britain and her colonies, these engineers having often served in the Royal Navy. The Apurimac was also heavily armed with twelve 32-pounder smoothbore guns and eight heavier 68-pounder weapons.
Two young officers, Second Lieutenant Lizardo Montero and Lieutenant Miguel Grau, took advantage of the captain being ashore to seize the frigate and pledge the vessel’s support to Vivanco’s forces. The two Lieutenants led their men to release a number of Vivanco’s supporters being held on board two nearby vessels and then sailed the Apurimac out of Arica harbour before Captain Salcedo could organise a response. Castilla immediately ordered his navy to intercept the frigate which was sailing northwards from Arica. One such vessel was the gunboat Loa which intercepted the Apurimac a few days later. The Loa was no match for the rebel frigate being armed with just four 32-pounder guns and so her captain tried to reason with the rebel officers but for his troubles his crew, either through promises of profit or the threat of destruction, elected to join the rebel ship’s cause.
Vivanco’s rebel fleet was growing and Castilla knew he had to act fast if he was to stop the spread of rebellion in the Peruvian fleet. He immediately declared the Apurimac and the Loa as pirate vessels and ordered more ships to intercept them but after losing the Loa he was understandably concerned about just how loyal the Peruvian sailors were to him. Therefore, to encourage their loyalty he offered a reward of 200,000 pesos for the capture of the Apurimac and the Lao; a figure that would be more than doubled by the end of the year. The next day two vessels went out after the “pirate ships” but one of them, the Tumbes, followed the Lao’s example and pledged support for Vivanco. The Tumbes, like the Lao, was an armed steam schooner although it was about half the size of the other ship and possessed only half the armament. Nevertheless, Vivanco now had a sizeable portion of the Peruvian fleet at his command and with the Apurimac he also possessed its most powerful warship with the only other vessel that could match it, the Amazonas, being across the globe in Hong Kong for repairs.
With the civil war between Castilla’s and Vivanco’s forces in full swing the three rebel ships went in to action bombarding Arica harbour when the garrison refused to resupply the rebels. The ships also captured a handful of ships carrying supplies intended for Castilla which only gave ammunition to his claim that the Apurimac, Tumbes and Loa were pirate ships. As 1856 ended the rebel fleet began a blockade of the port at Callao in an attempt to deprive Castilla of his money from exports but which also caused alarm in Great Britain and France whose interests lay in the Peruvian guano trade. As the blockade dragged on through January and February it was becoming obvious however that it was Vivanco who was running out of money to fund his war with Castilla. Many of his supporters were rich land owners who were promised profits from a successful civil war but their support began to wane as they repeatedly had to dip in to their own pockets to pay their troops. It was a situation Vivanco had to address quickly or he would lose the war.
Meanwhile, as March arrived Captain Sotheby and his men aboard HMS Pearl found themselves off the contested Peruvian coast as part of their patrol duties. Britain declared that it was neutral in the civil war despite having worked with the established government for many years and so was allowed to drop anchor near the disputed Callao port without opposition from either side. On March 24th 1857, the officers of the Pearl organised a soiree aboard their vessel inviting some of the more influential people from Callao and Lima as well as members of the British consul aboard for drinks, music and food.
As the night went on reports began to filter down that would potentially have serious consequences for Great Britain and the Royal Navy. The reports stated that a British supply ship, the New Grenada belonging to Pacific Steam Navigation Company, had been seized by the Loa and Tumbes at Lambayeque on Peru’s north-west coast. Among the New Grenada’s cargo was a sum of money equivalent to 32,000 dollars as well as personal and official dispatches and other assorted goods. The Admiralty continued to investigate the claims and when it was confirmed that a British ship had been taken by the rebels the Pearl was ordered to sail for Lambayeque and recover it, the crew and the cargo.
Sotheby and his men sailed north the next day to where the rebels were holding the captured merchant ship arriving there on the morning of March 28th 1857; something Sotheby had deliberately arranged to make use of the low morning light to surprise the rebels. Only Sotheby knows what he was truly feeling as he sailed to Lambayeque but the weight of responsibility on his shoulders must have felt enormous. On the one hand he had the law on his side since the rebel ships had indeed behaved like pirates as Castilla continued to refer to them but they and their supporters did not see it the same way. They were rebels fighting a government they opposed and if the British were financing their enemies then they were legitimate targets.
Sotheby knew if he handled the situation clumsily and the Pearl was forced in to action with the two gunboats then it risked drawing Britain in to the fighting. This was especially true if the Apurimac had joined its smaller ships and chose to engage the Pearl which would be totally outgunned. The theft of a British merchantman and the sinking of a Royal Navy corvette would guarantee British reprisals against the rebels. On the other hand, Sotheby knew he had to make an example of the rebels to deter any further acts of piracy against ships of the British Empire which he and his crew had sworn to protect. With all this in mind one has to question the wisdom of the rebel’s decision to attack the New Grenada. There is very little evidence to suggest that Vivanco ordered the seizing of the vessel himself although his forces did benefit from it. It is likely that the two crews of the gunboats, acting without their flagship that was still enforcing a blockade against Callao, carried out the attack independently.
Regardless of who was to blame the scene was now set and as the Pearl closed in on Lambayeque in the early daylight hours her lookouts spotted the New Grenada and the two gunboats. Sotheby instructed his crew to go to general quarters and under the sound of the bugle the men manned their cannons. The lookouts reported that upon sighting the Pearl the crews of the two rebel boats began cheering and waving. In the low light, the silhouette of the Pearl resembled that of the Apurimac and so they thought their flagship had come to join them perhaps to congratulate them on their capture. It was only as they spotted the white and red ensign of Her Majesty’s Royal Navy that they realised that retribution for their actions had arrived.
The two gunboats scrambled to get to their own action stations expecting the Pearl to start firing at any second but they were heavily outgunned by the British ship which was also already underway under her own steam power while the Loa and the Tumbes were sitting ducks. The firing they were expecting did not start and instead demands for surrender were made of them. Sotheby ordered the Pearl’s First Lieutenant, Nicholas E.B. Turmour, to take an armed boat to the Loa and speak to her officers. Turmour conveyed Sotheby’s demands that the New Grenada, her crew and her cargo be returned to British custody at once and that any officers and men involved in boarding the vessel be handed over to the law.
The captain of the Loa knew his tactical situation was hopeless and agreed to surrender his vessel. Additionally, being the most senior officer among the two Peruvian ships the Tumbes would also be ordered to follow suit. However, the British were dismayed to find that the New Grenada had been stripped of all its cargo which was already being distributed amongst Vivanco’s supporters (it has been reported that some of it was laundered through merchants who actually supported Castilla and if true then both sides in the civil war effectively profited from the seizing of the New Grenada).
Frustrated, Sotheby decided to seize both vessels and sail them to Callao. The two Peruvian captains went aboard the Pearl and presented their swords to Sotheby signalling that they formally surrendered to an enemy captain but Sotheby refused to take their weapons because in the Victorian-era such symbolism would only demonstrate that the Royal Navy considered itself at war with the rebels. Instead, Sotheby treated them as criminals he had apprehended and after interrogating the crews allowed a number of them to go ashore before they set sail for Callao if they so wished. Those who had been identified as having been directly involved in the seizure of the New Grenada and the senior officers were kept in British custody however. To the British warship’s surprise there were a small number of British sailors on both ships working in their engine rooms although they were treated no differently to the Peruvians who had hired them (like the Apurimac, the Loa and the Tumbes had been built in British shipyards for the Peruvian Navy).
The remainder of the two crews were split up with half of both being taken aboard the Pearl for the journey south. The other half remained on board their respective gunboats along with a number of British sailors to guard them. Sotheby appointed Lieutenant Seymom V.D. Radcliffe to command the prize crew sailing the Loa while Lieutenant Henry Duncan Grant was given command of the Tumbes. As was the custom the two gunboats had their flags removed and both took up position on either side of the Pearl as the three vessels set sail for Callao in the late afternoon. The two Peruvian crews aboard the Pearl gave little resistance to their captors but the British sailors noted that as the questioning continued they continually seemed to turn on one another. Few admitted their own guilt but were quick to testify to the guilt of their comrades which made the job of identifying the guiltiest persons all the more difficult. What was certain however was that the boarding of the New Grenada had been a violent and bloody affair.
As night set in the lookouts on the Pearl spotted the light of a ship on the horizon. Some of the Peruvian rebels had said they believed the Apurimac had been sailing to meet them, a report reinforced by the initially warm yet mistaken welcome the Pearl had received when they first sailed in to Lambayeque, and there was now the fear that she was in pursuit of the Pearl to free her comrades. Sotheby wasted no time and ordered his ship to assume general quarters once more. There was an air of apprehension amongst the British officers who knew that the Pearl was outgunned by the Apurimac and had the added problem of keeping their Peruvian prisoners in line who might try to take advantage of the chaos of battle and either escape or even attempt to take the ship. Nothing would come of it however as the light soon faded from view and the Pearl stood down from general quarters. The perceived threat from the Apurimac remained in Sotheby and his men’s minds as they continued their journey south to Callao. They had previously witnessed the firepower of the Apurimac earlier that year when the frigate attacked Callao while the Pearl was on a stopover and the ship’s surgeon was drafted in to help with local casualties.
On March 31st 1857, HMS Pearl steamed in to Callao again unopposed by either side with her two captured vessels on either flank and took up position alongside another British warship, HMS Monarch. The local people who had previously greeted the Pearl warmly were infuriated by the treatment of the two Peruvian vessels whose national colours had been taken down and gathered along the harbour to express their fury. Sotheby still had the matter of restoring British naval honour and security regarding the whole incident; a situation not made easy by the fact he had to do so and remain neutral in the fighting. Had it not been for this fact he and his crew could have quite easily presented them to Castilla’s representatives on shore and claimed the prize money the Peruvian president had offered for their capture.
Representatives of Vivanco’s forces visited the Pearl to begin negotiations. Vivanco’s men agreed that it had been a mistake to attack the New Grenada but would only admit to the Tumbes being involved in the actual seizure. Satisfied that the British had at least an acknowledgement of guilt the decision was taken that the Pearl would release the Loa back to Vivanco but retain the Tumbes and her captured crew for the time being as a punitive measure to deter similar acts of piracy against the British crown.
For the Pearl it was the end of the story as the vessel left Callao on April 5th 1857 with orders to cross the Pacific and join the British fleet in the South China Sea. Later in the year her men would become famous when during the Indian Rebellion they left their ship and formed the Pearl Naval Brigade which provided artillery support for the Sikh and Gurkha soldiers fighting the rebels.
For Vivanco, his aspirations for a military victory in Peru were coming to an end. Thanks to the attack on the New Grenada and a handful of other ships from Europe and the United States the Royal Navy along with the French Navy sent warships to the region whose objective was to protect the merchantmen in the area from attack. This guaranteed that Castilla would receive money from his exports and effectively nullified the rebel fleet except in instances where they engaged Castilla’s naval forces. By mid-May 1857 nearly all the rebel fleet had returned to Callao to surrender as the civil war came to an end and in an act of humanity and to foster peace in his ravaged country the victorious Castilla granted pardons to nearly all the rebel sailors. As the fighting came to an end the Royal Navy released the Tumbes to Castilla’s forces bring the incident to a close.