Collingwood, Cuthbert, Baron Collingwood (1748-1810)

This distinguished naval officer was born in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. He had a long career in the British Royal Navy which he joined in 1761, being twelve years old. He took part in three key battles during the wars of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Empire (1793-1815): the ‘Glorious First of June’ (1794), Cape St Vincent (1797) and Trafalgar (1805). He was an efficient naval leader, humanitarian and patient, with great rectitude and overriding sense of duty. But he is generally an unknown historical figure, because is character was quite different of his flamboyant friend Horatio Nelson (1758-1805). Collingwood was discreet and showed a cold professional exterior. In 1791 he married Sarah Blackett (1762-1819), daughter of a successful merchant and four times mayor of Newcastle. The couple had two daughters: Sarah and Mary Patience.

In the period 1796-1808, he campaigned several times in the Mediterranean during the long struggle between Spain –allied with France at that moment- and Britain. He participated in the blockade of Cadiz in the years 1797-1798, attached to the fleet of admiral John Jervis (1735-1823). After Nelson’s death in Trafalgar, he became commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean Fleet (1805-1810). In these last years of his life, he proved to be the right man for such a big strategic and diplomatic task, opposing the French military hegemony in Europe: he operated and administered a fleet of up to eighty ships, including thirty of the line and maintained correspondence with all Mediterranean powers stretching from Cadiz to Istanbul.

His private letters give us a measure of his great contribution to ironing relations between Britain and the Hispanic world. He encouraged his two daughters to learn Spanish, which he felt was a very easy and elegant language [Letter of Collingwood to his wife’s uncle sir Edward Blackett, 1 May 1806 in A Selection from the Public and Private Correspondence of Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood, Interspersed with Memoirs of  his Life. G. L. Newnham Collingwood (ed.). London: James Ridway and Sons, 1837, 2 vols., vol 1.]. During the blockade of Cadiz in 1798 he showed pity for the Spanish monarchy, which he considered to be no longer an independent nation, but under French dominion. He was convinced that the hearts of the Spanish people well disposed towards England, being eyewitness of the kind correspondence between the Spanish admiral José de Mazarredo (1745-1812) and Jervis, and the social intercourse of the common people of Cadiz with the British sailors [Collingwood to Blackett, 17 June 1798, A Selection from the Public…, vol 1].

After Trafalgar Collingwood, as the new commander-in-chief of the Mediterranean fleet, displayed a diplomatic behaviour with the Spanish governor of Cadiz, general Francisco María de Solano (1768-1808). The first move was to send Solano the wounded prisoners of the Spanish prizes, in exchange of British prisoners who were on board of the prizes rescued by the Spaniards after the battle. In return, Solano looked after the wounded enemies in the city hospitals and gave food and accommodation to the rest of British prisoners. Then Collingwood ordered most of the Spanish prisoners to be released. Both commanders exchanged presents in the following months: a cask of Andalusian wine for cheese and Port from the British side. They showed each other mutual sorrow for the deaths of Nelson and the Spanish admiral Federico Gravina (1756-1806). Solano even sent fruits to the blockading fleet a few months later! [General Francisco de Solano to Collingwood, 28 October 1805 and March and August 1806; Collingwood to Blackett, 2 November 1805; Collingwood to W. M. Marsden, 4 November 1805; and to B. Stead, 5 March 1806, A Selection from the Public…, vol 1].

This gentleman’s behaviour helped Collingwood when the Peninsular War began in 1808. He had been following the Spanish internal politics with great interest. In April of that year he was very concerned by the crisis of Bourbon monarchy, with the entering of masses of French troops in the Peninsula, the abdication of the king Charles IV (1748-1819) on his son Ferdinand (1784-1833), and the voyage of all royal family to Bayonne, demanding Napoleon’s arbitrage in their quarrels [Collingwood to vice-admiral Purvis, 24 April 1808 in The Private Correspondence of Admiral Lord Collingwood.  Edward Hughes (ed.). London: Navy Records Society, 1957].  At the end of May 1808, after realizing that the situation was more critical, with the abdication of both Spanish kings in favour of Joseph Bonaparte and the beginning of the Spanish rebellion, he decided to come immediately from Toulon to Cadiz, arriving on 11 June, just in time to see the surrender of the French squadron of admiral François Étienne Rosily (1748-1832), moored in Cadiz Bay since Trafalgar [Collingwood to W. Drummond, 29 June 1808; and to his sister Mary, 12 June 1808, The Private Correspondence …]. He declared the immediate suspension of hostilities in Southern Spain and paid a quick visit to the port city, where he was received as a saviour [Collingwood to his wife, 15 June and 15 August 1808; to his daughter Sarah, 12 August 1808; and to Lady Castle, 21 August 1808, A Selection from the Public… vol 2].

At the beginning he saw the results of the Spanish revolt with optimism, admiring the enthusiasm and courage of the common people. Yet he had some doubts regarding the capacity and patriotism of the Spanish elites, and criticised the lack of unity in the juntas, the provincial committees which were spontaneously organized against the French invaders. In his view, the opened geography of the country and the difficulties of internal communications were obstacles for decisive military operations in the Peninsula [Collingwood to viscount Castlereagh, 17 June 1808; to his sister, 26 August 1808 in A Selection from the Public… vol. 2]. Nevertheless, he was in touch with Spanish leaders including the next governor of Cadiz, general Tomás de Morla (1752-1820), and the president of the Junta Suprema de Sevilla, Francisco de Saavedra (1746-1819).

Collingwood helped the Patriots with military supplies, transport and money since his arrival to Cadiz [Collingwood to his wife, 15 June 1808; to Castlereagh, 15 July and 21 August 1808; Mullgrave to Collingwood, 12 July 1808; Castlereagh to Collingwood, 19 October 1808, A Selection from the Public… vol. 2]. The Spanish victory of Bailén (22 July 1808) became a big challenge for him and for the Spaniards.  Collingwood had to deal with Spanish plans for sending more than 20.000 French prisoners from that battle and from the surrender of Rosily’s squadron to the islands of Minorca, Cabrera or Canaries. Some of these projects were fulfilled [Collingwood to Castlereagh, 25 and 29 July 1808; to general Tomás Morla, 29 Julio 1808; to Mulgrave, 21 April1809; to John Stuart, 15 July 1809, A Selection from the Public… vol. 2]. In the annus horribilis of 1809, when the Spanish Army suffered several defeats in open field by the French army, Collingwood became anguish, pessimist and displeased vis-à-vis the future of the war. He was mainly concerned by the bad state of military operations in Catalonia, the surrender of Roses to the enemy, the lack of Catalan initiative and the big difficulties in defending Gerona [Collingwood to his sister, 17 December 1808; Radstock, 4 January 1809; to Blackett, 25 March 1809, A Selection from the Public… vol. 2; to Mrs. Stead, 19 October 1809, The Private Correspondence…]. In the autumn of that year, he feared that Spanish ships in Cadiz could fall into enemy’s hands [Collingwood to Purvis, 26 March 1809, A Selection from the Public… vol. 2] and was concerned by the possibility of a French invasion of Andalusia. He recommended the commander of the British squadron in front of Cadiz, vice-admiral Purvis, to put the bay in a good state of security for Spanish ships to lay or to transfer them to Cartagena [Collingwood to Purvis, 6 October/ 23 November/ 29 November/ 15 December 1809, The Private Correspondence…]. He had written to her sister that ‘the fate of Europe depends on success in Spain, and lesser interests should be subservient to our efforts there’ [Collingwood to his sister, 12 February 1809, A Selection from the Public… vol. 2].

Collingwood’s health had suffered very much since Trafalgar, mainly due to not having the possibility of resting on land for over four years. He had asked for relief many times, without success. The Admiralty was convinced that his skills were unique for the command of the Mediterranean fleet, particularly at such a difficult moment. Collingwood accepted the situation out of a sense of duty. But in February 1810 his health rapidly deteriorated and on 6 March, having turned over his command to Purvis, he sailed for England. It was too late: he died at sea the following day, aged sixty-one. He has not seen his family for nearly seven years.

Collingwood’s body was buried two months later in the crypt of St Paul’s Cathedral near his friend Nelson.  He was not able to see the final victory of allied armies over Napoleon in Iberian Peninsula, but his great contribution to the Spanish self-determination should be always remembered.

Sources: TNA: PRO, Admiralty Mss; Colingwood and other Mss, National Maritime Museum. BL: Add. MSS 14272–14280 and 40096–40098.  A Selection from the Public and Private Correspondence of Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood, Interspesed with Memoirs of  his Life, G. L. Newnham Collingwood  (ed.), London: James Ridway and Sons, 1837,  2 vols. The Private Correspondence of Admiral Lord Collingwood . Edward Hughes (ed.), London: Navy Records Society, 1957. C. H. H. Owen (ed.), ‘Letters from Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood, 1794–1809’, The naval miscellany, Navy Records Society, 6, 2003 .  O. Warner, The life and letters of Vice-Admiral Lord Collingwood, 1968. W. C. Russell, Collingwood, 1891. Private information  [family]. Parish registers, St Nicholas’s Church, Newcastle upon Tyne. Naval Chronicle, 23, 1810, pp. 380–84 . Annual Register, 1805.  There is a recent biography by Max Adams, Admiral Collingwood. Nelson’s own hero, London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2005. A portrait by Henry Howard (1769-1847), oil on canvas, 1807 is available at the National Portrait Gallery in London.

Author: Agustín Guimerá-Ravina

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War and the Military