11th March 1757
Birth of Baron James de Saumarez
James Saumarez, born 11 March 1757, fought in some of the biggest battles the Royal Navy had ever seen. His contribution was so great that there’s an oversized statue of him on the upper floor of the National Maritime Museum in London.
He was born Sausmarez, but dropped the second “s” when he joined the navy, aged 13. This accounts for the confusion between his original and adopted names, both of which are commonly used in Guernsey.
Saumarez’s naval career
He first saw action, aged 19. That was when he sailed to North Carolina to fight against the southern states in the American War of Independence. The raid on Sullivan’s Island, his first battle, ended in defeat for the British. Over 100 sailors were killed, but Saumarez survived and went on to briefly serve on Nelson’s ship, HMS Victory.
The following year, he was wounded at Dogger Bank. This was a one-day battle that pitched seven British ships against an equal number from the Dutch Republic. The Dutch had been supplying the Americans in their war against the British, which led Britain to declare war against the Dutch Republic. The declaration was less to do with stopping the supplies reaching America, and more with safeguarding Britain’s own wood supplies from the Baltic. These were essential to its ship-building industry and were threatened by the Dutch.
Although Saumarez was injured at Dogger Bank, he was still able to sail his next commission, the Tisiphone, to the West Indies. There, he joined the Battle of Saintes.
Saumarez was never one to shrink from a fight, which is an attribute that allowed him to see much of the world. As well as America, the West Indies and Dogger Bank (the North Sea), he fought at Cape Vincent (Portugal), Cadiz (Spain) and the Nile (Egypt). At the last of these, he was second in command to Nelson.
Repelling the French
Aside from bringing it fame and honour, Guernsey needs to thank Saumarez for saving the Channel Islands from French invasion. He was commanding a convoy of three ships that were escorting some smaller craft back to Guernsey when he encountered a French force reckoned to be 20,000 men strong. The French were in five boats, while he had only three, one of which was too slow to do much good.
He sent the other boats ahead while he sailed his own ship, HMS Crescent, in such a way as to draw all the French firepower. Gradually he drew the French towards Guernsey, sailing down the west coast. The French knew that there were many reefs so close to land, and they didn’t dare follow him, allowing Saumarez to navigate right around, along the south coast, and back up to St Peter Port where he was protected by the guns in Castle Cornet.
Saumarez was recognised many times for his bravery and achievements. By 1821 he was Vice-Admiral of the United Kingdom, and later Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth. Five years before he died, the title Baron de Saumarez was created in his honour.
He died in 1836, at home in Guernsey.