Home Popham was born at Gibraltar in 1762 while his father, Joseph, was Britain’s consul in Tetuan, Morocco. His father was apparently a devotee of both marriage and fatherhood. Home allegedly had twenty siblings and some twenty-three half-siblings.
He wasn’t immediately destined for the navy. In 1776, he enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge. He went on a couple of short voyages while at Cambridge, and in 1778 he made a firm decision joining the navy aboard HMS Hyena, commanded by family friend Captain Edward Thompson, and was present at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent where Hyena was a repeating frigate.
Hyena paid off in 1782 as the American Revolution was winding down. Captain Thompson was promoted to commodore and given command of a small squadron off the coast of West Africa. He brought young Home along with him as a marine surveyor. Shortly thereafter Popham was promoted to lieutenant.
Thompson died in January, 1783, and Home returned to England. Faced with half-pay for the foreseeable future, Popham heeded the exhortation of St. Vincent for young lieutenants to volunteer for various voyages of discovery to improve their professional skills. Popham obtained an appointment in India to survey a portion of the Hooghly River which was proposed to become a dockyard. He returned home briefly but went back to sea in command of a “country ship,” i.e. a merchantman not affiliated with the Honourable East India Company (HEIC), engaged in trade in the Bay of Bengal.
In 1791, his ship was caught in a fierce storm and forced to anchor at Penang, then called Prince of Wales Island. While there his experience as a surveyor led him to discover a previously unknown passage out of the harbor making it an important anchorage.
Returning to Europe in 1793 he had the unpleasant experience of having his ship seized by a British frigate off Ostend and condemned as a prize. Apparently he had cargo belonging to French merchants on board and war had broken out while he was at sea. That cargo instantly became contraband and Popham was out of a small fortune, some £70,000. Now beached, he used the influence of his patrons to obtain a position on the Duke of York’s staff in Flanders as “superintendent of Inland Navigation.” He impressed the Duke with his devotion to duty and in April 1795 he was made post.
He acted as a naval agent for the British army, responsible for arranging transportation for the army, but he also devised a detailed plan for an organization of “sea fencibles” which would act as a naval militia to defend Britain’s coasts. His plan was adopted and in 1798 he received command of a sea fencible district which he held until 1800. During this period he participated in a raid on the Bruges Canal under the command of Major General Eyre Coote to destroy the sluice gates.
In 1800 he was posted to HMS Romney (50) and given command of a small squadron of four ships charged with driving the French out of Egypt. The plan called for the squadron to sail to the Cape of Good Hope, embark troops, and sail up the Red Sea to Egypt where the troops under General Sir David Baird would be landed. Popham carried out his mission and returned to India. After a brief stop at Bombay he sailed to Calcutta to refit his squadron. This turned out to be a very costly episode.
Popham became expert on the politics of the various rulers in the area around the Red Sea and made himself indispensable as a negotiator for the Governor General of India.
In 1803, arrived in England. His timing could not have been worse. The First Lord of the Admiralty was Lord St. Vincent, who, for whatever reason heartily disliked Popham, and he was going after corruption in the dockyards with his trademark subtlety and nuance. Popham’s extensive repair bill for his squadron which he ran up in Calcutta, and the repairs for Romney in particular, had drawn the attention of St. Vincent. He was accused of corruption.
Popham, in the meantime, had been elected to Parliament and demanded an inquiry into the charges made against him. After a bruising fight he cleared his name.
His fortunes changed abruptly in 1804 when the Addington government fell. St. Vincent was out, Popham’s patrons were in, and he received command of HMS Antelope (50). In 1805, again working with General David Baird, he commanded the naval element of the expedition against the Cape of Good Hope (relinquished to the Dutch under the Peace of Amiens) resulting in its capitulation.
At this point, Popham let his reach exceed his grasp. He was convinced that Spanish colonies in South America were dissatisfied with Spanish colonial rule and thought they were ripe for the picking. He prevailed upon Baird, on his own authority, to give him about 1400 troops from the Cape of Good Hope garrison for a campaign designed to foment an insurrection in Buenos Aires. After a brief success, the Spanish government in Argentina rallied the colonists to resist the British invasion and ultimately the campaign failed. Popham was called home and faced a court martial over leaving his station at the Cape of Good Hope without authority. The charge was proved and he was admonished by the panel but kept employed.
He operated along the coast of Spain and carried out several attacks upon French positions in the Basque region as Wellington’s Peninsular Campaign progressed. He hoisted his flag in 1814, commanded the Jamaica station in 1819, the year in which he was promoted to Rear Admiral of the Red. He returned home and died in 1820.
Sir Home Popham is most remembered, however, not for his decidedly uneven military career but for his system of communicating by signal flags, the system which gave us “England expects that every man will do his duty” and which are the mainstay of all nautical fiction set during the Age of Sail.