Royal Naval Museum

 

Heroes of the Squadron

Charles Hotham

NAME

Sir Charles Hotham

LIVED

1806 – 1855

POSITION

Commodore of the West Africa Squadron.

WHEN DID HE JOIN THE SQUADRON?

He entered the Navy in 1818 and was made Commodore of the Squadron in 1846, the same year he was made a KCB.  He served as the Commodore of the Squadron until 1849.

TELL ME MORE ABOUT HIM

Like Captain Denman, Hotham was called upon to give a significant amount of evidence in several of the government’s Select Committees on the West African Squadron and the slave trade.  Hotham particularly argued for the improvement of the Squadron’s ships, stating, “There is not one sloop on the African station that can compete in sailing with a well-formed slaver.” Under his instructions, the ships of the Squadron only patrolled offshore and the detached boat service that had long been practiced on the station was ended. 

Many in the Navy with experience of the West Africa station, including officers like Denman and Matson, did not agree with the decisions Hotham made as Commodore.  Denman described Hotham’s policy of distant cruising as ‘aimless cruising’, while Matson thought that Hotham misunderstood the nature of the slave trade on the African coast. Both officers firmly believed that his decision to distance the Squadron from the coast and to withdraw the active boat service crippled the squadron and severely reduced its effectiveness. 

However, Hotham was adamant that the policy of in-shore cruising and detached boat service were the cause of much of the ill-health of the Squadron, and he ordered that no boat was to spend the night in a river and that the crews were not permitted to land.  It is revealing, however, that despite the disagreements between himself and Denman, when the legal case failed against Denman following his destruction of slave barracoons in the Gallinas River, Hotham decided to follow Denman’s example and burnt them a second time.

WHAT IS HE BEST REMEMBERED FOR?

Sir Hotham is not remembered as the most effective of the Squadron’s Commodores in West Africa even though he had strong convictions on how to run the Squadron.  Unfortunately, his every action was scrutinised by both Parliament and the media, due to the Select Committees that were already underway when he took command. 

Fundamentally, Hotham believed that suppression was impossible under the conditions granted to the Squadron.  It was not a realistic task to patrol over 2000 miles of coast with only 24 ships at the Squadron’s disposal.  When giving evidence to the Hutt Committee, Sir Hotham concluded:

“The plan under which we have been hitherto acting has entirely failed; it matters little whether we keep our ships inshore, or allow them to cruise; it could never succeed.”

Hotham was made the Lieutenant-Governor of Victoria, Australia in 1853 and he died two years later, after catching a chill while opening the Melbourne Gasworks.

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