Thomas Harvey, Admiral on the Bermuda Station

Dr Edward Harris looks at the naval career of Thomas Harvey in Bermuda in this article from The Nassau Guardian.

Between 1767 and 1955, eighty-two senior officers of the Royal Navy served as Commanders-in-Chief of British naval forces in the western North Atlantic Ocean and the Caribbean Sea, known successively as the “North America” and the “River St Lawrence and Coast of America and North America and West Indies” Station in the 18th and early 19th century.

The change in title perhaps reflected the seismic geopolitical shift in this hemisphere, with the independence of some of England’s former colonies in continental North America that ultimately after the 1783 Treaty of Paris styled themselves as the “United States of America”.

Thereafter, the fault lines between the new nation and the old mother country somewhat matched some major geological features such as the River St Lawrence, and the “Coast of America”, while the volcanic arc of islands of the Caribbean Sea, in remaining British, defined a further political boundary between new “American” interests and those of Britain, when it once owned considerable parts of the North America continent. In that vast area of land and sea, of great fleets and major armies, the minute island of Bermuda came to play a major role after 1809, due in large measure to its geological position 650 miles east of the coast of the United States, an oceanic situation that obtained to no other dry spot in the region, and through the establishment here of a major naval base, the largest such British facility in all of the Americas.

As the Dockyard was a-building, the Station name became “North America and Lakes of Canada” (the latter another great geological divide between the United States and British dominions) and then “North America and Newfoundland”, reflecting the growing importance of the Maritimes (culminating in the establishment of Halifax as the northern apex of the Station), before settling down to “North America and West Indies”, which it remained for 77 years until 1907, when Britain and the United States became allies. From the latter time, the Station was sequentially the “Fourth and Eight Cruiser Squadrons” through the Great War and then reverted to the ancient “North America and West Indies” into the Second World War, when it became more fittingly, the “Western Atlantic”.

Following the War for a brief decade during which the sun started to set on the British Empire, through the political earthquakes of independence movements, the base assumed the all-encompassing title of “America and the West Indies” until 1955, whereafter the Admirals, full, Vice and Rear, of the Red, Blue and White, vanished forever from the Station headquartered at Bermuda. Various lower ranks assumed command as “Senior Naval Officer, West Indies” and “Resident Naval Officer, Bermuda”, as independent Canada fell out of the geopolitical picture and the once vast British possessions in North America shrank down to Bermuda and islands in the Caribbean region.

In 1995, HMS Malabar, the Bermuda station, was closed and a British naval presence of exactly two centuries went the way of the Admirals. Now unmarked by such military presence, Bermuda and the last remaining “Overseas Territories” of Anguilla, British Virgin Islands, Cayman Islands, Montserrat, and Turks and Caicos in this hemisphere are unprotected, except for the occasional visit of the West Indies Guardship, which sometimes gives aid in the face of natural disasters, while mostly partaking in the “War on Drugs”, the latter which might have old Earl Dundonald, the great Lord Cochrane (and onetime Admiral here), squirming in his grave for its lack of conclusive victory.

Among the clutch of British admirals that served on the main station in this hemisphere, some famous like Cochrane, and others less so but sporting the names of eminent military families (of which the cake must go, at least for length, to Vice Admiral the Hon Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax CB DSO) was Vice Admiral Sir Thomas Harvey, KCB, to whom a face can now been added. Due to the intercession of Miss Janette Rosing of London, an 1834 portrait of the Admiral was obtained for the National Museum of Bermuda, a rare acquisition of the image of one of the 82 such officers who served in this arena. Sir Thomas also joins a few other top sea dogs in leaving his mortal remains here, as he died at Bermuda and is buried under a fine monument later erected by his family, and later still his descendants added a more readable memorial with text engraved on a brass plaque in 1957. His monument is appropriately surmounted on its main façade by a warship of sail wedged between a couple of cannon and some cannonballs.

Accordingly, as noted in the new book “Memorial Inscriptions at Bermuda” by Richard and Hilary Tulloch, Sir Thomas died at the age of 66 on May 28, 1841. It may be that he was his own worst enemy, for as Dr Henry Wilkinson wrote in “Bermuda from Sail to Steam”, “but the Commissioner’s House, since it was already superfluous to the navy, had been turned over to the troops while Sir Thomas was at sea. This annoyed him. Then several ships did not anchor where he would have them. So he exploded.” Mollified by Governor Reid, “thus that senior office was spared his apoplexy for another year”, suggesting that the Admiral may have died a sudden death brought on perhaps by a self-generated stroke or heart attack.

The son of an admiral and father to two admirals, Thomas Harvey went to sea at the age of 12 and rose through the ranks to become an officer when in his early 20s. He distinguished himself when under his father’s command at a sea battle of 1794, know as the “Glorious First of June”. According to Edwin Mortimer, that was the first major naval action between the Royal Navy and the French Navy in the conflicts of the French Revolution and resulted in the capture of some six ships: the British had not achieved such a victory at sea since 1692.

As Stanley Martin has written, other services followed and Sir Thomas became a Rear Admiral in 1821 and Vice Admiral in 1837. He was appointed a Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath in 1833, subsequent to which the following year his portrait (published here) was painted. Several years after his death, another naval officer on the Bermuda station, Captain Michael Seymour, painted a number of scenes that Admiral Harvey would have recognised from his time on the island. Coming from the Fay and Geoffrey Elliott Collection at the Bermuda Archives, three of those views of Bermuda in the late 1840s are reproduced here. Of those, the Admiral would have recognised that not a single building, as we know them today, was in existence in the main yard at Dockyard in 1847, and so that important picture is proof that the buildings were nearly all constructed in succeeding short period ending when the Convict Establishment at Bermuda was closed in 1862.

Edward Cecil Harris, MBE, JP, PHD, FSA is Executive Director of the National Museum at Dockyard.

For the original report go to

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