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What’s in a name? Richard Roberts, Cork’s naval hero

A chance discovery of an incorrectly described journal has lead to the revelation of a story of adventure and heroism, almost lost to history. The story turns on the mis-identification of the author’s name.

In developing the Library’s collection of unique manuscript material, some items are identified as desirable because of the identity of the author, whereas some are attractive because the type of record they represent is one which the Library collects. Ships’ logs are an example of the latter category. A recent addition to this collection turned out on closer inspection to have been more than usually worth retrieving from the overcrowded mists of time where its significance was about to be obscured due to a misreading of the name of the author.

The sales catalogue listed the item as being the naval account book of Sir Richard Rokeby, on board the HMS Eden off the coast of Africa in 1830. The unknown Rokeby was not a person of interest to us, but the account book itself was. However, further research undertaken when the item arrived into the Library revealed that the author was in fact Lieutenant Richard Roberts, a Cork man with a polished reputation. Richard (1803–41) was the son of Richard Roberts, a Justice of the Peace from Cork, and his Clare-born second wife Mary Anne Neville D’Esterre. Richard junior joined the Royal Navy as a gentleman volunteer in his early teens and served on the West African station during the British Navy’s campaign against the traffic in enslaved persons in the years between 1807 (Abolition of the Slave Trade Act ) and 1833 (Slavery Abolition Act). The little account book that appeared to be quite a humble record of the wages paid both to Roberts, and by him to his servants during the 1830s, was in fact something much more interesting.

One entry records the receipt of money by Roberts for service on 1 Feb 1829. That was the day when, as senior mate serving on the Black Joke and due to the incapacity of his commanding officer Lieutenant Henry Downes, Roberts commanded the ship in an encounter with a Spanish slaving ship, the Almirante, bound from Lagos River to Havanna with 466 enslaved persons. Following ‘a long chase and severe action’, Roberts led a boarding party which captured the Almirante and freed the captives (of whom 39 died shortly thereafter). The Black Joke had itself formerly been a slaving ship called the Henriquetta which had been captured in 1828. In its career it captured 21 slaving ships in total, with upwards of 7000 enslaved individuals in them. It was not evenly matched against the Almirante on that fateful day in 1829; it had 2 guns and and 55 men while the Almirante had 14 guns and 80 men. The action included an eleven hours’ chase and eighty minutes’ of ‘severe action’, in which the enemy had 15 killed and 13 wounded, and the British had 3 killed and 7 wounded, including Roberts. Roberts was promoted to lieutenant for his part in this action  but, due to reductions in the size of the Royal Navy, was put on half-pay in 1830.

This was not the end of Roberts’ derring do. Back in Cork he held several short-term commands on cross-channel steam packets. In 1836 he was working for the St George Steam Packet Company in command of the Victory. In the competition to establish a steamship route between UK and America in 1838, Roberts was appointed commander of the Sirius. An attempt at an Atlantic crossing by the undersized Sirius was considered a very risky endeavour and Roberts was in competition with the SS Great Western, designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, the first steamship purpose-built for the crossing of the Atlantic and the largest passenger ship in the world in 1837. However, our man from Cork proved successful arriving in New York a day before the Great Western. News of the arrival of the Sirius became headline news in American newspapers and Roberts was greeted as a celebrity. On 1 May he began the journey home, thousands turning out to see the Sirius off while the Battery fired a seventeen-gun salute. After a rough crossing, he arrived in Falmouth on 18 May, and on his return to Cork was presented with a silver service, a memorial address, and the freedom of Cork city. In 1988, on the 150th anniversary of the trans-Atlantic voyage, a monument to Roberts was unveiled in Passage West and An Post issued a commemorative stamp. 

In February 1841 Roberts commanded the President in a crossing to New York, beginning his return journey in March. He himself believed the ship to be unseaworthy and he was correct. It was never seen again and it was later concluded that she had sunk in mid Atlantic during a storm, Roberts, his crew, and the passengers all being drowned. A memorial was erected to his memory in the churchyard in Passage West, on the four sides of which were depictions of the ships he had commanded.

Robert married (September 1837) Jane (d. 1882), daughter of William Johnson of Rockenham, Passage West. They had one son, Maj. Richard Roberts.

Dr Jane Maxwell

Much of the detail here is taken from the Dictionary of Irish Biography.

Daphne D. C. Pochin Mould, Captain Roberts of the Sirius (1988, Sirius Commemoration Committee)