Royal Naval Biography/Smith, Matthew

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Fellow of the Royal Society.
[Retired Captain.]

This officer is a son of the late Matthew Smith, Esq. Major of the Tower of London, Colonel of the 2d regiment of Tower Hamlets’ militia, F.R.S. and F.S.A. who died Feb. 17, 1812, at the advanced age of 73 years.

He was promoted to the rank of Post-Captain, April 18, 1783, and during the Dutch and Spanish armaments, commanded the Carysfort of 28 guns. At the commencement of the French war, in 1793, he was appointed to the Diomede, a 50-gun ship, and ordered to the East Indies.

On the 22d Oct. 1794, the Diomede, being off the Mauritius, in company with the Centurion, a ship of similar force, fell in with a French squadron consisting of two frigates, one corvette, and a brig. After a smart action the enemy retreated into Port Louis, with the loss of 38 men killed and 87 wounded. The Diomede’s loss we have not been able to ascertain; but the Centurion, which ship appears to have borne the brunt of the action, had 27 men killed and wounded.

On the 2d Aug. in the following year, the Diomede, whilst turning into Back Bay, near Trincomalee, with a transport brig in tow, struck on a sunken rock which was supposed to be about half a mile further to the northward than its true situation, and after getting off sunk with all her stores on board about three miles to the northward of Flag-Staff Point. The Diomede, at the time this accident occurred, formed part of the squadron under Commodore Rainier, employed in the reduction of Trincomalee, which surrendered by capitulation on the 26th of the same month. During the latter part of the siege, Captain Smith commanded a detachment of 300 seamen and marines, landed to co-operate with the army, under Colonel J. Stuart[1].

The report made by Captain Osborne of the Centurion, of the action with the French squadron, in the preceding year, not being satisfactory to Captain Smith, he applied to that officer for an explanation. Captain Osborne, after more distinctly expressing his approbation of Captain Smith’s conduct than he had done in his public letter, thought fit to demand a court-martial for enquiring into the conduct of the two ships, with a view of justifying his letter on service. The court sentenced Captain Smith to be dismissed the service; but on his return to England in 1798, he appealed against their verdict; and his memorial being referred to the Crown lawyers and the Admiralty counsel, they reported their opinion that the sentence was unwarrantable, and not to be supported. Captain Smith was consequently restored to his rank in the navy, but never afterwards called into service.

  1. In the month of May 1795, the first official accounts reached India of the war between Great Britain and Holland, a report of which had some time before caused preparations to be made for that event. On the 1st of Aug. a squadron consisting of the Suffolk 74, bearing the broad pendant of Commodore Rainier, Centurion and Diomede 50’s, Heroine frigate, and several transports, having on board about 3000 troops, commanded by Colonel Stuart, anchored in Back Bay, Ceylon, and the commandant of Trincomalee was immediately summoned to surrender. On the 3d the troops were disembarked without opposition; but owing to the extraordinary high surf and the violence of the wind, it took ten days to land the whole of the stores and provisions. The carriage of these and of the artillery to the camp, a distance of about three miles, over a heavy sand, was cheerfully executed by the seamen. On the 23d, the batteries having been completed, were opened on the lower fort with such effect, that by the 26th, a practicable breach was made. A summons was then sent to the garrison; but the Governor demanding terms which were inadmissible, and refusing to accept those sent in return, hostilities recommenced. Three hundred seamen and marines were also landed, under the command of Captain Smith, for the purpose of assisting to storm the fort, had the enemy determined to hold out. In a short time, however, a white flag was displayed on the ramparts, and the Dutch commandant surrendered at discretion, The loss sustained by the British in obtaining possession of this post amounted to 16 men killed and 60 wounded; 1 of the former and 6 of the latter were sailors. The fort of Oostenburg, situated on an almost perpendicular hill, and garrisoned by 400 Europeans, was next summoned, and the enemy seemed resolved to defend it; but observing their invaders making preparations for a bombardment, and about to cut off their water with which they were supplied by pipes from an opposite hill, they at length agreed to surrender. Several other posts and factories in Ceylon soon after shared the same fate.