The destruction of the White House is a scene most commonly associated with fictional alien invasions or terrorist plots on the big screen, but today marks two hundred years since an enemy force marched on Washington and set fire to the famous residence. This is the relatively unknown yet remarkable story of how one of the junior officers in the force that torched the White House went on to become the founding father of one of New Zealand’s earliest settlements and ultimately met his fate during a skirmish with one of the most revered and feared of all Māori chiefs – Te Rauparaha.
Arthur Wakefield was only ten years old when he joined the Royal Navy in May 1810. The British had enjoyed naval supremacy since their famous victory at Trafalgar, less than five years earlier, but the fate of Europe was still uncertain with Napoleon’s armies waging war across the continent. Young Arthur was about to embark on a big adventure.
His first service was as a midshipman, a junior commissioned officer, on the only recently launched HMS Nisus under the watchful gaze of his father’s close friend, Captain Philip Beaver.
Arthur first saw action during the British capture of Java in 1811. During this campaign he went ashore with Captain Beaver to help man a battery that was laying siege to Fort Cornelis, which was defended by a joint force of French, Dutch and East Indies soldiers armed with nearly three hundred cannons. Heavy exchanges between the two positions resulted in casualties on both sides but after a midnight assault on the fort the British proved victorious.
A quasi-extension of the Napoleonic Wars erupted when the United States declared war on the United Kingdom in June 1812 and launched raids on their colonies in what is now Canada. This was the first time that the United States had ever declared war on another nation. Spoiler Alert: It wouldn’t be the last.
The British were locked in a mortal struggle with Napoleon so initially this new conflict in North America was treated as a sideshow, but things soon changed once Britain and her allies defeated Napoleon and vanquished him to the island of Elba. This freed up British forces significantly and allowed them to redirect more to the ongoing ‘War of 1812’. Among those dispatched was the now fourteen-year-old Arthur.
Arthur had stayed on the Nisus after the capture of Java, continuing to serve under Captain Beaver until his death in April 1813 and then under the command of Captain Schomberg. When the Nisus returned to Portsmouth in March 1814 Arthur’s father undertook to transfer him to the Spartan under the command of his friend Captain Brenton, but when word of this arrangement reached Captain Schomberg he confronted Brenton in Admiralty Hall and remarked that “You shall not have him. As long as I have a pendant flying, Arthur shall be one of my midshipmen.” It appears that Arthur had made quite an impression. The Nisus was preparing to join the North American war when unexpected orders put her out of commission and Arthur transferred to the frigate Hebrus (36 gun), which under the command of Captain Palmer had recently captured the French frigate Etoile. On 10 May 1814 the Hebrus sailed for North America. Arthur was about to have another adventure…
In July 1814 the Hebrus joined the rest of the squadron at Chesapeake Bay. A month later an expeditionary force commanded by Vice Admiral Cochrane and led by Major General Ross and Rear Admiral Cockburn took the war right to the heart of the United States. On 24 August 1814, two hundred years ago today, they attacked the Americans at Bladensburg.
The night before the battle Captain Palmer of the Hebrus joined Cockburn and in tow was his Aide-de-Camp, none other than the fourteen-year-old Arthur Wakefield. They were among only a handful of naval officers who took part in the battle. Remarkably an account of the action from Arthur’s perspective survives, as told to Robert Barrett, a fellow midshipman on the Hebrus… Continue reading