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Royal Naval Biography/Roberts, Thomas


This officer first went to sea in the Swallow brig, Captain (now Sir William) Hargood, early in 1790; and joined the Bombay Castle 74, Captain (afterwards Sir John T.) Duckworth, at Spithead, on the 8th June following. In 1793, he was sent by the latter officer, then commanding the Orion 74, with Captain Solomon Ferris, of the Scorpion sloop, to obtain a more practical knowledge of seamanship; and in that vessel we find him running down the coast of Africa, touching at Ascension, and proceeding from thence to Barbadoes, where he again joined the Orion. He afterwards visited North Carolina; and, on his return home, was removed to the Cyclops frigate. Captain (now Sir Davidge) Gould, fitting out for the Mediterranean, where he followed that officer into the Bedford and Audacious, third rates. He was, consequently, present at the reduction of Bastia, in May, 1 794; at the capture of two French line-of-battle ships, by the fleet under Vice-Admiral Hotham, off Genoa, Mar. 14th, 1795 ; and at the destruction of l’Alcide 74, near the Hières Islands, July 13th following.[1] In the first of these skirmishes with the republican fleet, the Bedford was second a-head in the line-of-battle, and warmly engaged with the Ca-Ira 80; her loss consisted of seven men killed, and a lieutenant and seventeen men wounded. After the latter affair, Mr. Roberts returned home, master’s-mate of the Camel store-ship. Captain Edward Rotheram; and, subsequently, joined the Eurus 32, Captain James Ross, on the North Sea station; from which frigate he was promoted into the Serpent sloop. Captain Richard Buckoll, in Dec. 1796.

Between Jan. 5th and July 6th, 1797, the Serpent was employed in making a voyage to and from the coast of Africa, during which she detained a Swedish merchantman, laden with Dutch and Spanish property to the amount of 40,000l.; and captured a felucca, which had been despatched from Cadiz, to apprise the South American trade of the commencement of hostilities between Great Britain and Spain, She afterwards cruised off Havre, under the orders of Sir Richard J. Strachan, and, among other prizes, took a French transport laden with naval stores. On the 6th of Jan. 1798, she again sailed for Africa, where her commander fell a sacrifice to the climate, in the month of April following. There being no other man-of-war then in company, Mr. Roberts, who had been first lieutenant of the Serpent ever since he held a commission, appointed himself successor to Captain Buckoll; but as a commodore was on the coast at the time, the Admiralty did not consider the death vacancy properly filled, and therefore refused to confirm him. After interring the remains of his late commander, at James Fort, Accra, Lieutenant Roberts immediately collected a large and valuable fleet of merchantmen, chiefly bound to Surinam; and be appears to have been the first who ever conducted a convoy thither, two other officers, who had before made the attempt, having missed the land, whilst he, on the contrary, made it to a mile by lunar observations. He then ran down to Jamaica, and there received from Sir Hyde Parker an order to act as commander of the Serpent, which appointment was confirmed by the Admiralty, July 23d, 1798.

In the ensuing year, Captain Roberts, whose health had become very much impaired, was sent home as whipper-in to a fleet of 113 West Indiamen, under the protection of the Regulus 44, bearing the flag of Vice-Admiral H. R. Bligh, who very soon parted company in a storm, and was not again seen by the Serpent until the third day after her arrival in the Downs. Eight or ten of the merchant vessels also parted company when outside the windward passages; but all the others were kept together and conducted safely into port by Captain Roberts, who had occasionally to chase away the enemy’s privateers, which hovered about this valuable convoy, together with the usual difficulty of keeping the fast sailing vessels within bounds.

During the remainder of the war, the Serpent was employed on the Irish station; but, with the exception of one cruise. Captain Roberts does not appear to have been favored with the least chance of distinguishing himself, otherwise than by his careful attention to the trade constantly under his protection. Whilst on that cruise, he fell in with, and used every effort to get alongside of, a French frigate-built privateer, pierced for 36 guns, and apparently full of men; but owing to her superior sailing, and the darkness of night, she effected her escape without being brought to action.

On the renewal of hostilities, in 1803, this zealous officer was one of the first appointed to raise sea-fencibles in Ireland; on which service he continued until the dissolution of that corps, in the end of 1810. During this period he repeatedly applied for an active appointment; and we latterly find him volunteering to serve on the Canadian lakes, but without success: having no interest, and never having had an opportunity of achieving any brilliant exploit, his applications were utterly disregarded; although his long and arduous services in the Serpent may surely be said to have entitled him to some little consideration. His more fortunate brother, Samuel, is a captain in the royal navy, and C.B.[2]