Posted by: Rob Viens | April 28, 2012

The Doctor, the Admiral, and the Naturalist

April 28th brought more hobnobbing with the top brass:

“Breakfasted on board, & in the evening went to a pleasant dinner at the Admirals, Sir Thomas Baker.” (Apr 28)

You can’t be in South America in 1832 and get more senior than Baker – Rear Admiral Thomas Baker was the commander-in-chief of the South American Station from 1829 to 1833. The “Station” itself was housed in Valparaíso, Chile, and it was the base of operations for the Royal Navy in South American and the Pacific Ocean  (in fact, in 1837 its name changed to the Pacific Station to reflect the broader reach). Turns out the Beagle’s mission was important enough that Baker had been given orders to see to it that they received any supplies that they needed.

Thomas Baker began his career in the Royal Navy in 1781 as a midshipman on the HMS Dromedary. After serving on several ships, and moving steadily up through the ranks, he received his first command in 1794/5 as acting-captain (then commander) of the HMS Fairy. Interestingly, Baker’s long and distinguished career included playing a part in three significant battles in the Napoleonic Wars (though he only participated in one of the battles directly).

Battle of Cape Ortegal by Thomas Whitcombe, 1805 (Wikipedia Commons):

Battle of Cape Ortegal

(1) In 1800, while enforcing a blockade of ships bringing supplies to the French, Baker’s actions (as Commander of the HMS Nemesis) helped precipitate the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801. The battle was led by Horatio Nelson, and is considered by some as his toughest battle.

(2) In 1805, Commander Baker (now on the HMS Phoenix) captured the French frigate Didon after a short, but intense, fight.  While escorting the Didon, the HMS Phoenix (accompanied by the HMS Dragon) were spotted by the French Navy.  The Commander of the combined French and Spanish fleets – Pierre-Charles Villeneuve – suspected these ships were scouts of a larger invasion and turned tail and ran (thereby effectively preventing a planned invasion of England and really ticking off Napoleon). This action eventually led Villeneuve to the Battle of Trafalgar where he was defeated by Horatio Nelson.

(3) Baker was directly involved in the Battle of Cape Ortegal, which was essentially the final sweeping up of the French/Spanish fleet after the Battle of Trafalgar.

Thomas Baker continued to receive honors throughout his career, eventually becoming a Knight Commander of the Bath (i.e, Sir Thomas Baker) and achieving the rank of Vice-Admiral. He died in 1845 at the age of 74.

Based on his history, I wonder if Darwin heard first-hand stories about the Napoleonic Wars while dining with the Admiral?  I’m not a naval historian by any means, but I suspect it would have been very interesting! (RJV)

PS – Sir Thomas Baker should not to be confused with this Tom Baker…Tom Baker as the 4<sup>th</sup> Doctor

…though Darwin having diner with Doctor Who would be pretty cool! Considering that The Doctor can time travel, I suppose it is still possible :).


  1. […] The Doctor, the Admiral, and the Naturalist and Who’s Who Guide to 19th Century European Diplomats for more on Admiral Thomas Baker and […]

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