Sunday, 30 October 2016

The Finest Hour of Lady Smith of Badajoz



For the last week I've been travelling in southern Spain on the trail of Harry Smith (1787-1860), a famous soldier statesman of the British Empire who was the most famous resident - marked by a blue plaque - of a property in the UK I am currently restoring. 

Smith had a quite incredible life that took him on a breathless odyssey from campaigns in Uruguay and Spain to America, France, Canada, Jamaica, South Africa and India. He somehow managed to be the man offering a truce at the Battle of New Orleans to being a brigade commander at Waterloo, and distinguished himself in the Sikh Wars before ruling Cape Colony. He even seems to have been one of only 40 men who broke into the White House during 1814 and ate President Madison's dinner (roasted meats and the finest madeira wine on an elegantly laid table) before burning down - on his general's orders - the White House (an act Smith referred to as 'barbaric').

I thought the best place to start my research on Smith was by reading his autobiography, written intermittently over many years so that one chapter starts 'written in Glasgow in 1824' and the next, 'Commenced at Simla, Himalayas, 11th Aug. 1844'. 


In only the first 40 pages, Harry is involved in the Battles of Montevideo and Colonia (1806) and imprisoned in Buenos Aires; he is nearly wrecked at sea on the return home, then is shipped to Gothenburg in Sweden, then sent to fight in the Peninsular War in Spain against the Napoleonic forces. He rounds up 20 bandits in the interior of Spain, campaigns in one bloody siege after another, is sent home to England and back to Spain again. He has a shrapnel ball lodged in his foot, which makes him lame, and is sent to Lisbon to convalesce and finally endures excruciating surgery to have it taken out.

From that point on however, Smith led a charmed life...As the Peninsular War dragged on in endless tactical manoeuvres, of offensives and retreats across a dizzying array of landscapes, Smith's fellow officers are killed one after the other, introduced on one page as a 'fine fellow' and mortally wounded on the next (sometimes while they are actually talking to Smith). In one instance, one of his injured comrades gets angry at the insolent remarks of a landlord, whereupon 'the carotid artery must have been wounded, for it burst out in a torrent of blood, and he was dead in a few seconds, to our horror, for he was a most excellent fellow'. Smith meanwhile sails through the action unhurt, while others fall like flies around him. 

Smith was extraordinarily lucky not just in war, but in love. The war narrative spills into one of the most famous romances of the early 19th century when at the bloody fourth siege of Badajoz in 1812 he meets the love of his life, a young Spanish girl called Juana (pictured top). 

Left orphaned at the age of barely 14 with only an elder sister at her side when Badajoz is stormed by blood-thirsty and lustful British troops (image below), she is placed under the protection of the elite 95th Rifles Brigade and immediately captures the heart of Brigadier-Major Smith, aged 24, who married her several days after meeting her. 


The couple would become virtually inseparable and she would travel with the Brigade for the rest of the war and - highly unusually for the era - travel with Smith on his adventures throughout the world over the next 50 years, eventually lending her married name of 'Lady Smith' to three towns in Canada and South Africa. 

It's historically curious though that Smith's fascinating autobiography was first published in 1901. Why would the memoirs of a man who died in 1860 be first published 41 years after his death? 

By the mid-19th century, Smith was a figure famous throughout the British Empire, lauded by the Duke of Wellington in the House of Commons and fondly known to Queen Victoria. But by the beginning of the twentieth century, he was fading into obscurity. Then something happened which made him of great interest round the world once again...

In 1899, the Anglo-Boer War broke out in southern Africa and the British suffered the humiliation of seeing the towns of Ladysmith, Mafeking and Kimberley besieged by Boer forces. The fate of these three towns dominated the news in Britain as the country every day waited and prayed for the news that they had been relieved. 


As Ladysmith became a focus of international attention, people began to ask, 'Who exactly was this "Lady Smith"? And why was there a town in southern Africa named after her?" To answer this upsurge in public curiosity, the long-forgotten autobiography of her once famous husband, Sir Harry Smith - formerly the governor of Cape Colony (1847-52) - was rushed into publication. 

Yet if the British public expected to find in 'Lady Smith' a quintessential English heroine, they were in for a surprise. For 'Lady Smith' was not English at all, but a Spanish girl whose original name was Juana Maria de los Dolores de Leon. 

There is considerable irony in the fact that the Spanish woman who lent her name to this famous siege town in southern Africa was herself the most notable survivor of the terrible siege at Badajoz in Spain 90 years earlier. 

While the life of Harry Smith has partly inspired Bernard Cornwell's 'Sharpe' novels and TV series, his wife has had more unexpected historical echoes. Juana's memory lives on for example in the name of the group, 'Ladysmith Black Mambazo', who have become an iconic representative of South African music and who sang with Paul Simon on his 1986 Graceland album and accompanied Nelson Mandela to Oslo in 1993 to receive the Nobel Peace Prize.

When in 1940, the historical novelist Georgette Heyer told the story of Juana Smith in her romance, 'The Spanish Bride' (still in print today), she published at a time when Britain itself was under siege. Juana became part of the zeitgeist of 'The Finest Hour' and readers found in her grit and determination, resonances of the determination of the British to stand up to the Nazi onslaught. 

It's a remarkable, unpredictable worldwide imprint for a 13-year-old Spanish girl escaping the chaos of war back in Badajoz, Spain in 1812. As I walk the streets of Badajoz today I'll be curious to find out whether this unassuming Spanish town (picture of alcazar below) remembers the legacy of one of its most famous daughters, with a strange capacity to reemerge into historical focus whenever the age requires her. 


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