The museum recently acquired an interesting artifact with a provenance important to Constitution’s story. The single draw telescope crafted by famed London instrument makers Dollond is not unusual in itself. But pull the brass eyepiece from the wooden barrel, and all is revealed. There, four names are neatly engraved. They read Adml. Robert Lambert, Capt. Henry Lambert, R.N. 1812, Adml. Sir George Robert Lambert G.C.B., and Vice Adml. Rowley Lambert C.B.
Here’s nothing less than a genealogical record of one very salty family! The second name concerns us the most. Born in 1784, Captain Henry Lambert commanded HMS Java during her fateful battle with Constitution on December 29, 1812.
According to the son of Lambert’s First Lieutenant Henry Ducie Chads (who wrote down his father’s anecdotes of the battle some years later), “an hour and 20 minutes after the Action had begun the gallant Captain Lambert fell mortally wounded. He was standing on the Quarter Deck facing forward and talking to my father who was facing aft, the Constitution at that time raking them astern, when a Musket Ball struck him in the shoulder. The wound was a very similar one to Lord Nelson’s.”
The musket ball, supposedly fired by American Marine Sergeant Adrian Peters, pierced the left side of Henry’s body under the clavicle and fractured the first rib. It continued on, going through the left lobe of his lung before lodging in the spine. Java’s surgeon, Thomas Cook Jones administered opium and wine to dull his agony, but the wound proved mortal. He lingered for several days. though soon became delirious. The evening after he was landed with the other prisoners at Bahia (now San Salvador), Brazil he died. This was the 4th of January 1813.1
Wholly consumed with repairing Constitution’s damage and preparing for sea, “not an American Officer attended his funeral!- but the Portuguese buried him on the ramparts with Military Honours and paid every respect to his memory.” Lieutenant Chads wrote to the Secretary of the Admiralty the day after Lambert’s death:
With the deepest sorrow I have to inform you of the death of Captain Lambert on the 4th inst. of the wounds he received in the action with the Constitution American Frigate. In him the Country has lost a most valuable and Gallant officer and myself (who have served under his Command some years) the officers and crew a kind friend.
His remains were interred this morning with Military honors in fort Sn. Pedro & it is with much satisfaction I add that every respect was shown on this occasion by his excellency the Conde Dos Areos (Governor) & the Portuguese in general.
There was at this time no Protestant cemetery in Bahia, although one was established later in 1813 for the many British merchants resident in the city. Forte de São Pedro still stands in the city’s southwest quarter (on Rua Forte de São Pedro), but we have not been able to determine whether or not Lambert’s grave still exists or is visible. The fort was apparently restored in the 1980s, so if a marker still exists, it was probably uncovered then.
But what of the telescope? Could it have been at the battle, tucked away safely in Lambert’s cabin? Possibly. What we know for sure is that it was owned first by his father Robert (b. abt 1732, d. abt 1805), a Royal Navy officer who had five sons, all of whom served in the Army or Navy.2 Henry was his third son. The third name, George Robert Lambert (b. 1775, d. 1860), is Henry’s brother, another naval officer who earned the sobriquet “the Combustible Commodore” for his role in starting the second Burmese War. The fourth name, Rowley (b. 1828) was George’s son, who also died an admiral.
So this unremarkable telescope, a commonplace part of a naval officer’s baggage, has become an important memorial to a whole family who devoted themselves to King and Country.
1 Thanks are due to Mr. Keith Evetts for the post-mortem report from Surgeon Jones.
2 This might also have been Henry’s brother Robert, Jr. He attained the rank of Rear Admiral and was the officer responsible for guarding Napoleon on St. Helena.
Research Historian, USS Constitution Museum
Matthew Brenckle was the Research Historian at the USS Constitution Museum from 2006 to 2016.