Iberian Peninsula

Napoleonic Wars in the Iberian Peninsula: Convention of Cintra; signed August 31st, 1808


Introduction

The Convention of Cintra was the name given to the agreement between the French and British forces in Portugal after battles at Roliça and Vimeiro. Wellesley commanded the army at the British victories, and the convention was negotiated as he was superceded in command by General Dalrymple.

The terms of the Convention of Cintra, when published, left the Portuguese feeling betrayed, and the British public outraged. The news of a great and glorious victory was only days old, and they wanted more of the same. The Portuguese in particular had suffered looting and massacre by the French, and were willing to accept nothing less than defeat and expulsion of the French.

The harbor at Cintra, Portugal

Contrary to this wish, the Convention of Cintra did remove the French from Portugal, but arranged for their peaceful exit on British ships. It also allowed them to keep all of their property, which the French took to mean the loot they had taken. They also tried to take this to include some Russian ships in the Lisbon harbor, but the British Admiral Cotton refused to honor such a 'ridiculous' term.

Events in Portugal

At almost the same moment that Sir Wellesley is trying to figure out how to present his advice to the newly arrived General Dalrymple, General Junot is making plans of a different sort. Wellesley hopes to talk a General he has never met into taking action and has no more luck than he did with General Burrard. Dalrymple knows that he still has an army large enough to resist the British, especially from a fortified positions. He also knows that the British are soon to be reinforced with Moore's troops.

On August 22nd 1808, shortly after noon, within hours of the time that General Sir Hew Dalrymple arrived to take over as Commander-in-chief, a negotiator from General Junot arrived to negotiate a cease fire. General Kellerman was a good choice for the French and soon arranged a 48 hour armistice with General Wellesley at Dalrymple's request. In further negotiations with the commanding Generals, it was agreed that the French would abandon all forts and positions they held in Portugal.

Wellesley, we find out from his later testimony, agreed with the idea of a Convention, but never actually bothered to read them. He had believed that the army should have completed a rout of the French days earlier. Since his superiors were too cautious to make that decision, then the only real alternative was the negotiated evacuation of the French from Portugal.

Events in London

To the modern reader, the transporting of enemy troops from an area does not seem such a bad idea. This is especially true since the French did not transport basic supplies, the lived off of the land and people that they were conquering. To understand the reaction to the Convention of Cintra in 1808 you need to know a little about the mood of the people, and something of the "opposition" press.

The populace in Britain were able for the most part to ignore the wars with Napoleon in their day to day lives. Travel to the continent was not safe, and many goods were more expensive. There were at least 3 exceptions to this state however. One had been several years earlier when it appeared that Napoleon was ready to invade Britain. The next two were in 1807, when it again seemed that Napoleon wanted to invade. The Irish received some idea of an invasion, and rioted hoping that a Napoleonic administration would improve their lot. At approximately the same time Napoleon made an attempt to acquire the fleets of Denmark and Portugal and failed due to British intervention. There was much press and political caricature about Napoleon as a result. This, added to the news of a very successful battle at Vimeiro, had the British public ready for more great victorious battles. They were certainly incensed by the transportation of French soldiers on British ship back to France, allowing them return with their guns, to fight British soldiers again.

The "opposition" press was only too happy to take advantage of any misstep to blacken the name of any government official or government supported individual. In Regency Britain, there was not really any such thing as a neutral or impartial newspaper or press. Most stories had a slant that we would expect only on the editorial page of a modern newspaper. In this case Sir Arthur Wellesley still held a position as Secretary to the Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, and his eldest brother, Richard, was even more closely associated with the Government. Papers, such as William Cobbett's Political Register quickly attacked the Wellesley's over the Convention of Cintra.

It caused enough furor that Richard Wellesley suggested that Arthur return to London to defend himself. Sir Arthur was only too happy to leave the situation in Portugal, and took leave from the Army. He mostly ignored the stories and inflammatory rhetoric. The only almost exception was a suggestion that he signed the articles because he was afraid to met the French again in battle. His friends talked him out of a response and Sir Arthur soon chose to return to duties in Ireland.

Although Sir Arthur expressed to his brother expectations that the furor would soon cease, he was soon recalled to London. The King requested the Horse Guards to conduct an inquiry into the events leading to the Convention of Cintra. All three Generals, Dalrymple, Burrard and Wellesley, were recalled to a Board headed by Sir David Dundas. It first met on November 15th 1808, and voted on December 22nd 1808 6 to 1 to approve the convention, and 4 to 3 to accept its details.

The military court did not want to bring action against the senior Generals. They did find them guilty of bad judgment, and neither one saw active duty again. From the testimony it appeared that General Wellesley was indeed guilty only of following an order from his superior to sign the Convention. Thus a major government weakening scandal was avoided.

Anecdotes and ancillary events

Less than a month after the court ruled, the Royal Commander-in-chief of the army the Duke of York signed the report, and the next day was involved in a scandal and inquiry. His mistress, Mary Ann Clarke, had apparently been augmenting her income by using her position to sell commissions, promotions, and exchanges. Wellesley was no longer in the public's attention.

Results

The French failed to take and hold Portugal. Spain was still wanting British aid, but most of the Juntas wanted to keep British troops from entering their ports. Moore arrived in Lisbon soon after the departure of the French and became the senior General, and the Commander-in-Chief of the British Army with ambiguous orders to attack France's troops in Spain




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