Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Sir Harry and Lady Smith

In this week’s blog I am going to tell you a love story. And if you read till the end you might be surprised to learn the relevance of the couple’s story to South Africa.

The story takes place in the early 1800s between an English officer, Sir Henry George Wakelyn Smith, and a Spanish lady of equally long name, Juana María de los Dolores de León. They met and fell in love through unusual – even providential – circumstances.

Henry (or Harry as he was known) Smith was born in Whittlesey, Cambridgeshire, in 1787. In 1805 he joined the British Army. He was sent to fight in South America the following year as part of the British invasion of the Río de la Plata. In 1807 he was taken prisoner when the Spanish defeated his unit in Buenos Aires. He returned to England after only a few months of captivity but it was during this time that he learned to speak Spanish.

Harry met Juana María in 1812, when he was twenty-four. He was in Spain at the time, fighting with the 95th Rifles in the Peninsular War. The Peninsular War was part of the larger Napoleonic Wars, and as such British forces had been sent to the Iberian Peninsula in an effort to keep Napoleon from conquering and controlling all of Europe.

On 7 April 1812 British and Portuguese troops successfully stormed the Spanish town of Badajoz and thus brought to an end their besiegement of it. The victorious British soldiers, much to the horror of Smith and his fellow officers who were camped outside the city walls, were barbarous in their pillaging of the captured town. Smith later wrote of the event, saying:

“The atrocities committed by our soldiers on the poor innocent and defenceless inhabitants of the city, no words suffice to depict. […] too truly did our heretofore noble soldiers disgrace themselves, though the officers exerted themselves to the utmost to repress it, many who had escaped the enemy being wounded in their merciful attempts!”*

It was at this time that two Spanish sisters of noble birth^ approached the officers, seeking protection. The war had orphaned them, and they thus had nobody to defend them against the looters. They had blood trickling from their ears where soldiers had ripped off their earrings. The younger sister, Juana, was freshly out of the convent and only fourteen years old. Smith instantly stepped forward once they had made their appeal and he and Juana were married only a few days later.

Juana decided not to go to England to live with Harry’s family, but instead chose to remain with him, travelling with the luggage carts, sleeping in the open, and putting up with the hardships of a military life. She was the darling of the army, adored and admired for her beauty and courage. During one battle Juana was told Harry had been killed. She ran out onto the battlefield in a desperate search for him. She later learned that he had fortunately only been wounded.

Juana travelled all over the world with Harry, accompanying him on all his various postings (save for a short period in 1812 when he served in the British-American War). After a few years Juana converted to Anglicanism and was thus disowned by her remaining Catholic relatives.

In 1828 the couple moved to the Cape in South Africa where Harry worked hard to develop good relations with both the Xhosa and the Dutch. They were relocated to India in 1843, but were back in South Africa by 1847, where Harry – Sir Harry by now – was made Governor of the Cape Colony and High Commissioner.

Sir Harry and Lady Smith, as she became known, were well liked by many, and the result of this was that many towns in the countries where they served were named in their honour. Most notable of all the South African town names that can be attributed to them are: Ladysmith in KwaZulu-Natal, Ladismith in the Western Cape, and Harrismith in the Free State. Incidentally, Ladysmith in British Columbia was so named because 7,000 Canadians fought in the Anglo-Boer War and when Ladysmith, Natal was finally liberated from its besiegement, the Canadians’ patriotism towards Imperial Britain was high and the name Ladysmith was thus adopted for their Canadian town.

Sir Harry and Lady Smith are largely remembered today because of their great love story. Georgette Heyer’s popular novel, The Spanish Bride, was written based on their lives during the Napoleonic Wars. Their marriage, though childless, lasted for forty years, ending when Sir Harry died on 12 October 1860. Twelve years later, to the day, Lady Smith followed him.

* Harry Smith, Autobiography, from the University of Pennsylvania Digital Library Project.
^ Their great-grandfather was Juan Ponce de Léon, the first European to explore Florida while looking for the fabled Fountian of Youth.


  1. The Battle of Waterloo occurred in 1815 not 1825. And it was after the battle of Vitoria, long before this, that Juana was told that Harry had been killed.

  2. Thanks, I've amended those details :-)


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