William Cayley, British Consul

For some reason, one of the more distinguished Cayleys does not feature in the standard Peerages and Baronetages. He is William Cayley, one of the grandsons of Sir William Cayley, the 2nd Cayley baronet.

William was born in about 1700 and his father was Simon Cayley, a seventh son, and he himself had three older brothers. So, like a number of Cayleys of his generation, he had to enter a profession and make his way in the world. His chosen career was in the diplomatic service, and a large number of diplomatic letters from him are held in public archives, many in the British Library.

In 1722 he went to Lisbon as secretary to Sir Thomas Saunderson, the British ambassador. from 1726 to 1739 he was British consul in Cadiz. In 1739 (when war broke out between Britain and Spain) he was appointed British consul at Faro, Portugal, a post he gave up in 1746 to return to England. After standing unsuccessfully elsewhere, he became MP for Dover in 1752, representing the town until 1755, when he was appointed to the lucrative position of Commissioner for Excise. He resigned on health grounds in 1767, and died in Westminster, London on 14 February 1768. He married and had one daughter.

So much for the bald facts of his life. The real interest lies in his diplomatic correspondence at a time of great tension between Great Britain and Spain, with constant expectations that war might break out – as indeed it eventually did in 1739, when the War of Jenkins’ Ear erupted – so called because one of the main sparks for hostilities was evidence given in the British Parliament in 1738 by Captain Robert Jenkins, who testified that his ear had been severed by the Spanish when they boarded his ship in 1731. There is an extensive collection of this correspondence in the British Library.

Besides the ordinary mundanities of consular business – doubtless largely handled by subordinates – his main roles as far as the British government was concerned were to protect British commercial interests in Spain and Portugal, and to keep an eye on military – especially naval – developments in the Iberian peninsula, and on relationships between Spain and France. So his letters are full of records of major shipping movements, and of the state of readiness (or otherwise) of Spanish naval ships for war. By the mid-1730’s there were reports by him of the Spanish taking into their employ British sailors who had deserted, detaining British subjects, and entering into a deliberate policy of enticing or compelling British seamen to leave merchant ships and enlist with the Spanish navy. Once war was declared, he reported from Faro on privateering attacks on British shipping – attacks encouraged by the Spanish government (though the British were no better), and on planned movements of the Spanish navy. The letters throw interesting some interesting light on the effects of deteriorating relations between the two countries.

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