Lyons, First Viscount Lyons Richard Bickerton Pemell
b. 1817-04-26
d. 1887-12-05
Richard Bickerton Pemell Lyons was a diplomat and the British minister at Washington during the San Juan Island Dispute, in which British North America and the United States vied for control of the island after an American shot a Hudson's Bay Company farmer's pig.1 Lyons played a key role in the conflict: transmitting information about Washington's position to the colonial authorities, protesting the military occupation of the island by the American Army, and negotiating with various American military authorities.2
On 12 May 1859, Lyons sent a letter to Lewis Cass, U.S. Secretary of State, beseeching the government of both nations to enter into direct communication with each other for the settlement of a question which very closely affects the good understanding between them.3 He implored the Americans to discontinue settlement and not resolve the issue using violence. The commander of the troops occupying San Juan changed frequently, and Lyons provided intelligence on the comings and goings of these officers.4 During the conflict, Lyons had authorization to deploy troops. In a December 1859 despatch to Newcastle, James Douglas assured the Secretary of State for the Colonies that without instructions from your Grace or from Lord Lyons, no [British] troops are to be landed on the Island.5 San Juan Island remained in contention until 1872 when Kaiser Wilhelm I of Germany brokered peace.
On 1 May 1863, Lyons relayed a message from American Secretary of State W. H. Seward containing reports of an attempt in Victoria to fit out the ship Thames City to act as a privateer for the confederacy.6 When it was brought to his attention, James Douglas refuted these claims, saying that they were not corroborated and that the Thames City is moreover notoriously unfit for warlike purposes, and is hardly equal in speed or power to any ordinary Merchant ship.7
Born in Lymington, Hampshire, 26 April 1817, Lyons was educated at Christ Church, Oxford, and received an MA in 1843. During his education, he worked in the diplomatic service as an unpaid attaché.8 In 1844, he was given a paid position and sent to Dresden. In December 1858, he became British minister at Washington.9 Lyons feared American aggression against Britain and that the British North American colonies would be a target for annexation. In 1861, he distinguished himself by his firmness and tact in dealing with the Trent affair. Politicians from the southern states were travelling to England aboard a British mail steamer, the Trent, when it was intercepted by a vessel of the northern states. Lyons managed to diffuse the situation, preventing war between Britain and The United States.10
After leaving Washington in 1865 due to poor health, Lyons served as ambassador to France for twenty years. He retired in October of 1887, converted to Roman Catholicism in November, and died less than a month later.11
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