When Francis Bearsley died, the company abruptly ran out of suitable family members to run it. Three of his sons-in-law became partners but none of them were qualified to lead the company. Dr Edward Whitaker Gray was the most distinguished of the three, a surgeon-turned-botanist who held important positions in such institutions as the British Museum and the Royal Society. He played little part in the company beyond persuading it to trade in some medicines. His son, Francis Gray, who died at the age of 30, was a partner in the Oporto house but spent most of his time in London.
This situation might have been disastrous as these were the years of the peninsular campaigns of the Napoleonic Wars. By 1808 the French army was fast advancing through Spain and there was a rush to make British possessions safe by transferring ownership to a friendly non-British company or, in the case of the wines, to arrange shipment to Britain.
Fortunately, the firm’s Oporto employees included an enterprising American of Turkish descent called Joseph Camo. As an American citizen the French would not regard him as an enemy and possessions entrusted to his care stood a chance of being left alone. In his book Oporto Old and New, published in 1899, the historian of the Port trade Charles Sellers describes Camo as ‘a typical American, a man full of energy, fertile in resource and never wanting in pluck, three qualities absolutely indispensable in those distressful days’. The company recognised that Camo was vital to its survival and awarded him a one-sixth share in the Oporto partnership in return for his remaining in Oporto to run the company after all the British merchants had left.
Camo’s first challenge was to arrange for as much wine as possible to be shipped to Britain. In December 1808 Napoleon occupied Madrid and given the ease of his progress, few ship owners or captains were keen to sail to Oporto. Three ships did eventually arrive with orders to collect 632 pipes of Port, including some consignments from other British-owned houses. But when they reached Oporto they were unable to tie up at the quayside. It was now February 1809 and torrential rain, combined with snow melt further upriver, had swelled the river to a flood and the sand bar at the entrance to the estuary was blocked by fallen trees and other debris. On 17th March Camo finally succeeded in loading the vessels but they remained unable to reach open sea. On 29th March the French army reached Oporto. The French troops did their best to loot the three vessels, which remained at anchor in the river, but were defeated by the size of the barrels. Eight pipes belonging to Offley were taken and one and a half pipes belonging to Webb, Campbell, Gray & Camo, the name under which the company was then known. In June British forces commanded by Lord Arthur Wellesley took Oporto in a swift and dramatic victory and in July the three ships finally docked safely at Portsmouth.
The enterprising Mr Camo continued to buy wine up until six days before the French entered Oporto and resumed business 21 days after Wellesley’s troops retook the city. None of the partners in other British houses would return for one or two years so he had a clear field. The year of 1809, which could have proved disastrous for the company, was instead one of great success.
From 1808 to 1811, Camo was the only working partner in the Oporto house. With peace established, he began to enjoy the fruits of his new position. He became a member of the Factory House, the building where the British Port shippers had their association and which they had re-occupied in November 1811. However, in 1812 he resigned his partnership to pursue other interests, heading for London and then to France where he died in 1816.
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