Steen Andersen Bille (1797–1883)

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Steen Andersen Bille
Steen Andersen Bille 1797-1883.jpg
Steen Bille in later life
Born (1797-12-05)5 December 1797
Died 2 May 1883(1883-05-02) (aged 85)
Buried Holmens Cemetery, Copenhagen
Allegiance  Denmark,  France
Service/branch  Royal Danish Navy
Years of service 1809–1851
Rank Vice admiral
Battles/wars First Schleswig War
Relations Great Great Grandson of Steen Andersen Bille (1624–1698)
Son of Admiral Steen Andersen Bille (1751–1833)

Steen Andersen Bille, (5 December 1797 – 2 May 1883) was a Danish vice-admiral and minister for the navy. He was famous for his service in the Danish Royal Navy, particularly during the First Schleswig War, 1848-51.

Early years[edit]

Influenced by his father’s role in the defence of Copenhagen in 1807, and the visits of many leading naval figures to his parents’ house, he became a cadet (midshipman) in 1809 at the age of 12, and seven years later a junior lieutenant with an honorary position at the royal court. In this time he saw service in Minerva in both the Mediterranean and the Danish West Indies.[1] In 1823 he was promoted to senior lieutenant.

In French service[edit]

In 1820, Bille returned from the cruise in the West Indies in the frigate Minerva and entered French service along with his older brother Lieutenant Ernst Bille (who died the following year), serving in the ship-of-the-line Colosse in Brazilian waters and on South America’s west coast where there was civil turmoil in both Chile and Peru. Returning via Rio de Janeiro (where the republic was declared while he was in harbour), he returned to France in October 1821 and to Denmark early in 1822. His maps and sailing notes on the various South American harbours and on Cape Horn were submitted to the Danish admiralty.

As tensions between France and Spain heightened two years later, Bille again sailed with the French. On board l’Hermione he was in command of a division of bomb vessels at Cadiz, when the city was captured by the Duke of Angoulême in the Battle of Trocadero in 1823. Thereafter in Galathea to Smyrna, he continued to Greek waters where the war of independence (from Turkey) was in full swing. Here he could observe the war at close quarters, and had close personal contact with the Turkish leaders Ibrahim Kapudan Pasha and Ismail Gibraltar.[2]

In Danish service[edit]

On his return to Denmark, Bille, who was known personally by King Frederick VI, was given command of the steamship Kiel which was ”at the disposition of the king”; later as second-in-command of the brig St Thomas to the Danish West Indies and various other naval duties. While a lecturer at the Danish Naval Academy in 1828 he made a good marriage.

In 1830 he was appointed Gentleman Cavalier to the Royal Princess Caroline, in 1834 promoted to commander, and in 1841 to captain. As such, Bille was second-in-command of the frigate Bellona in 1840–1841 on a voyage to South America. Events on this voyage led to an investigation of his over-severe handling of the crew, but the complaints were later withdrawn. In 1844 he was in command of the training corvette Flora when she fetched Crown Prince Frederick back from the Faroe Islands.

In 1845 Bille became captain of the corvette Galathea in which he sailed round the world,[3] overseeing the transfer of Tranquebar and Serampore trading posts which had been sold to the British East India Company, and other trade and diplomatic duties. During the voyage part of his crew went in an Indian-built boat Ganges to the Nicobar Islands with the idea of establishing a colony there. This venture was abandoned soon afterwards on the grounds of the unhealthy climate, whereupon the British took over.

Three Years' War[edit]

As the fleet was put on a war footing in 1848 at the start of the First Schleswig War (which the Danes call the Three Years' War) Bille was placed as deputy commander of the Baltic squadron in Hekla helping with the transfer of troops to Schleswig and Southern Jutland and hindering enemy bombardments. After the Prussians got involved and the Danish army retreated, his squadron blockaded their harbours. No major naval engagements took place, but Fredericia – occupied by the Germans – was bombarded by Steen from Hekla and six gunboats. Bille’s popularity amongst the Danes rose considerably after this action. Later in 1848, a further promoted Bille was transferred to North Sea operations blockading the Weser and Elbe.

In 1849, again as commander of a blockading flotilla in the North Sea, he had some small encounters with armed German steamships and had to forsake the defence of the islands to the west of Jutland until he had some Danish gunboats sent via the Limfjord to flush out the enemy. In the last year of the war, after the German Bund had agreed a peace and the fighting could be concentrated on the rebels (Shleswig Holsteiners), he was again on the east coast flying his pennant in the steamship Skimer. Again, there was little opportunity for major naval action although Bille did take part in the Battle of Mysunde near Egernfjord on 12–13 September.

Bille’s naval career ended at the close of the war’s with a strong reputation for seamanship and leadership abilities, although sometimes overstrict to his subordinates.


In January 1852 Bille was appointed minister for the navy, which post he retained even with a change in the administration until December 1854. As Britain and France became embroiled in the Crimean War, Bille ordered some naval preparations in Denmark’s fleet – but without parliamentary authority – for which he was brought to impeachment proceedings but found not guilty. He represented a Copenhagen constituency in parliament, and again was given the naval portfolio from 1860 to 1863. His belief in modernising the fleet, with such unproven things as steampower, rifled naval guns and much else, invited opposition to the great expense – especially from the Liberal Party.

In 1864 Bille, now a vice admiral, travelled to China as a fully accredited representative of the state with powers to ratify the trade treaty with that nation.[4] Bille retained an interest in public affairs, particularly those of the sea and the navy, often contributing forthright opinions in discussions in the press. He retired from state service in 1868 at the age of 70.

Decorated with several foreign honours, and the high honour of the Grand Cross of the Order of the Dannebrog in 1857, Bille died on 2 May 1883 and was buried in the family plot in Holmens Kirkegård, Copenhagen.

Books by S A Bille[edit]

  • Fra alle Lande (1869 - 1870) ("From all lands")
  • Korvetten Galatheas Rejse omkring Jorden (1853) ("The corvette Galathea’s voyage round the world")
  • Min Rejse til Kina (1865) ("My Journey to China")


  1. ^ Topsøe-Jensen Vol I pages 133 – 136 augmenting the translation
  2. ^ "Barndoms-og Ungdomserindringer" (“Memories of Youth and Childhood”) in Fra alle Lande (1869 to 1870)
  3. ^ Korvetten Galatheas Rejse omkring Jorden (1853)
  4. ^ Min Rejse til Kina (1865)
  • Topsøe-Jensen, T. A.; Marquard, Emil (1935). Officerer i den dansk-norske Søetat 1660-1814 og den danske Søetat 1814-1932 (in Danish). 
General references
  • With, C. (1887–1905). "Bille, Steen Andersen, 1751–1833". In Bricka, C.F. Dansk biografisk leksikon. 2 (1st ed.). Gyldendal. pp. 253–257.