Friday, 28 August 2015

An indecisive naval battle, a farcical aftermath, the guillotine and a “Citizen King”

France’s entry into the American War of Independence was to prove a critical factor is assuring the survival of the United States. It did so by winning the only strategically-significant victory in all French naval history – that off the Virginia Capes in 1781, which starved British forces at Yorktown of supllies and made their surrender unavoidable. The unforeseen cost to the French monarchy of supporting this upstart republic founded on democratic principles was however to be enormous. French officers returned from America with the conviction that France’s governmental system was rotten and unsustainable. Once that fact was widely recognised revolution was inevitable and the whole bloody process would commence in 1789.

The British surrender at Yorktown - made inevitable by a French naval victory

The driver for French involvement in the war was the adage that “My enemy’s enemy is my friend” (an often dangerous assumption, as it was in this case) and the objective was to strike at Britain, the old enemy with which she had fought a long sequence of wars over the previous century. France’s supply of arms to the American rebels and her formal recognition of the United States in February 1778 made it inevitable that Britain would declare war on France in the following month. The initial confrontations had to be naval, since control of sea routes to and from North America was essential for both sides.

Admiral Keppel by Sir Joshua Reynolds
France possessed a fleet in the Mediterranean and a second, based at Brest in Brittany to operate in Atlantic and Channel waters. An important strategic decision was the Britain’s commitment to concentrating its resources in the Channel Fleet so as to blockade French forces at Brest. By doing so, attacks on merchant shipping to and from Britain, and any French attempt at mounting an invasion, could be countered. The situation changed however when a French naval force slipped out of the Mediterranean and headed for the Americas. There was no option but to detach forces from the Channel Fleet to follow this force. This still left the French and British navies in rough numeric balance in and off Brest and made a French break-out more feasible.

The Royal Navy’s Channel Fleet was commanded by Admiral Augustus Keppel (1725 – 1786), who can be described as competent but not brilliant. Like many officers of the era he had a parallel political career as a Member of Parliament and bad blood existed between him, as committed Whig, and the First Lord of the Admiralty, the Navy’s professional head and a committed member of the opposing group known as “The King’s Friends”. The depth of bitterness was such that Keppel feared that the First Lord would be glad for him to be defeated. Further bad feeling existed between Keppel and one of his subordinate admirals, Sir Hugh Palliser (1723–1796), another politically active officer and previously a member of the Admiralty Board, which Keppel blamed for the running down of the Royal Navy in the aftermath of the Seven Years War. These personal enmities did not bode well for mutual trust and cooperation in the heat of battle.

Contemporary image of the British line at Ushant: Note that HMS Foudroyant,
identified in print block third from right, was captained by Sir John Jervis, later Viscount St. Vincent
The clash – the first major naval action of the war – came on 23rd July some 100 miles west of Ushant, a small island off the coast of Brittany. The numbers of ships on both sides were large and all but equal. The British force consisted of 29 ships–of-the-line and faced 30 similar French ships and two smaller ones. The French held the weather-gage – that is, they were upwind of their opponents, a usually critical advantage in the age of Sail – but this was largely nullified by the orders given to the French commander, Admiral Comte d'Orvilliers (1708 – 1792) to avoid battle. (The concept of “a fleet in being” had existed since the late 17th Century). The result was to pit two fleets against each other, one of which had a less than unified command while the other was commanded by an admiral who was instructed not to fight.

Battle of Ushant by Theodore Guediin, painted circa 1848
Note British and French lines passing on opposite tacks
 Shifting winds and a heavy rain squall made weather conditions unfavourable as the British force manoeuvred to bring itself parallel to the French and on the same course, while maintaining a less-than perfect column – inevitable under the circumstances. The French objective was however to be escape rather than give battle. Wearing – a reversal of course – brought the French on an opposite course and still to windward. Fire was opened and the head of the British column – led by HMS Victory, whose greatest triumph was still 20 years in the future – sustained little damage but the rearmost division, commanded by Admiral Palliser, was battered more heavily as the French passed. Keppel signalled for the British column to wear so as to follow the French. For whatever reason, Palliser to not comply. The result was that the French fleet escaped. Neither side had lost a ship but the butcher’s bill was heavy nonetheless. The British lost 407 men killed and 789 wounded while the corresponding figures for the French were 126 and 413.

Bitter recriminations followed on both sides. Keppel praised Palliser in his official report but staged a campaign against him with the support of the Whig press. Palliser responded in kind such that both men all but accused each other of treason. This led to both Keppel and Palliser being court-martialled, both being acquitted, though Palliser was censured. Keppel’s political cronies ensured that he became in due course an undistinguished First Lord of the Admiralty while Palliser’s career continued with no great distinction. The whole affair had done nothing for the morale of the service or for the good of the country.

"Philippe Égalité"
The aftermath of the battle on the French side had more of farce than drama about it. One of the officers serving in d'Orvilliers’ fleet was Louis Philippe d'Orléans, Duc de Chatres (1747 – 1793), who belonged to a junior branch of the Bourbon family and thus a relative of the reigning King Louis XVI. He was to be better known to history as “Philippe Égalité” but that lay in the future when he was despatched to the Palace of Versailles with news of the battle. He arrived in the early morning hours, had the king woken, and provided a highly coloured account that represented the action as a French victory. The news spread and when de Chatres attended the opera he was greeted with a twenty-minute standing ovation, followed up by burning of Keppel’s effigy in the garden of de Chatres’ home in the Palais Royale. Glowing with pride after this reception, he returned to Brest only to find that more accurate accounts were now being issued which made it very plain that there had been no victory.  Deeply embarrassed, and quickly made a figure of ridicule, he had no option but to resign from the navy. He succeeded to the title of Duc d’Orleans in 1785 and was now next in line to succeed to the throne should the direct royal line die out. He thereafter got embroiled in bitter enmity and mutual loathing with Queen Marie-Antoinette, she regarding him as treacherous and hypocritical, and he regarding her as frivolous and extravagant.

In the years leading up to the revolution that would break out in 1789 d’Orleans allied himself with the movement for reform, reinforcing the anti-royalist image he had had for some time. This might be regarded as an early example of “radical chic” and d’Orleans made his residence, the Palais Royale, available for meetings of the extremist Jacobin Club. He gained sufficient popularity that when the Paris mob invaded the Palace of Versailles in October 1789 the cry was heard of “"Long live our King d'Orléans!" In the four years of revolution that followed, a bewildering period of upheaval and shifting alliances, d’Orleans renounced his titles to become Citizen Philippe Égalité (Equality) and a member of the Constituent Assembly. When King Louis XVI was put on trial for his life in January 1793 this Philippe Égalité was to vote for his execution. For all his identification with republican ideals, Philippe Égalité was not however to survive long in the snake-pit of revolutionary turmoil. As the Reign of Terror took hold he was to be another of those consumed by the revolution they had brought about. He went to the guillotine in November 1793, doing so with a dignity and calmness that did him credit.

Execution of Louis VVI, January 1793 - Philippe Egalite voted for it
He died himself on the same scaffold ten months later

King Louis Philippe in 1842
Philippe Égalité, had he lived to know it, had the last laugh. The Second French Revolution, in 1830, brought his son (1773 – 1850) to the throne as King Louis-Philippe I, who reigned as “The Citizen King” for eighteen years until a Third Revolution, in 1848, deposed him. He lived out his last years once again in exile in England, where he had previously spent the years 1793-1815. His daughter Louise married Leopold, first King of the Belgians in 1832, so that Philippe Égalité’s bloodline runs on today through the monarch who reigns today in Brussels.

It all seems far removed from the farcical aftermath of the Battle of Ushant. One wonders however whether the 533 men killed and the hundreds wounded in it would have appreciated the ironies.


Tuesday, 25 August 2015

A Sultan’s wooden palace – and a mystery gun!

I’m still in Northern Malaysia and today I saw not only one of the most unique – and beautiful – buildings I’ve ever seen but found also what looked like an old naval gun that ended up far from the sea!

Istana Kenangan - the "Remembrance Palace"
 The Malaysian federal structure is a remarkable one. A constitutional monarchy, the head of government is the prime minister but the head of state, who has significant powers, is the King, known as the Yang di-Pertuan Agong. The method of appointment of the king is uniquehe is formally elected by, and from, the nine Sultans of the Malay states (of there are thirteen in total) which have hereditary royal rulers. The appointment is for five years, after which a new king is selected.


The present Sultan of Perak succeeded his father earlier this year. The 59-year old  Sultan Nazrin was educated in Malaysia, at Worcester College, Oxford and both a Masters and a PhD degree from Harvard. His wife is a chemical engineer. The Sultan’s palace at Kuala Kangsar was built in the 1930s is an imposing and dignified stone structure. It is however another palace close by – considerably smaller and initially intended to provide temporary accommodation while the new palace was being built, which is even more interesting.


The Istana Kenangan – literally “Remembrance Palace” was constructed in 1926 and was the Sultan’s official residence up to 1933 when the new, permanent, palace was completed. It was used thereafter to host receptions and accommodate palace guests. It is two storeys high with the top floor consisting of the bedchamber, family bedrooms and a dining hall. The ground floor was once used as the official royal office but is now open. 

Detail of walls - hardwood structural members and fretwork edging, woven bamboo panels
Not a single nail was used in the construction. The structural members are of  hardwood, and so is the fretted edging at the bottom of the top floor. Perhaps most impressive of all is the woven bamboo matting  which fills in the spaces between the pillars (I hope the photographs will give some impression). It must have been a cool and airy structure in the days before air-conditioning, a superb example of traditional design responding to climatic challenge. The palace is standing up well to the challenges of age and weather (and Malaysia is a wet country, as attested to frequent very heavy showers at present!) but parts are now under attack by termites and renovations are in progress.

Any suggestions as to what it is? A British 3-inch Quick Firer?
Given my interest in naval history I was pleasantly surprised to find what looks like a small naval gun on a pillar-mounting in the garden of the Istana Kenangan. I could find no details of its origin and my guess is that it may be a British 3-inch Quick Firer of pre-1914 vintage, though I stand to be corrected. The four holes for the bolts to hold on the missing shield can be seen clearly in the photographs. Can anybody identify what sort of weapon this is? Even more interesting is how it got there – I suspect that its later use was as a ceremonial weapon for gun-salutes etc. but one wonders what its service history could have been. If only it could talk!

There was much more to see in Kuala Kangsar but time prevents me covering other sights. What a fascinating and rewarding day! 

Friday, 21 August 2015

Penang – the German naval connection

Fort Cornwallis today
In my blog last week I described Fort Cornwallis, at Georgetown, the main city on the island of Penang off the west cost of Peninsular Malaysia. Though built in the early 19th Century to deter French attack, it was never to experience direct assault – a measure indeed of its value as a deterrent. It was however to be the witness to a spectacular battle directly before its walls over a century later, one that involved a foe that was undreamed of as a menace by the original builders. And three decades thereafter it was also to see a most unexpected naval group based in the harbour that it was designed to protect.

When war broke out in Europe in August 1914, Penang must have seemed to be an unlikely battleground. German and Auto-Hungarian naval power was almost entirely concentrated in European waters and though limited German cruiser units were scattered  around the globe (Click here for more details), the most direct threat in the Indian Ocean, the cruiser Konigsberg, based in Tanganyika, East Africa, was quickly bottled up and neutralised, if not yet destroyed. The most powerful single German naval force overseas was the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron, based in China – which seemed very far indeed from the by-then sleepy anchorage of Penang which had been overtaken in importance by nearby Singapore. The bulk of the East Asiatic Cruiser Squadron was to disappear into the Pacific, only to reappear off the coast of Chile in late October (Click here for details of the Battle of Coronel) but one of its ships, the light cruiser SMS Emden, was detached to create havoc in the Indian Ocean.

SMS Emden - and her chivalrous captain

The Emden was a Dresden-class cruiser which entered service in 1909 and spent most of her pre-war service in the Far East. Of 4268 tons and 388 feet long, her main armament was ten 4.1-inch guns and – significantly, as it would later prove – two 18-inch torpedo tubes.  For two months she ranged freely over the Indian Ocean, capturing more than twenty merchant ships, with scrupulous attention to preventing loss of life by their crews, and bombarding oil-storage tanks at Madras, India. Her “Will o’ the Wisp” appearances in the Bay of Bengal, then south west of Ceylon (Sri Lanka) towards the Maldive Islands, then south towards the Chagos Archipelago, necessitated deployment of significant British forces, supplemented by smaller French, Japanese and Russian ones, to hunt her down before she could inflict damage on troop-reinforcement convoys coming from Australia. The chivalrous behaviour of her captain, Karl von Müller (1873-1923), and his rigorous observation of internationally-recognised rules of commerce raiding so as to minimise loss of life, made him almost as much a hero to Germany’s enemies as to Germany itself.

Emden's captain
In late October Müller shifted his area of operations again eastwards, towards the coast of Malaya, with the intention of moving south towards Sumatra thereafter. His first objective was to be Penang, where his unexpected appearance could be relied upon to cause further confusion for Allied search-plans. To enhance the surprise element, and to aid uncontested entry to the anchorage there, he caused a dummy funnel to be erected. This, in addition to the Emden’s own three funnels would give a superficial resemblance to one of the British “Towns Class” light cruisers hunting her.

The anchorage off Georgetown, on Penang’s east coast, was thronged with shipping (see diagram bllow from an American newspaper of the time), including several light French naval vessels and the newly-arrived Russian protected cruiser Zhemchug (also spelled Jemchug in the western press).


The Zhemchug appears to have been one of those rare vessels that have been unlucky throughout their entire careers. Built at St. Petersburg as one of the two-vessel Izumrud class, this 3100-ton, 365-foot protected cruiser, she  had entered service in 1904, just in time to join the Russian Baltic Fleet’s doomed voyage to confront the Japanese navy off Korea.  Conditions on board were abysmal with extra coal stacked crew accommodation, poor ventilation, limited food, heat-stroke vulnerability and frequent machinery breakdowns.  When the Russians finally faced the Japanese in the Tsu-Shima Strait between Japan and Korea the Zhemchug, scouting ahead, was to be one of the first vessels to open fire.  She was to sustain serious damage, but unlike the vast majority of Russian vessels sunk or captured in this battle of virtual annihilation, she did manage to escape, ending up interned by the United States at Manila, in the Philippines, until the end of the war. By late 1905 she was back in Russian service, only for her crew to mutiny in Vladivostok as part of the failed Russian Revolution of that year. With order restored, she was to be based at this port in the following years though continuing mechanical unreliability limited her to short patrols.

Zhemchug
In May 1914 the Zhemchug  was given a new captain, Commander Baron Ivan Alexandrovich Cherkassov, an appointment that was to prove catastrophic. As the Emden’s depredations spread, he and his cruiser were assigned to support Allied efforts to run her down.  It was somehow ironic, given her pervious history, that Zhemchug  should be partnered with the Japanese Navy’s cruiser Chikuma to search in the Bay of Bengal. Given Zhemchug’s record of poor serviceability this assignment appeared somewhat optimistic, and when she arrived in Penang on 26th October it was for repairs and to clean her boilers.

Assuming that the Emden must be far off, and against the advice of the commander-in-chief of the Allied Fleet, a Royal Navy Admiral, Zhemchug’s Commander Cherkassov gave the majority of his crew shore leave, and left the ship anchored a short distance from shore. Other than twelve ready-use rounds stowed on deck, all shells were locked away and all torpedoes disarmed. Cherkassov himself then repaired to the magnificently luxurious Eastern & Oriental Hotel (still extant – I was there last week A.V.) where he was to entertain a lady who, according to some accounts, may have been his wife. Considering the lead given by their captain it can hardly be expected that the crew members remaining on board were particularly alert.

German postcard 1914 - Emden in left foreground
Just before dawn on 28th October the Emden sailed boldly from the north into the Penang anchorage, unchallenged due to her disguise. Had she been efficiently manned, the Zhemchug could have been a worthy opponent since her armament – eight 4.7-inch guns and four 18-inch torpedo tubes arguably gave her a slight superiority. As Emden approached the still unsuspecting Zhemchug, Captain Müller ordered the German colours to be run up and fire to be opened at point-blank range. As she passed the Russian vessel Emden launched a torpedo, hitting her aft. Limited as they were by shell-availability, the Russians opened an ineffective fire, hitting a merchant ship anchored nearby. Emden arced around to reverse course so as to leave the anchorage by the way she had entered. As she passed the stricken Zhemchug she fired a second torpedo, this time hitting her below the bridge. This was the coup de grace – the Russian cruiser broke in two and sank, taking 89 men with her and leaving another 143 wounded. As she made her escape Emden was pursued by one of the French destroyers present – their state of readiness does not seem to have been much better than the Russians’. This small craft, the Mousquet, was quickly overwhelmed by the Emden’s guns.

April 2013: Crew from Russian destroyer Marshal Shaposhnikov pay tribute to
the Zhemchug's crew at the memorial at their graves in Penang
The Emden’s retreat encountered no further opposition but her days were numbered. On 9th November she was run down and destroyed by the Australian cruiser HMAS Sydney at the Cocos Islands, south of Sumatra. During her three-months cruise Emden had sailed 30,000 nautical miles and had sunk or captured over 70,000 tons of Allied shipping. Karl von Müller was brought to Britain as a prisoner of war, and while there led a breakout, though he was subsequently recaptured. He died in 1923, at the tragically young age of 50, as a result of malaria-associated illness dating from his days in the tropics.

German U-boats at Penang, 1943-45 period

The Emden’s daring attack was not however to be the end of German naval involvement with Penang. In 1942, as Japanese forces advanced through the Pacific and South-East Asia, the idea was mooted in Germany of sending U-Boats to the Indian Ocean to operate together with Japanese units. The proposal may have had some value in publicity terms as regards emphasising unit of purpose within the Axis but the logistics involved were formidable. Refuelling would be essential for units sent from Germany – by necessity by the Cape of Good Hope route – and this would require stationing of submarine tankers off Brazil and surface units in the Indian Ocean. By the time that the plan was implemented in 1943 the Anglo-American navies were gaining the upper hand in the anti-submarine war and the “Gruppe Monsun” force of German U-boats was to suffer a horrific casualty rate. The first step was to send large Italian-origin submarines to establish a base at Penang and thereafter seventeen U-bats were sent to follow in two waves. Of these only five reached Penang due to Allied air attack en route and to Allied submarines stationed off Malaya in response to decrypted information on German movements. A further eight U-boats reached the Far East thereafter. At the time of Germany’s surrender in May 1945 the six U-boats still in Japanese-controlled area were taken over by the Japanese Navy.  Some successes were scored by the Penang-based U-boats – including sinkings as far south as off Fremantle in Australia, but the gains were totally disproportionate to the resources squandered in what was largely a propaganda-motivated campaign.

And in Penang today no memory seems to remain of the fact that the Nazi Reichsmarine once had a base there. Sic transit…

Tuesday, 18 August 2015

Malaysia – an Otter, Colonial Buildings, Karst Landscape and Tin Wars

My last blog dealt with some experiences in Penang, the island off the Malaysian west coast which was the first British settlement in South East Asia. In my next blog I’ll be covering some very unlikely and little-known history but for now I’ll tell a little more about my current experiences.

Amphibious Landing (though with inadequate air cover)
While walking along the waterfront at Georgetown, the city centre of Penang, and with heavy traffic (including swarms of small motorbikes) thundering along to my immediate left, and with the water lapping ten yards to my left, I suddenly spotted a large sea otter coming out of the water. She was looking at me quite fearlessly and when I stopped and whipped out my cell 'phone to photograph her she took no further notice of me – she looked very accustomed to humans. Her presence did however attract the attention of two crows who initiated a campaign of intimidation that finally drove her back into the water – an example of the value of air-power in defeating amphibious landings!

The apparently fearless Sea Otter - until the crows arrived!
Knowing when you're beaten! Beating an ignominious retreat while crow gloats!
One of the most notable features of Georgetown are the splendidly maintained buildings of the colonial period, especially those lying along the seafront. Since I lived much of my life in the tropics I have always been impressed at how well such buildings were designed to cope with heat in the days before air-conditioning. Shaded verandahs, set-back windows and doors, high ceilings and fans (human-operated “punkahs” before electricity) all made for cool and comfortable accommodation. This style of architecture jumped continents – memories of past happiness came flooding  when I saw in Penang a larger version of a house of this type I had lived in in Lagos, Nigeria.

Colonial splendour - the Governor's mansion perhaps?
A few days ago I moved to Ipoh, about 80 miles southeast from Penang, which I wrote about in my last blog. On leaving the coast much of the countryside is heavily forested. It becomes very spectacular indeed around Ipoh – a wonderful karst landscape in which steep towers of green-clad limestone rear up above the relatively level ground in between.  

Limestone stacks dominate Ipoh
Some of these outcrops drop almost vertically into back gardens and they are alive with wild-life. Monkeys call sharply as they flit from branch to branch and beautiful brown-fronted herons perch on branches to spy out fish in channels or pools below. The area had been intensively mined for tin from the nineteenth century onwards and the resulting excavations have in many cases been flooded deliberately and are alive with fish.
The Edible-Nest Swiflet

View from my hosts' back garden
Note caves - ladders hard to make out
There are many caves in the exposed limestone and they are colonised by the appropriately named “Edible-Nest Swiftlet”, a blackish-brown member of the Swift family that is about five-inches long and whose most notable feature is that Its nest is made of solidified saliva. These nests are highly prized in Chinese cuisine for making – yeas, the name’s inevitable – Bird’s Nest Soup. As the caves are not easily accessible, ladders and climbing aids can often be seen set into the rock to give access. Undertaking the risks involved can be financially rewarding – prices for nests may be as much as $2,500 (US) per kilogramme.

Chinese interests were very active in tin-mining from the mid-19th Century and conflicts between the two secret societies which dominated the industry and trade led to ferocious confrontations. Between 1861 and 1873 there were four separate “Larut Wars”. These were bloody affairs which pitted thousands of immigrant workers against each other. The scale can be imagined from the fact that in the Third War, in 1871-72, one of the factions imported 4000 mercenaries from mainland China. The conflicts, which had serious implications for the authority of Malay rulers, were finally ended through British mediation. To recognise this, Larut, the town at the centre of the upheavals, was renamed “Taiping” – Heavenly Peace, the name it goes by today. Until coming her I was unaware of these events – history which is so convoluted that I’m still trying to get my mind around it!


And that’s it for now – back with some history on Friday!


Friday, 14 August 2015

Penang, Malaysia – touching history

I flew from Britain in mid-week and I’m currently in Penang, the island off Peninsular Malaysia's weat coast that’s now home to a city of 1.5 million. It is linked to the mainland by two bridges, one of them 15 miles (24 Kms) long. In the late eighteenth century it became Britain’s first foothold in South East Asia, a counter to the strong trading position previously established in the region by the Dutch East Indies Company (the Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie, or “VOC”, in the seventeenth century. 

Looking out across Penang harbour today

The foundation of Penang was the second British attempt to establish a trading presence in the region – the Dutch already had a strong position in much of what is today Indonesia, and had control of important way-stations leading there, some valuable in their own right in trading terms, at the Cape of God Hope, Ceylon (modern Sri Lanka) and Mauritius. In the seventeenth century the VOC was powerful enough to bring to an end British trading ambitions in the area.  By the third quarter of the eighteenth century the balance of power had however shifted. Dutch global power was in decline and the VOC was ultimately to go bankrupt. By the British power was, by contrast, on the rise, with its presence in India being consolidated and extended through its own East India Company, still a private venture but one which until the mid-nineteenth century would maintain its own army. By the 1780s thoughts were once again turning towards extension of British trading interests further east.

Now enter Francis Light.

Light's statue in Fort Cornwallis
It is often said that Britain acquired an empire by accident – usually as a result of private and often officially-unendorsed initiatives by figures such as Robert, Lord Clive and Cecil Rhodes. Francis Light (1740-1794) was cast in the same mould. Probably illegitimate, the interest of a “patron” secured him an appointment as a midshipman in the Royal Navy, but in 1763 he decided to seek his fortune in India, and within two years was operating as a private trader – an opportunity that could lead to enormous riches. The opportunities Light saw were not however confined to the Sub-Continent alone and he recognised the potential of filling the gaps left by steady Dutch decline further east. By 1771, he was proposing establishment of a trading post on Penang Island, off the Malay coast as a "convenient magazine for the Eastern trade". The proposal was rejected by the East India Company but Light, who continued to prosper, did not give up on the idea.

In 1786, in a joint venture between the private company Light was associated with, and the East India Company, Light landed on Penang’s east coast, at the site of what is today’s large city and took  formal possession of the island "in the name of His Britannic Majesty, King George III and the Honourable East India Company". The formal basis for the annexation was that the Sultan of Kedah – the local ruler – ceded the island in exchange for is military protection from Siamese and Burmese enemies. In the best tradition of the British merchant-adventurer Light had gone far beyond his authorisation however – the East India Company’s new governor-general, Charles Cornwallis, was not prepared to support the Sultan against any of his enemies, whether Siamese, Burmese or Malay. Light had concealed this fact but by the time the Sultan tried to recapture the island in 1790 Light was too well established to be ejected. The Sultan backed down and agreed to the ceding in return for an annual honorarium. Even today the State of Penang still pays the honorarium to the current Sultan of Kedah.

Penang in early 19th Century
Note Fort Cornwallis is top right corner


Light now established Penang as a free port to entice traders away from nearby Dutch trading posts and it grew in importance as such until it was finally eclipsed by the more favourably-situated settlement at Singapore in the mid-nineteenth century. Light also promoted settlement on Penang, promising immigrants as much land as they could clear and, according to one story, shooting silver coins from cannons into the forest to spur their efforts. Malaria remained the greatest challenge however and Penang, like other tropical settlements, especially in West Africa, achieved the dubious honour of being classed as "a white man's grave". Light himself succumbed in 1794.

The key to consolidation of the British hold on Penang was the early construction of a sizable seaward-facing fortification, Fort Cornwallis, named somewhat ironically after the governor-general who was so dubious about the venture. The initial fortification was a stockade of palm logs, a simple structure but one which, when armed with cannon, was more than capable of withstanding attack by pirates or by the Sultan of Kedah. By 1804 however, with the Napoleonic Wars shifting into high gear and French forces operating in the Indian Ocean, a more substantial structure was needed. Convict labour was accordingly drafted in from India to rebuild the fort in star-shape and of brick and stone. It remains to this day and adjoins the magnificent Victorian town-hall.

Seaward-facing bastions of Fort Cornwallis. The moat has  long been filled in.
A lighthouse is position at the far corner)
I visited Fort Cornwallis yesterday. The basic structure is intact and there have been some efforts at restoration. The open interior is now used for concerts and events. The photographs below give an indication of how it is today and with imagination one can visualise how it might have looked in its prime. Armed with 32-pounders it would have been a dangerous target for sea-bombardment (Nelson’s dictum that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort” applies). A number of Napoleonic-era cannon-barrels have been set in the embrasures.  

Logo on British Cannon - no doubting that it belongs to H.M. George III

Sri Lambai bronze cannon - "Jan Burgerhuis Me Fecit"!
The most interesting gun in position is from a much earlier era. Known as the “Sri Lambai Cannon”, this is a bronze Dutch piece cast in the early seventeen the century. It carries not only the VOC logo but a Latin inscription identifying the gun-founder: “Jan Burgerhuis Me Fecit”- “Jan Burgerhuis made me”. 

VOC Logo on the Sri Lambai Cannon
This weapon had a very colourful history. It was presented by the Dutch to the Sultan of Johore in 1606. It was subsequently captured by the Portuguese (who still had a limited trading presence) soon afterwards. A notice board (as per photograph below) tells of its subsequent adventures and its alleged powers in relation to fertility. I leave it to the reader to judge on probability.


 I’ll return to more experiences in Penang in my next blog but in the meantime I trust that this one will be of interest. It’s a quite splendid place and one which, with its high rise condos, multi-lane highways, huge modern shopping malls, enormous container port and amazing bridges is one which Francis Light would be proud of!

To see a short video interview with Antoine Vanner about his approach to writing Victorian naval fiction please click here.

Tuesday, 11 August 2015

The Birth of Weather Forecasting: The "Royal Charter Storm" of 1859

Today that concept of weather forecasting is regarded as an integral aspect of news reporting but in the mid-nineteenth century that concept was in its infancy. It took a storm of massive proportions to emphasise the value of such a system and the credit for conceiving the idea was due to Captain Robert Fitzroy (1805-1865).

Fitzroy in 1855
Fitzroy – a tragic figure, as we will see later - had been captain of the Royal Navy’s HMS Beagle on her voyages of scientific discovery with Charles Darwin in the 1830s. Fitzroy had later been Governor of New Zealand from 1842-45, a difficult appointment at a time when white settlers and Maori communities were coming into conflict over land ownership. Fitzroy’s subsequent naval career was ended by ill health and in 1854 he was appointed to head a new government department to deal with the collection of weather data at sea. As such it was to be the forerunner of the modern Meteorological Office. With a staff of three Fitzroy set up a system whereby calibrated instruments were loaned to ships’ captains for record-gathering and subsequent collation of the resulting data. He soon recognised that availability of weather information to shipping and fishing interests could avert tragedies. The first measure he implemented was provision of standardised barometers which were installed in stone housings at ports so that crews could consult them before setting out to sea.

The next logical step was to make information available on a national rather than a local basis, a concept which Fitzroy named "forecasting the weather", the origin of the modern term "weather forecast". The first daily weather forecasts were published in The Times in 1861. The availability of telegraphic communication was a major facilitator but the trigger for more comprehensive action was to be a tragic one, the storm in 1859 which became known as “The Royal Charter Storm” after its largest victim – one, regrettably, of some 130 vessels sunk and 90 damaged.

The Royal Charter in proud service
The SS Royal Charter was a modern vessel, a 2720-ton, 236-foot steam clipper built in 1855 for passenger service between Britain and Australia. She had accommodation for 600 passengers; some in luxury, and was fast in her day, capable of making the voyage in under 60 days. On 25th October 1859 she was in the Irish Sea, on the last stages of a voyage from Melbourne, Australia, to Liverpool.  She carried a crew of 112 and 371 passengers, many of the gold-miners who had been successful in the Australian diggings and who were carrying large sums of gold about their persons. More gold was also being carried as cargo.

As the Royal Charter reached the north-western tip of Anglesey on 25th October – and was about to turn eastwards towards Liverpool, the barometer was already dropping. This was the first indication of a storm of huge geographical extent. Weather had already deteriorated in the English Channel earlier in the day and significant damage had already been sustained in Devon and Cornwall. In the hours that followed the storm moved northwards, hitting the area where the Royal Charter found herself by 2000 hrs. This was only the start of the tempest – maximum force was not recorded until midday on October 26th and the storm rolled northwards towards Scotland with winds at their peak reaching force 12 on the Beaufort scale and well over 100 mph.

The Royal Charter being driven shorewards
The Royal Charter was due to pick up the Liverpool pilot off Anglesey on October 25th but with the wind by then at 10 on the Beaufort scale this was impossible. The wind continued to rise to hurricane force during the night of 25/26th October, changing its direction as it did from East to North North East, so driving the Royal Charter towards the north-east coast of Anglesey. Unable to make way – her installed horsepower was only 200 – the decision was taken to drop anchor. The mooring held initially but first one anchor chain, then the second, snapped in the early hours of 26th October.  Now helpless, the ship was driven first on to a sandbank and then, as the tide lifted her, she was thrown on to rocks just north of the village of Moelfre on Anglesey’s east coast.  Pounded by the waves, the Royal Charter now began to break up.

Royal Charter breaking up - contemporary illustration
The unfolding tragedy was close enough to be observed from the shore. In the light of dawn two workmen, Thomas Hughes and Mesach Williams, who were working to secure the storm-damaged roof of Williams’ cottage, saw what was happening. Hughes ran to the village to raise the alarm while Williams watched helplessly from the cliff top.  What followed was vividly described by the novelist  Charles Dickens in his “The Uncommercial Traveller”, after he had spoken to eyewitnesses when he visited the site soon afterwards:

And he (Hughes) and the other, descending to the beach, and finding the sea mercilessly beating over a great broken ship, had clambered up the stony ways, like staircases without stairs, on which the wild village hangs in little clusters, as fruit hangs on boughs, and had given the alarm. And so, over the hill-slopes, and past the waterfall, and down the gullies where the land drains off into the ocean, the scattered quarrymen and fishermen inhabiting that part of Wales had come running to the dismal sight—their clergyman among them. And as they stood in the leaden morning, stricken with pity, leaning hard against the wind, their breath and vision often failing as the sleet and spray rushed at them from the ever forming and dissolving mountains of sea, and as the wool which was a part of the vessel’s cargo blew in with the salt foam and remained upon the land when the foam melted, they saw the ship’s life-boat put off from one of the heaps of wreck; and first, there were three men in her, and in a moment she capsized, and there were but two; and again, she was struck by a vast mass of water, and there was but one; and again, she was thrown bottom upward, and that one, with his arm struck through the broken planks and waving as if for the help that could never reach him, went down into the deep."
 This description has much in common with the description of the storm at Yarmouth in which Ham Pegotty dies while trying to rescue the worthless Steerforth in David Copperfield (1850) – one wonders how closely Dickens based Life upon Art when reporting the Royal Charter disaster.

Joe Rogers - brave and indomitable 
Rescue by boat proving hopeless, it was resolved to get a line ashore from the ship, which could then be used to get survivors to safety with a bosun’s chair. Getting a line through the boiling surf demanded a hero and one stepped forward in the shape of a Maltese seaman, Guże Ruggier, who served under the anglicised name of Joe Rodgers.  He was a strong swimmer but in the surf his progress would be impeded by a rope. He declined using a life belt and secured a line about himself, crawling out along the bowsprit before dropping into the water, disappearing into the foam and darkness. Though he could be no longer seen those on board felt the rope gradually hauled out. At length they felt it tauten, confirming that it had been grasped by those on shore. A stout rope was now fastened to the line. It was dragged to shore and a bosun’s chair was attached to it. All this time the Royal Charter was beating herself to wreckage on the rocks. The slow process of transport by bosun’s chair now commenced, one after the other, with 28 villagers hauling from shore. Twenty five persons were brought on shore in this way before the ship disintegrated, taking over 450 victims with her. Many of them were said to have been weighed down by the belts of gold they were wearing. A total of 21 passengers and 18 crew members were saved, all men, and no women or children.

"The Life Line" by Winslow Homer (1884)] - rescue by bosun's chair
Philadelphia Museum of Art
A large quantity of gold was alleged afterwards to have been thrown up on the beach. The bullion being carried as cargo was insured for £322,000, but the total value of the gold on the ship must have been much higher as many of the passengers had considerable sums in gold, either on their bodies or deposited in the ship's strong room. Dickens was fascinated by this and reported:

“So tremendous had the force of the sea been when it broke the ship, that it had beaten one great ingot of gold, deep into a strong and heavy piece of her solid iron-work: in which also several loose sovereigns that the ingot had swept in before it, had been found, as firmly embedded as though the iron had been liquid when they were forced there.”
In the light of this, the recognition of Joe Rodgers’ courage seems miserly – he was given a gold medal and a gratuity of £5 ($20 at the time) by the National Lifeboat . Dickens's friend, the painter Henry O'Neil , exhibited the picture “A Volunteer” in 1860, based on the incident, depicting Rogers about to leap into the sea with the rope around him.

"A Volunteer" - by Henry O'Neil, (1860
 Though the largest victim of what came to be known of the “Royal Charter Storm”, this vessel was not the only one. The hurricane sank a total of 133 ships and damaged another 90 badly while onshore falling rocks and masonry also killed. The final death-toll was estimated at around 800.  The number of lives last at sea off Britain in these two days was double that of the entire previous year.

The Royal Charter Storm and its attendant tragedies did however impel Captain Fitzroy to introduce the first gale-warning service in 1860. This was a system of hoisting “storm warning cones” at the principal ports when a gale was expected and shipping was recommended to stay in port under these conditions. It is a sad reflection of the profit-orientation of contemporary fishing fleet owners, even at the expense of life, that many objected to the posting of gale warnings. Under pressure from them Fitzroy's system was briefly abandoned after his death, though finally reinstated under pressure from fishermen themselves.

Largely remembered today only as the captain of HMS Beagle, Fitzroy was in fact one of the great Victorian heroes, and one to whom thousands would owe their lives. His own end was tragic. Beset by money problems and, as a sincere Evangelical Christian, disturbed by to the point of obsession by his erstwhile friend Charles Darwin’s “Origin of Species” and by what he saw as its challenge to Biblical literalism, he cut his throat with a razor in 1865.

This noble man, who achieved so much for so many, deserves to be well remembered.


Friday, 7 August 2015

Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 5

In earlier articles in this occasional series we have met artists – such as Thomas Luny and Richard Paton – who had experience of life at sea before (or sometimes during) their careers as artists. One of the most renowned painters of the period, Nicholas Pocock (1740-1825), had an even greater qualification for he was qualified as a ship’s master and had served as such for many years. He was in addition present at the “Battle of the Glorious First of June” in 1794, which added even more realism to his paintings. In his lifetime he was probably the most admired of all naval artists, a fact that was confirmed by him being commissioned to produce six key pictures for Clarke and McArthur's “Life of Lord Nelson”, the two-volume official biography which was produced shortly after Nelson's death at Trafalgar in 1805

A View of Nevis from St Kitts by Nicholas Pocock, 1790
This is an area Pocock knew well from his days as master of a merchant ship
Pocock was born in 1740 in Bristol, then Britain’s second-busiest port, one which was heavily involved in the West-Indian “triangular trade”. This involved carrying manufactured goods to West Africa, exchanged them there for slaves, transported them for sale to the West Indies and on the return voyage to Britain carried sugar and molasses. In due course Pocock was formally apprenticed to his father, so learning seamanship in the most practical school possible. In 1759 his father was to die however, leaving him to care for his widowed mother and two younger brothers.  In these endeavours he was sustained by the support of Richard Champion, a Quaker merchant and pioneer manufacturer of porcelain. Pocock was to command ships on Champion’s behalf, including trading to the American colonies. Given the lead that Quakers took in campaigning against the Slave Trade, one surmises that Pocock himself was not to have been involved in this shameful trade.

"The Consultation" - circa 1810.  A situation Pocock would have
 been familiar with as a master - heavy weather and decisions need to be made
Now a ship’s master, Pocock was in parallel showing significant promise as an artist. His first drawings date from the 1758-62 period and were mainly of Bristol privateers and slave ships. He carried this talent over into his logbooks so that were normally systematic and dispassionate recordings of events were in Pocock’s case transformed by addition of drawings. Five of these logs survive from the 1766 to 1775 period and four of them are in Britain’s National Maritime Museum in Greenwich.  One such log referred to voyages to the West Indies in a ship, the Lloyd probably owned by Champion, in 1771-72. In addition to the usual bald records of position and weather  most entries are supplemented by pen and wash drawings.  Other voyages took Pocock to the Mediterranean, experiencing in these years every type of weather – giving insights that were later to stand him in good stead as an artist.

Pocock's log book of the Betsy 1766-67
National Maritime Museum D1784
View of Charleston, South Caroline, 1767
National Maritime Museum D2746
In this period Pocock was also gaining competence as a painter in oils and watercolours. One wonders the practicalities of this were . Did he perhaps take lessons between voyages, lessons that must necessarily have been of short duration? Was he largely self-taught? How much painting did he actually do at sea?  If he did, what measures were needed to facilitate it?

A Pocock watercolour: Ilfracombe from the Eastward, 1797
National Maritime Museum PW5909
Events now pushed Pocock towards taking up painting as an alternative career to the sea.  The American Revolutionary War had a devastating effect on transatlantic trade and Pocock’s employer Champion, who as a porcelain manufacturer was involved in luxury exports, was to become insolvent in 1778. Pocock had by now become known to the greatest contemporary British artist, Sir Joshua Reynolds, who admired his work and encouraged him. By 1782 Pocock was sufficiently respected to have work exhibited by the Royal Academy.  This year was also to see Admiral Rodney's victory over the French at the Battle of the Saintes and Pocock – familiar with the area in the West Indies where it took place – was commissioned to produce a series of paintings commemorating it. This led in due course to the prestigious appointment of Marine Painter to King George III – an early example of an accredited war-artist.

The Battle of the Saintes 1782 - the end of the action
National Maritime Museum PAH952B

The Frigate HMS Triton © BHC3675
The ship from which Pocock views the Glorious First of June,
HMS Pegasus, would have been broadly similar



Pocock's approach was meticulous and his naval paintings were based on very extensive research. His background as a master mariner aided his interviews with eyewitnesses and his determination of what were the wind and sea conditions, as well as ship manoeuvres, during the actions he was depicting. He drew detailed diagrams of battles to fix relative ship-positions and made preliminary sketches of individual ships. In due course he was to be present himself on the “Glorious First of June” battle in 1794, which he viewed from the frigate HMS Pegasus. The notes and sketched he kept during the action were to provide the basis for a series of paintings depicting its various phases.

HMS Defence at the Glorious First of June
Note how smoke reduces visibility - "the fog of war" incarnate!

© National Maritime Museum BHC0474
Pocock’s naval paintings were also strict in their demands for accuracy. The website of the National Maritime Museum quotes a letter which  begins, “Sir Richard Strachan’s compliments to Mr Pocock and inform him he just recollects that the French Admirals mizzen (sic)  topmast should be shot away at the time the picture is meant to represent…” and it is accompanied by a scratchy pen and ink sketch by Sir Richard who commanded the squadron which captured four French ships in November 1805.

The Battle of Copenhagen - bird's eye view by Pocock
© National Maritime Museum BHC0529
It is hard at this remove to appreciate the intensity of the veneration felt for Nelson after his death at Trafalgar in 1805. It was widely – and correctly – realised that this smashing victory had saved Britain from an existential threat and that it was to a very great extent due to the genius and leadership of one man. The official biography mentioned earlier was one mark of this esteem, and it was an acknowledgement of Pocock’s eminence by this time that he be commissioned to illustrate it. The six key pictures were exhibited the paintings at the Royal Academy and engraved by James Fittler (1758 –1835) and reproduced in biography, four of them accompanied by plans of the action.

Pocock's "Nelson's Flagships at Anchor"
© National Maritime Museum BHC 1096
Of the paintings is considered by some as Pocock’s best – this is “Nelson's Flagships at Anchor”. This shows a scene that never actually occurred - five ships that had served Nelson in various periods shown together at Spithead in the golden light of evening.

Pocock died in 1821 and was by then one of the most respected artists of his time, the authenticity of his work based on hard personal experience of the challenges of seamanship.  It was a remarkable career for a man who had commanded merchant ships at sea up until almost his fortieth birthday, and who learned his craft as a painter under the most difficult of conditions.



Click on the links below to see earlier articles in this occasional series.