Friday 31 October 2014

The Battle of Coronel, November 1st 1914

November 1st 2014 is the 100th anniversary of the first defeat to be suffered by Britain’s Royal Navy in a century. It was fought in stormy seas and fading light off the coast of Chile and was to result in the loss of over 1600 men. The circumstances were dramatic in the extreme.
The tragic HMS Good Hope
In an earlier blog (on August 1st) entitled “Germany’s Doomed Nomads” I outlined how Imperial German Navy ships stationed outside home waters at the outbreak of WW1 were in an unenviable position. Germany possessed only one fortified naval base overseas – at Tsingtao in China – and the various German colonies around the world – Togo, Cameroon, South-West Africa, Tanganyika, Northern New Guinea and various Pacific island groups, could provide only limited coaling and maintenance facilities. Tanganyika held out until the end of the war but all other colonies were conquered by Britain and her allies within the first year. As Tanganyika's coast was blockaded from the beginning it could provide no facilities to support naval operations.

von Spee
Germany’s main overseas naval force was the East Asia Squadron, based in Tsingtao. Commanded in 1914 by Vice Admiral Maximilian, Reichsgraf von Spee, its main strength lay in two modern armoured Cruisers, the Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, and four modern light cruisers, Dresden, Emden, Leipzig and Nürnberg. There were also a number of gunboats and a single destroyer, mainly for police-type actions along the coast of China. Impressive as this force might seem, it was puny by comparison with the naval forces of Britain’s ally, Japan, which not only deployed large numbers of superb ships and manned them with seasoned professionals, but which nine years before had achieved the greatest naval victory in history up to that time. There were in addition British ships in the area, and the Royal Australian Navy’s flagship, the battlecruiser HMAS Australia, was alone superior to von Spee’s entire squadron.

SMS Leipzig - other German cruisers essentially similar
When war broke out in August 1914 most of the warships of the East Asia Station were dispersed at various Pacific island colonies on routine missions. Von Spee recognised that Tsingtao could not be held indefinitely – the Japanese declared war on Germany in August 23rd after which they joined Britain in a blockade and siege of the base. Von Spee accordingly ordered his ocean-going vessels to rendezvous at Pagan Island in the northern Marianas. In conference with his commanders there he planned, probably with little expectation of success, a return voyage across the world to Germany. The key factor would be coal supply by chartered colliers, which would have to meet the squadron at various points, their movements being coordinated by radio. Organising this, and making it happen operationally in the teeth of massive sweeps by the British and Japanese, was likely to be difficult in the extreme.  The Emden was detached to conduct a separate – and very successful – campaign in the Indian Ocean. Von Spee was starved of news as all German undersea cables through British controlled areas had been cut, and radio capabilities were still very limited.  The Nürnberg was therefore dispatched to Hawaii – neutral territory – to gather war news. Von Spee headed for German Samoa with Scharnhorst and Gneisenau, then east, towards the French possession of Tahiti, where they made a brief bombardment. Reunited, the squadron coaled at Easter Island from German colliers.
SMS Gneisenau, identical to her sister Scharnhorst, in pre-war ochre and white livery
An obsolete cruiser SMS Geier, failed to make the rendezvous at Pagan, and had to intern herself at then-neutral Hawaii because of technical problems. Left behind at Tsingtao were four small gunboats Iltis, Jaguar, Tiger, Luchs and the torpedo boat S-90. This latter craft was to score a significant success by torpedoing and sinking the old Japanese cruiser Takachiho on October 29th. All these craft were scuttled prior to surrender of Tsingtao to the British and Japanese in November.
SMS S-90, Nemesis of the old Japanese cruiser Takachiho
The British Admiralty made destruction of von Spee’s squadron a high priority. The futile German bombardment of Papeete, Tahiti, and the destruction of an old French gunboat there (wasting ill-afforded ammunition in the process) led the British to concentrate the search in the Western Pacific. This seems very unwise in retrospect since Japan, Britain’s ally, already had substantial forces in this area and British units could have been more gainfully employed further east. (Hindsight is always of course 20/20). It was only in early October that an intercepted radio message indicated that von Spee was heading for the west coast of South America to destroy British merchant shipping there.
Good Hope, soon after commissioning
Drawing by the eminent marine artist William Lionel Wyllie
Good Hope in wartime grey
The British squadron sent into the Pacific from the South Atlantic to counter such a move was almost wholly made up of obsolescent or poorly-armed vessels, crewed by inexperienced naval reservists (echoes here of the Aboukir, Cressy and Hogue disaster covered in my blog of September 19th). The force commanded by Rear-Admiral Sir Christopher Cradock consisted of the near-obsolete armoured cruisers Good Hope (flagship), and Monmouth, the modern light cruiser Glasgow and a weakly-armed converted liner, the Otranto. For heavy back-up Cradock was assigned the old, slow, but powerfully-armed pre-dreadnought Canopus. In the event her worn-out machinery made it impossible, despite heroic efforts by her engine-room crew, to keep pace with the cruisers.

Except for two individual 9.2-inch turret-mounted guns on Good Hope, and four 6-inch mounted on  Monmouth in double-gun turrets, the remaining twenty-six  6-inch weapons carried by the armoured cruisers were positioned in casemates built into the sides of the hulls.  Some of these casemates were “two-storey” ones, with weapons in the lower positions inoperable in any significant seaway. This made a substantial portion of the armament essentially unusable and, as the weakness was so obvious, one wonders why naval architects persisted with this feature through successive design classes.
Monmouth - note the "two-storey" casemates for 6-in weapons
By contrast, von Spee’s armoured cruisers Scharnhorst and Gneisenau each carried four 8.2-inch weapons in double-gun turrets and each ship’s six 5.9-inch weapons, though casemate-mounted, were higher above the waterline than on the British ships. The German 8.2-inch weapons were markedly superior as regards range and firepower and both vessels had proved themselves as “crack gunnery ships” in peacetime firings. Add to this the superior German armouring and Cradock’s force can be seen to have been wholly outmatched. Though the light cruiser Glasgow was a superb new vessel, and individually superior to any one of her German counterparts, she was outnumbered by Dresden, Leipzig and Nürnberg.

The weakness of Cradock’s force was recognised, but the Admiralty seems to have placed excessive trust in the presence of the Canopus and the four 12-inch guns of her main armament. Cradock was told to use Canopus as "a citadel around which all our cruisers in those waters could find absolute security".

It is notable that both Cradock and von Spee were largely similar personalities  – decent and honourable men who shared the same enthusiasm and dedication to their profession and who would have been good friends in other circumstances. There was a chivalry and delicacy about both of them that belonged to an age which had even by then almost disappeared. The Royal Navy was Cradock’s whole life – he never married – and he had said that his preferred death would be either in a hunting accident or during action at sea. A quote from book he wrote in 1908, “Whispers from the Fleet,” describes the operations of a cruiser squadron in near-poetic terms and prefigures, uncannily, the actual death which was to be so close to that he wished for:

"The Scene: - A heaving unsettled sea, and away over to the western horizon an angry yellow sun is setting clearly below a forbidding bank of the blackest of wind-charged clouds. In the centre of the picture lies an immense solitary cruiser with a flag – ‘tis the cruiser recall – at her masthead blowing out broad and clear from the first rude kiss given by the fast rising breeze. Then away, from half the points of the compass, are seen the swift ships of a cruiser squadron all drawing into join their flagship: some are close, others far distant and hull down, with nothing but their fitful smoke against the fast fading lighted sky to mark their whereabouts; but like wild ducks at evening flighting home to some well-known spot, so are they, with one desire, hurrying back at the behest of their mother-ship to gather around her for the night."
In late October both the British and German forces were close to the coast of Chile, von Spee off Valparaíso and Cradock further south, but no contact had yet been made. Glasgow entered the Chilean port of Coronel to collect messages and news from the British consul. She found there a German supply ship which promptly radioed news of her arrival to von Spee. In line with the laws of neutrality Glasgow could take no action in port against this vessel and she left Coronel to rejoin Cradock. On receipt of the news von Spee headed south to run down Glasgow. Alerted by German radio-traffic (the importance of radio silence does not appear to have been yet appreciated) Cradock turned north to meet the Germans, leaving Canopus far behind and Glasgow steaming south to join him.

The squadrons were now on a collision course and given the disparity in forces Cradock’s decision to advance seems almost inexplicable, the more so since he would lack Canopus’s support. It was said later that he was "constitutionally incapable of refusing action". Another explanation is that, knowing his mission was impossible, Cradock wanted to damage von Spee’s ships and to force him to use ammunition he could not replace, so making them easy targets for other British forces which would follow.
Canopus - heavily armed but too slow to support Cracock
Glasgow joined Good Hope, Monmouth and Otranto early on November 1st, in seas too rough to allow human inter-ship transfer, messages being sent across by line instead. In early afternoon Cradock deployed his ships in line of battle and at 1617 hrs the German squadron sighted British smoke. Von Spee took Scharnhorst, Gneisenau and Leipzig ahead, leaving the slower Dresden and Nürnberg to follow.

Confronted by this overwhelming force Cradock ordered a turn away so that both squadrons rushed south in a chase that was to lasted 90 minutes. The slow, 16 knot, Otranto was now Cradock’s millstone and he knew that he must choose between abandoning her and continuing to run south with Good Hope, Monmouth and Glasgow or to stand and fight to protect the useless converted liner. Cradock decided he must fight, and drew his ships closer together, turning to the south-east to close with the German vessels while the sun was still high. He also ordered the Otranto, which was too weakly armed to influence the outcome, to escape west at full speed. Von Spee, meanwhile, was manoeuvring his force to ensure that the British ships to the west would be outlined against the setting sun.
Sharnhorst in action - note rough sea
Von Spee responded to Cradock’s manoeuvre by turning his own faster ships away, maintaining the distance between the forces at 14,000 yards as they steamed inparallel. At 1818 hrs, with little daylight left, Cradock again tried to close, but von Spee once more turned away to open the range. The sun set at 1850 hrs and the British ships were now silhouetted against the last light in the west.

Von Spee closed the range to 12,000 yards and opened fire.

What followed was a massacre. The British 6-in weapons were outranged by the German 8.2’s and when Cradock made another attempt to close the German fire became even more devastatingly accurate. By 1930 hrs both Good Hope and Monmouth were on fire, and easy targets for the German gunners now that darkness had fallen, whereas the German ships were shrouded in darkness. Monmouth’s guns fell silent but Good Hope continued firing until 1950 hrs when she too ceased fire, then exploded and disappeared. Scharnhorst maintained a merciless fire on Monmouth, while Gneisenau joined Leipzig and Dresden in engaging Glasgow. The Glasgow was still relatively undamaged but her captain turned away to escape in the darkness, recognising that continuing the battle would be futile.
Glasgow - Cradock's most modern ship
Monmouth, badly damaged, but still afloat, tried to run eastwards to beach herself on the Chilean coast. The Germans lost her temporarily in the darkness but the Nürnberg, the slowest of von Spee’s ships, was to find her. The German captain directed his searchlights on to Monmouth’s ensign in an invitation to surrender but she refused to do so. Nürnberg then opened fire reluctantly and sank her. Aware that Canopus might be somewhere in the vicinity von Spee turned north and the action ended.

All battles are horrible but Coronel seems particularly ghastly. The rough seas, the all but impotent British armoured cruisers being pounded with salvo after salvo, the darkness, the raging fires, Good Hope’s explosive end, the hope raised on Monmouth that she might yet survive, only to have it dashed, all combine to give the encounter a nightmare quality. There were no survivors from either Good Hope or Monmouth, 1,600 British officers and men, including Cradock, having been killed.  Glasgow and Otranto both escaped, neither with fatalities. Two British shells, both duds, hit Scharnhorst, and four shells struck Gneisenau. Three German seamen were wounded. The greatest loss to von Spee was the expenditure of ammunition which could not be replaced. When they next faced British ships, as they would a month later, the German squadron would do so with depleted magazines.
von Spee's squadron in Valpariso Nov. 3rd 1914
There also appear to be Chilean ships present, nearer the camera
Von Spee was aware that his victory would not be enough to save his squadron, far from home as it was and without German bases between. When, two days later, his squadron entered Valparaiso to the cheers of the German residents, he refused to join in the celebrations. Presented with a bouquet of flowers, he remarked "These will do nicely for my grave".

The defeat at Coronel, the first surface action in over a century which the Royal Navy had lost, was both shocking and unexpected. Only by swift and total annihilation of von Spee’s squadron could the humiliation be avenged. Massive forces were sent south from Britain to ensure this – as they did a month later.

But that’s a different story!

Friday 24 October 2014

The First of the White Rajahs of Sarawak

I’m currently in Sarawak, the portion of Malaysia that lies on the north coast of Borneo. It stretches some 450 miles, roughly south-west to north-east, bordered northwards by its long coast along the South China Sea and southwards by its frontier with Kalimantan, the larger part of Borneo that belongs to Indonesia. With an area of some 48,000 square miles (compared with Great Britain’s 88,000) and a population of 2.4 million, Sarawak today is a highly-developed modern state with a thriving economy based on development of large gas and oil reserves.

Kuching - Sarawak's principal city today
(with acknowledgement to CoolCityCat on Wikipedia)
 In a world of strife and hatreds I find it pleasing to come to a place in which different ethnic and religious groups live – and thrive – in harmony. Some 30% of the population are Ibans – a term that covers many sub-groups – who were the original inhabitants of Borneo and are today mainly Christian. At 24% The Chinese community is the next most populous group, Chinese pioneers having come here as long ago as the 6th Century AD, but their major immigration occurring in the last century and a half. Malays represent 23% of the population, their presence going back upwards of a thousand years and the large majority of whom are Muslim. The remaining 23% are made up of a huge multiplicity of indigenous ethnic groups, many of them Christian, plus Indians and Europeans. Somehow it all works and it sets an example for so much of the rest of the world to follow as regards acceptance of diversity, mutual respect, and focus on common goals of peace and development.
Sarawak today
But since Sarawak is in area only 17% of the vast island of Borneo – the third largest island in the world – how did it come into being as a separate state? The answer lies in the unlikely career of one of the most colourful figures of the 19th Century, James Brooke, who essentially defined its borders, governed it as an independent kingdom, and established a dynasty of “White Rajahs” who were to continue to rule until 1946.

James Brooke in his 30s
- the personification of a romantic hero
Born in India in 1803, son of a British judge, Brooke was sent to England at the age of 12 to be educated, a process punctuated by running away from a school he disliked. He returned to India at the age of 16 and was commissioned into the Bengal Army of the British East India Company. (In this period there was no direct British rule, nor was there to be for another thirty years). The First Burmese War broke out in 1824 and Brooke was soon in action with a body of volunteer Indian horsemen he had trained. He was to lead them in a successful charge at the Battle of Rungpore in January 1825 and two days later repeated the exploit. This time however he was shot in the lung. Thrown from his horse, he was left for dead, and only when the battlefield was cleared was he found to be still breathing. He survived, but even after his initial recovery was weak enough to be sent back to Britain to recuperate. His wound was sufficient to justify a pension of £70 per year for life. The next five years, marked by continuing ill health, were spent in England and when he returned to India in 1830 he resigned his commission. Fascinated by South East and East Asia, he sailed on to China – more illness there – and then back to England.

Once at home again Brooke began to read widely on the East and to consolidate the negative opinion he had formed of the East India Company (known as “John Company”) and the stranglehold it maintained on commercial activity. He did not share the prejudice of so many of his class against “trade” and he recognised significant opportunities in South East Asia. Drawing on family money, Brooke purchased a “rakish-looking slaver brig,” the 290 tons Findlay, loaded it with trade goods, hired a crew and master and took her to Macao, the Portuguese colony on the China coast. The venture was a financial disaster and Brooke returned home much chastened. He bought a small yacht and sailed it off Britain to increase his knowledge of seamanship – which he should probably have done to start with – and the death of his father in 1835 brought him an inheritance of £30,000, a vast sum at the time. Now 33, Brooke realised that it was now or never if he was to realise his dreams. He bought a 142 ton schooner, the Royalist, and set systematically about learning all he could about Borneo, which he had identified as offering the greatest opportunities. There was a Dutch presence on the south of the island, but the Malay Sultanate of Brunei, on the north coast, had been weakened by corruption and extortion and had only limited control of its territories. Oppression of the Iban tribes by the Malay rulers was extreme and there was widespread resentment. Loose control led to flourishing piracy, the most important participants being “Illanuns” from Mindinao in the Southern Philippines, as well as indigenous groups known as the “Sea Dyaks”.  Borneo’s estuaries provided ideal hiding places and the pirates tended to victimise Chinese traders and to avoid European shipping. If trade was sparse then the pirates moved inland, along the rivers, to raid the tribes living there. It might be added that headhunting was a widespread and honoured tradition at this period.
Contemporary sketch of a Dyak war prahu
It was into this situation that James Brooke sailed his Royalist, arriving at Kuching in Western Sarawak in August 1838, and finding the settlement there threatened by Iban uprising against the Sultan of Brunei. Brooke took command of a combined Malay and Chinese force that had hitherto been on the defensive and, leading from the front, and supported by light guns landed from the Royalist, launched it on the enemy. The result was a rout and other successes followed. Brooke’s reputation was now established. Trading opportunities proved less than Brooke had anticipated and could only flourish is piracy was suppressed. Brooke, with local support, now launched a number of anti-piracy campaigns, which indeed were to continue for much of the rest of his life. In 1841, greatly impressed by Brooke’s successes, the Sultan of Brunei, offered him the governorship of Sarawak. The move was a wise one for many Malay nobles in Brunei, unhappy over the anti-piracy campaigns, attempted to depose the Sultan. Brooke came to the rescue and restored the Sultan to his throne. In the following year, 1842, the Sultan ceded complete sovereignty of Sarawak to Brooke, granting him the title of Rajah.
Brooke negotiating with the Sultan of Brunei
Brooke now began to consolidate his rule over Sarawak, reforming administration, codifying laws, fighting piracy and ending headhunting. Major cultural shifts were required as the traditions of ages were challenged. One chieftain, named Matari, who came to see Brooke asked if he really intended to punish piracy and headhunting. On being assured that this was the case he asked pathetically if he might have permission to steal a few heads occasionally. Brooke administered justice from the hall of his large bungalow in Kuching, supported by Malay nobles. Once it became obvious that he was prepared to bring in and enforce judgements against the rich and powerful his reputation rose further. Financial challenges proved more intractable as the country proved less productive than he had anticipated. He estimated annual revenue at between £5000 and £6000 and out of this had to cover the salaries and costs of his administration, his own living expenses, and the upkeep of the two ships he maintained. It was at best break-even and he was frequently required to dip into his own rapidly dwindling fortune.
Brooke's and HMS Dido's forces attacking upriver
Pirate stronghold in background (from Keppel's book)
One of the largest anti-piracy campaigns was to be in 1843, when Brooke secured the support of a kindred spirit, James Keppel, captain of the 18-gun corvette HMS Dido. The objectives were three villages up rivers swamped by mangrove swamps where Dido’s draught did not allow her to penetrate. Brooke had had a launch called the Jolly Bachelor built locally for such work and she, with the Dido’s pinnace, two cutters and a gig, carrying 80 men between them, led the expedition. They were supplemented by numerous local craft, which carried a further 400. The first of the stockade villages was easily taken. The flotilla was ambushed as it passed over shallows to the next village, but the attackers were driven off, and this village’s defenders surrendered, promising “to reform their ways.” The third village, Rembas, put up a stiffer resistance but was stormed with little loss and burned thereafter. The defenders, who had fled into the forest, returned to negotiate a truce. Few lives were lost in the entire expedition, and not a single woman or child. In 1846 Keppel was to publish an account of these exploits, drawing heavily on Brooke’s own journal, with the result that he became widely known in Britain for the first time.
Brooke's Jolly Bachelor (left) in the thick of the action
Brooke's Sarawak Flag
In 1847 Brooke returned temporarily to England. Now a national hero, he was awarded  the Freedom of the City of London, appointed British consul-general in Borneo and knighted. He was however unsuccessful – as he continued to be thereafter – in getting the British Government to take over responsibility for Sarawak and he continued to bear a heavy financial burden. This was all the worse since he had lost heavily on investments in Britain in this period. He returned to Sarawak to find it well run by the small staff he had recruited in Britain and was warmly welcomed by the Malay and Iban communities. Brooke now provided Sarawak with a national flag – a red and purple cross on a yellow ground.
The Nemesis had previously distinguished herself in the First Opium War (1840-41)
Pirate activity was again taking off however, leading to the largest punitive expedition of all. On this occasion Brook had the support of Admiral Sir Francis Collier with HMS Albatross (16-gun brig) and the East India Company screw gunboat Nemesis. Once again a drive upriver was required – for this Albatross had too deep a draught, but she provided her longboats – and Brooke brought some sixty “praus” – local craft – carrying a large force. In the battle that followed the pirate force was isolated on a sandspit and was lashed by fire from Nemesis. The prahus cut off escape and the battle raged for five hours under a bright moon. Brooke’s local allies showed no mercy to those who had persecuted them so long. An attempt was made to board Nemesis but the attackers’ canoes were overturned and many of their occupants battered under her paddle wheels. After losing nearly a hundred boats and 500 men the pirates’ main force, some 2000 strong, managed to escape upriver, losing 500 in the process. Brooke refrained from following and in the following weeks the pirate groups surrendered.

Admiral Sir Francis Austen (1774-1865)
Jane's brother, older by one year
The 1850s were years of consolidation and Brooke established a small but capable civil service. Trade grew slowly, although there were further outbreaks of violence to be suppressed, including a revolt by part of the Chinese community. Brooke was reluctant to allow European traders to operate freely as he believed that this would result in exploitation of the inhabitants. Much trouble was caused by a trader called Robert Burns, apparently a grandson of the Scottish poet and described as “disreputable”. He was accused not only of stealing women but of encouraging local tribes to kill anybody trying to enter his areas of operations. Expelled from Sarawak, Burns was to turn to arms trading off North Borneo. Here he literally lost his head after his ship was attacked by pirates. Brooke accompanied the Royal Navy commander in the area, Admiral Sir Francis Austen, on an expedition to punish those responsible. This resulted in the unlikely circumstance of the novelist Jane Austen’s brother avenging the grandson of the poet Robert Burns.

In these years Brooke invited the naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace to Sarawak. This encouraged  Wallace to decide on the Malay Archipelago for his next expedition, one  that lasted for eight years and established him as one of the foremost Victorian intellectuals and naturalists of the time.
Brooke became the centre of controversy in 1851 when accusations against him of excessive use of force, under the guise of anti-piracy operations, ultimately led to the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry in Singapore in 1854. After investigation, the Commission dismissed the charges but the accusations continued to haunt him in his later years.

Rajah James Brooke in later life
Brooke never married – there is evidence of strong male friendships, but as these were frequent in the Victorian era, without any sexual dimension, it is impossible to come to any conclusions. Brooke did however admit to an illegitimate son, whose mother’s identity was never revealed, and to whom he left money in his will. As successor as Rajah be appointed his sister’s son, Charles Johnson, who changed his surname to Brooke.

Though James Brooke was still active in fighting pirates in the early 1860s, his health was by then failing. He retired to Britain, suffered several strokes and died in 1868. Here were to be two further White Rajahs – his nephew Charles (reigned 1868-1917) and the latter’s son Vyner (reigned 1917-1946). Occupied by the Japanese in World War 2, Sarawak was finally annexed by Britain in 1946, in return for compensation paid to Rajah Vyner and his three daughters. Britain granted Sarawak independence in 1963 and it formed the federation of Malaysia with Malaya, North Borneo, and Singapore later that year. (Singapore later seceded as a separate nation).

So ended one of the most romantic – and unlikely – episodes of British history, all due to one man whose exploits were indeed stranger than fiction.

Competition Announcement:

3rd Dawlish Chronicles Novel launching soon

Today, 24.10.14, I’m approving the cover-design for my third Dawlish Chronicles novel and I’m still on track for publication in both paperback and Kindle formats by December.

The title, for now, is “Britannia’s X” – with “X” being undisclosed for now. I’m therefore offering signed copies of the novel to the first three successful guesses as to what “X” stands for.
The first two books in the series have been Britannia’s Wolf and Britannia’s Reach, so what could the “X” possibly be?

The only clues I’m offering are (a) that the action covers the period April – September 1881, (b) that for Nicholas Dawlish the adventure (and nightmare!) starts in the Northern Adriatic but shifts continents thereafter and (c) that Dawlish’s intrepid wife, Florence, plays a key role.

So over to you! Please submit your guesses to before the closing date of November 3rd 2014.

The guesses received for "X" so far have been excellent - and many could be ideal for future novels. The name I found most amusing was "Britannia's Secret", which hinted at what Florence might be wearing under her elegant and voluminous dress!

Please note that Britannia’s X is being published through the Old Salt Press, an association of independent writers dedicated to publishing the finest in nautical fiction and non-fiction. I’ve been honoured by being asked to join founder authors Joan Druett, Rick Spilman, Alaric Bond and V.E. Ulett and hope that my continuing work will live up to the high standards they have already set.

Friday 17 October 2014

Roman sea-borne trading and the port of Ostia

The sub-title of this blog is "Duty and Daring in the Heyday of Empire", the Empire in question being British. This week however we're dealing with a much earlier  Empire - that of Rome, and we're looking at its vital sea-born trade.

The second innovation this week is that, for the first time, I feature a guest blog. There's no better person to invite for this innovation than Alison Morton, whose thrillers are set in a parallel universe, in which a remnant of the Roman Empire has survived to our own day - and indeed prospered - as Roma Nova. A self-described  ‘Roman nut’ since age 11, Alison has visited sites throughout Europe including the alma mater, Rome. But it was the mosaics at Ampurias (Spain) that started her wondering what a modern Roman society would be like if run by women…

Alison's first three books  in the Roma Nova series, INCEPTIO, PERFIDITAS and SUCCESSIO have received widespread acclaim - and awards - and work is in progress on the fourth in the series.  I was privileged to meet Alison for the first time about a year ago and I also attnded her launch of SUCCESSIO, whhc i covered in this blog. Alison is a vastly likeable and larger-than-life character who's not unlike the heroines she writes about - and I have enjoyed not only her books but her website and regular blog as well (see link in column to the right).

So with that, over to Alison for some insights into Roman nautical affairs:

Trade in the Roman Economy

The Romans were organised, truly organised in complex ways not seen again until at least the 18th and 19th centuries. Trade was vital to Ancient Rome. The empire cost a vast sum of money to run and trade brought in much of that money. The population of the city of Rome grew to over one million and demand for more and different goods and services to build and maintain a high status lifestyle fuelled trade from further and further afield.
Roman Trade Routes (Source ORBIS, Stanford University)
In addition to the 80,000 kilometres of first class roads (as at c. AD 200) built primarily for the movement of military forces, used by the imperial courier service, for government administration and lastly for trade, sea routes crossed the Empire through the Mediterranean from Spain, France and North Africa to Syria, north to Britannia and east to the Black Sea.  They supported trade between a network of coastal cities - Rome, Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, Carthage. These cities were serviced by a road network permitting trade within their respective hinterlands. River transport was not so widespread as the major pan-European rivers, the Rhine and the Danube, were military frontiers, not the core of the Empire.

The Romans built lighthouses, harbour complexes, docks and warehouses to further sea trade and make it secure . The Roman navy (classis) tried with varying success to keep the Mediterranean Sea safe from pirates. Although the navy was instrumental in the Roman conquest of the Mediterranean basin, it never enjoyed the prestige of the Roman legions. Romans were a primarily land-based people, and relied partially on other nationalities such as Greeks, Phoenicians and the Egyptians, to build and man their ships. Partly because of this, the navy was never wholly embraced by the Roman state, and deemed somewhat "un-Roman". Unlike modern naval forces, the Roman navy even at its height never existed as an autonomous service, but operated as an adjunct to the Roman army.

Trade was facilitated by a single official currency and no complicating customs dues. Trade developed in complexity and reach  as peace became more established and with more trade, prosperity increased. When the Empire disintegrated in the late AD 400s, overseas markets disappeared, supply and distribution routes became unsafe and trade collapsed. The Mediterranean Sea became a dangerous place for merchants as there were no powers to control the activities of pirates who marauded as far north as the English Channel.

What was acquired from where?

The Romans imported a whole variety of materials: beef, corn, glassware, iron, lead, leather, marble, olive oil, perfumes, purple dye, silk, silver, spices, timber, tin and wine. The main trading partners were in Spain, France, the Middle East and North Africa. Britain exported lead, woollen products and tin. In return, it imported from Rome wine, olive oil, pottery and papyrus.
Roman Bireme (Source: Wikipedia)
The most important sea port was Ostia situated at the mouth of the River Tiber and only 15 miles from Rome. According to an inscription the original castrum (military camp) of Ostia was established in the 7th century BC. However, the oldest archaeological remains so far discovered date back to only the 4th century BC when Rome fought several naval actions. The traditional birth date of the Roman navy is set at ca. 311 BC, when, after the conquest of Campania, two new officials, the duumviri navales classis ornandae reficiendaeque causa, were tasked with the maintenance of a fleet. The most ancient buildings currently visible in Ostia are from the 3rd century BC, notably the castrum. From this point on, Ostia starts to play an important role as a military harbour. When Rome installed a new naval magistracy in 267 BC, one of the officials was permanently based in Ostia. Traders and artisans settled in Ostia to make a living in and around the harbour.

Goods could be quickly moved to Rome in barges up the River Tiber after slaves had unloaded and transferred cargo from merchant ships. The Romans built the world's first dual carriageway, via Portuensis, between Rome and Ostia. In 68 BC, the town was sacked by pirates. During the sack, the port was set on fire, the consular war fleet was destroyed, and two prominent senators kidnapped. This attack caused such panic in Rome that Pompey the Great arranged for the tribune Aulus Gabinius to propose a law, the Lex Gabinia, to allow Pompey to raise an army and destroy the pirates. Within a year, the pirates had been defeated.


Ostia was further developed during the first century AD under the influence of Tiberius, who ordered the building of the town's first Forum. Temples, bathhouses, a theatre, shops, warehouses, construction yards, workshops, guilds became an integral part of the town.
Ostia: Antica forum
With the expansion of the physical city and the demands of the population of Rome, traffic on the river became ever more congested. Manoeuvring became impossible on the 100 m. wide river and silting exacerbated the problem. To guarantee a consistent supply of corn for Rome, the emperor Claudius started to build a new harbour (portus) in 42 AD two miles north of Ostia on the northern mouths of the Tiber.
Ostia, hexagonal basis (Source; University of Southampton)
Two curving moles were built out into the sea. Between the moles, on an island formed by sinking a large merchantman, a four-storied lighthouse was built. This harbour became silted up and around about 110 AD the emperor Trajan enlarged the new harbour with a huge land-locked inner hexagonal basin still visible today. Its form was hexagonal in order to reduce the erosive forces of the waves. The harbours were connected with the Tiber by canals.
Portus Ostia (Source
 The new Trajanic harbour was described as 'Portus Ostiensis' and the council and magistrates of Ostia also controlled the daily life of Portus. The harbours of Ostia continued their function as a major port as can be seen by the many corn warehouses. This development took business away from Ostia itself which acted principally at that time as a river port only and began its commercial decline. One can only imagine the wrangling between the established guilds, merchants and city councillors in old Ostia and the up and coming traders of the modern, specifically designed new Portus.

Ostia and Portus grew to 50,000 inhabitants in the 2nd century, reaching a peak of some 100,000 inhabitants in the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD. Portus was critically important for supplying the ever-growing city of imperial Rome with foodstuffs and materials from across the Mediterranean.  It also acted as both a point of export for supplies and products from the Tiber Valley to the north of Rome, and a major hub for the redistribution of goods from ports across the Mediterranean. It must also have acted as a major conduit for people visiting Rome from around the Mediterranean.
Roman port scene (Lithograph from Seewesen by Walter Muller 1893)
Ostia was to play a major part in the downfall of Rome when Alaric the Goth captured it in AD 409 knowing that this would starve Rome of much needed food. The port began to enter a period of slow decline from the late 5th century AD onwards, although it was the scene of a major struggle between Byzantine and Ostrogothic troops during the Gothic wars (AD 535-553).
Ostia Antica: Chandler's floor
Today Ostia Antica in an outstanding site for tourists and students alike and noted for the excellent preservation of its ancient buildings, magnificent frescoes and impressive mosaics ( Portus is the centre of an exciting project led by the University of Southampton ( Only recently, a new canal and town wall at Ostia have been discovered ( Perhaps we will finally discover just how complex life and sea-borne trade were in ancient Rome!

Friday 10 October 2014

The Value of Money – Pay in the Royal Navy in the Late 19th Century

A challenge that confronts all readers and writers of historic fiction is that at some stage money and its value, compared with that of today, will raise its head. We know that the purchasing power of money in the past was a multiple of what currency of the same face-value would worth today. For long periods in history – and here I’m talking primarily of the United Kingdom, though the same was true to some extent elsewhere – inflation was low and wages and prices relatively stable. In Britain the really spectacular drop in the purchasing power of the currency unit – the Pound – has only occurred over the last half century.  
A Pound Sterling of 1964 - 20 Shillings, worth having!
I can give a personal example: in 1964, during my first long vacation from university, I took a job as a barman in a London public house. I got my accommodation and meals free (and the latter were excellent because I ate in the attached restaurant) but above that my pre-tax pay for a 66–hour week was £7.50. This weekly figure should be compared with the £ 5.13 per hour legal minimum wage for an 18-year old, in Britain today.  I might add that I did not feel poorly remunerated. I allowed myself £1.50 a week for books, movies, theatre, Underground fares for museum and gallery visits and meals in “caffs” on my day and a half off. I saved the remainder for travelling in Europe at the end of my eight weeks in the bar.  
Bingley beware! The Bennett girls are on the lookout for four or five thousand a year
If the problem of assessing the value of money as recently as the 1960s is a problem, then it is greater still the further one goes back in time. What, for example, would a pound or a dollar have bought in 1900, 1850 or 1800? In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice Mrs. Bennet describes  Mr. Bingley as “A single man of large fortune; four or five thousand a year. What a fine thing for our girls!” But how rich in fact was Bingley and what would he be worth today?

A useful insight is gained if one can compare rates of pay for professions then with their practitioners today. One assumes that e.g. a doctor in Victorian times would have an expectation of a roughly similar standard of contemporary “middle-class living” as a doctor today, making allowances for differences in housing, transportation etc. etc. It was for this reason that I was recently interested to come across a very comprehensive summary of rates of pay in the Royal Navy in the mid-1890s. It is especially valuable in that the same rank-structure is almost unchanged between that time and the present, even though titles may differ. The above figures (and illustrations) are drawn from an 1895 publication ”The Story of the Sea” edited by “Q” (the eminent critic Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch) and with contributions from well-known political and other luminaries of the period.

At the top of the hierarchy came the Admirals, ranging from £1095 per annum for a Rear Admiral to £2190 for an Admiral of the Fleet.  Extra allowances to cover expenses such as “table money”, an allowance in lieu of a servant, etc. could add significantly to this – in some cases even doubling the basic salary.
The glory of the Pre-Dreadnought Royal Navy of the 1890s
but pay for the lower deck was poor in the extreme
Naval Captains – comparable in rank to Lieutenant Colonels in the Army – did not do so well, ranging from £410 to £602, depending on seniority. “Extras” could range from £91 to 125.

Commanders, equivalent to Army Majors, earned £365 per annum and Lieutenants with seniority could reach the dizzy height of £225.  

Midshipmen received only £13/18/9 (Thirteen pounds, eighteen  shillings and ninepence – at this level the pence started to get important). Cadets fared even worse - £18/5/0 per year.

Engineering officers were still not fully accepted as proper officers (or indeed as Gentlemen) in the 1890s and this was reflected in pay scales. An “Engineer” – note lack of formal title such as Lieutenant  – was on a range of £273 to £219, a “Chief Engineer” up to £401 and at the pinnacle of seniority and responsibility the Navy’s “Chief Inspector of Machinery” would receive £638. The poor remuneration for engineers at the higher levels is all the more surprising since the Navy was at this time in the midst of unprecedented technical innovation. Stories were not uncommon of engineers being the subject of cruel prejudice, many being not allowed to forget their social status - technology being regarded by many in Britain then - and sometimes by some even today - as not a fit occupation for a gentleman.

Medical officers were graded in order of seniority as Surgeon (£209 to282 per annum), Staff Surgeon (£383 to 438) and Fleet Surgeon (£492 to £602). At the top of the medical organisation the “Inspector General of Hospitals and Fleets” had a salary of £1003, generally similar to a Rear Admiral’s. One assumes that these salaries were roughly similar to what these professionals would expect in civilian life as otherwise they would have not chosen service in the Navy.

Warrant Officers – Gunners, Boatswain and Carpenters – had pay ranging from £100 to £ 164, dependent on seniority.

The big drop in pay came below this level.  A Chief Petty Officer – in many ways the backbone of the service and on whom much of the efficiency of a ship would depend –  could earn up to £57 maximum and a First-Class Petty Officer’s range was £39/10/10 to £44/2/1 – the shillings and pence were worth having.
"A Briish tar is a soaring soul, as free as a mountain bird" (HMS Pinafore)
Tough, supremely professional and self-reliant - but miserably paid
On the bridge - note the seaman's bare feet
Further down the scale the Ordinary Seaman’s pay was £22/16/3 per year, but would advance to £28/17/11 if he were rated “Able”. 

A “Boy” – a formal rank at which young men were recruited – started at just over £9 per annum and could increase by another £1 as seniority was gained.

And down in the bowels of the ship, in the hot and steaming hell of the engine boiler rooms, a Chief Artificer was worth up to £136, an Artificer £95 to 118 and the Stokers, who had perhaps the worst job in the entire ship, were royally remunerated with £30 to 36 per year.

What is particularly noticeable is the ratio of pay between highest and lowest, with the Admiral of the Fleet receiving , even before allowances, some 96 times as much as an Ordinary Seaman.

In the book referred to the final sentences of the chapter on naval pay are worth quoting in full as they provide a fascinating insight into the social attitudes of the period:

“There is this difference between the two services (Army and Navy), and the reader must form his own opinion of the wisdom that allows this difference to exist: though it cannot be said of the British Army, as it was said of the French Army under the great Napoleon that a possible marshal’s baton was in every soldier’s knapsack, yet it is possible for a man to enlist as a common soldier and attain respectable commissioned rank, especially if his breeding and manners be gentle. In the English navy, on the other hand, if a man enters the service as a common sailor, he may indeed rise to be a warrant officer, but can never hope to tread the quarterdeck as a commissioned one.”

It is pleasing to note that within 20 years of these words being written the apparently impossible occurred. Sir William Robertson (1860-1933, originally a house-servant,  entered the army as a private soldier but rose to be a Field Marshal  and was Chief of the Imperial General Staff – the professional head of the army – in World War 1.

The process was slower in the Royal Navy. Sir Thomas Lyne, (1870- 1955) was the first man to rise from the lower deck to flag rank, joining as a “Boy” (at £9/2/6 per year!) in the 1880s and being promoted to Rear Admiral in 1931.

The entire subject of pay, valuation of work, value of money remains fascinating one and the insights may be of value to anybody reading or writing about Victorian Britain.

And one fact does stand out – even allowing for inflation in the eight decades between Pride and Prejudice and the above pay scales, Mr. Bingley would indeed have been a fine thing for Mrs. Bennet’s daughters!

Interested in Naval History and looking for nautical fiction from a little-covered period and with a strong basis in historical fact?

Then you may enjoy Britannia's Wolf or Britannia's Reach. Details can be found by clicking on the cover images on the top right of this page. They're available in Paperback or Kindle format from Amazon and they've bother scored over 4.5 stars out of 5 in 28 Amazon reviews each.

The third novel of the Dawlish Chronicles series - identified for now as "Britannia's X" - is due for publication in December 2014. Watch this space for further announcements!