Friday 27 February 2015

An island paradise or a place of danger, warfare, and cannibalism?

For this blog I’ve invited  Eva  A. Ulett, one of my fellow authors published by the Old Salt Press to tell us something about what’s a closed book to the vast majority of who are interested in nautical fiction.

Over then to Eva, who writes:

Royal Navy Captain James Blackwell’s experiences in the Hawaiian Islands in my Blackwell’s Adventures books are an amalgamation from various nineteenth century Pacific island cultures and societies. In this post I’d like to share a few details concerning the actual Hawaiian Islands of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: an island paradise or a place of danger, warfare, and cannibalism?

Kamehameha (c. 1758 - 1819) had conquered all of the Hawaiian islands except Kauai by 1795, and is recognized as the most noteworthy of the Hawaiian monarchs. He is reputed to have been a giant of a man, nearly seven feet tall, full of martial ability. Kamehameha came to manhood during a time of constant warfare between tribes of the Hawaiian Islands.
Kamehameha (1758-1819), by artist by Louis Choris, 1816

HMS Resolution
Watercolour by Midshipman Henry Roberts
By 1778 when Cook arrived with the ships Resolution and Discovery, Kamehameha was a seasoned warrior, said to have exuded power and violence. He observed and appreciated guns, iron tools, and weapons when European and American ships began to frequent the islands as a place of refreshment in the Canton and Northwest trade routes. Later, when supreme ruler of the Hawaiian Islands, Kamehameha would insist on receiving arms and ammunition, tools, and naval stores and expertise in trade with other nations.

Pacific island tribes of Kamehameha’s era practiced a fierce and brutal hand to hand warfare. In the last battle before dominating the entire island chain, Kamehameha put down a rebellion on his home island of Hawaii, afterwards sacrificing the rebel chief at a heiau in Piiho-nua, Hilo. Human sacrifice formed part of ancient tradition, demanded by Hawaiian gods and their priests. The victims were captured enemies, slaves, or violators of kapu. The kapu system kept the Hawaiian gods constantly before the country people, the kama‘āina, and by extension as the descendants of the gods, the ruling class of ali‘i. This was a system of governance that touched every aspect of Hawaiian life, including agriculture and fishing, land management and husbandry, trade and social interactions.

The King of  "Owyee" - Hawaii - bringing presents to Captain Cook
Drawn by John Webber (1751-1793), who accompanied Cook on HMS Resolution
Cannibalism appears to have been a ceremonial practice for the Hawaiians, associated with veneration for the dead, and the traditional preserving of the bones of chiefs. Portions of Captain Cook’s body were delivered to Lieutenant James King after his death at Kealakekua in 1779. This gesture was likely honorably meant, other portions having been allotted to important chiefs and priests. Kamehameha was rumored to have claimed Cook’s hair, the possession of which would have increased his own mana, or power and prestige.

The Death of Captain Cook, 14th February, 1779, by Johann Zoffany
A somewhat fanciful image by an artist who never visited the islands!
Following the conquest period, Kamehameha was held to be a good and great chief, who restored order and prosperity to the land. He encouraged agriculture, putting a great seven mile swath of land in his home district of Kona under cultivation himself, which was to be to his advantage in trade and the provisioning of foreign ships. The kapu system, that helped Kamehameha maintain order and the continuance of chiefly rights and privileges, was abandoned after the great king’s death in 1819.

King Kamehameha in later life
In 1804, when Captain Blackwell’s Pacific island adventures begin, Kamehameha was at the height of his power — the ali‘i nui ai moku, the high chief who eats the islands (land districts). The king of Hawaii, Maui, and Oahu, Kamehameha at that period was amassing a force of invasion in Honolulu against Kauai. Kauai was a tough island to invade, a 75 mile channel of rough sea separating it from neighboring Oahu. Kamehameha’s favorite wife, Ka‘ahumanu (c. 1768 - 1832), is nevertheless said to have successfully fled Kamehameha’s ill-treatment, alone in a canoe across this difficult channel, and reached Kauai.

Queen Ka'ahumanu - painted by Louis Choris on 1816
Captain Blackwell negotiates that same treacherous channel in Blackwell’s Paradise, and the disparate civilizations and cultures of Europe and Oceania in Blackwell’s Homecoming. He discovers similarities between the two maritime nations; England as embodied in the Royal Navy and the Hawaiian nation in the hierarchy of the ali‘i and the kapu system; each with strict prohibitions, violent retaliations, and a strong sense of honor and duty. Captain Blackwell and his great love, Mercedes, venture into a fictional version of Kamehameha’s magnificent and complex Hawaiian kingdom in the Blackwell’s Adventures series.

Readers may be interested in winning a paperback copy of Eva A. Ulett's Blackwell’s Homecoming. 

Click on the URL here, or on the cover image, for more details.

The giveaway is open to readers in AU, CA, GB, USA, through March 10.

Tuesday 24 February 2015

The painful transition from Sail to Steam

Admiral John Moresby
I’m fascinated by the way that navies – and most especially the Royal Navy – adapted organisationally and professionally to the advent of steam power from the 1840s onwards. The transition was long and painful – some five decades – and during this period the majority of vessels carried both forms of propulsion. An important factor was that, despite the increasing efficiency of steam power, sails provided a high degree of independence from shore support and fuel supply, especially on foreign station.

I was therefore all the more interested to find an extract from a book entitled “Two Admirals”, published in 1909 by Admiral John Moresby (1830 – 1922) which relates to the experiences of his father, also an admiral, as well as of himself, in the period 1786 to 1877. The younger Moresby as responsible for the exploration of the coast of New Guinea in the 1870s and Port Moresby, Papua-New Guinea’s capital, and which was to play such a vital role in WW2, was named after him.
HMS Basilisk (1848) on left - Moresby's vessel used in exploration of the New Guinea coast

Moresby’s description of professionalism in the navy he entered in the late 1840s is somewhat of a shock to the modern reader, as indicated in the following extract:

"The officers, with few exceptions, were content to be practical seamen only. They had nothing whatever to do with the navigation of the ship or the rating of the chronometers. That was entirely in the hands of the master, and no other had any real experience or responsibility in the matter. I may instance the case of a captain whose ship was at Spithead. He was ordered by signal to go to the assistance of a ship on shore at the back of the Isle of Wight. In reply he hoisted the signal of 'Inability: the master is on shore.'Are the other officers on board?' he was asked. He answered 'Yes,' and to the repeated order, 'Proceed immediately,' he again hoisted 'Inability', and remained entrenched in his determination until a pilot was sent to his assistance."

Given the standards of professionalism which were to be enforced from the mid-19th Century onwards it is hard to imagine any captain thereafter hesitating to get under way on receipt of an order to go to the assistance of a ship in distress, whether the navigating officer was on board or not. In the 1840s however, and on account of the long period of virtual peace for Britain which had followed after Waterloo, neither the navy nor the army were in the state of high efficiency of the Napoleonic War years.  On both services the Crimean War in 1854-56 was to reveal shortcomings and inefficiencies that were to cost Britain – and her fighting men – very dear indeed.

Referring to the Crimean War Moresby wrote:

"Public opinion resented the revival of the press-gang; therefore the only alternative was the offer of a large bounty, and by this means the ships were filled with counter-jumpers and riff-raff of all sorts, and rarely a sailor amongst them. What this meant only those who had to do the necessary slave-driving can tell. . . . In the (HMS) Driver . . . we may have had twenty seamen as a nucleus. The rest were long-shore fellows, and when Admiral Berkley came on board and told us that the Russians were at sea, and probably in a few days we should be in action, there was a strong dash of anxiety in our satisfaction."

HMS Driver (1840). In 1846-47 she was the first Royal Navy steamship to circumnavigate the globe
According to Moresby she was less well prepared for taking on the Russians in 1854!
It is interesting to note Moresby’s longevity. He entered a navy officered – and not always very efficiently, judging by his own account – by men who had come to maturity in the Age of Nelson. He was to live to see the naval forces of WW1 utilise aircraft and submarines, turbines and torpedoes, wireless and predictor-controlled gunnery. 

And yet, more important than any technological change was the creation of a professionalism he had not seen in his youth.

Tuesday 17 February 2015

The Loss of HMS Romney 1804

One thinks today of the services of marine pilots being confined to bringing vessels in and out of specific ports. From the moment a pilot steps on board the responsibility for navigation rests on his shoulders. In earlier centuries however the role of pilots often covered much larger areas, especially those in which , as in the case of the Southern North Sea and the coasts of the Netherlands, sandbanks and shallows made navigation challenging and expert knowledge essential. An indication of the extent of a pilot’s authority and liability during the Napoleonic period is provided by the loss of HMS Romney in 1804.

Capture of the Sibylle (L) by the Romney (R) 17 June 1794

The Romney, a 50-gun frigate launched in 1762, already had over four decades of honourable service behind her. Much of her earlier career was spent as flagship on the Newfoundland station and she was to remain in North American waters during the War of Independence. The outbreak of the French Revolutionary wars found her in the Mediterranean and in 1793, in the Aegean, she was to engage, and capture, the French frigate Sibylle. (It is notable that the Sibylle herself was to have a splendid 40-year career in the Royal Navy thereafter. In three separate single-ship actions she captured a French vessel and on anti-slavery duties off West Africa in the 1820s she caught numerous slavers and freed some 4000 slaves). 

1794 print showing the new French and Batavian Republics as allies

Following her service of Toulon the Romney served in the Red Sea and, once more, on the North American Station. By 1804 she was back in European waters and on blockade-duty off the Dutch coast, the “Batavian Republic” of the Netherlands being allied to the French. On 18 November 1804 the Romney, under Captain John Colville – who had joined the ship only a month before - sailed from Yarmouth to join the force under Rear-Admiral Russell blockading Den Helder, which was – and is – the Dutch naval base. The Romney carried two experienced North Sea pilots and the next day was nearing the Dutch coast. Visibility was limited but the pilots, judging that they were still far offshore, proposed coming in closer under double-reefed topsails and fore top-mast stay-sail. Captain Colville considered this unwise and preferred to wait until the weather cleared, but the pilots were in charge and he gave way to them against his better judgement.

Now, through the haze, they sighted a large ship. She transpired to be an American vessel and she was aground. The pilots, now alarmed, tried to put the Romney about and to run off on the port tack. It was too late. Minutes later she too struck heavily on the shoal known as the Haaks Sands.
A heavy sea was breaking on the sands and the wind was rising from the south-west. The Romney was taking water in fast but the sands beneath her were holding her up. The two pilots, still ignorant of the position, assured Captain Colville that the ship would be high and dry at low water. He accordingly ordered striking of the top-gallant and top-masts and expected to be able to shore-up the damaged hull when the tide left her. A minute-gun was fired to attract the attention of other British ships – though without success – and he also took the reasonable precaution of having the crew build rafts to get ashore if the Romney broke up.

"The Loss of the Romney Man of War" by Richard Corbould

By then however it was blowing a gale and night was falling. The masts were cut away to ease the drag on the Romney but as the tide rose waves were breaking across her so that soon only the quarter-deck was above water. Here the entire crew gathered. Yet worse was to come, for in the night the old frigate parted amidships. At daybreak some of the crew managed to get away on rafts to the coast.

Help now arrived from an unexpected source. At noon seven Dutch boats reached the wreck and the officer in command called to Colville that he and his men would be landed safely if they were to surrender themselves as prisoners of war. Colville had no choice. He and his men were landed and indeed the final death toll was to be lower than might have been hoped – some ten men out of a crew of over 300. The Dutch sense of honourable humanity went further. Colville and his men were well treated on the orders of the Dutch Admiral Kirkhurt, who in due course returned Colville and eight of his officers out to Russell’s squadron.

The Marshalsea Prison, mainly occupied by debtors
Charles Dickens' family were to be there in 1824
When Colville returned to Britain he was court-martialled at Sheerness for the loss of his ship. The court found however that the Romney had been cast ashore through the ignorance of the pilots and that Colville and his officers were to be absolved of all blame. The two pilots were barred from any further service and were awarded sentences of twelve months for one, six for the other, to be served in London’s Marshalsea prison (of Little Dorrit fame).

Captain John Colville (1768 – 1849), who had been on the Navy list from the age of seven onwards, and who had first seen action during the American War of Independence, went on to have a satisfactory career thereafter. He was to command HMS Hercule at the second battle of Copenhagen in 1807 and in 1819 he was promoted to rear Admiral. In 1841 he was awarded the rank of Admiral of the White, only one level lower than Admiral of the Fleet.

And what of the two unlucky – and incompetent – pilots? History is silent.

Friday 13 February 2015

The Mercantile Marine Memorial, Tower Hill, London

WW1 Memorial on Left, WW2 is a sunken semi-circular garden on the right
One of the most overlooked but worthwhile sights of London lies directly across the road from the Tower of London. Though thousands visit the Tower at the height of the tourist season few ever notice the vast, but unobtrusive, memorial at the exit of the Tube Station through which so many arrive. It commemorates the thousands of merchant seamen and fishermen who died in both World Wars.  If you are in London at any time it is well worth a visit and to spend a minutes or two in silent contemplation of the sacrifices made by these men to secure the freedom we enjoy today. Their names have been recorded on bronze plaques, under alphabetical listing by name of the ships they died on.
WW2 Section - over 24,000 names
The numbers are astounding: the plaques in the World War 1 memorial, a severe classical building, list over 12,000 names while in the semi-circular garden behind, the names amount to a staggering 24.000. The overwhelming feeling one has on visiting is one of infinite sadness, the vibrancy of life in the surrounding streets, and the heavy traffic passing, providing a marked contrast to the tens of thousands of tragedies that destroyed promise and left family happiness blighted.

Bronze plaques recording WW2 losses - panel after panel after panel
It was some ten years since I had last visited when I decided to go there again last week (please forgive the quality of the photographs taken on  a cell-‘phone). When I was there before I tended to look for the names of the best known shipping losses – such as the SS Athenia in 1939. Since that last visit however the internet has provided a vast resource into which one can tap in order that so many of the names of the vessels sunk – and their crews – are no longer anonymous. It is now possible to fasten on to individual ship-names and, by Google, search out the circumstances of the loss and to appreciate just how these men met their death.

Sister ship of SS Manaqui - with acknowledgement to site
One is struck by the fact that in the case of some sinkings – and not necessarily of small vessels only – the lives lost were in single figures. In others the list is a very long one. The 2,802 tons SS Manaqui built in 1921 was sunk by torpedo on 15th March, 1942, near Barbuda. She took with her the master, and 34 crew members, all of whose names are recorded on the relevant plaque. There were six further deaths however, gunners, whose names do not appear as they were service personnel.
See losses at bottom left for SS Manaqui

WW1-vintage 4" gun on a WW2 DEMS
The loss of these six gunners highlights the fact that weapons – usually obsolete and of WW1 vintage – was carried on so-called Defensively Equipped Merchant Ships (DEMS) during WW2. The personnel to operate them came either from the Royal Navy (a total of 24,000) or the Royal Artillery Maritime Regiment (14,000 total). In addition 150,000 merchant sailors were trained to pass ammunition, load, and replace casualties in the service gun crews. The gunners were often retired military personnel and there were many young "Hostilities Only" ratings, each crew commanded by a petty officer. The presence on board many of the ships listed on the Tower Hill Memorial should therefore be borne in mind as they represent a further addition to the long lists of casualties.

RMS Empress of Britain arriving in Scotland with Canadian troops
HMS Hood in the background
RMS Empress of Britain losses
One is struck by how chance alone determined the numbers lost.  By contrast with the high death toll on a vessel as small as the Manaqui, the 42,348-ton, Empress of Britain, the largest liner sunk in WW2, lost 18 men. This gigantic ship – with a peacetime capacity of 1200 passengers and a crew of some 700 – was attacked by a Luftwaffe Focke-Wulf Condor off the north-west coast of Ireland on 26th October 1940. Crippled and burning, 416 crew, 2 gunners, and 205 passengers were taken off by escorting destroyers and tugs arrived to take her in tow with only a skeleton crew left on-board. The German submarine U-32 now moved n for the kill and despatched the stricken liner with three torpedoes.

On the same panel as the Manaqui one finds the SS Manchester Citizen (1925). Of the twelve men who died when she was torpedoed on 9th July 1943 on a run to Lagos, after surviving several supply runs for the Eighth Army, one name had special poignancy for me. This is that of J.W. Jumbo, a common family name around Bonny, in S.E. Nigeria (where I spent part of my own life). It reminded me of one splendid old Nigerian gentleman, now blind, whom I met in Warri in the late 1980s. He was proud of spending the entire war at sea and he summed it up with the words “It was a job that had to be done”. I like to think of J.W. Jumbo of the Manchester Citizen as also such a man. His name on the memorial serves as a reminder of the service of Nigerian personnel in WW2 not only at sea, but on land also, especially in the Burma Campaign against the Japanese.

SS Empire Engineer losses
Each ship-name stands for a unique story that can be easily accessed on the internet. I had photographed, almost at random, the names associated with the SS Empire Engineer but the name meant nothing to me until I entered in Google. Now I know that she was a typical cargo ocean-going steamer of her time and all the more valuable in that she had large refrigerated cargo space, which made her ideal for carrying much-needed food supplies.  Her fate was to be typical of dozens, it not hundreds, of closely similar vessels. Built in Canada in 1920, she passed into Italian ownership in the 1930s and she found herself at Hartlepool, in N.E. England, when Italy entered the war against Britain on 10th June 1940. Seized as a war-prize by the government, she became the SS Empire Engineer. Her career in British service was to be short one for on 4th February 1941, straggling astern of Convoy SC 20, which was en route  from Halifax, Nova Scotia, and with which she was unable to keep up, she was torpedoed by U-123 in Mid-Atlantic. She sank in four minutes and she took the entire crew with her, 39 men whose names are listed on the memorial. 

SS Fort Bellingham (1943) - with acknowledgement to
Other ships also had short lives in British service. A brand-new 7153-ton freighter, the Fort Bellingham, completed in Vancouver BC in August 1943. She lasted until 26th January 1944 – less than six months – and she was to be torpedoed by U-957 in the Barents Sea while on one of the Arctic Convoys, to Murmansk. They chances of survival in winter conditions in those latitudes were minimal but escorts managed to rescue 36 men, including gunners and naval personnel. Two were picked up by the U-Boat herself (one would like to know more about how this happened) but 21 merchant seamen were lost, and their names are on the memorial plaque. In addition 14 gunners and two other naval personnel were lost.

SS Fort Bellingham names on left
The stories above have been plucked at random; inspired by a few of the ship-names I followed up on the Internet. There is many, many more, each one a tale of heroism, sacrifice and tragedy.  It’s good to visit the memorial, better still to delve a little into the stories each name stands for, best of all to remember the sacrifices we are indebted for.

The WW1 Memorial - bronze plaques inside and out

The 1982 Falklands Memorial - the Tower of London in the background
Though the memorial site is primarily dedicated to WW1 and WW2 losses, there is a small, sad postscript, the memorial to the merchant seamen lost in the Falklands campaign in 1982. The numbers may be small, but for each bereaved family the loss was, and remains, immeasurable.

So if you are in London set aside an  hour or two, take the Tube to Tower Hill Station and take a look at the memorial. You won’t regret it.


Friday 6 February 2015

The Anglo-German Blockade of Venezuela 1902-03

I lived for several years in Maracaibo, Venezuela’s second city, which today was a population of 1.3 million. It lies at the western side of the short waterway that leads from Lake Maracaibo – the largest lake in South America – to the Caribbean Sea. It was founded, quite surprisingly, by German settlers in 1529 and was initially known as New Nurnberg. Attacks by local tribes led to its abandonment but it was re-founded by the Spanish in 1574. It was to be the target on several occasions of attacks by buccaneers, including by the notorious Henry Morgan in 1669, followed by an equally devastating assault by the French buccaneer de Gramont nine years later. A century and a half later the Battle of Lake Maracaibo in 1823, in which Spanish naval forces clashed with those of   pro-independence republicans, resulted in a Spanish defeat which, after their routing on land in the Battle of Carabobo two years earlier marked the end of Spanish power on the South American continent.

Battle of Carabobo, by Martin Tovat y Tovar
In 1821 Colombian/Venezuela forces rout the Spanish
Given the importance of Maracaibo, and its location which controlled passage into the 100-mile long lake, and access to the lands beyond, it was inevitable that measures would be taken to defend the waterway. The most appropriate place for a fortification that would dominate the approach channel at its narrowest point was on the island of San Carlos, 20 miles north of the present city. Here, in 1623, the Spanish built a large limestone fort on the then favoured “star” pattern”.  Just how impressive this structure was – and is – can be seen from the image below lifted off Google Earth (if one goes to the location detailed on the image many photographs can be seen of it as it is today). It is big – from one star point to that diagonally opposite is about 120 yards. Having expended what must have been a fortune in its construction, it is surprising that it was not manned or armed effectively enough by the Spanish to hold back the buccaneer attacks later in the same century.

Fort San Carlos, as seen on Google Earth (to which full acknowledgement)
Let’s now look forward in time and widen our focus. A common occurrence in the 19th and early 20th Century was that what are now described as “developing countries” demonstrated a marked addiction to borrowing vast sums from European lenders without any realistic chance of ever repaying them. Given the instability, and usually the primitive economies, of these debtor nations, and the serious risk of non-repayment, the terms under which the loans were granted usually involved very high rates of interest. It was not uncommon for the interest of the early years of the loan to be deducted directly when originally granting it, such that the actual sum coming into the coffers of the recipient government were significantly lower than the loan’s face-value. Egypt, the Ottoman Empire and numerous Latin American countries fell into this trap and in many cases failure to sustain repayments resulted in foreign intervention. Egypt’s inability to sustain payments led to the need to sell its shares in its most important asset, the Suez Canal, to Britain in 1875. Mexico’s indebtedness to France led to massive French military intervention in the 1860s, the installation of a puppet “emperor” and a brutal war that impoverished the country still further. And Venezuela’s debt-addiction was to trigger an international naval blockade in 1902 which was to have much longer term strategic implications for the Western Hemisphere.

By  the end of the 19th Century. Venezuela had been an independent nation for three-quarters of a
Cipriano Castro - "a crazy brute"
century, but its history had been a miserable sequence of vicious civil wars and rule by dictators. One of the most unpleasant of these latter was José Cipriano Castro (1858–1924), much of whose life was involved in fermenting and participating in political upheaval. Driven out of Venezuela in 1892, he lived in neighbouring Colombia for the next seven years, amassing a fortune in illegal cattle-trading and recruiting a private army.  In 1899 he returned  to Venezuela and his army swept him to power. His rule was characterised by ruthless suppression of frequent rebellions, murder or exile of opponents and his own extravagant living. The US Secretary of State Elihu Root described Castro as "a crazy brute", an evaluation that does not appear inaccurate.

Given Castro’s record, one is not surprised that he would be in no hurry to settle foreign debts or award compensation for foreign interests damaged in recent civil wars. Some of the loans were “enforced” ones, levied on foreign investors in wartime and other debts were associated with seizure of foreign assets. Castro, faced with an empty treasury, solved his debt problem by simply refusing to pay up. Britain was owed most of a $15 million loan from 1881, later defaulted on, and Germany was incensed by the seizure of a railway owned by the Krupp industrial combine. Italy had lesser claims.

The American view: Britain and Germany plucking the Venezuelan goose
Germany and Britain pushed until early 1902 for an amicable settlement, the Germans in particular urging arbitration by the newly established International Court in The Hague. Castro wasn’t interested. In five months in 1902 Britain sent Castro seventeen notes about its concerns but none was replied to. Castro had built his defiance on an assumption that he could be sheltered by the United States’ Monroe Doctrine. Originating from 1823, this stated that further efforts by European nations to colonize land, or interfere with states in North or South America ,would be viewed as acts of aggression, requiring U.S. intervention.

Times had changed however. The current US President, Theodore Roosevelt had said in 1901 that "if any South American country misbehaves toward any European country, let the European country spank it." The writing was on the wall for Castro, even if he did not want to see it.

In June 1902 the Venezuelan government seized a British ship suspected of aiding yet another rebel group. This proved the last straw for Britain. The Germans were already outraged by continuing abuse of its citizens and investments and in mid-August it agreed with Britain, and subsequently with Italy, to initiate a naval blockade should an ultimatum to pay up be ignored. It was indeed ignored and operations commenced in December 1902.

SMS Panther, Falke and Vineta (l. to r.) in the Caribbean - painting by  Willy Stöwer 
Such actions were almost routine for the Royal Navy’s far-flung forces  but for the recently-created Imperial German Navy – which Kaiser Wilhelm II regarded as his personal darling – this was a golden opportunity to show off its power and efficiency far from home waters. Britain deployed a cruiser, HMS Charybdis and a sloop, HMS Alert, as well as other ships, and the Germans dispatched a larger force, the cruisers SMS Falke, Gazelle and Vineta, and the gunboat SMS Panther.
SMS Gazelle - part of the German blockading squadron
The four small vessels – two gunboats, and a converted yacht and a converted tug – which constituted the Venezuelan Navy were in no position to offer opposition and were captured in two days. Two were in such poor condition that the Germans sank them rather than tow them away. A British merchant ship was interned by the Venezuelans  and the British and Germans responded by shelling fortifications at Puerto Cabello, Venezuela’s principal port. 200 British and German residents were taken into custody by Castro’s government and the possibility of landing British and German forces to rescue them began to be talked of. Things were hotting up!

SMS Panther, built for overseas service, main armament 2 X 4"
In the United States President Roosevelt was now beginning to rethink favouring European nations dishing out “spankings” in his own back yard. This was possibly not least due to the fact that Germany appeared to have an ambition to establish a naval base in the Caribbean (a foretaste of the Russians in Cuba!) and had already evaluated the Venezuelan island of Margarita as a possibility. It was time to reassert the Monroe Doctrine. Arbitration was again brought on the agenda and later, in 1916, Roosevelt was to claim that that Germany's later acquiescence to arbitration came from his threat to attack the German ships in Venezuelan waters with the United States Fleet. It appears however that no documentary evidence has been found to support this claim.

SMS Vineta, main armament 2 X 8.3" and 8 X 5.9" 
The blockade continued into 1903 however and on January 17th the German Falke and Panther chased a merchant schooner that had evaded the blockade and was heading for Maracaibo. The way led past Fort San Carlos, through narrows flanked with sandbanks and shoals, and the Germans followed, the Panther leading. The fort opened fire with an 80mm Krupp canon – ironically a German weapon and the Panther, according to her captain, found it difficult to return fire effectively due to the problems of manoeuvring in unfamiliar but shallow and narrow waters. Fire was however exchanged for half an hour, during which the Panther was hit several times and sustained considerable damage. Smarting, but realising that discretion was the better part of valour, the Germans retreated.

Fort San carlos under attack - French illustration
Four days later the Germans were back, this time with the more heavily-armed SMS Vineta to support the Panther. A long range bombardment commenced and lasted eight hours, at the end of which Fort San Carlos was silenced and 25 civilian deaths reported in the nearby town. The Germans then withdrew.

The attack on Fort San Carlos and, even more, the civilian losses, lost sympathy for Germany in Britain and the United States on the grounds of the action being disproportionate. (The Royal Navy had been instructed not to take part in further shore bombardments after that on Puerto Cabello). Castro was however now ready to accept arbitration and this took place in Washington, with American support. In February 1903 agreement was reached between Britain, Germany, Italy and Venezuela on what would nowadays be called “restructuring” of Venezuela’s debts and the blockade was lifted.  These countries were not however the only ones with claims against Venezuela  and another seven, including the United States, objected to the preferential payment terms extended to them. The result was agreement to resubmit the issue to the International Court of Arbitration in the Hague.

The outcome of this second arbitration was to uphold the terms of the first, a decision which the United States found distasteful, but still had to live with. Roosevelt’s response was to come in his 1904 message to Congress. It came to the known as “The Roosevelt Corollary to the Monroe Doctrine.” This asserted a right of the United States to intervene to "stabilise" the economic affairs of small states in the Caribbean and Central America if they were unable to pay their international debts, in order to preclude European intervention to do so. The thinking behind the Corollary was to underlie  United States military occupations in, Mexico (Vera Cruz), Nicaragua, Haiti and The Dominican Republic in the coming decades and it not fanciful to see it reflected in the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962.

Unpaid foreign debts and the desire or the Imperial German Navy to flex its muscles were to have major long-term consequences!

Tuesday 3 February 2015

The Nordenvelt Gun - as featured in Britannia's Wolf

The Nordenvelt Gun plays a significant role in my novel Britannia’s Wolf and indeed the weapon was in general use on many warships in the late-Victorian period.

Triple-barreled 1-inch Nordenvelt 
Though capable of a heavy volley-fire, the Nordenvelt, like its contemporaries the Gatling and the Gardner, was not an automatic machine-gun. The Nordenvelt was activated by pulling a lever back and forth, feeding rounds into the breeches of the gun’s barrels from a vertical hopper-magazine, firing them, and ejecting the spent cases. The slow rate of fire from each individual barrel was compensated for by placing multiple barrels in parallel. Up to a dozen barrels might be employed, though three or four were more common, the calibre being .45 inch. In one demonstration for the Royal Navy a 10-barrelled version fired 3,000 rounds of ammunition in just over three minutes without stoppage or failure.

5-Barelled rifle-calibre Nordenvelt
The Nordenvelt, due to its multiple barrels, was heavy by comparison with later, genuinely automatic, machine guns. The weight penalty was not a major drawback on shipboard, but if deployed on land it needed a field-gun type carriage. Entering service in several navies in the 1870s, including the Royal Navy, it provided the ideal defence against attack by small torpedo-armed vessels, an increasing threat in those years. A heavy version, firing one-inch solid steel rounds from up to four barrels, was developed to provide a fearsome counter to lightly-constructed, unarmoured torpedo craft and their poorly-protected crews.

Nordenvelt in action in 1890s
Note the hopper magazine above
The Nordenvelt was made obsolete in the late 1880s by the arrival of the fully-automatic Maxim machine gun but many served on in smaller navies long beyond this time. I found one on display in the yard of a police station in Warri, Nigeria, in the late 1980s, but have unfortunately lost the photographs I took of it then. It almost certainly came from a Royal Navy ship and may even have participated in the Benin Expedition of 1897.