Tuesday 2 June 2015

HMS Charybdis to the rescue, 1841

When reading about the Royal Navy in the 19th Century one never ceases to be amazed by the degree of autonomy accorded to ships’ commanders, even of relatively junior rank, and the willingness of both Admiralty and Government  to back their actions. I’ve come across one such case recently, one which is so extreme and so dramatic that a novelist would hesitate to invent it. I found a mention in a book from the early 1900s entitled “Our Sailors - Gallant Deeds of the British Navy during Victoria's Reign” by W.H.G. Kingston. I’ve been unable to do much cross-referencing with other sources – perhaps some reader might know more – but the story is worth recounting.

In the aftermath of the Wars of Liberation from Spanish rule in the early 19th Century, the successor republics were locked in an almost endless series of, revolts, revolutions and civil wars. Many of the borders were significantly different than those of today, perhaps the most notable being those of “New Granada”, which lasted from 1831 to 1858. This republic had modern Colombia as its core, but also areas which are today parts of Venezuela, Ecuador and Panama. (The latter broke away from Colombia, with US support, as late as 1903). From 1839 to 1841 New Granada was engulfed in a conflict known as “The War of the Supremes” (In Spanish: “Guerra de los Supremos”), in which various regional leaders, essentially warlords, vied to gain power.

On February  6th 1841 two British merchant vessels, the brig Jane and Sara, and a sloop, Little William, were lying at, a small harbour on the Gulf of Morrosquillo, near El Zapote, some 65 miles south of Cartagena. A small flotilla of ships arrived which were in the service of one of the contending warlords, a General Carmona. The British ships were looted and the passengers – including a Colonel Gregg – and the crews were taken ashore and imprisoned. The seizure appears to have been an open act of piracy rather than to have any political dimension. The prisoners did however manage to get a message to the British consul at Cartagena, who immediately demanded their release, though without result.

No illustration appears to exist of HMS Charybdis but this
painting by Thomas Butterwoth (1768-1842) entitled "A brig chasing a privateer"
gives some impression of how she might have looked in action.
(With acknowledgement to the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich)
This was however a period when British citizens could expect robust support from their government in the event of high-handed treatment by foreign nations and a Royal Navy brig, HMS Charybdis, was in the area for this very purpose. The consul contacted the brig’s commander, a Lieutenant Michael de Courcy, who set off with all despatch in Charybdis to resolve the matter.  

On arrival at El Zapote de Courcy found that General Carmona’s flotilla consisted of a corvette, a brig, and three “schooners of war”, all presumably hastily armed impressed and armed civilian vessels. Charybdis was thus outnumbered and though officially rated as a “6-gun brig” mounted only a single long gun amidships and two carronades. Her crew consisted of 55 officers and men. de Courcy now demanded release of the British ships and prisoners but the local commander rejected the demand “with great insolence”. It also appears that Colonel Gregg was shot soon afterwards – the circumstances are unclear.

Outnumbered or not, de Courcy now sailed Charybdis into the anchorage, and Carmona’s corvette promptly opened fire on her, shooting away the forestay and thereby threatening collapse of the foremast.  Charybdis returned fire so effectively that the corvette’s colours were promptly run down.  Once suspects that the two carronades – murderous at close quarters – played  a major role in this as when the corvette was boarded it was found that her commander and twenty-five of his men had been killed. Charybdis now directed her fire on the brig, sinking her, after which the schooners wisely decided to surrender.

The entire action had lasted less than an hour, and the crisis was resolved. de Courcy not only received the full backing of the Admiralty and Government but was promoted to commander in recognition of his swift  and decisive measures. It is hard to imagine any commander being allowed similar discretion or freedom today – radio communication has a lot to answer for!

The above are the facts as I know them and I would be grateful if anybody can fill in further details. Who was Colonel Gregg, for example, and what led to him being shot? What was de Courcy’s subsequent career?

The only cross-reference I can find on the web is, bizarrely from a contemporary magazine entitled  “The Gardners’ Chronicle” and it reports the incident on the basis of reports from Jamaican newspapers.  Directly after it is a brief paragraph which horrifies eve at this remove in, a letter from Puerto Rico, then a Spanish possession, which states chillingly that “three negroes had been shot, and eight others sentenced to the bastinado, and to be employed in hard work for ten years on the public works of the island, for having taken part in an insurrection.” Slavery had another half-century to run in the Spanish Empire and once wonders how many more nameless victims in that time were still to endure such ghastly punishments.

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