Friday 24 July 2015

Shipwreck, Survival, Slave Trade Suppression - and Injustice, 1845

High-quality radio communications today, and the associated ability of ships in difficulty to transmit distress messages, make it difficult to envisage just how desperate were the plights of shipwrecked crews in earlier years.  An earlier article (see links at the end) touched on the sufferings of the survivors of the French frigate Medusa in 1817, as were immortalised in the painting by Theodore Gericault. Of these we know, only because the remaining handful were rescued, but in hundreds of similar cases nobody lived to tell of their experiences. One case, not unlike the Medusa’s, was however to occur in 1845 and also off West Africa. This involved the Royal Navy.

One of the most potent images in history -
the symbol of Britain's Anti-Slavery Society
Britain had abolished the Slave trade in 1807 and in the following years many other nations were to follow her example. It was not however until the Napoleonic Wars ended in 1815 that resources could be assigned to active suppression. For some five decades thereafter in the Atlantic, and even longer in the Indian Ocean, British warships were devoted to catching ships running slaves from Africa to Brazil, the Caribbean or Arabia.  The “preventative squadron” of the West Coast of Africa Station was to constitute the main British effort up to about 1860. Though punctuated by periods of intense action, monotonous patrolling occupied most of the time and was made all the more hazardous for being based at locations, like Lagos, where malaria was rampant. The annual mortality rate was 55 per 1,000 men, compared with 10 for fleets in British waters or in the Mediterranean. The ships employed by the Royal Navy were often not fast enough to catch slavers, which were built, often expressly,  for speed, and other governments, which gave lip-service to the abolition of the trade (but not abolition of slavery itself), were less than cooperative.  France would not allow boarding parties to search French-registered ships and the American, Spanish, Portuguese, and Brazilian economies were so dependent on slave labour that these governments had no incentive to act effectively.

A typical success of the Anti-Slavery patrol
The capture of the slaver Gabriel by HMS Acorn, July 1841
by Nicholas M. Condy
(Credit © National Maritime Museum London UK)
By the 1840s some 25 vessels and 2,000 officers and men were on the West Africa Station and supported by approximately 1,000 “Kroomen”, recruited mainly from Sierra Leone. The Kroomaen came to be highly respected and were later to provide valuable service in similar duties in the Indian Ocean. Monotonous as the patrolling may have been, engagements could be very dramatic and very bloody when slavers were run down. Just how bloody would be proved by the experiences of some of HMS Star’s crew.

Another success: Capture of the Slaver Formidable by HMS Buzzard, 17 December 1834
by William J. Huggins (Credit © National Maritime Museum London UK)
On the 27th February 27th 1845 HMS Wasp, a Cruizer-class brig-sloop launched in 1812, was cruising in the Bight of Benin off the Niger Delta, when a strange sail was seen and pursued.  She was boarded in the early evening and found to be a Brazilian schooner, the Felicidade. Though apparently not carrying slaves – not yet – she was fitted for transporting them and she carried a crew of 28. With the exception of her captain and one other they were transferred to the Wasp. Command of the captured Felicidade was assigned to the Wasp’s Lieutenant Stupart, supported by a Midshipman Palmer and a crew of fifteen British seamen.

Prisoners found on a Slaver
 The Felicidade now operated independently of the Wasp and on March 1st captured a second prize, the Echo. This was a major success – no less than 430 slaves on board, and a crew of 28. The Felicidade was now, by comparison, a smaller prize and command of her was assigned to Midshipman Palmer, while Lieutenant Stupart took command of the Echo. Palmer was left with seven British seamen and two Kroomen. This in itself was not dangerous – young midshipmen had been taking command of prizes for a century or more – but it was made so by transferring the Echo’s captain and several of the crew to the Felicidade as prisoners. Once on board these desperate men overpowered and murdered Palmer and his small crew, took possession of the Felicidade and sailed her away.

Slaves being loaded - one suspects that those who murdered
the Felicidade's prize crew were not unlike the thugs shown here.

On March 6th the hijacked Felicidade was spotted HMS Star, another ship of the Anti-Slavery patrol. She was boarded and the crew was questioned. They claimed that the vessel was called Virginie and that the wounded men on board had had been injured by a falling spar. There was however sufficient evidence of a fight – blood stains on the deck – and there were indications that British seamen had been on the schooner.  The captain and crew, now suspected of murder, were taken on board the Star for questioning in Sierra Leone. The Felicidade was to proceed independently to St. Helena, where a prize court was established. Command of her was assumed by a Lieutenant Wilson from the Star, supported by nine naval seamen.

Now sailing independently, the Felicidade  encountered  a heavy squall. She went over, filled, and sank, so as only to leave part of her bow above water. When the squall passed  the whole crew was left clinging to the bow rail. Unsuccessful attempts were made to dive down to extract provisions from the hull and it was clear that she was sinking gradually. Lieutenant Wilson kept his nerve however. He found that there were three knives among the crew and he decided to make a raft of the main-boom and gaff, and such other items floating in the water. Ropes for binding them together were cut from the rigging, a small mast was erected and a topgallant studding-sail was secured to it. On this ramshackle raft ten men hoped to reach the African coast, 200 miles away, without rudder, oar, compass, provisions, or water.

Their suffering was great in the twenty days that followed. Almost naked, washed by every wave, unprotected against daytime sun or night-time chill, they had no supplies of either fresh water or food and sharks hovered near by. Five of their number were to die, two Kroomen among them the first to go. Wilson did however manage to maintain control as well as hope. Rain fell occasionally and it was caught in the sail and stored in a keg that had floated out of the schooner. Ingenuity – and desperation – was to turn the circling sharks into the only available source of food. A bowline was made at the end of a rope and used – one can only wonder how many tries were made – to lasso an eight-foot long shark and drag it on to the raft. They killed it, drank its blood, and ate it. Three more sharks were taken in the same way and it was these that kept the Wilson and four others alive until they were picked up in sight of land by HMS Cygnet.

The aftermath was amazing. The prisoners taken by HMS Star were taken to Britain to be tried for piracy. The assize judge duly convicted them of murder – a capital offence. Fine legal minds now found grounds for appeal. Did a British court-of-law have jurisdiction over a vessel owned by a Brazilian who murdered a prize crew? The appeal succeeded. The murderous thugs were released and transported back to Brazil at the cost of the British taxpayer. One can well imagine the indignation in naval circles and the sense of grievance felt by the families of the murdered men. They had looked for natural justice and were rewarded by flagrant injustice based on legal hair-splitting. “Remember the Felicidade!” was a cry heard often thereafter on the Anti-Slavery Patrol. One suspects – indeed hopes – that it might have led to some more summary justice on later occasions.  

Parallels with modern sensitives to legal niceties in relation to pirates and others of their ilk are too obvious to need emphasis.

“Remember the Felicidade!”


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For an account of an equally desperate encounter with slavers in this period, you may be interested in this account of the life of the spectacular – but now largely forgotten – Victorian naval hero, Hobart Pasha. His unlikely career included chasing slavers, service in the Crimean War in the Royal Navy, an encounter with the Pope, blockade-running for the Confederacy in the American Civil War, dealing in ladies' foundation garments and leadership of the Turkish Ottoman Navy. Click here to read about him.

For the article that mentioned the wreck of the Medusa, click here.

Tuesday 21 July 2015

The First Victoria Cross Winner 1854

Ever since the Crimean War (1854-56) the Victoria Cross has been the highest award for British service personnel for gallantry in the face of the enemy.  It takes precedence in order of wear over all other British orders, decorations, and medals, including the Order of the Garter.  Instituted by Queen Victoria in 1856 it was revolutionary at the time of introduction in that award made no distinction between officers and enlisted men.  Of some 1358 awarded since then, only fifteen have been won since the end of WW2. The medal is of bronze taken from Russian cannon captured at Sevastopol and these cannon themselves may have been of Chinese origin.

Departure of  the Baltic Expedition from Spithead 1854
Though the first Victoria Cross was won in the Crimean War the heroism that won it took place not in the Crimea but in the Baltic. Britain and France entered the war against Russia in March 1854. In parallel with efforts to invade the Crimea measures were also put in hand to send a vast British fleet to the Baltic to neutralise fortifications protecting the approaches to St. Petersburg and seal it off. The execution left much to be desired however. “A finer fleet never sailed or steam from Spithead than that destined for the Baltic in 1854” according to the future Hobart Pasha (Click here for moredetails). Referring however to the overall commander, Sir Charles Napier, known as ’Fighting Old Charley, Hobart went on to write that “it was not long before we discovered that there was not much fight left in him.”

Approaching Bomarsund - steam vessel towing sailing warship through narrow channel
The initial British objective was the incomplete Russian fortress of Bomarsund in the Ă…land Islands. This was  vulnerable to land-attack since the designers had assumed that the narrow channels near the fortress would not be passable for the large ships needed to land troops. This assumption was valid for sailing vessels but it took no account of the fact that steam ships could manoeuvre with greater ease and thus bring weakly defended sections of the fortress. One gets the impression that the focus on Bomarsund was due to its accessibility rather to any significant strategic importance and Hobart, in his memoirs, hints that dissatisfaction with the decision was widespread. He wrote: “if ever open mutiny was displayed – not by the crews of the ships, but by many of the captains, men who had attained the highest rank in their profession – it was during the cruise in the Baltic in 1854.”

Bombarding Bomarsund
On 21st June 1854, three British ships, Hecla, Odin and Valorous, came close enough to begin bombardment. Russian fortress-artillery replied and the action lasted most of the following night. At its height a live shell, its fuse hissing, crashed on to one the deck of the Hecla, a wooden paddle-sloop. Given that this vessel was wholly unarmoured, it seems an act of the grossest folly to have exposed ever her in this way.  Only seconds remained before the shell would explode and orders were shouted for everybody to thrown themselves flat.  On deck however was the twenty-year old Midshipman Charles Davis Lucas (1834 - 1914), who had already served seven years, a period that included the Second Burmese War . Rather than throw himself down Lucas grabbed the shell, dashed to the side and threw it overboard. It exploded on hitting the water. No further damage was done, nor were any of the crew wounded. The indecisive action was broken off shortly afterwards to wait until British and French reinforcements would arrive.

Contemporary illustration - Lucas throwing the shell overboard
Lucas in 1857
Lucas’s action had saved the Hecla, but given the reward structure in place at the time the only recognition possible was for her captain, W.H. Hall, to promote him to the rank of Acting Lieutenant.  The Crimean War was the first to be covered extensively by the newspapers and Lucas’s behaviour, together with other individual acts of bravery, was widely reported. The outcome was a motion in Parliament "that an Order of Merit to persons serving in the army or navy for distinguished and prominent personal gallantry to which every grade should be admissible" should be created.

Though Lucas was the first winner, he was not however the first to receive his medal in the inaugural award ceremony in June 1857. This was held in London’s Hyde Park and it was estimated that over 100,000 people came to watch. Queen Victoria pinned the crosses on the recipients in strict order of Service precedence and seniority. Lucas was therefore fourth in line, following three more senior recipients, the first being Commander Henry Raby. Lucas may however have been lucky to miss the first slot – the Queen conducted the tricky operation of pinning on the medal from horseback. In the process , and by accident, she plunged the double-pronged pin for holding the medal into Raby’s chest. This was presumably a minor inconvenience compared with the dangers he had been exposed to while winning the medal!

Queen Victoria awarding the first Victoria Crosses, 26th June 1857
by George H. Thomas (1824-1868)
Lucas VC as Rear-Admiral
Lucas went on to have a distinguished naval career, promoting to captain in 1862 and retiring in 1873, making rear-admiral on the retired list in 1885. It is pleasing to note that he married the daughter of Captain Hall of the Hecla. He was to live on until 1914, another of those naval officers who joined a service still commanded by veterans of the age of Nelson, but who themselves lived to see technological innovations of the early 20th Century such as turbines, radio, aircraft and submarines which were to change the nature of sea warfare.

Technology changes but human nature doesn’t. The Victoria Cross remains today, as it did in 1854, the recognition of human courage at its most sublime.

Friday 17 July 2015

The Eventful Career of HMS Rattler

A recent blog told the story of the invention and initial testing of screw-propellers for ships, building on principles established two millennia previously. In the late 1830s the practicality of this concept was proven in a series of exhaustive tests by the experimental steamship SS Archimedes, as detailed in that earlier article (Click here to read). These tests included evaluation against the Royal  Navy's fast paddle-driven mail-packets and indicated that “as regards power-to-weight ratio, the screw propeller had proven equal, if not superior, to that of the ordinary paddle-wheel."

SS Archimedes - proving the concept and showing the way ahead
The Royal Navy had taken its first steps into the steam age in the previous decade, but the associated method of propulsion had major drawbacks for a man-of-war, not least in that they provided a large and vulnerable target. Use of steam propulsion was therefore limited to vessels – such as mail-packets, or gunboats for colonial service – which would be unlikely to engage in combat with other ships. The screw-propeller however, located as it was below the waterline, would remove this vulnerability.  The success of the Archimedes – a civilian vessel – therefore encouraged the Royal Navy to build a vessel of its own, directly comparable in power and armament to typical paddle-gunboats already in service, so as to allow directly comparative testing.
The tug-of-war: HMS Rattler (l) towing Alecto (r) March 1845
The resulting design was to be HMS Rattler, an 894-ton, 185-ft long wooden sloop powered by a 440-hp steam engine, with an auxiliary sailing rig. The latter was to remain a standard feature of practically all warship types for the next half-century since it allowed a degree of independence from coaling locations as well as economy of operation.  The Rattler was designed to carry a powerful armament – a single 8-inch pivot gun which could bear over a wide arc, and eight 32-pounders as broadside weapons. This armament was typical of gunboats of the period, which were more likely to be involved in shore-bombardments in remote locations than in ship-to-ship combat.

The launch of HMS Trafalgar in 1841
100 survivors of the battle were present
The Rattler was completed in 1843 and spent the next two years in trials, a variety of propeller shapes being tried out and relative efficiencies established. Later tests involved races with the generally similar, but paddle-driven, HMS Alecto. These culminated in the “tug-of-war”of March 1845 for which the Rattler is best remembered, when she was linked by a tow-cable stern to stern with Alecto. Both vessels applied full power – a sight that must have been magnificent to see, waters swirling in Rattler’s wake as her propeller churned, and foam thrashing from Alecto’s twin paddle-wheels. In the event it proved no contest – Rattler dragged Alecto behind her at a speed of two knots. The screw-propeller had proved itself.

Testing over, Rattler was now ready to embark on her active naval career. One of her first tasks was to help tow Sir John Franklin’s ships Erebus and Terror to the Orkney Islands, the first stage of their voyage to disaster in the Canadian Arctic.  She thereafter joined the “Squadron of Evolution”, one of the “Experimental Squadrons” employed in the 1830s and 1840s to test the new technologies – including improved hull shapes – then being introduced. The most notable – and impressive – aspect of this was that the trials assessed operations of vessels of differing size in a group, and not individually. If Rattler represented the future, then one of the largest ships in the squadron very definitely represented the last-gasp of the Age of Sail. HMS Trafalgar was a 120-gun first rate ship-of –the-line, launched in 1841, in Queen Victoria’s presence. She was named by Nelson’s niece and of 500 people on board during the ceremony, 100 had been at the Battle of Trafalgar. She was powered by sail alone – she would not have been out of place at Trafalgar – and it was not until 1859 that she was to receive an auxiliary steam engine. The eight-ship Experimental Squadron sailed as far as South America and during part of the voyage Rattler towed the 78-gun Superb, launched in 1842, and herself almost identical to Nelson’s ships four decades earlier.

Rattler’s next service was to be at the sharp-end of Royal Naval operations in the 1840s as part of the Atlantic Anti-Slave Trade patrol. The greatest hazard of this service was not associated with combat, but by being stationed off the West Coast of Africa at a time when the origin of malaria was not understood and crews were vulnerable to it when ashore. Rattler’s most notable achievement in this period was the capture of a Brazilian slave brigantine, the Alepide – the action must have provided a welcome burst of excitement in two years of otherwise monotonous patrolling.
Chinese war-junk of the period

Rattler thereafter went east and served in the Second Anglo-Burmese War of 1852. Her next deployment was to take her to Chinese waters. In the aftermath of the First Opium War (1839-42) European and and American traders were becoming active in commercial operations along the long Chinese coast. Hong Kong was one of the British soils of that war and the focus of much of the trade. Weak Imperial Chinese power meant however that much of the coast was subject to the depredations of pirates operating from hundreds of locations along it. For many decades Western navies were to be involved in small-scale, but often very vicious, fighting to eradicate this curse. A particularly serious incident occurred in September 1855 when the pirates seized four merchant vessels at Lantau island, just east of Hong Kong. The offence was all the more serious in that the vessels were under escort by the Eaglet, a small civil vessel chartered for British naval service. 

HMS Rattler was to come to the rescue, operating in concert with the 2400-ton American steam-frigate USS Powhatan (a paddle-steamer!). In service since 1852, the Powhatan had accompanied  Commodore Matthew C. Perry's expedition to Japan in 1854, arguably one of the most significant events in modern history. She was very heavily armed – a single 11-inch  and ten 9-inch Dahlgren smoothbores and five 12-pounders.
USS Powhatan - she was later to serve with distinction in the American Civil War
 The Battle of Ty-ho Bay, in which Rattler and Powhatan engaged a fleet of pirate junks, was to be one of the first occasions when British and American naval forces cooperated (The War of 1812 was still fresh in the memory of many on both sides). The opposing force consisted of fourteen large junks and twenty-two smaller ones, crewed by a total of some 1,500 pirates and they were armed with small cannon. The appearance of the British and American ships – followed by the Eaglet, towing six boats loaded with British and American seamen – induced sixteen of the junks to turn tail and escape, but the remainder stood their ground. The pirates opened fire – ineffectually, given their armament – and were now subjected to heavy fire in return. Six junks were sunk and the boats brought by Eaglet slipped their tows and headed for the remainder. Classic boarding followed – in the fine old Age of Fighting Sail tradition of “cutting out” – and fourteen junks were captured after stiff resistance. At the end of the action fourteen large junks and six small ones were destroyed.

Royal Navy warship engaging a pirate junk off the Chinese coast, 1840s-50s
Pirate casualties were estimated at around 500 and another 1000 were captured. It is not clear what became of them (Do any readers have information?), but it not unlikely that some would have been executed subsequently. British casualties amounted to four killed and several wounded, while the Americans lost five dead.

This was to be the Rattler’s final adventure before returning to Britain, where she was scrapped in 1856. A footnote on the hazards of disease and illness while operating in Eastern waters is provided by a memorial in St. Ann’s Church, Portsmouth erected by Rattler’s officers and ship’s company “In remembrance  of thirty- six of their gallant shipmates who between the years 1851 and 1856 died in the service of their country”. It notes that of these “twenty five fell under the baneful effects of the climates of Burmah and China, five were drowned and six were killed in action with pirates on the coast of China.”

HMS Rattler’s life had been a short one – a decade and a half – and it was not just eventful but epoch- making too.

Tuesday 14 July 2015

Chaplains at sea in the Age of Fighting Sail

One seldom comes across any mention of chaplains in Nautical Fiction, despite the fact that by the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars period both all line-of-battle ships and frigates were allowed them. The decision to have such men – usually referred to as “parsons” – may well have rested with individual station commanders. Some admirals and captains were famed for their piety – most notably Admiral of the Fleet James Gambier, 1st Baron Gambier (1756 –1833) – but others were likely to be more casual in their observances in the manner of the 18th Century.  

The cautious Gambier and the fire-eating Lord Cochrane 
during the Battle of Basque Roads in 1809
Gambier, backed by his chaplain, is shown reading the Bible
and ignoring Cochrane's request to pursue the French fleet
Patrick O’Brian’s “The Ionian Mission” does however feature what Jack Aubrey described as “a whole God damned – a whole blessed convocation of clergy”, six of whom he was to transport to the Mediterranean ”for Admiral Thornton likes to have chaplains aboard.” Such men were expected not only to conduct divine service on Sundays and funerals in the case of fatalities, and take their place in the cockpit during battle to assist the surgeon in matters likely to be temporal no less than spiritual, but also to act as schoolmasters for the midshipmen.

The future King William IV
under instruction as a midshipman
on HMS Prince George, 1779
It is likely that these clergymen varied enormously in motivation, attitude and piety. Some were almost certainly unlikely to have been able to obtain “Livings” ashore – which were often in the gift of wealthy landowners – and some might have had good reason to be absent from the country on the grounds of financial or moral embarrassment of one sort or another. Some would have been genuinely pious and for many with a scientific bent the opportunity for research in foreign parts would have been irresistible.

I came to thinking about such men when I stumbled upon a brief discussion of them in an 1894 book, “The British Fleet” by Commander N. Robinson.  It suggests that when chaplains were first assigned, towards the end of the 17th Century they were not always welcome on board, and for a surprising reason. Having time on their hands chaplains tended to write journals, but that the to prevent having any such "true relations of their voyages” – many “gentlemen-captains” preferred not to have them on board.

One chaplain who did however write was the Rev. Thomas Pocock, M.A., chaplain of HMS Orford, in 1698, the Ranelagh in 1704, and the Union in 1711. His journal principally relates to the operations of the Ranelagh off the Spanish coast, the capture of Gibraltar, and the battle of Malaga. (Click here for article on these events).  Pocock summarised a typical Sunday’s duties as “I preached this morning on the quarter-deck, read prayers about 4. I catechized first the volunteers and then the officers' boys, and I distributed about l00 books among the ship's crew. I gave six young gentlemen 6d. a piece for learning the 6 first Psalms." The mention of the 100 books is interesting in that it may hint at a higher standard of literacy on the lower deck than we perhaps think typical of the period.

Ned Ward (1667-1731)
The most entertaining assessment – satirical but probably with more than a grain of truth – appears in “The Wooden World Dissected " (1706), written by Ned Ward (1667 – 1731), about whom we’ll say more further on. Ward had spent time at sea and he stated that "a sea-chaplain is one that in his junior days was brought up in fear of the Lord; but the University reasoned him out of it at last, and he has ofttimes thanked his good stars for it. . . . There's as great a difference betwixt him and a reverend divine as betwixt a quack doctor and a learned physician ; and he will never show it more than when you offer to tell him so, for he'll be readier to confute ye with his fists than any other proofs whatever. . . . He drinks and prays with much the like fervour, and to show his abundant humility he will sometimes drink flip with the midshipmen; and, to prevent the fall of a weak brother, he will oft be so charitable as to drink for him. He wears his prunella gown as chearily (sic) as he does his honesty ; there's something in the wind to be sure when he puts on either. The captain, when he has got a super-ordinary dinner, sends for him to give the Benediction, but he gives no long-winded Grace, for he loves to keep his breath to cool his pottage. He's the captain's trusty camarade  (sic)at a game or so, on a Sunday evening, but they play not so deep as they drink a hearty Bout prevents the spiritual food of the day from lying heavy on the stomach, there being no better digester of good doctrine than good liquor."

Daniel Defoe (of Robinson Crusoe fame)  in the pillory -
so popular that the crowd threw only flower at him
Ward combined the occupations of journalist and tavern-keeper after travels to Jamaica and New Englad, in neither of which he made his fortune.  His first success came with “The London Spy”, a satirical work published in 18 monthly instalments which purported to be a "complete survey" of the London scene. He built on its success with over one hundred further satires in prose and verse which targeted just about every power and interest group of his time. He also got so heavily involved in politics and in 1706 he was twice arrested for “seditious libel” of the Whig government and condemned to stand in the pillory on both occasions. Like his contemporary journalist Daniel Defoe, he seems to have come uninjured through this ordeal.

Ward's writings became popular even in the Americas, and it must be to his credit that he evoked the ire of the Puritan supporter of the Salem Witch Trials, Cotton Mather. This luminary warned in 1726 against pestilences “all those worse than Egyptian Toads (the Spawns of a Butler, and a Brown, and a Ward…)". One suspects that Ward would have been rather proud of this. A short list of the names of some of his pamphlets, as listed below, is a delight in itself, and I’ll be looking to learn more myself about this colourful character.

Female Policy Detected, or, The Arts of a Designing Woman Laid Open (1695)

Sot's Paradise (1698)

The Weekly Comedy, as it is Dayly Acted at most Coffee-Houses in London (1699)

A Journey to Hell (1700–1705)

The Dissenting Hypocrite (1704)

Honesty in Distress but Relieved by No Party (1705)

Hubibras Redivivus (twelve monthly parts, 1705–1707) – the bitter attack on the Whig government that led to Ward being put in the pillory

The Wooden World Dissected (1706) – a controversial account of the Royal Navy, see extract above!
Mars Stript of his Armour (1708)

The Secret History of Clubs (1709) – which contains one of the first descriptions of gay clubs in London.

A Vade Mecum for Malt-Worms (1715)

The Delights of the Bottle (1720)

A man who thought up titles like these must have been a delight to know – though not if one was to become the target of his satire!

Friday 10 July 2015

Polar Explorers and other Heroes – London’s Statues

The Scott Memorial
I’ve been in London today and am just back home, so no time this Friday evening for a long blog. The weather was beautiful – warm and sunny – and it’s on such summer days that London is always at its best. My business took me through Victoria Place, which intersects Pall Mall, just up for Trafalgar Square and I always love walking through it because of the commemorative statues there. On this occasion I did what I’d been threatening to do for ages – to whip out my mobile ‘phone and photograph some of them.

One of my favourites is the memorial to Captain Scott and the companions who died with him on his return journey from the South Pole in 1912. It’s got significance for me in that Scott was one of the heroes of my youth and that the story of his companion, Laurence Oates, was told me by my father when I was little as an example of courage and devotion to duty. 

It was Oates who, when he was sick and frostbitten, realised that he was an encumbrance to the rest of the party, who were themselves little better. Oates left the group’s tent in a blizzard, his last words being "I am just going outside and may be some time" and was never seen again. Scott wrote in his own diary “We knew that Oates was walking to his death... it was the act of a brave man and an English gentleman.” The sacrifice was in vain and Scott and his companies died themselves shortly after, Scott last of all, leaving a very moving diary. I told my own daughters the same story in due course and we went to the British Museum to see Scott’s diary, written in pencil and open at the last page. I suspect that parents and grandparents will be inspiring younger generations by Scott’s last journey for centuries to come.

Franklin Memorial

Just across from the Scott memorial is that to the Arctic Explorer, Sir John Franklin, who disappeared with his two ships HMS Erebus and HMS Terror in 1845 in his search for the North West Passage. Numerous expeditions were sent to find him without success – and his indomitable wife never gave up hope and urged that the search be continued. It is only since the 1980s that a series of discoveries and exhumations – and latterly identification of the wreck of HMS Erebus – has cast light on the dreadful fate of the crews. The plinth of Franklin’s statue is flanked by plaques listing all crew-members of both ships.

Next to Franklin is a more recent statue and it was of particular significance today, July 10th, the 75th Anniversary of the start of the Battle of Britain. It commemorates Air Chief Marshal Sir Keith Park of the RAF, who commanded No.2 Group of Fighter Command, tasked with the defence of London. 

An assessment by Lord Tedder, Chief of the Air Staff, said of Park in this period: “If any one man won the Battle of Britain, he did. I do not believe it is realised how much that one man, with his leadership, his calm judgement and his skill, did to save, not only this country, but the world.” Park went on to play a similar role in the air-defence of Malta. As I saw his statue today, ignored by passers-by, I could not but recall and article in today’s Daily Telegraph which Indicated that “Four out of ten young adults have no idea what the Battle of Britain was, according to research commissioned for the 75th anniversary ….only half of all adults (sample of 1000) knew who “The Few” were, and one in ten 18 to 24-year-olds thought the Battle took place last year, with the same number thinking it was a Viking attack when presented with multiple choice answers.”

Inscription - Park Memorial
The Crimea Memorial
Further on in Waterloos place one encounters the Crimea War memorial, the main group commemorating the army units with separate statues of Florence Nightingale - as "The lady with the lamp"- and Sidney Herbert, the Secretary At War who sent her, and her team of nurses to Istanbul and the Crimea.

Later, on my way back to my railway station I cut across Horse Guards Parade to look at the statues of two late Victorian generals, Sir Garnet Wolseley and Lord Roberts. I love equestrian statues - I believe the best ever is that of Ulysses S. Grant, portrayed as after the Battle of the Wilderness in 1864, on his memorial on the Mall in Washington D.C. In London it’s appropriate that Wolseley looks especially smart since in his lifetime the phrase “All Sir Garnet” was used to convey satisfaction and excellence – as in “That piece of work is all Sir Garnet!”

A little further on, off Whitehall, one comes across the Gurkha Memorial, notable not just for the listing sheer number of Gurkha units that have fought for Britain since 1817. The memorial lists in addition no fewer than 31 Wars and campaigns, the most recent being Afghanistan.

And nearby, what I always find one of the most moving memorials of all, that for the British tank crews of WW2. It shows a full crew, as would have manned a Sherman Firefly or a Cromwell tank, Driver, Hull Gunner, Gunner, Loader and Commander. These men not only fought hard but they died very hard also, often by fire in blazing tanks they could not escape from. It’s good they’re not forgotten.

WW2 Tank Crew
Band of Brothers
London’s numerous memorials make walking a joy – as today has once again proved for me as well as reminding me once again of the sacrifices made to win us the freedom we take for granted. .

Tuesday 7 July 2015

SS Archimedes – setting the shipping paradigm

If anyone is challenged today to draw a simple picture of a ship, there is probably a more than a 99% likelihood that they’ll draw a long hull, a smaller superstructure above it, one or more funnels and the assumption that it is driven through the water by a screw propeller. This is our modern paradigm of “a ship”. Were the same request made in the 1830s however the answer would be very different, with a large paddle-wheel half-way along the side, and the implication that it would be matched by another on the far side. The earliest steam ships were driven by all driven by paddles and the screw propeller, which we take for granted today, had not yet arrived.

The P&O paddle-steamer William Facwett - a typical vessel of the 1830s
So how did the propeller – insignificant in size by comparison with the more dramatic paddle-wheel – achieve its prominence and drive its competitor from the worlds’ oceans? The surprising answer goes back to the Third Century BC and the great scientist and mathematician Archimedes (287 BC – 212 BC). Any of us who have studied physics, even at the high-school level, will be familiar with the principle named after him, the recognition that a body immersed in a fluid experiences a buoyant force equal to the weight of the fluid it displaces. There was much more to Archimedes than that – including mathematics that prefigured Newton’s and Leibnitz’s invention of Calculus almost eighteen centuries later – and he gave his name to one of the most complex technical creations of ancient times, the Archimedes screw. 

This device was a long helical spiral set either in a tube, or in an open trough, and when rotated could lift water from a lower level to a high. Sophisticated versions, some very large, are in use today. (It’s worth looking at “Archimedes Screw” on Google images). In the past, when the power to them was limited to windmills or by animal or human labour, their capacity was limited though they did find their uses in irrigation, or land reclamation or mine drainage. The advent of steam power from the 18th Century onwards allowed them to shift significantly larger quantities which, when discharged, could generate powerful axial forces. The potential existed therefore for their use for propulsive as well as drainage purposes.

"The Death of Archimedes" by Thomas Degeorge (1786-1854)
Before jumping on in more detail to the Age of Steam it is sad to record what became of Archimedes.  His native city of Syracuse, in Sicily, was besieged by the Romans and he was instrumental in developing machines for its defence. When the city fell orders were given to capture him alive as his expertise was so highly valued – prefiguring the American efforts to capture of Nazi rocket-engineers in 1945 – but a Roman soldier who had either not heard or not heeded the order burst in on Archimedes. He found him engrossed in geometric studies and was greeted with the request "Do not disturb my circles!" Archimedes was butchered anyway.

 Steam power was first applied successfully and profitable, by Robert Fulton, in 1807. Propulsion was by paddle-wheels, a logical development from the water-wheels that powered so much industry of the time. Used on calm water, as Fulton’s craft demonstrated on the Hudson River, paddles were very efficient and for the next two and a half-decades they became the standard method of steam-ship propulsion. 

1909 replica of Fulton's successful "Clermont"
Effective as they might be on rivers and lakes, paddles were however less effective on the open sea, especially when the vessel was rolling so that one wheel was exposed while the other dug deep, thus placing a heavy and rapidly varying load on the engine. The potential for paddle-steamers as warships was also limited since in any ship-to-ship or shore-to-ship action involving heavy guns the large-diameter paddles would represent large and vulnerable targets. For all these reasons the search was on for a propulsive system that could be accommodated below the waterline, and therefore less subject to sea-conditions and less vulnerable to enemy fire.

Thoughts now turned to screw propulsion and the 1830s many patents for such were taken out, few reaching the testing stage and fewer still offering promise.  Efforts focussed on modifying the Archimedes screw for marine use were however promising. One such attempt is sketched in a patent granted to Francis Pettit Smith (1808 –1874) in 1836, as shown below.

Testing was to prove that two or more complete turns of the spiral were not required and the modified version had a single turn, as shown on the right. These tests, conducted on a small craft, were successful enough for Smith to convince investors, and the prestigious Rennie engineering firm, to establish a new company named the Ship Propeller Company.  This new venture committed to construction of a 237-ton, 125-feet long vessel of 22.5 -feet beam. Her lines – essentially those of a schooner – were selected for minimum water-resistance and her slender, raking funnel and masts (she carried sail as well as steam power) gave her an elegant appearance. Installed power was  nominally 80-horsepower though in practice this proved to be closer to 60.

The name chosen was, most appropriately, Archimedes.

Look, No Paddle Wheels! The Archimedes under steam power
Initial trials in 1839 were impressive – a speed of 10 knots was achieved on her first open-sea passage from London to Portsmouth. There she was tested, again satisfactorily, against comparable Royal Navy ships, all paddlers.  Disaster struck on the return voyage – a boiler exploded, causing casualties, – but the accident had nothing to do with the screw propulsion and Archimedes was soon available for further trails. These included evaluation against the Royal  Navy's fast Dover-Calais mail-packets, the fastest of which, and closest to Archimedes in size and power was HMS Widgeon. The latter proved slightly faster in smooth seas – which obviously favoured the paddles’ deep bite, but it was concluded that, as regards power-to-weight ratio, the screw propeller had proven "equal, if not superior, to that of the ordinary paddle-wheel." The scene was set for the Royal Navy’s own first venture into screw propulsion – but we’ll leave that for a later article.

Archimedes carried sails as well as steam power- an essential
back up when engine reliability could not be counted on 
Even more exhaustive tests followed – including a circumnavigation of Britain and a passage from Plymouth to Oporto in Portugal in less than three days. Excited by these results, Britain’s premier engineer, Isambard Kingdom Brunel, was involved in having the Archimedes loaned for further tests to the Great Western Steamship Company, for which he was then constructing the world's largest steamship, the SS Great Britain. Brunel had the vision – and indeed the audacity – to settle on this new means of propulsion. Following a series of tests of different propeller types it was decided to fit the Great Britain with a four-bladed type designed by Smith.

The Great Britain on her maiden voyage - 14 days to cross the Atlantic
The Great Britain brought new standards of speed and comfort to North Atlantic travel (even if Charles Dickens was less than complimentary about the accommodation when he crossed in 1842). Though ocean-going paddle steamers were still constructed – including by Brunel himself – the Great Britain’s success, made possible by that of the Archimedes, had confirmed that the future lay in screw propulsion. (The Great Britain survives, in a restored state , in the British pot of Bristol).

And the Archimedes? For all her technical success Smith and his investors lost heavily – some £50,000 in money of the day, worth tens of millions in the 21st Century.  The Royal Navy did not purchase her, as Smith had hoped, and she was sold on by the Ship Propeller Company. She was to suffer the indignity of having her engines removed and converted to a sailing vessel. She was wrecked, as such off the Dutch coast in 1864, and ignominious end for a ship that had made history. It is however pleasing to record that Smith’s later career was a satisfactory one, including appointment as Curator of the Patent Office Museum in South Kensington and a well-deserved knighthood in 1871.

And the implications of the Archimedes for the Royal Navy? We’ll read about that soon  in a later blog.

Interested in adventure in the age of transition for sail to steam? 
Click on the image below to learn more and to read the opening.

Friday 3 July 2015

Duel in the Dark: Frigates Blanche and Pique 1795

Though major fleet actions such as Camperdown, The Nile and Trafalgar seem to most as  emblematic of the Great Age of Fighting Sail. Such engagements were, by their very nature, few in number. Far more common – and in many cases even more savage – were the “single ship actions” in which one warship met another on the open sea, when each captain and his crew were determined to hazard all, and when retreat was seldom, if ever, an option. The most dramatic of all such actions were those which matched one frigate against another – these vessels not only being heavily armed for their size and highly manoeuvrable, but commanded by energetic young captains hungry for promotion and prize money.

End of the Blanche vs. Pique action - both ships in states not unusual after such combats
Painting by John Thomas Baines with Acknowledgement to National Maritime Museum, Greeenwich
Weight of armament alone was not necessarily a deciding factor. Far more important were a captain’s ability to manoeuvre his ship into a position from which he could inflict the most serious damage on his adversary. This meant “raking” – shooting down the axis of the enemy vessel, either from ahead or, even more lethally, from astern. Sailing vessels had no substantial transverse bulkheads and cannon-fire of this type could rip along an entire gun-deck, scything down all in its path. Allied to this factor was speed and accuracy in gunnery, not just as regards opening broadsides but in ability to maintain steady fire, if necessary for hours on end.

Should each of the contestants be unable to inflict a knock-out blow by gunnery alone – which was often the case when damage to masts, spars and sails impaired ability to manoeuvre – one last tactic remained. This was to board, to draw close enough to the enemy to launch much of the ship’s company across and to attempt to subdue the other crew with close-range small-arms fire and in furious hand-to-hand fighting. In such a desperate case the advantage lay with the crew that had trained and trained and trained again and which had been welded into a single proud unit with high morale. And the single most important factor of all - a bloody-minded determination to prevail.

All these features were present in one of the most furious single-ship actions of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. This occurred on the night of 4th-5th January 1795 when the Royal Navy frigate HMS Blanche engaged a French counterpart, the Pique, off Guadeloupe in the West Indies. The  Blanche,  a  32-gun, 12-pounder frigate commanded by Captain Robert Faulknor had been cruising  on the West Indian station for several months – exports from French “sugar islands” such as Guadeloupe were critical for  the French war-economy and the Royal Navy was committed to doing everything possible to disrupt such trade.  Faulknor was aggressive and on the penultimate day of 1794 his crew managed to “cut out” a French schooner from under the guns of a small fort  on the island of small island of Desirade , just east of Guadeloupe. Such “cutting out” was essentially a commando operation, a surprise attack with ship’s boats aimed at hijacking the enemy vessel. Such attacks demanded high levels of skill, confidence and morale and Blanche’s success on December 30th proved that there was no shortcoming in these qualities.

French frigate Incorruptible (1795) - Pique would have looked generally similar
Faulknor now took Blanche to stand off the harbour of Pointe-a-Pitre, Guadeloupe, where she was joined by another frigate HMS Quebec (a successor to the vessel of the same name that was involved in a ferocious action in 1779 – see reference at end of this article). Within Pointe-a-Pitre lay a French frigate, the Pique, commanded by a Captain Conseil. He resisted the urge to come out while two British frigates waited for him offshore and he remained under the protection of the harbour’s shore batteries. Only after the Quebec departed on 2nd January did he emerge, but for the next two days he cruised back and forth  under the shelter of the shore guns until he could be sure that the Quebec was not lurking close by.

The Blanche was still on station however, and not inactive. At midday on the 4th she captured an American schooner bringing a cargo of wine and brandy  from Bordeaux – a valuable prize that Faulknor sent away with a prize crew. Still concerned that the Quebec might be nearby, Conseil made no move to recapture the prize. By midnight however, when the Quebec had not reappeared, Conseil finally decided to take his ship out to engage the Blanche. The night was a bright one but it is unclear why he decided to trigger what must be an engagement in semi-darkness.

As she advanced the Pique lay to windward of the Blanche –the most advantageous  situation as regards freedom of manoeuvre.  They passed on opposite tacks and each fired an ineffective broadside. The Blanche then went about and was now sailing parallel to the Pique and gradually overhauling her. Conseil let her come up till she was within musket-shot of his starboard quarter, then threw his helm his helm over, with the intention of crossing Blanche’s bows and raking her  as he did - a measure which, if successful, might have decided the action. Faulknor recognised the danger and the Blanche bore away also. This brought both vessels before the wind, at close range, broadside to broadside.

Victorian era illustration: Blanche (L) bears away from Pique's attempt to cross her bows
The artillery duel now began in earnest and for the next  hour and a quarter they thundered broadsides at each other, to no obvious detriment of either.  The Blanche was however the faster sailer of the two and she slowly drew ahead. By 0230 she had passed the Pique and it was now Faulknor’s opportunity to rake.  The helm was thrown across to lay the Blanche broadside across the Pique’s advancing bows.  The damage that Blanche had sustained in the gunnery duel had perhaps been underestimated and as the helm answered the strain on masts and rigging proved too much. The main and mizzen both fell, the only stroke of luck being that they collapsed over the starboard side so that the guns to port still bore on the Pique’s bows. With range now point-blank, Blanche now poured fire into an enemy which could bring no fire to bear in return.

Death of Captain Faulknor
The next – and most remarkable phase of the action now commenced. The injured Blanche might have drifted free had the Pique’s bowsprit not run over her port quarter. It tangled in the wreckage there and both ships were now locked together.  The French attempted to board, but made the cardinal mistake in such circumstances, that of not devoting sufficient numbers to the assault. As they were driven back by the Blanche’s crew Faulknor realised that boarding now might represent his own best option. Making a virtue of necessity, and intent on holding the vessels locked together, Faulknor ordered that the Pique’s bowsprit to be lashed to the quarter-deck capstan. While this was happening he fell dead with a shot through the heart, command now devolving to his deputy, a  Lieutenant Watkins.

A few of the Blanche's 12- pounders on the main deck could still be trained upon the Pique's bows but most of the firing was now confined to  the small-arms men aloft and on deck, and to carronades, and swivels on the two ships' forecastles. Pique was now taking serious punishment and at 0300 her fore and mizzen-mast went overboard. The force involved broke the lashings holding the ships together so that  Pique immediately dropped astern, with Blanche dead ahead. The breeze was light but a sudden stronger puff on Pique’s main top ail drove her into the Blanche again, her bowsprit running over the British ship’s starboard quarter. Despite a hail of small-arms fire from the Pique's forecastle, the Blanche’s crew managed to secure the Frenchman's bowsprit to the stump of the fallen mainmast. The Pique's crew made several attempts to sever the link but were driven back by the Blanche’s marines.  was too much for them. Locked fast together, Blanche leading, Pique dragging astern, both ships now drifted uncontrollably ahead of the wind.  It should be borne in mind that by now the close-quarters action had been in progress for some three hours.

Lieutenant Watkins now ordered the measure that would break the deadlock. He  ordered one of the 12-pounder main deck guns to be run aft to where the carpenter and his crew were  trying to cut two ports in the stern through which it could fire. (The coolness of these men going about their business in the heat of the action borders on the unbelievable). The beams across the transom were however rock-hard and all efforts to cut them were defeated. The necessary ports were therefore provided by the simple method of firing the 12-pounder into the stern frames. The wood took fire, as had been expected, but men had been standing by with buckets of water to quench it. Another 12-pounder was manhandled aft and these two weapons now brought a devastating  fire to bear through the improvised ports  on to the Pique. The result was that her remaining mast was brought down, falling aft so as to put out of action the quarter-deck guns. These had been  run inboard and pointed forward so as to be the only heavy weapons that could be brought to bear on the Blanche.

Victory at last: HMS Blanche towing the vanquished Pique
Painting by James Jenkins, engraved by Thomas Sutherland
The French was now defenceless, except for their small arms but they still resisted. Only at 0515 – after five hours of ferocious action, and by which time Captain Conseil and many of his officers were dead, did she strike her colours. Both ships were floating wrecks – their boats were so badly damaged that the young Lieutenant David Milne who crossed to the Pique to take possession had to do so along the cable still linking the vessels. 

As so often with such actions one is surprised by the disparity of casualties. Of  Blanche’s 198 men only 8 were killed, including Captain Faulknor, and 21 wounded. The Pique had had the worse of the canoneering and from a crew variously reported as between 60 and 360, she lost 76 killed, including Captain Conseil, and about 110 wounded.

Looking at this action from over two centuries later, one is struck by the sheer horror of the duration of the close-quarters fighting. When portrayed in a movie such an action is depicted in five or ten minutes of screen time, if in a book then at outside in a dozen pages. The fact that men – on both sides – endured and remained defiant for over five hours is a commentary on the sheer bloody-mindedness accepted as routine in the navies of the era.

A sad end - the wreck of HMS Blanche
And as for both ships’ subsequent careers? Like all wooden ships of the time they were suited to fast and comprehensive repair. Blanche continued to serve in the Royal Navy until she was wrecked off the Dutch coast in 1799. Pique was taken into British service under the command of David Milne (1763-1845), who had boarded her to take the surrender. Her luck ran out in 1798 when she was wrecked in an action off the French coast. The loss did Milne’s career no harm – he was to be second in command to Lord Exmouth (Edward Pellew) at the bombardment of Algiers in 1816 and he was to end as a Vice-Admiral. His naval career spanned 60 years, from the great Age of Fighting Sail to the early years of the new Age of Steam.

 And here are two more notable frigate actions:

Click here: HMS Indefatigable vs. Droits de l’Homme, 1797.