Friday 29 January 2016

Rescue against all odds: Pellew and the Dutton 1796

We’ve met Edward Pellew (1757 – 1833) on this blog before (see link at end of article) and it’s probable that we’ll meet him again as he ranks just  below Nelson, and certainly with Cochrane, as one of the Royal Navy’s most intrepid commanders during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. His earliest fighting experience came during the American War of Independence when he was present at fighting on Lake Champlain and his career was to culminate as Admiral Viscount Exmouth when he commanded a combined British-Dutch squadron in operations against Barbary pirates in Algiers in 1816. A humane and decent man, his personal courage was legendary and although his career was studded with desperate naval actions one of his most notable feats of heroism was not to be in a combat situation.

1795, the third year of the Revolutionary War, saw Commodore Pellew commanding a squadron of frigates from his own HMS Indefatigable. Operating in the Western Approaches and off North-Western Coast of France, Pellew’s force was to score significant success through the year. By January 1796 however Indefatigable had been brought into Plymouth for refitting. It was an opportunity for Pellew to relax ashore on and 26th January he was on the way with his wife to dine at the house of a well-known clergyman, Dr.  Robert Hawker. As the Pellew arrived Hawker ran out and called "Have you heard of the wreck of the ship under the Citadel? " This was enough to send Pellew racing to the scene of the disaster.
The wreck of the Dutton by Thomas Luny
Note group on beach, hauling on hawsers
The ship involved was the Eastindiaman Dutton – and as such was manned by civilians. This vessel had been underway for the West Indies with no less than 400 troops for the strengthening of the garrisons there, together with a number of camp followers, not to mention the ship’s own crew – the total on board was estimated at somewhere between 500 and 600. It is an indication of the extreme dependence upon weather conditions during the Age of Sail that the Dutton had already been seven weeks at sea but had been driven back to Britain by adverse winds. Given the number of people crammed into a vessel less than 200 feet long it is not surprising that there should be a large number of sick on board. It had now been driven against Plymouth Hoe, an open space that slopes down towards the sea and on which the Citadel referred to by Dr. Hawker stands. It ends at low limestone cliffs with a beach below.

Edward Pellew
Pellew arrived on the beach to find – one can imagine that it was to his disgust – that most of the Dutton’s senior officers had already abandoned ship. They had made it by clinging to a single rope stretched between ship and shore.  Others had also gained the shore but the process was slow and dangerous – one eyewitness wrote that “you would at one moment see a poor wretch hanging ten or twenty feet above the water, and the next you would lose sight of him in the foam of a wave”. It was obvious that this method alone would be incapably of saving the hundreds on board before the hull broke up. Despite Pellew’s exhortations to the ship’s officers to return to the ship – and to each an offer of five guineas – they refused to do so, as too did local pilots who believed that the case was hopeless. Pellew realised that without his direction almost all on Dutton ship would be lost and he resolved to go out himself. He did so by getting dragged to the ship by the single rope. This was hazardous, since the vessel’s masts had collapsed towards the shore and he was at one stage dragged under the mainmast, only extricating himself with leg and back-injuries that were afterwards to confine him to bed. He did however finally reach the wreck and took command – he made it plain that absolute compliance with his orders would be essential and that he himself would be the last to quit the wreck. His reputation as a national hero was already well established and his presence alone did much to reduce any tendency to panic. A complication was however that some of the soldiers had broken into the spirit store and were already drunk.  Pellew, sword in hand, made it plain that that he would have no hesitation in killing anybody exhibiting disobedience.

Back at HMS Indefatigable it was not known that Pellew was on the Dutton but efforts were made to get boats to her. Despite gallant attempts it proved impossible to bring them alongside. More successful however was a small boat from a merchant vessel. This was manned by a naval midshipman and by the merchant vessel’s Irish mate, one Jeremiah Coghlan. With these men’s help Pellew managed to get two more hawsers stretched from the wreck to the shore.  Pellew set men to work to get cradles constructed that could be slung beneath the hawsers to be pulled to and fro. In order to avoid shock-loading of the hawsers as the wreck rolled, and to avoid the consequent risk of their snapping, they were not made fast at the shore end. Each line was instead held by a group of men who tightened and relaxed them so as to keep the tension steady. This must have been exhausting and was not the least impressive aspect of the entire rescue. Transfer by cradle now commenced but it was obviously unsuited to the weak and vulnerable – a category that included one three-week old baby on board. Coghlan in his small boat managed to get some 50 people to shore before any other craft reached the wreck.

While this was in progress a sloop and two large pulling-boats had managed to reach the Dutton from shore. In these the women children and the sick were landed, Pellew being adamant in ensuring that order was maintained despite the soldiers’ drunkenness – he was witnessed beating one looter with the flat of his sword. The handling of the rescue boats in such conditions was an epic in itself and they were in due course to get the soldiers to shore, followed by the ship’s company. Pellew was among the last to leave – passing ashore along a hawser – and the battered hull broke up soon afterwards. All on board had been saved.

Coghlan in silhouette
(Like Jane Austen's Captain Wentworth?) 
It is typical of Pellew that the only mention he made in the Indefatigable’s log was the statement “'Sent two boats to the assistance of a ship on shore in the Sound” with no reference to himself. A pleasing postscript – and a long one – was that Jeremiah Coghlan, the young civilian who had done such heroic work in his small boat was to join the Navy and have an illustrious career. Pellew took him on board the Indefatigable as a midshipman and had him follow him when he took command of HMS Impetueux in 1799. Coghlan was given command of the cutter HMS Viper the next year and he was promoted further following a cutting-out operation, in which he snatched the French gun-brig Cerbère from a defended harbour. His subsequent career was to be the stuff of naval fiction – single-ship actions, storming shore-batteries, seizing Naples in 1815. When Pellew became Commander-in-Chief, Mediterranean, from 1811 Coghlan was to be his flag captain on HMS Caledonia. One of the heroes of the Age of Fighting Sail, he was to live long enough to see the birth of the steam navy.

And Pellew? We’ll return to him again in the future.

Britannia’s Spartan 

Six-inch breech loading guns represented the cutting edge of naval technology in the early 1880s. In my novel Britannia’s Spartan they are shown in use in battle on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid Japanese woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1894-95 against China. Click on the image for further details.

Tuesday 26 January 2016

The US Navy's Sumatran Expeditions 1832 & 1838

The US Navy’s role in the suppression of Barbary piracy in the Mediterranean is deservedly well known but few today are aware that in the 1830s two American expeditions were launched against pirates in what is now Indonesia. The scene was to be the then semi-independent Sultanate of Ache (Atjeh in Dutch) in Sumatra and the interventions were to be the precursor to an intense and bloody series of conflicts from 1873 to 1904 in which the Netherlands’ colonial army struggled to bring the area under Dutch rule. (These campaigns will be the subject of a later blog).

Salem in the 1830s - the base for Peabody's shipping empire
European spheres of influence in South East Asia were still fluid in the early 1830s. Britain had taken its first steps to control of Malaya by creating the “Straits Settlements” of Penang, Singapore and Malacca in the 1820s but lying directly to its west was the gigantic island of Sumatra. Though part of the “East Indies” which were for the Dutch as the most important part of their overseas empire, Dutch power in Sumatra was still limited and would be for decades to come.  The Ache sultanate in the island’s north was to all practical purposes an independent entity and free to engage with trade with all comers. Among these comers were American traders, who were building up a great commercial and shipping empire in the Far East. One of the most prominent of these was Joseph Peabody (1757 –1844) of Salem, Massachusetts. Beginning his seagoing career on privateers during the American War of Independence he was to establish himself as a major ship-owner, building as many as 83 ships during his career and achieving great wealth in the process.

Pirate vessels of the East Indies
Ache’s most valuable trading commodity was pepper – a commodity high in value for a small volume – and it was pepper that brought Peabody’s trading vessel Friendship to the Sumatra’s North West coast, close to settlement of Kuala Batee, in February 1831. The area was under the control of several local chieftains who appear to have had loose but cordial contacts with the sultanate. The Friendship’s captain, Charles Endicott, landed with a small group of sailors 7th February to bargain for pepper. While this party was on shore a group of local thugs in small prahus – outrigger sailing craft – boarded the Friendship, killed the first officer and two of the crew members and captured the ship. Four other men escaped from the Friendship by swimming two miles down the coast and hiding in the forest.

With the support of a local leader called Pak Adam, Captain Endicott managed to make contact with three other American trading vessels in the area, the James Monroe, the Governor Endicott and the Palmer. All carried guns – a necessity in this pirate-infested area – and the Friendship was recovered only after the criminals leaped overboard and when fire had been opened on the nearby village.

The Friendship’s return to Salem with news of the outrage aroused widespread anger – the more so since this was during the presidency of Andrew Jackson, not a man to accept insult or injury meekly. The upshot was that orders were sent to Commodore John Downes, captain of the American Frigate Potomac, then cruising off Brazil. He was to proceed to Kuala Batee, assess the situation and take any measures he deemed necessary to ensure future safety of American traders in the area. This was the start of what became known as “The First Sumatran Expedition”.

The USS Potomac - she was to see service through the Civil War
Like other “frigates” of the US Navy in the early 19th century the Potomac, completed in 1831, was more heavily armed than any of European vessel of the same designation. Her 32 carronades and 35 long guns (including two bow and three stern-chasers) gave her fearsome firepower for her size. Her crew of 480 – trained as were all crews of the era in the use of cutlass and small arms – added the potential of a powerful landing force.

The Potomac arrived off Kuala Batee in early February 1832, almost an exact year since the Friendship’s ordeal. Downes disguised his ship as a Dutch merchant vessel, with her guns pulled back behind the decks and all ports shut. Unsuspecting locals came on board and, when questioned about the village’s defences, provided useful information. The attack that followed commenced at dawn on 6th February 1832 with a bombardment to cover landing of 282 American marines and seamen to the north of the settlement. Several “forts” – small stockades – were damaged by naval gunfire and stormed and by midday the Sumatran defenders had retreated inland, leaving the Americans to burn buildings and boats in reprisal.  American losses amounted to two killed and some half-dozen wounded while somewhere between 80 and 100 (estimates differ) Sumatrans were killed and many more wounded.  Honour had been satisfied. The American force withdrew to the Potomac, remained offshore for several days and thereafter set sail for the United States, circumnavigating the globe in the process.

A Sumatran woman helping to defend her husband - perhaps against Corporal John L. Dubois
News of the action reached the United States by other ships prior to the Potomac’s return and a portion of the population – who had not been there and knew of the incident only by hearsay – were immediately outraged by reports of collateral casualties.  Women and children had indeed died, but it was not always obvious that they were non-combatants. The first report appeared on 7 July 1832, the New-York Observer, an abolitionist, anti-slavery newspaper. It mentioned that “There were several women killed who had the hardihood to take up arms when they saw their husbands fall at their feet; indeed it was impossible to distinguish the sex, they dress so much alike”. It stated further in the article that “John L. Dubois, ships corporal …. was wounded by a Malay woman in attacking the forts. This woman was with an Indian, probably her husband, who was attacked and killed by Dubois. As soon as she saw her husband fall, she had the courage to revenge him by attacking Dubois with a sabre; she cut him very badly between the upper joint of the thumb and where the wrist meets; the blow would have taken off the hand had it not been retarded by the barrel of the musket which was held at the time of a charge.”

By the time the Potomac returned much righteous indignation has been directed at Commodore Downes and his officers. One of them, a Jeremiah Reynolds, who had been on board the Potomac as Downes’ secretary, published a book on the subject in 1835 from the perspective of those actually present and noted that “vague rumours and partial statements” in the media had created an “unfavourable prejudice in the public mind”.

The controversy simmered for a few years more but was overtaken by further events that were calculated to reduce sympathy for the Sumatrans. This was in August 1838 when another American ship, the Eclipse, was boarded at a village called Muckie by 24 Sumatrans who ostensibly wanted to trade. They were allowed on board on the condition of handing over their weapons but once trust had been established these were – unwisely – returned. The crew was then attacked and butchered, even those men who jumped into the water to escape being run down and murdered.

Columbia and John Adams bombarding Muckie
The American response was robust. News reached Commodore George C. Read in the Indian Ocean where, with two powerful frigates, Columbia and John Adams, he was involved with a circumnavigation associated with the United States Exploring Expedition of 1838 to 1842. He immediately diverted to Sumatra. At Muckie he landed some 360 men under cover of a bombardment.  Most of the inhabitants fled and the few who resisted were silenced. The village was set ablaze and Reade withdrew his force.

This was the end of the Second Sumatran Expedition by the US Navy. A dose of bitter medicine had been administered and no further American trading ships were attacked off Sumatra thereafter. For the Dutch however a long war awaited them there in the future – but that’s a different story.

Recently published: Britannia’s Spartan

In April 1882 Captain Nicholas Dawlish RN has just taken command of the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas. Her voyage to the Far East is to be a peaceful venture, a test of this innovative vessel’s engines and boilers. Dawlish has no forewarning of the nightmare of riot, treachery, massacre and battle he and his crew will encounter.

A new balance of power is emerging in the Far East. Imperial China, weak and corrupt, is challenged by a rapidly modernising Japan, while Russia threatens from the north. All need to control Korea, a kingdom frozen in time and reluctant to emerge from centuries of isolation.

Dawlish finds himself a critical player in a complex political powder keg. He must take account of a weak Korean king and his shrewd queen, of murderous palace intrigue, of a power-broker who seems more American than Chinese and a Japanese naval captain whom he will come to despise and admire in equal measure. And he will have no one to turn to for guidance…

Click below for more details for both paperback and Kindle versions:

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Friday 22 January 2016

A Forgotten Hero of Exploration: Vitus Bering

Soviet Stamp: 300th Anniversary of Bering
When thinking of the exploration of the Pacific the name that most immediately comes for mind is that of Captain James Cook (1728 – 1779) whose three voyages in the 1760s and 70s added immensely to knowledge of that ocean. These expeditions, meticulously  planned, splendidly resourced and staffed by excellent officers, seamen, cartographers and scientists, were the equivalent in their own day of the Apollo Program. The focus in the first two voyages was on the South Pacific and Australasia but the third, which was to see Cook murdered in Hawaii, focussed on the Northern Pacific and its North American coast line. In the course of this voyage Cook penetrated the Bering Strait between Asia and Alaska and entered the fringes of the Arctic Ocean.

Cook’s achievement was impressive, but the initial exploration of the Northern Pacific had been almost a half-century earlier by a man who had to cope with far greater challenges as regards resourcing and back-up. Though he gave his name to the Strait that separates Asia and America   Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) is largely unknown outside Russia. His achievement in the face of almost insuperable odds make him however one of the true giants of exploration.  

Born in Denmark, and at sea from the age of 18, Bering was one of the many foreign officers recruited by Czar Peter the Great (1672 – 1725) who was rapidly modernising his country and establishing it as a great European power. A key element in his strategy was not only securing a Russian outlet on the Baltic – which became the new capital, St. Petersburg – but the creating from scratch of a navy to defend it.  “The Great Northern War” that raged between Russia and Sweden from 1700-1721 saw Peter’s ambitions realised.

Bering had been with the Russian Navy since 1704 and though he resigned briefly in 1724 he re-enlisted almost immediately, around the time of Peter’s death. Rule of the vast empire now passed to Peter’s widow Catherine (1684 –1727), a woman of obscure and lowly origin who was to prove herself surprisingly capable in government affairs. She inherited Peter’s ambition to have Eastern Siberia’s Pacific coastline and the seas beyond mapped for the first time. At this time Russian settlers, very few in number, were established on only a few small settlement communities on the Sea of Okhotsk and on the vast peninsula of Kamchatka. None of these places possessed port or shipbuilding facilities and any exploration expedition would be expected to build the vessels it needed once it got to the coast there. 

The choice of Bering as expedition leader seems to have reflected some prior experience of distant navigation, notably in the Indian Ocean and the North American East Coast.  Supported by a cartographer and several experienced officers, Bering’s instructions were to move up Kamchatka’s east coast and to determine whether a strait did indeed exist – as was suspected – between Asia and America. Bering’s first challenge was to get to Russia’s Far East. Leaving  St. Petersburg on February 5th, 1725, and crossing Siberia – much of it still all but unexplored –  by horse, foot and boat, and enduring food-shortages and savage winters, Bering, his men and their equipment took two years to reach Okhotsk. By early 1728 they had crossed to Kamchatka, where, on the 4th of April building commenced of a boat called the Gabriel. This was based on the design of a Baltic packet-boat. The challenge of doing so was immense for timber had to be cut down and dressed into planks for construction. It is therefore all the more impressive that this craft was ready enough to set sail some three months later, in mid- July. 
The Gabriel as drawn by Martin Spangsberg in 1827. Picture: Danish Geografisk Tidsskrift
In conformance with his orders Bering crept north-eastwards alone the coast, discovering St. Lawrence Island. He passed through what is now known as the Bering Strait, into the Chukchi Sea. It was still however impossible to say with certainty that the Asian and American landmasses were separate, although it was suspected, but rapidly advancing ice in mid-August forced Bering to the decision to return to Kamchatka. The voyage had lasted seven weeks.  His return overland journey to report his findings in St. Petersburg now commenced,  arriving in early 1730. He was ennobled for his work and his had findings aroused sufficient questions for a second expedition to be necessary to resolve them.

It seems amazing by modern standards that it should have taken a decade before the next expedition, once more under Bering’s command finally set sail from Kamchatka.  (The contrast with the will to mount Cook’s three expedions in a decade is obvious). The intervening years had been occupied by political manoeuvring, command issues and logistics challenges.  Supplies were once more carried across Siberia, a proposal to send them by sea around Cape Horn being rejected.  Two new vessels were constructed at Okhotsk, the Michael and the Nadezhda, in addition to refurbishment  of the Gabriel.  Thereafter three other vessels, St. Peter, St. Paul and Okhotsk , followed - these were to form Bering’s exploration flotilla, he himself on board the St. Peter.

1966 Soviet postage-stamp showing course of Bering's last voyage
It was 1741 before the new expedition sailed from Kamchatka. The three-ship flotilla was dispersed in a  storm soon afterwards and Bering decided to press on alone. He headed for the American coast and pressed eastwards along it, touching at Kayak Island and sighting Mount Saint Elias, on the  northern end of what is now Alaska’s Panhandle. A second ship got separately as far as Prince of Wales Island before turning back. Scurvy, the cause of which was then not understood, was now however hitting Bering’s crew so badly that they were barely capable of working the ship. There was no option but to turn back towards Kamchatka, discovering several islands of the Aleutian chain in the process.

Shipwreck on Bering Island
 Bering was by now too ill to leave his cabin. Nearing the peninsula in early November, at what was later to be called Bering Island, the St. Peter was hit by a storm that drove her towards rocks offshore. Attempts to moor failed but the sea was powerful enough to wash the damaged vessel bodily over the rocks into quieter where it was trapped. Salvation was illusory – the island was barren, devoid of trees, and with little driftwood. With the ship no longer a place of refuge small ravines were roofed over to provide shelter. Many of the scurvy-racked crew died during transfer ashore. Bering himself survived this landing but had to be moved about on a wheel-barrow and he directed survival efforts as long as possible.  He died a month later in a shelter which was already collapsing – it proved necessary to dig him out before he could be formally buried.  

Given the challenges they faced it is surprising that 45 of the St. Peter’s 75-man crew were to survive the freezing privations of the winter, doing so by eating the carcasses of dead whales that had been driven ashore. In the following spring they managed to construct a boat from the wreckage of their ship and in it they reached Kamchatka.
A Sea Otter drawn by Georg Wilhelm Steller. (Wikipedia Commons)
Despite its disastrous cost in human terms, Bering’s last expedition yielded valuable geographical and scientific information.  This included mapping of much of the coast of present day Alaska. The expedition’s German naturalist Georg Wilhelm Steller (1709 – 1746) identified six new species of birds and animals. One of his insights was that the Jay he identified on shore was similar to the already-known American Blue Jay, thereby supporting the conclusion that the continents were separate. He continued his studies while marooned on Bering Island and was subsequently to write a book describing its fauna. Steller’s fate was to be a sad one.  He spent two years exploring Kamchatka after he returned there but because of his sympathy for the indigenous population he was accused of instigating a rebellion. Summoned back to St. Petersburg, he died of illness on the way.

Bering’s discoveries were the impetus for the halting, poorly-conceived, badly managed and under-resourced efforts to establish of a Russian presence in North America. Had more attention been paid to this, and should there have been any clear vision of what could have been achieved, it is unlikely that the Czarist government  would have sold Alaska to the United States for a pittance in 1867. Doing so could have had incalculable strategic and epoch-changing consequences – one of the great “What Ifs” of history.

Another 5-Star review of Britannia’s Spartan on

Iron men steaming into danger. Superb characterization and historical details. A truly wonderful book.

By Westsail on December 22, 2015

Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase

Antoine Vanner is a rare find - an author who knows his subject matter inside out and who possesses the ability to communicate that knowledge in a gripping and highly entertaining style. His creation, Nicholas Dawlish, is so completely rendered that the reader rejects the possibility that he is a fictional character rather than a piece out of the Victorian era. Vanner knows the details of the engineering innovations in whose creation and trials Dawlish often is involved. The ships in Vanner's novels are characters as well drawn as the people who sail them. The political sides of these books are well put together as well, from London to Seoul. All of the Dawlish novels are delights in themselves. I believe, however, that Vanner continues to improve. In my opinion, Britannia's Spartan is his best to date. One waits with bated breath for each additional gem!

Click below for purchase details:

For UK: Click here                      For US: Click here   

Tuesday 19 January 2016

Capturing a Slaver—1845

Classic Pantaloon
In my blog of 27th  November 2015 (link provided at end of article) I outlined the duties – and the attendant hazards – of the Royal Navy’s Anti-Slavery Squadron off the West African coast in the era 1815 to 1860. Personnel allocated to this service faced the most serious peace-time dangers of any in the navy of the time, some of the encounters with armed slave-ships being of an intensity equal to that encountered in the Napoleonic Wars.  Such battles were among the last ever fought between sailing ships and one such desperate action involved the bizarrely-named HMS Pantaloon in 1845. Ludicrous as this name appears to modern ears, it should be pointed out that it referred to a stock-character who appeared in the “Harlequinade” theatrical pantomimes popular in Britain at the time and derived originally from the Italian Commedia dell'arte. Pantaloon was the name of an aged buffoon, father of the beautiful Columbine, and of whose lover Harlequin he disapproves – and is bested by. A ten-gun sloop, which entered service in 1831, HMS Pantaloon was indeed matched from 1836 by a generally comparable HMS Harlequin.

In May 1845, while patrol on anti-slavery duty off what is now Nigeria, Pantaloon, under a Commander Wilson, detected a suspected slaver, although from contemporary accounts she does not appear to have been be loaded with human cargo.  Pantaloon chased her for two days, in what seem to have been light airs and on 26th May. Both ships were becalmed off Lagos. The slaver proved to be the 400 tons polacca-rigged Borboleta. Contemporary accounts refer to her having “immense sails”. The term "polacca" seems to have referred primarily to the masting, and possibly hull type. Two-masted polaccas carried square sails on both masts and a contemporary illustration of the action that was to follow shows just such a vessel. The type was most common in the Mediterranean (and figure frequently as prizes in the Aburey-Maturin cycle) but the fact that the Borboleta appears to have been Spanish-manned probably accounts for the use of such a fast type as a slaver. This particular vessel was already “of great celebrity on the coast”, was armed with four 12-pounders and carried a crew of some 60.
"A Graeco-Ottoman Polacca" painted pre-1836 by Antoine Roux
What a beautiful vessel!
Unable, due to lack of wind, to bring Pantaloon directly into action, Wilson decided to attack with her pulling boats. A cutter and two whalers were sent under command of the first lieutenant, Lewis Prevost, supported by the master, a Mr J.T. Crout, and the boatswain, Mr Pasco. The force amounted in total to some 30 officers, seamen and marines. As they approached the slaver it opened fire with round-shot and grape. Intensely vulnerable to such opposition – a hit by a single 12-pound ball would have been sufficient to demolish any of the boats – the only defence was for the marines to maintain a steady hail of musketry on the slaver while the seaman pulled at their utmost. The approach must have been nightmarish – a half hour was afterwards mentioned as the time between fire being opened and Pantaloon’s boats reaching the slaver’s side.  

Another lovely polacca painted by Antoine Roux
Prevost and Pasco brought the whalers alongside to starboard while Crout, in the cutter, came in to port. By this stage the Spanish crew seem to have been running out of munitions for their guns were by now loaded with “bullets, nails, lead, etcetera”  Prevost and the men in the whalers stormed on board while Crout’s cutter party came on over the port bow. One of these latter attempted to enter via a gun-port at the moment the weapon within it was fired. He managed to get through unscathed by the man following him was thrown into the water by the discharge, luckily without fatal consequences.

Contemporary illustration - Borboleta under attack by the pulling boats
Note Pantaloon in the distance on the left
A vicious hand to hand struggle followed – the marines were by now on board also. In that era before multi-shot weapons there would have been little opportunity to load pistols or muskets, so that the issue was settled by bayonet and cutlass. Seven of the slavers were killed and another eight badly wounded before the remainder broke, ran below for cover, and thereafter surrendered.

Pantaloon’s losses were numerically lower – two men, the master Crout and the boatswain Pasco. Both men would have been in the van of leading their men in the boarding. Five others were seriously wounded, the overall loss rate being that comparable to that suffered by the slavers. Lieutenant Prevost received immediate promotion. He was to take command of the Pantaloon soon afterwards but was not to be lucky in her. In September 1848, in the Cape Verde Islands, a grounded sloop, HMS  Ranger called for assistance. She was floated off successfully but Prevost did not take adequate precautions for securing her so that she could be rolled over on her side for repair. The result was that she broke free in bad weather and sank. Representations were made that Ranger could be refloated  but Prevost decided that she was beyond salvage. A few days later, with other support, Ranger was raised and repaired.  The consequence of these successive failings was that Prevost was court-martialled and dismissed from command of Pantaloon. His career was eventually to recover – he was to achieve captain’s rank – but the humiliation must have been intense. 

Friday 15 January 2016

The French Navy in Korea, 1866

The most recent Dawlish Chronicles novel, Britannia’s Spartan, is set in Korea in 1882 when internal pressures and great-power interventions plunged the country into riot and chaos. A malign role is played by the “Daewongun”, the father of the weak King Gojong. Initially regent for his son, this callous man sought subsequently to dominate the spineless monarch even after he had come of age. The only Korean who later emerged at a later stage to counter the Daewongun’s  power was the King’s clever, brave and ruthless wife, Queen Min. The merciless contest between her and her father-in-law was to play out over two decades and would end only with the brutal murder of one of them.

The Daewongun, circa 1870
By 1882 Yi Ha-ung (1821-1898), the Daewongun – a title meaning “Prince of the Great Court” – had been a near-dominant player in internal Korean politics for some eighteen years, ever since his infant son had succeeded to the throne. (Q. Why wasn’t the Daewongun king himself? A. Complex succession rules excluded him from the post). Cruel, vindictive and cold-bloodedly effective, a thoroughly nasty piece of work by any standards, Yi Ha-ung was to prove adept in playing off internal and external forces against each other.

During the 1860s the Daewongun’s prime concerns was maintenance of Korea as “The Hermit Kingdom”, cut off as far as possible from the outside world and maintaining traditional structures and culture unchanged. Though nominally a vassal state of the Chinese Empire, contacts with China did not challenge such structures or values. Powerful political and economic forces were at play in the area however. China had proved itself incapable of withstanding pressures brought to bear on it by Britain and other powers and was in a quandary – which would not be resolved for decades – as to whether to embrace Western models of industrialisation, government and economic development. Japan, by contrast, despite initial doubts, and even civil war to decide them, had already committed to a transformation that would make it a major military, naval and industrial power by the end of the century. From both Asian countries the lesson was obvious – continued isolation from global trends would be impossible.

A key factor in the Daewongun’s isolationist policy in the 1860s was concern for the challenge presented to traditional Confucian beliefs – and as a consequence, authority-structures also – by the arrival of Catholic missionaries. Some had arrived from China in the late 18th Century but their impact only became significant from the 1840s when members of the French Société des Missions étrangères de Paris began to arrive in greater numbers and to make substantial numbers of Korean converts. Many such missionaries were to be executed – often savagely – in China, Indo-China and Korea, but this proved no deterrent to the insanely courageous men who took on this work. No less heroic were their converts, who remained faithful to their new beliefs and were murdered in much greater numbers in successive persecutions.
Korean converts in detention - note the boards fastened around their necks
By 1860 the number of Korean converts were estimated as some 20,000, despite persecution campaigns in 1839 – when a French bishop, Laurent Imbert ,was tortured and beheaded, as were many Koreans – and 1846, when the first native Korean priest was executed. Some estimates of the number of Korean Christians murdered during the century are as high as 10,000. It is against this background that the Daewongun launched a new wave of persecution soon after acceding to the regency in 1864. By this time another French bishop,  Siméon-François Berneux (1814 –1866), had been appointed to Korea – and was working in a semi-clandestine way with the support of twelve other French missionaries.
Interrogation of Bishop Berneux, 1866
The Daewongun found his pretext for action in early 1866 when vessels of the Russian Navy arrived on Korea’s East Coast and demanded trading rights, including residency provisions for traders. There were obviously similarities to the United States’ “Opening Up” of Japan in the mid-1850s, and to Western nations securing unequal trading and extraterritoriality rights in China. Concerned about Russian intentions, a number of Korean Christians saw this as an opportunity for urging a Korean-French alliance to withstand further incursions.  Bishop Berneux appears to have been mentioned as a possible intermediary. The Daewongun seems to have been open initially to such suggestions but this may have been a trick to bring the all-but-underground church into the open. Berneux was invited to the capital, Seoul, but on arrival, in February 1866, he was imprisoned, tortured and beheaded. A round-up now commenced of the other missionaries – nine of the twelve – and they suffered equally gruesome fates. The burden fell heaviest on the Korean Christians however, being slaughtered by the thousand along the Han River, close to Seoul. One of the three missionaries who had evaded execution, Felix-Claire Ridel, escaped to by a fishing vessel to Tianjin (then known as Tientsin) in Northern China in early July 1866.

La Guerriere, seen at Nagasaki in 1866
The timing of Ridel’s arrival was providential since the commander of the Far Eastern Squadron of the French Navy, Rear Admiral Pierre-Gustave Roze, was present in Tianjin with the powerful frigate La Guerriere., Informed of the murders – which could only be construed as an insult to French honour – Henri de Bellonet, the French representative at the Imperial Chinese court in Beijing (then Peking), some 80 miles from Tianjin, instructed Admiral Roze determined to mount a punitive expedition against Korea. The decision was most likely also influenced by the fact that there had been attacks on Westerners in China also, and effective action against Korea was likely to send a strong message there also.
Admiral Roze (centre) and members of La Guerriere's crew
Roze now set about organising his expedition, a major hazard to which was lack of charts of Korea’s highly indented western coast with its many navigational hazards.  Attention was focussed instead on the offshore island of Ganghwa, at the mouth of the Han River, occupation of which would cut off export traffic to the sea from the Korean interior in the harvest season. A powerful French force – La Guerriere, the corvettes Laplace and Primauguet, the gunboats Lebrethon and Tardif and two despatch vessels, Kien–Chan and Déroulède, was concentrated at the port of Yantai (then known as Chefoo) on the Shantung Peninsula, almost directly across the Yellow Sea from Ganghwa and Seoul. Marines and other troops available allowed for a French landing force of 800.
Korean fortification under French attack
On 11th October Roze’s force bombarded the Korean fortifications on Ganghwa which dominated entrance to the Han. These were subdued despite resistance and marines were landed to secure them. The occupation was to last six weeks. Early the following month, with access to the Han clear, the lighter French vessels pushed upriver towards Seoul, some 40 miles distant. On the way several more fortifications were subdued and a significant amount of looting seems to have taken place. Arriving at Seoul, Admiral Roze demanded surrender of the two surviving French missionaries and reinforced his request with a bombardment of official buildings on 11th November. Results were immediate – the Daewongun released the French priests. Honour satisfied, Roze dropped back downriver, but not without inflicting further damage to property as a reminder of the inadvisability of challenging French prestige again. Forces were withdrawn from Ganghwa and the expedition was at an end.

Queen Min - lovely, brave and ruthless
Small-scale, and limited in its objectives as it was, Roze’s foray served notice that further Korean attempts to maintain its isolation would be futile. In the coming years the nation would experience similarly-minor incursions by American forces and in the 1870s and 1880s it was to find itself the focus of Chinese, Russian and – most of all – Japanese intentions to dominate it. The history of these decades was to be an unhappy one, and the Daewongun was to remain a major player, though his power was to be increasingly challenged by Queen Min (1851-1895).  Readers of Britannia’s Spartan will remember how their rivalry took a murderous turn in 1882 (and how the British Naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, found himself drawn unwittingly into their machinations!).

And in 1882, no less than in 1866, a long career of infamy still lay before the Daewongun. We’ll return to him – and to the somewhat more attractive Queen Min – in a future blog.


A 5-Star Review of Britannia’s Spartan on

“Rusty Edge” commented as follows on December 28, 2015:

The Dawlish Chronicles are a New Direction in Historical Nautical Fiction

Oak, wind, and black powder are being replaced by steel, steam, and high explosives. Dawlish embraced the change, and has finally been given his well earned and long promised promotion to captain and an independent command of the Royal Navy's newest cruiser. All of that time developing torpedoes and fighting in proxy wars has paid off.

The trouble is, he has little reputation among brother officers and crew because all of that is secret. They assume he is where he is on the basis of patronage rather than merit. He has to prove himself to them as an officer on sea and land. Not only that, but he has to prove himself yet again to his master Admiral Topcliff, this time as a diplomat. In wartime you engage your enemy and are rewarded for success. In peacetime, it's hard to know what to do and how far to go. Dawlish only knows that his life, career and reputation are in peril whatever he does.

Dawlish has always struggled with ambition and duty vs. personal honor. Here in the Far East he is faced with different ideas of what those things mean. Again he finds that the most dangerous villains aren't his open enemies. Sometimes it's his allies, be they ruthless, zealous, treacherous, or simply greedy.

Vanner has introduced and developed fascinating characters in this series, and I am looking forward to revisiting them in future historical conflicts. Beyond that, I am looking forward to other as yet unknown authors becoming inspired and eventually following his footsteps into Victorian historical nautical fiction.                                 

Tuesday 12 January 2016

Passing by on the other side at sea? 1876

The Good Samaritan has had a deservedly good image over the last two millennia. An equally well-deserved degree of obloquy has been heaped on two others who had previously seen the unfortunate traveller who had fallen among thieves but who “passed by on the other side” without helping. On countless occasions at sea captains and crews have played the Good Samaritan role, risking their ships and their lives to help others in distress and it has been a matter of pride among seafarers of all nations that they should do so.

It is however a chilling though that there have been occasions when ships have “passed on the other side” and have ignored requests for assistance. Reduction of visibility due to bad weather may play a role in such cases and one would always like to give the benefit of the doubt as regards innocence. The uneasy feeling does remain that at many times – especially in pre-radio days – distress appeals went unanswered and the subsequent disaster ensured that no survivors remained to appeal for justice.
The reality of shipwreck - the classic painting by the Russian artist Ivan Aivazofski (1817-1900)
This line of thought has been prompted by a short newspaper article from 1876 which sets out bare facts only and on which it is hard to come to a verdict one way or the other. It relates to an incident on the Kish Bank, a shallow sand-bank in the Irish Sea, some dozen miles due east of the port of Dublin. It was known for centuries as a hazard to shipping and a lightship was first moored on it in 1811. Lightships continued to provide warning until 1966 when a lighthouse of innovative design was installed. This telescopic structure was built of concrete close to Dublin and was towed to the bank. After sinking in position the telescopic sections were raised, giving a final height of 100-feet. It is clearly visible from shore in clear weather. 
The horror of a grounded ship being pounded to destruction
(Shown here is the Rothesay Castle in 1831 - the Vespa's fate would have been similar) 

In January 1876 a relatively new (built 1865) merchant steamer, the Vesper, ran aground on the Kish Bank. What followed was succinctly summed up in an article that appeared the following day in the Dublin daily newspaper “Freeman’s Journal”.  It is quoted in its totality below:


Yesterday a screw steamer bound from Glasgow to Dunkirk ran on the Kish sandbank. The steamer was the Vesper, power, laden with a cargo of 620 tons of coal and sugar, in command of Captain Tolson with a crew of 18 hands and belonged to Messrs. Huntley Berner and Co, of Glasgow.

The ship left Glasgow the previous night at 10 o'clock. The captain was on watch at the time the vessel struck. She began to fill and all efforts to get her off having failed, he ordered signals of distress to be made. A large fire was lit on the deck with paraffin oil and blue lights were burned from the masthead. The vessel was not observed by any of the life-boats crews or coastguard along the shore, although the weather was perfectly clear.

A heavy sea was running at the time and as the ship began to settle down the sea washed over her decks. In three hours the water rushing in forced up the hatchways upon which the crew had to take to the boats. One of them was stove in and the port boat was washed off the ship. The only remaining one to which the crew had to take was the starboard.

The crew say that before leaving a steamer passed in sight shortly before seven o'clock without paying any attention to their helpless condition and soon after another steamer and a fishing smack passed few miles off and left them in the same plight. The crew and captain numbering fourteen men left the ship about eight o'clock in the boat and steered for land which was about twelve miles off and they arrived in Killiney Bay about eleven o'clock when they were assisted by some men, and were provided with railway tickets for Dublin by the Station Master and afterwards put up at the Sailors Home.


One is struck by the cold precision of the report – the impression that there was nothing particularly remarkable about the event. Considering the number of shipwrecks that occurred in British coastal waters in this period this is perhaps not surprising. A single instance suffices – in a major storm in February 1871 no less than 28 ships, many of them collier brigs, were wrecked off the North East Coast of England. 
A scene all too common on 19th Century Britain's beaches - shipwrecked mariners struggling ashore
The Vespa’s destruction was obviously a terrifying event and her crew were lucky to have got off her alive. One does however wonder whether the ship was ever in fact seen by the vessels in the vicinity or whether these latter did indeed “pass on the other side”. Had they done so the action might not have been prompted by callousness alone, but by a realisation that bringing in another vessel over the bank would have resulted in her destruction also. Today, in the early 21st. Century, one would expect that such an incident would have been the subject of detailed investigation. This may have happened – if so details are hard to come by. 

And as regards the vessels that passed by on the other side? At this remove it is perhaps best to avoid judgement and give the benefit of the doubt. There was however one undoubted Good Samaritan – that role was played the Station Master who provided the train tickets!

Friday 8 January 2016

War in the North Sea, 1864 - The Battle of Heligoland

In the later 19th and early 20th Centuries the “K.u.K” – “Royal and Imperial” – Navy was probably the most efficient and well-equipped part of the Austro-Hungarian armed services. Operating out of bases on the Adriatic coast of what would later become Yugoslavia, and well provided with excellent ships, armed with the highly-regarded products of the Skoda arsenals in Bohemia, this navy was to represent a potent threat “in being” during World War 1 which tied up large Allied naval resources to contain it. The K.u.K Navy’s day of greatest glory was however a half-century earlier, when Austria-Hungary’s most famous admiral, Wilhelm von Tegetthoff (1827 –1871) led his fleet to and overwhelming victory over the Italians at Lissa in 1866.  A daring and inspirational commander who was to die tragically young, Tegetthoff established a reputation in Austro-Hungarian popular consciousness which was comparable to that of Nelson in Britain. His success at Lissa was however preceded by a narrow tactical defeat two years earlier, not in the K.u.K Navy’s normal operational area of the Adriatic and Mediterranean, but in the distant waters of the North Sea.

The Danish War of 1864 was to be the first of three conflicts deliberately instigated by Prussia’s chancellor, Otto von Bismarck, in the 1864 -1870 period to establish primacy of Prussia over the other separate German Kingdoms and to unite them as a single empire under Prussian leadership. The ostensible reason for the war with Denmark was resolution of “The Schleswig-Holstein Question”, the control of two linguistically-German duchies lying directly south of modern Denmark and at that period under Danish control. The political, dynastic and diplomatic complexities of this “Question”  were so impenetrable that the British Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, was to quip that  “Only three people have ever really understood the Schleswig-Holstein business—the Prince Consort, who is dead—a German professor, who has gone mad—and I, who have forgotten all about it."
The Danish screw-frigate Jylland - wooden hulled, steam and sail driven, 44 guns
Though it was to put up a valiant defence, the small Kingdom of Denmark was to find itself heavily outnumbered and outgunned by the combined land forces of Prussia and Austria-Hungary. The latter had allowed itself to be drawn into the conflict – stupidly as it was to find out two years later, when Prussia was to attacker it in turn. It was only at sea that the Danes were to have a degree of superiority since it had a well-equipped and competent navy, whereas Prussia still had negligible naval forces – little more than a gunboat flotilla – and the more formidable Austro-Hungarian Navy was operating far from its home bases. The Danes were to use their resources effectively in support of land operations as well as imposing a blockade on Prussian ports.

The most significant encounter of the short-duration (effectively February – May 1864) war was to occur close to its end, when significant naval forces clashed close to the then British-controlled island of Heligoland. 
Heligoland - exchanged by Britain with Germany for Zanzibar in 1890
On May 9th a squadron of three powerful Danish vessels under the command of Admiral Edouard Suenson – the 42/44-gun screw frigates, Niels Juel and Jylland, supported by the 16-gun screw corvette Hejmdal – approaching from the north, sighted the neutral British frigate HMS Aurora on station off the island.  Beyond her however, to the south-west, five other vessels came into view. These were the powerful Austro-Hungarian screw frigates Schwarzenberg (51 guns) and Radetzky (37-guns), accompanied by three insignificant Prussian gunboats mounting three or for guns each. This squadron was under Tegetthoff’s overall command.
The Niels Juel in action - superb action-painting by Christian Mølsted
Both forces advanced to engage and at 13.15 hours the action commenced when Tegetthoff’s flagship, the Schwarzenberg opened fire. This was returned by the Danes only when the range had shortened to a mile. An attempt by Tegetthoff to execute the classic “crossing the T” manoeuvre failed. Had it been successful it would have allowed his two vessels to concentrate their combined broadsides on the Danish lead ship. Instead, a Danish turn allowed the squadrons to pass each other in line. By this stage the three Prussian gunboats had fallen behind and Tegetthoff turned to prevent them being cut off by the Danes. This brought the opposing squadrons running south-westwards in two parallel lines.  The Niels Juel concentrated her fire on the Schwarzenberg, while Jylland and Hejmdal directed theirs on the Radetzky
Schwartzenberg, burning, leading the Austro-Hungarian line, Danish ships on right of painting
The action lasted for some two hours and culminated in the Schwarzenberg sustaining such serious damage that she took fire. With her loss a definite possibility, Tegetthoff decided to make for the neutral zone around Heligoland. The pursuit by the Danes had to be abandoned as the British Aurora, which had observed the action, was standing by to enforce neutrality if so needed. There was no option but to remain outside the three-mile limit while Tegetthoff managed to get the fire on the flagship under control. In the course of the following night he managed to evade the Danish squadron and bring his ships to the nearby Prussian-controlled port of Cuxhaven.
Radetsky following Schwartzenberg - painting by noted German naval artist Willy Kirchner
The action was generally judged to be – narrowly – a Danish tactical victory. The butcher’s bill had been small – 17 Danes killed and 37 wounded as compared with 37 dead and 93 wounded on the Austro-Hungarian ships – though the losses would have been bitter indeed for the families of the men involved. Victory or defeat was irrelevant however. Three days later, on May 12th, an armistice was implemented which brought the fighting by land and by sea to an end. By the subsequent settlement Denmark lost control of the two duchies in contention and they were in due course incorporated into what became the German Empire. They have remained German ever since.
The Jylland's officers after the battle (note the dog!)
Denmark may have lost the war, but her resistance had been heroic and considerable national pride is still taken in it, justifiably so. The 2400-ton Jylland, one of the largest wooden warships ever built, and which had sustained major damage in the battle, has been preserved as a national monument. She is today on display in a dry dock at Ebeltoft.

This engagement off Heligoland was to prove the last major action before iron and steel replaced wood as the main construction material for ships. When Tegetthoff was to go into action again two years later – this time during a war which would pit Austria-Hungary against its former ally Prussia – it was to be in a battle dominated by ironclads. On that occasion there would be no doubt as to who had gained victory, whether it tactical or strategic or both.

But that’s another story, and will be the subject of a future blog.

Just published: Britannia’s Spartan

In April 1882 Captain Nicholas Dawlish RN has just taken command of the Royal Navy’s newest cruiser, HMS Leonidas. Her voyage to the Far East is to be a peaceful venture, a test of this innovative vessel’s engines and boilers. Dawlish has no forewarning of the nightmare of riot, treachery, massacre and battle he and his crew will encounter.

A new balance of power is emerging in the Far East. Imperial China, weak and corrupt, is challenged by a rapidly modernising Japan, while Russia threatens from the north. All need to control Korea, a kingdom frozen in time and reluctant to emerge from centuries of isolation.

Dawlish finds himself a critical player in a complex political powder keg. He must take account of a weak Korean king and his shrewd queen, of murderous palace intrigue, of a power-broker who seems more American than Chinese and a Japanese naval captain whom he will come to despise and admire in equal measure. And he will have no one to turn to for guidance…

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