Friday 24 June 2016

The families left behind by merchant seamen of the 1870s

In September last year I wrote a blog about working conditions in merchant shipping in the 1870s (Click here to read it). In it I referred to the work done by the great maritime reformer Samuel Plimsoll (1824-1898) who worked tirelessly to combat the practices of over-insuring decrepit ships that were likely to founder – taking their crews with them – and of overloading ships far beyond their safe draughts. His name lives on in “The Plimsoll Line” – the marking on ships’ hulls that marks the deepest loading allowed for the vessel in various conditions. In 1867, Plimsoll advanced his cause by getting elected as the Liberal Member of Parliament but his efforts to get a law passed on safe loading were frustrated by the larger number of ship-owners who were also members.

Plimsoll’s crusade, inside and outside the British Parliament, was heavily dependent on amassing a vast amount of evidence, much of it gained through interviews with officers and sailors. He also interviewed seamen’s families in harbour-towns – who were only too often reduced to the status of widows and orphans. This provided a basis for a book entitled “Our Seamen”, which he published in 1872. It evoked much outrage in the wider public and gained support eventually for the legislation Plimsoll had demanded. His meetings with bereaved relatives provide particularly poignant insights to the lives of the poor in the 1870s. Below are summaries of some such interactions.

In a particularly moving example Plimsoll tells of a 23-year old widow, with children, who is keeping alive by mangling clothes (i.e. squeezing the water from items that have just been washed). The mangle, a rolling device worked by a crank, was bought for her by her neighbours. Plimsoll remarked that “the poor are very kind to each other.” Her husband was serving on a ship identified as the S—n (Severn, perhaps? Threat of legal action made direct references risky), an unseaworthy vessel which her owner insured for £3,000 more than he had paid for her. For one last voyage she was loaded under the owner’s personal superintendence, so deeply that Plimsoll claimed that the dockmaster told him that he had pointed her out to a friend as she left the dock, saying emphatically, “That ship will never reach her destination.” She did not – she was lost with all hands – twenty in total. The young widow’s husband had complained to the owner before sailing that the ship was too-deeply loaded, but without avail.

The popular image of the clipper - the aristocrat of merchant shipping in the 19th Century
The underlying reality could be much less romantic
A dreadful aspect of cases like this was touched on in the earlier blog referred to. The law was such that once a seaman had signed on for a voyage – which on occasion poverty might force him to do without having first seen the ship itself – refusal to board could result in criminal prosecution and imprisonment with hard labour, typically for twelve weeks for each offence.  Large numbers of seamen were jailed for refusing to sail on vessels they believed to be unseaworthy or which were inadequately manned.

Plimsoll refers to another pathetic case. In “a most evil-smelling room” in a slum he found in the corner of a room “two poor women in one bed, stricken with fever (one died two days after I saw them), mother and daughter.” The daughter’s husband, the only support of both women, had been lost at sea shortly before in an overloaded ship. Plimsoll spoke to a customs officer, “a Mr.  B——l”, a customs officer who had needed to visit the ship before she departed and when asked how to identify her was told “She’s yonder; you can easily find her, she is nearly over t’head in the water” Mr. B——l told Plimsoll that “I asked no questions, but stepped on board; this description was quite sufficient.”
The Workhouse, last refuge of the destitute widow -
this is mealtime in the St. Pancras workhouse in London
Another lady told Plimsoll that she and her younger brother were orphans and brought up by an older sister. The latter’s husband supported the brother in going to sea, and he did well enough to qualify as a Second Mate on sailing ships. He wished however to qualify in steamships and was engaged to serve in a ship that was leaking badly. He was however assured when he signed on that full repairs would be made before loading. This did not happen and according to Plimsoll he told his sister that the vessel was loaded “like a sand-barge.” Both his sister and her husband urged him not to sail and he promised that he would not. He went to the ship to get the wages due to him. Here he “was refused payment unless he went, was over-persuaded and threatened, and called a coward, which greatly excited him. He went, and two days afterwards the ship went down.”

The brutal reality of destitution  - one of the greatest Victorian paintings
Applicants to a Casual Ward (1874) by Sir Luke Fildes (1843-1927)
Even across fourteen decades it is impossible not to be moved – and outraged – by some of Plimsoll’s findings. His account of the simple dignity of one of these widows deserves respect. She was surviving by sewing for a ready-made clothes shopkeeper. “She was in a small garret with a sloping roof and the most modest fireplace I ever saw; just three bits of iron laid from side to side of an opening in the brickwork, and two more up the front; no chimney-piece, or jambs, or stone across the top, but just the bricks laid nearer and nearer until the courses united. So I don’t fancy she could be earning much. But with the very least money value in the place, it was as beautifully clean as I ever saw a room in my life.”

This lady’s husband had also committed to a ship that proved to have been overloaded. He came home and, according to her “got his tea without saying a word, and then sat looking into the fire in a deep study, like. I asked him what ailed him, and he said, more to himself than to me, “She’s such a beast!” I thought he meant the men’s place was dirty, as he had complained before that there was no place to wash. He liked to be clean, my husband, and always had a good wash when he came home from the workshop, when he worked ashore. So I said, “Will you let me come on board to clean it out for you?” And he said, still looking at the fire, “It ain’t that.” Well, he hadn’t signed, only agreed, so I said, “Don’t sign, Jim,” and he said he wouldn’t, and went and told the engineer he shouldn’t go.”  The engineer overcame his objections by offering ten shillings (half-a-pound sterling) per month more. He had had no work for a long time, and the money was tempting, so he signed. “When he told me I said, “You won’t go, Jim, will you?” He said, “Why, Minnie, they will put me in gaol if I don’t go.” I said, “Never mind, you can come home after that.” It turned out however that he had also been accused of cowardice and that too had played a role in his decision. It cost him his life.

Plimsoll himself was clearly moved and he told the wretched woman, who was by then crying bitterly, “I hope you won’t think I am asking all these questions from idle curiosity.” He was to remember her answer: “Oh no, sir; I am glad to answer you, for so many homes might be kept from being desolate if it was only looked into”.

A homeless mother on the street with her children
A German illustration of the period - such sights were common across Europe
Another story involved a couple who had lost a son at the age of twenty-two. He had been taken on as a stoker, and worked on the ship some days before she was ready for sea. He did not want to go when he saw how she was loaded. She looked like a floating wreck, he claimed, but the owners refused to pay him the money he had earned unless he went, and so he too was lost with the crew. “Just one more specimen of the good, true, and brave men we sacrifice by our most cruel and manslaughtering neglect,” Plimsoll commented.

It is indeed too easy, at this remove, to be entranced by the “romance” of the seaborne trade of the 19th Century, with its sleek hulls and billowing clouds. We are indebted to Plimsoll not only for his load-line, and the countless lives it was to save, but to his insights into the lives of some of the most overlooked and forgotten of his era.

He was a true hero.

Britannia’s Wolf is available as an audio book

                                     – listen to a sample

The first book in the Dawlish Chronicles series is now available as an audio book read by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. If you haven't previously ordered an audio-book from you can download it without cost as part of a 30-Day Free Trial. You can listen on your Smart Phone, Tablet or MP3 Player.

To listen to as sample go to the links below and click on the small arrow beneath the cover image there:

Tuesday 21 June 2016

The Natal Mutiny, 1889 - how much to believe?

Mutiny at sea is an inherently dramatic subject and few were as dramatic – because of the small size of the crew involved, and the small craft on which it played out – than that on the brigantine Natal in 1889. I learned of it in a book entitled “Revolt at Sea” by Irvin Anthony, published in the United States by Putnam in 1937. The book contains accounts of some twenty-four other mutinies, the last three being those on the Russian pre-dreadnought Potemkin in 1905, in the German Fleet in 1918 and on the Dutch Zeven Provinciën in 1933. The Natal incident is therefore presented as factual but there are areas left unexplained which I will return to at the end of this article.
It appears that in 1889 – days and months unspecified – the “trim but small” brigantine was en route for Brisbane in Queensland, Australia. The registration of the Natal was not specified, but as her captain was called Peter F. Enstrom it is possible that she was Scandinavian. The cargo was described as “of no particular worth” and the size of her crew, though apparently small, was not mentioned. There were apparently “no grim feuds among her people”, a fact that makes the subsequent savagery hard to understood. It should however be borne in mind that working conditions on merchant shipping in this period could be atrocious. (There is a link at the end of this article to an earlier blog on this subject). Even on the best-run ships, accommodation and messing could be unacceptable by modern standards, and the rough discipline often imposed tended to foster deeply felt animosities between owners, officers and crews.
"Winged Arrow and Southern Cross in Boston Harbour" by Fitz Hugh Lee (1804-1865)
This was the romantic view in the Age of Merchant Sail -the reality was often brutally differen
For whatever reason, four of the Natal’s crew decided on murdering the officers and taking over the ship. A seaman called Johannsen armed himself with a capstan bar, while another, Toton, possessed a revolver. The carpenter had his axe while the steward relied on a long sheath knife. Their objective remains unclear – by 1889 telegraphic communications and naval steamships had made it impossible for old-style piracy to succeed and remain undetected for any length of time.
The attempt to capture the ship began on a midnight, when the vessel was in charge of the second mate – who was the captain’s seventeen-year old son – and while the captain himself, and the first mate, were asleep in separate berths in the same cabin.  The second mate had just taken over the watch and was still feeling sleepy. He therefore lowered a bucket over the side, drew up water, and sluiced it over his head to wake himself. He was in the act of doing so when the carpenter crept up behind him and split his skull with an axe. Death was instantaneous and no alarm was raised. (One has the impression that there was nobody else was on deck, or was indeed needed, as there was later mention of “light airs”). The body was unceremoniously dropped overboard.
The reality of life at sea - "Eight Bells" by Winslow Homer (1836-1910)
The four mutineers now headed for Captain Enstrom’s cabin. They entered stealthily without wakening either him or the mate. The carpenter was chosen – or had volunteered – to kill the captain, like his son, with the axe, while Toton was to shoot the mate with his revolver. The carpenter moved first, sweeping down his axe on the captain’s head, but shearing past with a glancing blow that drew blood but was not serious. Enstrom was instantly awake and on his feet, punching his assailant. Johannsen tried to intervene, but in the close confines of the cabin he could achieve only enough with his capstan bar to knock of the aim of Totton, whose four successive shots all missed the mate.
Familiarity with the cabin layout, particularly in the darkness, now played in the captain’s and mate’s favour. Fighting for their live,s they punched and kicked and their assailants’ nerve broke. They fled up the companionway and back on deck, leaving Totnes’ revolver in the hands of the mate, who had wrestled it from him. The two officers now locked themselves in the cabin and began to rummage for the small arms the ship carried but never had occasion to use. They located a rifle, three revolvers and ammunition. The captain appears to have been aware by now that his son was dead and was obviously bent on revenge. The remainder of the crew, intimidated perhaps by the mutineers, seem to have remained neutral in what had happened and to have gathered on deck.
Remaining in the cabin was no long-term alternative, especially with the firearms on board being in the hands of the captain and mate. They rushed on deck with loaded weapons and those there – neutral as well as mutineers, one gathers – rushed in panic before them down the forehatch. Captain Enstrom and the mate locked it, trapping the crew below.
The “light airs” referred to allowed the vessel to drift safely without manning and the two officers on deck kept turns on watch, with weapons trained on the scuttle opening from the forehatch. A full day passed and no food or water reached the prisoners. Two more passed, during which the conditions beneath the hatchway must have become intolerable.
On the fourth day a flag of truce was waved from the scuttle but was met with gunfire. With his son dead, Enstrom was not in a forgiving mood. Only on a second attempt at parley did the mutineers suggest surrender, only to be told that it would be unconditional. The prisoners accepted and trooped on deck. Enstrom separated the four mutineers from the others and calmly shot the carpenter and Toton. The steward and Johanssen, trembling, were sent below as prisoners and the Natal resumed her course for Brisbane.
The Age of Merchant Sail captured by British master John Atkinson Grimshaw (1836-1893)
"Nightfall on the Thames" - 1880
The story, as told above, is a summary of that in Irvin Anthony’s “Revolt at Sea”. My immediate reaction was “Did it really happen?” for there is so much detail missing – origin of the ship, location of the mutiny, size of the crew. Were there earlier events that triggered such brutal resentment? How did the authorities in Brisbane deal with these events, and was Captain Enstrom held accountable in any way for his summary execution of two of the mutineers? What became of Johansen and the steward afterwards? The whole story seems like incidents in some of Joseph Conrad’s novels that hinge on blindly malignant brutality – one thinks of his “Victory” and “Because of the Dollars”. I had never heard of this Natal incident previously and an internet search has turned up nothing. I did however discover that the book’s author, Irvin Anthony, born in Philadelphia in 1890, had produced a large number of other books with nautical themes. The inclusion of the Natal story with those of other well-known and factually-attested mutinies inclines one to think there must be some truth in it.
But how much truth?
Is there any reader of mine out there who can shed some light on this?

Update 0930 on 22.06.16:

In answer to the question above, more light was shed on the Natal affair in two splendid comments - with external links - by "Astrodene" and by Mike Rattenbury. Here they are shown here in their entireties:

It seems the Captain gave an interview to his local newspaper when he got back home, which was America. A much more graphic account of the cabin battle and their injuries. The mate was actually shot in his own cabin and subsequently joined the affray in the Captain's. Johanssen was captured when the others fled below and helped man the ship while the crew were confined. It seems the captain was not prosecuted, although they thought about it and the courts let the mutineers go. You can read the article at

It looks like it happened on November 27, 1883, but the news dosn't get out until the beginning of 1884. There are quite a few newspaper reports online, and entering 'Natal Mutiny 1884' brings them up. By March, the mutineers seem still to be in custody in Australia, awaiting extradition to Sweden for trial. gives another detailed account. None of the reports seem to disagree with the captain's shooting of the mutineers.

(Click here to read an earlier blog about abuses in the merchant shipping industry which were uncovered by the great British maritime reformer, Samuel Plimsoll).

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 seen in use on both British and Japanese ships. The splendid woodcut below shows Japanese crews managing just such a weapon in the war of 1895 against China. Click on the links below for further details – you can read the opening via the “Look Inside” feature at the top left of the screen opened.

Friday 17 June 2016

Guest Blog: A Treasure Trove of Naval Art

I was recently approached by a Dutch reader of my blog who is interested, among much else of a nautical nature, in the art of the great Age of Fighting Sail. He told me something of what he was undertaking add I invited him to prepare a blog. It turned out to be a superb one, as you’ll see from what follows, and it reflects some detective work on his part. I found that Nykle lives in the Dutch province of Friesland, in the town of Leeuwarden, near where I have family relations living – it’s a small world!  I was even more intrigued by the fact that he’s currently writing about inland navigation with which there was close family involvement in the 19th Century. I’m handing over to Nykle to introduce himself and thereafter I trust you’ll enjoy his article, and its illustrations, as much as I have.

Introducing Nykle Dijkstra: 

I’m a student in maritime history at Leiden University. I live in Leeuwarden (the Netherlands) and I’m 24 years old. I’m very interested in “The Age of Sail”, mainly the period 1600-1900 and I’ve written some articles about Dutch navy mariners in the Napoleonic times, about ships of the Dutch East India Company that were wrecked on the coast of Sri Lanka, about Dutch whaling history, and I’m currently writing about Friesian inland navigation in the nineteenth century.

Last year, Antoine Vanner posted a series of blogs about British naval artists of the 18th century (See links at the end of the article). Most of them are fascinating life stories; in some cases the artists based their works on their own experience during the most gruesome sea battles. Especially the turn of the eighteenth to the nineteenth century was a very intense period in terms of naval conflict. Hence this period produced some of the greatest British naval art, such as the paintings made by Nicholas Pocock. Some artists however, didn’t reach this degree of fame and were eventually lost in history. 

Last year I accidentally stumbled across an original ink sketch portraying a small schooner in front of Peak Tenerife. It would be the start of a small investigation which would eventually turn into this article. It’s a story about a rather unknown naval artist who almost fought at Trafalgar but ended up making beautiful drawings of naval life just outside the spotlights.

Thank you Antoine for giving me the stage.  

John Evans – a forgotten naval artist

The sketch mentioned above was accompanied by a few old written pages. I googled a fragment of the text and found out that the drawing was used for a (slightly altered) engraving in the Naval Chronicle in 1818. This was the same magazine in which Pocock placed many of his drawings. The Tenerife Peak sketch was said to be made by a man called “J.E.” Two ships were added, perhaps to make it more appealing to the audience.

Naval Chronicle, Volume 40, 1818.
A piece of handwriting which was included with the drawing of Teneriffe Peak. Perhaps it’s Evans, handwriting?

As I found out, “J.E.” made many more drawings and he also was a frequent correspondent to the Chronicle. One of the drawings stated that “J.E.” was a navy lieutenant. Interesting information, but still, his true identity was never revealed. Therefore, I decided to gather all his drawings and letters and combine them to get a better view of the author. In the end I found two biographies about a naval officer named John Evans. His career and the ships on which he served matched rather well with the drawings, and the story actually mentioned that Evans was a skilled artist. Bingo! Although we don’t have 100% certainty, it’s highly likely that J.E. was John Evans.

Toronto Public Library

According to the biography, John Evans was born on 2 December 1786 or 1787. He was the son of John Evans, Esq., of Dilwyn, co. Hereford, and of the Rock and Vermont, in Jamaica, by a daughter of John Tyler, Esq., of Dilwyn House, who was grand-niece of Bishop John Tyler, and a relative of Robert Southey, the Poet-Laureate (who would later write what was for many years the standard biography of Nelson). Evans entered the navy in 1803, but the two biographies differ from each other about the first ship on which Evans served. One says it’s the Leviathan (74 guns) but the other one names HMS Leander (50 guns). Evans speaks about the Leander in the Chronicle, but it’s also probable that he only came aboard the Leander in 1805. In a letter accompanied to a drawing of St. George’s Island, J.E. wrote:  “They [the Native Americans at Nova Scotia] are extremely expert in the management of their little barks, and will impel them through the water only with the aid of two small peddles, with inconceivable velocity; a six-oared deal gig, with a stout crew, belonging to the Leander, of 50 guns, could never pull against one of them with anything like success.”

A view of Porto Bello [or Portobelo] on the Spanish Main. The French ship we see here is of a Mediterranean type called ‘xebec’. Ronald Hakwins (Cornwall Maritime Museum) was so kind to take a closer look on the drawings and pointed out that although the drawings are correct, some of the engravings are a bit inaccurate. For instance  the mizzen on this xebec is drawn on a boom over the stern without a mast to support it. Maybe the engraver took some artistic liberty.  (Naval Chronicle, Volume 32, 1814)

Evans allegedly joined the ships Trent (36 guns) and Desirée (36 guns). In the Desirée he was present at the blockade of Cape François, the reduction of Port Dauphin, where two forts and a 28-gun frigate, La Sagesse, were taken from the enemy, and the surrender of the French squadron with the remains of General Rochambeau’s army from Cape Francois on board; and he was also frequently employed with the boats on cutting-out affairs of ‘a very hazardous description’. The captain of HMS Desirée was Henry Whitby, who may have been some kind of patron, as Evans followed him in 1805 to the Centaur. This ship then sailed for Jamaica to join Nelson in his pursuit of De Villeneuve, but she encountered a hurricane and only just made it safely to Halifax. Whitby was then given command of HMS Leander, and it could be possible that Evans joined him again.

Naval Chronicle, Volume 39, 1818

Officers of HMS Centaur. Unfortunately Evans is not among them, but he came aboard in June 1805 and the hurricane happened in July, so he probably was aboard at the time. Maybe the artist John Eckstein gave Evans a few drawing lessons but that’s mere speculation.

I later found two more original drawings by John Evans. This one shows a brig and a small cutter in a storm. No doubt Evans experienced similar moments, and probably even much heavier gales. As far as I know this sketch was not used for the Naval Chronicle.

In 1807 John Evans shortly became a prisoner of war when he sailed as a passenger on an armed brig, but he was soon released. He then joined the sloops Drake and Wolf. A short time later he served on HMS Bacchante (20 guns) under captain Samuel Hood Inglefield. He saw quite a lot of action with this ship and even succeeded in the capture of the French brig Le Griffon (16 guns):
Naval Chronicle, Volume 29, 1813

Sometime in 1808, Evans followed Inglefield to HMS Daedalus (32 guns). In this ship he served until September 1810 and contributed to the reduction of the town of Samana, in St. Domingo. During his service aboard this ship he may have encountered another hurricane, by which the ship was struck on the 3rd of august, 1809. This happened in the vicinity of St. Domingo when the ship sailed in a squadron with the navy ships Lark and Moselle. The gale was first felt by the Daedalus. The wind on the 2nd of August was variable and the atmosphere was hazy. At half past eight P.M., the gale commenced with very dark and gloomy weather, and bright flashes of lightning, though without thunder. At nine it had increased to a heavy gale, with a very high sea. The bowsprit, foremast, main, and mizzen topmasts went over the side. Several fruitless attempts were made to save the ship, when at last most fortunately she was kept before the wind and sea. The ship must inevitably have been lost if the wind had shifted on the evening of the 2nd to the South or South West. The Lark, less fortunate than the Daedalus, foundered with her captain (R. Nicholas), officers and crew. Only two hands were saved in an extraordinary manner after being picked up at night by the Moselle.

Naval Chronicle, Volume 29, 1813
In 1810-11 Evans was employed on the North American station. First in the Belvidera (38 guns), bearing the flag of Rear-Admiral Herbert Sawyer, and then in the sloops HMS Atalante and HMS Morgiana under Captains Frederick Hickey and David Scott.

Naval Chronicle, Volume 31, 1814.

Evans was promoted to the rank of Lieutenant in the latter vessel on 16 November 1811; but in February 1812 he retired from future service due to a severe liver complaint, from the effects of which he would suffer for the rest of his life. Back in England, he may have sent his drawings to the Naval Chronicle as that’s when his first sketches were published. In spite of his disease he would become a frequent correspondent to the Chronicle. In 1824 he even published a book about hydrography. About his personal life the biography says he was married and had one son (also a naval officer named John Evans) and one daughter.

A third sketch by John Evans, showing Needham’s Point, Barbados. This drawing was used in the Naval Chronicle, and just like the Tenerife Peak drawing it was slightly altered (see below).  The ship (a topsail schooner) looks very similar as the ship on the drawings of Tenerife Peak and Nichola Mole. Could it be the same?

Naval Chronicle, Volume 38, 1817

Neversink & Sandy Hook: Vol. 31, 1814

Port Royal: volume 36, 1816
The Naval Chronicle
The Nautical Magazine and Naval Chronicle
A Naval Biographical Dictionary

Earlier blogs on Naval Artists of the Age of Sail – click on links below

Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 5

Many thanks to Nykle for his splendid article – and for contacting me in the first place. He’s obviously a man to look for in the future in the sphere of nautical history.
                                                                                                                                        Antoine Vanner

Tuesday 14 June 2016

The Arrival of the Naval Mine

From the mid-19th Century onwards the naval mine developed in the general from we know today and which was to play a significant role in the American Civil War, the Russ-Japanese War of 1904-05, both World Wars and the Iran-Iraq War of 1980-88. The famous order by Admiral Farragut as he drove his squadron into Mobile Bay in 1864 – “Damn the torpedoes! Full speed ahead!” – referred to mines, then often labelled as torpedoes, and not the automotive weapons that emerged in the next decade. The concept of the floating mine had been around for centuries – often in the form of boats that would be allowed to drift downriver towards enemy bridges. The weakness was however that explosion would essentially be random, whether close to the enemy or not, as detonation would depend on a slow-burning fuze or a clockwork mechanism. The arrival of practical electrical technology in the 1850s and 60s got around this problem, allowing controlled detonation from shore of submerged mines, or detonation by systems integral to the mine itself and triggered by contact.
USS Tecumseh sunk by mine in Mobile Bay, 1864
As the Confederate defences of Mobile Bay demonstrated, mines proved a very effective, and relatively cheap, way of defending harbour approaches – as was shown by the dramatic sinking of a unit of Farragut’s squadron, the monitor USS Tecumseh. (One episode of my novel Britannia’s Wolf describes the protection of a major Russian Black Sea anchorage in 1877 by mines anchored across the entrance and controlled through electrical cables connected to observation posts onshore).
The destruction by mine of the Russian battleship Petropavlovsk off Port Arthur, 1904
She took with her Russia's best naval commander, Admiral Makarov
(Strange to see this tragedyused to decorate a box of chocolates!)

In view of my interest in such weapons systems I was fascinated recently to find sketches of early mines in a publication called “The British Navy Book” by Cyril Field, apparently published in 1915/16. It indicated that the first large-scale use of practical mines occurred in the Crimean War (1854-56) when the Russians deployed them in both the Baltic and the Black Sea to limit the movements of British and French warships. The approaches to the great Russian naval base at Kronstadt, outside St. Petersburg, were protected in this way and some fifty mines were “trawled up” in ten days and destroyed by British forces. The improvised technique used was hazardous in the extreme – two pulling- boats suspended a long rope between them  and it was sunk by heavy weights to a depth of ten or twelve feet, and held suspended at that depth by empty casks as floats. The boats then separated as far as the rope would allow, and rowed onwards.  There appears to have been several types of mine, some of copper, others of wooden staves like those of a barrel, and the bursting charge was 700 pounds of gunpowder. Detonation seems to have been either by a “galvanic current” sent through a cable from a shore station or by contact, the exact mechanism being unspecified. The drawings here give details of Russian mines encountered by the British.

Britain was soon afterwards in conflict in war with China in “The Arrow War” of 1856/60. The 890-ton screw corvette HMS Encounter came under attack by floating mines launched by the Chinese when operating in the Pearl River (now called the Guangdong) downstream of Canton (known as Guangzhou today). The source quoted earlier provides extracts from a letter written by an officer on board Encounter.  
HMS Encounter, shown here in China in 1862
The first attempt, on 24th December 1856, involved an explosive-laden sampan towed close by another craft, and then let loose to drift down towards Encounter’s bows. It was captured by a ship’s boat acting as guard and fuses burning inside bamboo tubes were extinguished in time to prevent explosion.
The second attempt, in the early hours of on 5th January was potentially more lethal.  The officer’s letter states that the attack was by “two rafts, moored together, with about 20 fathom of line buoyed up, with hooks to catch cables or anything else, and, on the wires touching the ship's side, to break by the little lead weight the lighted fuse on the top of the bamboo, which communicated with the powder. These were lighted and all ready, but fortunately observed by our guard-boat and towed clear of ship. Being only a raft it was just awash, and in each caisson at least 17 cwt. (i.e. 1904 pounds or 865 kilograms ) of gunpowder in open tubs and jars. The raft itself was made of 6-inch plank well bound together, and caulked.”
Encounter was attacked again two days later, again in the early morning hours of darkness. It seems to have been guided into position by swimmers – an act of considerable heroism. According to the unnamed British officer “A pair of vessels in the shape of a can-buoy with a flag on the top, about 8 inches long; the fuse, with a tin box containing punk (i.e. tinder) over the fuse, then a cover with lighted match on top; this had a string to it, which, when pulled, drew out the centre partition and communicated the fire to the punk, to allow the fellows who swam off with them towards the ship to make their escape; but they got frightened at some stir with the boats, and by accident one went off with a fearful explosion on the starboard bow, about 60 yards, and the other, being deserted, floated down on our booms. One of the men was caught and brought on board here, and had his brains blown out at the port gangway. The buoy-shaped vessel was capable of holding about 10 cwt. (i.e. half a ton) of gunpowder."

One final attempt on the Encounter was again by two floating mines coupled together by a length of rope, each containing half a ton of powder. They were towed close by a small boat but it was detected by the ship’s look-outs and destroyed by gunfire. Had these attacks been successful it is hard to imagine the Encounter surviving and one is struck by the courage of the Chinese who manoeuvred these contraptions into position. Crude though they might have been, the era of mine-warfare had commenced.

Britannia's Wolf

If you have found this article interesting you may like to read of mines used in anger in 1877. The first book in the Dawlish Chronicles Series features ironclad action in the Black Sea as the vicious Russo-Turkish War of 1877-78 reaches its climax.

Russian forces are driving  deep into the corrupt Ottoman-Turkish Empire.  In the depths of a savage winter, as the Turks face defeat on all fronts, a British officer is enmeshed and finds himself confronting enemy ironclads, Cossack lances and merciless Kurdish irregulars. And in the midst of this chaos, while he himself is a pawn in the rivalry of the Sultan’s half-brothers for control of the collapsing empire, he is unwillingly and unexpectedly drawn to a woman whom he believes he should not love.

Britannia’s Wolf is available in hard-copy and Kindle format – click here for details and to read the opening via the "Look Inside" feature.

Britannia's Wolf It is also available as an audio book read by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. If you haven't previously ordered an audio-book from you can download it without cost as part of a 30-Day Free Trial. You can listen on your Smart Phone, Tablet or MP3 Player.

Tuesday 7 June 2016

A Ruse to Escape Annihilation: 1795

The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars saw very large numbers of battles at sea between small numbers of ships, but few in which entire squadrons engaged and yet fewer fleet actions on the scale of the Nile, Camperdown or Trafalgar. On one occasion however a medium-sized Royal Navy squadron escaped from a confrontation which, due to the disparity of forces, could have ended in annihilation. That it did not reflected the cool head and tactical mastery of the British commander, Admiral Lord William Cornwallis (1744 – 1819).

 Cornwallis had come to prominence in 1782, in the four-day Battle of the Saintes, as captain of the “74” ship-of-the-line Canada. He had already engaged, and defeated, a similarly sized French ship, the Hector, when he saw the opportunity to close with the enemy flagship, the massive 104-gun Ville de Paris. Despite the disparity in size, Cornwallis continued his attack for two hours and though the larger vessel’s position proved to be hopeless, the French Admiral de Grasse (1723 –1788) saw it as a point of honour not to strike his flag to anybody but an enemy admiral. He only surrendered when Admiral Sir Samuel Hood (1724-1816) came up in the Barfleur, by which stage only de Grasse himself and two other men were alive and unwounded on the upper deck. He stated after the battle that Cornwallis’s Canada had done him more harm than all the rest of the Royal Navy force together. 
Battle of the Saintes, 1782 - major fleet action with ships-of-the-line
This is where Cornwallis came to prominence

On 7th June 1795 Cornwallis, in his flagship Royal Sovereign, was cruising on blockade duty off Belle Isle, on the southern coast of Brittany, with five “sail-of-the-line” and two frigates. A French convoy of merchantmen under escort of three ships-of-the-line and six frigates. In the subsequent action, in which the French escorts beat an ignominious retreat, eight merchantmen were captured. Cornwallis remained on station thereafter and just over a week later, on 16th June, one of his frigates signalled sighting of the French fleet – a huge force consisting of thirteen sail-of-the-line, several frigates, two brigs and a cutter. Retreat was now the better part of valour and Cornwallis decided – correctly – to decline combat. The wind at first falling and afterwards coming round to the north, the enemy's ships were enabled to get to windward, and the next morning by daylight – in calm conditions, they were seen mooring on both quarters of the British squadron. Cornwallis’s force was now potentially the meat in the sandwich.

 During the preceding day and through the night Cornwallis had led the retreating ships in the Royal Sovereign, so as to be able to take advantage of any favourable opportunity that might present itself in the night for altering course and escaping unseen by the enemy. With daylight however he changed his disposition, ordering his two slowest-sailing ships, the Brunswick and the Bellerophon, to lead, and the more nimble Mars and Triumph to form the rear. He himself, in Royal Sovereign, formed a connecting link, ready to come to the assistance of any of his squadron that might need support. It was now in the power of the French admiral to engage closely, and at about nine in the morning a line-of-battle ship and a frigate opened fire on the Mars. From this time an almost constant cannonade was kept up, the French ships firing at a distance as they came up – and making no attempt to close and board – and Mars, Triumph and Royal Sovereign returning fire, thereby protecting the slow-sailing Brunswick and Bellerophon. These latter two vessels were now making every effort to increase speed, lightening themselves by cutting away their anchors and boats, throwing some of their ballast overboard and crowding on all sail. This inconclusive chase continued through the day and into the afternoon. Only then did the close upon the rear ship, the Mars. Four of the French ships of the line bore down on her. Had they concentrated their fire and laid themselves alongside, the outcome would have been fatal for her. At this critical juncture a ruse already underway was to change the situation completely. 

Beaufort, an admiral in later life
In the early morning Cornwallis had called by signal for a boat from the frigate HMS Phaeton. The young officer who came across to get instructions to bring back to his captain would later be Admiral Sir Francis Beaufort (1774 –1857), creator of the Beaufort Scale for indicating wind force. He was met on Royal Sovereign's deck by Cornwallis, who told him: "Stop, sir; listen: go back immediately and tell your captain to go ahead of the squadron a long way, and, when far enough off, to make the signals for seeing first one or two strange sail, then more, and then a fleet; in short, to humbug those fellows astern. He will understand me. Go."  

The Phaeton sailed well, but was not until three o'clock in the afternoon that she was sufficiently far ahead to signal back with credibility that initially one, then two, five, new sail had been sighted. She followed this up by signalling an even larger British force was approaching. It was known that the French had copies of the Royal Navy’s tabular signals, and Phaeton hoisted a signal to draw on the fictitious squadron. She then turned to sail back towards Cornwallis’s force, as if guiding the newcomers on. By sheer chance three small vessels were actually just visible over the horizon. Wholly taken in by the ruse, and apparently faced with the possibility of action with a larger force, the French broke off the action and retreated. Cornwallis’s entire force escaped without loss of a single ship.
How the battle might have developed had the French exploited their numerical advantage -
Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg's painting of the "Glorious First of June" battle 1794

One cannot but wonder if poor French morale in the aftermath of the brutal culling of the French naval officer-corps during the Revolution did not play a significant role. Defeat and failure could well be rewarded with the guillotine, and officers who still remained in service were likely to be highly risk-averse – as shown by the unwillingness to close, even when the British force was outnumbered. Cornwallis, by contrast, had command of a superbly confident and professional force. In his later report he gave special credit to the seamen and marines of the Mars and Triumph, which had the brunt of the French fire. He stated that, "instead of being cast down at seeing thirty sail of the enemy's ships attacking our little squadron, they were in the highest spirits imaginable, and although circumstanced as we were, we had no great reason to complain of the conduct of the enemy, yet our men could not help repeatedly expressing their contempt of them. Could common prudence have allowed me to let loose their valour I hardly know what might not have been accomplished by such men."
Cornwallis himself had given an example of calm resolution, shaving, dressing and powdering his hair during the morning chase according to his normal routine. He apparently to his flag captain that he had been in similar situations before, and knew very well what they, the French, would do.
What followed was to prove him correct in his evaluation of the enemy. 

Britannia’s Wolf is available as an audio book

                                              – listen to a sample

The first book in the Dawlish Chronicles series is now available as an audio book read by the distinguished American actor David Doersch. If you haven't previously ordered an audio-book from you can download it without cost as part of a 30-Day Free Trial. You can listen on your Smart Phone, Tablet or MP3 Player.

To listen to as sample go to the links below and click on the small arrow beneath the cover image there: