Friday, 23 September 2016

On the Royal Navy List for 96 Years - Admiral Sir Provo Wallis (1791-1892)

Wallis in 1813
I am always amazed at just what change – political, technical, economic, scientific – can occur in a single human lifetime. I was reminded of this when I saw a reference in an 1895 book to the demise in 1893 of Admiral of the Fleet Sir Provo Wallis. He was 101 years old and his name had been entered on the Navy List for 96 of these years.  

Sir Provo Wallis in old age
This was due to his father, a clerk in the Naval Yard at Halifax, Nova Scotia, getting his name entered as an able seaman on a frigate, HMS Oiseau, when he was just over four years old. Such sharp-practice was common in the period, though usually with much older boys, and they did not actually go to sea until older. They were however amassing seniority. It is probable that Wallis did not actually serve afloat until he joined the frigate HMS Cleopatra as a midshipman in 1800. By 1809 he was a lieutenant on the sloop-of-war HMS Curieux (captured French ships retained their names when serving in the Royal Navy).

Wallis’s moment of glory was to come in 1813, when he was serving as second lieutenant on board the frigate HMS Shannon when she fought her victorious action against her counterpart USS Chesapeake on June 1st, 1813. When Shannon’s Captain Philip Broke was badly injured and her first lieutenant killed, the twenty-two year old Wallis took command. He had the honour of taking the captured Chesapeake into his home town, Halifax, Nova Scotia and the victory was especially significant for having ended a series of Royal Navy defeats inflicted by American ships. (In Patrick O’Brian’s The Fortunes of War Jack Aubrey and Stephen Maturin are passengers on board the Shannon).
The Shannon-Chesapeake action Jun 1st 1813
Wallis, in Shannon, leads the Chesapeake into Halifax 
 Wallis was to have a distinguished career afterwards, his last active service in 1858, retiring as an Admiral in 1863.  He was to benefit from a special clause in the Navy’s retirement scheme of 1870 that provided for officers who had commanded a ship in the wars with France up to 1815 should be retained on the active list, thus drawing pay. The few days Wallis was in command of Shannon thus qualified him to remain on the active list until he died.  (It is sad to note that the clause was inserted to save two old admirals dying as paupers). Being on the active list meant he was liable for call-up for a seagoing command and in his late nineties he confirmed that he was ready to accept one!

The French Revolution was underway, but the Reign of Terror had not yet commenced, when Wallis was born. When he died Kaiser Wilhelm II was German Emperor (an empire that did not exist until 1871) and the seeds of the First World War had been sown. Wallis had grown up in the Royal Navy of Nelson and Cochrane, the age of wooden sailing ships. He saw the introduction of steam propulsion, rifled breech-loaders, steel construction, torpedoes, and much else. The most powerful Royal Navy ship of his youth was a 100-gun three decker – in the year of his death the title was held by HMS Royal Sovereign, the first pre-dreadnought class, one of which, HMS Revenge, was to bombard the Belgian coast in 1914 and 1915. His lifetime had seen the discovery of bacteria, antiseptics and anaesthetics, the arrival and spread of railways across the world, the shrinking of distance, even intercontinentally, by telegraph, the invention of the telephone, light bulb and internal combustion engine, the electrification of cities and , the extension of the franchise in Britain – the list is endless.

And all in one human lifetime.

HMS Royal Sovereign, commissioned in the year of Wallis's death

Britannia’s Spartan - and the Taku Forts, 1859 

The Anglo-French assault at the Taku Forts in Northern China – and the highly irregular but welcome intervention of the neutral United States Navy – was one of the most dramatic incidents of the mid-nineteenth century. It also led to the only defeat of the Royal Navy between the end of the Napoleonic Wars and the outbreak of World War 1.

A remark of the American commander at the height of the battle - "Blood is thicker than water" - has entered the English language.

The Taku Forts attack is described in detail in the opening of Britannia's Spartan.

Friday, 16 September 2016

The Capture of Curaçao 1807

Lying some 40 miles north of the Venezuelan coast, the Caribbean island of Curaçao is today a separate country within the Kingdom of the Netherlands. It was first colonised by the Dutch in the mid-17th Century and was to have major strategic importance thereafter sine it contains one of the most enclosed, and easily defended harbours in the world. This is the Saint Anna Bay, on which the island’s capital, Willemstad, is located. The bay is approached through a mile-long channel that is nowhere wider than some 300 yards.  In the colonial era this approach was easily defensible by flanking forts, thereby making the island a secure base for Dutch naval forces in the Caribbean.

From 1795 to 1813 the Netherlands were dominated by the French, until 1806 as the so-called Batavian Republic, and thereafter as the “Kingdom of Holland” with the Emperor Napoleon’s brother Louis (father of the future Emperor Napoleon III) as king. French rule was by no means unpopular with large portions of the population and Dutch troops, and the Dutch Navy, fought in support of the French. Most notable of such actions was the defeat of the Dutch Fleet by Britain’s Royal Navy at Camperdown in 1797  and the fact that some 14,000 Dutch troops marched in Napoleon’s Grande Armée in the 1812 invasion of Russia. Major British campaigns were launched against Dutch possessions in the East Indies and Dutch naval bases in the Caribbean, such as Curaçao were havens for French as well as Dutch naval forces.

1836 Map of Curaçao - inset at top right is map of St. Anna Bay and of the channel leading to it.
Considering its importance, and despite its strong defences, Curaçao was to be captured by Britain with almost ludicrous ease. In late 1806 – a period when French naval power was in decline – word reached the Royal Navy’s commander-in-chief on the Jamaica station, Vice-Admiral Dacres, that there was support from some citizens on Curaçao for throwing off French allegiance. Dacres accordingly despatched a task force consisting of the frigates HMS Arethusa, (commanded by Captain Charles Brisbane) and HMS Latona (Captain Wood), together with HMS Anson (Captain Charles Lydiard), originally a 64-gun “third rate” but later cut down to frigate dimensions. Another frigate, HMS Fisgard (Captain Bolton), which had been captured from the French in 1797, joined the others close to Curaçao.

An earlier exploit of Arethusa and Anson - capturing the Spanish frigate Pomona
off Havana in 1806 (painting by Thomas Whitcombe (1760- 1824)
Brisbane, leading the British force, suspected that neither the island’s governor, nor the garrisons of its forts, might not be as eager as the parties who had contacted Dacres to break the French connection. Rather than enter into diplomatic negotiations, which could be strung out over a long period, thereby allowing defences to be strengthened, he revolved to launch an immediate attack that would rely heavily on surprise. His objective was to drive directly past the gun batteries at the mouth of the access channel and into the bay of St. Anne. Once there the guns of his ships could threaten the town of Willemstad and provide a powerful inducement to the authorities there to surrender. Success depended on two factors – firstly an appearance so sudden that the four frigates would be past the shore defences before their crews had time to man them effectively and, secondly, wind conditions that would allow the ships to drive straight up the narrow channel and into the bay beyond.

On the last day of December 1806 Fortune was to favour Brisbane as regards both these requirements. A favourable wind arose which would be ideal for his purpose, and celebrations of the New Year, quite probably involving much alcohol, were likely to lead to a collective and temporary relaxation of Dutch watchfulness. The defences were powerful –  Fort Amsterdam, a two-tier masonry structure on the right of the channel mounted 60 guns and opposite lay a chain of batteries anchored at the end by the formidable Fort République.  Together, these two fortresses would be capable of shredding  Brisbane’s force and he might well have recalled Nelson’s uncomfortable dictum that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”.

At dawn on January 1st 1807 – by which time many of the defenders might be nursing hangovers – Brisbane’s force drove for the channel under a flag of truce, with HMS Arethusa leading the other three frigates. Strong parties had been mustered on all of them for boarding and landing duties.  The Dutch, surprised, opened a hot but ineffectual fire but the British ships drove into the port. Here they found a 36-gun frigate Halstaar, a 20-gun corvette Suriname, and two large armed schooners. Brisbane brought Arethusa so close inshore that her jib-boom projected over the wall of Willemstad.  He now sent a summons to the governor, to the effect that the British squadron had come to protect, not to conquer the inhabitants, but that if a shot was fired, he should immediately storm the batteries. The governor was given five minutes to make up his mind and when none was received Brisbane ordered fire to be opened on the Dutch ships. Three broadsides sufficed to allow Arethusa to take the Halstaar and for the Anson to capture Suriname. Assault parties were now landed to attack Fort Amsterdam, some smashing a gate open with crowbars while more escalated the walls. Resistance ceased after ten minutes. Storming of the town’s citadel and several outlying batteries went just as quickly and as successfully. Only Fort République now remained and was still strong enough to smash the British ships. Faced however by an assault party of 300 seamen and marines, the Dutch commander lost his nerve and surrendered without further resistance. By 1000 hrs all fortifications had surrendered and by midday a capitulation of the entire island was formalised.

The cost of this remarkable victory was low – three British killed and fourteen wounded, as compared with over 200 Dutch casualties both ashore and afloat. (When mention is made of “wounded” however it should be noted that gangrene was often to cause deaths later, and that in many cases the only way to avoid it was by amputation of a limb. However small the numbers, casualties were never “low” for victims and their families). 

Brisbane was deservedly knighted for his victory and was to see little further service. Much of his later life was spent as governor of the Caribbean island of St. Vincent, where he was to die, aged 60, in 1829.  
Contemporary impression of the loss of HMS Anson , December 1807
A sadder fate awaited Captain Charles Lydiard who returned to Britain in the Anson later in 1807. After refitting, the Anson was allocated to blockade duty off the coast of Brittany. On December 28th, less than a year after his exploits at Curaçao, Lydiard and the Anson were caught in a gale on a lee shore off Cornwall. The ship still carried the heavy spars from her days as a third-rate, and she rolled excessively.  Anchors were run out but the cables parted the following day and Lydiard attempted to run the vessel on to a beach to save lives. The surf was too furious to allow launching of boats from the ship and the survivors managed to reach the shore only by clambering along the fallen main-mast. Throughout this crisis Lydiard remained on deck to supervise the evacuation. He was at last washed away and drowned while attempting to save a ship’s boy – an end as heroic as his life itself.

Britannia's Amazon is on the way

The talented artist and designer Sara Lee Paterson has completed the cover design for the fifth novel in the Dawlish Chronicles series - Britannia's Amazon. It's due for hard-copy and Kindle publication in October. 

Sharp-eyed readers of the earlier novels will note that the period covered (April - August 1882) is the same as that of the fourth novel, Britannia's Spartan. Since naval officer Nicholas Dawlish can't be in two places at once, what's the explanation?

Could it be that his spirited and resourceful wife Florence is the Amazon of the title? She has proved her mettle in the hell of the last winter of th Russo-Turkish War (in Britannia's Wolf) and in the United States of the Gilded Age and on a fever-ridden tropical island (in Britannia's Shark). Has she now yet more adventures in store? And if so, where?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

The five Padstow heroines of 1879

Most of my blog-entries deal with naval history, and inevitably involve much “Blood and Iron”. This post deals however with a peacetime act of heroism and one that typifies the courage and resolution of so many formidable Victorian women. It came about when I was looking through some Victorian nautically-related books, coming across a story which I find not only impressive for its heroism, but for the delightful illustration that accompanied the item.

On 9th August 1879 a fishing boat capsized in a wind squall off Bray Hill, Padstow Harbour, Cornwall. At the time, the five young ladies, four sisters from the Prideaux Brune family, and a friend called O'Shaughnessy, were in their rowing boat which was being towed behind a fishing -smack. The latter was skippered by a Samuel Bate, previously the assistant coxswain of the Padstowe lifeboat. They saw that three men had been thrown into the water from the overturned craft, two of whom drowned. They were not prepared to allow the same fate to befall the third.

Despite the heavy sea the ladies asked Bate to be cast them off from his smack. He refused initially but there demands were such that he could not resist longer and he described them as rowing away “like tigers”. They stroked fearlessly through heavy surf to reach the third man. They managed to get him into their boat with the greatest difficulty, and at serious risk to themselves, saved his life and got back to shore safely.

It is pleasing to record that Royal National Lifeboat Institution awarded Silver Medals to Misses Ellen Frances Prideaux-Brune; Gertrude Rose Prideaux-Brune; Mary Katherine Prideaux-Brune, and Beatrice May Prideaux-Brune; together with Miss Nora O’Shaughnessy “for their intrepid and prompt services”. It is equally pleasing to record for our generation the names of these intrepid women. I particularly like the illustration of them in action – appropriately dressed in sailor suits – and note that one of them did however suffer the disaster that every proper Victorian lady feared: she lost her hat.

Though I had previously never heard of this incident – which must have been famous in its time – I was within minutes possible to find via Google a photograph of the Prideaux Brune sisters (though without Miss O’Shaughnessy ), all proudly wearing their Silver Medals. Such are the wonders of the electronic age!

Friday, 9 September 2016

Naval Hero Sir James Lucas Yeo – Part 3

Two recent articles on this blog introduced us to the real-life naval hero Sir James Lucas Yeo (1782 – 1818), a handsome and dashing officer who might seem overdone were he to step from the pages of a Jane Austen novel. The first two articles (which can be read below, dated 15th July 2016 and 29th July 2016) saw Yeo knighted in 1810, still under thirty, for his capture of the French colony of Cayenne by a British-Portuguese task force under his command. His “lead from the front” character, whether at sea or in attacks on land fortifications, made him an ideal frigate captain, command of the 32-gun HMS Southampton being his reward for Cayenne. In her, in 1811, he captured the French privateer, the Amethyste, a prize which is likely to have benefitted him and his crew financially.

HMS Pomone (1805) typical frigate of this era
When war broke out with the United States in 1812, Yeo was stationed in the Bahamas and in the course of the year captured another French privateer, the Heureuse Réunion. This was followed by his taking an American brig-of-war, the USS Vixen, in November 1812. Yeo was not to profit from the Vixen however – both she and the Southampton were wrecked five days later on Conception Island in the Bahamas. Yeo was duly court-martialled for the loss of these ships but had his sword returned to him on the grounds that an uncharted reef was the cause of the accident. (It is hard to imagine today just how limited charts were in this period – it was only later in the nineteenth century that a massive international hydrographic effort, largely driven by the Royal Navy, led to most of the world’s coastlines being surveyed and charted for the first time.)

The War of 1812 between Britain and the United States was by now in full swing, the Canadian border representing a major – and possibly decisive – front. Critical to this was naval control of the Great Lakes, most especially Lake Ontario, the southern and south-eastern shores of which could provide the British with access to New York State and threaten the Hudson Valley. A “Lakes Service" command was accordingly established by the Royal Navy, with headquarters at Kingston, at the eastern end of Lake Ontario’s Canadian shore – and almost directly across from the United States base and shipyard – at Sacket’s Harbor on the opposite shore. Situated close to the point of exit of the St. Lawrence river, the nation that managed to occupy both these locations would be well situated to dominate the lake.

Sir George Prévost
Command of the Lakes Service was entrusted to Yeo and he arrived, as a Commodore, in 1813. The skill he had demonstrated in previous amphibious operations was probably a strong influence on the Navy choosing him as capture of Sacket’s Harbor would demand an opposed landing. The American shipyards were a major objective – they were to build no less than eleven warships in the course of the conflict – and a British attempt at capture had been repulsed before Yeo’s arrival. In early 1813 the balance of naval forces on the lake were in favour of the Americans and Yeo concentrated on getting a sloop, HMS Wolfe, completed and some smaller vessels refitted as warships. The major threat was however the intelligence that the Americans were building a similarly-sized sloop, the General Pike, at Sacket’s Harbor. Pre-emption of this was possibly a major factor in the British decision to mount an amphibious assault. Had Yeo been in sole command – and indeed had he stronger forces – this might have been successful. In this era of intense inter-service rivalries (a situation that sometimes seems to occur even today!) it was however inconceivable that overall command would not be taken by the senior army officer present, Lieutenant Sir George Prévost,, who also happened to be Governor General of Canada.

Contemporary view of British ships off Sacket's Harbor
The second battle of Sacket’s Harbor, on May 28th and 29th 1813, resulted in a second repulse, despite the British force arriving there when much of the American naval force was at the other end of the lake. Yeo’s larger, deep- draught, vessels could not come close inshore to provide covering fire and the shallower gunboats that could were armed only with carronades, weapons only effective at very short range. Only the 16-gun brig Beresford, could be taken close enough inshore – by use of sweeps – to deliver the necessary bombardment capability. This was enough to disable one of the American gun emplacements and rounds from Beresford also fell in the dockyard where the General Pike was under construction. Believing a British victory imminent, American orders were given to burn the General Pike and large quantities of stores. Despite this limited success the landing itself did not go well – Yeo, characteristically, had gone ashore with the assault force – and it was beaten back. The blame of the failure was largely attributed to Prévost, the army commander, who failed to push what advantages he had.

The following year, 1814, was dominated by a building race between the British and Americans. Yeo pulled ahead in this contest and with two frigates now at his disposal, each more powerful than the brigs and sloops that constituted the American force, he was able to blockade Sacket’s Harbor. He was simultaneously building a 112-gun First Rate ship-of-the line, the HMS St. Lawrence. When this was completed at the year’s end Yeo now had effective command of the lake, and he had two more similar ships also under construction. The Americans were not idle and also had two equally large warships on the stocks. Neither was completed. Had this unnecessary war not ended in 1815, a major naval battle might have been fought between line-of-battle ships on Lake Ontario.
The never-completed American line-of-battle ship USS New Orleans.
Laid down at Sacket's Harbor in 1814, she was not broken up until 1883
Yeo’s subsequent career was short and tragic. He was awarded important commands on both the West African and West Indian stations – both notoriously unhealthy, and he was to die in 1818. Had he lived he wold almost certainly have reached the highest ranks in the Royal Navy. This daring, handsome, capable man had however packed more into his 35 years than many other officers achieved in an entire lifetime.

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, 6 September 2016

Lafayette at Sea 1824

Lafayette as a dashing young general
(Portrait by Joseph-Désiré Court)
Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757 –1834) is remembered chiefly today, especially in the United States, as one of the heroes of the American Revolution. The popular image is of the dashing young French general who became an all but surrogate son to George Washington but this was at the very outset of his remarkable career. He was to be one of those rare long-lived people who came to maturity in a world that was shortly to disappear forever and was to participate in – and barely survive – vast revolutionary turmoil thereafter, who was to spend seven years in an Austrian prison and who was to remain politically influential into his old age.

In the post-Waterloo period, in which the Bourbon monarchy had again been restored to France, Lafayette, out of sympathy with the regime, took no role in government.  By the early 1820s he was the last surviving general of the War of Independence and his reputation was probably higher in the United States than in France itself. The heroes of the period were dying off, even as the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence was approaching – though John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were to survive to die simultaneously on the exact date, 4th July 1826. The time was never more appropriate for Lafayette to revisit the United States. He declined an offer of transport on a ship of the US Navy and instead took passage on a merchantman, the Cadmus.

I recently found an account by an un-named British army-officer of his strange meeting with Lafayette in mid-Atlantic. It appeared in a book tantalising entitled Thrilling Narratives of Mutiny, Murder And Piracy, published in New York at an unspecified date in the 19th Century, and it offers a pleasing insight to Lafayette’s character. I quote in full below:

The mature Lafayette, 1825
(Portrait by Matthew Harris Jouett)
“In June, 1824, I embarked at Liverpool on board the Vibelia transport with the head-quarters of my regiment, which was proceeding to Halifax, Nova Scotia. Our passage across the Atlantic was smooth, though long and tedious. After passing over the great bank of Newfoundland, catching large quantities of codfish and halibut, and encountering the usual fogs, we were one morning, about the end of July, completely becalmed. All who have performed a voyage, know the feeling of listlessness to which a landsman abandons himself during a calm. The morning was slowly passed in looking for appearances of a breeze—whistling for a wind, and the other idle pursuits usual on such occasions. Towards noon, a sailor from aloft pointed out to our observation a vessel at a distance, also, of course, becalmed. All eyes and glasses were immediately directed towards her, but she was too far off for the most experienced to determine whether she was English or foreign, man-of-war or merchantman. After a time it occurred to me, that it was a favourable opportunity for breaking in upon the monotony of the day. My influence with our captain obtained permission for the small cutter to be lowered, but he would not allow a single seaman to leave the ship. I therefore became coxswain of the boat, and, accompanied by four of my brother officers as rowers, we pushed off, determined to pay a visit to the strange sail. To our landsmen’s eyes and judgment, she had appeared to be about four miles from us, but we found ourselves very much out in our calculation — it was more than double that distance. The rowers, however, pulled on bravely — we neared the stranger, making her out to be a large American merchantman, and as he was approached, we observed a number of persons on deck reconnoitring us through glasses. 

At length we were alongside, and I passed on board, followed by three of my companions, one remaining in charge of the boat. On reaching the deck, we found it crowded with men, who seemed to regard us with wondering looks. I stepped forward and was received by the Captain, who acquainted me that his vessel was the American ship Cadmus, on her passage from Havre-de-grace to New York, with General the Marquis de Lafayette and suite as passengers. A noble, venerable looking veteran advanced from the poop towards us, and offered his greetings with the courtesy of the old French school. He was Lafayette. My explanation of who we were, and the motive of our visit, appeared to excite his surprise. That five officers of the land service, unaccompanied by a single sailor, should leave their vessel on the open ocean, and from mere curiosity, visit a strange sail at such a distance, was, he declared, most extraordinary. He said they had observed our ship early in the morning—had been occupied (like ourselves) in vain endeavours to make us out—had remarked an object, a mere speck upon the sea, leave the vessel and move towards them, and when at length it was made out to be a boat, the probable cause of such a circumstance had given rise to many surmises. I told him in mitigation of what he deemed our rashness, that we were, as a nation, so essentially maritime, that every man in England was more or less a sailor. At all events, I ventured to add if we had encountered some little risk, we had been amply repaid in seeing a man so celebrated, and of whom we had all heard and read. 

Our comrade being relieved by an American sailor in the care of the boat, we accepted the General’s offer of refreshment, proceeded to the cabin, and passed a most agreeable hour. The fast approach of evening and appearances of a breeze springing up induced us to take leave. We separated from the old chief, not as the acquaintance of an hour, but with all the warmth—the grasp and pressure of hand—of old friends. As I parted from him at the gangway, he mentioned having caused a case of claret to be lowered into our boat, which he begged us to present to our Colonel and the other officers of our mess. We pulled cheerily back, but it was not until long after dark that we reached the Vibelia, and which we perhaps could not have accomplished, but for their having exhibited blue lights every few minutes to point out her position. We found our comrades had been in great alarm for our safety. Various had been the surmises. That we had boarded a pirate, and been sacrificed, or made prisoners, was most prevalent, and a breeze was anxiously prayed for, that they might bear down, and release or revenge us. Half an hour after we returned to our ship, a light wind sprang up, which very shortly freshened into a gale, so that in the morning we had completely lost sight of the Cadmus."

Souvenir plate commemorating Lafayette's arrival
at The Battery, New York, 1824
Lafayette’s subsequent tour of the United States, starting with his reception by vast enthusiastic crowds in New York, was to last 13 months. It took him all over the United States as it then was – essentially all east of the Mississippi and the endless round of parades, speeches, civic receptions and visits to battlefields he had fought on must have been exhausting. It was ironic that, having survived death in battle or by the guillotine, he was to have a narrow escape in peacetime when the steamboat carrying him up the Ohio River sank and he had to escape in a lifeboat. He was prevailed upon to accept passage home in an American warship – the aptly named USS Brandywine, called after the battle in Pennsylvania in which he had been wounded in 1777.

The USS Brandywine, the warship in which Lafayette returned to France in 1825
Though 68 when he returned to France, Lafayette was to play a significant political role in his final years. He was an outspoken critic of the Bourbon monarchy in the lead-up to the Revolution of 1830 and a strong advocate of American-type representative government. He played a leading role in this new revolution but shied away from establishing a republic, supporting instead a constitutional monarchy with the duc d'Orleans, as “The Citizen King”, Louis Philippe. Lafayette went into retirement thereafter and grew increasingly disillusioned with the regime he had helped set up. He died in 1834, the last senior military leader of America’s War of Independence. Even today, as it was at the time of his death, he is probably better known in the United States than in his native land.

Britannia’s Shark by Antoine Vanner

1881 and the power of the British Empire seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten the economic basis of that power. Their weapon is the invention of a naïve genius, their sense of grievance is implacable and their leader is already proven in the crucible of war. Protected by powerful political and business interests, conventional British military or naval power cannot touch them. A daring act of piracy draws the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, and his wife into this deadly maelstrom. Amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny success – and survival –will demand making some very strange alliances...

 Britannia’s Shark brings historic naval fiction into the dawn of the Submarine Age.

Friday, 26 August 2016

The Wreck of the Rothsay Castle 1831

A number of articles on this blog site have dealt with 19th Century shipping disasters. There is a horrible fascination about them, since they illustrate how the management of civilian shipping was often so lackadaisical and how command, control and management techniques did not keep pace with newly introduced steam-technology. It is remarkable that through the century the Royal Navy, a strictly disciplined organisation which consisted at any one time of hundreds of ships, lost far fewer vessels on a proportional basis than the merchant and fishing fleets. Major disasters which took hundreds of lives were relatively commonplace – the death toll being too often increased by absence of the most basic safety provisions such as life boat provisions – and huge numbers of small trading or fishing craft were lost annually, often without trace.

Mona's Isle of 1830 - paddle steamer on Liverpool - Isle of Man packet service
Rothsay Castle would have looked generally similar and in August 1831
was to encounter weather like that shown here
A disaster in 1831, in the infancy of steam-propulsion at sea, illustrates many of these shortcomings. It evoked horror and outrage at the time, and yet the obvious lessons to be drawn from it were not learned and not implemented for decades to come. The paddle-steamer Rothsay Castle, built in 1816, was one of the earliest steamers to venture regularly into the open sea, though her initial service had been on the sheltered waters of Scotland’s River Clyde. Thereafter she was to operate out of Liverpool and along the coast of North Wales as an excursion vessel. She had an impressively unspectacular career for fifteen years and might indeed have been seen as proof of the suitability of steam power to open sea service. Ninety-three feet long, and of a mere seventy-five tons burthen, she seems nevertheless to have routinely carried well over a hundred passengers on such holiday excursions – which must have seemed the same type of novelty in the 1820s and early 1830s as mass air-travel did in the 1950s.

A Victorian account of the disaster that overcame the Rothsay Castle is full of fascinating incidental detail, and the following draws upon it. On 7th August, 1831 she left Liverpool in mid-morning with a crew of fifteen officers, seamen and musicians, the latter to provide a festive atmosphere. The fact that the number of passengers was uncertain – estimates varied from 110 to 120 – attests to the fact that no real control existed as to loading. Given the size of the vessel the conditions must have been cramped in the extreme. The Victorian author noted sombrely that the majority of the passengers consisted of holiday and family parties, en route to Beaumaris in North Wales and “chiefly from country places”. He noted with solemn exactitude that “in one of these companies, who came on a journey of pleasure from Bury, the hand of death committed a merciless devastation. It consisted of twenty-six persons; in the morning, joyous with health and hilarity, they set out upon the waves, and when the shades of that evening approached, every soul but two saw his last of suns go down.”

The horror and terror of shipwreck
as envisaged by Gustave Courbet (1819-1877)
Given the loading of the vessel it is surprising that she ever set sail. A severe storm had raged earlier, and a strong wind was still blowing from the north-west leaving the waters outside the harbour rough. By the time the steamer arrived off the “Floating-Light” buoy, some fifteen miles from Liverpool, many of the passengers were in a state of alarm – and one imagines that sea-sickness must have added to the misery, given that many of them were unlikely to have been at sea before.. One of the survivors stated he had confronted the captain, named Atkinson, who was eating his dinner and requested him to put back to port. Atkinson replied that “I think there is a great deal of fear on board, and very little danger. If we were to turn back with passengers, it would never do—we should have no profit.” To another passenger he said angrily that “I’m not one of those that turn back.” He remained in his cabin for the next two hours and refused further entreaties to turn back.

Atkinson’s behaviour before dinner appears to have been rational but it changed thereafter, possibly through drinking. He became violent in his manner, and abusive to his crew. When anxiously questioned by the passengers as to the vessel’s progress and the time at which she was likely to reach her destination, he returned dismissive and frequently contradictory answers. He had been previously confident of reaching Beaumaris by seven o’clock but it was midnight before reaching the mouth of the Menai Strait, about five miles from Beaumaris. The tide, which had been running out of the strait, and which had consequently been slowing the Rothsay Castle’s progress, was now turning. As she entered the strait the engine lost power – it appeared that the ship had been taking on water all day and that the bilge pumps were now choked and incapable of coping with the ingress. Water was now sloshing over the coal in the furnace and extinguishing the fires – an occurrence which the engine-room staff did not seem to have though necessary to inform the captain of initially. With power lost, the vessel was being carried by the tide and by the north-west wind towards a shoal known as the “Dutchman’s Bank”. Here the bows ran on to the sand and stuck fast.

Captain Atkinson attempted to use his sails – like all steamers of the time the Rothsay Castle carried  a sailing rig – to get free, though without effect. He then ordered the passengers and crew to run aft – so as to sink the stern slightly and so lift the bows, but this was equally unavailing. The terrified passengers urged Atkinson to hoist lights and distress signals but he vehemently refused to do There was no danger, he claimed, despite the fact that the ship was rapidly filling with water. The weather, “at this awful moment, was boisterous, but perfectly clear. The moon, though slightly overcast, threw considerable light on the surrounding objects. But a strong breeze blew from the north-west, the tide began to set in with great strength, and a heavy sea beat over the bank on which the steam packet was now firmly and immovably fixed.”

The Victorian chronicler left little to the imagination and milked the drama for all its pathos: “We cannot describe the scene which followed. Certain death seemed now to present itself to all on board, and the most affecting scenes were exhibited. The females, in particular, uttered the most piercing shrieks; some locked themselves in each others’ arms, while others, losing all self-command, tore off their caps and bonnets, in the wildness of despair. A Liverpool pilot, who happened to be in the packet, now raised his voice and exclaimed, “It is all over—we are all lost!” At these words there was a universal despairing shriek. The women and children collected in a knot together, and kept embracing each other, keeping up, all the time, the most dismal lamentations. When tired with crying they lay against each other, with their heads reclined, like inanimate bodies. The steward of the vessel and his wife, who was on board, lashed themselves to the mast, determined to spend their last moments in each other’s arms. Several husbands and wives also met their fate locked in each other’s arms; whilst parents clung to their beloved children—several mothers it is said, having perished with their dear little ones firmly clasped in their arms. A party of the passengers, about fifteen or twenty, lowered the boat and crowded into it. It was impossible for any open boat to live in such a sea, even though not overloaded, and she immediately swamped and went to the bottom, with all who had made this last hopeless effort for self-preservation.”

Artist's impression of the final break-up 
The Rothsay Castle was now disintegrating under the pounding of the waves.  “The decks were repeatedly swept by the boiling ocean, and each billow snatched its victims to a watery grave. The unfortunate captain and his mate were among the first that perished. About thirty or forty passengers were standing upon the poop clinging to each other in hopeless agony, and occasionally uttering the most piteous ejaculations. Whilst trembling thus upon the brink of destruction, and expecting every moment to share the fate which had already overtaken so many of their companions in misery, the poop was discovered to give way; another wave rolled on with impetuous fury, and the hinder part of the luckless vessel, with all who sought safety in its frail support, was burst away from its shattered counterpart, and about forty wretched beings hurried through the foaming flood into an eternal world.”

The final break-up occurred some ninety minutes after the ship had first grounded. Hanging on to pieces of wreckage – eight people clung on to the rudder when it was torn free – the survivors now had to cope with the full fury of the waves. The bodies of the victims were washed up on the nearby coast in the coming days. There were only twenty-three survivors plus a dog. That the disaster had been avoidable evoked sufficient outrage that a lifeboat station was set up the following year, followed by a lighthouse five years later. But valuable as these measures were, the root cause of the disaster – the incompetence and wilful carelessness of the captain, and the inadequacy of the operating procedures – seems to have been little addressed. Countless further tragedies, many with significant larger loss of life, were to occur in the decades that followed – and for the same reasons.

Britannia’s Reach by Antoine Vanner

"Britannia’s Reach is not just political or military alone. What higher interest can there be than consolidation of Britain’s commercial interests?” So says one of the key figures in this novel, which details a murderous war launched by a British-owned company  to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers.

This story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the age of Fighting Steam.

Tuesday, 23 August 2016

The Capture of Fort Serapaquí — February 1848

A small and now-forgotten punitive expedition in 1848 showed just how effectively the Royal Navy could function as Britain’s 19th Century rapid-reaction force.

In the turmoil that followed ending of Spanish rule in Central America in the 1820s, what was later to emerge – in 1838 – as the independent Republic of Nicaragua was initially a province of the so-called Federal Republic of Central America. The young republic’s first decade, the 1840s, was to be marked by civil strife that bordered on near-anarchy. The country was however a backwater in these years – something which was to change after the discovery of gold in California in 1849. As the US Transcontinental Railroad had not been built, and would not be for another two decades, citizens in the eastern United States had only four options for joining the gold rush. The most obvious, and probably most hazardous, was to travel westwards overland. The alternatives were little more attractive – either passage by ship around Cape Horn or by taking ship to Panama, crossing the fever-ridden isthmus there (no railway or canal there yet) and taking further passage onward to San Francisco. The fourth alternative was to travel via Nicaragua, passing up the San Juan river from the east and into Lake Nicaragua, and making the short – 15 mile – overland journey to the Pacific from there and taking ship to San Francisco. Control of this route, and involvement of United States interests, most notably those of the shipping magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt, were to dominate Nicaraguan politics through the 1850s and to make the country the focus of attempts at outside control.

A later, promotional, view of the proposed Nicaragua canal (at left)
which would have linked Lake Nicaragua to the Pacific.
Note the San Juan River to the right and the Serapaqui entering it from the south
All this was still however in the future in 1848 and Nicaraguan conflicts were still dominated by internal strife. The situation changed however when two British traders, operating along the San Juan river, were subjected to “outrages and insults” by a local warlord, a Colonel Salas, of the Nicaraguan army. This was the age when any affront to British dignity was to be followed by swift retaliation, and so it was to be in this case. 

Francis Austen in 1796
The nearest British consul contacted the Commander-in-chief on the North America and West India station — Admiral Francis Austen (1774-1865), brother of the novelist Jane Austen – and requested appropriate support. Austen’s attention was already focussed on Central America as he was responsible for protecting British commercial interests during and after the Mexican–American War, which had broken out in 1846.

Austen accordingly despatched two vessels, the 6th-rate HMS Alarm and the steam paddle-sloop HMS Vixen, to the mouth of the San Juan in mid-February. Their quarry, Colonel Salas, was reported to be some thirty miles upriver at the settlement of Serapaquí, where he was ensconced with a considerable body of troops in a makeshift fort. This was located where the Serapaquí river joined the San Juan from the south and on a point projecting into the water and rising to the height of fifty feet. The approach upriver to the fort was a straight reach about a mile and a half long, with thick forest on either bank, ideal cover for concealing enemy defenders.  

Paddle-loop HMS Acheron - generally similar to HMS Vixen
The fort’s location was protected in the rear by dense forest, and in the front by an abattis, a form of defence that consisted of large trees felled so that their upper branches extended towards any attacking force. The defensive positions were formidable, composed of six angular stockaded-entrenchments formed of very tough timber, eight feet high and four feet thick, one side of each stockade looking across the river, and the other down the reach. The principal stockade commanded the only landing-place. Reaching this landing place necessitated passing the fort – while coping with a five-knot adverse current – and being subject in the meantime to fire from above.
Though Alarm and Vixen were heavily armed for their size, and probably well capable of destroying the fort if they could reach it, the shallowness and rapids of the San Juan river prevented their deployment. The only alternative was to send an attacking party of seamen and marines upriver in the ships’ boats and to storm the defences without any heavy covering fire. A force of some 260 men from both vessels, and accommodated in twelve boats, set out accordingly under the command of Captain Granville Loch of the Alarm.

A settlement on the San Juan
It took three days to cover the thirty miles upriver, the rapid current, shoals and rapids making progress difficult and exhausting in the extreme. By the morning of 12th February the fort was in sight and Captain Loch went on ahead of the main to communicate with Colonel Salas, and to negotiate a settlement. No sooner, however, was Loch seen from the fort than his craft was fired at by two guns, and directly afterwards by musketry from both sides of the river. As this act effectually prevented any peaceable arrangements, Loch immediately ordered his other boats to move upriver and land his force to storm the fort. Moving very slowly – under oars – against the fierce current, the boats and their occupants were subjected to musket fire from the forest on either side. The thickness of the vegetation made it impossible to see the enemy and to return fire.

During this slow crawl several men were wounded and two killed. The boats were also almost riddled with shot, and nearly half the oars were broken – it seems surprising, considering also their crowded state, with the mill-stream rate of the current, that a greater number of casualties did not occur. This can only have been a reflection on the competence and marksmanship of the Nicaraguan troops. This last stage of the approach lasted one hour and forty minutes and at times the boats were almost stationary against the current.

The Cutlass - the Royal Navy's fearsome close-range weapon
The landing point was at last reached and Captain Loch gave the order to land, leading the way himself. The boats’ crews followed and charged upwards. Their sheer determination seems to have intimidated the enemy – fighting was all but hand-to-hand and cutlasses and pistols proved devastating, as so often, in the hands of well-trained and well-disciplined men. The Nicaraguans withstood the assault for some ten minutes but they then broke and fled. Loch’s force pursued them into the forest for some thirty minutes before being recalled. Colonel Salas appears to have disappeared with his men. With a counter-attack unlikely, attention was now focussed on destroying the stockades. Their guns were spiked, their trunnions broken and thrown in the river with the Nicaraguan garrison’s abandoned muskets and ammunition. The force was next embarked, when the whole of the defences were set on fire. Whatever could be burned was set alight. Loch’s force then dropped back downriver.
British honour had been avenged, British power asserted.

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: