The story of war against maritime trade in the Age of Fighting Sail is usually told, whether in fact or in fiction, from the viewpoint of the naval commerce-raider intent on prize-money. One finds few accounts which view these contests from the side of the victims. I was therefore fascinated by stumbling recently on an account of a furious battle between a civilian trader – armed, as was essential at the time – and a French privateer in 1744, during the War of Austrian Succession.
|A trading brig by Joseph Walter,1838 - the Isabella may have looked generally similar.|
The Wrightson and Isabella of Sunderland was a merchant ship engaged in trade across the North Sea and commanded by a Captain Richard Avery Hornsby (1699-1751). No details are available of this vessel but given the fact that she was manned by only five men and three boys, besides Hornsby, and that she mounted four carriage guns – which could only have been small ones – and two swivels, she cannot have been of large size, perhaps brig-rigged. On 13th June 1744 Hornsby arrived off the Dutch coast at Scheveningen, the coastal suburb of The Hague, in company with three smaller vessels with which he had sailed in convoy from Norfolk. The Isabella (it’s easier to refer to her as such) was laden with malt and barley. At this period there was no harbour at Scheveningen – one would not be constructed until 1904 – and trading vessels had to lie offshore and transfer cargoes ashore in smaller boats. Fishing boats were drawn up on to the beach (a subject for many painters, including Vincent van Gogh, for many years).
|Fishing boats on the beach at Scheveningen, 1882 - by Vincent van Gogh|
|View of Scheveningen 1871 by Johannes Joseph Destree|
Note the vessels clustered offshore - among such a grouping the Brancas would have lurked
This part of the action lasted – amazingly – for upwards of an hour but at two in the afternoon the privateer ran her bowsprit into the main shrouds on Isabella’s port side and held there. Captain André again demanded that Hornsby strike, and was one again rejected. Some twenty French now crossed only to be driven back by a hail of blunderbusses fire. The Brancas now broke free and attacked the Isabella on her starboard side. A new boarding attempt was made – this must have been a nightmare conflict, conducted as it was with hatchets and pole-axes as well as small arms. The two ships were by now lashed together and Hornsby’s men, concentrated at the Isabella’s stern, were somehow holding back the attackers, fresh men crossing from the Brancas to replace dead and wounded boarders. These attackers had taken shelter behind (or rather ahead of) the mainmast when Hornsby fired on them again with his blunderbuss. He had not realised that in the heat of the moment it had been doubly loaded and, as he fired, the weapon burst, throwing him down bruised but still defiant. Boarding proving too costly, Captain André now pulled his men back on board the Brancas and broke away, apparently determined on destruction – and revenge – rather than on capture of a prize.
|A Royal Navy brigantine of the18th Century - the Brancas might have looked generally similar|
|Boarding - the close-quarters horror of the Age of Fighting Sail|
|A man-of-war exploding - by the Russian painter Ivan Aivazovsky|
The Brancas's detonation would have been smaller, but no less deadly
The courage of Hornsby and his crew were deservedly recognised. Three months later, at Kensington Palace, King George II presented him with a gold medal and chain worth £100 while each of his crew members – who seem all to have survived – were awarded £5 each, though with only £2 for the boys. It is sad to note however that Hornsby lived only another seven years and died at sea “of a lingering illness”.
He and his men deserve to be remembered.
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 centres on the efforts of a British-owned company to reassert control of its cattle-raising investment in Paraguay, following a revolt by its workers. The story of desperate riverine combat brings historic naval fiction into the age of Fighting Steam. Click on the image below for more details.