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:

Tuesday, 9 August 2016

First Blood 1914: Amphion and Königin Luise

On 4th August 1914 Germany rejected the British ultimatum to withdraw from neutral Belgium, which had been invaded in the preceding days. From 2300 hrs that evening both countries were at war.  Britain’s Royal Navy was already on a war footing and sweeps of the North Sea were already underway. The Imperial German Navy was not idle either and action was immediately undertaken to sow mines in British waters. The success of mining in the 1904-05 Russo-Japanese War had demonstrated the effectiveness of such measures.
 Königin Luise - she was to have a very brief life in naval service
One is however surprised that dedicated minelayers had not already been constructed and commissioned by Germany. A hasty conversion was however undertaken of the 2000 ton, 20-knot Königin Luise of the Hamburg-Amerika company, an excursion vessel which had been in service for just one year carrying tourists between Hamburg and the island of Heligoland. Though plans were apparently in place to arm the Königin Luise with two 3.5-inch guns there was no time for this as she was impressed for service on 3rd August and rushed into service in her new role. By the time of declaration of war on 4th August, she was rushing towards the Thames estuary with 180 mines on board.
Königin Luise in pre-war excursion service
Unknown to the Königin Luise, her course was heading her towards a patrol of the Royal Navy’s newly created Harwich Force, entrusted with patrolling the Southern North Sea and protecting trade-routes between Britain and the Netherlands. The patrol consisted of four L-Class destroyers, led by the scout cruiser HMS Amphion. Commissioned in 1913, the 3340-ton Amphion was 405 feet long and her 18000 HP drove her at a maximum of 25 knots of four shafts. Designed primarily as a leader for destroyer flotillas, she carried negligible armour and her armament of ten singly-mounted  4-inch guns – supplemented by two submerged 18-inch (450 mm) torpedo tubes – must have made fire control difficult in the extreme.
HMS Amphion
At 0900 hrs on 5th August Amphion’s group encountered a trawler which reported seeing a suspicious steamer "throwing things overboard". The skipper described her position as nearly as he could and Amphion headed towards it, subsequently sighting what proved to be Königin Luise, still in buff, black and yellow peacetime commercial colours. The German vessel turned and ran for home and a 30-mile chase followed before one of the British destroyers, HMS Lance, could open fire at 4400 yards with her 4-inch guns. Her first shot was the first British shot of World War I and the responsible weapon from Lance is on now display at London’s Imperial War Museum. Amphion now entered the fray and her fire doomed the Königin Luise. With her stern badly damaged she began to sink, going down around noon. Every attempt was made by the British vessels to rescue 75 German survivors from the water out of a total crew of some 100.
A contemporary magazine's impression of the chase, as seen from the British destroyers
Amphion and her destroyers now continued on their assigned task to sweep the waters north of the Dutch Friesan Islands, reaching there at 2100 hrs – dusk in this area. No further German forces were encountered and Captain Cecil H. Fox of Amphion was now faced with the dilemma of what course to set for Harwich, having only minimal information as to the exact location in which Königin Luise had laid her mines. His decision to steer through an area some seven miles west of where he thought the mines were brought his force directly into the danger area. At 0635 hrs on 6th August Amphion struck a mine. Detonating beneath the bridge, the effect was catastrophic, breaking the cruiser’s back and setting her forward section on fire.
A German view of the sinking of HMS Amphion - with the Koenigin Luise escaping on the right.
In actuality the latter had been sunk some eighteen hours previously.
The destroyer HMS Linnet tried to take Amphion in tow but by now she was hogging so badly, and threatening to break in two, that there was no option but to abandon her. The forward magazine now exploded, rupturing the hull and throwing one entire 4-in gun mounting past the Linnet. A shell hurled by the explosion landed on the destroyer Lark, killing two of her crew and the single German prisoner whom they had earlier plucked from the water. Amphion sank soon after – with a loss of 132 of her crew and an unspecified number of German prisoners. One of the survivors was her first-lieutenant, John Tovey, who in World War 2 was to be Commander-in-Chief of the Royal Navy’s Home Fleet and the mastermind of the destruction of the Bismarck. His subsequent responsibility – a most appropriate one in view of his experience on Amphion – was for controlling the east coast convoys and organising minesweeping operations.

By midday on August 6th 1914, some forty-eight hours of declaration of war, bodies and wreckage strewed the North Sea and both Britain and Germany had drawn first blood in the murderous conflict that was to follow.

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, 29 July 2016

Naval Hero Sir James Lucas Yeo – Part 2

A recent 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 novel. At the end of that first article (Click here to read it) we left him in 1805, just appointed to command of a French privateer that he had been involved in capturing and which had been commissioned into the Royal Navy as HMS Confiance. This 22-gun, 490-ton corvette was initially classified in British service as a sloop and reclassified as a “sixth rate” in 1807, the same year in which Yeo achieved coveted post-captain rank. Already identified as an intrepid commander who led from the front, Yeo was to get an opportunity to demonstrate his ability to manage an amphibious force when he was assigned to complex operations off the coast of South America.

By late 1808 French garrisons and harbours in overseas colonies were largely cut off from the homeland, but still represented threats to British interests as support-bases for naval units and privateers which could escape the blockade of the European coasts. The main British focus for elimination of such bases was on the Caribbean but a smaller force was allocated to conquest of Cayenne – later known as French Guiana – on the north-west coast of South America. This operation was entrusted to Yeo. By this stage of the Napoleonic Wars Portugal was also at war with the French, and following invasion by them the Portuguese government had relocated to its vast colony of Brazil. Portuguese forces were accordingly allocated to Yeo to support British forces.

Location of Cayenne - map from 1760s
Note position of island and flanking rivers
What would now be described as Yeo’s task-force consisted of the Conficance, supported by two armed Portuguese brigs, Voador (24 guns) and Vingança (18 guns), and two unarmed vessels brigs, acting as transports for some 550 Portuguese regular troops. Seaman and marines from all vessels were also available for land operations and, as he had demonstrated in 1805, Yeo had experience of assaulting coastal fortifications. His objective was Cayenne, the town that gave its name to the French colony and was its administrative centre. Situated on an island between the estuaries of the Cayenne and Mahury Rivers, it was dominated by a masonry star fort (see illustration) and the approaches to it were covered by several smaller forts and gun batteries. Yeo’s first concern was to clear the approaches, concentrating on the positions along the Mahury River.

Plan view of main "star-fort" at Cayenne
Yeo began operations by landing a force in the early hours of the night of 7th January 1809 despite heavy rain – which was to continue as a complicating factor through the subsequent fighting – and loss of boats in heavy surf, luckily without loss of life. A Portuguese force was allocated to capture of one French fortification, and Yeo’s seamen and marines to another. Surprise paid off and both positions were carried with minimal losses. They were now garrisoned with British and Portuguese personnel. Two further forts were now detected – the fact that they seem to have been unknown previously reminds one how difficult reconnaissance was in the days before availability of aircraft –  and Yeo brought the shallower draught Portuguese vessels inshore to provide covering fire while he launched land assaults – characteristically leading from the front. The attacks were successful and both positions were occupied.

Victor Huges (1762 - 1826 )
The French governor, Victor Hugues (a major player in the French colonies in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic periods), now sallied from Cayenne with the small forces available to him to attack the captured fortifications but was repulsed.  Yeo pushed his forces forward towards a defensive position close to Hugues’ own residence and a British party sent under a flag of truce to negotiate a surrender was fired upon. This may have been a diversion to assist an ambush of Yeo’s other forces. Sword in hand, Yeo drove these attackers back to Hugues’ house and captured it in hand-to-hand fighting. This was decisive as it was now obvious that there were insufficient French forces to withstand the invasion. Cayenne itself, garrisoned by some 400 troops, surrendered without a fight on 10th January and the remaining French positions surrendered in the following days.

French frigate Clorinde - generally similar to Topaze
Successful as it was, Yeo’s task-force had only one reasonably powerful vessel, the Confiance herself. On station off Cayenne while the operations continued onshore, her crew had been depleted by allocation of seaman and marines to the land attack – there were now only two midshipmen and twenty-five sailors on board. It was therefore of concern when on 13th January a 40-gun French frigate was seen approaching. This was the 40-gun Topaze, well capable of swift destruction of Confiance, and with her the Portuguese vessels. The Topaze had been despatched from France to reinforce the Cayenne garrison and she carried both troops and supplies. Were she to press the advantage of her superior armament the tables could easily be turned on Yeo.

In this situation the hero of the hour turned out to be Yeo’s younger brother George, one of the two midshipmen. With Confiance’s depleted crew – which he supplemented by some twenty local volunteers, all free black men – he relied on bluff as his only hope. He took Confiance directly towards the Topaze, with every display of intention to engage. He was not however aware the Topaze’s captain had instructions to avoid combat if the troops and supplies she carried were at risk. The outcome was that Topaze turned tail and ran, heading for the French-held Caribbean island of Guadoloupe. She never reached it – she was detected close to it by British forces and was captured by HMS Cleopatra. Taken into British service, she was to be named initially as Jewel and later as Alcmene.

Yeo’s victory at Cayenne had been comprehensive. With small forces and few casualties – for the British a lieutenant killed and twenty-three men wounded, and for the Portuguese one killed and eight wounded – the entire French colony fell under Anglo-Portuguese control. 400 regular French  troops were captured and some 800 local militia and irregulars were disarmed before being allowed to return to their homes. Some 200 cannon were captured as well as other military supplies. For its time, Yeo’s operation had been a text-book example of planning and executing an effective amphibious operation. It earned him well-deserved knighthoods from both Britain and Portugal – he was still only 27 years old – as well as a personal gift of a diamond ring by the Portuguese Prince Regent. His health had suffered in the campaign however – not surprisingly, as he was not a man to spare himself – and he required a period of recuperation before assuming his next command, the frigate HMS Southampton.

And that’s where we’ll leave him for now. We’ll return in a later blog to tell of Yeo’s subsequent – and even more challenging – career.

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 event is described in detail in the opening of Britannia's Spartan.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

Guest Blog by Catherine Curzon: “The Sailor King”

Followers of my blog will have noted that my list of links to other blogs includes A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life a vastly entertaining blog that addresses all aspects (but especially outrageous ones!) of 18th Century life. Catherine Curzon, alias Madame Gilflurt, has been kind enough to write a guest blog for me on the life of Britains King William IV (1765 1837) who became known as The Sailor King.

Over to Madame for more

William IV A Stormy Voyage to the Throne

William IV in dress uniform by Sir Martin Archer Shee
The end of the Georgian era is a point that has come in for some debate and, as I found when researching Life in the Georgian Court, William IV is not a man who is often included in the notorious list of the Georgian monarchs. William was not a farmer like his father, nor a Prinny, like his brother but instead the Sailor King, a committed naval man and the heirless monarch who came to the throne when he was already well into his sixties, paving the way for the Victorian era that was to follow.

When William gave his first newborn cries at Buckingham House, his status as third son to George III and Queen Charlotte meant it was unlikely that he would ever inherit the throne. Rather than submit to the painstaking preparation to rule that his brother faced, Williams life was set to be a nautical one. Under the guidance of his tutors, Major-General Budé and Dr James Majendie, he grew up fast until, at the age of thirteen, William joined the Royal Navy. It was the best decision for all, the king decided, keeping his son safely away from the potentially thorny influence of his brother, George.

Accompanied by a tutor, William went to sea as a midshipman aboard the Prince George and, in 1780, he even went to war serving at the First Battle of Cape St Vincent in 1780. He was a keen member of the crew yet his fame was about to get the better of him. It was in New York during the American War of Independence that William dodged a kidnap attempt sanctioned by George Washington himself. Though he was unharmed, this marked the end of the young mans unrestricted gadding about.
The moonlight Battle of Cape St Vincent, 1780 by Francis Holman (17291784)
Williams rise through the ranks took a hiatus when he spent a couple of years in Hanover and found his first romantic fancy but in 1785 he was once more at sea, this time as Lieutenant. Just twelve months later, he was captain of his own vessel. By the age of nineteen, the ambitious young sailor was captain of HMS Pegasus and came to the attention of Nelson, who was soon a devoted admirer; indeed, William gave the bride away and was a witness when Nelson married Frances Nisbet in 1787.
HMS Pegasus - seen at St. John's, Newfoundland, in a  contemporary sketch 
Capriciousness was not the sole preserve of George, Prince of Wales, and William, though apparently a charming and fun sort of chap when the mood took him, was not a man who liked to be questioned. This meant that relationships with his crew were occasionally just a little fractious, though he had no such problems when it came to charming the girls.

In 1789, Williams star had grown even higher and he was appointed Rear-Admiral and placed in command of HMS Valiant. However, though his professional star was in the ascendancy,
at home William was not satisfied with the way things were going. Whilst his brothers had been made into dukes, no similar honour appeared to be coming his way and his father, in fact, seemed downright reluctant.
William as Lord High Admiral 1828

Finally, William decided to force the kings hand and declared that he was thinking about standing as the parliamentary candidate for Totnes in Devon. As he had known it would, the threat sent George III scrambling to meet his demands and he accordingly named his son Duke of Clarence and St Andrews in 1789.

The following year, William resigned from active service, a decision he would always regret. He pined to be back at sea during the Napoleonic Wars, yet no call ever came. Following a speech in which he questioned the need for the conflict, he became convinced that this was the reason that he received no command and recanted, speaking out in favour of the war, but still no call came.

Promotions followed and eventually he rose to the rank of Lord High Admiral, yet even this couldnt match the thrill of a naval command. When he took to the waves with a fleet of ships in 1828 and no word as to their mission, Wellington demanded that he resign; William was happy to oblige. Two years later William inherited the throne as his two older brothers died without leaving living legitimate issue.

William died on 20th June 1837, just a week before the seventh anniversary of the beginning of his reign. With his death, Queen Victoria assumed the throne whilst in Hanover, where no woman could rule, the crown passed to his brother, Ernest Augustus, Duke of Cumberland.

No longer would the two thrones be linked.

An era had ended.
About the Author

Catherine Curzon is a royal historian and blogs on all matters 18th century at A Covent Garden Gilflurt's Guide to Life.

Her work has featured by publications including BBC History Extra, All About History, History of Royals, Explore History and Jane Austens Regency World. She has also provided additional material for the sell-out theatrical show, An Evening with Jane Austen, will she will introduce at the Royal Pavilion, Brighton, in September (tickets are available here).

Catherine holds a Masters degree in Film and when not dodging the furies of the guillotine, she lives in Yorkshire atop a ludicrously steep hill.

Her book, Life in the Georgian Court, is available now from Amazon UK, Amazon US, Book Depository and all good bookshops!

About Life in the Georgian Court

As the glittering Hanoverian court gives birth to the British Georgian era, a golden age of royalty dawns in Europe. Houses rise and fall, births, marriages and scandals change the course of history and in France, Revolution stalks the land.

Peep behind the shutters of the opulent court of the doomed Bourbons, the absolutist powerhouse of Romanov Russia and the epoch-defining family whose kings gave their name to the era, the House of Hanover.

Behind the pomp and ceremony were men and women born into worlds of immense privilege, yet beneath the powdered wigs and robes of state were real people living lives of romance, tragedy, intrigue and eccentricity. Take a journey into the private lives of very public figures and learn of arranged marriages that turned to love or hate and scandals that rocked polite society.

Here the former wife of a king spends three decades in lonely captivity, Prinny makes scandalous eyes at the toast of the London stage and Marie Antoinette begins her last, terrible journey through Paris as her son sits alone in a forgotten prison cell.

Life in the Georgian Court is a privileged peek into the glamorous, tragic and iconic courts of the Georgian world, where even a king could take nothing for granted.

Friday, 15 July 2016

Naval Hero Sir James Lucas Yeo – Part 1

When reading of action by the Royal Navy in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic War period one is struck not just by the commitment in carrying the fight into the enemy’s inshore waters – and even harbours – but by the almost insane gallantry that was so widespread among officers and enlisted men alike. Nowhere was this more apparent than in “cutting out” operations – captures of enemy shipping by boarding parties in small boats – and in assaults on coastal fortifications. Hazardous as such actions were, they represented craved-for opportunities for young officers to distinguish themselves and to earn advancement, while prize-money provided a welcome inducement for officers and men alike.

James Lucas Yeo - a dashing captain whom
 Jane Austen heroines would have swooned over!
One such example of a young officer who earned fast promotion, and whose career would probably have brought him to the most senior levels, had he not died young, was Sir James Lucas Yeo (1782 – 1818). He is best remembered today for his command of British naval forces on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812 but his rapid ascent to such a significant command started with a spectacular attack on coastal fortifications in 1805. Handsome and courageous, obviously a born leader, he seems like a figure who steps from the pages of a work of naval fiction.

Yeo joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 10. By 1805, having already seen significant action, this twenty-three year old was serving as First Lieutenant on the frigate HMS Loire. Her name betrayed her French origin – it was Royal Navy policy for ships captured from the enemy to retain their original names – and this 1350-ton, 150-ft frigate had been captured off the west coast of Ireland in 1798 in the aftermath of the Battle of Tory Island.
The Battle of Tory Island, 12th October 1796 by Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821) -
Loire escaped but was run down and captured six days later
In June 1805 – when Spain was still allied with France – the Loire was on patrol off the north-west coast of Spain. Information reached her that a 26-gun privateer was fitting out in Muros Bay, a deep inlet on this indented coast. Loire’s Captain Fredrick Lewis Maitland (1777-1839) had been in the bay on a previous occasion and – though his recollection was not perfect – believed it possible to either to capture or destroy the enemy vessel. The complication was however that the entrance to the bay was commanded by a shore battery and in any contest between a warship and shore-based artillery the ship was likely to come off worst. This insight was summarised in Nelson’s aphorism that “A ship’s a fool to fight a fort”. As a precursor therefore to Loire entering Muros Bay, Lieutenant Yeo was directed to take a landing party of fifty men – seamen and marines – to storm the battery.

Frederick Lewis Maitland (1815)
On the morning of 4th June the Loire stood in towards the bay, apparently to draw fire from the battery to provide a diversion to cover the landing party’s approach. In the elegant expression of the time, the Loire was described as having been “much annoyed” by fire from the battery, which proved to be armed with two guns only. Loire’s action proved effective enough for Yeo to get his force ashore under the battery. The arrival of this group proved enough for the troops manning the battery guns to abandon the position, leaving Yeo in possession. He immediately ordered spiking of the guns but also identified, about a quarter mile distant, and further into the bay, a “regular fort protected by a ditch and a gate", with its guns commanding the inner bay. The presence of this fortification had not previously been known – Captain Maitland’s recollection of his previous visit to the bay was indeed incomplete.

With the battery eliminated – but with Yeo and his men still ashore – Captain Maitland now brought the Loire further into the bay. He could now see that the privateer was a corvette – later to be identified as the Confiance – and also a large armed brig. He concluded that these vessels had not yet shipped their guns and were, accordingly, at his mercy. Only now however was he to become aware of the previously unseen fort. Loire was now subjected to what was descried as “well-directed” fire from shore, with virtually every shot striking her hull. Nothing daunted, Maitland dropped anchor in a position relative to the battery’s protective embrasures that made aiming of its guns at the ship virtually impossible. He then engaged the fort but the Loire’s fire alone could not be enough to neutralise it –  that would be dependent on Yeo, ashore, having the initiative to take appropriate action.

Yeo brought his force, apparently undetected, close to the fort’s landward side – activity in the fort itself being focussed on action with the Loire. He launched a charge at the outer gate, where a single soldier fired on them and then retreated within. The landing party stormed behind him and towards a second, inner gate, which also appears to have been open. Here a furious struggle commenced, with the Loire’s men opposed by the fort’s governor, Spanish troops and the crews of the French privateers. Yeo led from the front and killed the governor with a blow that broke his own sword in two. The defenders broke and retreated back into the fort, some being seen from the Loire as jumping down – twenty-five feet – from the embrasures. It was later stated that “such as laid down their arms received quarter, but the slaughter among those who resisted was very great”. After surrender however care does seem to have been taken of the wounded prisoners and indeed the local bishop and one of the community leaders afterwards went out to the Loire to express gratitude for this. Despite the heavy French and Spanish casualties. Loire lost no men, though Yeo and fifteen others were wounded – eleven on the ship as a consequence of fire from shore. (It should be borne in mind however that the classification “wounded” could be serious enough as to require amputation).
Loire (L), under command of Surcouf, capturing the East Indiaman Kent in 1800
With the fort neutralised, Captain Maitland now easily captured the Confiance and the brig – both of which proved to be as yet unarmed – as well as a Spanish merchantman. The brig was found to be not ready for sea, and was accordingly burned, but the Confiance was taken into Royal Navy service. She was a ship with an already notable history. Commissioned in 1799, this 490-ton corvette had served in the Indian Ocean under the renowned French privateer (and slaver) Robert Surcouf.  Confiance’s most notable action under his command was capture in 1800 of the East Indiaman Kent after a fierce battle. She had returned to Europe under Surcouf’s command but when found by Loire was fitting out for a new privateering voyage under another captain.

Command of what was now HMS Confiance was now awarded, deservedly, to Yeo who was promoted to commander – who would achieve coveted post-captain rank two years later. In Confiance he was to achieve notable further success in the South Atlantic and by the War of 1812 had built a reputation that earned him the important command on the Great Lakes.

And Captain Maitland? Napoleon Bonaparte was to surrender to him on board HMS Bellerophon in 1815, in the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo.

 James Lucas Yeo’s further career – and Confiance’s – will be the subject of a future blog. 

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. 

Tuesday, 12 July 2016

Guest Blog by Helen Hollick: Pirates, Night-Walkers and White Witches!

The Nautical Fiction genre has many different sub-genres within it and once of the most entertaining – and original – has been virtually created by one writer, my friend Helen Hollick. You may have encountered her previously as a guest in my blog and I’ve invited her back to mark the launch of her latest novel in a series she herself describes as “Nautical Adventure with a touch of Fantasy”. There’s a message in her blog also for aspiring writers – don’t be put off by refusals and hang in there doggedly! Though I operate at the other end of the Nautical Fiction spectrum (gritty and linked to real events) I can endorse her advice wholeheartedly.
                                                                                                        Antoine Vanner 

The Fascination of Fantasy

By Helen Hollick

I wrote the first Voyage of my Sea Witch series because I had enjoyed the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl. (Have to admit I didn’t think much of the others.) The movie was fun. It was not meant to be taken seriously – a sailor’s yarn of a tale.

I wanted to read something similar, a nautical adventure to be read with a large pinch of salt. Something written for fun, to be read for fun. I also wanted something with an adult content. I’m not talking erotica or OTT horror or violence, just an adult book for adult readers with a bit of realists adult content. I found plenty of young adult novels (Pirates! By Celia Rees as a good example). Plenty of ‘straight’ nautical fiction – and as much as I love C.S. Forrester and Patrick O’Brian they are somewhat lacking in the make-believe department, and even in the ‘romance’ side of things. (Not  exactly many women taking major roles in their books are there?)

So, simple solution. Write the book I wanted to read.
Sea Witch was the result, followed by Pirate Code, Bring It Close, Ripples In The Sand and now, released on 7th July 2016 the Fifth Voyage, On The Account.

Rather frustratingly, though, no publisher or agent wanted Sea Witch. They loved the story, but all said the same two things:

Adults do not read pirate novels.
It will not be easy to market a cross-genre novel.
(Heavy sigh from me.)

The first is utter nonsense. Adults adore pirates, whether it be movies, TV shows (look at the popularity of Black Sails) Re-enactments, pirate festivals – Talk Like A Pirate Day….

The second? Maybe a good point, but deciding to go Indie after these sort of comments I have had no problem whatsoever with marketing. Publishers like their novels to be square pegs in square holes – Indie authors can be any shape we like! I market the series as Nautical Adventure with a touch of Fantasy. They are a blend of P.O.B., Hornblower, Indiana Jones, James Bond and Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe.

The fantasy in my series I try to keep as believable as I can – there are no mermaids, but there is, spread through the series, a ghost, a Night-Walker and the spirit of the sea, Tethys. Plus my lead female protagonist, Tiola Oldstagh, the ‘love interest’ for my pirate, Captain Jesamiah Acorne. She is a white witch, a Wising Woman, the last of the Old Ones. I think of her powers as having more of ‘the Force’ as in Star Wars rather than the magic spells of Harry Potter.

As for Maha'dun the Night-Walker, who has a considerable part in this fifth Voyage, no he is not a vampire. Night creatures are not restricted to handsome guys (or gals) who wander about afraid of the sun baring very sharp fangs. Owls are night-dwellers. Bats are night dwellers, so are my Night-Walkers.

Alas I am not going to reveal what he is here, as that is to come in Voyage Six, Gallows Wake. But no, he does not have fangs and he does not drink blood. He was also great fun to write, especially as Jesamiah assumes that he is Tiola’s lover – that causes a stir between husband and wife I can tell you!

So why the interest in fantasy? Why not just stick to the straight nautical romps? Why do readers like dragons, elves, fairies, witches, wizards, vampires, mermaids… lah lah lah….?

Simple answer. Escapism.

We all like to believe that there is magic around us, in whatever shape or form. Perhaps because ordinary life is too boring, mundane or plain normal. Who can deny looking at a rainbow and automatically thinking of that pot of gold which is supposed to rest at its end? Who cannot gaze up at the stars and think of alien worlds?

Mind you, I still haven’t quite figured out the attraction of pirates and vampires – aren’t they supposed to kill people? Ah, perhaps that is the point – there’s safe danger lurking behind their smiles! No matter how dark, how fearful the narrative of a book (or a movie) it is all make-believe, we can enjoy being thrilled, frightened – or fall in love – knowing our real lives are perfectly safe.

So it is like I said. Escapism.
Although maybe I could add ‘Romantic’ Escapism! 

The Sea Witch Voyages – swashbuckling nautical adventure yarns for adults
Sea Witch : Voyage One
Pirate Code : Voyage Two
Bring It Close : Voyage Three
Ripples In The Sand : Voyage Four
On The Account : Voyage Five  


Twitter: @HelenHollick
Author Page on an Amazon near you :

1066 Turned Upside Down (e-book)