Tuesday, 29 September 2015

Life at sea in merchant service in the 1870s

It is easy, at this remove, to be entranced by the “romance” of the seaborne trade in the 19th Century, when the numbers of ships grew explosively to satisfy the needs of the first era of commercial globalisation. Images immediately come to mind of clippers racing under full sail to carry tea from China, of square-riggers rising to the challenge of Cape Horn, of the tens of thousands of brigs and schooners which carried oceanic as well as coastal trade, of the early steamers that were to be immortalised in the writing of Joseph Conrad. The beauty of so many of these ships, even the humblest, and the skill with which they were handled in the absence of any modern aids to navigation, do however tend to blind us to the fact that life on so many of these ships was brutal in the extreme.

Wreck of the Copeland at South Shields, November 1861, by John Newington Carter 
Life in the merchant service was not just nasty and brutal however – it could also be very short. Shipwrecks on an annual basis were at levels undreamed of today. The losses off Britain in one year alone is starkly illustrative: in 1873-4, 411 vessels, many small, sank around the British coast, with the loss of 506 lives. Bad seamanship and extreme weather was not responsible in many – perhaps ever a majority – of cases and ships frequently broke up or fell apart for the simple reason that they were already rotten and worn-out.  Standards for structural integrity and for limits on loading had indeed been established as early as 1835 by Lloyd's Register and compliance was a pre-requisite for insurance by reputable entities associated with Lloyds. There was however no legal requirement to meet such standards and many ship-owners operated vessels that were so unsound that they became known as “coffin Ships”   and which, worse still, loaded them so heavily that they were frequently incapable of surviving the first serious storm they would encounter.

How it so often ended...
Samuel Plimsoll
The situation was made worse still by the fact that once a seaman had signed on for a voyage – which on occasion poverty might force him to do without having first seen the ship itself – refusal to board could result in criminal prosecution and imprisonment with hard labour, typically for twelve weeks.  In the 1850s a British prison-inspector reported that three-quarters of all prisoners in gaols in England’s south-west were such seamen. Their crime had been to refuse to sail on vessels they believed to be unseaworthy or which were inadequately manned.

This was the background to the great crusade for safety at sea waged by the coal-merchant turned activist, Samuel Plimsoll, one of the great Victorian heroes. He entered parliament to fight on this issue in the early 1870s and his efforts were to be finally rewarded by imposition of statutory safety requirements. The most notable was to be the “Plimsoll Line”, still carried on ships’ hulls, which provided visual confirmation that the ship was not over-laden. Legislation was one thing, enforcement of compliance was another, and a battle still lay ahead. A later blog will deal with Plimsoll’s campaign in more detail.

That there was still a long way to go in the 1870s was illustrated by an eyewitness account by the writer, artist and explorer Frederick Whymper (1838-1901) of crew conditions on shipping he saw departing from British ports. He noted that even on many “superior vessels” the seaman “may, and often does, wade to his bunk through water, and the forecastle is too often a miserable hole, full of dirt and filth, where the men are packed like herrings.”  Whymper was particularly critical of the food, mainly “salt horse” and hard biscuit of the most inferior type. Even at this late stage scurvy was still often a problem, not least because the lime-juice that should have prevented it was frequently grossly adulterated. Whymper claimed that there was little or no scurvy in the Russian and French merchant navies because of the use of “sour wine” in lieu of lime juice. (It is not clear whether this did indeed have anti-scorbutic properties).

The reality of shipwreck
A major component of British trade was that with the West Indies. A visit to London’s West India Docks, which provided docking for vessels trading to the West Indies, showed Whymper that, though some ships involved were “large and well supplied with provisions”, the majority of the vessels in the trade were “small, with wretched accommodation, badly manned, provisions indifferent in quality and deficient in quantity”. Conditions in the forecastles where the seamen were lodged were horrific, and unhealthy. Cases occurred on “first-class ships” in which seamen’s’ chests were “black from the gas which rises from the cargo, and which smells like sewage, which is especially the case in sugar ships.” A  Captain Toynbee told Whymper that he had seen a ship which “was carrying  two packs of foxhounds and three horses, which received half its ventilation by a hatch which opened into the sailors’ forecastle.”

Silex Bay, Flamborough by John Taylor Allerston, 1890
Ships engaged in the Baltic trade, most of them carrying timber, tended to have high rates of “consumption, bronchitis, and other chest diseases”. Whymper noted that Norwegian, Swedish and Russian vessels not only provided superior food than their British counterparts, but tended to accommodate the crew not in the forecastle but in deckhouses with “a fair amount of space and good ventilation”. The Scandinavian ships were also apparently cleaner than British ones and Whymper was critical of British crews –  “the chief fault is the extremely dirty and lazy habit of the men themselves, who allow filth of all kinds to accumulate in the deck-house and galley, without taking the slightest trouble to remove it.” The tendency to overload appears to be continuing, especially in the case of and bulky, high-volume cargo such as timber so that “the forecastle is very much reduced in size—too much so, considering the number of men that form the crew; these have either to remain on deck exposed to wet and cold, or have to breathe the foul atmosphere of a small forecastle, in which are stowed rusty chains, wet ropes, and all kinds of animal decaying matter.”

Laden collier being towed from harbour at a north-eastern English port
Though much of Britain’s coastal coal trade was bring carried in steamers by the 1870s there were still many sailing craft of 150 to 600 tons, usually rigged as sloops, schooners, or brigs, the latter being the most common. The crews to operate such vessels seem to have been wholly inadequate – which was probably a major factor in many shipwrecks. Whymper wrote that “a collier brig is generally worked by a captain and a mate, who live in a small dirty cabin, and by four men and a boy, who live and sleep in the most miserable of forecastles …  so old and ill-constructed are some of these colliers, that in rough weather the forecastle is deluged with water. This condition of things is made much worse by the negligence of the sailor himself, for it seems to be a rule that the cook, instead of throwing over the side of the ship the refuse of material used for food, as dirty water, potato parings, &c., deposits these with great care in some corner of the forecastle. No attention is paid by the captain to the sanitary state of the ship; during the voyage, which is often a rough one, he is engaged in working the vessel, and while she is in harbour he is on shore waiting upon the owners of the vessel, or transacting their business in the Coal Exchange.”

A collier brig in a North Sea gale  -  and crew of seven to cope wiht it
The conditions could be worse still when disease struck. Whymper claimed that he heard from a sanitary inspector engaged in fighting a cholera epidemic that one cholera-victim was taken ashore from a collier after he had been “lying in his hammock for two days prostrate, and with much vomiting and purging, and during this time the captain, although on board, was not aware of the man’s absence from deck.”

This is a sketch only, but it is a reminder, when we are entranced by depictions of billowing sails, or when we read of the romance of the age of sail, of what lay beneath the attractive exterior.

Beauty is often only skin deep.

Britannia’s Shark

1881 and the British Empire’s power seems unchallengeable.

But now a group of revolutionaries threaten that power’s economic basis. 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 and naval power cannot touch them…

A daring act of piracy drags the ambitious British naval officer, Nicholas Dawlish, into this deadly maelstrom.  Drawn in too is his wife Florence, for whom a glimpse of a half-forgotten face evokes memories of earlier tragedy. For both a nightmare lies ahead, amid the wealth and squalor of America’s Gilded Age, and on a fever-ridden island ruled by savage tyranny …

Friday, 25 September 2015

Miss Betty Mouat and the Colombine 1886

My blog posts often deal with blood and thunder, conflict and battle, but this present item deals with a middle-aged lady of poor background, who demonstrated a very high degree of heroism in peacetime without having any prior warning of what was needed.
I have been an admirer for many years of the Scots poet William McGonnagal (1825-1902) whose style was truly unique and whose command of verse can only be described as unique and unmatched. He produced an enormous canon of work and there was hardly a natural disaster, national tragedy, military victory or notable contemporary event in the late nineteenth century about which the poetic muse did not inspire him to write. Many of these happenings would probably be forgotten today were they not recorded in McGonnagal’s collected work. Some readers may remembering me quoting from him on an earlier blog (Click here). I was drawn to the subject of this present blog by a poem he wrote about it.
The event in question was not of massive national significance but it was the unexpected adventure of a quiet, middle-aged Scottish lady who came through a ghastly ordeal with courage and spirit undimmed.
In 1886 the unmarried Betty Mouat was 59 years old. She supported herself by knitting and she lived with her half-brother’s family in the tiny hamlet of Scatness near the southern tip of the main island of the Shetlands group. As will be seen from the map below it is one of the most remote inhabited locations in the British Isles and in the 1880s life would have been hard and primitive in the extreme. 
Miss Moutat's  background was a tragic one – her father had died six months before her birth when the whaler he was serving on disappeared in the Arctic. Her poor luck continued – a cartwheel broke her leg, and she was once shot in the head by a man hunting rabbits.  She herself had suffered a stroke shortly before the events recounted below but in view of what transpired one can only assume that it was not a seriously debilitating one. In January 1886 however she had occasion to see a doctor in Lerwick, the island’s main town and about 25 miles to the north. Given the poor state of the roads,  she elected to travel there in the Columbine, a small cutter-rigged sailing craft that carried mail and passengers. A short sea-passage was also preferable since she was bringing some forty hand-crafted shawls with her for sale on behalf of herself and neighbours.
Miss Betty Mouat
With acknowledgements to the Shetland Museum
On 30th January the weather was deteriorating and the Columbine’s captain warned Miss Mouat  that a rough passage could be expected. He advised that she might better wait. She was quite adamant however – sail in the Columbine she would. She came on board with her merchandise and with two pints of milk and two biscuits for refreshment during the expected three or four- hour passage. She went down into the small cabin and settled herself.
Disaster struck within half an hour of departure.  The main sheet broke, allowing the boom to swing free and in the process of securing it the captain was thrown overboard. The craft carried two deckhands and now – with the Columbine unable to manoeuvre due to the unavailability of the mainsail – they too the decision to launch the vessel’s single row-boat and go to the captain’s rescue. Given the weather conditions it seems remarkable that they expected to get back to the Columbine. The captain could not be found but by the time they realised that their search was futile the Columbine had been driven too far off to reach. She was carrying Miss Mouat, the only passenger, with her. The two deckhands were successful in reaching shore and raising the alarm but given the communications of the time the response could not be immediate.
In his poem McGonagall devoted two stanzas to these events:

The waves washed o'er the little craft, and the wind loudly roared,
And the Skipper, by a big wave, was washed overboard;
Then the crew launched the small boat on the stormy main,
Thinking to rescue the Skipper, but it was all in vain.

Nevertheless, the crew struggled hard his life to save,
But alas! the Skipper sank, and found a watery grave;
And the white crested waves madly did roar,
Still the crew, thank God, landed safe on shore.

Back on the Columbine Miss Mouat now found herself a prisoner in the cabin. The violent movements when the boom broke free caused the steps leading down into the cabin to collapse and she had not the strength to lift them back into position. Furniture within the cabin was constantly thrown about – a hazard in itself – and there was nowhere to sit or wedge herself securely. To prevent herself being tossed about she held on to a rope hanging from the deckhead – so long, and so tightly, she afterwards recounted, that her hands became painfully blistered. Through the ordeal that followed she was unable to sit or lie down but she managed to fashion loops in the rope with which she could suspend herself. Worse still was the fact that the Columbine’s food stores were in a separate compartment near the bows, which she was now unable to reach. Her only provisions were now her milk and biscuits. Despite this desperate situation this splendid woman did not lose her nerve. She prayed, encased herself in a jacket of the captain’s and she found his watch and wound it daily to keep track of time. The poor weather continued, including driving snow, and the craft’s rolling and pitching at the mercy of the sea made broken or fractured bones a real possibility. McGonagall described the scene vividly:

Oh! think of the poor soul crouched in the cabin below,
With her heart full of fear, cold, hunger, and woe,
And the pitless storm of rain, hail, and snow,
Tossing about her tiny craft to and fro.

While the Columbine was being driven roughly north eastwards by the storm, across an area of sea now studded with huge oil and gas production platforms , attempts were being made in Shetland to get a search underway. The result was that two steamers owned by local shipping companies searched over a wide area, but without success.

The ordeal that continued over the coming days might have driven a lesser woman insane. Miss Mouat kept her nerve however, despite all that nature threw at the Columbine.  Confined to her small prison, unaware of where she was, she continued to pray, to keep herself supported to avoid injury, to wind the watch, to sleep somehow and to eke out her milk and two biscuits with iron self-discipline. As the weather eased somewhat she managed to wedge a box beneath the hatchway. By standing on it she could keep a lookout. 

On the evening of the eighth day of this horror, on 5th February, as light was fading, snow-capped land came into sight. The weather drove the Columbine on and she was smashed from one rock to another through the darkness as she approached the coast.  McGonnagal described what followed:

At last the Columbine began to strike on submerged rocks,
And with the rise and fall of the sea she received some dreadful shocks,
And notwithstanding that the vessel was still rolling among the rocks,
Still the noble heroine contrived once more to raise herself upon the box.

Though badly battered, and close to breaking up, the craft somehow survived – and Miss Mouat with it. As dawn broke the Columbine suddenly found herself in calm water. She was lying on her side in shallow water off the small island of Lepsoy, on the Norwegian west coast.  Quickly spotted by local fishermen, Miss Mouat was carried to shore and over rough terrain to a nearby house. Here she received every kindness from good people from who she was separated by the barrier of language. Though exhausted and feverish, she seems to have recovered quickly – given the sort of woman she was this was probably not surprising. McGonnagal’s final stanza is somewhat of an anti-climax:

Still the Columbine sped on, and ran upon a shingly beach,
And at last the Island of Lepsoe, Miss Mouat did reach,
And she was kindly treated by the inhabitants in everyway that's grand,
And conveyed to Aalesund and there taking steamer to fair England.

Norwegian Fisherfolk by Hans Dahl (1849-1937)
People such assaved Miss Mouat
Miss Mouat’s linguistic isolation ended when a message was got to an Englishman living relatively close by, a manufacturer of cod-liver oil. He helped arrange a passage on a Norwegian vessel from nearby from Aalesund to Hull, and transport onwards by train to Edinburgh – the first time she had been on a train. Her story had already been receiving sensational treatment in the press and when she arrived in Edinburgh she found hundreds of well-wishers waiting at the station. A Shetland family living there had offered to give her accommodation and she was driven the house in a carriage to the cheers of the crowd. She was to remain there for three weeks, visited by the rich and curious – some of whom asked for locks of her hair.  She turned down offers to recount her story on the stage, including in London, and was happy to return to her home in Scatness.  A fund was set up on her behalf, one of the contributors being Queen Victoria, who donated £20.

She never left Shetland again, though on occasions tourists came to ask about her experience. She appears to have been invariable patient and courteous, as admirable on home ground as she had been at sea.

It is pleasing to record that Betty Mouat lived on to the age of 93, dying in 1918, an example not only of courage and indomitability, but of how an apparently unexceptional person can rise to the greatest heights of heroism when confronted with unexpected challenge.

A splendid woman – and worth remembering.


Britannia's Shark - the Third Dawlish Chronicles Novel - is available in paperback and Kindle.  

It’s April 1881, a year since Commander Nicholas Dawlish returned from the brutal campaign in Paraguay detailed in Britannia’s Reach.  A personal tragedy has drawn him yet closer to his beloved wife Florence and in its aftermath they welcome the opportunity to combine his duty to observe trials of a new weapon in the Adriatic with an idyllic holiday together. Neither suspects that they are about to be drawn into a nightmare…

Friday, 18 September 2015

“I’d prefer to be blown up!” - Antwerp 1831

The Netherlands and Belgium are today two separate nations, and have indeed had separate existences, in one form or another, for most of the time since the late sixteenth century. Up until 1806, the Netherlands had a complex republican form of government, though allowing however a hereditary role to Princes of the House of Orange. The nation fell under French control in 1795 and in 1806 it became the Kingdom of the Netherlands, with the Emperor Napoleon’s younger brother Louis installed as King. What is today Belgium (allowing for frontier adjustments) was ruled through the same period as a province of the Hapsburg Empire.

King William I's son leading Dutch-Belgian forces during the Waterloo campaign
As Napoleon’s power waned, and as he was sent in exile to Elba, the great powers of Europe supported creation of a single unified state, combining both regions, and henceforth to be known as “The Kingdom of the Netherlands.”  Its sovereign was to be the current Prince of Orange, who took the title of King William I and who was also made ruler, under the title of Grand Duke, of the separate state of Luxembourg. The new Kingdom was functioning when Napoleon came back from Elba during “The 100 days” in 1815, and Dutch-Belgian forces were to fight against him at Waterloo.

Belgian rebels in Brussels 1830
For the next 15 years the northern, Dutch, and the southern, Belgian, parts of the kingdom lived uneasily together. Though adherents of both religions lived in all areas, the north was predominantly Protestant and the south predominantly Catholic. The situation was further complicated by the southern provinces containing both French-speaking Walloon and Dutch-speaking Flemish communities.  Tensions increased and in the south resentment grew against what was seen as the Protestant hegemony by the House of Orange and its adherents. This discontent exploded in outright rebellion in Belgium in 1830. King William attempted to restore order but was hampered by mass desertion of troops hailing from the southern provinces. Unable to restore order, despite bloody street-fighting in Brussels and elsewhere, William withdrew his forces, though he maintained a blockade of Antwerp, and appealed to the Great Powers to resolve the problem. This resulted in the London Conference of European powers which recognised Belgium as an independent country. Prince Leopold of Saxe-Coburg was installed as "King of the Belgians".

Dutch cavalry under attack in a Belgian town
Unhappy with this outcome, King William of the now truncated Netherlands – essentially the territory it consists of today – was to oppose the separation, culminating in an unsuccessful invasion of Belgium known as De Tiendagse Veldtocht ("The Ten Days' Campaign") which lasted from the 2nd to the 12th of August 1831.  Despite initial successes, French intervention forced the Dutch to agree to an indefinite armistice. Faced with such opposition, William had no option but to withdraw, humiliated and smarting, but it was not until 1839 the Netherlands accepted Belgian independence by signing the Treaty of London. As one of its signatories, it was in line with the terms of this treaty that Great Britain entered World War I when Belgium was invaded by Germany in 1914.

van Speijk's youth romanticised
- admiring tomb of Admiral de Ruyter
Only one incident from this complex series of events is widely remembered in the Netherlands today. This was the exploit of the young Dutch naval lieutenant, Jan van Speijk (pronounced like “Spike” in English), who achieved immortality at Antwerp in February 1831. Dutch naval forces were maintaining a blockade of this important port – then as now, one of the largest in Europe, as it functioned as a commercial gateway to Germany. Van Speijk was in command of a small gunboat, one of many engaged in blockade duty, a more difficult task then than nowadays as many mouths of the Scheldt Delta, at the head of which Antwerp lies, were then open but which have since been closed off by dams.

Van Speijk’s background seems almost too good to be true for a popular hero. Born in Amsterdam in 1802, his parents died when he was a baby and he was brought up in an orphanage and subsequently trained as a tailor. Such a mundane career did not attract him and he instead joined the Royal Netherlands Navy in 1820. Thereafter he was to serve with distinction in the Dutch East Indies in the Boni Campaign of 1825 in the South Celebes. 
By 1830 van Speijkwas a lieutenant – a very impressive achievement for a man who had started with such poor prospects. As the revolt in Belgium grew he was in command of Kanonneerboot  Nummer 2 (Gunboat Number 2), a small sailing craft armed with a single cannon and on October 27th he performed so effectively in a bombardment of Antwerp that he was award a decoration.

19th Century comic strip about van Speijk's life

The blockade continued through the winter and during this time van Speijk seems to have thought deeply – might have indeed been obsessed – about what he should do if his vessel were to fall into Belgian hands. In December 1830 he wrote to his niece that he would rather blow up his craft rather than surrender it, and he referred to an incident in 1606 when a Dutch captain had done just this to prevent seizure by the Spaniards. During new-year celebrations he told his crew the same and was allegedly applauded by them, though it is uncertain whether they thought that he was wholly serious.
What van Speijk feared could happen does happen- the mob storms the gunboat,
the ship's boy knows what's coming and jumps overboard and van Speijk himself goes below
The crunch came on February 5th 1831. Caught in a north-west gale, and with a dragging anchor, van Speijk’s gunboat was thrown up on the shore. A Belgian mob surged on board. What followed was the stuff of legend, the more so since few survived to tell a coherent story. Unable to prevent the vessel’s capture, van Speijk went below and with the reported words of “Ik ga liever de lucht in” (I’d prefer to be blown up) he either fired his pistol or dropped his cigar into a keg of gunpowder.

"Ik ga liever de lucht in!" and van Speijkshoots into the keg of gunpowder
The resulting explosion wrecked the gunboat and killed van Speijk himself and 27 of his crew of 30 as well as an unknown number of Belgians. Since there were only two survivors, one of whom was boy who, seeing what was intended,  had jumped overboard before the explosion, it is not quite sure how van Speijk’s final words were recorded, or indeed if he ever spoke them

The destruction of Gunboat Number 2, Antwerp in the background
The latest van Speijk
Van Speijk was immediately hailed as a national hero in the Netherlands, the admiration being led by King William himself, who within a week of his death issued an order that there should always be a ship called van Speijk in the Royal Netherlands Navy. This order has been honoured ever since and the current van Speijk, the eighth, is a Karel Doorman-class frigate launched in 1995.  Van Speijk’s remains were buried with pomp in Amsterdam with the King present and his life was thereafter the subject of poems, paintings and even inspirational nineteenth-century versions of comic strips.

And the expression “Ik ga liever de lucht in!” entered the Dutch language and even today is used as a term of exasperated refusal.


Britannia’s Reach is the second of the Dawlish Chronicles. So what’s it about?

It’s 1880. On a broad river deep in the heart of South America, a flotilla of paddle steamers thrashes slowly upstream. Laden with troops, horses and artillery, intent on conquest and revenge.

Ahead lies a commercial empire that was wrested from a British consortium in a bloody revolution. Now the investors are determined to recoup their losses and are funding a vicious war to do so.

Nicholas Dawlish, an ambitious British naval officer, is playing a leading role in the expedition.  But as brutal land and river battles mark its progress upriver, and as both sides inflict and endure ever greater suffering, stalemate threatens.

And Dawlish finds himself forced to make a terrible ethical choice if he is to return to Britain with some shreds of integrity remaining…

Tuesday, 15 September 2015

1863: The first American-Japanese naval battle

July 1863 was recognised both at the time and afterwards as the turning point of the American Civil War. The Union victory at Gettysburg in the first three days of the month, and the surrender of the Confederate fortress of Vicksburg in the 4th, ensured that the days of the Southern Confederacy were numbered. Long and bitter fighting still lay ahead but from this time onwards there could be no doubt that the Union would be restored. The role of the US Navy had been crucial in gaining control of the Mississippi – the fall of Vicksburg put its entire length under Union control – and no less important was the close blockade of the southern coastline which was to strangle Confederate commerce and strategic imports. Given this concentration of US Naval power in American waters, it is surprising that one of the most dramatic naval actions in July 1863 was to be with Japanese.

USS Wyoming
The background to this action was the Union decision, from the start of the war, to maintain a six-ship Pacific Squadron to protect American interests, strategic and commercial, over this vast area. The first concern was to ensure that the Confederacy should not gain a foothold at any point on the Pacific coast. As this threat receded it was replaced by that of Confederate commerce raiders. The most successful of these, the CSS  Alabama, operated on a global basis, including the Indian Ocean and the South Pacific. The American whaling fleets were considered especially vulnerable and the squadron’s patrols extended across the North and South Pacific, from Alaska to Chile and as far west as Australia and the Chinese coast, where piracy was a major problem both then and in many years to come.

CSS Alabama
Entering service in 1859, the USS Wyoming was the newest of the squadron’s vessels. A wooden-hulled steam sloop of 1460-tons and 200-foot length, she was not called after what is now the State of Wyoming (which did was not admitted to the Union until 1890) but rather after the similarly-named valley in Pennsylvania which had been the scene of ghastly massacre of settlers by British-allied Indian forces during the War of Independence. The Wyoming was heavily armed for her size – two 11-inch Dahlgren smoothbores, one 60-pounder Parrott rifle and three 32-pounder smoothbores. She could make 11-knots under steam but auxiliary sail provision made her less dependent on coal supplies and extended her range considerably.

The Wyoming’s Civil War was to open dramatically. She was at San Francisco when secession commenced and her captain, a Southern sympathiser, took her to Panama with the apparent intention of committing her to Confederate service. This was frustrated and he was dismissed. On the voyage back to California she struck a reef, was grounded for three days, and had to be dragged free. In mid-1862, now commanded by Commander David S. McDougal (1809 – 1882), she was sent across the Pacific to Malaya and the Dutch East Indies to search for the Alabama. In October of that year the Alabama received news from British and Dutch trading vessels of the Wyoming’s presence in the area. The Alabama’s captain, Raphael Semmes, wrote in his journal that he was resolved to give the Wyoming battle and that he believed the ships to be evenly matched. The game of hide and seek that followed did not however lead to an encounter.

"Expel the barbarians" poster
Trouble that would demand the Wyoming’s attention was however brewing in another quarter. Japan had only been “opened” to foreign trade and contact since 1854 and a major issue in the nation’s internal politics was to be the extent to which it should either modernise, or to continue its existing social and cultural norms while rejecting all outside influences. We know now that it was the modernisers, led in the 1860 by the Tokugawa Shogun, Iesada, who were to prevail but the issue was only decided after a long series of revolts and civil wars. The movement against both the Shogun and trade with outsiders was led by the Choshu Clan from their territory in south-west Honshu. Their policy was summed up in the slogan “Honour the Emperor and expel the barbarians." The Emperor in question had been a figurehead, and above politics in the preceding period, with political power vested in the Shogun. Now Emperor Komei broke with tradition and issued an edict supporting the “expel the barbarians” policy which was immediately acted upon by the Choshu.  They  were well placed for this since, with powerful shore batteries, they controlled the Straits of Shimonoseki which divide Honshu from  Kyushu, the most southerly of Japan’s main islands. Soon British, French, Dutch, and American traders were coming under fire.

Following her unsuccessful search for the Alabama, the Wyoming moved north in 1863.  She arrived in Yokohama to find that all foreigners had been ordered to leave Japan immediately and that the Straits of Shimonoseki had been closed to foreign vessels. On 26th June news arrived that two Choshu vessels had attacked an American merchantman in the Straits. She escaped without casualties but US ambassador and Commander McDougal agreed that the insult to the American flag was unacceptable. Immediate action was needed if further such incidents were to be prevented. McDougal, commanding what amounted to a one-ship navy, headed south.

USS Wyoming in action at Shimonseki
The Wyoming entered the Shimonoseki Strait in mid-morning on 16th July. She was cleared for action and her guns were loaded. The Choshu coastal batteries – which included five modern 8-inch Dalghrens as well as more antiquated smoothbores –  opened fire on her shortly afterwards . The Wyoming opened up in return with her pivot-mounted 11-inch Dahlgrens. She drove towards three armed Choshu vessels moored at the town of Shimonoseki, all steamers built in the United States and one of them bizarrely named the Daniel Webster after the renowned statesman . Wyoming took hits she forged ahead, one of them killing and wounding men manning a 32-pounder broadside gun. Lacking charts for these waters the Wyoming now ran aground. The Chosu steamer Lancefiled charged straight for her with the apparent intention of boarding, but Wyoming managed to break free from the mud in time to blast her attacker with her Dahlgrens. The Lancefield’s  boiler exploded and she sank. McDougal now concentrated his fire on the two remaining Chosu vessels and some of the shells fired went over and exploded in the town beyond and started fires. During the action the Wyoming took eleven hits on her hull as well as substantial damage to her funnel and rigging. Losses amounted to four killed and seven wounded.

Honour was satisfied and McDougal was pleased that, in his words, "the punishment inflicted (on the Choshu leader) and in store for him will, I trust, teach him a lesson that will not soon be forgotten." This conclusion was somewhat premature for the Chosu leaders were undeterred. Four days later two French warships, the Tancrede and the Dupleix, also bombarded and landed men briefly to destroy one of the gun batteries. This was still not enough to deter the Choshu and the following year it took a larger campaign by significant numbers of British, Dutch and French warships, with a nominal American presence, to clear the strait. This larger action may be the subject of a later blog.

USS Wyoming's crew in action
Damage repaired, the Wyoming set off again for the Dutch East Indies to hunt the Alabama. They were never to sight each other, though it emerged later that at one stage they had been a mere 25 miles apart in the Sunda Strait between Sumatra and Java (Where the USS Houston CL-30 was to go down fighting in early 1942). The Wyoming remained in the area after the Alabama left and was later involved in the hunt for the Confederate raider Shenandoah. Her only further action was to be  a punitive expedition against Formosan natives who had murdered the crew of a wrecked American merchantman. She remained in active service until 1882.

And the quarry that Wyoming hunted so relentlessly but never sighted? The Alabama had an appointment with Destiny, and with the USS Kearsarge off the coast of France tin 1864. But that is a separate story.

To see a short video interview with Antoine Vanner about his approach to writing naval fiction and his interest in the 19th Century please click here.

Friday, 11 September 2015

The first battle between steamships, 1853

The end of the Age of Fighting Sail was a process that straggled through the 1820s and 30s and 40s as steam power became increasingly reliable. The last full fleet action with sailing vessels was the Battle of Navarino in 1827, when combined British, French and Russian squadrons annihilated an entire Ottoman Turkish fleet. This victory was decisive in securing that Greece’s independence from her Turkish overlords. Britain’s last major action involving sailing vessels – albeit with steamships also present – was to follow thirteen years later with bombardments of Egyptian positions on the Lebanese coast  in 1840 (click here for an earlier blog about this). Steamships were introduced to all the major navies in the decade that followed but it was not until 1853 that one steamship would face another in combat. The location for this was to be off the Black Sea coast of Turkey.

Battle of Navarino, 1827, by Ivan Aivazovaky
A constant of Russian history from 1568 to 1918 was a steady stream of wars with Ottoman Turkey – twelve in all in this long period. The common feature was a southward push by the Russian Empire, capturing land in the Crimea, Ukraine and the Caucuses which were previously under Ottoman Rule. New states – Greece, Serbia, Rumania and Bulgaria – were to gain independence with Russian support I the nineteenth century and in 1878, in the eleventh of these wars, Russian forces were to penetrate to the suburbs of Constantinople/Istanbul. It is with the tenth conflict however which we are concerned here. This war began in 1853 over an obscure argument as to who should protect Christian Holy Places in Jerusalem, and initially involved only Russia and Turkey directly. Early in the following year Britain, France and Piedmont were to be drawn in and when peace was finally negotiated in 1856 the terms were to be very unfavourable to Russia.

Admiral Nakhimov
This outcome was not however foreseen in late October 1853, when Turkey declared war on Russia. The Russian responded by sending a sailing squadron of her Black Sea Fleet under Admiral Pavel Nakhimov (1802 – 1855)  to operate off the northern Anatolian coast to harass Turkish naval movements. The other area of Russian concentration was off the commercially-important mouths of the Danube and of the Bosporus. This duty was allocated to a squadron of steam frigates, six of which had been constructed in London for the Russian Navy between 1843 and 1848 – a commentary on the still poorly-developed nature of Russian industry. Paddle-driven, and thus very vulnerable to enemy fire, these vessels were reported as carrying ten guns (calibre uncertain), some of which were mounted as bow and stern chasers, a fact that was to prove critical in combat. This squadron was commanded by Fleet Vice-Admiral Vladimir Kornilov (1806- 1854) who flew his flag – most appropriately – in the frigate Vladimir. This vessel was commanded by and up and coming Captain-Lieutenant Grigori Butakov (1820-1882).

The Vladimir - contemporary illustration
In early November Kornilov shifted his operations to the Anatolian coast to link up with Nakhimov. On the morning of 5th November the Vladimir, apparently alone, or at least out of sight of other Russian vessels, spotted the smoke of a ship apparently heading northwards. Vladimir gave chase and the unknown vessel tried to escape. Her speed was inadequate however and  when the Vladimir caught up with her she was revealed to be an Ottoman steam frigate, the Pervaz-i-Bahri. The two enemies were more or less equally matched as regards armament – but with one important difference. The Pervaz-i-Bahri carried her guns on broadside only.

The battle, by Alexei Bogoliubov. Vladimir (r) raking Pervez-i-Bahri from astern
Battle was joined. The sea conditions appear to have been relatively calm and for the first time ever in ship-to-ship combat considerations of weather-gauge were irrelevant as regards manoeuvre. No sails were set and steam power was independent of wind. The fact that the Vladimir had overhauled her quarry was an indication of higher speed and this, combined with the Turkish lack of bow or stern-chasers, was to prove decisive. Butakov’s speed allowed him to keep his ship astern of the Turk, so as to be able to rake her unmercifully along her axis. Any attempt by the Pervaz-i-Bahri to bring her broadside guns to bear was frustrated by the Vladimir’s ability to remain in her blind-spot. The Turkish frigate’s steering gear was soon damaged, as were her bridge and several of the guns. The last straw was when the Vladimir moved in close to sweep the Pervaz-i-Bahri’s decks with grapeshot and her colours came down in surrender. The battle had lasted some three hours.

The disparity in the butcher’s bills confirmed just how effective the Vladimir’s tactics had been. Her casualties amounted to two dead and three wounded by comparison with 58 lost on the Pervaz-i-Bahri, including her commander. Badly damaged, the Turkish frigate was brought to the Russian base at Sevastopol, where she promptly sank. Raised again, she was taken into Russian service under the name Kornilov.
The Battle of Sinope, by Ivan Aivazovsky
Kornilov: Soviet stamp, 1989
The Valdimir’s victory was the prelude to one yet greater. Reinforced with further vessels, and with guns loaded with new and deadly explosive shell, Nakimov descended on an Ottoman squadron outside their Black Sea base at Sinope on November 30th. He had six sailing ships-of-the-line, two sailing frigates and three steam frigates to the Ottomans’ seven sailing frigates, three sailing corvettes and three steam frigates. The result was a massacre, the explosive shells wreaking havoc that the Ottomans, with their solid-shot weapons, could not match. All twelve Ottoman vessels were either destroyed or run aground in frantic efforts to escape. The Russian victory was absolute, but it was to be counterproductive. From that moment on British and French involvement was inevitable if Russian ambitions to control the Bosporus, Dardanelles and the Eastern Mediterranean were to be frustrated.  Russia had won the battle but had drawn upon herself a war she could not win.

Butakov as an Admiral
And what of the ships involved? Both the Vladimir and the newly-named Kornilov were scuttled in Sevastopol at the end of the war. They had provided sterling service during its siege, which was to be the central feature of the Crimean War. No less tragic was the fate of the Russian Admirals Nakhimov and Kornilov. Both died heroically in Sevastopol’s defence. Only Butakov was to survive the war, dying as a widely-respected Admiral and mine-warfare innovator in 1882.

To see a short video interview with Antoine Vanner about his approach to writing naval fiction and his interest in the 19th Century please click here.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

The spectacular life and death of Sabrina Island

The sloop HMS Sabrina was one of 24 similar vessels of the second batch of the “Cormorant” Class. Armed with no less than sixteen 24-pounder and eight 12-pounder carronades, these vessels packed an enormous punch for their 422 tons and small 120-man crews. Launched in 1805/06, these useful ship-rigged vessels were to provide valuable but unspectacular service throughout the remainder of the Napoleonic Wars. The Sabrina saw service in the Mediterranean, in the West Indies and in the poorly-conceived and worse-executed Walcheren campaign of 1809. Her claim to fame did not however rest on battle-honours but rather on her discovery of a short-lived island to which she gave her name.

HMS Blossom - sister ship of HMS Sabrina
The Azores, the small Portuguese-held archipelago in the North Atlantic some 800 miles west of of Portugal, are volcanic in origin. They are situated at the meeting point of three huge tectonic plates – the North American, the Eurasian and the African Plate. It is not surprising therefore that the area would be seismically and volcanically active and there have been some 28 known volcanic eruptions, of which 13 were submarine, since settlement of the islands commenced some six centuries ago. Early in 1811 seismic activity commenced on and around the island of São Miguel, the largest of the group, and this included tremors onshore which were powerful enough to destroy houses as well as massive release of gasses from the seabed. The climax came on 10th June when a submarine eruption raised a circular cone above the sea’s surface. This was some 700 yards in diameter and some 300 feet high. From an open ring at its centre smoke and debris vomited skywards.

HMS Sarrina approaches the eruption - drawn by Lieutenant John William Miles
Unaware of these events, HMS Sabrina was cruising off the Azores under the command of Commander James Tillard. On 12th June, two days after the volcano’s appearance, the warship sighted rolling grey clouds on the horizon. Tillard assumed immediately that a naval battle was in progress and, if so, he wanted to be part of it. (One recalls the question asked by the bye-stander at the barroom brawl, “Is this a private fight, or can anybody join in?”). The Sabrina headed for the smoke and found to her surprise not a battle but a violently active volcano. Tillard was to write afterwards that ‘To give you an adequate idea of the scene by description is far beyond my powers” but he was fascinated by what he saw and stayed in the vicinity for the best part of a month.

Contemporary illustration - the island reariing up, with gasses venting in the fforeground
By 4th July that island was judged sufficiently stable and safe for a landing to be attempted. Tillard went ashore to find a desolate landscape of cinders and ash, with white smoke drifting in “the most fanciful manner imaginable” and volcanic material still being hurled upwards to sustain the island’s growth. Tremors continued, many with a noise “like the continued firing of cannon and musquetry intermixed”. Familiar no doubt with a captain’s responsibility to remain calm even while on an open quarterdeck in the heat of action, Tillard demonstrated admirable sang-froid while he was ashore. One tremor proved sufficient to collapse a cliff face only 50 yards from the point where he was holding an impromptu picnic with his party.  “So soon as our first consternation had a little subsided,” he wrote later, “we removed about ten or a dozen yards further from the edge of our cliff, and finished our dinner.”

When Tillard revisited the island some time later he found boiling water rushing from fissures. This did not deter him from raising a Union Flag and claiming the island as British, confirming it by a message lodged in a bottle at its base. He named this latest British possession “Sabrina Island” in honour of his ship.

Tillard’s claim of the island – within little more than a gunshot’s range from the island of São Miguel – had all the potential to cause a rift in British-Portuguese relations, all the more undesirable since both countries were allied at the time and prosecuting a vigorous war against France. A higher authority was however to settle what could have been an unwelcome diplomatic confrontation. When a British survey ship arrived on the scene a few months later all traces of Sabrina Island had disappeared as quickly as she had arrived.

Tillard wrote a full report on his findings to the Royal Society, but at this stage the mechanics involved were poorly understood. It was another half-century before the modern science of seismology would be born. Its unlikely origin was to be in an attempt to produce a massive siege-mortar – and you can learn about that from an earlier blog – click here to read.

To see a short video interview with Antoine Vanner about his approach to writing naval fiction and his interest in the 19th Century please click here.

Tuesday, 1 September 2015

A Vulture’s Odyssey Under Two Flags, 1894 – 1918

When one thinks of the Imperial German Navy the image that immediately comes to mind is of the mighty battle-fleet that confronted the Royal Navy at the start of World War 1. In the two decades prior to this however the most active service seen by the German Navy was by small ships in far-flung corners of the globe where Germany, a latecomer to the scramble for colonies, was constructing an overseas empire. One focus was on Africa, with very large territorial holdings in South-West Africa and East Africa, and smaller ones in Togoland and the Cameroons in West Africa. The other main focus was on the Western Pacific, with holdings in Northern New Guinea (“Kaiser Wilhelmsland”), the Bismarck Archipelago and several island groups whose names were to become familiar in World War2. Germany has significant trading interests in China and this led in turn to establishment of a naval base on the Chinese coast at Tsingtao (modern Qingdao) to rival the British and Russian bases at Hong Kong and Port Arthur respectively. The distances involved in “policing” this vast area – essentially using naval power, whether for bombardment or by landing parties, to quell local unrest – required small and relatively unsophisticated vessels. These had to be capable of operating alone for extended periods, often far from reliable coal-supplies. They represented an ideal opportunity for young and ambitious officers to display initiative and seamanship in a way which would never be possible in the “big-ship navy” in home waters. The story of one such vessel, SMS Iltis, was told in an earlier blog (click here to read) while another blog deals with colonial aspirations (click here).

SMS Bussard, sister of the Geier and lead ship of the class
(With acknowledgement to the Deutsche-Schutzgebiete website)
Launched in 1894, two decades after the Iltis, SMS Geier, was a considerably more sophisticated ship. One of the Bussard class of six, all named after birds (Geier meaning Vulture) she was an 1868-ton,  271-foot, twin-screw unprotected cruiser with a maximum speed of 15.5 knots.  Such speed was rarely called for and endurance was more important in view of the distances she would operate over –  she was consequently designed to steam on her bunkers for 3000 miles at 9 knots without resorting to her auxiliary sail-power. Since shore-bombardment was likely to be a requirement on occasion she was heavily armed for her size, carrying eight 4.1-inch guns and several smaller weapons. Given her expected duties it is surprising that she should have in addition two 14-inch torpedo tubes. Her crew amounted to 161, allowing her to land a potent and well-disciplined force should circumstances demand.

Over the next two decades the Geier, like her sisters, was to see service in all the German colonial areas as well as in the Caribbean, where she evacuated German nationals from Cuba during the Spanish-American War. In 1900 she supported international efforts to suppress the Boxer Rising and she was to spend the next five years patrolling the China coast – a hotbed of piracy – and the German possessions in the South-West Pacific. A return to Germany for overhaul was the start of a deployment in European waters, including protection of German interests in the Mediterranean during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911-12 and the Balkan Wars of 1912-13.

SMS Geier in her later years, when her sailing rig had been removed
(With acknowledgement to the splendid  Kaiserliche-Marine website)
Thereafter the Geier was sent east again, but had not yet reached the German base of Tsingtao when the World War broke out in August 1914. She departed hastily from the British-held harbour of Singapore only days before Britain’s declaration of war. Obsolete, slow and with inadequate coal reserves, the Geier was now one of the German Navy’s nomads (click here to see separate blog on this). Recognising that the Tsingtao base was untenable once Japan had also declared war on Germany, and was likely to capture this base quickly, the powerful German East Asia squadron was already heading south-east across the Pacific in what proved to be  futile effort to return to Germany (click here for article on this). The Geier tried bravely but hopelessly to follow the squadron, even capturing but not sinking a British merchant steamer on the way, a source of coal that helped extend her range. Her machinery was now at its limits however and by early October, though she had managed to escape the extensive British, Japanese and French forces scouring the Pacific, the game was up. Making use of her last coal supplies she crawled into Honolulu and surrendered herself for internment.

Geier's crew being marched into internment by American troops at Honolulu, October 1914
The Geier spent almost three inactive years at Honolulu (not a bad place for her crew to be interned!) but when the United States entered the war in April 1917 she was seized by the American government. Renamed the USS Schurz and hastily overhauled, she escorted a convoy consisting of three submarines to San Diego, then onwards through the Panama Canal to the Caribbean. Following further maintenance she was allocated convoy duty in the Caribbean and off the United States’ East Coast. Here she was to meet her end. Rammed on 19th June 1918 off the Outer Banks of North Carolina by one of the freighters she was escorting, the Schurz sank quickly with the loss of one crew member killed and twelve injured.

It was a fate that could never have been predicted for the Geier when she had embarked on her busy and useful career in the Imperial German Navy almost a quarter-century before.