Friday, 27 November 2015

Hazards of suppressing the Slave Trade, 1847

Britain’s legal abolition of her slave trade in 1807 is one of the most admirable actions in her history, making it illegal for British subjects to deal in slaves or to carry them in British ships. The penalty for so doing was initially only a fine but as the trade was so profitable that this had relatively little impact. In 1811 however the penalty was increased to transportation four fourteen years. This involved being sent to Australia as a convict and set to work there either directly for the government or in indentured service to a settler. Return to Britain during this term was punishable by death. Increasing scarcity value tended to make trading even more profitable for successful operators and so this penalty did not prove fully effective. The decision was then taken in 1824 to treat slave-trading as piracy and therefore punishable by death. Thirteen years later this was reduced, once more back to transportation, but now for life, not just fourteen years. In 1837, however, the punishment inflicted on British subjects for trading in slaves was changed to transportation for life.
Slaves being shipped out to a vessel offshore - a Royal Navy cruiser has
been spotted on the horizon (left) - a quick getaway is desirable!
During these years however other nations also abolished the trade – the United States in 1807 (but at sea only), Portugal in 1810, Sweden in 1813, the Netherlands in 1814 and France in 1817. It should be noted that slavery per se continued to exist where it was already established. Britain was the first in implementing full emancipation, in 1833, while Spain was to be the last, in 1886. Several of these nations were however notably unenthusiastic – to say the least – about enforcement. Cuba and Brazil in particular continued to have a high demand for slaves and Spanish and Portuguese slaver vessels figure  prominently in all accounts of suppression. Out of the estimated 11 million total slaves who survived shipment from Africa to the Americas, some 4 million,  nearly 40 percent of the total, went to Brazil.
Typical anti-slaving action - the Capture of Spanish ship Dolores by HMS Ferret, 1816
Painting by W.J.Huggins (1781-1845)
Between 1815, at the end of the Napoleonic Wars, and 1860, the Royal Navy’s Anti-Slavery Squadron – most of the time based at what would become Lagos, Nigeria – carried the greatest burden in combating the Atlantic Slave Trade. When this declined, British efforts, up to around 1890, were shifted to combatting the Indian Ocean slave trade between East Africa and Arabia.  An earlier blog (see reference at the end of this article) pointed out just how dangerous such service could be – an annual mortality rate of 55 per 1,000 men for Royal Navy crews operating off West Africa, compared with 10 for fleets in British waters or in the Mediterranean. Disease, particularly malaria, was a killer, but so too were the ruthless masters and crews of the slave ships they were chasing. These vessels were usually small, fast and often armed, and the condition in which their human cargos were confined shamed Humanity. There were cases of some 900 people in a single hold and decks being battened down during storms. Stories were told of more than a third of the slaves being found dead from suffocation when the hatches were opened after a hurricane and that rather than have the trouble of hauling up the dead bodies, the hatches were battened down again. A third more might die during the remainder of the voyage. The previous blog mentioned told of one instance that typified the dangers to the Anti-Slavery Squadron and events in 1847, as described below, were to provide another. 
Typical 19th Century slaver taking on captives off West Africa
Small and fast, her raked masks give a hint of speed that may be enough to outrun naval vessels
In July 1847 a Brazilian slaver, the brigantine Romeo Primero, had been captured off West Africa by the brig-sloops HMS Waterwitch and HMS Rapid. The procedure, once the slaves had been released, was for the fate of the ship – usually resale by the government – was to be decided by a court established for the purpose. In this instance the “adjudication” was to take place at the island of St. Helena. The Romeo Primero was being sailed by a Royal Navy crew consisting of a Lieutenant W.G. Mansfield and four seamen. The four Brazilian slavers who had manned the vessel before capture were kept on board as prisoners but – unwisely – were allowed the freedom of the ship during daytime.  Unfavourable winds caused Mansfield to decide to abandon the attempt to reach St. Helena and to head instead for the nearer British base in Sierra Leone.

Around midday on 11th August Mansfield was on deck, presumably at the helm, two of the British seamen were aloft and the two others were sleeping in their bunks in the same space as the small-arms were stowed. Why Mansfield and his men had not carried their weapons at all times is unclear – it would seem to have been a wide precaution in the circumstances. One of the prisoners now moved up behind the unsuspecting Mansfield and attacked him with an axe used for chopping firewood. The other three prisoners simultaneously attacked the seamen in their bunks, wounding both.  They managed somehow managed to get on deck and here one of the two died of his injuries.  Lieutenant Mansfield, meanwhile, had survived the initial attack and had grabbed a piece of firewood to defend himself. A prisoner armed with a cutlass now attacked him and inflicted nine separate wounds, their severity mitigated only by the fact that Mansfield was wearing a greatcoat. The two sailors – both of them unarmed – who had been aloft now arrived on deck and Mansfield, weak from profuse bleeding, struggled towards them. The surviving man who had been sleeping below had also reached them. None were armed and there was nothing for it but to attack their attackers with their bare hands. It says much for the strength of the seamen of the era that this proved successful. One of the prisoners was thrown overboard in the scuffle and the others were overpowered.  The seamen were about to send the three remaining after him when Mansfield, who was all but unconscious, revived enough to order them to be kept alive so as to face trial at Sierra Leone.

Freetown in this period - a dangerous station, due to malaria
It took some three weeks – until 1st of September – for the Romeo Primero to reach Freetown. The voyage must have been a nightmare.  Mansfield hovered at death’s door for several days and even when he recovered slightly was all but incapable for the duration. His three surviving crew were all wounded and one was to die of his injuries after reaching port while another, already weakened, succumbed to malaria. It is unclear what because of the three prisoners – one cannot feel pity if they had been hanged, as was most likely.

Admirable as his behaviour was after being attacked one cannot but regard Mansfield as having been anything other than lax and complacent in the extreme. He recovered but it was due to his slackness that three of his four men died and that he himself nearly went with them. One trusts that his experience would have proved a warning to other officers assigned similar tasks. It is therefore with surprise that one learns that he was promoted to Commander within the year!

To read more about the Anti-Slavery Squadron, “Slavers, Piracy, Shipwreck, Survival & Injustice: The Royal Navy off West Africa 1845” click here.

For an account of another desperate encounter with slavers in this period, you may be interested in this account of the life of the spectacular – but now largely forgotten – Victorian naval hero, Hobart Pasha. His unlikely career included chasing slavers, service in the Crimean War in the Royal Navy, an encounter with the Pope, blockade-running for the Confederacy in the American Civil War, dealing in ladies' foundation garments and leadership of the Turkish Ottoman Navy. Click here to read about him.


Interested in taking your own first steps towards writing fiction? 

I'll be speaking at the Weymouth Leviathan Maritime Literary Festival in March next year and during it I’ll also be running a workshop on plot-development for aspiring writers. If you're interested in writing fiction yourself this might help you take the plunge! To mix metaphors, the proverb says that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. I hope we'll do better than that - perhaps workshop participants will get some ten miles along!  I'd be very happy if participants were to include fans of the Dawlish Chronicles novels and readers of my regular blogs. The festival - the first of its kind - promises to be a fascinating occasion. I'll be providing updates as details are firmed up but on the meantime, if you're in the UK in 12th-13th March period in 2016 please consider reserving a slot in your diary.

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

HMS Quebec off Nordeney: Small Boat Action 1811

When reading of the Royal Navy’s role in the Napoleonic Wars one is always struck by the dogged determination with which a blockade of the French and French-controlled coasts of Europe was maintained for more than two decades. One imagines the blockade in terms of sealing off these coasts to commercial traffic as well as to movement of warships. In the later stages of the conflict however, when Napoleon introduced his “Continental System” to close all Europe off to trade with Britain, an important role for the Navy became an economic one – to facilitate smuggling of British goods into French-controlled countries, while preventing trade in the opposite direction. This was perhaps nowhere more notable than along the shores of the German Bight, those of the northern Netherlands and the German states, all controlled by the French, and of the western coast of Denmark, a country that was to be at war with Britain from 1807 to 1814.
Danish Kanonchalup Gunboat
The Royal Navy’s presence in these waters did not normally involve – or require – a battle-fleet, as was the case elsewhere, since the Netherlands Navy had never recovered from the defeat of Camperdown in 1797 while the Danish Navy had been massacred at the Battle of Copenhagen three years later. The actions in the years of the Continental System were involve what later came to be known as “coastal forces”, with small Royal Navy units facing even smaller open gunboats propelled by oars as well as sails. The two main Danish types were typical of those used in the area.  The   larger was the Kanonchalup that carried two 24-pounder long-guns in bow and stern, often complemented by four  4-pounder howitzers and a crew of as much as 80. A smaller type was the Kanonjol, armed with one 24-pounder cannon and two 4-pounder howitzers, and manned by some 40 men.  Such vessels would be at a disadvantage if they were to engage a larger vessel alone but the balance could shift were larger numbers present, with the oars providing high mobility and nimbleness, independently of the wind. Once such instance of gunboat success was in 1808 when the powerfully-armed brig-sloop HMS Tickler hauled down her colours after defeat by Danish craft.

HMS Tickler surrenders to Danish gunboats 4th June 1808
It was recognised that maintenance of a Royal Navy presence close inshore in enemy waters would be aided immeasurably by availability of a nearby base. The answer was to occupy the Danish-held island of Heligoland, a speck of rocky ground less than three quarters of a square mile in area and situated some 30 miles from the German coast.  It was surrendered without a fight in 1807 (though the destruction by explosion of the aptly named bomb ketch HMS Explosion added some excitement) and was to remain in British possession until 1890 when Britain traded it with Germany to get control of Zanzibar instead. 
The German Bight - courtesy of Google Earth
In the years 1807-1814 Heligoland was to become not just a forward naval support-base but also a base through which goods could be smuggled into mainland Europe to the benefit of the British economy. The deterrent to such smuggling was in the form of gunboats and in 1811 a Royal Navy operation was undertaken to destroy those concentrated in the vicinity of the East Friesan island of Nordeney. The shallow coastal waters precluded inshore action by larger units and like had to be met with like, Royal Navy pulling boats matching themselves against the enemy gunboats.
Heligoland - courtesy of Wikipedia (c) CCBY-SA 3.0
At the end of July 1811 what would now be described as a task force arrived north of Nordeney.  Led by HMS Quebec, a 32-gun frigate, it included three brig-sloops Raven, Exertion and Redbreast as well as the armed yacht Princess Augusta and an ex-collier, now armed, the Alert. On 1st August  a total of ten boats were launched from these ships and they headed shorewards. They carried a total of 117 officers and men, under command of Lieutenant Samuel Blyth (1783-1813) of the Quebec and piloted by James Muggeridge, mate of the Princess Augusta, who seems to have known these challenging waters well. They carried on through the night and on the following day identified six heavily-armed enemy gunboats. Blythe realised that he was outgunned and though he did not attack he held his ground, being credited with the remark that he “would play children’s play and let them alone if they would him”. His resolute stand intimidated the enemy craft and they stood away.

Undeterred, Blyth’s force continued to creep shorewards through the night hours, the navigation being intricate in the extreme due to the shallows. Early on the morning of 3rd August four moored enemy gunboats were sighted. Each proved to be crewed by twenty men, with some soldiers in addition, and to be each armed with a single 12-pounder and two smaller weapons. Blyth determined to attack and told his crew that “They seem to be waiting for us and, as the witch said when she was going to be burnt, there will be no fun until we get there.”

Samuel Blyth
What followed was the stuff of naval fiction. The day was calm and Blyth’s boats stroked forward, lashed by two volleys as they neared their quarry and holding fire until they ran alongside. That they ever got so close is a negative commentary on the skill and alertness of the gunboats’ crews but, even so, the Quebec’s barge alone was found afterwards to have been hit by fourteen grape shot and twenty-two musket balls.  Blyth drove his own boat towards what he identified as that of the enemy commander. He leaped across, killing one man and wounding two others, while Muggeridge was confronted by two soldiers. He shot one dead but was bayoneted in the throat by the other and fell overboard. The fight was brief however – Blyth possessed the gunboat in minutes and turned her 12-pounder on the three other enemy craft, all so placed as not to be able to return fire without damaging each other. Blyth found powder charges stacked by the cannon and they were used to load it. A match could not however be found and the Quebec’s gunner, who was one of the party, set it off by firing his own pistol over the touchhole. The cannon blasted but its flash set off powder spilled on the deck, leading to an explosion that engulfed nineteen, three of whom were later to die. Blyth himself had his clothes burned off on one side and was thrown into the water and others suffered similar injuries. This disaster did not however check the attack of the remaining British boats which quickly boarded, and captured, the three remaining enemy craft. From first shot to last the action had lasted ten minutes. The number of prisoners taken exceeded the number of attackers and surprise rather than hand-to-hand combat had decided the issue, as was evidenced by enemy casualties of two dead and twelve founded. The British force lost four dead – and three who would die later – as well as nine wounded, a casualty rate of 13%, a high one for such a short action.

The British force withdrew – it had made another pinprick on the hide of Napoleon’s empire and one cannot but wonder if the gain made outweighed the loss of life. Blyth himself was to gain by it however and a month later he was promoted from Lieutenant to Commander.
Capture of HMS Boxer by USS Enterprise, September 1813
Blyth’s career thereafter was however to be a short one. In 1812 he took command of the 12-gun brig sloop HMS Boxer. In the war now in progress with the United States he captured a total of seven vessels of the American Atlantic coast. An act of chivalry by him was to win praise from the enemy, stemming from capturing a small craft crewed by a group of ladies out for a sail. He brought them on board Boxer, where he courteously advised them that they should stay closer inshore in future. He then released them. One of the ladies was the wife of the local militia commander who was so impressed that he placed advertisements in local newspapers praising Blyth’s chivalry. The luck that had saved Blyth from worse injury at Nordeney was however to run out in September 1813. In a single-ship action, in which Boxer met the American brig USS Enterprise, he was killed by the first broadside and Boxer was captured. He was just 30 years old.

Friday, 20 November 2015

The Original Nelson’s Column, Portsdown Hill

Nelson’s Column in Trafalgar Square has been a landmark in London since it was completed in 1843. It is just under 170 feet tall (including the statue of Nelson himself at the top) and the four sides of the pedestal carry relief panels that commemorate Nelson’s four great fleet actions – St.Vincent, The Nile, Copenhagen and Trafalgar – the bronze they are cast from being from French cannon captured in battle. It is guarded at its corners by four enormous bronze lions which were added in 1867. 
Trafalgar Square 1845
Nelson's Column under construction 1843
Photograph by William Henry Fox Talbot
The creation of the memorial, and of the square surrounding it, commemorated the 21 October 1805 battle which established British naval supremacy for over a century and which laid the foundation for the ultimate victory over Napoleon. Nelson’s death just after victory had been secured (“I thank God I have done my duty” were his last words) confirmed him as a national hero whose lustre has not faded to this day. Construction of the column was recorded in one of the earliest photographs taken in Britain. It was made by the great pioneers of photography, William Henry Fox Talbot (1800-1877).
Nelson's Needle
The massive strategic significance of the Trafalgar was recognised as much by Nelson’s contemporaries as by later generations and in the years after his death memorials were constructed to him in Edinburgh, Dublin, Birmingham, Liverpool and elsewhere. The earliest however, and the one that has the closest associations with Nelson himself, is perhaps the least known.

“Nelson's Needle”, is on the top of the steep Portsdown Hill, just north of Portsmouth, the city that was been the centre of British naval power for almost a thousand years. It stands exposed and lonely, all but surrounded by fields, the only building nearby being the half- hidden, half- underground 1860s-era Fort Nelson. The monument is an austere structure, a granite obelisk, 93 feet tall, its design based on 4th Century AD monuments in Axum, the ancient religious capital of Ethiopia. 

Nelson's bust at the top of the Needle
At the top, looking out over the Portsmouth, the Solent, the Isle of Wight and the Channel beyond – the starting and finishing point for so many of Nelson’s adventures – is a small bust of the man himself. A dignified inscription on a panel at the base bears the consecration.

The origin of the monument goes back to Nelson’s lifetime when, in 1799, Nelson's prize agent Alexander Davison campaigned to establish a memorial to “perpetuate the glorious victories of the British Navy” and “to honour Britain’s naval glory and pre-eminence”. It was, however, Nelson’s death at Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, that gave the impetus for construction. 

The “Needle” was built in 1807-08, in the immediate aftermath of the battle, and was paid for by a donation of two day’s pay by all who served on Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, at Trafalgar, as well as by prize money arising from it.  It is pleasing that even 210 years after Nelson’s death the masts and yards of the Victory can still be glimpsed from the monument in the dockyard where it is so lovingly preserved.

Today, by its relative isolation, the monument on Portsdown Hill is still moving in its austerity. In this its dignity contrasts with the tawdry state into which Trafalgar Square in London is so often plunged, especially since holding “Pop” concerts and other such events there involves blanking off much of Nelson Column’s base from view. It's as if an entire nation wants to turn its back on its past - I never pass Trafalgar Square now without a tinge of regret and sometimes of disgust.

The Victorians erected statues to heroes. Today statues are erected in honour of blue roosters.
One can only assume that some sort of condescending sneer at the past is implied.
There are four plinths in the square, the fourth until recently being kept unoccupied – possibly reserved for a statue of the Queen after her death. A recent decision is however that items of art are displayed on this plinth for several months, until replaced with another. One wonders what Nelson would have thought of this.  He would certainly have approved of the temporary display of the statue of Air Marshal Sir Keith Park, a kindred spirit who played a leading role in ensuring victory in both the Battle of Britain and the Battle of Malta. One doubts however if Nelson would have thought much of a 2014 occupant of the plinth – a huge blue rooster which looks like an overgrown toy from a child’s collection of cheap plastic farmyard animals. Why Nelson has had this inflicted on him is anybody’s guess! 

Interested in taking your own first steps towards writing fiction?

I'll be speaking at the Weymouth Leviathan Maritime Literary Festival in March next year and during it I’ll also be running a workshop on plot-development for aspiring writers. If you're interested in writing fiction yourself this might help you take the plunge! To mix metaphors, the proverb says that the journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step. I hope we'll do better than that - perhaps workshop participants will get some ten miles along!  I'd be very happy if participants were to include fans of the Dawlish Chronicles novels and readers of my regular blogs. The festival - the first of its kind - promises to be a fascinating occasion. I'll be providing updates as details are firmed up but on the meantime, if you're in the UK in 12th-13th March period in 2016 please consider reserving a slot in your diary.

Tuesday, 17 November 2015

The Wit and Wisdom of Admiral “Jacky” Fisher

Fisher in 1902 - cartoon by "Spy"
Few men can have had a greater influence on naval warfare than John Fisher (1841 – 1920), later Admiral of the Fleet Lord Fisher. This formidable figure, a human whirlwind, was responsible for building HMS Dreadnought, thereby “making every other battleship afloat obsolete overnight” and for reorganising the Royal Navy in the years before World War 1. He did this in the teeth of strong internal opposition but he brought to the process keen strategic insights as to its composition and disposition. Had his career ended in 1911 at the end of his appointment as First Sea Lord, the professional head of the Royal Navy his reputation would have been greater still. It was unfortunate that, at the age of 73, he was reappointed to this same position in 1914. Well past his best, he held it, in increasing rancour with his political opposite number, Winston Churchill, until he resigned in connection with the catastrophe that had developed in the Dardanelles operation against Turkey.

The fascination of Fisher’s career is that he entered a navy of wooden ships and smoothbore cannon, commanded by veterans of the Napoleonic era, but he went on to create a steel navy that employed big guns, torpedoes, radio, submarines and aircraft. His nomination to the Navy, at the age of 13, was by Admiral Sir William Parker (1781 – 1866), the last survivor of Nelson’s captains. Readers of The Dawlish Chronicles will find several references to Fisher, including Nicholas Dawlish’s first meeting with him at the Storming of the Taku forts in China in 1859).

The paddle dispatch vessel HMS Coromandel in the Far East
She was Fisher's first command,, a temporary one - and he was just 19 years old
My Treasured Copy
This article is not an account of Fisher’s life, but  deals rather with Fisher’s “Memories” – note, not “Memoirs” – which he wrote in the year before his death. I found a copy in a second-hand bookshop some 40 years ago and I’ve been dipping into it since as it is not only of great historical interest but is vastly entertaining to boot. It can be best described as a “brain-dump”, with reminiscences, statements of opinion, proverbs, aphorisms. trivialities, obsessions and much else all mixed up in no particular order. I haven’t encountered any comparable book ever. One suspects that much of the veracity has be treated – Fisher’s memory was perhaps failing even if his energy and vehemence remained undiminished. Few other eminent figures can have referred in a published book to “Some venomous reptile (his name has disappeared - I tried in vain to get hold of it)”, or to human “limpets, parasites, sycophants, and jellyfish”, even if they would have liked to have done so.  

What follows are direct quotes. I’ve concentrated on Fisher’s opinions (in some cases obsessions) and may return in a future blog to his accounts of key events. The preface gives a foretaste, and Fisher’s full use of fonts available merits it being shown in a direct scan.

  Fisher mentions at the beginning of the book that he started work on 7th September 1919. 

“My reluctance to this book being published before my death is increasingly definite; but I have put my hand to the plough, because of the overbearing argument that I cannot resist, that I shall be helping to:

       (a)    Avoid national bankruptcy.
       (b)   Avert the insanity and wickedness of building a Navy against the United States.
       (c)    Establish a union with America, as advocated by John Bright and Mr. Roosevelt.
       (d)   Enable the United States and British Navies to say to all other Navies "If you build more, we will fight you, here and now. We’ll 'Copenhagen' you*, without remorse."

This is why I have consented, with such extreme reluctance, to write letters to The Times and dictate six articles; and having thus entered into the fight, I follow the advice of Polonius - Vestigia nulla retrorsum (We Do Not Retreat).   And so, today, I will begin this book – not an autobiography, but a collection of memories of a lifelong war against limpets, parasites, sycophants, and jellyfish - at one time there were 19 and ½ millions sterling of 'em'. At times they stung ; but that only made me more relentless, ruthless and remorseless.”

(* by “Copenhagening” Fisher meant launching a pre-emptive strike, if necessarily without declaration of war, as the Japanese did at Port Arthur in 1904. One story is that he proposed doing this in peacetime to the eliminate the German Navy to King Edward VII who, not surprisingly, told him “Fisher – You’re Mad!” – Antoine Vanner)

Fisher was proud of being emphatic in manner. Even King Edward VII did not escape:

The man who reads this in his arm-chair in the Athenaum Club would take it all quite differently if I could walk up and down in front of him and shake my fist in his face.

(It was a lovely episode this recalls to my mind. King Edward- God bless him! – said to me once in one of my moments of wild enthusiasm: “Would you kindly Ieave off shaking your fist in my face?”)

I tried once, so as to make the dead print more lifelike, using different kinds of type-big Roman block letters for the "fist-shaking," large italics for the cajoling, small italics for the facts, and ordinary print for the fool. The printer's price was ruinous, and the effect ludicrous. But I made this compromise and he agreed to it -whenever the following words occurred they were to be printed in large capitals: "Fool," “Ass”, “Congenital idiot.”

Myself, I don't know that I am singular, but I seldom read a book. I look at the pages as you look at a picture, and grasp it that way. Of course, I know what the skunks will say when they read this -"Didn't I tell you he was superficial ? And here he is judged out of his own mouth.”

Fisher as First Sea Lord 1904-1910
One particular Chapter heading is irresistible:

Chapter VII

An entire chapter, entitled “THINGS THAT PLEASE ME” is  a mixture of insights of genius, common sense, obsessions, trivialities and just about anything that came into Fisher's head. Here’s a section, separated as he listed them.
*             *             *

Thou shalt not kill, but needst not strive Officiously to keep alive! (When catching Submarines)"

*             *             *

I never bother to bother to bother about anyone who doesn’t’ bother about Me!

*             *             *

"Put on the impenetrable armour of contempt and fortitude."

*             *             *

Never fight a Chimney Sweep; some of the soot comes off on you.

*             *             *

“Liberty of Conscience" means doing wrong but not worrying about it afterwards.

*             *             *

" Tact" is insulting a man without his knowing it.

*             *             *

Even a man's faults may reflect his virtues.

*             *             *

Sincerity is the road to Heaven.
*             *             *

I thought it would be a good thing to be a missionary, but I thought it would be better to be First Sea Lord.

*             *             *

Think in Oceans – shoot at sight.

*             *             *

Big Conceptions and Quick Decisions.

*             *             *

Napoleonic in Audacity,
Cromwellian in Thoroughness.
Nelsonic in Execution.

*             *             *

"Surprise" –  the pith and marrow of war!

*             *         *

Audacity and Imagination beget Surprise

*             *             *

Rashness in War is Prudence.

*             *             *

Prudence in war is Imbecility.

*             *             *

Hit first ! Hit hard ! Keep on hitting ! ! (The 3 H's)

*             *             *

The 3 Requisites for Success – Ruthless, Relentless, Remorseless (The 3 R's)

*             *             *

BUSINESS – CaIl on a Business man in Business hours only on Business. Transact your Business and go about your Business, in order to give him time to finish his business, and you time to mind your own Business'.
[I had this printed on cards, one of which was handed to every caller on me at the Admiralty.]

*             *             *
The Nelsonic Attributes –
(a)    Self Reliance.
(b)   Power of Initiative.
(c)    Fearlessness of Responsibility.
(d)   Fertility of Resource.
*             *             *

Originality never yet led to Preferment.

*             *             *

Mediocrity is the Road to Honour.

*             *             *

No difficulty baffies great zeal.

*             *             *

The Pavement of Life is strewn with Orange Peel.

*             *             *

Inconsistency is the bugbear of Silly Asses.

*             *             *

Never Deny: Never Explain : Never Apologise.

*             *             *

The Best Scale for an experiment is 12 inches to a foot.

*             *             *

Dean Swift satirized the vulgar exclusiveness of those who desired the infinite meadows of Heaven only to be frequented by the religious sect they adorned on earth:
“We are God’s chosen few!
All others will be damned!
There is no place in Heaven for you,
We can’t have Heaven crammed!”

                           *               *              *

Dread Nought is over 80 times in the Bible (“Fear Not”) so I took as my motto “Fear God and Dreadnought!”

                           *             *                *

If as is often said, Genius and Madness are not far apart , then Fisher was a splendid example!


I’m flattered to have been asked to be a speaker at the Weymouth Leviathan Maritime Literary Festival in March next year. I’ll also be running a workshop on plot-development for aspiring writers. I'll be delighted to be able to meet fans who can attend and to discuss with them  my books and my approach to research and writing, It promises to be a fascinating occasion. I'll be providing updates as details are firmed up but on the meantime, if you're in the UK in 12th-13th March period next year please consider reserving a slot in your diary.  

Friday, 13 November 2015

The Indestructible Admiral Nesbit Willoughby (1777–1849)

It is only in the last few days, while perusing a publication of mid-19th Century vintage that I came across a reference to Admiral Sir Nesbit Josiah Willoughby (1777–1849) who “has so lately departed from the scene of earthly fame.” The writer went on to portray Willoughby as “one of those men from whose breast all sense of danger seems to have been banished.” Instances to evidence this were then quoted, some of which I’ll refer to later in this article. He seems to have been an extraordinary figure, one whom a novelist would hesitate to create lest accused of exaggeration.

The Guns of HMS Sceptre - by Lady Anne Barnard
I hadn’t come across Willoughby before, though I’ll do my best to find out more, particularly as the regards the most unusual phase of his career. He had entered the Royal Navy in 1790 and in 1799 he was lucky to have survived the wreck of the 64-gun HMS Sceptre at Table Bay, at Cape Town, South Africa. She was caught at anchor by a sudden storm and her cables parted. She was driven onto a nearby reef and pounded to destruction. Over  350 of her crew died and there were only 42 survivors. One was Willoughby.
The Battle of Copenhagen - a brutal slogging match. Painting by Christian Molstead

Willoughby was to distinguish himself in 1801, as a lieutenant, at the Battle of Copenhagen. Here he boarded the Danish ship Provestein  “under fire from her lower-deck guns ,and with only thirty men, succeeded in keeping possession of her in the most trying circumstances” (One is impressed by how the Victorians could refer to close-quarter slaughter by terms such as “trying circumstances”!)  This should have led to greater things but Willoughby was court-martialled for “insolent behaviour” to a senior officer. He seems to have had previous form on this score and as this was a second offence he was dismissed from the service.

Jean-Jacques Dessalines (1758-1806)
When war with France resumed in 1803, following the short-lived peace of Amiens, Willoughby immediately volunteered for service – insolent or not, capable officers must have been at  a premium. He soon found himself assigned to the Blockade of Haiti (or “Saint-Domingue” as it was then referred to) which had been almost completely overrun by Haitian forces under the command of the brilliant and ruthless General Jean-Jacques Dessalines. The remaining French forces were isolated in the two large ports of Cap Français and Môle-Saint-Nicolas and a few smaller settlements. When war broke out in May 1803, Britain immediately despatched a squadron to eliminate communication between the French outposts and to capture or destroy the French warships based in the colony. Several actions followed and some of the French ships manged to Spain. One significant action was when HMS Hercule, on which Willoughby was serving, encountered the French frigate Poursuivante. A spirited action followed but the more nimble Poursuivante managed to escape. In this period the Hercule was caught in a hurricane. Willoughby was in the sick bay at the time but when the fore-topmast was carried away his illness did not stop him going aloft to help clear the wreckage.
Poursuivante vs HMS Hercule: byLouis-Philippe Crepin (CC BY-SA 2.0 fr)

 By November the French garrison at Cap Français was starving and an agreement was negotiated  by them with the Haitians that they could evacuate safely provided they would leave by 1st December. The British blockading force refused the French permission to sail and there was no option but to surrender.  A French ship, the Clorinde, that attempted to escape but was almost wrecked but saved by Willoughby, who not only rescued the 900 people on board, but also refloated the vessel.

Action against the Dutch forces on the Caribbean island of Curacoa now followed. A British force was landed and began siege operations which were ultimately to be abandoned as too costly. One of the officers who landed was Willoughby “who had charge of the advanced batteries and, in order to encourage his men under the tremendous fire that was kept up, he took his meals in the most exposed situation. The earth was ploughed up all around him, and one man we believe was killed close to the spot; but still the table and chair of the daring young officer who sat there remained untouched. On one occasion Lieutenant Samuel Perrott R.M. (Royal Marines) was induced to seat himself in the chair; scarcely had he done so when a shot came, took off his left arm, badly wounded the knee upon which it had been resting, and knocked the table to atoms.”

One can but wonder whether Willoughby’s heroics on this occasion were in fact in any way supportive of the morale of his men. One suspects that he might not have been popular for such behaviour and he was later to gain a reputation for taking “a great delight in inflicting punishment”, which was ultimately to lead to another court-martial, in 1808. On this occasion he was acquitted, but with the advice “to be more moderate in future in his language”.

Duckworth's squadron forcing the Dardanelles
Willoughby had the distinction of the last man to leave Curacao when the British withdrew, just as he had been the first ashore, and he had destroyed one of the main defences, Fort Piscadero, which he had led a storming party to capture. His name next came to prominence in 1807, during the Royal Navy’s successful attempt to run a fleet up the Dardanelles (this operation – which was more successful than the attempt 108 years later – is worth a future blog). Willoughby was now serving on the “74” HMS Ajax and on 14th February, while anchored off the island of Tenedos, just outside the Straits, she caught fire. At the cost of some 250 lives she was to be a total loss. Willoughby distinguished himself in rescuing survivors but suffered burns himself. A few weeks later he was injured  in another shore attack, so badly that a surgeon pronounced his wounds to be mortal. “He had been struck by two pistol balls, one of which entered his head in the direction of the brain, where it remained through his lifetime, while the other cut his cheek in two.”
HMS Ajax
 Surviving, and now an acting but not yet confirmed post-captain, Willoughby was appointed to command of the 36-gun ex-French frigate  HMS Nereide. In her he was to be involved in the 1809-11 campaign to capture the French island-base of Mauritius in the Indian Ocean. Further raids by landing parties – which Willoughby was now well versed in – led to his confirmation as “post”. In one such attack he was however wounded very seriously again –this time when a musket he was firing exploded and shattered his jaw. A complicated series of naval engagements followed – they deserve an article to themselves in due course – but they were to culminate in the disastrous Battle of Grand Port, which was to be the only significant French naval victory in the Napoleonic wars. In the course of it two French frigates, Bellona and Minerve, a corvette, Victor, and two captured East-Indiamen, Windham and Ceylon, trapped four British frigates, Sirius, Iphegenia, Magicienne and Nereide in a bay. Sirius ran aground and was burned to avoid capture,  Magicienne was similarly destroyed and Nereide lost main and mizzen masts and was beaten to a wreck before Willoughby surrendered her. Iphigenia almost escaped but was captured when a larger French force arrived.
Battle of Grand Port, 1810 - by Pierre-Julien Gilbert (CC BY-SA 2.0 fr)
On Willoughby’s Nereide 222 out of her 281 man crew were dead or wounded. Among the latter was – inevitably – Willoughby himself and he found himself treated in the same room as the wounded French commander, Duperré . Released after the British capture of the island ,Willoughby was duly court-martialled for the loss of his ship. He was acquitted with the comment that “the Nereide had been carried into action in a most judicious, officer-like and gallant manner.” Despite this he was not offered a new command.

Willoughby now took the most remarkable step of his career, and entered the phase which is apparently least documented. In 1812 he offered his services to the Russian government and was accepted for service on land rather than at sea. Appointed Colonel he was soon in action against the invading French and he was taken prisoner “owing to his generosity in giving his horse up to some wounded Russian soldiers, and thus became involved in all the horrors of the retreat from Moscow.” The nature of his subsequent adventures is uncertain – though this writer, Antoine Vanner, is thirsting to find out more. According to the “Annual Register” in the year of his death it was recorded that “at Leipzig had his right arm shattered by cannon shot”. How he came to be involved at this “Battle of Nations” in 1813 must be a dramatic story in his own right. 
Retreat from Moscow 1812 - Willoughby survived it
 Willoughby saw some further service in the Royal Navy thereafter and was knighted twice, the second time apparently by accident because the “Sailor King” William IV had forgotten that he was already knighted. (It seems inevitable that such bizarre incidents should continue to feature in Willoughby’s career.) He was advanced to Rear Admiral of the Blue in 1817. In his later years he appears “to have got religion” and 1839 published “Extracts from Holy Writ and various Authors, for Soldiers and Seamen “, which was described as “a pious and well-intentioned compilation from a very heterogeneous set of authors”. He never married.

The “Annual Register” listed at the time of his death his other injuries besides that sustained at Leipzig : "He was eleven times wounded with balls, three times with splinters, and cut in every part of his body with sabres and tomahawks: his face was disfigured by explosions of gunpowder, and he lost an eye and had part of his neck and jaw shot away.” 

Few officers of his era had survived as much – it was rightly said that “he seems to have possessed more lives than a cat with all the courage of a British lion.” One wishes to know yet more about this amazing man.


Britannia's Wolf - the first book in the Dawlish Chronicles Series 

1877: Russian forces drive deep into the corrupt Ottoman-Turkish Empire.  In the depths of a savage winter, as the Turks face defeat on all fronts, a British officer is enmeshed and finds himself confronting enemy ironclads, Cossack lances and merciless Kurdish irregulars. And in the midst of this chaos, while he himself is a pawn in the rivalry of the Sultan’s half-brothers for control of the collapsing empire, he is unwillingly and unexpectedly drawn to a woman whom he believes he should not love.

Click here to learn more and to read the opening by the "Look Inside" feature