Monthly Archives: December 2008

Royal Naval Academy

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The Taking of Banda

Fort Belgica, Banda Neira

Fort Belgica, Banda Neira

The global reach afforded Britain by way of its dominance of the sea meant that no part of the enemy’s territory that was within reach of the sea was safe. When this mobility was coupled with the dash and daring we associate with the Royal Navy, it meant relatively small forces could have a disparate impact.

Such was the case of the British capture of Banda and Fort Belgica (pictured above) on August 9, 1810.
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Sailors and Swimming

One of the articles of faith in most nautical fiction of the Age of Sail is the notion that sailor’s were generally non-swimmers.

The Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brian note that Jack is unusual in his strong swimming ability and had saved several sailors from drowning. One of the recurring characters, “Awkward” Davies, was saved from this fate twice.

Allegedly, this came from the fatalistic idea that if they went overboard it was best to simply drown and get it over with rather than swimming. That may be the case. It might equally be the equivalent of an urban legend. But a small article in the Naval Chronicle from the December 1810-January 1811 issue indicates that there may be more to this than the imaginings of twentieth century writers.

Reward for Life Saving

The crew of his Majesty’s sloop Childers, has presented an elegant sword, with a suitable inscription, to Mr. George Wilson, master of that ship, as a mark of their esteem for his jumping overboard at sea, and saving, at the risk of his own life, one of their shipmates from a watery grave, who had fallen from the fore-yard-arm, and was in the act of sinking.

From what we know of the ship (it was stationed in the North Sea and operated against Danish and Norwegian shipping from 1808 until it was broken up in 1811) the jump made by Mr. Wilson would have been unpleasant at any time of year and life threatening most of the time. The actions of the crew indicate that such an action was not only unusual but unexpected. The fact that it was mentioned in the Naval Chronicle also indicates this was an unusual act.

Maybe there is a factual basis to the idea of sailors not swimming.

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Weather Gage

To a landsman, like myself, a lot of the maneuvering described by authors who understand sailing and sailing ships approaches impenetrable. One of the most common terms we encounter is the “weather gage” and the desirability of achieving it.

There is no doubt that the Royal Navy placed a heavy premium on this position, but did it really do what many think it does? Continue reading

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Recurring Alan Lewrie Characters

Posted an update of the list of characters from the Alan Lewrie novels. This update covers The King’s Commission.

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Victory Firing a Broadside

Just came across this video clip of HMS Victory firing a broadside at dusk. It is probably the first broadside fired by Victory since Trafalgar. It is impressive even when one considers the cartridges are undoubtedly the equivalent of salute cartridges and not full charges.

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“…seasick at Spithead”


Spithead was the great anchorage of the Royal Navy located adjacent to the port city of Portsmouth. Spithead continues to be the scene of naval reviews such as Trafalgar 200 International Fleet Review. This image provides a view of Spithead to the right foreground an is oriented up The Solent towards Southampton.

Spithead provided a very sheltered anchorage, heavily defended by land fortifications, that had the advantage of allowing ships to exit under most wind conditions.

Spithead was also the site of one of the two great mutinies of the Royal Navy in 1797, unlike the later one at the Nore, the Spithead mutiny was settled peacefully and resulted in substantial reforms in the Royal Navy.

For fans of C. S. Forester and Horatio Hornblower, Spithead is where Midshipman Hornblower began his naval career on the HMS Justinian and became famed as the midshipman who was seasick at Spithead.

If you are interested in what Portsmouth, Spithead, and The Solent look like from a glider be sure to drop by this site.

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Filed under Age of Sail, Geography, Horatio Hornblower Novels

“From Ushant to Scilly is thirty-five leagues”

The Isles of Scilly are the northernmost boundary of the Western Approaches of the English Channel. During the Age of Sail the overwhelming majority of British and Continental shipping exited the English Channel using the southern landmark, Ushant, as the point of departure for destinations in the West Indies, the Americas, and the Far East.

Both these landfalls are memorialized in the sea shanty Spanish Ladies:

We will rant and we’ll roar like true British sailors,
We’ll rant and we’ll roar all on the salt sea.
Until we strike soundings in the channel of old England;
From Ushant to Scilly is thirty five leagues.

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John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent

Many historical characters wend their way through the nautical fiction of the Age of Sail. The Royal Navy was a fairly small organization, especially in the number of officers, and as employment was gained via interest and patronage it is essential that the heroes in these books have a patron. If the character is to insinuate himself into real events, the patron must be real.

We’ve already touched on the initial sponsor of young Midshipman Alan Lewrie, Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. Fans of Horatio Hornblower will know that he achieved post rank through the patronage of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. One significant figure crosses the stage frequently but thus far I have yet to encounter him as a patron of one of our heroes.

That figure is the imminently unlovable John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent.

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The Cat of Nine Tails

The cat. Scratched by the cat. Let the cat out of the bag. These terms figure prominently in most nautical fiction set during the Age of Sail. Collingwood was famous for his reluctance to use the cat. St. Vincent, on the other hand, not so much.

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