Monthly Archives: February 2009
In Nelson’s Navy, Brian Lavery makes an interesting observation. Contra what we read in naval fiction set during the Age of Sail, or even what some contemporaneous writers assert, the range of the carronade was not significantly inferior to the long guns it replaced.
Experiments conducted by the Admiralty in 1813 determined that at point-blank range, that is, an elevation of zero degrees, a long 24-pounder had a range of 200 yards. A 32-pounder carronade, under the same conditions had a range of 340 yards. When the 24-pounder fired at its maximum elevation, 9 degrees, it could reach 2213 yards. The carronade firing a it’s max elevation of 11 degrees could reach 1930 yards.
To a certain extent that isn’t surprising. The carronade, as we’ve noted were bored with a much tighter windage than long guns making the propellant more efficient. The carronade fired a hollow shot which reduced the notional weight of a 32-pounder into the 20-something pound range. Powder was probably apportioned based on the notional weight of a 32-pound shot and not on its actual weight which means the 24-pounder was using 8 pounds of powder while the 32-pounders was using slightly more than 10 pounds.
As we’ve noted, though, the whole issue of range is simply a smoke screen. Naval artillery during the Age of Sail simply did not have the fire control equipment and range tables to fire competently beyond point blank range. The crews of ships had neither the training nor, in the overwhelming number of cases, the interest or inclination to employ the guns as other than sort range weapons.
On the morning of October 22, 1812 the USS Vixen, a brig armed with twelve 18-pound carronades, departed its base at St Mary’s, Georgia, for a 30-day cruise raiding British commerce in the Caribbean. Vixen was commanded by 32 year old George Washington Reed, youngest son of George Washington’s adjutant general and had a crew of 110.
The crew was fairly uneventful from a combat and prize money point of view and on November 22, Vixen was homeward bound and two days out of St Mary’s. Then the adventure started.
The sailor during the Age of Sail rather epitomized the concept of “work hard, play hard.” When at sea, he could be called on deck at all hours in all weather to set or reef sail. When in port and allowed ashore, or even if he wasn’t allowed ashore and the ship went “out of discipline” he engaged in Biblical levels of debauchery. Naturally, the “Portsmouth brutes” that one would expect to think nothing of spending days and nights between decks of a man o’ war with 28-inches of space allocate per hammock brought more than ambiance on board. They also brought syphilis.
Novelists are generally just that. Novelists. That’s not a criticism but an observation. With the rare exception of a writer like Dudley Pope who had developed some chops as a writer of nonfiction, most novelists rely on a handful of works for any historical period. It is impossible to read Bernard without hearing the echoes of The Recollections of Rifleman Harris, The Letters of Private Wheeler, and, of course, Elizabeth Pakenham’s indispensable biography of Wellington. For the novels set during the Age of Sail it is obvious that Sea Life in Nelson’s Time by John Masefield (1905) is the Q document.
What sets Masefield apart from other sources is that 1) he didn’t actually experience the events, 2) his sourcing is opaque, to say the least, 3) he’s not a historian, and 4) his later fame, a Britain’s Poet Laureate, gives credibility to the work.
I say this because much of Masefield’s description of life at sea during the Age of Sail permeates fiction set during that era. And a great deal of what he describes is simply wrong when weighed against contemporaneous accounts. Be that as it may, his influence is there and must be addressed.
The real story follows.
Sir Henry Trollope was the son of the Reverend John Trollope of Bucklebury, Berkshire. He was born on Apri 20, 1756. His father was a younger brother of the minor nobility and had the family connections to get Henry posted to the flagship of Rear Admiral John Montagu when he was sent to sea in April 1771. Montagu remained his patron. He returned home in 1774 and immediately joined HMS Asia under Captain George Vandeput which was returning to North America.
Let’s face it. When it comes to nautical fiction we are all Anglophiles. The major fictional heroes of the Age of Sail are British. Alexander Kent is probably one of the few authors who have managed to sell books in the United States in which Americans are the enemy.
There are undoubtedly novels out there in which a French naval officer is the hero, but I’ve just not encountered them.
Just because our fiction in Anglophile, it doesn’t mean we should accept the prejudices held by the British Navy as being accurate.
In fiction, two of these prejudices have acquired the level of articles of faith. The first is the supremacy of the weather gage, the second is the superiority of aiming at the hull of the opponent, “‘twixt wind and water,” rather than the rigging.
Let’s look at them.
We’ve observed on several occasions that many of the incidents in novels set during the Age of Sail are heavily influenced by actual events. In most cases, the novel’s protagonist expands on the accomplishments of the actual character. In Ramages’s Diamond, Lord Ramage manages to turn the battery later known as HMS Fort Diamond into a combat multiplier that enables his mini-squadron consisting of his frigate, a prize frigate, and a prize sloop to snap up a French convoy and its escorts.
Alexander Kent, on the other hand, perhaps feeling that the actual event was too improbable, actually downplays Nelson’s use of one Spanish ship of the line as a bridge to board and take a second, larger Spanish ship of the line and has Richard Bolitho use a friendly brig as a bridge to board and take a French frigate.
Every once in a while, though, the novel’s protagonist makes out worse than the actual character.
In the aftermath of Nymphe’s being taken by Flora, the Navy Board quickly became enamored of the carronade and the weapon’s effectiveness in combat had silenced naysayers. By January 1781, 604 carronades were mounted on 429 ships. This is probably a record for a new weapon being adopted.
The next step in the experiment was an all-carronade frigate. For this project the HMS Rainbow (44) under Captain Henry Trollope was chosen. Rainbow exchanged her 20 long 18-pounders and 22 long 12-pounders for 20 68-pounder, 22 42-pounder, and 6 32-pounder carronades. Then went out hunting.
On 2 September 1782 Ile de Bas she encountered the French frigate Hebe (40). The ships maneuvered for position and Captain Trollope engaged Hebe with the 32-pounders on his forecastle. One or more of the shots hit killing five Frenchmen. The captain of Hebe examined the fragments of the hollow carronade shot and concluded that if she was firing 32-pounders as chase pieces she was actually a ship of the line in disguise. He fired one broadside, “pour l’honneur de pavilion,” and struck his colors.
Rainbow lost only one man. The French lost five killed, including the second captain, and several wounded out of a crew of 360 men.