In May, 1800, the USS Constitution, commanded by Captain Silas Talbot, looked into the neutral port of Puerto Plata, Dominican Republic, (pictured above) and found a French privateer, the former British packet Sandwich, sheltered there. Captain Talbot tells the story:
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 written a bit about cutting out expeditions. Some of these were large scale affairs like that conducted by Captain Sir Henry Duncan at Anzio in which a convoy of 29 French or allied merchantmen was cut out in broad daylight and the coastal fortifications reduced.
In this next installment we will take a look at the small scale variety of this activity.
On March 5, 1804 the British schooner Eclair (10) looked in at Deshaies, Guadaloupe (pictured above) and spotted a schooner anchored there covered by a coastal battery.
We don’t know much about the commander of Eclair, a Lieutenant William Carr, but what we know of his tenure in Eclair indicates that he was a scrapper. Only a month before, Eclair was returning from a routine mission of escorting a packet some 200 miles north of Tortola when an unidentified ship was spotted. Carr gave chase and brought to battle a 22-gun French privateer Grande Decide. They engaged in an exchange of broadsides and musket fire for some 45 minutes until Carr decided to board. The Frenchman decided not to oblige him and broke off the fight. Carr tried to pursue but his rigging was too badly mangled leaving him empty handed and with one dead marine and four wounded seamen. His willingness to attack and attempt to board a heavier armed and more heavily manned foe bespeaks a combative spirit.
Lieutenant Carr decided to try to cut out the schooneer from under the nose of the battery. The sailing master, Mister Salmon, and the ship’s surgeon volunteered to lead the expedition consisting of 10 seamen in Eclair’s boat. The mission started unraveling as soon as the small boat entered the harbor. They were spotted and came under heavy fire from the shore battery and the schooneer, but they preservered. The reached the schooner, boarded it, and carried it after a short fight, killing five and wounding ten of the crew of 49.
While still under fire the boarding party used a combination of towing and sweeps to move the schooner, named the Rose and carrying a brass 9-pounder, out of the harbor.
The boarding party suffered no losses.
Again, this is one of those stories any self-respecting novelist would have to significantly rewrite in order to make it seem believable to the modern reader.
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