As I’ve noted in the past, an astonishing number of historical characters have roles in Dewey Lambdin’s Alan Lewrie novels. One of those who makes an appearance in A King’s Commander is Captain, later Admiral, George Cockburn.
Cockburn, pronounced “Coe-burn”, is most famous to American readers for burning Washington, DC and on his way through the area confiscating the letter “C” from print shops so his name could not be spelled.
He was a real character, a protégé and favorite of Horatio Nelson, a devoted, resourceful, and audacious naval officer, and First Lord of the Admiralty when steam and the screw propeller ended the era of fighting sail.
Ship design during the Age of Sail was characterized by a constant struggle to achieve an optimum balance between speed and firepower. As technology and the art of shipbuilding advanced the size of ships increased.
Under the standard rating system for men o’war, ships of the line came in four rates. 1st rates carrying 100-120 guns, 2d rates carrying 90-98 guns, 3rd rates carrying 64-80 guns, and 4th rates carrying 48-60 guns. By the latter half of the 19th century it was obvious that 4th rates and those 3rd rates carrying fewer than 74 guns could no longer hold a place in the line of battle. To compound their weakness as line of battle ships they were too slow to be used as frigates.
Navies were confronted with the dilemma of how to best use these ships as scrapping them before their useful life cycle was ended wasn’t a good option. The solution was to convert them as razees.
A razee was simply a larger warship with a deck removed, or razed, to convert it to a large frigate. The resulting ship would have the strength of construction to carry larger guns and take more punishment than other ships in its class. As a bonus, their increased length made them fast sailers.
This process will be familiar to anyone who wrestled in high school or college. A razee is the guy at the low end of a weight class who could shed 7-10 pounds in a week so he could wrestle at a couple of classes lower than his natural weight.
Take, for instance, Sir Edward Pellew’s famous HMS Indefatigable. Indefatigable started life as a 64-gun 3rd rate that was obsolete upon its launch in 1784. A fact that was recognized by the fact that this new ship was never commissioned. In 1794, Indefatigable was razeed into a 44-gun frigate converting a useless ship of the line into a frigate that could outsail anything it could not outfight.
As technology progressed, razees became more extreme. HMS Majestic was a 74-gun 3rd rate that was razeed into a 58-gun frigate. The US Navy razeed the USS Macedonian, the former 38-gun frigate HMS Macedonian, into a 20-gun sloop. The 50-gun USS Cumberland was razeed into a 24-gun sloop. In these latter two cases not only did the longer hull length and heavier construction overmatch other ships in their class, improvements in technology enabled them to carry the same weight of broadside as they had as larger ships.
Following the loss of Toulon to the French Army, the British Navy fell back towards Italy. Part of the strategy required Corsica to be wrested from French control. The British Navy contributed men and artillery toward the effort. One of th most energetic officers in the operation was Captain Horatio Hornblower.
On 10 July 1794 while conducting siege operations against Calvi, a French cannonball struck the merlon of the battery from which Nelson was observing the British bombardment. The stone splintered, some of it striking Nelson in the right eye. The medical certificate from the surgeon reads:
These are to Certify that Captain Horatio Nelson of his Majesty’s Ship Agamemnon, now serving on Shore at the Siege of Calvi, was on the 10th day of July last, wounded in the face and right eye, much injured by stones or splinters, struck by shot from the Enemy. There were several small lacerations about the face; and his eye so materially injured, that in my opinion, he will never recover the perfect use of it again.
Surgeon to the Forces in
Calvi, August 12th, 1794.
There is an interesting account of Nelson’s actions during this campaign here.
Success breeds complacency. Few things are more devastating to an effective military than a long period without significant challenge. The US Army discovered this brutal lesson in Korea. The British Navy discovered this in the War of 1812.
By 1812 England had been at war nearly constantly for nearly 40 years. While British arms on land weren’t always victorious, indeed they suffered more than their share of debacles, the Navy had establish an estimable record of success against all odds and had achieved not only tactical supremacy but psychological ascendancy over it’s European foes.
This invulnerability was shattered in July 1812 when the USS Constitution beat the HMS Guerriere to a shambles in a 35-minute engagement that left 21 British sailors dead and 57 wounded. This was followed by the loss of HMS Macedonian in October and of HMS Java in December. To a Navy and a public used to victories in single ship engagements, this was an earth shattering development.
The pattern continued until June 1, 1813 just outside Boston Harbor.
Ferrol, Galicia, has been linked to the sea for its entire history. The remnants of the Spanish Armada took shelter here and it remains the major Spanish naval base on the Atlantic coast.
Ferrol, of course, is also well known to fans of C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novels. The fortress at Ferrol, in the foreground, is where Midshipman Hornblower was imprisoned for two years and where, despite his lack of an ear for pronunciation, he learned Spanish that aided him in later adventures.
Captain Edward Riou
Earlier I noted how many, if not most, of the actions described in naval fiction actually have deep roots in the history of the Age of Sail. In that initial essay I pointed out how Richard Bolitho’s action in To Glory We Steer of boarding an enemy ship by using another ship as a bridge was actually less remarkable than the historical event, Captain Horatio Nelson of the 74-gun HMS Captain at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent using the 80-gun San Nicholas as a bridge to board and take the 112-gun San Josef.
I came across another instance in this description of Patrick O’Brian’s Jack Aubrey novel, Desolation Island.