Monthly Archives: May 2009

The Gale at the Nore. Richard Parker. Part 2.

Personnel is policy. This is just as true in mutiny as it is in business and government. Where the Spithead Mutiny was led by experienced and accomplished seamen, the mutiny at The Nore was led by an embittered quota man: Richard Parker.

Parker is a character swathed in legend. What we know for a fact is that he was baptized at St. Mary Major, Exeter, on April 24, 1767, and his father was a prosperous baker in Exeter.

The Dictionary of National Biography states:

He entered the navy as a midshipman in a frigate cruising in the Soundings, and is stated to have been acting-lieutenant at the close of the American war. He is also said to have returned home with a considerable share of prize-money, which he spent riotously to have conceived himself ill treated by his captain, and to have sent him a challenge, which the captain promised to answer with his cane.

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Ramage

Ramage is the first novel in the Lord Ramage series by Dudley Pope which chronicles the adventures of Nicholas Ramage, a British naval officer during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

Ramage is set in the Mediterranean theater around 1796, after Nelson has left HMS Agamemnon for HMS Captain. We join Ramage when he is already a lieutenant.

Major spoilers follow.
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Music for a Friday Night


Nothing nautical, but they are the Dubliners and the song is by Dominic Behan, and that is enough.

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The Gale At The Nore. Part 1. Prelude.

Like the mutiny at Spithead, the Nore mutiny was born of anger and frustration on the part of the common sailor. There were significant differences in the make up of the fleets at those two locations. That in turn led to different leadership and that leadership led to tragically different outcomes.

Where Spithead was the home to the Channel Fleet, The Nore was the home of the North Sea fleet under Admiral Adam Duncan. The Channel Fleet regularly stayed at Spithead because if they were caught at sea in adverse weather conditions they could be driven completely up the Channel and leave England vulnerable to a cross Channel attack, in the worst case, or allow the French fleet to sortie. So while frigates screened the major French ports with some reinforcing ships of the line, most of the fleet was best deployed by being at anchor.

The North Sea fleet presented a different set of facts. Admiral Duncan’s North Sea fleet was constantly at sea and split between The Nore, the anchorage at Great Yarmouth, and on station off Texel. The duty was arduous and Duncan’s ships were old. Some of them nearly 30 years old at the time of the Battle of Camperdown, later in 1797.

Most importantly, Admiral Duncan was kept at sea and unable to exert the same influence over either his men, or his officers, as Bridport at Spithead.

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Navy Cheese

Cheese was one of the staple foods on a British man o’ war. Twelve ounces of cheese were issued per sailor each week.

According to Janet MacDonald in Feeding Nelson’s Navy, in the early part of the 18th Century the cheese favored by the Victualling Board was Suffolk cheese. Suffolk cheese was made from milk that had been “thrice skimmed” of cream. The resulting product kept for a long time, unfortunately, it was hard and inedible. A writer discussing English agriculture in the first half of the 19th Century observed:

“Suffolk cheese, from its poverty, is frequently the subject of much humour. It is by some represented as only fit for making wheels for wheelbarrows ; and a story is told, that a parcel of Suffolk cheese being packed up in an iron chest and put on board a ship bound to the East Indies, the rats, allured by the scent, gnawed a hole in the chest, but could not penetrate the cheese.”

When it did get old it became infested with red worms (Eisenia fetida). By 1758 the Victualling Board dropped Suffolk cheese from it list of foodstuffs replacing it with Cheshire, Cheddar, Gloustershire, or Warwickshire cheese. These cheeses did not have the shelf life but complaints about the quality of the cheese virtually ceased when Suffolk cheese went by the board.

Like most agricultural tasks, cheese was a seasonal activity. It could only be undertaken in spring and summer when cows, usually newly calfed, would produce the most milk.

It also had a limited shelf life. Regulations provided that if any batch of cheese did not remain good for six months the government would not pay for any of the batch and the producer would have to remove it at their own expense. Pursers were warned that if they did not issue all their cheese within three months they government would not give them credit for any unused portion.

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Porto Santo Stefano

porto s stefano
Porto San Stefano. A village located in the municipality, and on the peninsula of, Monte Argentario in Tuscany.

This is the town where Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage, escaping in a launch from his sunken frigate HMS Sibella, found the doctor for the wounded refugee his ship had been sent to Italy to rescue, Marchessa de Volterra.

Ramage’s boat approached from the north and was hidden across the headland from the harbor.

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The Issue of Provisions

provisions
The life of the sailor revolved around meals. The mess, typically 4 to 8 men, constituted the social organization aboard ship and meals provided the high points in days filled with monotony. Each mess was assigned a number, HMS Victory, for instance, had 165 separate messes. As a former infantryman, I can attest that the single hot meal we received daily on extended deployments was a similar high point.

Meal times were sacrosanct. According to Janet MacDonald in Feeding Nelson’s Navy, when Sir Edward Pellew took over the East Indies squadron in 1805 all meal times were dictated by signals from his flagship and Nelson’s standing orders stated musters and drills could not take place during meal times.

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Rediscovering Nicholas Ramage

I was familiar with Dudley Pope’s nonfiction work long before I ever became acquainted with his Nicholas Ramage novels. I read his Battle of the River Plate in high school and purchased his Great Gamble: Nelson at Copenhagen some 30 years ago, in hardback and when I really couldn’t afford it.

I blundered into Ramage’s Diamond some years ago but Pope’s books are hard to find, or were before the era of Amazon and Borders, and the only other book in this series that I’ve read is Ramage’s Mutiny. I read both of these before I’d really started exploring the side currents of naval warfare in the Age of Sail and found Ramage to be too perfect a character. Where Hornblower is constantly beset with self doubts, Ramage is a natural commander and seaman who is loved by his men and supremely confident in his abilities.

Having abandoned my attempt to read the Thomas Kydd novels, I decided to start with the first Ramage novel, eponymously titled Ramage.

Thus far I haven’t been disappointed. Lieutenant Ramage is an interesting character: intense, hard nosed, and with an amusing speech impediment that wasn’t mentioned in the later two novels I’d read. Some reviewers have pooh-poohed his luck but, again, if one looks at actual incidents during the age Pope’s fiction is just as plausible as what actually happened.

I plan to do a synopsis of the book in the next week and move on to the next in the series as I await then next Alan Lewrie novel.

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A Reader Comments

Reader richardspilman takes me to task for overstating the quality of British men o’ war and understating the design characteristics of French built ships. Read the discussion.

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Admiral Adam Duncan, 1st Viscount Duncan

duncan
One of the crucial figures in British naval history at the time of the mutinies at Spithead and The Nore was Admiral Adam Duncan. Often history has a way of inserting the right man at the right place at the right time and Admiral Duncan can be single handedly credited with keeping the Dutch fleet in port while the British government flailed about trying to resolve the mutinies. Continue reading

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