Monthly Archives: July 2009

Rear Admiral Sir Home Popham

Admiral Sir Home Popham
Home Popham was born at Gibraltar in 1762 while his father, Joseph, was Britain’s consul in Tetuan, Morocco. His father was apparently a devotee of both marriage and fatherhood. Home allegedly had twenty siblings and some twenty-three half-siblings.

He wasn’t immediately destined for the navy. In 1776, he enrolled in Trinity College, Cambridge. He went on a couple of short voyages while at Cambridge, and in 1778 he made a firm decision joining the navy aboard HMS Hyena, commanded by family friend Captain Edward Thompson, and was present at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent where Hyena was a repeating frigate.

Hyena paid off in 1782 as the American Revolution was winding down. Captain Thompson was promoted to commodore and given command of a small squadron off the coast of West Africa. He brought young Home along with him as a marine surveyor. Shortly thereafter Popham was promoted to lieutenant.

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Music for Overnight

Lyrics with translation

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Captains Contentious

Old Salt Blog has posted an excellent review of Louis Arthur Norton’s book Captains Contentious – The Dysfunctional Sons of the Brine.

Sometimes it is hard to fathom how the United States either gained or maintained her independence given the surplus of knaves and poltroons who gravitated to our army and navy in times of national crisis. George Washington spent the first half of the American Revolution fighting off various intrigues designed to have him removed from office. Our small and largely ineffectual navy was beset by narcissists and self-promoters. We produced enough savants, idiot and otherwise, to win. Barely.

A bit of the review

Norton looks at five ship’s captains who fought for the infant American Navy in the Revolutionary War. When not fighting the British, these captains also fought with each other, with their crews, their peers and with politicians ashore. Their personal quirks and flaws, in turn, hindered their careers and helped shape their victories. Norton examines the exploits of John Manley, Silas Talbot, Dudley Saltonstall, Joshua Barney and John Paul Jones. Each is a fascinating study in the character of these courageous if often flawed naval commanders.

Help keep the lights on and beer flowing. Buy a book.

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Robert Surcouf

Statue of Robert Surcouf in Saint Malo

Statue of Robert Surcouf in Saint Malo

Robert Surcouf was as close to a born privateer as one was likely to find. Born on December 12, 1773 in Saint Malo, both his mother and father’s families had produced famous privateers among them René Duguay-Trouin.

He was reputed to be a rowdy young man, prone to fighting, and he was packed off to sea in March, 1789, aboard the slaver Aurore. In February, 1789, Aurore with a load of slaves was caught in a tropical cyclone and wrecked in East Africa. The ship was repairable and Surcouf came to the captain’s attention through his energy and perseverance while removing the rapidly decomposing bodies of 400 dead slaves from the hold of the ship so it could be made seaworthy. He was hired on as first mate in that captain’s next ship.  That ship was also wrecked and Surcouf signed onto the French corvette Bienvenue which was bound for Lorient to be paid off. He arrived back in Brittany in January 1792. Continue reading


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Saint Malo: The City of Corsairs

st, maloThe Breton city of Saint Malo was infamous to the British navy and merchantmen as a home of some of the most brazen privateers produced by France. In earlier wars, British merchantmen had paid tribute directly to Saint Malo to allow unhindered passage through the English channel.

Though Dunkirk produced more privateers, Saint Malo figures more prominently in naval fiction. It also produced Robert Surcouf, who’s activities when based out of Mauritius made capturing that island a necessity for the British.

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The Mauritius Campaign: Prelude

The last novel I summarized on this blog was the C. Northcote Parkinson novel, featuring is character Richard Delancey, Dead Reckoning. The book covers about five years of Delancey’s career and involves operations in Borneo and, most significantly, against the remaining French possessions centered on Mauritius.

I’ll be using the next few posts to acquaint you with some of the characters involved in the campaign and some of the actions which lead up to it.

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Music For Overnight

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Kapuas River

KapuasIn C. Northcote Parkinson’s Richard Delancey novel Dead Reckoning, Captain Delancey tracks a French privateer to its base on the Kapuas River in Borneo. The privateer is protected by a stockade which fortifies both sides of the river.

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Dead Reckoning

Dead Reckoning fast forwards the life of C. Northcote Parkinson’s character Richard Delancey by four years picking up in late 1805. When we left Delancey in Touch and Go he was a recently made commander on the eve of the Peace of Amiens. Now he is a married post captain with one commission, in the 28-gun frigate HMS Vengeance, under his belt.

He receives his orders to take command of the aging 32-gun frigate, HMS Laura, to the Far East with trepidation. He is deeply in love with his wife, an actress and only barely socially acceptable, and doesn’t look forward to the long separation. But he is not financially secure enough to decline the commission and spend the rest of his life on half-pay.

Major spoilers follow.
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Captain Conway Shipley

shipley(photo located here)
We briefly mention Commander Conway Shipley in the story below, Capture of l’Egyptienne. In that story he is the 21 year old commander of HMS Hippomenes who gave chase to, and captured, the 36-gun privateer l’Egyptienne in the Windward Islands. But sometimes these marginal notes become interesting stories in their own right.

Shipley was the son of William Davies Shipley, the dean of St. Asaph, who had achieved some degree of notoriety in his own right as the subject of a libel prosecution by the Crown.

We don’t know much about Shipley. We can presume that he went to sea in his early teens and had probably been carried on the muster roll of one or more ships since age five or so because he was already a commander at age 21. Based on his encounter with l’Egyptienne he seems to have been an energetic officer and after that adventure he remained in command of Hippomenes until November when he was posted captain. Continue reading


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