I’ve noted at several places on this blog that a great many of the adventures of our favorite fictional naval officers are actually real incidents with some characters, sometimes not that many characters changed. Such is the case with Dudley Pope’s Lord Ramage novel, Ramage’s Prize.
Sit back and relax, this is a longish story but an interesting one.
“Port a point. Steady!”
The ship crept through the water; not a sound from the crew, standing tense at their guns — only the faint sweet music of the breeze in the rigging, and the lapping of the water overside. Now they were level with the infantry column, a long dense mass of blue-coated and white-breeched soldiers, stepping out manfully, a little unreal in the haze of dust. Above the blue coats could be seen the white lines of their faces — every face was turned towards the pretty white-sailed ship creeping over the blue-enamel water. It was a welcome diversion in a weary march, during a war when every day demanded its march. Gerard was giving no orders for a change of elevation at the moment — here the road ran level for a half a mile, fifty feet above the sea. Hornblower put his silver whistle to his lips. Gerard had seen the gesture. Before Hornblower could blow, the centre main-deck gun had exploded, and a moment later the whole broadside followed with a hideous crash. The Sutherland heeled to the recoil, and the white, bitter-tasting smoke came billowing up.
“God, look at that!” exclaimed Bush.
The forty-one balls from the Sutherland’s broadside and cannonades had swept the road from side to side. Fifty yards of the column had been cut to fragments. Whole files had been swept away; the survivors stood dazed and stupid. The gun trucks roared as the guns were run out again, and the Sutherland lurched once more at the second broadside. There was another gap in the column now, just behind the first.
This, of course, is from C. S. Forester’s Horatio Hornblower novel, Ship of the Line, and is a graphic depiction of what a ship of the line could do to ground troops under the right combination of circumstances. Hornblower’s actions are fiction, could this happen in real life? Continue reading
HMS Speedy (14) under Lord Thomas Cochrane takes the Spanish frigate El Gamo (32)
A quick perusal of this blog will show that I’ve shied away from writing much on major figures of the Age of Sail. While I have biographical entries on lesser known figures, like Sir Henry Duncan and Midshipman Flinders, there is no story on Horatio Nelson or, perhaps the most swashbuckling figure of the Napoleonic Wars, Lord Thomas Cochrane.
My reasoning is grounded equally in two sensibilities, practicality and snobbishness. Practicality because these two men have been the subject of an immense amount of study and literature and there is little I could add to anyone’s understanding of either. Snobbishness because these two men, etc. etc.
I’ll be deviating from this a bit as I delve more deeply into Dudley Pope’s Nicholas Ramage novels because Pope, probably because of his background as a chronicler of the Royal Navy, pulls in a significant number of incidents from the lives of these two men as plot elements.
Now to the story.
We often encounter references to the high esteem the British navy had for French men o’ war. In novels they are reputed to be faster and handier than their British counterparts and highly valued by the British navy and coveted commands.
Like most other stories, this can be traced with some certainty to John Masefield’s notoriously uninformed “Sea Life in Nelson’s Time.”
The French treated shipbuilding as an imaginative art. The very finest brains in the kingdom were exercised in the planning and creation of ships of beautiful model. Admirable workmen, and the best talents of France, produced, in the latter half of the eighteenth century, a number of sailing men-of-war which were more beautifully proportioned, faster on every point of sailing, stronger, and with larger batteries, than the ships built in this country at that time. A French 80-gun ship at the close of the eighteenth century was bigger, more roomy, faster, and a finer ship in every way, than our 98-gun ships. Our own men-of-war were so badly designed and proportioned that they were said to have been built by the mile, and cut off as required. They were very cramped between-decks, yet they were nearly always pierced for more guns than they could conveniently fight. They were very crank ships, and so “weak“ that they could not fight their lower-deck guns in anything like weather. They were slow at all points of sailing, and slack in stays. In heavy weather they sometimes rolled their masts out, or sprung them by violent pitching.
As we have to ask ourselves with any other statement made by Masefield, is this true?
On the morning of 21 January 1807 HMS Galatea (38), Captain George Sayer, was off the coast of Venezuela when she sighted a sail steering for Guaira near Caracas. Galatea put on more sail and as they closed, identified her as a man of war. They were seen at the same time and the unidentified ship changed her course for Barcelona, some 160 miles to the east.
By noon Galatea was becalmed while the strange sail had the benefit of a slight breeze and two hours later her top-gallant sails were scarcely above the horizon. Under ordinary circumstances one would assume that the chase made an escape but this wasn’t an ordinary circumstance.
I’ve stated before that often the only task that writers of historical novels set during the Age of Sail have to undertake is to make minor modifications of actual incidents to generate great plots. We’ve shown how Dudley Pope benefited from history in Ramage’s Diamond, how Alexander Kent downsizes Horatio Nelson’s actions at Cape St. Vincent, and how Patrick O’Brian pinched some of Edward Riou’s life for Desolation Island.
Sometimes real life probably wouldn’t make it past a vigilant editor. For instance, the seizure of Banda, the exploits of HMS Glatton, or the reckless gallantry of Robert Faulknor probably fall into this category.
Captain Henry Trollope with the moratlly wounded Marine Captain Henry Ludlow Strangeways on the deck of HMS Glatton
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 March 1770, HMS Swift, a 14 gun sloop-of-war commanded by Captain George Farmer and based at Port Egmont, West Falklands was engaged in a coastal survey of Patagonia. A violent gale materialized out of the South Atlantic and caught the Swift on a lee shore. Farmer ran for shelter in the estuary of the Deseado River in what is now the Santa Clara Cruz Province of Argentina.
Unfortunately for Farmer, Swift struck an uncharted rock, was badly holed, and foundered. The crew managed to get ashore, except for the cook and two marines who drowned — more of which later. The crew was stranded on a desolate coast.
HMS Zebra providing covering fire to Commander Robert Faulknor at Fort Louis, Martinique
We’ve mentioned a few times that the writers of naval fiction set during the Age of Sail have an immense amount of material available to them that only needs minor adjustments to read as fiction.
For instance, the HMS Cockerel, an Alan Lewrie novel by Dewey Lambdin, there is an interesting scene set at the end of the novel. The setting is a dinner aboard the flagship of Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. Lieutenant Lewrie is fresh from the siege of Toulon where he managed to capture a French corvette. The corvette is named San Culotte (in real life a 118-gun first rate) and Lewrie jokes about how it will have to be renamed as it would quickly be known as the “Bare Assed” by British sailors. Hood is amused and renames the Sans Culotte the HMS Jester in honor of Lewrie’s wit and appoints him into her as commander.
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.