The harbor at Cartagena, Spain.
Cartagena holds a shipyard as well as a major Spanish naval base.
Cartagena is the base from which the Spanish fleet sailed in February, 1797 to defeat at the Battle of Cape St. Vincent. It is where the fictional Lieutenant Nicholas Ramage, holding a forged Protection, was held awaiting transit to the United States. It is also where the real British officers Thomas Hardy and Jonathan Culverhouse were held until their exchange was arranged by Commodore Horatio Nelson on February 10, 1797.
Battle of Copenhagen
1801 set stage for one of the saddest events in the two decades of war that began with the declaration of war against Revolutionary France by the First Coalition and ended at Waterloo: the Battle of Copenhagen fought between the Baltic fleet of Admiral Sir Hyde Parker and the Danish fleet and forts defending Copenhagen on April 2, Maundy or Holy Thursday, 1801.
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.
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.
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.
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.
A King’s Commander covers the year 1794 in the life and career of Dewey Lambdin’s naval hero, Alan Lewrie.
Lewrie finishes commissioning his new command, HMS Jester, the former French corvette Sans Culotte captured by Lewrie in HMS Cockerel, in Portsmouth in preparation for assignment to the Mediterranean under his patron Admiral Lord Samuel Hood. Enroute they run afoul of a small French squadron and are pursued, saved only by stumbling onto Admiral Howe’s fleet engaged in the Glorious First of June.
Major spoilers follow.
Most readers of naval fiction of the Age of Sail are fairly familiar with the broad outlines of the Napoleonic Wars. In reality, Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France for nearly seven years when the 18 Brumaire Coup brought Napoleon to power.
Many historical characters wend their way through the nautical fiction of the Age of Sail. The Royal Navy was a fairly small organization, especially in the number of officers, and as employment was gained via interest and patronage it is essential that the heroes in these books have a patron. If the character is to insinuate himself into real events, the patron must be real.
We’ve already touched on the initial sponsor of young Midshipman Alan Lewrie, Admiral Sir Samuel Hood. Fans of Horatio Hornblower will know that he achieved post rank through the patronage of Admiral Sir William Cornwallis. One significant figure crosses the stage frequently but thus far I have yet to encounter him as a patron of one of our heroes.
That figure is the imminently unlovable John Jervis, Earl of St. Vincent.