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.
Of all naval guns the one most likely to appear in fiction set during the Age of Sail is the “long nine.”
There are probably a couple of good reasons for this. First, the hero in these novels tends to be the commander of a sloop or a frigate which admittedly lends itself to much more varied and interesting plots than a 74-gun ship of the line beating a path back and forth outside Toulon, Texel, or Brest. Secondly, the name just sounds cool.
So what was a “long nine.”
Two weevils crept from the crumbs. “You see those weevils, Stephen?” said Jack solemnly.
“Which would you choose?”
“There is not a scrap of difference. Arcades ambo. They are the same species of curculio, and there is nothing to choose between them.”
“But suppose you had to choose?”
“Then I should choose the right-hand weevil; it has a perceptible advantage in both length and breadth.”
“There I have you,” cried Jack. “You are bit — you are completely dished. Don’t you know that in the Navy you must always choose the lesser of two weevils? Oh ha, ha, ha, ha!”
For those unfamiliar with “the Canon” as Patrick O’Brian fans are prone to call the Jack Aubrey novels, the above exchange comes from The Fortune of War.
What were these weevils, lesser or greater?
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.
I’ve been pulling together lists of characters, ships, and cultural references from the Alan Lewrie novels by Dewey Lambdin. I just stumbled onto a similar list for the Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brian. The website, The Patrick O’Brian Compendium, is well worth the visit.
One of the articles of faith in most nautical fiction of the Age of Sail is the notion that sailor’s were generally non-swimmers.
The Jack Aubrey novels by Patrick O’Brian note that Jack is unusual in his strong swimming ability and had saved several sailors from drowning. One of the recurring characters, “Awkward” Davies, was saved from this fate twice.
Allegedly, this came from the fatalistic idea that if they went overboard it was best to simply drown and get it over with rather than swimming. That may be the case. It might equally be the equivalent of an urban legend. But a small article in the Naval Chronicle from the December 1810-January 1811 issue indicates that there may be more to this than the imaginings of twentieth century writers.
Reward for Life Saving
The crew of his Majesty’s sloop Childers, has presented an elegant sword, with a suitable inscription, to Mr. George Wilson, master of that ship, as a mark of their esteem for his jumping overboard at sea, and saving, at the risk of his own life, one of their shipmates from a watery grave, who had fallen from the fore-yard-arm, and was in the act of sinking.
From what we know of the ship (it was stationed in the North Sea and operated against Danish and Norwegian shipping from 1808 until it was broken up in 1811) the jump made by Mr. Wilson would have been unpleasant at any time of year and life threatening most of the time. The actions of the crew indicate that such an action was not only unusual but unexpected. The fact that it was mentioned in the Naval Chronicle also indicates this was an unusual act.
Maybe there is a factual basis to the idea of sailors not swimming.
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.