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
“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
On June 18, 1809 HMS Inflexible (64) and HMS Bonne Citoyenne (20) departed Spithead for Quebec escorting a convoy of merchantmen.
Bonne Citoyenne was a sloop which had been taken from the French by HMS Phaeton in 1796. She carried eighteen 32-pound carronades, two long nines as bow chasers, and had a crew of 120 officers and men. Her captain was Commander William Mounsey. Mounsey, was 44 years old, old for a commander, and had left Carlisle to go to sea at age 13. He’d been promoted to commander in 1802 and probably was looking with trepidation at being placed on half pay for the rest of his life.
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.
The Age of Sail produced some interesting characters and exceptional leaders. Sometimes they are all rolled into one, as in the case of Lord Cochrane.
What makes the British Navy notable, in my view anyway, is the degree to which it was a meritocracy operating within an aristocratic society. While it is true that those with connections did benefit from their social status it was equally true that advancement in the Royal Navy was open to men of modest birth but exceptional ability. One such is Sir Edward Pellew Continue reading