On the morning of July 15th 1815, Napoleon Bonaparte climbed up the side of the British ship Bellerophon, lying at anchor off the port of La Rochelle. The crew leaned out of the gun ports or stared in awe from their stations on deck at the corpulent little man in a grey greatcoat buttoned to the chin- the man who had ruled over Europe and threatened England for longer than most of them could remember. Two weeks before, they had heard from a French ship they had captured that Napoleon had been beaten by Wellington. But it seemed incredible that this man - he smiled and bowed to the officers - was the ogre who had frightened them as children. He pulled off his small cocked hat and said to the captain -“ I have come to throw myself on the protection of your Prince and laws”. That moment on the deck of a British man-o-war was the start of a century unique in the history of the sea -99 years to be precise, when the prestige of the Royal Navy stood so high that sea warfare entirely ceased.
The British Navy that supervised this century of peace, had changed little in the previous two centuries. Its ships were much the same in design as The Sovereign of the Seas, the famous and ornate three decker built for Charles I in 1637. Its officers were professionals, as they had been since it was first called the Royal Navy, a separate service from the Merchant Navy, by Charles II in the 1660‘s. Its seamen were still a neglected class of men, recruited or pressed by force to man any ship ready for sea, and simply put ashore again, with their pay, if they were lucky, when the ship was due for refit.
The Navy’s strategic ideas could be traced back further still. When the Spanish Armada was known to be making ready, in 1586, Francis Drake argued passionately that the proper place to fight in defence of Britain, was not off the English coast, but off the enemies - to blockade the enemies ports and attack his fleets as soon as they dared to come out. Drake had a difficult task to persuade the Queen and her council but he got his way in the end, and it was only a shift of wind off the coast of Spain that drove him back to Plymouth and let the Armada through to the English Channel. Drake’s forceful strategy had persisted ever since.
Tactics too, had changed little. Line ahead - a single file of ships, the stern of the leading vessel separated from the bow of the next by a relatively short strip of water, and so on down the line - was still the normal battle formation. There was good reason for it of course: ships could fire up to 50 guns in a broadside but very few, perhaps 2 or 4 , either ahead or astern; so line ahead was a mutual protection. But this produced a kind of standard battle: two fleets both lime ahead converged until they came within rang, and then each ship fought a gunnery duel with its opposite number.
There had been changes both at sea and in administration ashore. The most important change at sea had been in signalling. In the battle against the Armada, the admirals could only give a very few simple orders unless another ship was within hailing distance. By Nelsons’s time there were alphabetical and numerical flags and a comprehensive code-book so that any order could be sent to a particular ship and an admiral could manoeuvre a fleet of any size. Through the evolution of signals the fleet became a battle unit.
On the face of it, the dry minutiae of naval administration would seem to have little appeal for a musician, theatre lover, diarist and bibliophile like Samuel Pepys. In 1660, the year he began his garrulous diary, with its unsurpassed insight into the bawdy life of Restoration London, he was appointed to the Navy Board as Clerk of the Acts. So successful was he in resolving administrative chaos plaguing the Board, that he was made Surveyor-General of Victualling six years later.
When the Navy Board came under violent attack in Parliament for its failure to spur the Navy to victory in the second Dutch War 1665-67, Pepys was entrusted with its defence. In a brilliant 43 hour speech at the Bar of the house he successfully vindicated himself and his colleagues.
But for all his eloquence, no one was more aware than Peyps himself of the gigantic mismanagement, incompetence and peculation to be found in the Navy. His chance to institute wide ranging reforms of the ailing service came in 1673 when Charles II appointed him Secretary of the Admiralty. Pepys used sound business principles to cut out waste and curb corruption To keep the Court’s incompetent dandies out of a service into which they had always bought their way, he insisted on seamanship qualifications none of them possessed. In this way Pepys attracted only the most dedicated men and laid the basis of a professional officer corps. His most important work, however, was accomplished in 1686 when he established a Special Commission “for the recovery of the Navy”. This body completely restored the Navy’s efficiency and prepared it for the mighty sea battles upon which Britain’s fate was so often to hang in the 18th Century.
When the 19th Century began, the Navy was fighting its greatest war and had reached a higher peak of efficiency than any navy had ever achieved before. Napoleon learned this to his chagrin “If it had not been for you English” the defeated Emperor said to the captain of the Bellerphon at dinner that day in July 1815, “I would have been Emperor of the East; but wherever there is water .... We are sure to find you in our way”.
Both statements were true. Napoleon’s ambition for conquest had been world-wide; but at Trafalgar ten years before, Nelson had driven him off the high seas and confined him to the mainland of Europe and the western edge of Asia. Napoleon himself in the course of his campaigns, had suppressed all the former rivals of the British Navy, or dragged them down with him: the Dutch, the Spanish and the French themselves - all except the United states of America. So he had created a vacuum of power at sea which only the British could fill; and in doing so - a curious irony - he himself had cleared the way for the British to expand and cement their empire.
For that of course, was one use the British made of their century of sea supremacy. But it was not the only one. They also used it to make the sea safe and free for the trade of every nation, including their recent enemies. The Navy put an end to piracy and almost all of the slave-trade; and it also studied the sciences of the sea, surveyed all the coasts and oceans of the world, and published its findings for the use of every seafarer. On the day Napoleon surrendered, the role of the Navy abruptly began to change, from fighter to peace-keeper, from conqueror to policeman and scientist. The Navy’s new role was the only thing in that century that remained the same. Every other aspect of seafaring changed completely. The century started with wooden sailing ships that had remained unaltered since the Armada days. It ended with steamships, steel armour, explosive shells and long range guns, torpedoes, mines and submarines.
The Navy’s new role needed far fewer ships and men than had the war that had ended. In 1815, there were over 700 ships in commission, and 140,000 men; three years later, there were only 130 ships and 19,000 men.
Very few sailors in the late 18th Century actually volunteered to join the Royal Navy. Life in a man-of-war was so appalling that the great majority had to be seized by ferocious cudgel-wielding press-gangs. Knocked senseless and thrown aboard ships that needed a crew. Though conditions improved with the passage of time, the “jolly Jack Tar” remained largely a figment of public imagination. A mid-Victorian sailor might well have echoed Samuel Johnson’s ascerbic comment : “No man will be a sailor who has contrived enough to get himself into jail”.
GREAT CRUELTY AND A FEW KIND CAPTAINS
It was the fearsome discipline that most tormented the ordinary seaman in the Royal Navy. In 1852, a sailor aboard H.M.S. Albion wrote despondently “A week rarely passes ... Without some man receiving his three or four dozen lashes at the gangway”
A sailor’s lot, however, depended to a great extent on his captain. Life under a despotic martinet was one long hell but a kindly skipper could command without cruelty. A sailor from H.M.S. Alceste who was lucky enough to serve with a benevolent captain noted that whenever the skipper manoeuvred his ship “the whole of the vast machine moved like clockwork without jar or impediment”. Looking for the cause of this harmony he concluded “his men were willing, because he found he wished to be , would be, just: they put forth their strength, skill and cheerful alacrity because he was merciful and considerate in his discipline; he never irritated them by caprice, there was no... Niggling in anything he ordered”.
Whenever a man-of-war arrived in port, peddlers and prostitutes rowed out to meet them. Their crews, denied shore leave and often flushed with prize money, awaited the visits eagerly. Few could resist the trinkets in a pedlar’s tray and then, their pockets stuffed with penknives and cheap watches, they chose women and took them below. An admiral who witnessed the ensuing scenes wrote indignantly of the “dirt filth and stench; the disgusting conversation: the indecent beastly conduct and horrible scenes; the blasphemy and swearing :; the riots, quarrels and fights which often take place, when hundreds of men and women huddled together witness each others activities. It was not all debauchery. Sweethearts visited their lovers aboard ship and wives of the most trustworthy sailors were even allowed to go to sea. One woman who accompanied her husband aboard H.M.S. Tremendous gave birth to a boy just before a major battle and was promptly christened Daniel Tremendous McKenzie.
There were many day-to-day hazards on sailing-vessels that could disable and kill. In peace-time, working aloft in a storm was the most dangerous task, for then driving rain and high wind made sails sodden and unmanageable and even the most sure-footed tar could be flung out of the rigging as vessels rolled violently. Perched high above the deck, their legs braced precariously in foot-ropes, sailors often ruptured themselves as they tugged the dead-weight of wet canvas up to the yards. Heavy sails were not the only cause of ruptures. The manhandling of heavy guns and huge water casks was equally injurious. By the early 19th Century so many men complained of hernias that the Navy was forced to issue trusses.
The punishment of the “cat” which drove scores of men insane, was chiefly inflicted for insubordination and occasional drunkenness. “It was undoubtedly severe” remarked the man from the “Albion, as the discoloured, rawbeef-hued appearance of the victims back attested”.
Unless an officer had exceptional private influence, promotion was entirely a matter of seniority, of waiting for older men to die; and in peacetime, they stubbornly failed to do so. Halfway through the century, there were lieutenants more than 60 years old in the Navy, and a man could suddenly be promoted captain or admiral when he had not been to sea for 30 or more years.
When the Crimea War began in 1854, more ships were brought into commission and the age of officers commanding became farcical. The Commander-in-Chief, Plymouth was 81; The Commander-in-Chief, West Indies was 79, and applied for the more active command of the Baltic. But that command was given to Sir Charles Napier who was only 68, while Sir James Dundas in the Black Sea was 69. The Commander-in-Chief appointed to the China station at the same time had been “on the beach” for 31 years.
Those were the men who had to drag the Navy into the Age of Steam: no wonder they were slow. Steam had already started before Trafalgar: the first steam tug - the Charlotte Dundas, was towing barges on the Forth and Clyde Canal in 1801. Others followed during the war, in Britain, France and America; and within a couple of years after Napoleon’s downfall, a steam passenger service was started between Brighton and Le Havre. About the same time the Admiralty hired a few tugs to tow ships out of harbour in contrary winds. But the thought of using steam in a warship was a very different matter.
There were arguments against steam - four in particular. Firstly, it was still much less reliable than the wind. Secondly, paddle-wheels were vulnerable, and would get in the way of a broadside in a fighting ship. Thirdly, if the Navy with its world-wide mission, relied on steam, it would have to set up and defend coaling stations all over the place. Finally as the Navy had a fleet of sailing-ships greater than anyone else why encourage the change away from sail making their own ships obsolete.
None of these arguments, of course, could stand against technical progress. In 1836, a new invention demolished the second argument. This was the screw-propeller. It was fitted with great success in the 1840‘s to the passenger liner Great Britain. The admiralty had to admit that a warship with a propeller - if it could really be proved to work - could carry the traditional broadside armament. In 1845 the screw-propeller driven sloop Rattler, was tested against a paddle steamer of similar power in a tug-o-war, with Rattler demolishing the latter. By 1851, exactly half a century after the Charlotte Dundas, the Navy gave up its opposition to steam. New warships after that were designed with engines, and some of the old ones were fitted with them too. But still, they were sailing ships; the engines were only used in leaving harbour and as a last resort, when the wind fell calm.
In the century after 1815, the Royal Navy’s chief roles were bombarding enemy cities and landing sailors to fight alongside the Army. In the Crimean War against Russia in 1854, it did both. To protect Britain’s ally, Turkey, from Russian landings a large fleet sailed through the Dardanelles and into the Black Sea. It quickly established its supremacy in the area, blockading ports, bombarding towns like Odessa and providing sailors to man gun-batteries above Russia’s key Black Sea port, Sebastopol.
The Royal Navy landed over 1000 blue-jackets in the campaign to take Sebastopol, home of the Russian Black Sea Fleet. While some tars helped unload ships, most dragged guns up to the plateau overlooking the town and either assisted the Army gunners or formed gun crews and worked the weapons themselves. The sailors brought an exuberant gaiety to the batteries. Quite oblivious to enemy fire they would spring onto the protective sandbags surrounding the guns to see the damage wreaked by their salvoes - often speeding the shot on its way with cheers and oaths. As a result many sailors were picked off by Russian snipers. Furious daily bombardments slowly brought the town to its knees and in September 1855, after the heaviest barrage of the entire war, the Russian nerve broke. They set fire to the town and fled.
The men were simply discharged ashore when their ship’s commission ended, and most of them were delighted to be free. If they were still in good health, they spent their pay then drifted back to their jobs. Largely as merchant seamen, fishermen or labourers on the land. But if they were sick or wounded, very little was done to help them some being reduced to the level of beggars.
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