A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 5, "The War Of 1812: Eastern Theatre." TOC
Ch. 4 - The Seafaring Life.

Woven into every part of the tapestry of human civilization is the sailing ship. Today we consider sailing a luxury, but until the mid-19th century, it was the only way to cross a large expanse of water.

"Few forces in the world have been so seductive as the sea, and the briefest cruises led him on to desire ardently those long, satisfying voyages. But the zest for travel was one thing; the practicability of traversing wide oceans was something quite different. In a word, then, it was not till ships became more than boats, not till Europe knew how to build big-bellied, multiple-masted vessels, that this dream of crossing wide oceans could possibly come true. ... when the hull was made bigger, more sail spread was needed, and this meant that for ease in handling the area must needs be split up. Thus, by the time a reliable ocean-keeping ship was evolved, she was a three-master with square-sails on the fore- and main-masts, but a typical Mediterranean triangular lateen sail on the mizzen- or after-mast."1
In the early days men who could direct the efforts of a ship's crew so that all would arrive elsewhere thousands of miles away over a vast and featureless ocean, were men who were regarded as magicians and wizards. Cortés, the Spanish conqueror, observed, "what can be more difficult then to guide a ship engulfed, where only water and heaven may be seen?"2 The navigator of a ship was held in the highest esteem. Bits of vellum, their charts, were preserved with the greatest secrecy. It was a large mathematical feat which in many cases was performed by men with little understanding of scientific principles. What was necessary was to stick to a course and not go aimlessly about. A vessel needs a heading, a compass heading. It is thought that the magnetic compass was introduced into the Mediterranean very early on. This use of the earth's magnetic filed was a trick which traders had passed and which they had learned from Chinese sailors.3 To ascertain the position of the sun with regard to the ecliptic, an instrument called an astrolabe was invented.4 The astrolabe was primitive compared to the sextant which by 1757 was fully developed and a very valuable instrument to the navigator. To calculate his position east-west (west-east) was to be by calculated guess. Such a calculation was not possible until a proper sea-going clock was constructed.5

Sailing vessels generally can go only with the wind. And while they can sometimes cut into it, they cannot go against it. These simple facts govern a sailor's life. A long-distance sailor is not as much concerned with the wind direction at any particular moment as he is with the average of the wind directions over a period of time: days, weeks, months or years. The average direction of the winds in any particular place, over extensive periods of time, are seasonably predictable. In the Atlantic one can sail the prevailing "westerlies" along a band which centers itself on the equator, and then, keeping to the right side of the band, up the North American coast all the way to the coasts of Nova Scotia or Newfoundland. In these higher latitudes the direction gradually turns6 east, the "easterlies." Thus, in the North Atlantic there is a one-way route and on each point of the route there is a prevailing wind.7 (I should hasten to add, at any given moment, at any given place on the ocean, the wind can be going in a direction entirely different than that which is expected, and at such times at a considerable force.) In addition to the big loops one of which was just described, there are smaller ones. These smaller wind systems fit in with the larger scheme and usually arise as a result of temperature variations between a land mass and an adjacent water mass. Thus, one can sail south down the Atlantic sea board by sticking relatively close to the coast and working the winds off the land. Ocean sailing, however, depended on the large intercontinental wind systems, which meant that a vessel coming from Europe had to go with the prevailing winds down to a point off the coast of Africa then directly west (for weeks) until the Caribbean islands hove into view. Then, standing off the coast some distance north until one was at the desired latitude, then to make for the shore to bring the vessel to her port. This big European/American wind loop did not work the same all year long. In March, April and May the winds across the North Atlantic would be the same as they are along the equator, westerly. It was during these times that a sailing vessel leaving England could make a direct run for Newfoundland in as little as three weeks. Other than the spring, the great southern route was necessary. Usually, great huge tacking arches were made bringing the vessels as hard up against the wind as they could go -- which for square riggers, these down-wind machines, was not far. There first would be a starboard tack as far south as Lat. 41° and then over on a port tack standing on until about Lat. 51°. Then over on another tack which is held (usually weeks, sometimes months) until the American coast is reached.8

The British were a nation of seafarers and had long been in charge of the Atlantic. Beamish Murdoch wrote in his preface to the third volume of his work, History of Nova Scotia:

"It is to be borne in mind ... that in the years from 1793 to 1815, the fact that England held firm and undisputed possession of these provinces [her remaining colonies], ensured to her navies and armies a home and a resort on this [western] side of the Atlantic, and essentially contributed to render that mighty ocean virtually a locked-up British lake. While her fleets could flaunt the ancient banner of St. George from Newfoundland in the North, to Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope in the South, undismayed and unassailed: - while the fleets of France and Spain lay hermetically sealed up in the ports of Brest, Cherbourg, Toulon, Cadiz or Corunna; while the commercial shipping, not only of France herself but of her subject allies of Holland, Spain and Italy, were excluded from the seas by the triumphant British navy; while the manufactures of Great Britain were carried in her own vessels to all accessible ports on the Atlantic, bay of Biscay and Mediterranean, as well as to India, to the exclusion of the products of French, Spanish, Dutch and Italian industry; - this vast monopoly of oceanic intercourse and commerce - this boundless outlet for British manufactures, depended on and resulted from the nautical character of the English people to a certain extent; while among the circumstances that gave success to Mr. Pitt's policy, - the possession of such positions as Nova Scotia, Bermuda, Saint Helena, - were of incalculable moment. So much indirect advantage did our parent state gain by the liberal way in which she dealt with her American provinces, and so much had France lost by her previous parsimony and indifference to her settlements and subjects in distant climes.9
As to the extent of the British Empire at this time:
"The British Empire in 1815 consisted of the thinly populated coastal river and lake regions of Canada, and a great hinterland of wilderness in which the only settlements as yet were the fur-trading stations of the Hudson Bay Company, about a third of the Indian peninsula, under the rule of the East India Company, the coast districts of the Cape of Good Hope inhabited by blacks and rebellious-spirited Dutch settlers; a few trading stations on the coast of West Africa, the rock of Gibraltar, the island of Malta, Jamaica, a few minor slave-labour possessions in the West Indies, British Guiana in South America, and, on the other side of the world, two dumps for convicts at Botany Bay in Australia and in Tasmania. Spain retained Cuba and a few settlements in the Philippine Islands. Portugal had in Africa some vestiges of her ancient claims. Holland had various islands and possessions in the East Indies and Dutch Guiana, and Denmark an island or so in the West Indies. France had one or two West Indian islands and French Guiana."10
This far flung empire was kept together by the British Navy, long the pride of England and the envy of every aspiring marine nation in the world.

What we have first to consider is the proud tradition of the British Royal navy. We turn to Robert Louis Stevenson and quote from his essay, "The English Admirals":

"... the sea is our approach and bulwark; it has been the scene of our greatest triumphs and dangers; and we are accustomed in lyrical strains to claim it as our own. The prostrating experiences of foreigners between Calais and Dover have always an agreeable side to English prepossessions. A man from Bedfordshire, who does not know one end of the ship from the other until she begins to move, swaggers among such persons with a sense of hereditary nautical experience. To suppose yourself endowed with natural parts for the sea because you are the countryman of Blake and mighty Nelson, is perhaps just as unwarrantable as to imagine Scottish extraction a sufficient guarantee that you will look well in a kilt. But the feeling is there, and seated beyond the reach of our argument. We should consider ourselves unworthy of our descent if we did not share the arrogance of our progenitors, and please ourselves with the pretension that the sea is English. Even where it is looked upon by the guns and battlements of another nation we regard it as a kind of English cemetery, where the bones of our seafaring fathers take their rest until the last trumpet; for I suppose no other nation has lost as many ships, or sent as many brave fellows to the bottom.
There is nowhere such a background for heroism as the noble, terrifying, and picturesque conditions of some of our sea-fights. Hawke's battle in the tempest, and Aboukir at the moment when the French Admiral blew up, reach the limit of what is imposing to the imagination. And our naval annals owe some of their interest to the fantastic and beautiful appearance of old warships and the romance that invests the sea and everything sea-going in the eyes of English lads on a half-holiday at the coast. Nay, and what we know of the misery between decks enhances the bravery of what was done by giving it something for contrast. We like to know that these bold and honest fellows contrived to live, and to keep bold and honest, among absurd and vile surroundings. No reader can forget the description of the Thunder in Roderick Random: the disorderly tyranny; the cruelty and dirt of officers and man; deck after deck, each with some new object of offence; the hospital, where the hammocks were huddled together with but fourteen inches space for each; the cockpit, far under water, where, "in an intolerable stench," the spectacled steward kept the accounts of the different messes; and the canvas enclosure, six feet square, in which Morgan made flip and salmagundi, smoked his pipe, sang his Welsh songs, and swore his queer Welsh imprecations. There are portions of this business on board the Thunder over which the reader passes lightly and hurriedly, like a traveler in a malarious country. It is easy enough to understand the opinion of Dr. Johnson: "Why, sir," he said, "no man will be a sailor who has contrivance enough to get himself into a jail." You would fancy any one's spirit would die out under such an accumulation of darkness, noisomeness, and injustice, above all when he had not come there of his own free will, but under the cutlasses and bludgeons of the press-gang. But perhaps a watch on deck in the sharp sea air put a man on his mettle again; a battle must have been a capital relief; and prize-money, bloodily earned and grossly squandered, opened the doors of the prison for a twinkling. Somehow or other, at least, this worst of possible lives could not overlie the spirit and gaiety of our sailors; they did their duty as though they had some interest in the fortune of that country which so cruelly oppressed them, they served their guns merrily when it came to fighting, and they had the readiest ear for a bold, honourable sentiment, of any class of men the world ever produced."
11
Stevenson in his splendid essay continued to give examples of the sea-going event which gave rise to the "noble, sound and the very proud history" of the hierarchy of the British navy.
"Duncan, lying off the Texel with his own flagship, the Venerable, and only one other vessel, heard that the whole Dutch fleet was putting to sea. He told Captain Hotham to anchor alongside of him in the narrowest part of the channel, and fight his vessel till she sank. "I have taken the depth of the water," added he, "and when the Venerable goes down, my flag will still fly."12
It was tradition that moulded bright seamen into British admirals. Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), the most famous of them all, believed in his heart and soul what counted was not the individual; what counted was his king and country (a collective of British people), and that the adversary of a British warship was to know that if it was to be a fight, then it was to be a fight to the death.
"... Nelson when into Aboukir with six colours flying; so that even if five were shot away, it should not be imagined he had struck. He too must needs wear his four stars outside this Admiral's frock, to be a butt for sharp-shooters. "In honour I gained them," he said to objectors, adding with sublime illogicality, "in honour I will die with them."13
And:
"Trowbridge went ashore with the Culloden, and was able to take no part in the Battle of the Nile. 'The merits of that ship and her gallant captain,' wrote Nelson to the Admiralty, 'are too well known to benefit by anything I could say. Her misfortune was great in getting aground, while her more fortunate companions were in the full tide of happiness.' This is a notable expression, and depicts the whole great-hearted, big-spoken stock of the English Admirals to a hair. It was to be 'in the full tide of happiness' for Nelson to destroy five thousand five hundred and twenty-five of his fellow-creatures, and have his own scalp torn open by a piece of langridge shot. Hear him again at Copenhagen: 'A shot through the mainmast knocked the splinters about; and he observed to one of his offers with a smile, 'It is warm work, and this may be the last to any of us at any moment;' and then, stopping short at the gangway, added, with emotion, 'But, mark you - I would not be elsewhere for thousands.'"14
Stevenson then makes reference to Sir Richard Greenville who in 1591, with the choice of explainable escape available to him, determined to sail straight into the midst a vastly superior force of Spanish ships. He did and his crew did battle for the glory of England:
"By morning the powder was spent, the pikes all broken, not a stick was standing, 'nothing left overhead either for flight or defence;' six feet of water in the hold; almost all the men hurt; and Greenville himself in a dying condition. To bring them to pass, a fleet of fifty sail had been mauling them for fifteen hours, the Admiral of the Hulks and the Ascension of Seville had both gone down alongside, and two other vessels had taken refuge on shore in a sinking state. In Hawke's words, they had 'taken a great deal of drubbing.' The captain and crew thought they had done about enough; but Greenville was not of this opinion; he gave orders to the mastergunner, whom he knew to be a fellow after his own stamp, to scuttle the Revenge where she lay."15
This was the kind of action which the crew aboard a British warship expected of their officers and of themselves. Further it was what the enemy expected. Knowing they were up against fearless adversaries would sometimes convince a captain of a foreign vessel to immediately give in or try to make a run for it. British ships were not known to hang back and lob cannon balls hoping for a lucky hit. A British naval captain sailed through all the enemy fire right up to the sides of the enemy ship, to give her a full broadside at close range, to latch hold of her, and to immediately launch a spirited boarding party with knives, swords, pikes and pistols at the ready. Admiral Peter Warren wrote Admiral George Anson of this British naval reputation.
"For I can't help thinking, we have this advantage of them that our Officers are better Seamen than theirs, and I hope as valiant, and our Men in general more Robust, and Stronger, and never were thought to want courage, tho' they have very little virtue of any other kind."16
There is a difference between officers of the navy and those of the army. Both need to be independent but naval officers need to be of a certain peculiar temper as they are often on their own without any immediate supervision for long periods of time. This was true of the most junior of officers, who often, on the small vessels, found themselves alone and in charge. Further, the incentives for the French naval officers and the British naval officers were quite different. An English officer was subsequently faulted after a bad outcome and would often be disgraced, drummed out of the service with no compensation, sometimes shot. If he succeeded, then it was for the glory of England and great tributes were paid to him as a conquering hero. The French command was much more even handed in its officers, win or lose, they were kept on and all eventually went out with a pension.17

Sir Charles Knowles, who for a short period of time was the governor at Louisbourg, addressed The First Lord of the Admiralty in 1745. He was writing from his ship, the Superbe then anchored at Antigua. 6 January, 1745: "The many great complaints that have been made of late years about the badness of our ships of war, both in regard to their figure as to sailing, and to their incapacity for lodging their men, as well as badness of materials, and the manner in which they have been built, are not without foundation ..."18 Knowles, in advance of his times, was also advocating, in the same memo to the Admiralty, that standards should be adopted as to the dimensions of naval vessels and to rank ships in some fashion. Another was Admiral Edward Vernon (1684-1757), who became a great thorn in the side of the administration. He wrote: "Our fleets are defrauded by injustice, manned by violence and maintained by cruelty."19 Knowles and Vernon were contemporary observers. Violence and cruelty was best expressed in the use of the cat-o'-nine-tails which was used frequently on the backs of seaman.20

The social structure on a English man-of-war was much the same as the larger social structure of England. Englishmen in the lower deck who did not live up to the expectations of an English naval officer were to suffer punishment. It was thought that if a young man was to be made into a sailor, one who was also a fearless fighter, then stern discipline was necessary. If one were to consider the way the British seamen fought and sailed, then it seems that the technique worked. However, it made for very bad living conditions, so bad that many an English sailor would risk death in order to get away from the discipline of an English naval vessel. Desertion was a problem and a more serious one was outright mutiny.21 During April, 1797, crews of the Channel Fleet at Portsmouth rose in rebellion. "The mutiny lasted five weeks and spread all over the world."22 These problems were happening at a time when an invasion of England by the French was expected. Fortunately, the French did not know the seriousness of the difficulties that the British navy was having with its crews.23

These mutinies went away as quickly as they came. Ringleaders were removed and concessions were made. England, after all, was under a most serious threat and only the navy could save the island nation. The Britishness of the ordinary seaman shone through. Within months the fleet was back into fighting trim. That October, "In a bloody and obstinate battle off Camperdown the Dutch fleet, once so famous and so formidable, took its leave of history. ... defeated by Admiral Duncan at the head of the fleet which had returned to discipline ..."24 The fighting trim of the British Navy was confirmed in the next year. Nelson found the French fleet not far from the mouth of the Nile in Aboukir Bay. It had just delivered Napoleon's army to Egypt. The French fleet was almost totally destroyed.25

The large ships of the line were formidable. Each carried 74 or more smooth-bore cannons. The larger ones with three gun decks carried up to 1,000 officers and men. They were built entirely of oak and "a three-decker consumed 900 acres of 3,500 full-grown trees." They were driven by stretches of canvas hung out on 3 masts. They

"were fitted with 80 tons of spars, 900 blocks, and 34 miles of rope, some of it 6 inches thick. Windpower could not drive them, even with that enormous spread of sail, at much over 10 knots, but they could ride any weather and stay at sea for years, if necessary. They were the most frightening things on earth, looking enormous close-to, and each broadside weighed 1,928 pounds, carrying huge destructive power."26
In 1809, the painter Benjamin Robert Haydon paid a visit to a British man-of-war.
1809: "In the afternoon we went out to see the Caledonia, 120 guns at Spithead. What a sublime and terrible simplicity there is in our navy! Nothing to be admitted but what is absolutely useful. The cannon, the decks, the sailors, all wore the appearance of stern vigour, as if constituted only to resist the elements. No beautiful forms in the gun-carriages, no taste or elegance in the cannon; the ports hard and strong; the guns iron; the sailors muscular. Everything inspired one with awe."27
No navy had many ships as large as the Caledonia. Though each had their ships of the line generally described as square-rigged warships, carrying from 70 to 140 guns on two or more completely armed gun decks. Smaller and faster moving frigates were in greater numbers. As for the number of British Naval vessels operating in these times?
"In October, 1804, there were in commission 103 ships of the line, 24 fifty-gun vessels, 135 frigates, and 398 sloops -- total 660. In March, 1806, there were 721 ships in commission, of which 128 were of the line. On January 1, 1808, there were 795 in commission, 144 being ships of the line. Many of these were taken from the French ..."28
By 1812, the British Navy had 686 ships, of which 120 were ships of the line29 and 145 frigates. Of these, three of the ships of the line were on the North American Stations, with 15 frigates and 61 smaller vessels. Within the year the numbers of British navy ships working out of the transatlantic Stations: 11 sail of the line, 34 frigates, 38 sloops, besides other vessels, making a total of ninety-seven.30


[NEXT: Pt. 5, Ch. 5 - "Treaties, Orders And Decrees."]

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