Sunday, 25 December 2011

Aurora in the ice

This is HMS Aurora in the winter of 1866-7. She is not trapped in the Antarctic, she is in Winter Quarters just outside Quebec city, Canada. Her upper spars and rigging have been removed, and she has been wrapped up as protection against the wind. A temporary suspension bridge formed from the ships cables links her mooring at Commissioners Wharf to the shore.
But why was she there at all?

Protecting Canada

To deter raids from Fenian gangs into Canada the Royal Navy had deployed various units along the St Lawrence river during 1866 and 7 and the Aurora had been there since May 1866. Originally built in 1861, she was quite a new ship with 51 guns and screw powered, so she could navigate the local waters well. But in this period her main role was as a source of experienced naval crew, of which she carried 540.

Her crew were used to man gun boats patrolling the St Lawrence river,. These gunboats were mainly converted local craft such as the Rescue (under Lt Fairlie), Prince Alfred, and Michigan, purchased by the Canadian authorities and protected by boiler plates and heavy planking, armed with Armstrong ship guns and 9 and 12 pounders.
120 men were also sent by train down to Toronto in June 1866 to man the steamer Magnet and the gunboat Heron, for service on lake Ontario.

The Rescue

These "provincial gunboats" had originally been manned by the volunteer Toronto Naval Reserve, though even then the Aurora had made a contribution, a Toronto born midshipman home on leave, EB Van Koughnet, able to act as adviser to the commander, Captain McMaster.

The harsh Canadian winters meant that most waterways froze up, so the gunboats were laid up from November 1866 to March 67, and her crew returned to the Aurora.

In March 1867 her crew again manned gunboats, patrolling from Quebec up to Lake Ontario.
Prince Alfred - Lt. Archibald Douglas with 3 officers, 1 surgeon, 2 engineers and 64 men
Rescue - Lt Henry Fairlie with 2 officers, 2 engineers and 48 men.
Hercules, commanded by Lt Thomas Hooper with 2 officers, 2 engineers and 50 men.

The Prince Alfred


Life on board the Aurora during the winter was hard. In Quebec temperatures can drop down to -30 during the winter, it is extremely cold! A constant battle had to waged to break up ice around the ship, cutting it into blocks to prevent it damaging the ship.

During the summer though, life for her crew had been rather more pleasant, at least for the skeleton crew not manning gun boats. According to the Illustrated London News
"The officers and men of the Aurora have, by their courtesy and efficient services they have rendered during their stay, become great favourites with the citizens.... The fine band has likewise lent it's aid at concerts for charitable purposes, as well as at citizen's balls."
This popularity was cemented during the Great Fire in the St Roch district in October, when over 2300 houses were destroyed. The
"officers and men vied with each other in their endeavours to save life and property".

Quebec City after the fire

In July the following year there was a minor diplomatic incident when the US ship Haze refused to salute the Aurora, as was normal courtesy.

The Aurora stayed on station until November 1867 when she returned to Plymouth.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Mid Victorian Portuguese Navy

The Ships

In 1859 Husk's "The Navies of the World: their present state and future capabilities" lists the Portuguese Navy as follows...

1x Ship of the line 80 guns
The Vasco de Gama, built about 1841 in Lisbon. Although modern she was neither armoured or with steam propulsion, and so was rapidly becoming obsolete.
1x Frigate 50 guns
The Don Fernando II, built 1845, and actually still afloat and available to visit at Cacilhas near Lisbon*
3x Corvettes of 18 guns
2x Brigs of 18 guns
3x Brigs of 16 guns
1x Brig 14 guns
11x Schooners of 4-5 guns each
9x Transports
6x Steamers
including the Bartolomeu Dias, built in England in 1858, with 3 masts, but also steam propulsion

The frigate Don Fernando

"The Portuguese Navy contains 37 vessels large and mounting 362 guns and employing 2118 men. Of above 27 sailing vessels and 5 steamers are in commission the other 5 in ordinary "

It has to be said that for an imperial power with stations from Madeira to southern Africa to Goa and the East Indies, this was not terribly impressive. Even Sardinia, for example, had more steamers.

By 1863 the New York Social Science Review reports a fleet of;

1x ship of the line 76
1x frigate 44
3x corvettes
1x brig
6x schooners and cutters
11x transports
6x steam corvettes and 7x steamers

The steamer Bartolomeu Dias in 1859

At least there were now 12 steamers, but it was still a small fleet. The principle naval bases were at Lisbon and Oporto, but naval officers were often also colonial governors, for instance the Governor of Macao in 1859 was a captain in the Portuguese navy, as was the Governor General in Luanda (Angola) in 1866

Of course, as Britain's oldest ally, Portugal to a large extent was sheltering under the Pax Brittanica, any move against Goa, for example, would be inconceivable without the consent of British India. whilst Madeira would not be allowed to fall into the hands of any "major" power. But this is not to say that there were not issues.


Time and time again the Portuguese authorities in Angola and Mozambique were criticised in the House of Commons for "allowing" slave ships to take their cargo to Brazil. Royal Naval ships in Sierra Leone and later Simonstown intercepted many slave ships under the Portuguese flag, and although slave trading had been offically abolished in the Portuguese empire in 1836, over 20,000 slaves per year were exported from Angola alone during the later 1830s, mainly to Brazil. A clear distinction was also made, in Portuguese eyes at least, between slave trading and and slave ownership, which contiuned to be legal. A census in 1854 fround 60,000 slaves in Angola and 40,000 in Mozambique.

A report to the Earl of Aberdeen by the British consul in Luanda in 1845 compared 43 ships captured by the Royal Navy with 9 captured by the Portuguese and recommended strongly against leaving stretches of the coast solely to Portuguese patrols.
" in the first place because the number and efficiency of the Portuguese squadron are utterly inadequate to guard this extensive line of coast effectively many of their cruizers being employed on distant colonial service to the southward and also because the subordinate officers of the Portuguese navy to whose care this duty would necessarily be confided having with the feelings of most of their countrymen long been accustomed to regard the Slave Trade merely as a contraband traffic"
"The officers of the Portuguese naval service derive no pecuniary benefit whatever from the capture of slave vessels and consequently in this respect there is no inducement to zeal"

However, the Governor of Luanda at the time, Captain Pedro Alexandrine da Cunha, is praised for his " just and honourable principles far superior to those of the generality of his predecessors who have notoriously amassed fortunes by receiving douceurs from slave dealers".

By 1850 things seem to have improved, with, for instance, reports of the brig Corimba capturing 7 slave boats on the west African coast. The Goverenor of Angola, Jose de Coehlo de Amaral, also moved to close a loophole in the system. For years the ban on trading had been bypassed by using the independent native city of Ambriz, just up the coast from Luanda. In 1855, de Amaral sent a naval expedition to occupy the town and the traffic was stopped, and a trading city added to Portuguese territory of course. The late 1850s and 1860s saw new more dynamic governments in Lisbon developing plans to develop their African colonies, to form a "new Brazil in Africa" and the navy was reorganised around this, with more units based in Mozambique and Angola. The flagship Vasco da Gama was used to ferry extra troops down to Angola in 1859.

The flagship Vasco da Gama on a Mozambiquan stamp

The Americas

In 1849 the Vasco da Gama sailed for Brazil to show the flag, but rather embarrassingly lost all her masts in a storm and had to be towed to Rio de Janeiro.

In 1864 a Portuguese squadron including the Bartolomeu Dias was sent to Brazil to monitor Portuguese interests during the Paraguay war.

In 1865 Portugal entered briefly into the American civil war. The Confederate ironclad ram Stonewall entered Lisbon, as a neutral port, closely followed by the USS Niagara and Sacramento. The Stonewall was ordered to leave, but under international law, the US ships had to wait 24 hours before pursuing. Believing that they were about to break this law, and thus Portuguese neutrality, the guns of the ancient Tower of Belem opening fire, though causing no damage. The US ships retired, and covered also by the corvettes Sagres and Mindello, they waited with steam up until the deadline had passed. Portugal later offically apologised for the incident.

The Belem tower firing on the Niagara & Sacramento (on left)


The Portuguese had had a settlement at Macao on the Chinese coast since 1557, expanding the territory by taking over Taipa and Colerane in 1851 and 1864 respectively. One consequence of this was development of the "lorcha", a hybrid class of boat combining "junk" type sails with a "European" style hull. This type was both faster than traditional junks and simpler to build and sail than European types, and became very popular in the area.

Macau in 1859

In 1854, 4 Portuguese lorchas were part of a task force headed by USS Porpoise which attacked a pirate base near Macao, the US commander Lt Henry Rolando reporting that
"Captain Cavalho of the Portuguese navy reported that two of the junks were driven on shore and that he succeeded in making two prizes which were afterwards lost by the bad weather coming on rendering it necessary to cut them adrift from the vessel to which they were in tow".

Elsewhere in 1854 there was a showdown between a Portuguese corvette, the Don Joao, and a Chinese naval force at the city of Ningpo. Following tension between the Portuguese and Chinese in the city, which had resulted in deaths on both sides, the Portuguese sent the corvette to the city and a series of demands to the authorities there, basically requiring that the Chinese perpetrators be punished and steps be taken to ensure that local pirates did not interfere with Portuguese vessels in the future. Talks stalled and the Don Joao " took up a position opposite the east gate of the city. The Cantonese have become greatly excited. They have beached their junks in a line opposite the corvette and have taken possession of the city gate just mentioned and having mounted several guns upon the walls seem determined to make a bold resistance" (report of the US Consul in Ningpo, DB McCarter, who was firmly on the side of the Chinese in the matter).

Ning-Po in 1850

On July 10 the Don Joao, and a small fleet of 15 lorchas opened fire, sinking or capturing the junks and seizing all guns. The stand off continued until September, when a deal was reached, no Chinese were handed over but money was paid in lieu. It certainly did not end piracy in the area, McCarter reporting that
"there are fourteen Cantonese junks now lying at anchor off the city several of which are expected to leave in a few days for Chin kiangfu. A large fleet of pirates is outside mostly in the port and vicinity of Shih pu but some of them have visited the harbor of Chusan within three weeks compelling some sugar junks at anchor in the harbor to pay a heavy ransom and demanding supplies of rice &c from the city of Tinghai They are said to be about to start for the neighborhood of Shantung to intercept the trading junks engaged in the northern trade"

In 1859 there were again clashes between Portuguese and Chinese troops at Macao, and tensions continued for much of this period.

Further reading

The Navies of the World 1859

British and Foreign state papers

US Congressional papers


The frigate Don Fernando at Cacilhas near Lisbon

Friday, 9 December 2011

Mr Hales´s Rockets and the Kossuth Affair

In April 15th 1853 a large building in Lower Deptford Road, Rotherhithe belonging to a Mr Hale was raided by the police, finding 257 lb of "gunpowder", and "... upwards of seventy cases, closely packed, containing, apparently for transmission to some distance, several thousand rockets, not such as are used at Vauxhall, but for the purpose of war". The rockets "were of great size, formed of cases with cast iron heads, and filled with powder."

Rockets were made in the building in the centre and stored on the shed on the left. The large factory behind was a rice mill and unconnected.

Hales and his son, who was also arrested, were taken to Bow Street Police Court and charged with possession of more than 200lb of gunpowder within 3 miles of the City of London (less than 200lb was apparently ok) and the illegal manufacture of rockets or fireworks. There was a vigorous argument whether it was actually gunpowder, Hales claiming it was "rocket composition" and if ignited would only "fizz like the Devil" whilst the laboratory of the Woolwich Arsenal counter claimed it would work exactly like gunpowder if loaded into a pistol, which they proved, The magistrate, Mr Henry, ruled that Hale was clearly guilty on both counts but the charge of rocket manufacture was withdrawn by the Crown whilst the gunpowder charge was referred to a sessions court.

Witnesses in the case included " some foreigners who were employed by Mr. Hales were witnesses. They were Hungarian refugees, who had been recommended by M. Kossuth, who seemed to take much interest in the manufacture." (Annual Register 1854) - it was this Hungarian connection which led to questions in the House, and it was also this that threatened to cause a major international incident between the British Empire and the Empire of Austro Hungary.

The Hungarian Revolution of 1848

In 1848 revolutionary fervour wept across Europe - in the sprawling Austro Hungarian Empire this was expressed as a revolt by the Hungarian part and a desperate bid for independence. There were victories against the Austrians, and even against a Russian Expeditionary force at the battle of Hermanstatt, but the forces ranged against them were simply too large. The Hungarians lost their capital Pest (Budapest is historically Buda and Pest, two cities on opposite banks of the Danube) and although they retook it and actually forced the Austrians back towards Vienna, they had to surrender at Vilagos in 1849.

Austrian trooper in the Raketen Korps (New York Public Library)

The Hungarian leader, Lajos Kossuth, escaped via Turkey and became the Hungarian voice in exile. Energetic, charismatic, he was a big hit in France and in October 1851 he landed in Britain. He received a hugely popular reception, with even a procession through London and a crowd of 75,000 people in Birmingham. He was also sympathetically received by the foreign secretary, Lord Palmerston, though they didn't officially meet, and there were many speeches against both the Austrians and the Russians.

After a wildly successful tour of the United States Kossuth returned to England, and formed part of a vocal Hungarian emigrant community.


Congreve rockets had been used by the British in the Napoleonic wars, even mounted on ships. They looked, basically, like huge versions of the fireworks we use today, mounted on long sticks. William Hale, an English inventor, thought he could do better, and in 1844 patented a new type of rocket. Basically, his rockets vented part of their gases through little holes at the side, spinning the rocket like a rifle bullet and doing away with the need for a stick altogether. Not only did this make the rockets much more accurate, but they were also more portable, easily carried by mules. This made them ideal for expeditionary warfare. By 1846 the US army was using 6 pound Hale Rockets in their invasion of Mexico, firing hundreds during the siege of the port of Vera Cruz. They were also used at the battles of Cerro Gordo, Churubusco & Chapultepec.

US artillery outside Veracruz, with rockets in the background

The British army tried out the rockets, but didn't take any (although they were later to adopt an improved version in 1867) and so Hale looked around for other markets. His son declared in 1853 that patents had been sold to the US, Denmark, Switzerland "and other foreign powers".
These included the Austrian Empire. The Austrians had experimented with Congreve rockets as early as 1808, establishing a factory at Wiener-Neustadt and establishing one of the largest rocket corps in Europe.By 1856, the rocket corps contained 3,865 men (and 2,460 horses) , with 20 batteries, each of 8 rocket frames. In the campaigns of 1848/9 rockets of the Feuerwerk Corps (!) were used to considerable effect, in mountain warfare against the Italians, and in Hungary, the unit commander Field Marshall Franz von Hauslab declaring that "During the Hungarian campaign enemy cavalry always fled when rockets were used against them".

The Austrians were therefore not best pleased to hear that the Hungarians might be acquiring rockets of their own.

The Kossuth Affair

Lajos Kossuth

As a guard against industrial espionage, and possibly because they were cheaper, Hale preferred to employ foreign labour. A man named Usener had previously presented himself to Kossuth asking for work, and Kossuth directed him to Hale. How Hale and Kossuth knew each other is even now unclear, and there have been documents found in Hungarian archives suggesting that Hale and Kossuth were at least considering some sort of deal. That Usener had apparently served in the Hungarian artillery is also suggestive. On the other hand, Usener almost immediately went to the Austrian embassy and told them Hale was supplying rockets to the Hungarians, implying a certain amount of espionage on the Austrian side. Whatever Usener`s motives were, it was at the Embassy's request that British police searched both Kossuth´s house, and Hales's factory. They found no evidence of collusion, nor had there been any from previous police surveillance of Kossuth, and so, at the insistence of Palmerston, the matter was dropped. Palmerston's pro-Hungarian sympathies were well known, and he was forced to claim in the House that..

"I can assure my hon. friend that he is mistaken in supposing that the government are acting in this matter upon any pledge, promise, or engagement given to any foreign government, except that given in the face of parliament, viz., that we should use our utmost exertions to enforce the law in this country, for the purpose of preventing that shelter, which I trust will always be given to foreign exiles who may come here from any political cause whatever, being abused for the purpose of organising or carrying on hostile proceedings against other countries."

It has to be said that these claims were not universally accepted.

In fact the affair damaged neither Hale nor Kossuth. William Hale and his son continued developing and selling rockets, eventually winning a British army contract which saw Hale rockets used around the Empire, from the Abyssinia to the Zulu war. Kossuth continued as the unofficial head of Hungarian resistance, even organising Hungarian foreign legions for the Crimean and Franco Austrian war, although neither saw action. But the infighting so common in expatriate groups took its toll, and the leadership back in Hungary gradually came to terms with Vienna and signed an accord in 1867. Kossuth moved to Turin, and died in Italy in 1894.

Further Reading

Hungary & it's revolutions (1854)

The New Monthly Magazine (William Harrison Ainsworth) 1856

Blazing the trail - the early history of rocketry (Mike Gruntman) 2004

Saturday, 12 November 2011

Austrians & Boxers (2)

In 1900 China imploded. A massive peasant uprising marched on Peking, massacring any aspect of non-traditional China, mainly foreigners and Christians. The weak Imperial government decided that could be turned to their advantage and threw in their lot with the Boxers. In Peking, hundreds of miles from the sea and any relief, the foreigners huddled together in the Legation Quarter, sandbagged the gates, and prepared to sell their lives dearly.

The Austrian Embassy was outside the central block, and though ornamental, was judged indefensible, at least by the Austrian commander, Captain Thomann. The Austrian sailors and civilians moved in with the French, which led to recriminations as it involved abandoning a large part of the perimeter. And it was jumping out of the frying pan into the fire, the French Legation was to see some of the most desperate fighting of the siege. The Chinese front line was only 50 ft away, negating a lot of the fire power advantage of the Europeans, even Boxers armed with spears and swords stood a chance of reaching the walls, and could attack at any time, day or night.

The gate of the French Legation

There was also a strong suspicion that sappers were digging under the walls, which did nothing for the nerves of the 78 Austrian and French soldiers, and 17 civilian volunteers guarding the Legation. The civilians included the Austrian Legation Secretary, Arthur Von Rosthorn, who had studied Chinese at Oxford in 1883 and had many business contacts amongst the Chinese. He and his wife Paula later wrote an account of the siege. But the quotes here come from highly readable account left by a British survivor, Putnam- Weale.*

For several days after June 20th, nothing happened. Not least because no one was in true command on either side. Within the Legation complex the candidates in terms of seniority were the Austrian captain, Thomann, the British Sir Claude MacDonald and the Japanese commander. It has to be said that there is speculation about Thomann, and his suitability for command. Responsibility for not just his troops but all the women and children in the legation, with many in the garrison believing their end was only a matter of time, would have daunted many men. Anyway, the Japanese had orders to defer to the British, and in the end MacDonald assumed command. In a way. Each nationality more or less defended it´s own embassy, and eye witnesses tell time and time again of lack of coordination. It is a tribute to MacDonalds diplomatic skills, as well as his military prowess, that the siege was survived at all.

Sir Claude McDonald

June 23rd

The whole defence nearly collapsed on the 23rd. Thomann suddenly ordered the Austrians, French and Italians to fall back on the British compound, the citadel of the defence. Troops poured into the legation, followed by the American Marines from the Tartar wall who feared they were being abandoned and their flank would be turned. It was now that McDonald really took command, with everyone in his embassy he held all the cards. He calmed everybody down and ordered them back to the outer defences, which, incredibly, had not been rushed, although the Italian embassy had been torched. The front was stabilised once more.

The Austro-French lines were defended by piquets, spread, desperately weakly, along the front. Putnam- Weale describes one consisting of four Frenchmen and two Austrians

"Here on roofs, squatting behind loopholes, and even on tree-tops, though these are very dangerous, French and Austrian sailors exchange shots with the enemy. Half a dozen men have been already hit here, but in spite of the strictest orders men are fearlessly exposing themselves and reaping the inevitable result.One giant Austrian had spread himself across the top of a roof near which I passed, with two sandbags to protect his head, and looked in his blue- black sailor clothes like an enormous fly squashed flat up there by the anger of the gods. Now leaning this way, now that, he flashed off a Mannlicher there towards the Italian Legation, where only one hundred hours ago no one ever dreamed that Chinese desperadoes would have made our normal life such a distant memory".

For a week Putnam- Weale wrote no notes, too tired and busy. During this time the Austrians lost their first casualties. Though suffering many wounded they had somehow still survived, but in the defence of the French legation Joesf Dettan fell on the 25th, then Marcus Badurina-Perić and Alfred Tavagna on the 26th and 29th.

Peking burning in June 1900

July 3rd

The Austrians and French "still sullenly cling to the ruins of the French barricades" but the Chinese now bought up two cannon.

" Under this devastating bombardment, almost a bout portant, as the French say, the last line of French trenches and their main-gate blockhouse became untenable. Pieces of shell tore through everything; men were wounded more and more quickly, ...... The French commander, disheartened by the treatment he had received from the commander-in-chief, and convinced that all his men would be blown to pieces if they remained where they were, ordered his bugler to sound the retire. The clarion's notes rose shrilly above this storm of fire, and dragging their dead with them, the Franco- Austrian survivors retreated into the fortified line behind them the Peking hotel.
Here they manned the windows and barricades of the intrepid Swiss' hostelry, which had already been heavily damaged by the Chinese guns. A determination was arrived at not to be driven out of this hotel until the last man had been killed ; it was necessary at all costs to prevent the enemy from breaking in so far. More volunteers were brought to reinforce this line, and the sinking spirits of the French were restored; for within half an hour of their retreat the bugler had sounded the advance again, and with a rush the abandoned positions were reoccupied and the Chinese driven back. Then the guns stopped their cannonade, and a breathing space was given which was sufficient to repair some of the damage done."


Wednesday, 9 November 2011

Monitors of the Baltic

The Trent affair and Maximillian's adventure may have brought Britain and France close to involvement in the American Civil War on the side of the Confederacy, but the European power with the closest involvement in the struggle was Imperial Russia, and they were on the Union side.

Admiral Stephan Lessovsky in 1863

As I mentioned in a previous blog, Admiral Lessovsky's squadron in New York and Washington served as a deterrent to British intervention, whilst Admiral Popov in San Francisco actually ordered his ships to fire on any ships hostile to the US if they entered the harbour. But another aspect of this cooperation was what we would now call "technology transfer". The Russians were very impressed by the performance of the ironclad Monitor at the Battle of Hampton Roads - bent on challenging the pre-eminant naval power of the time, Britain, this seemed to be just what they needed.

As Rear Admiral Butakov said in May 1862, this struck a blow at countries like "England, that slumber under the protection of the wooden walls of their ships, and only built their nations' few iron vessels as goodies to pamper their children. Now, the question of timber ships is finally resolved in all but the most stupid and improvident minds".

Lessovsky was joined in Washington by a naval architect, Artseulov, and together they discussed designs with John Ericsson, the designer of the Monitor. They decided on the slightly larger Passaic class, which also differed in having the pilot house above the turret, giving a far wider field of vision, and by March 1863 the plans were in St Petersburg. Even before the plans had arrived, the Russian Admiralty had approved the construction of ten Passaic monitors, the Uragan class.

An Uragan class monitor at sea

The only real difference between the Uragans and Passaics was in armament. The Passaics used 1 x 15 inch Dahlgren smoothbore cannon and 1 x 11 inch. The Russians set up a factory to make 15 inch Dahlgens, again using plans from the US, but initially they used 9 inch Krupp guns bought from Germany. When the Dalhgen guns came on line they were used, and then in 1873 new 9 inch rifled guns were exchanged and used until the Uragans were scrapped.

The Uragans were not really ocean going boats, although they could navigate in the Baltic, the plan was to use then for coastal defence. In other words, to prevent the Royal Navy descending on St Petersburg and other Russian cities in retaliation for Russian land operations elsewhere. Nor were they especially fast, with a 160 horsepower engine capable of giving about 9 knots, according to the Austrian military journal of 1865*, but they were manoeuvrable, turning 360 degrees in about 4 1/2 minutes. They were also remarkably stable in calm waters and in a drill the Koldun ("Sorcerer") could weigh anchor, load and fire her guns in under 10 minutes.

The Uragan class monitor Veschun (pythoness)

There were other monitor types, the Admiral Lazarev class, (Spiridov, Cicagov, Greig and Lazarev) and Admiral Rusalka class (Carodjelka and Rusalka), but the Uragans were by far the most numerous. And successful in their mission. They were kept in service for over 30 years , and during that time they didn't once have to fire their guns in defence of St Petersburg.

* Österreichische militärische Zeitschrift 1865

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

HMS Serapis

HMS Serapis in 1867

The Crimean War and the Indian Mutiny, not to mention tensions in North America, made it abundantly clear that Britain needed the capacity to rapidly dispatch troops around the world. A small army and worldwide commitments meant that the troops that were available might have to be deployed almost anywhere. The merchant fleet would do at a pinch, but, really, dedicated modern troop transports were needed. This led to the Euphrates class troopships, five huge iron hulled ships with screw engines, a full barque sail plan and a speed of about 14 knots. They were especially designed to fit the Suez canal, and could transport a full battalion of troops to India in just 70 days. The first to be built was HMS Serapis, the latest of several Royal Navy ships with that name, the last of whom had fought at the Battle of Flamborough head in 1779, holding off two American frigates, sinking one and allowing a convoy of 40 merchant ships to escape.

This Serapis was virtually unarmed, just 3x 4dr guns, her potency lay in her cargo. She was soon in use, rushing the 67th (South Lincolnshire) regiment across from Dublin to Canada in August 1867 in response to Fenian attacks from the United States. Not just the soldiers either, their wives and children, at least one child being born en route, Charlotte Serapis Soady Jackson (

In 1868 the Serapis took part in the Abyssinian campaign, transporting 150 Hales rockets and a mountain battery and 6,000 rounds from Bombay to Zula on the Red Sea.

HMS Serapis. At some point in her early career she was painted white, and pretty spectacular she looked.

In 1869 she headed back to Canada, this time with immigrants not soldiers. The new iron warships needed far less men to make and maintain, leading to high unemployment in dockyard areas like Portsmouth. One government response was to encourage immigration, with free passage for artisans and labourers who had worked at the docks for at least a year, and their families. Between 1869 and 1870 over 2,000 dockyard workers and their families left for Canada, travelling on troopships like the Serapis. Her contribution in April 1869 took 707 passengers (326 males, 166 females and 215 children under 12) from Portsmouth to Quebec, on an 18 day sea journey to, hopefully, a better life.

HMS Serapis leaving Portsmouth with the Prince of Wales

However, most of the life of the Serapis was plying the route between Britain, Alexandria and India, in an endless rotation of troops. She was good at it, working until 1894, far beyond most ships built at the same time. As an example, in January 1874 she transported the 13th Hussars from Portsmouth to Bombay, 430 men including amongst others, 6 sergeant-majors, 16 sergeants, 29 corporals, 7 farriers, and 358 rank and file. And their families - but no horses, the 13th taking over those from the 21st Hussars in Lucknow.

The Prince of Wales's state room on HMS Serapis

The Serapis´s moment of glory came in 1875 when she was chosen to transport the Prince of Wales to India to mark Queen Victoria becoming Empress. This entailed copious modifications, and fabulously furbished state rooms were installed. There was a Royal Marine band and even huge blocks of ice kept in the hold. She called at Bombay, Ceylon, the Portuguese colony of Goa, and Aden before returning home to Portsmouth.

Friday, 21 October 2011

Peking 1900 (2) - Austrians and Boxers 1

In June 1900, the men and women of the International Legation Quarter in Peking found themselves under siege. They were surrounded by thousands of fanatical Boxer militia who made no secret of their desire to slaughter everyone inside, as well as regular Chinese troops - both groups had already murdered diplomats found outside the quarter. Communications with the coast had been cut and, it seemed, the end was only a matter of time. They had two advantages. By forcing all International embassies and businesses into the same area, the Chinese had inadvertently created a block that was, barely, defensible. And secondly, an International band of about 500 marines and sailors had forced their way through before the railway line to the coast at Tianjin was cut. Eight nationalities had troops in Peking, the British, Russians, French, Americans, Japanese, Italians, Germans and Austrians.

The Austrians

The Austrians were officers and men from SMS Zenta, the only Austrian warship in Tianjin at the time, about 10% of her crew. The Zenta, launched only the previous year, had actually been designed for long distance cruising, to show the Austro-Hungarian flag around the world, if you were Austrian and wanted to see the world, this was the ship to be on. She had been on an Asian tour and was on her way to Japan when recalled to help in the evacuation of embassy staff. Other Austrian ships were based in the Russian port of Port Arthur, and were destined to see action in other parts of China, but for now the crew of the Zenta were the only ones available for the international effort.

SMS Zenta & Commander Thormann

Commander Thomann, the captain of the Zenta, took Lt Kollar, Lt Von Winterhalder (the Zenta´s artillery officer), Sub Lt Meyer and Baron Boynburg-Lengsfeld, with 30 seamen and joined the Germans on a train to Peking, arriving on June 3rd. Actually, according to Putnam-Weale, Thomann had been in Peking on a pleasure trip and took command when Lt Winterhalder brought up the troops. Although not the largest contingent, they did supply a Skoda MG M1893 machine gun, which with British and American machine guns, an Italian 1pdr quick firing gun and a cannon cobbled together from bits and pieces and called Betsy gave a certain amount of fire power. The Austrian troops joined their ambassador, Baron Czikann von Walhorn, at the Austrian Legation.

Austrian marines manning a barricade

Tensions gradually increased through Peking, Boxers appeared increasingly on the streets and the Legations fortified themselves as best they could. The Legation area became an armed camp, but as one survivor, B.L. Putnam Weale, notes in his diary "Were we really playing an immense comedy, or was there a great and terrible peril menacing us? I could never get beyond asking the question. I could not think sanely long enough for the answer". later the answer came.

June 14th

Weale continues...

"The day passed slowly, and very late in the afternoon, when some of us had completed a tour of the Legations, and looked at their various picquets, I finished up at the Austrian Legation and the Customs Street. Men were everywhere sitting about, idly watching the dusty and deserted streets, half hoping that something was going to happen shortly, when suddenly there was a shout and a fierce running of feet. We all jumped up as if we had been shot, for we had been sitting very democratically on the sidewalk, and round the corner, running with the speed of the scared, came a youthful English postal carrier. The English youth had started gasping exclamations as he ran in, and tried to fetch his breath, when from the back of the Austrian Legation came a rapid roll of musketry. Austrian marines, who were spread-eagled along the roofs of their Legation residences, and on the top of the high surrounding wall, had evidently caught sight of the edge of an advancing storm, and were firing fiercely. We seized our rifles and in a disorderly crowd we ran down to the end of the great wall surrounding the Austrian compounds to view the broad street which runs towards the city gates.

The Austrian Legation, probably after the liberation of Peking given the number of soldiers

The firing ceased as suddenly as it had begun, and in its place arose a perfect storm of distant roaring and shouting. Far away the din of the Boxers could still be heard, and flames shooting up to the skies now marked their track; but of the dreaded men themselves we had not seen a single one. We found the Italian picquet at the Ha-ta end of Legation Street nearly mad with excitement; the men were crimson and shouting at one another. Bands of Boxers had passed the Italian line only eighty or a hundred yards off, and a number of dark spots on the ground testified to some slaughter by small-bore Mausers. They had been given a taste of our guns, that was all ; and, fearing the worst, every able-bodied man in the Legations fell in at the prearranged posts and waited for fresh developments. "

Later, Boxers burnt plundered and burnt the city around them, the flames clearly visible as the skies darkened. From the route of the flames that the Boxers were drawing closer again.


" The Boxers, casting discretion to the winds, appeared to be once more advancing on the Legations. But then came a shout from the Austrian Legation, some hoarse cries in guttural German, and the big gates of the Legation were thrown open near us. The night was inky black, and you could see nothing. A confused banging of feet followed, then some more orders, and with a rattling of gun-wheels a machine-gun was run out and planted in the very centre of the street. "At two thousand yards," sang out the naval lieutenant unexpectedly and jarringly as we stood watching, "slow fire." I was surprised at such decision. Tang, tang, tang, tang, tang, spat the machine-gun in the black night, now rasping out bullets at the rate of three hundred a minute, as the gunner under the excitement of the hour and his surroundings forgot his instructions, now steadying to a slow second fire. This was something like a counter- excitement; we were beginning to speak at last. It was not so much the gun reports which thrilled us as the resonant echoes which, crackling like very dry fagots in a fierce fire as the bullets sped down the long, straight street, made us realise their destroying power.

The volunteers could now see flames from the Eastern Cathedral, where many Christians had sought sanctuary. Thomann and another senior officer conferred, but events were out of his hands....

"Volunteers to the front," shouted somebody. Everybody sprang forward like one man. A French squad was already fixing bayonets noisily and excusing their rattle and cursing on account of the dark; the Austrians had deployed and were already advancing. "Pas de charge" called a French middy. Somebody started tootling a bugle, and helter-skelter we were off down the street, with fixed bayonets and loaded magazines, a veritable massacre for ourselves in the dark. . . . The charge blew itself out in less than four hundred yards, and we pulled up panting, swearing and laughing. A very fine night counter-attack we were, and the rear was the safest place. Yet that run did us good. It was like a good drink of strong wine. "

Thomann had run with the charge and tried to get the men to return, but they pushed on into the night, finding mutilated bodies the Boxers had left behind. In the end it became clear that nothing could be done in the dark, so when the French commander recalled his men everybody else returned too. A French expedition to the cathedral found it mostly destroyed and there was no one left to rescue so they returned. Few slept that night.

Weale is critical of Thomann several times for what he considers indecision, but as he admits "Whole battalions of Boxers could have lurked there unmarked by us ; perhaps they were only waiting until they could safely cut us off.", In fact this was probably the Boxers best chance for an easy victory. At least Thomann had accompanied the charge, whilst the French commander had sensibly strayed back at the Legation.

June 16th

The Legation Compex. The Austrian embassy is up on the top right, the French further down the road

Weale wrote in his diary...
"Taking the remaining three Legations, the Belgian is hopelessly far away beyond the Ha-ta Gate line; the Austrian is two hundred yards down a side street on which is also the Customs Inspectorate";

and "The Austrian Legation is likewise a little too far away; but for the time being a triple line of barricades have gone up, having been constructed along the road between this Legation and the Customs Inspectorate. To-day, the i6th, carts are no more to be seen on these streets ; foot traffic is likewise almost at an end".

June 20th

Meanwhile fighting had erupted in other parts of China. The forts at Tianjin had been stormed by allied forces, and it is apparently this which persuaded the Dowager Empress to enter on the side of the Boxers. China was now offically at war with the allied powers. On the 19th an ultimatum had been handed to the Legation residents informing them that the Central Government would no longer be responsible for their safety. They had 24 hours after 4pm to leave Peking.

During the 20th Boxer and Imperial troops massed around the Legation complex. There were also the Muslim militia of Tung Fu-Hsiang...

"Down beyond the Austrian Legation came a flourish of hoarse-throated trumpets those wonderful Chinese trumpets. Nearer and nearer, as if challenging us with these hoarse sounds, came a large body of soldiery; we could distinctly see the bright cluster of banners round the squadron commander."
Kansu troops

"Pushing through the clouds of dust which floated high above them, the horses and their riders appeared and skirted the edge of our square. We noted the colour of their tunics and the blackness of the turbans. The manner in which they so coolly rode past fifty yards away must have frightened some one, for when I passed here an hour later the Austrian Legation and its street defences had been suddenly abandoned by our men. "

"At the big French barricades facing north an angry altercation soon began between the French and Austrian commanders. The French line of barricades was but the third line of defence here, and only the streets had been fortified, not the houses ; but by the Austrian retreat it had become the first, and the worn-out French sailors would have hastily to do more weary fatigue-work carting more materials to strengthen this contact point. "

"bang-ping, bang-ping, came three or four scattered shots from far down the street beyond the Austrian Legation. It was just where Tung Fu-hsiang's men had passed. That stopped us talking, and as I took a wad of waste out of the end of my rifle I looked at my watch 3.49 exactly, or eleven minutes too soon. I ran forward, pushing home the top cartridge on my clip, but I was too late. "A quatrecents metres" L , the French commander, called, and then a volley was loosed off down that long dusty street our first volley of the siege. "

Further Reading

Indiscrete Letters From Peking by BL Putnam Weale is an extremely readable account of the siege. Actually, it is more discrete than it appears, as the real name of the author was Bertram Lennox Simpson, an offical in the Chinese Maritme Customs Service. It is available online.

Thursday, 20 October 2011

Peking 1900 (1) - Preparations

By 1900 the Chinese empire had undergone many years of military defeat and humiliation at the hands of European, and then Japanese, forces. For a people accustomed to think of themselves as racially and culturally superior to any on earth, with a thousand year old civilisation, this was intolerable. Discontent made itself most apparent in the countryside, with the growth of The Society of Righteous and Harmonious Fists, or the "Boxers", so named by outsiders for their stress on physical exercises. The Boxers even believed themselves immune to bullets, a belief encouraged amongst the peasents by "proofs" using rigged guns. However bizarre the spiritual aspect of the movement might seem, it tapped into a genuine and widespread sense of grievance, and spread like wildfire through the country.


By Spring 1900 the Boxers were nearing Peking, leaving a trail of murdered Chinese Christians in their wake. They made no secret of their desire to murder every foreigner and Christian in China. Alarmed, and having little faith in the central government, the embassies in Peking asked permission to bring in soldiers from ships moored in Tianjin, the nearest port. With reluctant government agreement, over two days 400 Marines disembarked from warships in the harbour and more or less hijacked trains to Peking, with 11 coaches of troops and ammunition. Once they arrived there was a fraught 6 mile forced march to the Legations where they set about fortifying their respective embassies and the compound. In total the regular forces available were,

Great Britain (82), Russia (81), United States (56), Germany (51), France (48), Austria-Hungary (35), Italy (29), Japan (25)
Total 507

British, American, Australian, Indian, German, French, Austrian, Italian and Japanese troops

As a way of isolated foreign influence, foreign embassies were restricted to the "Legation Quarter", a box about 2 miles long and 1 mile wide which in 1900 contained 11 embassies, as well as various foreign banks and businesses. One one side was the old Tartar wall, but the other edges were just bordered by streets and houses. It was not especially defensible, but barricades were built and every effort made. It was clear some embassies would have to be abandoned, they were just too vulnerable.

The Legation quarter

It is as well the troops arrived when they did, on June 5th the railway line to Tianjin was cut, Peking was isolated and on June 15th a Japanese diplomat was murdered by soldiers of the Chinese army. In fact the position of the central government was causing serious concern, as whilst the Dowager Empress had initially opposed the Boxers, she now seemed to coming round to the idea of using them as a way of getting rid of the hated foreigners. The situation was not helped by the German minister, Klemens Von Ketteler, whose troops captured and executed a Boxer boy. In response, thousands of Boxers stormed into the city, joined by Muslim "Kansu Braves" and burned churches through Peking. They attacked the legations, and were repulsed by gunfire by the British and Germans.

On June 19th the embassy staff were officially told to leave the country, but when the German, Klemens Von Ketteler, tried and was murdered by an army captain they decided they were safer where they were. On June 21st, the Empress declared war on all foreign powers and Imperial Chinese army troops joined the Boxers surrounding the Legation. The 473 foreign civilians, 409 soldiers, and about 3,000 Chinese Christians in the Legation Quarter were under siege.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Portuguese Conquistadors in Africa

The Portuguese were not the first colonisers of East Africa by any means. For 100s of years the coast had been controlled by Arab trading empires, especially the Kilwa Sultanate, an Omani/Swahili clan based in Kilwa (Quiloa in Portuguese), in modern Tanzania. By the time the Portuguese started to arrive, the various trading stations had a certain amount of independence and wanted more, a situation the Portuguese were only too happy to exploit. In fact the Portuguese conquest of East Africa has similarities with the Spanish in Mexico - a rich but declining empire, divisions to exploit, and the ruthless application of force.

The jewel in the Kilwan empire, and the source of much of it's wealth, was Sofala


The reason for Sofala's importance was simple, gold. It lay surrounded by mangrove swamps, at the mouth of the Buzi river which flowed down from the great gold fields of Zimbabwe. Since the 900s Somali merchants had established a small town there, and in the 1180s it was seized by the Kilwa. Not only did they control the distribution point, they subsequently controlled much of the river trade, using dhows to ferry the gold to the coast.

Vasco de Gama

A Portuguese spy, Pêro da Covilhã, had entered Sofala disguised as an Arab and sent back a report of its riches to Lisbon, but Vasco de Gama´s 1498 expedition had failed to find it from the sea (he did manage to reconnoitre the Island of Mozambique though, see below). In 1501, Sancho de Tovar managed to find it, and when Vasco de Gama returned in 1502 he sent Pedro Afonso de Aguiar to investigate. De Aguiar gained an interview with the octogenarian Sultan, Isuf. Now, although it looked like Isuf was the ruler, that wasn´t strictly true. The land, technically, belonged to the Bantu kingdom of Monomatapa, whilst the traders were under the Sultanate of Kilwa. Isuf however, had other ideas, and he signed a political and economic treaty with Portugal. Not that de Aguiar could hang around to enjoy it, de Gama had already set sail for India and he had to hurry to catch up. But Sofala was not ignored in Lisbon, far from it.

In 1505 a powerful little fleet set sail from the Tagus with orders to establish a trading post, or "feitoria" at Sofala, and, significantly, a fortress. Three large carracks of 300-400 tons (the Espirito Santo, Santo Antonio and an unknown flag ship), and three smaller caravels of about 100 tons (Sao Joao, Sao Paulo and again an unknown), under the command of a Castilan, Pêro de Anaya, who was to be become Captain of Sofala. Once established, he was to send the carracks and one of the caravels to Cochin to pick up spices, the other two caravels remaining "on station".

The journey down was not a huge success, the ships getting separated in a storm, the captain of the Santo Antonio fell over board and the officers of the Sao Paulo were massacred by natives on the South African coast. De Anaya meanwhile sailed so far south to avoid the Cape of Good Hope that several sailors died from the cold.

A Portuguese carrack about 1540

Anyway, de Anaya collected the survivors together and anchored at Sofala, requesting an audience with Isuf. What de Anaya "requested" was permission to build a factory and a fort. Now, Isuf didn't actually have the right to grant this, but he was well aware that Kilwa had already been attacked by Francisco de Almeida with 500 men and the ruler there desposed. Monomatapa was a long way away and the Portuguese were in the harbour, he agreed.

The Portuguese immediately started constructing a fort, Fort Sao Caetano. A square was laid out 120 paces long on each side, and then a moat dug "12 palms wide and 12 palms deep". Vegetation was cleared around to give a clear field of fire, and the main wall was constructed within the moat. From September, everyone in the crew was working on the fort, including de Anaya, but by November it was ready, the Portuguese were established. De Anaya assumed the title of Captain of Sofala and is generally considered the 1st Portuguese Governor of East Africa.
Now, the next problem was that although there were plenty of things the Portuguese wanted, from gold and ivory to food, there were little they could give in exchange. The Arabs had often used Somali cotton or fine Indian goods, but Portuguese cloth was of a much lower quality and their craftsmanship couldn't compare to the Indians. What saved them were ship loads of "confiscated" Kilwan goods from India.

As per the original plan the caravels were sent on to India and the two remaining caravels used for local patrols. Unfortunately de Anaya puts them under his son Francisco, who captured two Kilwan cargo ships carrying ivory and Indian calico (and murdered the crews), but in 3 separate ship wrecks lost everything except one small cargo boat. With this he managed to reach Kilwa where the Portuguese base commander promptly put him in jail.

Sofala ("Cefala" in Portuguese) later in 1572, with Fort Sao Caetano

Meanwhile, the Portuguese garrison in Sofala is struck down with malaria, leaving just 30 able bodied soldiers. De Anaya now has virtually no army, and no naval support whatsoever, and suddenly does not look quite so intimidating. Two groups of nobles lobby Isuf - Mengo Musaf wants to expel the Portuguese, "Acute" (or Zacote)) wants to leave them alone. Isuf is only too aware that the Portuguese fleet could return, but as Mengo points out, they could shelter in the fort, so Isuf has what probably seemed a good idea at the time. Instead of attacking directly he persuades a local Bantu chief of the Makonde tribe to come to the town with "5-6000 warriors" and take the fort, promising him anything he finds there. The Makonde were a fairly fearsome warrior people with long experience of fighting Africans and Arabs. Their chief ,"Moconde", agrees. De Anaya though gets prior warning from Acute, and the fort was filled with refugees who were more scared of the Bantu than the Portuguese. This boosts the garrison considerably.

Moconde arrives and, with Mengo´s forces starts besieging the fort, filling the moat with branches. Then, suddenly, de Anaya sallies out with everything he's got. The Bantus are completely surprised, and take heavy casualties, fleeing the field. This is not what Moconde signed up for, and in fact he strongly suspects he´s been tricked. He leaves the scene, burning some of the town as he goes.

Either in hot pursuit, or later that night (depending on the sources) de Anaya makes his way to the palace with a picked force of Portuguese and kills Isuf, taking his head to display outside the walls of the fort. Leaderless, and without their Bantu allies, the Sofalans start fighting amongst themselves for the succession. Somehow, de Anaya turns kingmaker, and manages to put his own client on the throne (either Sulieman, a son of Isuf, or Acute, though possibly they are the same person).

Despite leading the resistance and the raid on Isufs palace, de Anaya must have been a sick man, as he died a few days later from malaria. He had won much glory for himself and Portugal, but in a way his efforts were in vain. In late 1507 the centre of administration , and much of the garrison, was transferred to the island of Mozambique, which had a much healthier atmosphere, not to mention a better port.


Mozambique, or "Musa Al Big" was in fact the Island of Mozambique, about 2 miles off the African coast. It isn´t very big, and is mostly sandy and barren, but it had an excellent harbour. For a maritime power like the Portuguese it was perfect.
Like most of the coastal traffic, it was Arab controlled. In 1498 Vasco de Gama visited with a small fleet of 4 carracks. Nervous of the locals he posed as a Muslim, but nonetheless the local Sultan forced his little fleet to flee. As a Parthian shot, de Gama fired his cannons into the city as he left.

Mozambique Island 1506

The should have been a warning. Within 10 years the Portuguese had established the island as their own, building Fort Sao Gabriel in 1507 and in 1522 they built the Chapel of Nossa Senhora de Baluarte, the oldest surviving European building in the Southern Hemisphere. The Portuguese settlement grew and in 1558, they started work on Fort São Sebastião, steadily increasing the defences so that when attacked by the Dutch in 1607 and 1608 it was strong enough to resist.

The Interior, and the Muzimba crisis

The situation at Sofala and Musa al Big was mirrored all along the East African coast, the Arab conquerors being in turn displaced by the Portuguese. In the 1530s various prospectors & adventurers ("sertanejos" or backwoodsmen) penetrated inland with the aim of finding their own gold, or at least controlling the trade. They made many contacts amongst the local rulers, and intelligence flowed back to Mozambique. Settlement of the area was encouraged by the use of huge land grants (prazos) and the Portuguese set up garrisons and trading posts along the main trade routes, especially along the River Zambezi like Vila de Sena (now Sena) and Tete. Tete, on a crossing point in the river (at least at certain times of the year), was 260 miles from the sea.

In 1591 Portuguese rule along the Zambezi was severely threatened. Tete by now had became a flourishing centre for the gold and ivory trades. The commandant, Pedro Fernandes de Chaves, had control of eleven local rulers, who were obliged to supply up to 2,000 armed men if required. With a mixed force of natives and Portuguese he had recently marched against the Mumbo tribe at Clicaronga about 30 miles away, heavily defeating them them and slaying their chief. His luck was about to run out.

Chaves's colleague at Sena, Andre de Santiago, had marched against the Muzimbas, a Ngoni tribe who lived near the Zambezi. A related tribe has been descibed as fighting in the classic "horned" formation made famous by Zulus centuries later, with a strong central block, but "horns" which spread out to the side and around the flanks of the enemy. This may have been the way the Muzimbas fought, but they also showed a remarkable propensity for fighting from fortifications or in ambush. They had tried to take on the Portuguese earlier by sheltering behind a thorn hedge, which didn't work very well against guns. They had learnt.

The Muzimba village was heavily fortified, with a moat and embankment on which stood a wooden palisade. The earthworks effectively made it cannon-proof. Santiago found it much too hard a nut to ctack and he sent to Chaves for aid. Chaves came down from Tete with about 100 Portuguese, and local auxiliaries lagging behind. Maybe they knew or guessed what was about to happen, but anyway the Muzimbas ambushed Chaves and slaughtered him and the Portuguese, taking their bodies for food - the auxiliaries fled back to Tete. Encouraged, the next day the Muzimbas moved against Santiago, carrying Chaves's head on a stick. Unnerved, Santiago tried to retire, but the Muzimbas fell on his forces as they crossed a river and destroyed them. In all 130 Portuguese had been killed in just a few days.

The Captain General in Mozambique 200 miles away, Pedro de Sousa, now faced losing the Zambezi completely. His first attempt met with disaster, losing many men and having to abandon his cannon, so he organised a powerful force of 200 Portuguese and 1,500 natives and besieged the Muzimba capital with cannon. Again the Portuguese made little headway, and de Sousa had to storm the place, filling the moat with logs. Still the Muzimba held out, showering the native auxiliaries with hot water so they fled, and and de Sousa had to retire. There now spread a rumour in the Portuguese camp that Sena was under attack, though whether this was spread by the Muzimbas or reluctant Portuguese is unclear. A virtual mutiny forced de Sousa to send a large part of his force to relieve the "siege", only for it to ambushed in a gorge and destroyed.

Kilwa ("Quiloa") in 1572. Although appearing an island, in fact the channel could be crossed at certain points. A Kilwan traitor showed the Muzimba the route, only to be later cast into a pit as a reward for his trechery.

The Muzimbas now moved against their neighbours, and either as allies or slaves, made an enormous army of reportedly 15,000 men. They took Kilwa, murdering the inhabitants and sacking the city and headed north to Mombasa. By chance a Portuguese fleet was in the harbour and so Mombasa was delivered, but the Muzimba then went back south, to Melinde ("Melinda" in Portuguese). Melinde was allied with the Portuguese, and in fact had been one of the few towns to give a friendly welcome to Vasco de Gama when he first arrived off the coast. They now had the assistance of 30 Portuguese under Matheus de Vasconcellos, a mixture of soldiers and traders. Anyway, they managed to hold out until a local tribe known to the Portuguese as the Mosseguejos arrived with 3,000 men. The Mossegusjos attacked the Muzimbas from behind and routed them. The Muzimbas by now were a long way from home and had inflicted much cruelty on other tribes as they passed, they now reaped the whirlwind - very few Muzimbas made it back to their city alive, so few that they were no longer a threat. The Portuguese could return to the Zambezi.

Lorenço Marques

In 1544 another Portuguese, Lorenço Marques, was sent to explore the bay around the Estuário do Espírito Santo (Holy Spirit estuary), where the rivers Tembe, Umbeluzi, Matola and Infulene drain into the Indian Ocean. He established various small trading posts and spent most of his life there with an African wife and their children. The bay was named Baía de Lourenço Marques in his honour by order of the Portuguese king, John III.
A small start for the city destined to be the captial of Portuguese East Africa.

Further reading

A general history and collection of voyages and travels, arranged in systematic order:forming a complete history of the origin and progress of navigation, discovery, and commerce, by sea and land, from the earliest ages to the present time (Google eBook). W. Blackwood 1824

Universal history, ancient and modern: from the earliest records of time, to the general peace of 1801. William Fordyce Mavor 1802

Modern History of all nations by Thomas Salmon, 1746

Moçambique and its “decreasing inhabitants”: population censuses in portuguese east Africa in the second half of the 18th century
Author: Ana Paula Wagner Journal: Diálogos Year: 2010 Vol: 11 Issue: 1 e 2 Pages/record No.: 239-266

There is an excellent article on the taking of Sofala on Wikipedia,_1505%29

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Anexio 1216 (3) - The War at Sea

The following is based on a very readable article by Henry Lewin Cannon written in 1912, "The Battle of Sandwich and Eustace the Monk" published in the English Historical Review (vol 27, p649-670) and available online.

From being virtual lord of England in 1216, and proclaimed King, the French Dauphin Louis was now faced with most of his English allies defecting to Henry III. More and more, he was relying on French troops and supplies, all of which had to be shipped across the Channel. Control of the sea was vital.

Eustace the Monk

The French fleet was led by Eustace the Monk, an infamous character then and for many years afterwards. So infamous infact that it´s hard to get solid information on him. For example, it was believed that he had gone to Toledo in Spain to study and master the Dark Arts, as this was the only way to account for his remarkable abilities. He was credited with the ability to render his ship invisible, a "cloaking device" only revoked if he could be killed.

In fact Eustace was born near Boulogne in 1143, the son of a local lord, and he did actually become a monk, at Samur. But the Count of Boulogne killed his father and later seized all the family land, turning Eustace into an outlaw vowing revenge. When the Count joined the French cause, Eustace joined the English in turn. He must have impressed because in 1206 John sent him with 3 large ships and 5 galleys to recapture the Channel islands, taken by the French in 1204. He did this so successfully that he was awarded the islands. He then raided Nornandy, landing at Harfleur and reaching as far as Pont Aldemer before retiring with the French commander, Cadoc, in hot pursuit. Cadoc made the mistake of attacking him at sea, only to lose 5 ships for his trouble. Eustace was now lauded even more in England, with a "palace" in London and a home in Winchelsea - ironically his local knowledge there was to help the Louis escape from the English 10 years later.

John, for all his many faults, seems to have had a knack for attracting talented men, and keeping their loyalty. With Eustace he went too far. Desperate for allies in France he convinced the Count of Boulogne to switch sides, instantly causing Eustace to do the same. John was well aware of this possibility and tried to capture Eustace, but he escaped with 5 galleys and joined the French, or rather Louis. He raided Folkstone and then returned to the Channel islands, conquering them yet again, and with his brothers setting up as virtual lords of the islands.

The ships

The standard ships in the Channel, for trade and war (interchangeably) were cogs. They were clinker built (with overlapping planks), a single sail, and usually a fairly flat bottom which allowed them to settle flat in harbour for unloading. As a defence against pirates they often had high sides. Those caught by pirates were generally killed and thrown overboard so pirates were especially feared and loathed - when they were captured they could expect little mercy. For war, cogs had added towers at each end for archers.

Seal of the town of Sandwich, 1238, showing a cog prepared for war

There are also several mentions of galleys, especially in the service of Eustace. The difference, basically, is that galleys have oars though they might use a sail if the wind was right. They were much more manoeuvrable than cogs and could be equipped with crippling rams making them the warship of choice in the Mediterranean. But they were poor in rough seas and as specialised warships they were hopelessly uneconomic. So, in general, they were uncommon in the Channel, but maybe worth the trouble at times like this.

The main source of ships for the English was the Cinque Ports, a confederation set up in 1155. Basically the towns from Hastings to Sandwich on the south coast were obliged to supply 57 ships for 15 days every year. In return they were given freedom from taxes and a measure of self government. Frankly, self government was taken as a licence to smuggle, but it did give England a reasonably cheap and effective navy.

The War at Sea

Control of the sea lanes was obviously essential for Louis. Eustace had been involved from the start, ferrying war machines over to the Barons even before Louis arrived. And it was Eustace who, with his local knowledge, saved Louis at Winchelsea. But Louis now needed what was, in effect, an invasion fleet. The problem was that, technically, King Philip couldn't help his son as Louis had been excommunicated, but what he could do was make generous "gifts" to Louis's wife Lady Blanche, which she used to hire a fleet and assemble it at Calais.

Since January the English coast had been under the authority of Philip d' Aubigny. The war here took the form of repeated attempts by the French to force their way across the Channel, some successful, some not. On May 15h a French fleet attempting to sail to Dover was met by 80 ships under d'Aubigny sailing out from Romney, including 20 "Great Ships" especially equipped for fighting. The French fled back to Calais, but 25 were caught up with and eight captured. The English fleet then stationed outside Dover.

On Monday 29th May 120 ships were seen approaching Dover from Calais. The English set sail to escape the larger fleet, chased by the French, but the English were quicker. However, when the French fleet turned back for Dover the English fell on them from behind, capturing another eight ships before escaping.

In August William Marshall visited the south coast, alarmed by reports from Calais. He met the men of the Cinque Ports and promised they would receive back all the privileges they had lost under John, as well as a substantial share of any loot from captured ships. As he had done with the army, Marshall did with the navy, numbers increased and moral soared. There were raids on Calais, and counter raids, wins and losses, but French supplies to England were severely disrupted.

The Battle of Sandwich

A contempory, if not hugely accurate, depiction of the battle.

Bartholomew´s Day, Thursday 24th August 1217, was bright and clear in the Channel. The French fleet left Calais "so dense and in such good order it was like a pitched battle". In the lead was Eustace, as guide, but not as commander. This role fell to Robert de Courteney, the French queens uncle. He had selected for himself the "Great Ship of Bayonne" and loaded it with not only all the gold for Louis, but also horses, a trebuchet and many other supplies. In fact it was so over-loaded that water nearly reached the gunwales - it is hard to believe that Eustace would have been so careless if he had been in charge. To protect all this there were 36 knights as well as other soldiers. In fact 3 other ships were guarded by knights, under Mikiius de Harnes, William of St Omer, and the Mayor of Boulogne, about 100 knights in total. As well there there were 6 other Great Ships with men at arms, and about 70 small transports.

The English fleet was led by Hubert de Burgh, Marshall having reluctantly agreed to stay on land. He had 16 ships "well fitted out" and about 20 smaller ones. De Burgh chose the best ship as his own and took a small number of knights from the Dover garrison, as well as a crack crew from the Cinque Ports. Next we have Richard FitzJohn, another illegitimate son of John, and a nephew of the Earl of Warren, who supplied a crew of knights and men at arms. The third ship that caught attention was especially large and rode high in the water as it was lightly loaded. It was crewed by Marshall's men at arms. Roger of Wendover records that there also galleys in the fleet, equipped with iron prows.

Cannon compares the fleets as follows. The French had a large advantage in both ships and knights, as well as, crucially, the wind behind them. All they had to do was make it to port to win. On the other hand, they were very heavily laden and slow. The English had more freedom of manoeuvre. Also, though both sides had excellent leaders in Eustace and de Burgh, Eustace had to defer to de Courteney, which was to prove decisive.

A 13th cog flying the Cinque Ports flag

To have any chance the English had to be to windward, so De Burgh let the French pass Sandwich and then followed them, sailing ahead of his fleet as if to attack and then feinting away. The French by this time were nearly at Thanet, and in good order, all they had to do was keep on going. But de Courteney saw Burgh's ship apparently fleeing and with only a few ships in company, and decided this was easy meat. Ignoring Eustace he turned and bore down on the English alone.

It was, for the French, a disaster. De Courteney's ship struck the 2nd of the English column under FitzJohn and boarded, but the English put up a fierce fight, and soon 3 more ships arrived and assailed the French ship from all sides. The French fleet meanwhile, was all the time being blown further away. De Courteney had given no signal to follow, and when they realised what was happening it was extremely difficult for the French to change course and intervene.

The final straw was the arrival of the massive cog full of Marshalls men. With a height advantage they fired at will into the French ranks, but that was not all. With the wind behind them someone had the idea to throw jars of lime onto the deck, the powder blowing into the eyes of the French. Until now things had been fairly equal, the elite French crew holding their own, but blinded they stood no chance and English troops poured onto the ship. Most of the French knights at least were kept alive for ransom, but for Eustace the situation was different. Both loathed and feared by the English sailors he was found hiding in the hold and executed

The loss of their leaders panicked the rest of French fleet and they bolted for Calais, the English falling on them like wolves. Ships were rammed or boarded, and the crews slaughtered. Nine or ten Great Ships made it back to Calais, but most of the rest, the transports, were sunk or captured.

With part of their share of the spoils the people of Sandwich erected a hospital for the aged poor, as thanks for their deliverance, and named it in honour of St Bartholomew.


Louis was ruined and De Courteney was given leave to go to London and negotiate a surrender. Louis prevaricated, but in the end he signed the treaty of Lambeth. The terms were actually fairly generous - Marshall calming some of the more blood thirsty of his army. In return for free passage home Louis denounced his claim to the throne and returned the Channel Island back to English care. That was it, he was actually given a payment of 10,000 marks as compensation, although that was to be paid by his former supporters in England.

William Marshall's reputation was now even higher than ever, few men were ever as respected in England. He continued as Regent to Henry but, unfortunately, the old Earl, who had served four kings, died in Caversham in 1219 at the age of 72.

After Marshall's death Hubert de Burgh was made Regent of the young Henry III. He married John's widow Isabel until the marriage was annulled, and then the daughter of the King of Scotland. He stayed influential until 1232 when his enemies discredited him and he was imprisoned. From then on he alternated between the Kings favour and his earldom, and prison, but by his death in 1243 he was free.

William of Cassingham was granted a Crown pension and made Lord of the Weald and Sergeant of the Peace, a post he kept until his death 40 years later in 1257.