Wednesday, 29 June 2011

Maximillian's Austrians - Puebla

The mid 1860s saw several powers intervening in the chaos that was Mexico, France, Spain, the United States and Britain, but perhaps one of the most unlikely was Austria-Hungary. The simple reason was that the French candidate for the throne was an Austrian duke, Maximillian, brother of the Emperor. To back him up 6,400 troops were sent with him. These were volunteers, attracted by high pay, and in the case of officers, a rank one above whatever they were in the Austrian army.

Notwithstanding the fact that an army from a cold central European country was campaigning in the tropics, it was actually quite a well balanced and well thought out force, composed of experienced troops and officers with many years experience fighting Italians, and the French. 3 Jager (rifle) battalions, each of 6 companies, Hussar and Uhlan (lancer) regiments (each of 5 squadrons) and 3 mountains artillery batteries armed with 3 pdr guns. This was the Austrian Legion, well suited for counter insurgency work.

The volunteers mustered in Ljubljana and marched to Trieste from where they sailed across the Atlantic. From the French controlled port of Vera Cruz they marched 250 miles inland, their first experiance of Mexican conditions. They were heading to Puebla, to be brigaded with various Mexican units, under the command of the Austrian Major General Thun.

Puebla conquered by the French, 1863

The importance of Puebla was that it lay on the road from Veracruz, traditional site for invading Mexico, to the capital Mexico City. Consequently when the French made clear their desire to annex Mexico it was heavily fortified. On the 5th of May 1862 the French attacked, expecting an easy victory, 6,500 advancing with artillery support against 4,500, but the Republican Mexican troops held out against 3 assault's, and then counter attacked with cavalry earning a crushing victory. May 5th is a holiday in Mexico to this day. Unfortunately, next year almost to the day, the French attacked again with 30,000 men and stormed the city. What was left was given over to the Austrians to garrison.

Calle Pitimini, Puebla, 1863

General Thun had been wounded fighting the French at Solferino just a few years earlier, so it is perhaps not surprising that he resisted coming under French control at Puebla, even indirectly as part of the Imperial army. The Austrian legion was strongly independent. The commander of the artillery, Anton Weinhara, built a self sufficient arsenal in Puebla, with even a carriage workshop and tannery.

In October 1867 a visiting Austrian lady described the barracks in Puebla as very dirty, but the countryside as "charming" with "green maize fields, and between them gigantic cactuses in the full splendour of their gorgeous blossoms and other exotic flowers. all around were high mountains, and amongst them the highest peaks of all America, viz, Popocatepetl, the Sierra Nevada and the peak of Orizaba, all of them of course covered in snow".

Puebla 1866, with mountains behind

Arms & uniforms

Without any tropical experience, the Austrians made it up as they went along. Most cultivated a "wild" appearance, with large shaggy beards and all foot troops wore a simple dark blue loose shirt. Vests and baggy trousers were dark red, and hats were either light grey felt (with grey plumes for the jagers), simple red caps, or even sometimes sombreros. The cavalry were slightly more ornate, the Hussars with dark green attilas with white braid over the ubiquitous blue shirt, small grey felt hats and tight red trousers. The Uhlans wore dark green jackets and baggy trousers, and again sometimes sombreros on campaign. Arms were of Austrian Lorenz make, either short rifles for the Jagers or pistols for the cavalry, who of course also had swords or lances, and officers usually supplied their own side arms. The one weakness was that the cavalry were trained for European warfare, they were good at scouting but very few had carbines and their pistols were single shot. Any fighting, at least initially, was done with the blade. They also had to find horses. Local Mexican horses were good quality, but smaller than those they were used to in Europe.

A lancer captain in campaign dress, 1866

This was the Austrian legion, good professional troops, but about to enter a very bitter civil war. As we shall see, they saw plenty of action.

Further reading

Osprey have a book thats a good source for uniforms, The Mexican Adventure 1861-7
The Austro Hungarian army site has an interesting series of officer biographies (
There is another good site (in German) at

There are also several books in Google Books that give the Austrian point of view, with some contempory reports. These are often in German, but can be easily translated into English on the web...
Mexiko oder Republik und Kaiserreich
Patriotism, Politics, and Popular Liberalism in Nineteenth Century Mexico
My diary in Mexico in 1867 including the last days of the Emperor

Friday, 24 June 2011

Africa - HMS Maidstone, part 2

After languishing in London for several years, at the end of 1823 HMS Maidstone was reported to be fitting out for a new mission, joining Sir Charles Bullen's squadron on the West African Station in Freetown. Her mission was to stop the Atlantic slave trade.

In some respects the Maidstone was an obvious choice, being relatively new (launched in 1811) and of a design shown to be effective in hunting privateers off the North American coast, a very similar assignment.

There were three main markets for slaves, the British and Spanish Caribbean, the United States and Brazil. Most European nations had banned the maritime transport of African slaves after the Napoleonic wars, under pressure from Britain, but slavery itself was not illegal and wouldn't end in British territories until 1838, and in the US until after the Civil War. This demand was supplied mostly from West Africa, prisoners or captives sold by the Asanate or Damhomey empires or many little kingdoms along the coast. Brazil's slaves had formerly come from the Portuguese colonies of Angola and Mozambique, but after independence in 1822, they too joined the West African trade. To make things more complicated, slave trading was not made illegal by Brazil until 1831.

West Africa

Britain's response to the slave trade had been to set up the West African Squadron, based in Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was an awful, disease ridden place with a mortality rate of over 5x a European or Mediterranean posting. But it did offer adventure, and one more advantage. Ships captured were taken before a joint Commission of Britain and the country who owned the vessel, after which the vessel was valued, and the crew who captured her got a cut. This doubtless increased motivation considerably.

Freetown 1820

The first recorded slave transport detained by the Maidstone serves as an example. On the 26th of September 1824 the Portuguese brig Aviso was detained with 465 slaves on board bound for Bahia in Brazil. The British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission in Sierra Leone sentenced the boat to be destroyed. But who exactly detained the Aviso? Captain Bullen of the Maidstone and Captain Courtney of HMS Bann both claimed the prize, so it went before an Admiralty court. Courtney argued that he was operating with Bullen so he deserved a share, and anyway it was the Bann who had discovered the Aviso. Bullen argued that it was the Maidstone who had actually captured the Aviso and so took all the risks, being a faster ship than the Bann, and anyway this counted as a peacetime rather than wartime action, in which case only the captor has prize rights. The Admiralty found for Courtney.

By February 1825 nearly 2,000 men women and children had been released from captured vessels. Further examples from 1825 include two Dutch vessels, the Bey and Pauline & Amanda, the Master of the former actually onshore purchasing slaves, and a Spanish schooner, the Segunda Gallego, bound for Havana with 285 slaves.

The Spanish slaver L'Antonio, 1837

Now the British had a trading settlement called Bathurst at the mouth of the River Gambia which also, in theory, levied tolls on merchants using the river for the local tribe, the Niumi, ruled by Burunki Sonko. However, the guns at Bathurst could only control half the wide river, which meant vessels could easily pass into the interior unmolested, both slave hunters and, almost as bad, merchants visiting the French settlement upstream. The British requested permission to build a fort on the other side of the river, but Sonko, unwilling to cede both soverrinty and a large source of income, refused. He was probably confident, as commanders at Bathurst had backed down in the face of threats before. This time the balance of power had changed, the Maidstone and the steamer HMS Africa were sent in. Having nothing that could match their firepower Sonko backed down, and ceded a mile long stretch of coast, together with all custom duties, for “time immemorial” in return for 400 Spanish dollars per quarter (French vessels were exempt). The British immediately started fortifying the area and establishing a fort, Fort Bullen named after the commander, and garrisoned with 30 troops from Sierra Leone. Things didn't end there however, Sonko realised that he had effectively lost his main source of income, and tensions increased, he stormed Fort Bullen and war ensued. English and French ships bombarded the coast and 450 British troops marched on the capital, Essau. Despite a fierce resistance the end was never in doubt, and the Niumi effectively became a British protectorate, requiring British permission before selecting new rulers.

But back in 1826 the Maidstone was still cruising the coast hunting slavers. In January yet another Dutch ship was captured, the Hoop, and in April the Brazilian brig Perpetuo Defensor, under Antonio Mauricio de Mendonca. The Perpetuo Defensor, was en route to Rio de Janeiro with 424 slaves, 49 of which were so sick they died on the trip to Freetown. The situation here was complicated as slave trading wasn't actually illegal in Brazil, so that a joint commission ruled the ship should be returned to her master, but the slaves were released. Two Spanish ships, the Nicanor and Nuevo Campeador were caught heading for Havana in May and June.

Whilst the Maidstone could outgun any slaver afloat, much of the work was done by her boats, and this could be much hairier. On 6th August 1826 the Hope, the tender to the Maidstone, sighted the Brazilian brig Principe de Guinea, and gave chase. After a 28 hours chase she caught and attacked the brig, despite being worse armed and having half the crew, and although it took a “desperate action” of 2 hours and 40 minutes, she succeeded.

HMS Buzzard capturing the Spanish slaver Formidable 1834. National Maritime Museum, Greenwich

In another example in 1827, the official report read....”10-11 Apr 1827 in the afternoon a suspicious vessel was seen from the mast-head between the ship and the Island of Fernando Po. We lost sight of her in the dark, but about 10 p.m. by aid of the moon, she was seen about seven or eight miles distant, but the wind being light there was little chance of coming up with her and Lieutenant Morton, first of the ship, volunteered to take the cutter and gig, to intercept her, and by midnight had detained the Brazilian slave brigantine Creola, 85 tons, M. J. de Suza Guimareas, Master, with 308 slaves on board, two days out from the Old Calabar River, which was sent for adjudication to the British and Portuguese Court of Mixed Commission, Sierra Leone, and on 9 Jun 1827 sentenced to be condemned for illicitly trading in slaves."

Incidentally, the Perpetuo Defesa affair notwithstanding, the vast majority of slavers apprehended in 1826 and 27 were Brazilian (though Bullen did complain that Portuguese ships seemed to be carrying a lot of “domestic servants” all of a sudden). The Hiroina, Trajano, Tenterdora, Venturoso, Carlotta, Providencia, Conceicao Paquete do Rio were all taken. These were not tried by Brazilian, but rather Portuguese commissioners, and were invariably condemned, indicating a much harder line being taken.

In the end of August, after a four year tour, the Maidstone was back in Portsmouth. In February 1828 she was sent back to Africa, buit this time to the Cape of Good Hope, a much more congenial posting.

The Cape

HMS Maidstone left Plymouth for the Cape of Good Hope on the 23rd of February 1828, stopping off for two days at Santa Cruz, Teneriffe, on the way down. She was based at the Royal Navy's base at Simon's town. James Holman, a naval officer, was in Simons town in December as part of a round the world trip, and his memoirs are available online. He was not terribly impressed with the organisation there, which lacked both a harbour master knowledgeable in sailing, and a lighthouse -several ships had already been wrecked. He also comments on the large number of baboons who lived in the hills and raided gardens, seldom in gangs of less than a hundred!

Simons town, 1838

On Sunday 4th of January 1829 Holman joined a church service on HMS Maidstone, and then dined with the Captain, Saunders. Apparently a new regulation came into place that day, closing gin shops on Sundays, and Holman thoroughly approves.

On the 5th of June Holman accepts an offer from Commadore Schomberg, the squadron commander, to sail on the Maidstone to Mauritius, and on the 16th they set sail at day break. Mauritius is an island off the African coast in the Indian ocean, and had been British since the Napoleonic wars. There was a garrison there and in deed Holman met the colonel of the 29th, stationed there.

St Louis, Mauritius, 1831

The Maidstone stayed at Mauritius until October and then returned to the Cape. It was here in February 1830 that she made the first of her two small contributions to navigation. Operating often in uncharted waters, anything to do with navigation was taken extremely seriously by the Royal Navy. In the bay off the Western Cape is a large rock, about 20 ft wide, and 20 ft high at low tide, which was surveyed by a boat from HMS Maidstone in February 1830. It is now called Maidstone rock, which is not a like having a country named after you, but it is something. On the same topic, a bottle was discarded from the Maidstone in mid Atlantic on the 24th of June 1832, only to arrive at Pozim beach, about 500 miles away, on the 7th of June, a drift of about 10 miles per day. This wasn't a game, in an era of sailing ships who might be becalmed at any time, and without GPS, knowledge of ocean currents was extremely important.

The Maidstone stayed at the Cape throughout 1831, and her officers and crew made friends on land. The chaplain, Rev John Fry was a keen astronomer. Cape Town had had an observatory since 1828 and the director, Mr Fallows, developed a high opinion of Fry, so much so that when Fallows died in July 1831, Fry ran the observatory until a replacement could be appointed.

Cape Town observatory in 1857

There was a voyage to Bengal in 1832, and then the Maidstone sailed home for the last time, arriving in Portsmouth in August 1832. She was paid off on the 18th of August.

A summary of the Maidstone's career, and many many other ships, can be found at

Sunday, 19 June 2011

The Raid on Havre de Grace 1813

In May 1813 a small squadron of frigates under George Cockburn* was cruising the coast between Baltimore and Canada, with the dual aims of capturing privateers (pirates) and forcing the diversion of regular US troops from Canada. After a very successful raid on Frenchtown Cockburn resolved to attack the fortified town of Havre de Grace. This is his report (available online at the London Gazette).

Admiral George Cockburn

His Majesty's Ship Maidstone, Tuesday night, 3d May 1813, at Anchor off Turkey Point.

I HAVE the honour to inform you, that whilst anchoring the brigs and tenders off Specucie island, agreeable to my intentions notified to you in my official report of the 29th ultimo, No. 10, I observed guns fired and American colours hoisted at a battery lately erected at Havre-de-Grace, at the entrance of the Susquehanna river; this of course immediately gave to the place an importance which I had not before attached to it, and I therefore determined on attacking it after the completion of our operations at the island; consequently having sounded in the direction towards it, and found that the shallowness of the water would only admit of its' being approached by boats, I directed their assembling under Lieutenant Westphal**, (first of the Marlborough) last night at twelve o'clock, alongside the Fantome, when our detachments of marines, consisting of about one hundred and fifty men, (as before) under Captains Wybourn and Carter, with a small party of artillerymen, under Lieutenant Robertson, of the artillery***, embarked in them, and the whole being under the immediate direction of Captain Lawrence, of the Fantome, (who with much zeal and readiness took upon himself, at my request, the conducting of this service) proceeded towards Havre, to take up under cover of the night, the necessary positions for commencing the attack at dawn of day.

Rocket boats - the crew shelter behind wetted sails during firing

The Dolphin and Highflyer tenders, commanded by Lieutenants Hutchinson and Lewis, followed for the support of the boats, but the shoalness of the water prevented their getting within six miles of the place. Captain Lawrence, however, having got up with the boats, and having very ably and judiciously placed them during the attack, a warm fire was opened on the place at daylight from our launches and rocket boats, which was smartly returned from the battery for a short time, but the launches constantly closing with it, and their fire rather increasing than decreasing, that from the battery soon began to slacken, and Captain Lawrence observing this, very judiciously directed the landing of the marines on the left, which movement, added to the hot fire they were under, induced the Americans to commence withdrawing from the battery, to take shelter in the town.

Lieutenant G. A. Westphal, who had taken his station in the rocket boat close to the battery, therefore now judging the moment to be favourable, pulled directly up under the work, and landing with his boats crew, got immediate possession of it, turned their own guns on them, and thereby soon obliged them to retreat with their whole force to the furthest extremity of the town, whither (the marines having by this time landed) they were closely pursued, and no longer feeling themselves equal to a manly and open resistance, they commenced a teazing and irritating fire from behind the houses, Walls, trees, &c. from which I am sorry to say, my gallant first lieutenant received a shot through his hand whilst leading the pursuing party; he, however, continued to head the advance, with which he soon succeeded in dislodging the whole of the enemy from their lurking places, and driving them from shelter to the neighbouring woods, and whilst performing which service, he had the satisfaction to overtake, and with his remaining hand to make Prisoner,-and bring in a captain of their militia.

We also took an ensign and some armed individuals, but the rest of the force which had been opposed to us, having penetrated into the woods, I did not judge it prudent to allow of their being further followed with our small numbers, therefore after setting fire to some of the. houses, to cause the proprietors (who had deserted them, and formed part of the militia, who had fled to the woods,) to understand and feel what they were liable to bring upon themselves, by building batteries and acting towards us with, so much useless, rancour.

An American propaganda poster of the time, so perhaps of limited accuracy

I embarked in the boats the guns from the battery, and having also taken and destroyed about one hundred and thirty stand of small arms, I detached, a small division of boats up the Susquebanna, to take and destroy whatever they might meet with in it, and proceeded myself with the remaining boats under Captain Lawrence, in search of a cannon foundry, which I had gained intelligence of, whilst on shore in Havre, as being situated about three or four miles to the northward, where we found it accordingly, and getting possession of it without difficulty, commenced instantly its destruction, and that of the guns and other materials we found there, to complete which, occupied us during the remainder of the day, as there were several buildings and much complicated heavy machinery attached to it.

It was known by the names of the Cecil or Principio foundry, and was on of the most valuable works of the kind in America; the destruction of it, therefore, at this moment, will I trust prove of much national importance.

In the margin (see below) I have stated the ordnance taken and disabled by our small division this day, during the whole of which we have been on shore in the centre of the enemy's country, and on his high road between Baltimore and Philadelphia. The boats which I sent up the Susquehanna returned after destroying five vessels in it, and a large store of flour; when every thing being completed to my utmost wishes, the whole division re-embarked and returned to the ships, where we arrived at ten o'clock, after being twenty-two hours in constant exertion, without nourishment of any kind, and I have much pleasure in being able to add that, excepting Lieutenant Westphall's wound, we have not suffered any casualty whatever.

The judicious dispositions made by Captain Lawrence, of the Fantome, during the preceding night, and the able manner in which he, conducted the attack of Havre, in the morning, added to the gallantry, zeal and attention shewn by him during this whole day, most justly entitle him to my highest encomiums and acknowledgements, and will, I trust, ensure to him your approbation; and I have the pleasure to add, that he speaks in the most favourable manner of the good conduct of all the officers and men employed in the boats under bis immediate orders, particularly of Lieutenants Alexander and Reed, of the Dragon and Fantome, who each commanded a division.

Of Lieutenant G. A. Westphall whose exemplary and gallant conduct it has been necessary for me already to notice in detailing to you the operations of the day, I shall only now add, that for a thorough knowledge of his merits (be having served many years with me as first lieutenant) I always, on similar occasions-, expect much from him, but this day he even outstripped those expectations, and though in considerable pain from his wound, he insisted on continuing to assist me to the last moment with his able exertions, I therefore, Sir, cannot but entertain a confident hope that his services of today -and the wound' he has received, added to what be so successfully executed at French Town (as detailed in my letter to you of the 29th ultimo), will obtain for him your favourable consideration and notice, and that of my Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty.

HMS Apollo, sister ship to HMS Maidstone, Cockburn's flagship

I should be wanting in justice did I not also mention to you particularly the able assistance again afforded me by Lieutenant Robertson, of the artillery, who is ever a volunteer where service is to be performed, and always foremost in performing such service, being equally conspicuous for his gallantry and ability; and he also obliged me by superintending the destruction of the ordinance taken from the foundry,

To Captains Wyborn and Carter, who commanded the marines, and shewed much skill in the management of them, every praise is likewise due, as are my acknowledgements of Lieutenant Lewis, of the Highflyer, who, not being able to bring his vessel near enough to render assistance, came himself with his usual active zeal to offer his personal services. And it is my pleasing duty 'to have to report to you in addition, that all the other officers and men seemed to vie with each other in the cheerful and zealous discharge of their duty and I have therefore the satisfaction of recommending their general good conduct on this occasion to your notice accordingly.
'I have the honour to be, &e, (Signed') G. COCKBURN, Rear Admiral.

Taken from the battery at Havre-de-Grace - 6 guns, twelve and six-pounders.
Disabled in the battery for protection of foundry - 5 guns, twenty-four pounders.

Disabled, ready for sending' away from foundry - 28 guns, thirty-two pounders
Disabled in boring house and foundry - 8 guns and 4 carronades, of different calibres.

Total 51 guns, and 130 stand of small arms.

* Cockburn was the naval commander during the burning of Washington, in retaliation for the sacking of Toronto. He also raised a Corps of Colonial Marines from former United States slaves. The corps served in several actions up and down the Atlantic coast including the victory at St Peter, and the occupation of Cumberland Island, where they helped the freeing and emigration of several hundred slaves.

** Lt Westphal had an extraordinary, charmed, life. Born in Preston, Nova Scotia, in 1785 George was the son of a retired Hanoverian officer. He joined the Royal Navy at 13, and in 1805 found himself on HMS Victory. During the fighting he was severely injured and carried below deck, where Nelson lay dying. Nelson's coat was used as a pillow, but his hair, matted with blood, became so entangled with the coat button that they had to be cut off. Westphal kept the buttons as souvenir. Further adventures included escaping from a prison in Guadaloupe, leading a section of gunboats against Flushing and innumerable other escapades. He served with Cockburn, where he made a very good impression and saw a lot of action, including leading the raid on Frenchtown.
Made captain in 1814, he was knighted in 1823 and in 1846, George Westphal was appointed a naval aide-de-camp to Queen Victoria.
George's brother Philip also became an admiral, and there is a school named after them both in Nova Scotia.

*** members of the Royal Artillery stationed at Bermuda. Congreve rockets were basically huge fireworks, developed originally in India and modified by the British.

**** The Lockhouse museum in Havre stages a reconstruction of the raid every year

Royal Marines

Thursday, 16 June 2011

Napoleon and after - HMS Maidstone, Part 1

Ever wonder what happened to the frigates of Hornblower, Ramage or Aubrey in the post-Napoleon world? Here is one example, HMS Maidstone, a little (947 tons) 5th rate frigate of the Apollo class with 36 guns. First we'll see her brief, but busy, wartime career and then where she was sent next.

Incidentally, here I draw heavily on an amazing resource of practically all Royal Navy ships, some in huge detail, at

Against Napoleon ....

The Maidstone was launched on the 18th of October 1811, towards the end of the Napoleonic wars. Trafalgar had been 6 years earlier, but there was still plenty of work to do, and she was prepared for service in the Mediterranean.

HMS Euryalus, sister ship to HMS Maidstone

Believe it or not, the wartime medical logs of the Maidstone are online at the National Archives, starting with surgeon Augustus B Granville. Various seamen are abandoned in London before cruising down to the Med (not a few with syphilis!) or dropped off in port as she makes her way to Menorca, leaving a Seaman Brown and Midshipman McMahon in Port Mahon hospital in March. From March to May a new surgeon, Henry Osborn, took charge and he logs the discharge of a Lieutenant Smith of the Royal Marines, with phthisis (tuberculosis), and gunners mate Henderson who fell when intoxicated and broke his clavicle!

On the 4th of April 1812 the Maidstone captured the French ship Marinet in the Mediterranean. Actually it was sailors and marines under Lt. McKeekan, in boats from the Maidstone, who captured her. Most of her impressive haul of captures over the years were by men sent out in the boats.

On the 29th she was in Plymouth for a week, before heading out again to Lisbon escorting a troop convoy. Wellington was about to launch a major offensive against the French, starting from Lisbon in May and decisively defeating Joseph Bonaparte at Vitoria in June. Over 52,000 British soldiers were at Vitoria, and the Maidstone played her part by getting some of them there.

.... and Madison

By August the Maidstone was off the Canadian coast, under Captain George Burdett. Here the problem was privateers, basically licensed pirates armed by the American government. From the medical logs we see her calling in at the bases at Halifax and Bermuda.

A typical privateer schooner

On the 1st of August she and the Spartan captured two US privateers, the Polly and Morning Star, which were burnt. Four more were trapped in Little River two days later, and boats were sent out to capture them. The crews mostly escaped, but the ships were captured.

On the 12th she and the Colibre captured another privateer, and then on the 17th, with the Spartan, she scored a major success. The Rapid, with 14 guns and 84 crew had been fitted out in Portland with 3 months supplies and a remit to attack shipping from Bermuda to the Azores. She didn't make it. Just 3 days out of Portland she was spotted and after a 9 hour chase she was overhauled and captured.

More successes followed, especially in 1813 when the energetic Sir George Cockburn arrived to command the squadron. Ten more privateers were picked off, including the Cora on February 14th, Valentines day. She was supposed to be the fastest schooner out of Baltimore and was on her maiden voyage, returning from Bordeux with wine and spirits.

In April, boats from the Maidstone, Fantome, Mohawk and High flyer, 180 seamen and 200 marines in all, were sent up the Elk river. They destroyed military stores at Frenchtown, and burnt 5 ships. Returning from this raid they passed the town of Havre de Grace, at the mouth of the Susquehanna river, and determined to attack. Havre was a tough nut to crack, as shallow shoals prevented the larger ships getting close and two batteries guarded the town. So 16 boats of sailors and marines, about 150 in total were sent in. This could have been disasterous, the boats sailing into the teeth of the cannons could have been decimated by grapeshot, and to try to minimise casulaties they set off at midnight, on the 3rd of May. Fortunately, the militia guarding the town ran away, especially after the employment of the new super-weapon, Congreve rockets on boats! (apart from one drunkard who tried to man the cannon by himself and got knocked over by the recoil). Cockburn's report is in the London Gazette online, and I will try to post it in full on another occasion.

Unfortunately, disaster struck in December, when a terrific storm hit Halifax, and the Maidstone was driven ashore. Delayed by repairs, she started the year quietly, but by April her boats were part of a fleet that attacked the Conneticut river and destroyed 27 ships.

From May 1812-13, on the American tour, the surgeon was William Carlyle. Here we see the Maidstone calling in at Halifax and Bermuda, and on 24th Feb 1813 the first injuries from enemy action, seaman Bingham receiving two wounds from musket balls. Various musket and cutlass wounds follow, reflecting the heavy fighting in 1813, through to the last records available, in May. The youngest on the lists was William Twyford, who came down with catarrhus (a bad cold) in London in 1811, the oldest John Fletcher who shattered two fingers of his right hand when at sea.

In 1817 HMS Maidstone was back in Woolwich for a much needed refit. There she rested before being sent to a very different station - Africa!

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Abolition of the Slave Trade

In 1759 the frigate HMS Arundel was sailing through the Caribbean. Her captain, Charles Middleton, from Leith in Scotland, had already against the French at Louisburg in Canada, capturing two ships. The Arundel was his first frigate as captain. His ships surgeon was James Ramsey and they seem to have struck up a friendship, perhaps as fellow Scots. This friendship was to to have huge consequences, not just to them, but to thousands, perhaps millions, of others.

In November 1759 the Arundel intercepted a slave transport, the Swift, and found 100 slaves kept in terrible conditions. Although both had been the in the Caribbean long enough to see conditions on the plantations, and discipline in the Royal Navy was notoriously harsh, this seems to have shocked both men, especially Ramsey, and had a profound effect on their thinking.

A plan of the slave trader Brookes, published by the Plymouth Chapter of the Society for Effecting the Abolition of the Slave Trade in 1788

In 1760 Middleton was transferred to the Emerald, where he had an extremely successful year, capturing 16 French boats and privateers, but in December 1761 he was in England, where, aged 35, he married Margaret Gambier. Charles was still on active service, patrolling the Normandy coast in the Adventure, so Margaret went to live in the Kent village of Teston, to be near her friend Elizabeth Bouverie. When he retired from the navy in 1763 Middleton joined her there and for the next 12 years farmed land belonging to Mrs Bouverie. The outbreak of the American Rebellion, and the huge demands on the navy fighting the rebels, the French and Spanish, led to his re-enlistment and he was given command of a guardship in the Thames estuary, not so far from Teston. He seems to have made an excellent impression as he was appointed Comptroller of the Navy in 1778, a post he held for 12 years.

Charles Middleton

Ramsey meanwhile had followed a different path. Leaving the navy in 1762 he trained as a priest in London and volunteered to work amongst the slaves of St Kitts (then St Christopher). With his medical experience he was appointed surgeon to several plantations on the island and saw to his horror the conditions of many of the slaves. Ramsey lived on St Kitts until 1777, campaigning locally and with letters to the Bishop of London, but eventually he was forced out. Weakened by the struggle, the tropical conditions and a leg wound he had received in the navy he went to join his old colleague Charles in Teston.

In Teston Ramsey quickly converted Mrs Middleton to his cause, Charles already being sympathetic, but he was not there long. Volunteering again for the navy he was transferred back to the West Indies, where he served as a chaplain, reportedly collecting intelligence against the French. Middleton, now influential in the Navy and indeed knighted as Sir Charles Middleton, invited him back in 1781 and made him vicar of the parishes of Teston and nearby Nettlestead.

James Ramsey

Both Middleton and Ramsey now entered more forcefully into the political arena.
In 1784 Ramsey published a pamphlet, An Essay on the Treatment and Conversion of African Slaves in the British Sugar Colonies, which was very influential. Public attention was drawn to the subject and several figures who would later be prominent abolitionists , such as the bishop of Chester, Beilby Porteus, were influenced.

Meanwhile, Middleton became MP for Rochester, which he remained for 6 years. In parliament he met the young MP for Hull, William Wilberforce, who he befriended and in 1787 in Teston introduced to Ramsey and Thomas Clarkson, a young firebrand anti-slavery campaigner. It is unclear if it was Middleton who planted the idea of abolition in Wilberforce's mind, as there were many campaigners around the country, but it is possible. Whatever the case, Teston became the centre for the abolition movement, with many meetings of Wilberforce, Porteus and others at Barham Court.

Teston bridge in 1793 with Barham Court on the left.

James Ramsey died in 1789, worn out by campaigning, but the Middletons continued. Political activity did not affect Sir Charles's career and he was promoted to Lord of the Admiralty in 1794, and in 1805 he was made Baron Barham of Barham Court and Teston (not bad for the son of a customs collector). He died in 1813, but by then the slave trade, if not slavery itself, was illegal. The slave trade was abolished in the British empire in 1807, ships transporting slaves were to be treated as pirates, and any men captured could be executed.

William Wilberforce

Through the 19th century the Royal Navy was more or less single handedly responsible for stopping the Atlantic slave trade, partly so as not to give a commercial advantage to their competitors, but also due to enormous moral pressure from the public. Britain's unprecedented control of the seas making this possible.

Astronomical amounts of money were spent. An entire new naval base was constructed on the West African coast in Freetown, modern Sierra Leone, where many sailors lives were lost to tropical disease - the mortality rate was 55 per 1,000 men, compared with 10 for the Mediterranean or Channel fleets. Between 1830 and 1860 there were never less than 6 ships on station, and sometimes over 30, including new paddle steamers, which could patrol the coast much more effectively. An incredible 1,600 ships were captured between 1808 and 1860, and over 150,000 slaves freed. Many, not surprisingly, were not keen to go back only to be enslaved again, and stayed in Sierra Leone.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Ironclads - sources

Contempory Sources

A discussion of early English ironclads in Blackwoods Magazine 1867

Contemporary journals
George King-Hall

Tom Richards

Warship guides

World Naval Ships (very thorogh)

Triton 1/1200
(including HMS Lord Clyde)

(including HMS Lord Clyde)

Sunday, 5 June 2011

HMS Lord Clyde - the worst ship in Victoria's Navy

When she was launched the Lord Clyde was theoretically one of the strongest ships in the most powerful navy in the world. She was also a milestone in naval design, but not in a good way. It's possible that the Royal Navy has had worse ships, but apart from the Mary Rose it's hard to think of any.

It was due to the narrow window of time in which she was designed, the Royal Navy was intellectually convinced of the need for ironclads warships, but didn't really know how to make them yet - and there was an awful lot of timber and sail cloth in store.

For a start, her basic shape was completely wrong, she rolled so much her gun ports went under water during sea trials. The Lord Clyde and her sister ship the Lord Warden were the worst bad weather ships in the Victorian navy, but of the two the Lord Clyde was worse. Even in 1867, Blackwoods Magazine was reporting that she rolled 12 degrees in mild weather, and up to 30 degrees in windy, not even stormy, conditions.

Although she was technically "ironclad", her hull used a lot of oak, two and a half feet thick behind eight inches of armour. The idea was that this would defeat even the 15-inch Dahlgren guns carried by the American monitors at the time (the Trent affair being fresh in everyone"s minds). Unfortunately, the supposed surplus of seasoned timber, which was part of the justification of her existence, was found not to exist at all, and she was built with large amounts of unseasoned wood. This was to have disastrous consequences.

The entire crew, except the most senior officers, bedded down on the lower deck, denied sunlight and ventilation as the scuttles, hatches opening to the outside, were only a few feet above the waterline and couldn't be opened if the ship was moving. The sick list of ships with this design was always higher than with ships with crew accommodation on the higher main deck.

Anyway, in 1866 HMS Lord Clyde was commissioned, with an unfortunate crew of 605 and twenty-four 7 inch muzzle-loading rifled guns. Four of these were in an armoured battery facing forward, which left a broadside of 10 guns each side. She also huge ram on the front, though this was perhaps optimistic given her speed, and in fact probably contributed to the disaster that was to come at Malta.


Using the term loosely. She started in the Channel fleet in May 1866, but by 1868 she was sent down to the Mediterranean where the waters are calmer and she stood a chance of firing her guns without sinking. The main threat there was, as ever, the French with the Illustrated London News of 1867 trumpeting her superiority to Emperor Napoleon's fleet. Then there was the Russian threat from the Black Sea, but a rising concern was the Italians, who after getting thrashed by the Austrians at Lissa were building a fleet of ironclads.

Although, even in 1867, the Lord Clyde was described as "one of the slowest of the ironnclads under sail" she was at least spectacular, with an incredible 31,000 sq ft of sail, allowing her only positive entrance in the record books, as the largest ship ever to enter Plymouth under sail. Unfortunately this was just as well as her engine broke down after just one cruise in the Med and she had to be sent home. Yet another failed design feature had been the use of a two cylinder engine which oscillated more than the hull could absorb, leading to wear and strain on the machinery. She was then quietly put in the reserve.

In 1870 though she was re-armed with two 9 inch muzzle-loading, fourteen 8 inch muzzle-loading and two 7 inch muzzle loading rifled guns, and in September 1871 re-commissioned and sent back to the Mediterranean.

Over Christmas 1871 Lord Clyde was stationed in Malta, where on Friday afternoon 2nd February the crew hosted a dance. According to an eye witness it was not a success, although "the ladies dresses were short as a rule, and a lot of leg was shewn", "the deck was damp and quite sticky and one soon got quite tired of dancing as your feet began to stick to the deck. Two ladies lost the heels of their shoes".

Valetta Harbour, Malta, in the 1870s

In March 1872 she was given something useful to do, going to the aid of a British steamer off Malta. Unfortunately she then went aground herself.....

"Anchors were laid out, coal jettisoned, guns, ammunition and stores hoisted over the side into small casters from the island hired on the spot, and everything possible done to lighten her, but she remained a fixture except to sway in the swell from the open sea, strain her back, and wrench off her sternpost, rudderpost and rudder. .... an officer was dispatched by a passing steamer to Malta, where the Lord Warden was lying as flagship and came at once to pull her crippled sister off and return to port. This proved an extremely difficult job even when she was afloat again, as she yawed about so violently without a rudder when in tow, as to pull the sister in charge all over the place. It took three days to travel a distance that could ordinarily be covered in less than one, and all the while she was leaking at a steady rate of 2 feet (1 m) per hour.

On arrival at Malta she had to be docked with great care on account of the badly damaged state of her bottom; and the yard reported that it would take six months to repair. The inevitable court martial meanwhile sentenced the gallant Bythesea and his navigating officer to be severely reprimanded and dismissed their ship, with the result that neither was ever employed again. On receipt of the report from Malta the Admiralty decided that only sufficient external repair for a passage home was to be carried out, but even that required half a year and cost a lot of money… She was escorted home by the Defence, with a navigating party on board supplied from that vessel; and on arrival at Plymouth her engines, boilers and hold fittings were removed to ascertain what internal repairs were required.”

“This disclosed a disastrous state of affairs as a consequence of insufficiently seasoned wood having become prey to the germs of timber fungus from bow to stern… Every remedy known to the expert science of the day, including chemical antidotes, was tried in turn, but to no purpose… It was hoped that perhaps she might serve for a time as a drill hulk attached to the Portsmouth gunnery school... but after nearly three years of ceaseless though unsuccessful curative treatment even that idea had to be abandoned, as she was sinking into decay so fast that she had to be sold before being too far gone to find a purchaser.

She was sold for scrap in 1875 for £3,730.

Thursday, 2 June 2011

Spain in 1860s America - Sources

General sources for the period

Illustrated London News (various online)

New York Public Library (excellent for uniforms)

The New York Times

British library digital archive

Google books (always worth a look)

Spanish forces

Spanish cruisers

Order of battle of the Spanish forces in Santo Domingo October 1863


Battalion Segorbe (not in Santo Domingo)


Spanish Morrocan war (1859)
Good general guide to the Spanish army of teh time

Spain and Vera Cruz

The History of Mexico 1832 - 1918 by Herbert Howe Bancroft

Santo Domingo

Santo Domingo heads of Administraion 1861 - 65

The Dominican Republic: a national history By Frank Moya Pons (very thorough)