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