The Great Age of Fighting Sail
The articles below relate to naval and other history in the period, between 1700 and the early 1830s. They are arranged in chronological order and will be added to regularly. Suggestions for other articles will be welcome – see the “Contact” bar above.
Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 1
The Age of Fighting Sail was also a time of superb naval art which commemorated the sea-battles of the time. One of the most impressive of the artists involved was Philippe-Jacques de Loutherbourg, a Frenchman of Polish extraction who made his career in Britain, not only in painting but in innovative theatre design.
Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 2
The image we have today of Britain’s seaman in the Age of Fighting Sail has been to a great extent shaped by the engravings and prints of that time. These were affordable by all but the poorest homes. For residents of inland towns and rural areas, some of whom may have gone through life without seeing the sea or a seaman, these prints provided the image of “Rule Britannia” incarnate. This article shows prints which give a very evocative impression of that heroic age and of the men – and women – who made it possible.
Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 3
Thomas Luny (1759–1837) was not just a great maritime artist, but also a man of indomitable and inspiring fortitude. His art was based on experience at sea and his relationship with a naval officer, Captain George Tobin, had uncanny similarities with that between Patrick O’Brian’s Stephen Maturin and Jack Aubrey.
Naval Artists of the 18th Century – Part 4
Many of the artists of the 18th Century who left us the paintings that have formed our mental images of warfare in that era, far from being studio-bound, had direct experience of life at sea. One such man was Richard Paton (1717-1791)
From Cabin Boy to Admiral: Charles Wager
In the 1680s a cabin-boy on an unarmed merchant ship under attack by a French privateer took control and led her crew to success in an action that would sound far-fetched in fiction. And this was to be only the first step in a Charles Wager’s meteoric career.
The Capture of Gibraltar and Battle of Malaga 1704
Gaining possession of Gibraltar, and the Battle of Malaga were to be not only key events of the War of Spanish Succession (1701-14) but one which was to have major strategic significance for Britain in all subsequent wars and right up to our own day…
An epic Royal Navy last-stand against French oared-galleys in British Waters – 1707
When one thinks of battles involving oared galleys one thinks automatically of actions in the Mediterranean. The galley’s day as a fighting vessel – a long one, stretching back two thousand years – ended in the early eighteenth century and as such they do not figure in most accounts of sea warfare of that era, as “Fighting Sail” reached its apogee of efficiency. I was therefore all the more surprised to come on an account of an epic last-stand by a single British frigate against French galleys in the Thames estuary in 1707.
A Forgotten Hero of Exploration: Vitus Bering (1681-1741)
Though he gave his name to the strait that separates Asia and America, Vitus Jonassen Bering (1681-1741) is largely unknown outside Russia. His achievement in the face of almost insuperable odds make him however one of the true giants of exploration.
HMS Pulteney and the Spanish Xebecs 1743
A very unusual battle occurred off Gibraltar I 1743 when a becalmed British warship was to be attacked by two Spanish xebecs propelled by oars. What followed was the type of incident that was to inspire so much naval fiction in later years.
An Unequal Duel: Trader vs. Privateer off the Dutch Coast, 1744
The story of war against maritime trade in the Age of Fighting Sail is usually told, whether in fact or in fiction, from the viewpoint of the naval commerce-raider intent on prize-money. One finds few accounts which view these contests from the side of the victims. I was therefore fascinated by stumbling recently on an account of a furious battle between a civilian trader – armed, as was essential at the time – and a French privateer in 1744, during the War of Austrian Succession. The story is worth sharing.
“The Royal Family” at war, 1747
In 1747, at the height of the War of Austrian Succession, the departure of a silver-laden Spanish warship from the Americas was to trigger a series of brutal naval engagements reminiscent of the pursuit of the Bismarck, two centuries later. She was to be engaged both by the Royal Navy and by British privateers and it is the performance of the flotilla of the latter, nicknamed “The Royal Family”, which was the most remarkable.
Unequal Duel, 1758: HMS Monmouth vs. Foudroyant
A British captain who felt that his honour had been besmirched by association with the action that led to the execution by firing squad of Admiral George Byng in 1757 was determined to clear his name at whatever cost. The following year he was to be offered a personally valuable opportunity to do so when he encountered the French flagship involved in the earlier action. And this time he was determined to do or die despite the fact that the odds were stacked massively against him. What followed was an epic duel…
Honour insulted, Disobedience triumphs – Guadeloupe 1759
The incident at the Battle of Copenhagen in 1801 when Nelson put his telescope to his blind eye and stated “I really do not see the signal!” is the most famous case of a Royal Navy officer disobeying orders and thereby achieving victory. A less well-known case occurred some four decades earlier in the West Indies.
The Bellona and Courageux action 1761
Devotees of naval history and fiction will know that the “74”, the so-called Third- Rate ships of the line, were the backbone of the fleets of the major European powers in the period 1756-1815. The original concept, dating from the 1740s, was French, but it was to be adopted whole-heartedly by the Royal Navy. HMS Bellona (1760) was to be the prototype for a class of more than 40 British ships which were to serve for more than five decades. And Bellona herself, as befitted a ship named after the Roman Goddess of War, was to have a very spectacular blooding in 1761…
The sinking of the slave ship Phoenix, 1762
One well-known image above all symbolises the evil of the Atlantic Slave Trade. Published by British abolitionists in 1788, it illustrated the “Tight Packing” on a typical slave ship which was in full compliance with the standards set by law for accommodation of slaves on shipboard. The horror of such transport reached its peak in bad weather, as illustrated by the loss of the slave-ship Phoenix in 1762. The story, a terrible one, still has the power to outrage and to move.
Slave Revolt at Sea, 1769
In the late 18th Century, running in parallel with the spectacular – and often glamorous – “Age of Fighting Sail” was the sordid, brutal, shaming fact of the slave trade. On occasion slaves did however manage to revolt and take over control of ships, usually only temporarily. One such slave revolt occurred in 1769 on the inappropriately named slave ship “Delight”.
Day’s Submarine, 1774
The development of the submarine was to demand courage as well as ingenuity and it was to be punctuated by a series of fatal accidents. The first of these was to be as early as 1774, when a ship’s carpenter called John Day undertook a deep test dive in Plymouth Sound…
First Blood 1778: Belle Poule and HMS Arethusa
The first battle between French and British forces during the American War of independence was to be a French triumph, and one that aroused enormous enthusiasm in at the time. It was also to inspire a bizarre and spectacular coiffure for ladies at the French Court!
The Battle of Ushant, 1778, its farcical aftermath, the guillotine and France’s “Citizen King”
France’s entry into the American War of Independence was to prove a critical factor is assuring the survival of the United States. The first major Anglo-French engagement of this war was to arouse bitter controversy on one side and farce on the other. And one of the players involved was to turn his back on his royal heritage and yet found a dynasty…
The “Great Siege” of Gibraltar – and Heated Shot
Accounts of naval operations in the “Age of Fighting Sail” make frequent references to the use of “heated shot” – cannon balls warmed to white heat in furnaces before firing. When used against wooden ships such shot was capable of setting their targets ablaze. They were to play a crucial role in the “Great Siege” of Gibraltar (1779-83) which was to prove the longest in British history.
The Most Ferocious Frigate Action Ever? HMS Quebec vs Surveillante, 1779
Single ship actions, usually between frigates, are remembered as some of the most dramatic actions of the age of fighting sail and they figure as central elements in the naval fiction of Forrester, Pope, O’Brian and others. Perhaps the most dramatic of all single-frigate action was fought not during the Revolutionary or Napoleonic Wars, but when French was locked in conflict with Britain during the American War of Independence. ..
HMS Flora 1780: the Carronade’s arrival
In 1780 the “Carronade”, a short smoothbore cast iron cannon, was about to change the nature of warfare in the Age of Fighting Sail when the Royal Navy’s 36-gun frigate Flora encountered the French 36-gun frigate Nymphe…
Captain Trollope and the Carronades
Carronades – large-calibre, short-range cannon throwing very heavy shot – were a game-changing weapon when introduced in the 1780s. One notable British officer of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars period – Sir Henry Trollope – was to gain a reputation as “carronade crazy” and, though his career was to be a long and successful one, he is best remembered for two spectacular actions, in 1782 and 1794, in which his use of these weapons proved decisive.
Frigate Duel 1782: HMS Santa Margarita and L’Amazone
Two evenly-matched frigates, one British, one French encountered each other off the entrance to Chesapeake Bay in 1782. A French squadron of eight ships of the line were drawing close however and flight rather than flight seemed the more reasonable option for the British ship. That was not however as it worked out…
HMS Hector 1782 – an epic of leadership and survival
The survival of 200 men from a battle and hurricane -battered ship of the line in 1782 was due to the outstanding leadership and professional competence of a 20-year old officer, Lieutenant Henry Inman (1762 –1809), who was later to be a noted frigate commander.
HMS Mediator at odds of Five to One, 1782
In the closing months of the American War of Independence an out-gunned British warship engaged an enemy force at odds of five to one. It proved to be one of the most remarkable actions of the period – and had a unlikely link to Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro!
The loss of HMS Royal George 1782
The disaster that overcame the line-of battle ship HMS Royal George in 1782, while anchored in calm water in sight of shore, was to have as strong an impact on the contemporary public mind as the loss of the RMS Titanic was to have one hundred and thirty years later. The tragedy was all the more terrible for the fact that it had been avoidable if the simplest of precautions had been taken – and without them over 900 men and women were to die.
HMS Guardian 1789 – an epic battle for survival
In late 1789 the converted frigate, HMS Guardian, met disaster in atrocious conditions when en route to Australia with supplies – and convict labour – for the new colony there. This largely forgotten epic of courage and seamanship is representative of all that was admirable about the Royal Navy in this period and is well worth sharing more widely.
Privateer Action in the English Channel, 1793 and 1799
Tensions between Britain and Revolutionary France had escalated through 1792. Following the execution of the French King Louis XVI on 21st January 1793 Britain expelled the French ambassador and on 1 February France responded by declaring war on Great Britain. Within days of the declaration the crew of a British merchant ship, the Glory, was to be one of the first victims of the war at sea, and indeed at its most cruel. But the retribution was to be no less terrible… and what followed in the subsequent years was no less desperate.
Lonely Lives and Deaths – French Napoleonic Prisoners of War in Britain 1793-1815
The plight of prisoners of war during the period of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars was particularly poignant. Over 100,000 of them were brought to Britain during the wars with France that raged from 1793 to 1815, with only a one-year break in 1802/03.
Duel in the Dark: Frigates Blanche and Pique 1795
The most dramatic actions of the Age of Fighting Sail were those which matched one frigate against another – these vessels not only being heavily armed for their size and highly manoeuvrable, but commanded by energetic young captains hungry for promotion and prize money. The night-time battle between the British frigate Blanche and the French frigate Pique in January 1795 was just such an action.
HMS Phaeton’s ruse to escape annihilation, 1795
The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars saw very large numbers of battles at sea between small numbers of ships, but few in which entire squadrons engaged and yet fewer fleet actions on the scale of the Nile, Camperdown or Trafalgar. On one occasion however a medium-sized Royal Navy squadron escaped from a confrontation which, due to the disparity of forces, could have ended in annihilation. That it did not reflected the cool head and tactical mastery of the British commander, Admiral Lord William Cornwallis.
Rescue against all odds: Pellew and the Dutton 1796
Edward Pellew (1757 – 1833) ranks just below Nelson, and certainly with Cochrane, as one of the Royal Navy’s most intrepid commanders during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. A humane and decent man, his personal courage was legendary and although his career was studded with desperate naval actions one of his most notable feats of heroism was not to be in combat but in rescuing survivors from a wreck in appalling conditions.
HMS Southampton 1796: “Bring me out the enemy’s ship if you can”
Close blockade of the coasts of French-occupied countries may have been the single most important factor in securing Napoleon’s ultimate defeat. Other articles in this site focus on the confident aggression that was such a characteristic of Royal Navy personnel involved in blockading. In this present article we look at a superb example of what was perhaps the most difficult – and all but suicidal – action of the period, the capture of an enemy vessel anchored under the protection of powerful shore batteries.
Nelson and Hardy – the forging of a partnership 1796
Captain Thomas Hardy is best remembered for his duty as Nelson’s flag captain on HMS Victory at Trafalgar, But the professional partnership between these two men – based on mutual esteem and superb competence – stretched back a decade to when Hardy was a young lieutenant. And during this time Nelson had once been forced to abandon Hardy and on another he risked defeat and capture himself to save him. But there is yet more to this fascinating story…
HMS Indefatigable vs. Droits de l’Homme 1797
The Royal Navy of the Victorian era was dominated by memories of what had been achieved in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and indeed up to the mid-19th Centruy the navy was still commanded by officers who had seen service in their youths under commanders such as Nelson. Read here about one of the most ferocious actions of those years.
Nelson at the Nile, 1798, and the rewards of victory.
The stunning victory over the French fleet at Aboukir in 1798 was not only to doom Bonaparte’s dreams of an empire in the Middle East but it almost cost Admiral Horatio Nelson his life. The tokens of appreciation he received afterwards were not only to be worth a fortune, but included also one of very great usefulness…
Bayonnaise versus HMS Ambuscade 1798
In most single-ship actions in the Age of Fighting Sail British victory over the French seems to have been all but pre-ordained. It is therefore somewhat of a surprise to learn not only of a French vessel capturing a British one in a single-ship action, but also that she was significantly smaller and less powerful…
The Loss of HMS Sceptre 1799
When reading about war at sea in the Age of Fighting Sail one is struck by the number of ships – and lives – that were lost without any intervention by the enemy. For all the professional seamanship of ship’s officers and crews, sailing ships were, by their very nature vulnerable, and never more so than when forced towards a lee-shore. One example – a terrible one – of such a loss was that of the third-rate ship-of-the line HMS Sceptre in at Cape Town in1799. This article tells her story.
Prize Money – Frigates, Treasure and Jane Austen
In naval fiction set in the Age of Fighting Sail, prize money is rightly shown as an important driver for Royal Navy officers and crew alike. It was often dearly won but the value could be immense, as a single action off the Spanish coast in 1799 was to demonstrate. But the men who risked their lives for prizes, as well as for defence of their nation, were not always warmly regarded as their fellow countrymen. Jane Austen – two of whose brothers were naval officers – portrayed such attitudes hilariously, and with gentle irony, in her final novel, “Persuasion”.
The Last Fireship Attack? HMS Dart & Désirée 1800
Fireships were for many centuries to be some of the most dramatic and devastating of all naval weapons, albeit that they were difficult to deploy and dangerous to their crews. One of the last – if not the last – deployment of fireships by the Royal Navy was to take place in July 1800. Close inshore action against French shipping by aggressive British naval officers was to be a constant feature of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars and this attack, on the heavily defended French base at Dunkirk, was to be one of the most daring. HMS Dart, a sloop of innovative design, of small size but massive firepower, was to play the key role in capture of a much larger French ship.
The loss of HMS Queen Charlotte, 1800
Naming ships after members of the royal family was to prove unlucky since 18 years after the loss of HMS Royal George, named after King George III, a newer ship, named HMS Queen Charlotte after the king’s wife, was to meet a no less spectacular end on March 16th 1800, despite heroic attempts at damage control.
The Capture of the Chevrette, 1801
“Cutting-out missions” feature frequently in naval fiction, as they often did in real-life during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. These attacks were near suicidal and the story of the capture of the Chevrette in 1801 tells just how high a price could be paid for capture of so small a prize.
Privateer Action off Peru 1801
Accounts of the Age of Fighting Sail, whether factual or fictional, are noticeably sparse as regards the activities of privateers, yet they played a vital role in the wars of the period. This article tells of one outstanding example of a privateer action in 1801, off Callao, the main port of what was then the Spanish colony of Peru. This case was especially notable in that the privateer was on this occasion prepared not just to dart in and out to capture a prize, but to engage in battle with a much more powerful ship.
The Indestructible Admiral Nesbit Willoughby (1777–1849)
Wounded innumerable times, few British naval officers of the Napoleonic era survived as much – including the 1812 Retreat from Moscow – or had so many desperate adventures as Nesbit Willoughby. It was rightly said that “he seems to have possessed more lives than a cat with all the courage of a British lion.”
The Loss of HMS Romney 1804
In 1804 the incompetence of two pilots was to lead to the loss of the 50-gun Royal Navy Fourth Rate HMS Romney but succour for the survivors was to come from a very unexpected course…
An epic last stand – HMS Arrow and HMS Acheron, 1805
This article deals with the most notable naval “last stands” of the Napoleonic era. Two small Royal Navy escort vessels faced up to a more powerful French attacking force to enable a convoy to escape. It’s the sort of story that might seem extreme in a work of naval fiction, but this was real life…
James Lucas Yeo: Archtypal naval hero of the Napoleonic era
Handsome and courageous, obviously a born leader, Sir James Lucas Yeo (1782 – 1818) seems like a figure who steps from the pages of naval fiction. He is best remembered today for his command of British forces on the Great Lakes in the War of 1812 but this naval officer’s rapid ascent to such a significant command started with a spectacular attack on coastal fortifications in 1805.
Nelson’s Ship Smasher – the 32-Pounder
The heaviest guns routinely carried by the Royal Navy’s ships in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Ward were the 32-pounder “Ship Smashers”. My article draws on an 1895 book on naval gunnery and is illustrated by photographs taken by myself on HMS Victory.
Stranger than fiction: Privateer action off Madagascar 1806
Though mention warfare in the Age of Fighting Sail so often conjures up images of major fleet actions such as Camperdown, The Nile, and Trafalgar, single-ship actions between small vessels represented the vast majority of combats at sea. One of the most remarkable of these – stranger than fiction indeed – occurred in the Indian Ocean, off Madagascar in 1806. It did not involve ships of the official British and French navies but rather two privateers – privately owned vessels which had been issued “letters of marque” by their governments and thereby authorised to wage war on their behalf.
The Capture of Curaçao 1807
In just a few hours on New Year’s Day 1807 the Royal Navy captured the Dutch base at Curaçao in the Caribbean with almost ludicrous ease despite its powerful defences. Failure to recover in time from hangovers resulting from the previous night’s festivities may have played a role…
A Marooning Scandal in the Royal Navy, 1807
One tends to think of “marooning” – abandoning a seaman alone on an uninhabited island – as being a punishment associated with buccaneers and pirates in the late 17th and early 18th Centuries. It is therefore somewhat of a shock that what was probably the last instance of such retribution occurred in the Royal Navy as late as 1807. The story is a fascinating one…
The spectacular life and death of Sabrina Island 1811
A Royal Navy sloop-of-war, HMS Sabrina, was to make a very surprising discovery off the Azores when an underwater volcano became active
HMS Quebec off Nordeney: Small Boat Action 1811
The small scale attack by a small Royal Navy force on enemy gunboats at the East Friesan Island of Norderney in 1811 was a desperate action straight out of the pages of naval fiction. This article tells about an unusual aspect of the naval war against Napoleon. It also has a sad postscript that relates to the British-American conflict of the War of 1812.
The Human Price: Mrs. Phelan and HMS Swallow 1812
A humble heroine, known only as Mrs. Phelan, was to play a heroic and tragic role when a Royal navy’s brig fought two French warships in the Mediterranean in 1812
Two USS Wasps: Glory and Tragedy in the War of 1812
Two almost identical sloops-of-war named Wasp were to serve with distinction in America’s War of 1812 with Britain. Their lives were short, though packed with incident, but an identical fate was to befall them both.
HMS Pelican vs USS Argus 1813
The War of 1812 at sea is often thought of in terms of epic single-ship actions between frigates, but one of the most bloody encounters took place not just between two much smaller craft, but in British home waters.
On the Royal Navy List for 96 Years – Sir Provo Wallis (1791-1892)
I am always intrigued by how much change – political, technical, economic, scientific – can occur in a single human lifetime. A spectacular example of this was Admiral Sir Provo Wallis. Having taken command of HMS Shannon in her epic duel with the USS Chesapeake in 1813 he was to live to 101 years old and, amazingly, had been entered on the Navy List for 96 of these years.
The Loss of HMS Dædalus, 1813
A separate article below describes how the respected frigate captain Murray Maxwell, saved his entire crew from starvation and attack by pirates after the shipwreck of HMS Alceste in 1817. He did so by superb leadership and professionalism. Maxwell had however already lost another frigate, HMS Daedalus, in 1813 in an incident was indicative of the hazards of navigating in waters that had then been poorly or inadequately charted.
The attack on the privateer General Armstrong 1814
“Cutting out” operations were the SEAL or SBS-type operations of the Napoleonic era. Small boats carrying large numbers of armed seamen attempted to capture enemy ships which had gained the shelter of a harbour of guarded anchorage and they became somewhat of a Royal Navy speciality. But one such operation against an American privateer in 1814 was to have a very unexpected outcome…
The bloody Plattsburg mutiny, 1816
A fast-sailing American trading schooner carrying eleven thousand pounds of coffee and forty-two thousand dollars in coins was hijacked by her mutinous crew in 1816. But the voyage that followed brought them to a very unlikely destination and was to end in a mystery that is still unsolved.
Discipline, heroism and survival: HMS Alceste, 1817
The value of professionalism and discipline has seldom been so dramatically illustrated when a Royal Navy frigate, HMS Alceste, was wrecked in the Java Sea 1817.
Lafayette at Sea 1824
Gilbert du Motier, the Marquis de Lafayette (1757 –1834) is remembered chiefly today, especially in the United States, as one of the heroes of the American Revolution. The popular image is of the dashing young French general who became an all but surrogate son to George Washington but this was at the very outset of his remarkable career. By the early 1820s he was the last surviving general of the War of Independence and the heroes of the period were dying off. The time was never more appropriate for Lafayette to revisit the United States. But in mid-Atlantic he was to have a remarkable meeting with a group of British army-officers, as recounted by one of them. It offers a pleasing insight to Lafayette’s character…
The Loss of the Kent in 1825 and its immortalisation in verse
Fire is perhaps the most feared of all dangers at sea, but the threat was perhaps never more terrible than in the case of the small, and overloaded, troopship Kent in 1825. Remarkable heroism was displayed by rescuers and troops alike and the incident was to be immortalised by one of Scotland’s most eminent poets.
“I’d rather be blown up!” – Antwerp 1831
The painful events surrounding the creation of the modern Kingdom of Belgium in 1830-31 are largely unknown today outside the Low Countries. They did however include an incident centred on a young Dutch naval lieutenant who became national hero and who, by Royal Decree, has been commemorated ever since by a ship being named after him in the Royal Netherlands Navy.
The Wreck of the paddle-steamer Rothsay Castle, 1831
There is a terrible fascination about 19th Century shipping disasters, since they illustrate how the management of civilian shipping was often so lackadaisical and how command, control and management techniques did not keep pace with newly introduced steam-technology. Major disasters which took hundreds of lives were relatively commonplace – the death toll being too often increased by absence of the most basic safety provisions such as life boat provisions – and huge numbers of small trading or fishing craft were lost annually, often without trace. A disaster in 1831, in the infancy of steam-propulsion, evoked horror and outrage at the time, and yet the obvious lessons to be drawn from it were not learned and not implemented for decades to come.
The US Navy’s anti-pirate expeditions to Sumatra in the 1830s
The US Navy’s role in the suppression of Barbary piracy in the Mediterranean is deservedly well known but few today are aware that in the 1830s two American expeditions were launched against pirates in what is now Indonesia. Forgotten today, they were to be decisive deployments of force that ended the threat to American shipping in the area.
The End of Fighting Sail – Sidon, Beirut and Acre 1840
Though steam propulsion was first applied to warships, on a small scale, in the late 1830s, it was to take another half-century before sail was finally abandoned by the world’s navies. 1840 was however to see the last major action by the Royal Navy in which a sailing wooden line-of-battle ship, of a type almost identical to those which fought under Nelson at Trafalgar in 1805, was to play the leading role.