The Royal Navy gets one over on the French

The Opening of the Suez Canal, 1869

Anybody interested in the Royal Navy of the Victorian era cannot but be fascinated by the sheer variety of tasks undertaken by the large number of gunboats in service. These small but usually heavily-armed vessels were not intended for service with the fleet, but rather for any necessary “odd-job” in a remote location. Though steam-propelled, they usually carried an auxiliary sailing rig to allow them to operate far from bases and sources of coal supply. The sheer variety of tasks they undertook, and the fact that in pre-radio days a captain was essentially incommunicado with his superiors from the moment he sailed over the horizon, demanded a high degree of initiative from the men who commanded them. As such they often offered splendid opportunities to ambitious young officers. A case in point, one involving confident insolence of the highest degree, occurred at the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869.

HMS Thrush – a gunboat of 1889
Though of steel construction she was very similar in layout
to earlier wooden gunboats such as those of the Philomel Class 

Typical of the gunboats of the Mid-Victorian period were those of the Philomel-class, of which 20 were completed between 1859 and 1867. Of wooden construction they were of 570 tons on a length of 145 feet overall. The 325 hp engine, driving a single screw, gave them a maximum speed of some nine knots. With a crew of 60, these vessels were designed to carry very heavy gunpower for their size – one 68-pdr muzzle-loader, two 24-pdr howitzers and two 20-pdr breech-loaders. One of these vessels, HMS Newport  launched in 1868, was to play the star role in an act of insolence that was to arouse widespread admiration in Britain – if nowhere else!

The French Empress Eugenie (front right) at opening ceremony
With her the Sultan of Turkey and Emperor Franz-Josef  of Austro-Hungary

The Suez Canal, financed by a French consortium and constructed over a period of ten years, was due to be opened on November 17th 1869. This was to be one of the most grandiose events of the century. Hosted by the Egyptian Khedive, Ismail, invitees to the ceremony included the Sultan of Turkey and European royalty, of whom the most prominent was the French Empress Eugenie, consort of the French Emperor Napoleon III. Others included the Austro-Hungarian Emperor Franz Joseph, the Crown Prince of Prussia, and the Crown Prince of the Netherlands. Queen Victoria, still in ostentatious mourning seven years after the death of her husband, did not attend but sent her son, the Prince of Wales. Among a host of distinguished visitors was, somewhat incongruously, the Norwegian dramatist Hendrik Ibsen.

Opening ceremony at Port Said November 1869

Luxurious temporary structures were erected, similar to those of the popular universal expositions of the period. For Eugenie a replica was provided of her private apartments in the Tuileries Palace in Paris. A new opera house was opened in Cairo, just ahead of the canal opening. It had been intended that the first opera played there would be Verdi’s Egyptian-themed opera, Aida, but its completion was delayed and Rigoletto was performed instead. Aida was however to have its premiere there two years later. The cost of the three weeks of grandiose festivities was to be covered by the brutally over-taxed Egyptian rural population, whose forced labour had already been used to dig the canal, largely by hand.

The high point of the ceremonies was to be the first transit of the canal. This honour was to be accorded to the Empress Eugenie in the French Imperial yacht L’Aigle.

L’Aigle, the French Imperial yacht 

On the night before the transit a large quantity of shipping was waiting at the canal entrance, ready to follow the L’Aigle on its course through it.

At this point, enter the gunboat HMS Newport, assigned to survey work in the Mediterranean and commanded by an up-and-coming Royal Navy officer, Commander George Nares (1831-1915) – seen on right in later life  Whether or not on his own initiative or by official sanction, Nares manoeuvred the Newport in total darkness, and without lights, through the mass of waiting ships until it was in front of L’Aigle.

When dawn broke the French were horrified to find that the Royal Navy was now first in line and that it would be impossible to pass them in the narrow waterway. The result was that Nares and the Newport were to push on through the canal and thereby deprive the French of achieving the first transit between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea.

First transit of the canal – HMS Newport leads, l’Aigle and the rest follow!

This action – though vastly popular with the British public was – for diplomatic reasons – to earn Nares an official reprimand. Unofficially he received a vote of thanks from the Admiralty for his actions in promoting British interests and for demonstrating such superb seamanship. Putting the French in second place was always a popular activity in Britain! Nares was promoted to captain that same year and went on to have a very distinguished further career – which will be the subject of a future blog.

It is ironic to note that despite all the outward show of international friendship at the opening ceremony, Eugenie’s husband, the Napoleon III ,would be surrendering his army to the Prussians at Sedan some ten months later. The Prussian Crown Prince would be present at that humiliation and Eugenie herself would be fleeing to Britain as a refugee. She lived another fifty years in Britain in dignified exile and she, her husband and her son – who died in British uniform during the Zulu War – are today buried in a mausoleum of a girls’ school in Farnborough, Hampshire.

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