GLIMPSES OF MARITIME HISTORY BEFORE AND DURING NELSON’S TIME
CALL OF THE SEA
The vast expanses of oceans, and all that they relate to, have always held a fascination for me. A fascination which is a contrary one: on the one hand, the sheer majesty and rugged beauty of the seas, and on the other the morbid fascination with the unknown quantity that is embodied by these vast bodies of water. I think I rather fancied myself on one of those ships, embarking on a voyage, hoping to discover something exciting, inwardly quaking at the skirmishes history has witnessed in the name of power.
Even as a child, I would watch the ships go sailing past, and I now recall the lines that likened chance meetings to “Ships that pass in the night”. Wonder and awe at those great seafaring idols, their isolated, yet exciting lives, knowing they were on a path to discovery: those were the feelings that would arise, and impel me to gather more and more knowledge as time went by. I remained ignorant about the turbulence on the seas till the time I delved into Maritime history.
Maritime, or Naval history is the study of human activity at sea (Maritime History- Wikipedia). In order to get the true picture of where we are today as regards the sailing of the seas, we need to go back ages. The subject is so vast that I may run out of space and time were I to put down all that caught my fancy.
It covers a broad spectrum of human relationships– whether they be with the seas, the geographical boundaries of the globe, with other nations, or even between themselves. It reveals how mankind behaves in situations that can be of the direst nature, especially when battling the seas externally, and the turmoil within themselves.
Naval history does not limit itself to just human relationships, but extends to the related sciences and commercial activities as well. E.g. shipping, ship- building, maritime law, trade, etc.
Maritime history has also stood witness to wars and battles, and European prowess on the high seas has been recorded in history as the most glorious periods of naval history.
Needless to say, the use of aircraft in warfare was still undiscovered, and warring factions held sway either over land or over water. The most convenient way to other nations was by sea, and European countries were all in the competitive market for their ships and sea faring activities.
The Phoenicians, the Indians, the Egyptians and the Chinese, were all great travelers, and mastered the craft of building ships that weathered storms and carved trade routes long before the Europeans made them their own.
My own fascination with oceans and ships began taking form way down the line, of course. The Europeans became masters at this skill, and were soon venturing further and further from their shores to explore and conquer.
As I began my own exploration into the history behind where we are today with regards to maritime history, I find it worth mentioning that man first began with crude rafts, animal skins, and very rudimentary means of water transportation. Slowly the use of poles, then oars came into play, and the medieval ages is when ship- building and putting the ships to further trade and conquests reached its peak.
COMING OF AGE- WARSHIPS
The Middle Ages were the period beginning from the late 14th Century, and although we see a golden period in terms of exploration and conquests, no singular country in Europe came to the forefront. Personally, I think it was a case for each looking out for themselves, and there was a race to expand their shores.
Britain, Portugal, Spain, and Holland were the major countries vying for a spot under the sun, and history witnessed some of its most prolific discoveries, some of the most hard-fought battles, and sometimes, festering cruelty within races. Irresistibly drawn by the lure of new lands and lucrative trade, shipbuilding during these times adapted and innovated towards sturdier, more aggressive, and speedier ships.
Those were turbulent, raw times, and some names come to mind when I think of great seamanship. The most prominent among these has got to be Viscount Nelson.
Since the naval superiority of a nation is determined primarily by its vessels, I found the evolution of naval creativity profoundly fascinating. “Naval ship, the chief instrument by which a nation extends its military power onto the seas. Warships protect the movement over water of military forces to coastal areas where they may be landed and used against enemy forces; warships protect merchant shipping against enemy attack; they prevent the enemy from using the sea to transport military forces” (Britannica- naval ships).
Around the 12th century, oars were replaced by the stern rudder, in all probability an invention by the Dutch. During the 15th century, the single-mast ships gave way to dual, and later triple masts. Henry V of England first commissioned these and sailed them as warships. The ships at this time were being constructed from wooden planks, and nailed together with varying representations of nailing techniques.
‘Warships’ literally took the term from their being deployed in sea versions of land battles. The prominent one among these is the Battle of Flanders, 1340, led by Edward III of England. England more than took the credit for introducing ‘raised fighting platforms’ into their ships. It seemed all of Europe was now on the warpath, and constantly adapting and refurbishing their navy to “conquer all”.
Very soon, it seemed to be a race towards armed ships, the bigger the better. Portugal, Spain, followed by France and Holland, travelled over the oceans in cannon-fortified ships. (Britannica- naval ships).
Shipbuilding created the need for more and more wood, and I think this led to the indiscriminate marauding of forests in the newly discovered lands. France was the only country that exercised a little discretion when it came to axing forests.
England, not to be left behind, slowly but surely, forged its path through gory land and sea battles, aiming for the Numero Uno position on the high seas. It eventually did so, and the glory of its Imperial reign rests largely on the seaworthiness of its Navy.
My forays into the progress of warships showed that during the 17th and 18th Centuries, great upgrades were incorporated, and the English were now “full steam ahead.” Warships of this period were rated according to the number of cannon they carried. Despite all these developments, vanquishing the Dutch was a formidable task, and they were still the foremost naval power in the Atlantic.
The Blue Water Policy
Under Charles II this policy was made official, and stated that trade and navy become seen as “mutually sustaining”. (Blue Water Policy)
Maritime supremacy was now of paramount importance, and Britain annihilated the French Navy through four wars between 1688 and 1763.
Britain’s stand was vindicated after winning the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805, and it was this period that Lord Nelson attained the heights of fame as perhaps the greatest admiral in history.
The Battle of Trafalgar was the playground for Nelson’s crushing defeat of the French and Spanish Navies, establishing Britain as the dominant world naval power for a century (Battle of Trafalgar)
FORMATION OF THE ROYAL NAVY
Need to protect the shores of England:
Being an island, England’s shores were vulnerable from all sides, and hence the need to protect them was of paramount importance. In the absence of an effective navy, aggressive overtures from many nations were making landings, and had it not been for the formation of a formidable naval force, England may very well have been known by some other name. (The Royal Navy).
“Royal Navy shaped the politics, culture, and economy of Britain, leaving its imprint on everything from our landscape, to our democracy and even our very identity.
At its peak, it became the driving force behind the spread of a system of values which would change the world forever. And then it lost it all.” (Empire of the Seas: How the navy forged the modern world Brian Lavery, 2012, Bloomsbury Publishing)
MUTINY ON THE HIGH SEAS
Speaking of a naval force, and the sailors’ lives on the high seas, one cannot help but be reminded of the turbulent times they went through. Discontent and rebellions on board were rife, and the most notorious of these was the ‘Mutiny on the HMS Bounty’. We remember books as well as films dedicated to this unfortunate event.
Mutiny means an uprising against current authority conspired through military, or in this case, naval means.
In popular opinion, mutiny is often considered to be something of a “last resort of the oppressed.” (Mutiny- Northern Mariner).
1797 was the worst year for the Royal Navy because a mutinous trend seemed to spread through the service and it resulted in serious outbreaks closer home, at Spithead (near Portsmouth) and The Nore (the ports in the Thames estuary). The results were courts martial and a number of hangings.
The most horrifying mutiny occurred when the crew of the frigate Hermione rebelled against the authorities, killed the captain and eight other officers, took possession of the ship, and surrendered it to the enemy, Spain.
What drove the crew to such extreme action that mutiny became murder and could even be regarded as an act of treason? (Web Archives)
SEAMEN’S LIVES AT THE TIME
Extraordinary as it may sound, it was the basic necessities of life, the lack of which spurred the sailors to desperate measures. Sadly, the seamen’s wages had remained static for over 130 years, so this was the core of the charter of grievances.
Better quality and quantity of food, much needed shore leave, and proper medical attention were a few more integral causes.
A few insights into the lives of common sailors in those days would drive the point home in a better fashion. The chronicled details about the misery below decks is enough to make the toughest person rail at the inhumanity practiced, and I was no exception.
Those were hard times, more so for those on warships. Life on the ships of the line was congested and excruciating. Extreme measures to enforce discipline were practiced, and the smallest violations were punishable by public lashing.
Victuals were short on quality, and their quantity diminished as time on the seas went by. The situation with potable water was no different: it was scanty to begin with, and salty to boot. Diseases like scurvy were quick to find home, since a shortage of citrus fruit and fresh vegetables was encouragement to them.
The sailors had to suffer grievous injuries on account of the heavy armory and equipment they had to carry on board. Adverse weather did not take any of the burden off, and exposure to the elements cost the sailors’ health dearly.
Wounds in Eighteenth Century naval fighting were terrible. Cannon balls ripped off limbs or, striking wooden decks and bulwarks or guns and metalwork, drove splinter fragments across the ship causing horrific wounds(Seamen’s Lives)
“A new study of remains from multiple Royal Navy graveyards has found evidence that the life of the British sailor in mid-18th to early-19th centuries was as disease-ridden, painful and often brief as you’ve always thought it was.” (Life of Sailors- 18th and 19th Centuries)
It was such turbulent times that witnessed the rise of Lord Nelson to the heights of naval glory, yet the undercurrents that beset an ordinary seaman’s life during this time has been brilliantly portrayed by one Seaman George Hodge in his diary. Extraordinary water colors accompany his accounts of life at sea, and in a more humorous vein, his rendering of a ship’s numerous flags piqued my interest to read further.
A list of the information about what the flags represent has been recounted, and “An enemy is in sight, 2. Prepare for battle, 5. Engage the enemy, 10. Enemy retreating at full scale…etc.” are a few examples. (Diary of an 18th Century Sailor)