How hard were British sailors? (Napoleonic period).

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CHRISCHA
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How hard were British sailors? (Napoleonic period).

Post by CHRISCHA » 22 Aug 2003 10:16

I've just read a pamphlet in relation to the battle of Trafalgar, and read a paragraph describing the crew of HMS Speedy, how 50 British sailors forced a boarding of a French vessel with a crew of 300. The British won the ship, with many enemy sailors throwing themselves overboard rather than fighting or surrendering.
The anomynous author makes reference to the British winning almost all sea battles that involved hand to hand fighting.

My question, is this true or is it a romantic, propoganda notion?

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Musashi
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Post by Musashi » 22 Aug 2003 12:18

I heard about such accidents not only in that period of time but also after the capitulation of France in 1940.

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Post by fdewaele » 22 Aug 2003 12:32

Actually, the French fleet pre 1789 was very good. During the American revolutionary war it even bested the Royal Navy. But the French Revolution decapitated (almost all officers fled or were incarcerated/beheaded) the French navy even worse than the army and it never recovered from this. Morale had totally collapsed and only in the latter years of Napoleon's reign the navy was recuperating from this decapitation. This decapitation of mare and leadership in turn led to the disasters at Trafalgar. But on many occasion the French sailors did however fight bravely. For instance the French fleet sacrificed itself at the Glorious 1st of Juny to save a French grain convoy from the British fleet and how Le Vengeur kept fighting on while all was lost.

But I don't think it is true, however, in 1801 Thomas, Lord Cochrane, in the tiny 14-gun brig HMS Speedy fought and captured the Spanish 32-gun frigate Gamo.


Thomas, Lord Cochrane, was appointed to command of the 14-gun brig HMS Speedy in April, 1800. The vessel was extraordinarily small, merely 158 tons, and her cannons were only 4-pounders - "little larger than a blunderbuss" according to her new captain. Nonetheless, based out of Port Mahon on Majorca in the Western Mediterranean Lord Cochrane initiated a remarkably successful campaign against French privateers and Spanish coastal traffic. In little more than one year, Cochrane captured nearly 50 vessels. In an effort to put an end to these depredations, Spain dispatched the 32-gun xebec-frigate Gamo to the area. Spotting the frigate in the breaking daylight of May 6, 1801, off Barcelona, Cochrane found himself faced with a powerful opponent. Much of the Speedy's crew had been sent off to man captured prizes, leaving only 54 men and officers aboard. The Gamo carried 319. Moreover, the Speedy had a broadside of a nearly ludicrous 28 pounds while that of the Spanish frigate was 190 pounds, more than six times greater. Despite the heavy odds, Cochrane closed to attack.

For nearly an hour HMS Speedy battled her enemy with cannon fire, relying upon maneuverability to protect her against the Spanish guns. Cochrane, however, knew that eventually his rigging would almost certainly be disabled and he would then become easy prey for the frigate. Incredibly, he decided to board the Gamo and capture her, his 50 men matched against the frigate's 300. And, equally incredibly, he succeeded, winning one of the most spectacular single-ship victories in the history of naval warfare.

Lord Cochrane's adventures in HMS Speedy are the basis for Jack Aubrey's experiences in Patrick O'Brian's "Master and Commander," the first of his celebrated Aubrey-Maturin series of novels. And the Speedy-Gamo fight is transformed in that book into the engagement between HMS Sophie and the Cacafuego. The description of the sea battles in "Master and Commander" are highly authentic and are extremely faithful to the actual historical events. For further information about Thomas, Lord Cochrane, I suggest reading Christopher Lloyd's "Lord Cochrane: Seaman, Radical, Liberator" recently republished in the US by Owl Books, part of their "Heart of Oak Sea Classics" series. Moreover, Lord Cochrane's "Autobiography of a Seaman" is available in the UK.


Perhaps this is the evnt you're referring to?

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Post by CHRISCHA » 22 Aug 2003 22:50

Excellent info'. Thanks a lot.

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Post by cybercat » 23 Aug 2003 01:37

It must be remembered also that many of the British sailors were "press ganged" into service by roaming shore patrols searching the bars and streets of towns and ports for drunks and vulnerabl;e potential "volunteers". They were beaten up and dragged away. This doesn't include men that volunteered in place of being hanged or transported to the colonies for murder, stealing or other criminal acts.

Owing to the type of men brought into the Navy, day-to-day life and discipline on the British ships was extremely harsh.

However, when an enemy ship was captured the officers and crew of the capturing vessel were paid a bounty or "prize" for the enemy ship by the British admiralty. This may account for the fanatical way that any particular crew fought hand-to-hand against the enemy in order to capture the vessel intact.

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Post by cybercat » 23 Aug 2003 01:39

PS This also accounts for the ferocity of British privateers and pirates as well.

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Post by fdewaele » 23 Aug 2003 10:33

I think that's not an exlusively British thing. I believe prize money was an established custom in all navies during the Age of Sail.

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Post by Englander » 23 Aug 2003 11:06

Thanks for that info Fdewaele, Never heard that story before.
Makes me proud to be a Englander :wink:

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Post by CHRISCHA » 23 Aug 2003 18:00

Thanks very much everyone. It's sharing info' of this quality that keeps the forum going.

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Post by Lars EP » 23 Aug 2003 19:21

Regarding Cochrane, it might be worth noting that he later became impopular with the admiralty, and after the war, he was actually imprisoned, I can't remeber the charges.

He breaks out of prison, escapes to South America, where he fights the Spanish as a mercenary in service of the independence movements. As far as I know, he also fought for Greece for a while, before finally being pardoned and retuning home.

Rather a fantastic carreer.

Bonaparte, luckily for the British, had little understanding of naval warfare. Had he had the same understanding of the tactical mechanisms involved in a naval-battle of this period, as he had regarding land-battles, the British would have been in trouble indeed.

Regards --- Lars

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Post by Lars EP » 23 Aug 2003 19:26

cybercat wrote:However, when an enemy ship was captured the officers and crew of the capturing vessel were paid a bounty or "prize" for the enemy ship by the British admiralty. This may account for the fanatical way that any particular crew fought hand-to-hand against the enemy in order to capture the vessel intact.


This costum where in use in Denmark-Norway as well, both for the regular navy and the privateers. After the, for Denmark-Norway, terrible defeat at Copenhagen in 1807, where the fleet was lost to the British, everything that could stay afloat, could get a letter of Marque, if they applied.

In the years after 1807 incredible fortunes where made in Denmark-Norway, and especially in Copenhagen, by privateers. Also the gun-boats of the regular navy made good money when they caught a merchant-convoy or even a man-o-war in calm weather.

Regards --- Lars

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Prize Money

Post by Jon Sutton » 24 Aug 2003 19:53

On 27th March 1916 Captain Grant and the crew of the armed liner H.M.S. Carmania were awarded the sum of 2115 Pounds Sterling for the sinking of the German raider S.M.S. 'Cap Trafalgar', the figure being calculated on the basis of 5 Pounds per head of the crew of the 'Cap Trafalgar' as estimated by the Admiralty. The transcript of the Court proceedings is given as an appendix in Colin Simpson's book "The ship that hunted itself", the title coming from the fact that S.M.S. Cap Trafalgar had removed its third funnel in order to resemble more closely a Cunarder such as the S.S. Carmania. The S.M.S. Cap Trafalgar armed with the two 4.1" and 6 pom-poms from the gunboat S.M.S. Eber (the British thought she had eight 4" guns) was sunk by H.H.S. Carmania on 14th September 1914 off Trinidad Island, Brazil after an epic fight with the British ship which was armed with eight 4.7" guns.
Was this the last case of the British Parliament awarding Prize Money to a British warship?

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Post by CHRISCHA » 24 Aug 2003 21:46

I'm suprised that money was still awarded as late as this, especially during total war.

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Re: Prize Money

Post by Lars EP » 24 Aug 2003 23:18

Jon Sutton wrote:On 27th March 1916 Captain Grant and the crew of the armed liner H.M.S. Carmania were awarded the sum of 2115 Pounds Sterling for the sinking of the German raider S.M.S. 'Cap Trafalgar', the figure being calculated on the basis of 5 Pounds per head of the crew of the 'Cap Trafalgar' as estimated by the Admiralty. The transcript of the Court proceedings is given as an appendix in Colin Simpson's book "The ship that hunted itself", the title coming from the fact that S.M.S. Cap Trafalgar had removed its third funnel in order to resemble more closely a Cunarder such as the S.S. Carmania. The S.M.S. Cap Trafalgar armed with the two 4.1" and 6 pom-poms from the gunboat S.M.S. Eber (the British thought she had eight 4" guns) was sunk by H.H.S. Carmania on 14th September 1914 off Trinidad Island, Brazil after an epic fight with the British ship which was armed with eight 4.7" guns.
Was this the last case of the British Parliament awarding Prize Money to a British warship?


This is a monetary award... which is very interesting, but it is not prize-money. Prize-money is simply the money that comes from the sale of the captured ship and cargo. Thus, you would not normally grant money for a sunken ship.

Regards --- Lars

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Post by fdewaele » 25 Aug 2003 20:27

There even was a Prize Court which decided over the legality of the prize money claims and wether the ship which wa captured was legally done so.

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