The glory days of sail.

Great Tea race

Ariel leading Taeping, Great Tea Race, 1866 by Jack Spurling

Here on Mindship we celebrate the authors of the great boys adventure books, especially those of the sea like Treasure Island and Kidnapped by Robert Louis Stevenson, who’s birthday it is today, born Nov 13th 1850.

In the year of his birth the French launched Napoléon, the first purpose built steam powered battleship.  It was also the period when the extreme clippers were built.  This was at the peak of sailship design, when the sailing ships gave up cargo space for speed.  The beautiful, sleek and lighting fast greyhounds of the sea were born.

In the burgeoning era of steam the day of the huge East-Indiaman was over.  Steam ships could fill giant holds with cargo and plod their way over the ocean regardless of wind speed and direction.  The opening of the Suez canal in 1869 changed the world of shipping.  The final clippers were built around the time of Stevensons death at the young age of 44, in 1894.

Stevenson grew up the son of a lighthouse designer, so the sea was never far away.  The pinacle of the Clipper Era was the Great Tea Race of 1866, when Stevenson was 16 years old, a highly impressionable time in life.  In that year three ships left China on the same tide and arrived in London on the same tide 99 days and 14,000 miles later.  Taeping won the race by 28 minutes from Ariel by virtue of the depth of her dock entrance on the rising tide.  Serica finished 1 hour and 15 minutes behind Ariel.  The next two ships came in 28 hours later (Fiery Cross) and another day later Taitsing arrived.  To this day the walls of our houses are decorated by these fantastical ships.

Here is a poem by Stevenson in the spirit of a sea shanty, and in the spirit of those songs the name of the poem is the first line.

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Mull was astern, Rum on the port,
Eigg on the starboard bow;
glory of youth glowed in his soul;
where is that glory now?

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Give me again all that was there,
give me the sun that shone!
Give me the eyes, give me the soul,
give me the lad that’s gone!

Sing me a song of a lad that is gone,
say, could that lad be I?
Merry of soul he sailed on a day
over the sea to Skye.

Billow and breeze, islands and seas,
mountains of rain and sun,
all that was good, all that was fair,
all that was me is gone.

……………………………………………Robert Louis Stevenson

Napoleon died in Moscow!

Napoleon_Delaroche_1845

Napoleon by Delaroche painted in 1845 long after his death.

Claude François de Malet, a general of the French revolutionary wars, resigned his commission when Napoleon became Emperor.  On Oct 23rd in 1812 Malet presented papers that showed Napoleon was killed in Russia.

Malet attempted to take control of France, but his coup was defeated by supporters of Napoleon.  As we all know Napoleon was still alive and returned from Moscow.  Or did he?

Before Moscow Napoleon was the undefeatable General.  Yes his marshalls lost battles, but not the master himself.  One month before his supposed death he defeated the Russians at Borodino.  After Moscow what do we see?  French forces driven backwards out of Russia.  Then defeat after defeat in Prussia and Germany culminating in the disaster for the the French at Leipzig.

A year on Elba and this weak copy of the Emperor raises his army again in the 100 days to Waterloo, and is again defeated.

Which begs the question; was Malet correct?  Did Napoleon Bonaparte die in Moscow.  Did the Napoleonic inner circle hide the truth and replace their leader with a body double?  A double who looked the part, but with none of the military genius.

“But wait” you say “everyone knows what Napoleon looks like”.  Really?  Do they?  His most famous painter Jacques-Louis David could not get Bonaparte to sit as a model.  He reported the following conversation with the Emperor:

Napoleon: ‘[Pose?] For what good? Do you think that the great men of antiquity of whom we have images posed?’

David: ‘But I am painting you for your century, for the men who have seen you, who know you: they will want to find a resemblance.’

Napoleon: ‘A resemblance! It isn’t the exactness of the features, a wart on the nose which gives the resemblance. It is the character of the physiognomy, what animates it, that must be painted. Certainly Alexander never posed for Apelles. Nobody knows if the portraits of great men resemble them. It is enough that their genius lives there.’ 

When we look at the traditional image of Napoleon we see a short dark haired and defeated man.  How different from images captured from early in his life.  A tall, slim man with flowing blonde hair.  Could it be true?  Could the French Emperor have died in Moscow?  Could this be one of the great conspiracy theories of history?

 

Antoine-Jean_Gros_-_Bonaparte_on_the_Bridge_at_Arcole

Young Napoleon by Antoine-Jean Gros

Corsairs

Carter-Triton-m021400 009599 p.jpg

Corsairs were a peculiarity of naval warfare who acted like pirates, but had the protection of Letters of Marque to give them a legal standing.  Also called privateers, if captured they could claim prisoner of war status instead of being hanged as pirates.

Corsairs had the protection of being recognised combatants without having to carry out orders that might put them in danger.  They could behave as legitimate traders, but if they saw a target ripe for the picking they could sieze it and sell it at auction giving a portion to the crown, but retaining a portion of the “prize” for the Captain and crew.

Robert Surcouf from Saint-Malo in Brittany was the most famous of the French Corsairs of the Napoleonic wars.  He began his life as a slave ship sailor, rising to the captaincy.  During the revolutionary war and the subsequent Napoleonic wars he operated in the Indian Ocean.  He amassed a great fortune by capturing 40 British and Allied ships.

Napoleon awarded him the Légion d’Honneur and offered him a senior Naval posting.  Surcouf refused the commission, preferring his independence of action.

in 1796 as Captain of Émilie, a small schooner rigged corvette with 4 6-pounder guns and a 32 man crew Surcouf captured a number of prizes in the Bay of Bengal.  One was the Pilot Brig Cartier.  Brigs are sturdy two masted vessels rigged with square courses on both masts.

Surcouf had already detached 9 of his men to sail his captured prizes home, and boarded the Cartier with his remaining 23 men, bringing his four guns with him.  He renamed the capured vessel “Hasard”.  He then encountered the Triton, a British 26 gun East-Indiaman with a crew of 150.  Against all odds the French corsairs boarded the larger vessel and engaged in a hand to hand fight on the deck.  The British crew lost their captain and first officer in the savage fighting and surrendered to the French.

 

Calumny and obloquy

RobertEmmetArmyGreen

Robert Emmet was born March 4th 1778, when Washington and his troops were wintering and drilling in Valley Forge.  He was 11 years old at the outbreak of the French Revolution.  At age 15 he entered Trinity College Dublin, where he became involved with politics and debating.  Expelled from Trinity at 19 years of age for his political activism he fled to Napoleon’s France.

A rebellion by the Irish under Wolfe-Tone failed in 1796 because a French fleet were denied a landing in Bantry Bay by gales.  A subsequent uprising in 1798 was doomed due to a vigorous counter insurgency program by the British in 1797, by coordination failures and by very limited support from the French, nothing on the scale of the Bantry Bay fleet.

Robert Emmet was a most unlikely rebel leader.  He was no Wolfe-Tone.  His rebellion in 1803 was poorly organised and had to be sparked early because of an explosion in one of his secret arms depots.  The rebellion that took place in Thomas Street, Dublin was described as more of a riot than a rebellion.  The rebels failed to take a weakly defended Dublin Castle.  When the rebels began to pike Dragoons in the streets Emmet was horrified and called off the rebellion.

He could have escaped then, but returned for his sweetheart Sarah Curran.  This endeared him to the “Doomed Romantic” zeitgeist of popular Victorian culture and Emmet was celebrated in verse, on stage and in opera.

To ensure conviction at trial the British bribed Emmet’s Barrister; Leonard McNally who cursed his family for seven generations when he took a traitors pension from the Crown.

For most Irish though, it is his speech from the dock that remains as his greatest legacy.  He may have been a terrible revolutionary but Robert Emmet could write a good speech.  The title of this post is from words in his speech, which have largely fallen out of modern usage.  Though words have changed the structure of speeches has not.  Emmet used his speech to undermine the legitimacy of British Rule in Ireland.  His call for his epitaph to be withheld became largely academic, as his body was lost.  His relatives feared to claim it after then hanging in case they were arrested.  It was subsequently misplaced, so now we don’t know where to place his epitaph!

The full text can be read here:  Emmet’s Speech from the dock

When my country takes her place among the nations of the earth, then, and not till then, let my epitaph be written.”

The Spanish Ulcer

Cadíz

Cádiz is the oldest city in Spain.  It was founded by the Phoenicians who called it Gadir, or Agadir, which was their name for an enclosure, or port.

The Romans called it Gades.  Later came the Arabs who called it Qádiz.  Most English speakers pronounce it incorrectly.  The accent is on the first syllable.

On this day, Feb 5th, 1810, Cádiz became the last chance saloon for the Spanish Cortes.  The government fled from Madrid ahead of the advancing Napoleonic armies.  They holed up in the last Spanish city, and held out for two years of siege.

Marshalls Victor and Soult failed to break the Spaniards.  The British and the Spanish mounted a number of daring counter attacks to relieve the siege.  The most famous was the Battle of Barrosa, where Patrick Masterson of the 87th Royal Irish Fusiliers captured an Imperial Eagle from the French, the first ever won by British forces.

But it was the actions of another Irish born soldier, Lord Wellington, that eventually relieved Cádiz.  The battle of Salamanca threatened to cut off the French and they were forced to retreat and regroup.

The war in Spain became known as the “Spanish Ulcer”.  It was the open sore that bled France and weakened her.  Spain was Napoleons Vietnam.  Army after army was sent to Spain.  Some died on the battlefield in the big war, la Guerra.  But more died in the little war, la guerrilla, a word invented by the Peninsular war.

Sometimes the lowest point, the last gasp, becomes the foundation for new growth.  From the ashes of disaster the Cortes sowed the seeds of eventual success.

 

The Girl of Cádiz; by Lord Byron

O, NEVER talk again to me
Of northern climes and British ladies;
It has not been your lot to see,
Like me, the lovely Girl of Cadiz.
Although her eyes be not of blue,
Nor fair her locks, like English lassies,
How far its own expressive hue
The languid azure eye surpasses!

Prometheus-like, from heaven she stole
The fire that through those silken lashes
In darkest glances seems to roll,
From eyes that cannot hide their flashes;
And as along her bosom steal
In lengthened flow her raven tresses,
You ’d swear each clustering lock could feel,
And curled to give her neck caresses.

Our English maids are long to woo,
And frigid even in possession;
And if their charms be fair to view,
Their lips are slow at love’s confession;
But, born beneath a brighter sun,
For love ordained the Spanish maid is,
And who, when fondly, fairly won,
Enchants you like the Girl of Cadiz?

The Spanish maid is no coquette,
Nor joys to see a lover tremble;
And if she love or if she hate,
Alike she knows not to dissemble.
Her heart can ne’er be bought or sold,
Howe’er it beats, it beats sincerely;
And, though it will not bend to gold,
’T will love you long, and love you dearly.

The Spanish girl that meets your love
Ne’er taunts you with a mock denial;
For every thought is bent to prove
Her passion in the hour of trial.
When thronging foemen menace Spain
She dares the deed and shares the danger;
And should her lover press the plain,
She hurls the spear, her love’s avenger.

And when, beneath the evening star,
She mingles in the gay Bolero,
Or sings to her attuned guitar
Of Christian knight or Moorish hero,
Or counts her beads with fairy hand
Beneath the twinkling rays of Hesper,
Or joins devotion’s choral band
To chant the sweet and hallowed vesper,

In each her charms the heart must move
Of all who venture to behold her.
Then let not maids less fair reprove,
Because her bosom is not colder;
Through many a clime ’t is mine to roam
Where many a soft and melting maid is,
But none abroad, and few at home,
May match the dark-eyed Girl of Cadiz.

 

Indian Country

For a short time it appeared possible that the Native American People would have their own country.  The proposed land encompassed the area lying between the Ohio river and the Great Lakes and takes in the modern states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Missouri, Iowa, Wisconsin and Minnesota.

We can only imagine what a different world it might be had this plan come to fruition.  Today, in between the USA and Canada you would have a huge tract of country with a status similar to Lesotho and Swaziland.  In economic terms it had the potential to become a powerhouse.  The proposed nation straddled the Mississippi and could have acted as a market exchange between the nations of Canada in the North, the USA in the East, French Louisiana in the South and the Spanish territories in the West.

The idea emerged after the American Revolutionary War.  The British came up with the idea of supporting their Indian allies and creating the new state as a barrier between the USA and Canada.

The USA treated the Native Americans as defeated powers.  The Native Americans did not accept this position and rose up against the American annexation of their lands.  On November 4th, 1791 a group of tribes led by Blue Jacket (Shawnee), Buckongahelas (Delawares), Little Turtle (Miamis) and with a large contingent of Potawatomis inflicted a catastrophic defeat on the US army led by Arthur St.Clair.  Popularly known as the Battle of the Wabash the indian victory made the idea of an Indian Nation all the more tangible for the British.

Then Napoleon began to conquer his way across Europe.  The British Government found itself isolated.  Rather than further antagonise the fledgling American State they abandoned the notion of an Indian Barrier State.

It is interesting to think, in an alternate reality, what North America could be like today.

Hell on the Wabash; by Carl Sandburg

When country fiddlers held a convention in
Danville, the big money went to a barn dance
artist who played Turkey in the Straw, with
variations.
They asked him the name of the piece calling
it a humdinger and he answered, “I call it
‘Hell on the Wabash.'”
The two next best were The Speckled Hen, and
Sweet Potatoes Grow in Sandy Land, with
variations.

Leipzig

Leipzig

Growing up in Ireland makes us part of a world that has traditionally been dominated by England.  Much of our understanding of history is influenced by the English weltanschauung.  

A clear incidence of this influence is the celebration of the importance of Battle of Waterloo in the defeat of Napoleon and the studious neglect of the Battle of Leipzig.  Waterloo was fought by the Seventh coalition, led by an Englishman, the Duke of Wellington.  Leipzig was the victory of the Sixth coalition, led by the Russians under Alexander.

In truth the battle of Leipzig was a far more important engagement.  The coalition fought Napoleon at the height of his power and he was roundly defeated for the first time on the battlefield.  Bonaparte lost the battle, but also lost his reputation for invincibility.  He left the legend of his military genius on the field of Leipzig.

The battle was the greatest fought on European soil until the Great War.  Casualties numbered in excess of 100,000 (higher than Borodino, but spread over 4 days) .  By comparison Waterloo, with 60,000 casualties was a sideshow, a last gasp by an already defeated and spent force.

Ranged against Napoleon where the forces of Sweden, Russia, Austria, Prussia, Saxony and Wurttemberg.  In particular it was seen as a great victory for the Germans in the Alliance.  The painting above is entitled “Declaration of Allied Victory after the Battle of Leipzig, 19th October, 1813”, painted by Johann Peter Krafft in 1839.  This painting is a classic piece of propaganda.  It was repainted at least 6 times, re-arranging the prominence of the allied leaders to suit particular commissions.

If only the British played some small part in the sixth coalition then the painting could have been repainted a seventh time.  We could have seen the British Commander take pride of place at the center of European events.  Then we would know all about the Battle of Leipzig.  Instead when we hear about European wars we hear of Blenheim and Waterloo.

The great commander of the day, the General who marched in only one direction, Forwards, was Blucher.  He triumphed at both Leipzig and Waterloo!  He even has a pair of shoes named after him, and his design became the template for all modern mens shoes.

Song of the Grenadiers:

Some talk of Alexander, and some of Hercules
Of Hector and Lysander, and such great names as these.
But of all the world’s great heroes, there’s none that can compare.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, to the British Grenadiers.

Those heroes of antiquity ne’er saw a cannon ball,
Or knew the force of powder to slay their foes withal.
But our brave boys do know it, and banish all their fears,
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.

Whene’er we are commanded to storm the palisades,
Our leaders march with fusees, and we with hand grenades.
We throw them from the glacis, about the enemies’ ears.
Sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.

And when the siege is over, we to the town repair.
The townsmen cry, “Hurrah, boys, here comes a Grenadier!
Here come the Grenadiers, my boys, who know no doubts or fears!
Then sing tow, row, row, row, row, row, the British Grenadiers.

Then let us fill a bumper, and drink a health of those
Who carry caps and pouches, and wear the loupèd clothes.
May they and their commanders live happy all their years.
With a tow, row, row, row, row, row, for the British Grenadiers.