The compass

It is not known where or when it was discovered that the lodestone (a magnetized mineral composed of an iron oxide) aligns itself in a north-south direction, as does a piece of iron that has been magnetized by contact with a lodestone. Neither is it known where or when marine navigators first utilized these discoveries. Plausible records indicate that the Chinese were using the magnetic compass around 1100, western Europeans by 1187, Arabs by 1220, and Scandinavians by 1300. The device could have originated in each of these groups, or it could have been passed from one to the others. All of them had been making long voyages, relying on steady winds to guide them and sightings of the sun or a familiar star to inform them of any change. When the magnetic compass was introduced, it probably was used merely to check the direction of the wind when clouds obscured the sky.

The first mariner’s compass may have consisted of a magnetized needle attached to a wooden splinter or a reed floating on water in a bowl. In a later version the needle was pivoted near its centre on a pin fixed to the bottom of the bowl. By the 13th century a card bearing a painted wind rose was mounted on the needle; the navigator could then simply read his heading from the card. So familiar has this combination become that it is called the compass, although that word originally signified the division of the horizon. The suspension of the compass bowl in gimbals (originally used to keep lamps upright on tossing ships) was first mentioned in 1537.

On early compass cards the north point was emphasized by a broad spearhead and the letter T for “tramontana ,” the name given to the north wind. About 1490 a combination of these evolved into the fleur-de-lis, still almost universally used. The east point, pointing toward the Holy Land, was marked with a cross; the ornament into which this cross developed continued on British compass cards well into the 19th century. The use of 32 points by sailors of northern Europe, usually attributed to Flemish compass makers, is mentioned by Geoffrey Chaucer in his Treatise on the Astrolabe (1391). It also has been said that the navigators of Amalfi, Italy, first expanded the number of compass points to 32, and they may have been the first to attach the card to the needle.

During the 15th century it became apparent that the compass needle did not point true north from all locations but made an angle with the local meridian. This phenomenon was originally called by seamen the “northeasting” of the needle but is now called the “variation” or “declination.” For a time, compass makers in northern countries mounted the needle askew on the card so that the fleur-de-lis indicated true north when the needle pointed to magnetic north. This practice died out about 1700 because it succeeded only for short voyages near the place where the compass was made. It caused confusion and difficulty on longer trips, especially in crossing the Atlantic to the American coast, where the declination was west instead of east as in Europe. The declination in a given location varies over time. For example, in northern Europe in the 16th century the magnetic north pole was east of true geographic north; in subsequent centuries it has drifted to the west.

The Chinese junk

During the period that the sailing ship was developing in the Mediterranean world, China, with its vast land areas and poor road communications, was turning to water for transportation. Starting with a dugout canoe, the Chinese joined two canoes with planking, forming a square punt, or raft. Next, the side, bow, and stern were built up with planking to form a large, flat-bottomed wooden box. The bow was sharpened with a wedge-shaped addition below the waterline. At the stern, instead of merely hanging a steering oar over one side as did the Western ships, Chinese shipbuilders contrived a watertight box, extending through the deck and bottom, that allowed the steering oar or rudder to be placed on the centreline, thus giving better control. The stern was built to a high, small platform at the stern deck, later called a castle in the West, so that, in a following sea, the ship would remain dry. Thus, in spite of what to Western eyes seemed an ungainly figure, the “Chinese junk” was an excellent hull for seaworthiness as well as for beaching in shoal (shallow) water. The principal advantage, however, not apparent from an external view, was great structural rigidity. In order to support the side and the bow planking, the Chinese used solid planked walls (bulkheads), running both longitudinally and transversely and dividing the ship into 12 or more compartments. This produced not only strength but also protection against damage.

In rigging the Chinese junk was far ahead of Western ships, with sails made of narrow panels, each tied to a sheet (line) at each end so that the force of the wind could be taken in many lines rather than on the mast alone. Also, the sail could be hauled about to permit the ship to sail somewhat into the wind. By the 15th century junks had developed into the largest, strongest, and most seaworthy ships in the world. Not until about the 19th century did Western ships catch up in performance.

Uniforms of the 1848 Revolutions in Europe


In the early months of 1848 France was in a ferment over the country’s franchise. Louis-Philippe ‘ King of the French by the Grace of God and the Will of the People’, had attempted to establish a constitutional monarchy on the British pattern. But the solid basis of a sound tradition was lacking and malcontents at each end of the social scale were quick to criticize shortcomings while ignoring the good points: the 1830 barricades were, after all, still a vivid memory.

On February 24, 1848, the industrial population of the Paris faubourgs stormed into the city, and the luckless Louis-Philippe was forced to flee to Great Britain.

The spirit of revolt quickly spread to other countries, the vast and heterogeneous Austrian Empire being a predestined victim. Riots broke out in Vienna, and Metternich escaped on March 13 to commiserate with Louis Philippe in England.

The Austro-Hungarian Army at this time still wore the white short-tailed jacket, but the headdress was now a cylindrical shake .Regimental distinctions continued to be shown by the color of the collar, cuffs and turnbacks combined with the white metal or brass of the buttons.

One of the most interesting revolts. however, occurred on March I, 1848 at Neuchatel, That territory-which, incidentally, had produced de Meuron’s Regimen t for the Dutch and British services, as well as Berthier’s yellow-coated battalion for Napoleon – had been ceded to Prussia after the Napoleonic wars, and many of the ‘Canaries’ joined the newly formed Prussian Gardeschütze-Bataillon for service in Berlin. Fortunately for them, because they were then spared the agonizing duty of having to fire on their own countrymen when the latter marched down from the Jura Mountains to attack the castle at Neuchatel. The Prussians were soon overcome, the inevitable republic proclaimed, and Neuchatel became a Swiss canton.

The Prussian troops had now taken the famous spiked helmet into wear- but in a much taller version than the familiar 1914 pattern. The tunic was beginning to replace the long-skirted coat, and long trousers were being worn in preference to breeches and gaiters.

The Baltic 1721–90

Russian Baltic Galley of 1720

When the Great Northern War ended in 1721, Russia had emerged as a major regional naval power. British and Danish naval forces cruised to counter the Russian sailing fleet, which was protected by new fortifications of Kronstadt on the island of Kotlin (1723). However, the general poverty of maritime resources, particularly seamen, made the development of Russian naval power very difficult and after the death of Peter I in 1725, the political support for the navy became extremely inconsistent. For the Baltic powers, moving armies and supplies through the shallow coastal waters was as important as defending the deep-water routes. Navies had to be balanced between the battleships, cruisers and inshore oared and sailing ships. Russian ships assisted in the siege of Danzig in 1734 and in the Russo-Swedish war which broke out in July 1741 their galley fleet was important. The Swedes underestimated Russian resistance in Finland and accepted a truce in the wake of the coup that brought the Tsarina Elizabeth to the throne. Hostilities resumed early in February 1742. A Russian galley fleet transported troops under General Keith westwards to attack Swedish positions at Åland. The Russian sailing fleet managed to lure the Swedes away from their position off Hango Head, which enabled more galleys to pass with reinforcements for Keith’s army. The Swedes were in disarray, but a peace was arranged before significant damage was done. Although active in the Seven Years War, the Russian sailing fleet really began to cause concern in the Baltic after 1780, when Catherine II began a major expansion of her fleet to assist her ambitions against Turkey.

Sweden faced a number of difficulties. There had been a growing divergence of priorities between the Swedish officer corps with its battleship base at Karlskrona aimed at Danish naval power and the government and army in Stockholm, who saw the amphibious Russian threat as the greater danger. Money was short and the navy had little interest in a coastal galley war. A 1722 plan by the College of Admiralty to build a galley fleet to counter the Russians was diluted by financial weakness. The battleships were high-quality vessels, but ageing and small. The lack of understanding between the navy and the army became apparent in the disastrous war against Russia of 1741–3. The galley fleet was reformed and in 1756 it was taken away from the navy and placed under army command. Its officer corps developed separately from the navy. In the same year a naval academy was established at Karlskrona. During the Seven Years War, the Swedes and Russians put pressure on the small Prussian flotilla in the Baltic. The main fear was the appearance of a British squadron in the Baltic to support the Prussians. While the Swedes and Russians operated together, their joint forces seldom exceeded 22 line against a non-existent Prussian battlefleet. The Swedish galley fleet performed well enough in 1759 against Prussian forces established at Stettin. A small action on 10 September ended in Swedish victory which consolidated Swedish communications between the homeland and the islands off the coast of Pomerania. In 1760 a Russian fleet of 21 line covered an attack on Kolberg that failed. Kolberg finally fell to the Russians in December 1761, but without much support from the fleet. Seapower against Prussia had not been particularly significant, but it remained critical to Sweden and Denmark in the defence of their homelands and interests in Pomerania and Holstein respectively. Despite cooperation against Prussia, suspicion of Russia remained a key part of Baltic diplomacy.

After the coup, which established Gustavus III with increased royal powers in 1772, the Swedish navy developed in line with Gustavus’ foreign policy ambitions. Gustavus’ direction was unclear–Russia or Denmark could be his target. The navy was important to either, but the officers of the galley fleet had been important supporters of Gustavus’ coup. New rules and organization were established in 1773. A royal inspection in 1775 led to the College of Admiralty moving from Karlskrona to Stockholm in 1776, to be closer to the court. The officer corps was reformed to make professional competence more significant in promotion. In 1781 the famous ship constructor, Fredric Henrick af Chapman (1721–1808), was appointed Director of Naval Construction at Karlskrona. Chapman had extensive theoretical knowledge of engineering sciences and since the 1760s had been designing and building vessels for inshore operations. In 1780 he was co-author of the plan approved by Gustavus for a new sailing fleet of battleships and frigates. Under his supervision, Karlskrona became one of the most extensive and modern yards in Europe.

The impact of Gustavus’ reforms are still a matter of debate, but by the summer of 1788 Gustavus was ready to attack Russia. While an army advanced through Finland and another, with the archipelago flotilla, was to move along the coast into the Gulf of Finland, a third army with the sailing fleet was to attack Kronstadt and land the army at Orainenbaum to advance on St Petersburg. The Russian fleet of 17 line under Admiral Greig met the Swedes, also with 17 line, off Suursaari island (Battle of Hogland) on 17 July. The battle was fought in line and after seven hours, the Swedes broke away in the darkness. Greig had done enough to avert the Swedish landing. Over the winter, Russian building of gunboats for its archipelago flotilla outstripped the Swedes. An action off Öland on 25 July 1789 between two evenly matched battlefleets was again indecisive, but the archipelago flotillas met in a decisive action just one month later on 24 August (Battle of Svensksund). Vice Admiral Nassau-Siegen decisively defeated the Swedish inshore flotilla. Swedish attempts to revive the plan of attack against Kronstadt in 1790 foundered in an indecisive attack on Tallinn in May, and a further attack on Russian battleships failed. Gustavus’ mistakes allowed the Russian sailing fleet to blockade his sailing and archipelago fleets in Vibourg Bay. On 3 July the Swedish sailing ships broke out and Gustavus was able to take the inshore fleet to Svenskrund. An impetuous attack on the Swedes on 8 July ended in disaster for the Russians. The peace treaty restored the boundaries to the status quo ante bellum. Both sides had shown that seapower–exercised by a combined force of battleships, cruisers and inshore craft–were critical to the projection of land power in the eastern Baltic, but both had also shown that their defensive capabilities far outweighed their offensive power. Russia remained a powerful force in the eastern Baltic, but not so powerful as to pose a vital threat to the interests of the other powers in the region. While the coasts of the Baltic remained open to traffic, and Russia remained prepared to trade its vital naval stores, it was in no one’s interest to become bogged down in a war that was so well suited to defence.

Russian Galleys

Early 18th century Russian Baltic Galley

Galleys, which were supposed to have been eclipsed by the sailing warship in the early seventeenth century, were an important component of the fleets of Sweden and Russia during the eighteenth century.

In the mid-seventeenth century, the main function of the Swedish navy was to protect the lines of communication to the army in Germany. For this it needed a battlefleet to defend the lighter vessels against Danish attack and smaller vessels for inshore work. In the 1680s the main Swedish battlefleet base was developed at Karlskrona to challenge the Danes in the southwest Baltic, away from the shallow waters off the ports of the southeastern Baltic coast. When Russia became a threat in the eastern Baltic after 1703, Sweden was initially unprepared for landing and supply operations within the shallow and convoluted archipelago of the Gulf of Finland and it took a while to expand the galley fleet. The galley and, much later, the gunboat became essential elements in the Russo-Swedish wars of 1741–3 and 1788–90. In both the Levant and Baltic, seapower was essential for the projection of military power to any distance and it rested on the effective combination of forces that could dominate deep water and shallow coastal areas.

The Mediterranean and the Baltic saw large fleets of warships attempting to blockade ports during the period, but the confined and shallow Baltic waters made the interception of coastal traffic very difficult. The first great Russian naval victory over the Swedish fleet, the Battle of Hangö Head on 6 August 1714, was won by a galley fleet making use of the coastal shallows to outmanoeuvre the Swedish sailing fleet.

Russia came from a very different political tradition. Peter the Great’s borrowings from the West are well known, and the great Petrine reorganization of the central administration of the state, 1717–20, owed a great deal to Swedish and German precedent. The central Admiralty College was based on the Swedish model. This might have created problems if Peter had tried to impose an alien culture further down the administrative ladder, but recent research suggests that the Muscovite state was able to create a significant maritime power using more traditional administrative and financial methods. Peter enthusiastically imported galley and shipbuilding technology from Venice, Holland and England, but was wise enough to recognize that the administration of his fleet relied upon traditional noble and merchant relationships. The main problem that Peter faced was that his commitment to the navy was hardly shared by any other interest in the state. Almost as soon as he died in 1725 the fleet began to atrophy.

Jean Meyer has suggested that a major reason for the survival of the galley in the Mediterranean was the absolute dearth of seamen. Soldiers, convicts, slaves or free landsmen could serve at the oars with little or no maritime experience. In the Baltic, Russia found that galleys were useful in the shallow and difficult waters off Finland, and they were also extremely sparing in the use of seamen. Russia only got experience for its seamen very slowly. Some trained under foreign officers in the Russian navy. A very few were sent abroad to serve in the ships of other powers, such as the 30 that Peter I sent to English ships in 1706, but these men were destined to become officers. As late as 1738, it was even suggested that thousands of Russian seamen might serve on British warships if war with Spain should break out in order to gain some experience. It was not until the second half of the eighteenth century that Russia seemed able to train its own seamen for deep-water warfare.