The Sloop Of War

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The growth in the size of sloops (drawings to the same scale). Many of the Merlin class sloops of 1745 were converted to ship rig in the 1750s, although this was under consideration in the 1740s.

The year 1727 saw the death of George I and the coronation of his son who, like his father, would preside over a generally peaceful period, at least until 1739 when war would erupt again, this time with Spain in the Caribbean. This war later widened into the War of the Austrian Succession, which brought France into the conflict on the side of the Spanish. In the meantime the areas of tension affecting British possessions and trade overseas remained centred on the Caribbean and the Western Mediterranean. It was protection of these areas, particularly the Caribbean and the transatlantic trade, that was to result in the ever-increasing demand for sloops and small Sixth Rates.

The pivotal point in the history of the sloop of war was undoubtedly 1732, for it was in that year that the Admiralty and the Navy Board recognised a need to establish standard requirements in terms of measurement, burthen, armament and crew for general-purpose sloops. From this time onwards the size and number of cruising and bomb sloops in the Royal Navy was set to increase massively. Why this was so, during a period of comparative peace, is the central question: the answer, putting it broadly, was that the time was ripe. British naval capabilities and responsibilities were expanding, the transatlantic trade with the Caribbean was growing, the colonies themselves were becoming better established and the Mediterranean continued to be a region of potential instability. This all added up to an environment where a small, fast and handy vessel would be of great use, one that would work under the umbrella of British naval superiority and whose employment was economical but adequate for the job in hand. In broad terms the size was to remain close to 200 tons throughout the 1730s rising to 250 tons in the 1740s when there was an increase in gun calibre from 4pdrs with the introduction of the short 6pdr. This weapon was to remain the preferred armament for the sloop until the coming of the carronade in the late eighteenth century. From the late 1740s onwards ship rig would be increasingly common, either by conversion or through new-building, and burthen would eventually rise to 350 tons.

These increases in number and size reflect the nature of the wars that were about to engulf Europe and its overseas possessions. These started with the ‘War of Jenkins’ Ear’ in 1739 between Britain and Spain. The unusual name for this war points up the root cause of the problem. Jenkins was the captain of a merchant ship which in 1731 was apprehended by the infamous Spanish Guarda Costa for dubious reasons relating to trade. In the ensuing fracas Jenkins had his ear cut off. Eight years later this incident was to become a retrospective ‘last straw’ in the British determination to harry and assault Spanish possessions and trade in the greater Caribbean.

It was essentially a war about trade and the licence that allowed Britain to provide slaves to the Spanish colonies of Central America. The conflict lasted until 1748, being subsumed in 1740 into the greater War of the Austrian Succession. Although France and Britain were engaged against each other on land from the outset, France did not declare war until 1744, following this with an attempted invasion that failed whilst still at sea. In 1740, the Royal Navy under Vernon was initially successful, capturing the small poorly defended Spanish port of Porto Bello in what is now Panama. But thereafter almost all the amphibious operations against Spanish possessions failed, not least due to the sickness and disease that invariably accompanied a long operation in the tropics, but also due to the difficulty of establishing harmonious inter-service relationships. Much of this was on the personal level.

The war in the Americas continued with the failure of British amphibious operations, largely through the afore-mentioned disease but also due to the well-defended nature of the Spanish ports. The element of surprise had been lost and the targets selected by Britain’s admiral in the region proved to be too hard a nut to crack. At sea privateers on all sides, French, Spanish and British, attacked each other’s trade, but only the British regularly used naval ships to provide escort to commercial shipping. Once again the sloop of war had the opportunity to engage her arch-enemy, the privateer.

In the Mediterranean 1744 saw a combined Franco-Spanish fleet sail from Toulon. There followed an indecisive engagement with the British fleet, based at Mahon but with orders to blockade Toulon and prevent the Spanish, with French assistance, from reinforcing their forces on the Italian peninsular. Britain, although only minimally involved in the plethora of land battles that punctuated this war, was an ally of Austria and its Hapsburg rulers and therefore as part of that alliance was committed to using its power at sea to support the Austrian cause in Italy. The Spanish interest in Italy lay in their desire to repossess the inheritance of their last Hapsburg king. The question arose over the right of a woman, Maria Theresa, to succeed to the Hapsburg Austrian Empire, an outcome unacceptable to many and providing Spain with an opportunity to grab parts of Italy.

At home, a Channel fleet under old Admiral Norris kept an eye on French moves for an invasion across the Channel or through a Jacobite rebellion in the North. In the event the invasion failed at sea and the rebellion, initially successful with Prince Charles Edward’s forces reaching Derby, turned into a rout at Culloden near Inverness.

The few naval successes in this period, apart from Porto Bello, came towards the end with the foundation of a new strategy that kept the British fleet at sea in the Western approaches when at war with France. From this position Britain could guard the Channel, since the seaborne element of any French invasion force must make use of Brest. It also allowed the British to attack French squadrons and convoys from an up-wind position; it also guarded any approach to Ireland and the Irish Sea, often a vulnerable point in the past. The difficulty was to sustain squadrons in waters that were habitually rough and gale-blown. However, Torbay, on the South Devon coast, offered a reasonable refuge in all winds except from east to south. The last major engagements of the war were fought off Finisterre, on the west coast of France, against French convoys, and both were successful. At the second Battle of Finisterre the British squadron was commanded by a young rear admiral named Edward Hawke. He destroyed the escort but the convoy escaped towards the West Indies, so immediately following the engagement he sent the fastsailing sloop Weazle III to Jamaica to warn of the arrival of an unescorted French convoy. The necessary action was taken to ‘welcome’ them.

The series of engagements of this war – at home, in the Americas, the East Indies and in the Mediterranean – can be seen as providing the British Navy and Army with experience that they would put to good use in the Seven Years War of the following decade. They also supplied the incentives to establish defensible bases capable of sustaining a large naval force and a victualling and logistic system to keep those bases and their ships in a condition to dominate their region.

At times the Royal Navy had been severely overstretched but by the conclusion of this war some hard lessons had been learned, and it had just about re-affirmed its position as the most powerful in the World. This was to be challenged in the next conflict, the Seven Years War (1757–1763), by a revitalised French Navy. Spain elected to remain neutral for most of the war, but very unwisely decided to enter it in 1761 on the side of France, which allowed a British Navy, at the height of its success and confidence, to seize both Havana and Manila. In this war Britain was to secure a dominant position in the Indian subcontinent, in North America and Canada and in the greater Caribbean. It left Britain with a global empire to protect but it provided her navy with bases from which she could dominate the seas.

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