Battle of Cape Ortegal


Bringing Home the Prizes – aftermath of the battle by Francis Sartorius


Although the storm that followed the battle of Trafalgar, coupled with Collingwood’s aversion to anchoring on the evening of 21 October, left his ships with only four prizes to be escorted to Gibraltar, it was not long before another British force doubled this number of gains by the Royal Navy. Rear-Admiral Dumanoir le Pelley had headed his four sail-of-the-line, the Formidable (80), Duguay Trouin (74), Mont Blanc (74) and Scipion(74) away to the south, instead of returning to Cadiz, with the intention of complying with Villeneuve’s original plans for the Combined Fleets: he hoped to work round the British fleet and pass through the Straits of Gibraltar, then steer for Toulon. However, on the morning of 22 October, when he was satisfied that he had eluded pursuit by Collingwood’s ships, Dumanoir had second thoughts. The wind was against him; and any attempt to pass Gibraltar would risk an engagement with Rear-Admiral Louis’s stronger force of six ships-of-the-line which he knew to be in or near the Rock. He altered course to the west, to round Cape St. Vincent and steer north for Rochefort.

All went well until soon after Dumanoir’s four ships entered the Bay of Biscay, when they were some 40 miles to the north-west of Spain’s Cape Ortegal. There, on 2 November, they were sighted by the frigatePhoenix, one of many British vessels searching for Rear-Admiral Allemand’s squadron which was still at large after leaving Rochefort in July. Dumanoir gave chase: Captain Thomas Baker ran south, leading the enemy towards a British squadron of five ships-of-the-line which was cruising off Ferrol, under Captain Sir Richard Strachan in the 80-gun Caesar. Helped by the frigates Boadicea and Dryad, Baker managed to contact the Caesar at 11 pm and warn Strachan of his pursuers. Although he could not count on any immediate support, because the other four British vessels were somewhat scattered, Strachan headed his ship for the enemy. But as soon as Dumanoir saw the approaching Caesar, he ordered his force to bear away, so that when the moon set around 1.30 am, and the weather thickened, Strachan lost sight of his adversaries.

He seized this opportunity to shorten sail and allow the Bellona (74), Courageux (74), Hero (74) and Namur (74) to come up with him. And by 9.00 in the morning he again had the French ships in sight to the north-north-west. Ordering his squadron to set all possible sail, Strachan gave chase, but by noon his ships were still as much as 14 miles from their quarry. Realizing the extent to which they were handicapped by the slow sailing Bellona, he decided to press on without her — four ships against four. He was nonetheless unable to come up with Dumanoir’s force before darkness again fell. Fortunately, Strachan had the benefit of four frigates; these fast sailers were able to keep in touch with the enemy throughout the night.

Dawn next day, 4 November, revealed the rearmost French ship, the Scipion, only six miles ahead of the Caesar. It also disclosed that Captain L. W. Halstead’s Namur had been unable to keep up and was now well astern of her consorts. This was Dumanoir’s opportunity: with a fair wind from the south-east he could have tacked his four ships-of-the-line and fallen upon only three opponents. But, in the light of his pusillanimous conduct during the battle of Trafalgar, it is scarcely necessary to say that he did not do so. He held his course until, helped by the wind backing to SSE, Strachan in the Caesar, followed by Captain the Hon. A. H. Gardner’s Hero and Captain R. Lee’s Courageux, were seen to be approaching so rapidly that a fight was inevitable.

At 11.45 Dumanoir ordered his ships to form line ahead on the starboard tack in the order Duguay Trouin, Captain Touffet, Formidable, Captain Letellier (flag), Mont Blanc, Captain Villegris, and Scipion, Captain Bellanger, on a course NE by E to meet a British attack. At noon Strachan ordered the Caesar to head for the Formidable, the Hero for the Mont Blanc and the Courageux for the Scipion. And at 12.15 the action between these six ships began.

Just before 1.00 pm Captain Touffet, leading the French line in the Duguay Trouin, determined to support the Formidable by swinging round to starboard across the Caesar’s bows, to rake her from ahead. By luffing up, Strachan avoided this danger. The other three French ships then followed the Duguay Trouin round in succession on to the port tack, and at 1.20 the British ships tacked in pursuit.

Both sides were now heading for the Namur which was in action with the Formidable by 2.45. And she proved too much for Dumanoir’s already damaged flagship; at 3.50 Captain Letellier struck his colours. Five minutes later the likewise damaged Scipion also struck, Captain Bellanger’s ship being taken in prize by Strachan’s frigates. The Duguay Trouin and Mont Blanc then tried to escape, but were soon overhauled by the Caesar and Hero and, after a further 20 minutes destructive cannonade, were compelled to surrender.

In this action, much of it fought by three British ships-of-the-line against four French, the former’s casualties numbered only 24 killed and 111 wounded, the latter’s all of 750 killed, including Captain Touffet of the Duguay Trouin, and wounded, including Rear-Admiral Dumanoir, and Captain Bellanger of the Scipion.

And while the British ships suffered relatively little damage, all four French vessels had been severely mauled. Nonetheless Strachan was able to escort his opponents in prize to Plymouth where, after being refitted, they were added to the strength of the Royal Navy. The total number of vessels finally lost by the Combined Fleets at and shortly after the battle of Trafalgar was thus brought up to 19 ships-of-the-line (of which theDuguay Trouin, renamed Implacable, continued to fly the White Ensign until after the First World War, serving during her later years as a boys’ harbour training ship at Plymouth).

Strachan’s bold and effective handling of his squadron contrasts sharply with Calder’s conduct when he encountered Villeneuve in the same area in July. To him goes the credit for providing a most effective coda to Nelson’s greatest triumph, one which brought down the last curtain on a drama for which all the north Atlantic and the western Mediterranean had been the stage for seven long months. Begun when Villeneuve slipped out of Toulon on 30 March, the Trafalgar Campaign was finally ended when Dumanoir’s ships surrendered off Cape Ortegal on 4 November. For this success Strachan was rewarded with a Knighthood of the Bath, to add to his inherited baronetcy.




Typical of the last generation of 64s, Lion (as it was usually spelt) was one of many of these small two-deckers built to make up battlefleet numbers during the dangerous days of the American Revolutionary War when Britain faced all the major maritime powers alone. After active service during the American War, mostly in the West Indies, the ship was chosen to carry Lord Macartney’s embassy to China in 1792. During the following wars the ship’s career was typical of many 64s, serving in secondary theatres like the North Sea in the 1790s and for much of the period after 1801 in the East Indies. Lion was decommissioned in 1814 but survived as a hulk until 1837.


Capture of the Dorothea, 15 July 1798 (HMS Lion is at centre right) Thomas Whitcombe, 1816

The 64 was an ‘economy’ battleship and by the mid-eighteenth century for major navies it was the smallest acceptable unit of the line of battle. The principal weakness of the type was the main battery of 24pdrs, whereas the rest of the line from the largest three-decker to the standard 74 were equipped with 32pdrs in the British fleet and 3 6pdrs in the French. This meant that any 64 would always be a weak link in the battle line and a source of concern to the admiral commanding. This had become recognised during the American Revolutionary War and neither Britain nor France built such ships thereafter. The type remained popular with second-rank navies, like those of the Baltic states and, especially, the Netherlands, and although France built no more of the type for her own navy she acquired others through the shipbuilding activities of her satellite states like Venice and the Netherlands. Therefore British 64s were often concentrated in the squadrons opposing those powers.

Because of a large building programme put in hand during the American War, there were still thirty 64s available in 1793. Natural attrition reduced the numbers gradually during the war, but many were captured – mainly from the Dutch, but three from Denmark and two originally built for the Knights of St John at Malta. But very few of these were acceptable cruisers, and those not hulked were usually reduced to duty as troopships or store vessels. However, such was the rapidly escalating commitments of British fleets that in 1796 five of the largest East Indiamen building on the Thames were purchased and converted into 64-gun ships. They had their ports rearranged to take twenty-six 24pdrs instead of the twenty-eight 18pdrs they were designed for, and unlike the 54/56-gun ships acquired in the previous year, they had a proper quarterdeck and forecastle. They were longer in proportion than purpose-designed 64s, but nevertheless were deemed inadequate warships, being slow and unwieldy, thanks to their capacious mercantile hull form. They were derisively dubbed ‘tea and sugar ships’ in the fleet, and when blockading Toulon in 1803 Nelson complained that as ships of the line, ‘Monmouth and Agincourt … were hardly to be reckoned’.

Because of the weak broadside of the 64 there was a tendency to keep them out of the principal battlefleets if at all possible. Even in 1794 when all manner of battleships were in short supply, Lord Howe’s Channel Fleet did not contain any 64s, and in the period of close blockade 64s were only very rarely assigned to such duties. As the country’s front line of defence against invasion, the Channel Fleet clearly had first call on the best ships, but the 64 also disappeared from other strategically important squadrons. By the middle of 1797, for example, the Earl of St Vincent’s Mediterranean Fleet had only one, and even when assigned to a particular command the 64 was often detached on convoy and other duties outside the battle line. At that time the greatest concentration of 64s was with Admiral Duncan’s North Sea fleet – ten ships, or exactly half his nominal line of battle – followed by Rear-Admiral Rainier’s East Indies command of six, with four 74s and four 50s. Both were expected to face Dutch rather than French opponents, Duncan off the coast of Holland itself, and Rainier concentrating on Dutch colonies at the Cape, in the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia. The Dutch navy’s ships tended to be smaller, since it was essentially a trade protection force, and at the battle of Camperdown in October 1797 there were seven 64s on each side.

Probably the last campaign in which 64s took part in large numbers was Copenhagen in 1801: nine were originally allotted to Hyde Parker’s command, although only three went into action with Nelson’s division. Once again the choice of ship type was determined by the numbers of similar vessels in opposing fleets; both Russia – the planned next target after the Danish fleet had been dealt with – and Denmark herself favoured smaller ships, and the inshore emphasis of Baltic operations suggested that shallow-draught and handy ships would be at a premium. Three went back to Copenhagen with Gambier in 1807, and Saumarez was assigned two 64s when a permanent fleet was sent to the Baltic in the following year.

Although 64s were considered too weak for Channel service, where the enemy battle line was composed of 74s and larger, in other areas the 64-gun ship had its uses. They were often handier and more weatherly than larger battleships, and could be employed on detached duties where more powerful opposition was unlikely. From a distance they looked like any other two-decker so could be used to maintain a presence off lesser ports, to lead small colonial expeditions, and to provide cover for the more important convoys. Agamemnon, Nelson’s professed ‘favourite ship’, was very active under his command, and in the Mediterranean demonstrated some of the variety of roles performed by 64s outside the battle line. That the 64 was superior to any frigate was proved beyond doubt by Agamemnon’s routing four of them (plus a brig) in October 1793; the 64’s handiness was well illustrated by her hounding of the 80-gun Ça Ira in March 1795; and in the spring of 1796 under Nelson’s broad pendant the ship led a detached squadron of one other 64, two frigates and two brigs to harass the coast around Genoa and blockade the port. Even after Nelson’s promotion to larger ships, the Agamemnon remained a popular ship and, despite general reluctance to include 64s in the line of battle, contrived to fight at Copenhagen, Calder’s Action in 1805, Trafalgar and Duckworth’s action off San Domingo in 1806.

Battle of Pulo Aura


The Battle of Pulo Aura off Malacca during the Napoleonic Wars.


The Warley, launched in 1796, was a 1475-ton East Indiaman and one of the East India Company’s larger and more famous vessels. She made nine voyages to the East between 1796 and 1816, most direct to China. In 1804 she participated in the Battle of Pulo Aura. In 1816, the company sold her for breaking up.

On 28 December 1803, carrying provisions for six months cruising, French Admiral Linois‘s squadron left Batavia. Sailing northwards into the South China Sea, Linois sought to intercept the HEIC China Fleet, a large convoy of East Indiamen carrying trade goods worth £8 million (the equivalent of £635,000,000 as of 2016) from Canton to Britain. The annual convoy sailed through the South China Sea and the Straits of Malacca, gathering ships from other destinations en route and usually under the protection of an escort formed from Royal Navy ships of the line. However, the 1804 fleet had no escort: the outbreak of war had delayed the despatch of the vessels from Rainier’s squadron. Thus as the convoy approached the Straits of Malacca it consisted of 16 East Indiamen, 11 country ships and two other vessels guarded by only one small HEIC armed brig, Ganges. On 14 February, close to the island of Pulo Aura, the commodore of the convoy, Nathaniel Dance, was notified that sails were sighted approaching from the south-west. Suspicious, Dance sent a number of the East Indiamen to investigate, and rapidly discovered that the strange ships were the French squadron under Linois. Dance knew that his convoy would be unable to resist the French in combat and instead decided to bluff the French by pretending that a number of his large East Indiamen were disguised ships of the line.

Dance formed his ships into a line of battle and ordered three or four of them to raise blue ensigns and the others red, giving the impression of a heavy escort by implying that the ships with blue ensigns were warships. This ruse provoked a cautious response from Linois, who ordered his squadron to shadow the convoy without closing with them. During the night, Dance held position and Linois remained at a distance, unsure of the strength of the British convoy. At 09:00, Dance reformed his force into sailing formation to put distance between the two forces and Linois took the opportunity to attack, threatening to cut off the rearmost British ships. Dance tacked and his lead vessels came to the support of the rear, engaging Marengo at long range. Unnerved by the sudden British manoeuvere, Linois turned and retreated, convinced that the convoy was defended by an overwhelming force. Continuing the illusion that he was supported by warships, Dance ordered his ships to pursue Linois over the next two hours, eventually reforming and reaching the Straits of Malacca safely. There they were met several days later by two ships of the line sent from India.

The engagement was an embarrassment for Linois, who insisted that the convoy was defended by up to eight ships of the line and maintained that his actions had saved his squadron from certain destruction. His version of events was widely ridiculed by both his own officers and the authorities in Britain and France, who criticised his timidity and his failure to press the attack when such a valuable prize was within his reach. Dance by contrast was lauded for his defence and rewarded with a knighthood and large financial gifts, including £50,000 divided among the officers and men of the convoy. The engagement prompted a furious Napoleon to write to the Minister of Marine Denis Decrès:

All the enterprises at sea which have been undertaken since I became the head of the Government have missed fire because my admirals see double and have discovered, I know not how or where, that war can be made without running risks . . . Tell Linois that he has shown want of courage of mind, that kind of courage which I consider the highest quality in a leader.

— Emperor Napoleon I, quoted in translation in William Laird Clowes’ The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to 1900, Volume 5, 1900,



A comparison of clinker-building and carvel-building styles.

The origin of lap-strake ships

The ships of the Vikings were built shell first on a backbone consisting of keel, stem and stern. The primary component was a shell of planks, fastened together with clench nails through their overlapping edges, hence the building technique is called ‘lap-strake’. Finds of such vessels at the Nydam bog deposit in southern Jutland indicate that this way of building vessels was replacing sewn plank boats in Scandinavia and northern Germany in the first centuries AD. At the same time oars replaced paddles as means of propulsion. It might be that these changes reflect influences from the Roman navy, which was operating on the Rhine and in the southern North Sea then.

The lap-strake technique produces a hull which is strong and flexible. Caulking material inlaid between the overlapping planks during the construction made the hull watertight. Various materials were used, but the most common in Viking ships were loosely spun yarns of wool. To stiffen the hull, frames were inserted. In the Nydam vessels they consisted of a naturally curved timber – a compass timber – that was lashed to cleats carved out of the planks and of a thwart, also lashed. As the thwarts served as seats for the rowers, they – and thus the frames – sat roughly 1 m apart. This principle for spacing the framing remained in use until the end of the Viking Age. Rowlocks, mounted on the gunwale, served the oars, and the vessels could thus not be built higher than rowing allowed. Boats could be of a notable size; the best preserved of the Nydam boats, dated to c. ad 320, had twenty-eight oars and measured c. 23.5 m in length and 3.5 m in beam (Bill et al. 1997: 44).

During the fifth to eighth centuries, important improvements took place. Finds from the Anglo-Saxon ship grave Sutton Hoo in England and from Gredstedbro in southwestern Denmark, show that in the seventh to eighth centuries lashing of frames was replaced with tree-nailed fastenings in the southern North Sea area. The Storhaug find from Avaldsnes in Norway shows a large rowing ship with a solid plank with oar holes instead of rowlocks. The grave, dated to between ad 680 and 750, is also the first find in Scandinavia of a ship where the compass timber in the frame does not reach from gunwale to gunwale (Christensen 1998).

The introduction of sail

Despite the widespread use of sail in Gaul and Britain in Roman times, there is little evidence that Scandinavians adopted this technology before the Viking Age. We find the earliest confirmation in the Baltic, where Gotlandic picture stones from the eighth century change from showing rowing vessels to showing ships with sails (Imer 2004). From around ad 800 depictions of sailing ships appear on Viking coins, runic stones and graffiti, but the Oseberg ship from ad 820 is the oldest find of a sailing vessel in Scandinavia. Some written evidence points to the continuous use of sail in the southern North Sea and the Channel from Roman times on. That it seemingly was not adopted in Scandinavia is puzzling, but may reflect the unwillingness of shipowners rather than any technological restraint in shipbuilding.




Medieval War at Sea


Ships were at times used for direct warfare, not just for military transport. Naval warfare was most important in the Mediterranean; both Muslim and Christian kingdoms kept naval fleets of galleys. Northern Europe’s foray into naval warfare was delayed, although merchant vessels began carrying crossbows to defend against piracy. Piracy was the first reason to create military vessels to support merchant shipping, more than foreign warfare.

In the Mediterranean Sea, Egypt, Constantinople, Venice, Genoa, and other regional powers maintained galley fleets with both rowing benches and a lateen sail. The galleys were armed with a platform that ran the length of the vessel—so that men could pass easily from end to end—and with freestanding pavises (shields) and crossbows. Some had a forecastle, perhaps armed with small catapult weapons.

A naval battle typically began with distance shooting. Crossbows were increasingly the largest part of naval battles. As the ships rowed closer, each crew would try to board and master the other. Ships usually had a boarding platform of some kind, something that stuck out and could be touched to the other ship. They also threw grappling hooks out, attached to iron chains. Poleaxes could reach out to cut the enemy’s rigging. Some crews threw soap on the other ship’s decks to make fighters slip. Others threw lime at the enemy to blind them. Most devastating, those who had access to its formula flung Greek fire, catching the enemy’s ship on fire. Nothing but ammonia, in the form of stale urine, could douse Greek fire. There was a great deal of hand combat, although crews were lightly armed. Plate armor had no place at sea, but hardened leather or light chainmail could help in close combat.

During the 14th century, the countries of the North Atlantic built up their stock of fighting ships. France and England both acquired some galleys. During the Hundred Years’ War, French galleys harassed English shipping and attacked English ports and English-owned ports in France, such as Bordeaux. English galleys, often hired as Spanish or Italian mercenaries, tried to defend shipping. Germany’s Hanseatic League was often armed, and there was an order of oceangoing Crusaders in Germany to protect shipping against infidel attacks.

Further Reading Fagan, Brian. Fish on Friday. New York: Basic Books, 2006. Grohskopf, Bernice. The Treasure of Sutton Hoo: Ship-Burial for an Anglo-Saxon King. New York: Atheneum, 1970. Hattendorf, John B., and Richard W. Unger. War at Sea in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance. Woodbridge, UK: Boydell Press, 2003 Haws, Duncan. Ships and the Sea: A Chronological Review. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, 1975. Haywood, John. Dark Age Naval Power: A Reassessment of Frankish and Anglo- Saxon Seafaring Activity. Norfolk, UK: Anglo-Saxon Books, 1999. Hutchinson, Gillian. Medieval Ships and Shipping. London: Cassell, 1997. Konstam, Angus. The History of Pirates. Guilford, CT: Lyons Press, 1999. Lewis, Archibald R. European Naval and Maritime History, 300–1500. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1985. Meisel, Tony. To the Sea: Sagas of Survival and Tales of Epic Challenge on the Seven Seas. New York: Black Dog and Leventhal Publishers, 2000. Milne, Gustav. The Port of Medieval London. Stroud, UK: Tempus Publishing, 2006. Morrison, John. Age of the Galley: Mediterranean Vessels since Pre-Classical Times. London: Conway Maritime Press, 2004. Pryor, John H. Geography, Technology, and War: Studies in the Maritime History of the Mediterranean, 649–1571. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992. Rose, Susan. Medieval Naval Warfare 1000–1500. New York: Routledge, 2001. Unger, Richard W., and Robert Gardiner. Cogs, Caravels, and Galleons: The Sailing Ship 1000–1650. Seacaucus, NJ: Chartwell Books, 2000. Woodman, Richard. The History of the Ship. London: Conway Maritime Press, 1997.

Knights of Malta Naval Activity – The Eighteenth Century


Views of two actions of the navy of the Order, early eighteenth century.

The period following 1723 has been described by historians of the Order of St John as one of naval decline. For all its prevalence, that view is founded on a primal ignorance of the area most relevant to the question: the development of the North-African states, of which a brief outline is necessary. All three of the Regencies succeeded in increasing their independence from Turkey at the beginning of the eighteenth century, and two of them accompanied this with an expansion of their real power. Algiers conquered Oran and Mazalquivir from Spain in 1708; Tunis remained weak and subject to Algerian intervention. Tripoli is the case most pertinent to our subject: the corsairs, driven from the other Regencies, had taken refuge here, and Tripoli re-emerged as a strong corsair centre in the second half of the seventeenth century. The position of the Regency was further strengthened by the accession of the Caramanli dynasty in 1711; its founder, Ahmed Bey, extended his rule to Cyrenaica, exacted tribute from the Fezzan, and sought to build up his naval power.

Parallel to these developments came the breakup of Spain’s Italian dominion as a consequence of the War of Succession. Sardinia was granted to the Dukes of Savoy in 1720; Naples was weakly held by Austria from 1707 and became independent under Bourbon rule in 1734. As a result, instead of a single empire defended by the Spanish navy (and here, for naval purposes, we should include the Papal States), there were left three minor powers, each with an insignificant fleet and each pursuing its independent defence. These were conditions which the Barbary states could have exploited to achieve local dominance in the central Mediterranean; that they did not do so is due essentially to the Order of St John.

The first signs of the reponse to the new threat appear at the beginning of the eighteenth century. In its alliance with the Venetians, the Order had found it most efficient to specialise in galley warfare; now, however, it was faced with a serious naval rival nearer home, against whom it had to fight alone. The decision was therefore taken to diversify the fleet, to reduce the number of galleys to five (later four) and to build four ships of the line, of between fifty and sixty guns, to which a fifth captured one was quickly added. This mixed fleet first put to sea in 1705 under Castel de Saint-Pierre, who had a grand design to sweep the Barbary corsairs from the Mediterranean with the support of the European powers. As the latter were busy fighting each other, his plan had little chance of being realised, but for the next half-century the Knights of Malta struck a series of formidable blows at the Tripolitanian navy, preventing the Bey from matching his power on land with corresponding power at sea.

An early success was the capture of the Soleil d’Or in 1710 by Joseph de Langon, who was killed in the action. The figure most closely associated with the feats of the sailing squadron was the ferocious Jacques de Chambray, a strong advocate of the superiority of the ships of the line, who in 1723 received the command of the Saint-Vincent, of 52 guns, with a crew of 300. In his first cruise, sailing off Pantelleria, he came upon the Vice-Admiral of Tripoli with an armament of 56 guns and a crew of 400, and captured the ship after a fierce fight, winning the most important victory for the Order since 1700. Chambray’s exploits continued for another twenty-six years, until he retired in 1749 with a string of victories behind him. Under his command, the mixed fleet of the Order attained, in the 1740s, the peak of its strength, with six sailing ships (three of them of 60 guns) and four galleys. As a consequence, Tripoli was obliged to recognise defeat, and under Ali Caramanli (1754-93) a semblance of friendly relations was maintained with Malta, peaceful trade being developed between the two countries.

An achievement of less immediacy, but striking in the longer historical view, was the blocking of the recovery of Tunis. That city had traditionally enjoyed one of the most favoured positions on the North-African coast, as was shown by its own greatness in the Middle Ages and that of Carthage in antiquity. Yet from the time of the knights’ arrival in Malta the days of Tunis as a nodal point in the Mediterranean were numbered. Competing with it for mastery over the Straits of Sicily, the Knights of St John ensured that Tunis remained the weakest of the Barbary Regencies, transferring to their own island the centrality that had belonged to its African neighbour.

The myth of naval decadence therefore needs to be replaced with a different analysis: until 1722 the Knights of Malta had fought Turkey in alliance with the other Christian powers, and their role in that conflict had necessarily been that of auxiliaries, however brilliant. After the truce of 1723 the stage was narrowed, but the knights’ role became a central one, and we find them operating in the middle years of the eighteenth century with a greater degree of independent effectiveness than at any time since the Rhodian period. Their influence can be illustrated by drawing a circular map of a thousand miles’ diameter centred on Malta; this area was occupied by two Moslem and three Christian states whose naval weakness was on the one side enforced, on the other protected, by the navy of Malta. Only on the north-eastern fringe of the circle does Maltese sea-power give way to Venetian. The Order exercised this role not only directly but through its function as a naval academy for the European fleets. The Papal States, Naples and Sardinia (none of which had a navy equal in strength to Malta’s) would have had no officer corps worth looking at without the Knights of St John. Thus the local balance of naval power in this vast area revolved round Malta and its few hundred knights, who succeeded in crippling the maritime development of North Africa. That this achievement appears a small one – that we take the weakness of the African states for granted – is itself a measure of its success: in the early seventeenth century the Barbary Regencies had been naval powers on a level with England and France; in the eighteenth, if the Order of Malta had not stood in their way, conditions were ripe for them to recover a portion of their dominance at the expense of the Italian states.

By the last third of the century the knights’ success was so complete that they seemed to have left themselves nothing further to do. The Regencies had stopped building anything but xebecs and similar small craft, because any larger ship was immediately captured or destroyed by the Knights of Malta. As a consequence we find a gradual reduction in the strength of the Maltese navy and a shift to bombarding operations (such as the support for the French attack on Tunis in 1770) and in particular to action against Algiers, which remained the only significant corsair base. The Algerians were attacked in 1772, 1775, 1783 and 1784 in collaboration with Spain, which was making an effort at this time to dispose finally of its ancestral enemy. In 1784 a ship of the line and three galleys supported the Spanish attack on Algiers, after which the Maltese squadron remained cruising in Algerian waters, at Spain’s request, maintaining pressure on Algiers in preparation for a further campaign the following year. Unfortunately Spanish resolution petered out into an unsatisfactory peace treaty; the opportunity of a decisive victory was lost, and Algiers lived to plague Christian shipping for a further forty-five years.

The appearance that the corsair threat had become negligible was nevertheless delusive. Such activity had always shown a resurgence in a period of general war, especially one in which both Spain and France were involved (for example in the 1740s and early 1760s); and the Mediterranean was about to witness one of the longest such periods in its history. The years 1793 to 1814 permitted the Barbary corso to recover a vigour it had not known for a long lifetime. Algiers increased its corsair strength from ten small vessels and 800 Christian captives in 1788 to thirty ships and 1,642 captives in 1816. Tunis and Tripoli enjoyed a similar revival. At first this trend was contained by corresponding activity in Malta: not only did the corso revive (nine privateers were licensed in 1797 alone) but the navy redoubled its efforts and in the five years 1793-98 it captured eight prizes, almost as many as in the whole of the previous thirty years. The last of these was taken only a few days before the French attack on Malta.

Despite its greater strength, the British navy based in Malta after 1800 did little to continue the work of the Order of St John except in the interests of its own trade. Algiers remained a corsair centre until its conquest by the French in 1830. Tripoli, under Yusuf Caramanli (1795- 1832), became a serious nuisance to many countries, as was demonstrated by the repeated expeditions against him: by the United States in 1803-5, by Britain in 1816, by Sardinia in 1825, by Naples in 1828 (a disaster for the Neapolitan navy), and by France in 1830. The expulsion of the knights from Malta thus underlined the impartial policing work they had performed for the benefit of all nations and the remarkable naval effectiveness they had maintained in the central Mediterranean.

Attack on Basque Roads, (11–14 April 1809)


Battle of the Basque Roads



The flamboyant, Captain Lord Cochrane, had rockets sent out onboard the transport Cleveland, to Basque Roads the same year, for his attempt on the French fleet anchored there. These rockets were fired from the rigging of the fire ships when sent in to attack the French fleet; however they endangered the British boats as much as the French fleet and did little damage. William Congreve was the eldest son of an official at the Royal laboratory at Woolwich. Congreve had served in the Royal Artillery briefly in 1791 before being attached to the laboratory staff himself. Congreve worked on improving the propellants and inventing warheads for the rocket. Congreve’s own story of his work on rockets begins.


‘ In 1804, it first occurred to me that….the projectile force of the rocket…….might be successfully employed, both afloat and ashore, as a military engine, in many cases where the recoil of exploding gunpowder’ made the use of artillery impossible. Congreve bought the best rockets on the London market but found they had a greatest range of only 600 yards. He knew that the Indian princes had possessed rockets that would travel much further than this. After spending ‘several hundred pounds’ of his own money on experiments he was able to make a rocket that would travel 1500 yards. He applied to Lord Chatham to have a number of large rockets constructed at Woolwich Arsenal, these achieved ranges of up to 2000 yards. By 1806 he was producing 32pdr rockets, which flew 3000 yards. The great advantage of Congreve’s invention was that it possessed many of the qualities of artillery but was free from the encumbrance of guns; wherever a packhorse or an infantryman could go, the rocket could go and be used to provide artillery support.

The attack by the Royal Navy on vessels at Basque Roads on the west coast of France in 1809 was a successful attempt to counter French moves against British interests in the West Indies and to prevent the French from reinforcing their colony of Martinique.

In 1808 the French learned of an intended British expedition to the West Indies. To oppose this, Rear Admiral Jean-Baptiste Willaumez was ordered to sail from Brest at the first sign that the British blockade had been relaxed. He was to relieve the blockade at Lorient, release the fleet of eight ships under Commodore Aimable Gilles Troudes, and sail to Basque Roads, where he was to combine his forces with a further three ships of the line, several frigates, and the troopship Calcutta. The fleet was to sail to the West Indies with the purpose of disrupting British trade and supporting the garrison of Martinique.

On 21 February 1809 the blockading ships of Admiral James Gambier were forced by storms to withdraw from their position off Ushant. This gave Willaumez the opportunity to slip out of port and sail south. The maneuver was observed by the Revenge, which followed the French south toward Lorient, where Commodore Sir John Beresford lay off the port with three ships. On 23 February, Beresford pursued the French, who discovered they were being driven toward another British force under Rear Admiral Sir Robert Stopford. Faced with this superior force, Willaumez took his fleet into Basque Roads.

Meanwhile, three French 40-gun frigates had left Lorient under Commodore Pierre Roch Jurien and sailed to join Willaumez, anchoring under the shore batteries. Stopford’s four ships of the line engaged the enemy frigates and shore batteries, setting two frigates on fire and driving the other aground. All three French ships were wrecked. Meanwhile, Willaumez’s force had lost one ship, driven onto a shoal in Basque Roads, but had joined the squadron there of three 74-gun ships of the line and two 40-gun frigates. A heavy boom was placed across the passage into the anchorage. Willaumez was bottled up, but the Admiralty was concerned that the French might yet slip out and reach the West Indies, and so the decision was made to destroy the enemy fleet.

On 19 March, Gambier was told that twelve transports and five bomb vessels (special ships carrying mortars for shore bombardment) were being prepared for what was to be an extremely hazardous operation. Captain Lord Cochrane of the Impérieuse was appointed to lead the attack. He had the reputation of being a daring and energetic officer and could conveniently be blamed if the attack proved a disaster. On the French side, however, Willaumez had been removed from command for failing to do battle with Beresford’s inferior force off Lorient.

Under Cochrane’s supervision, eight of the British transports plus the old frigate Mediator were being fitted out as fire ships, with barrels of tar and other combustible materials arranged on their decks, while two further transports and a captured French coaster were converted into explosion vessels, being packed with gunpowder, shells, and grenades. Meanwhile, twelve further fire ships had arrived on 10 April together with the bomb vessel Aetna. A number of smaller craft were also fitted out to fire Congreve rockets.

The British force, under Gambier, consisted of the 120-gun Caledonia, two 80-gun ships, eight 74-gun ships, one 44-gun heavy frigate, four other frigates, three sloops, seven gun brigs, three smaller craft, twelve fire ships, and the bomb vessel Aetna. The French force, under Rear Admiral Zacharie Jacques Allemand, was composed of an inner line made up of the ships Elbe (40 guns), Tourville (74), Aquilon (74), Jemmappes (74), Patriote (74), and Tonnère (74); a center line, of the ships Calcutta (troopship), Cassard (74), Regulus (74), Océan (120), Ville de Varsovie (80), and Foudroyant (80); and an outer line, of the ships Pallas (40), Hortense (40), and Indienne (40). He also had the support of shore batteries manned by 2,000 troops. Allemand anchored his ships in three lines north to south with a 2-mile boom of anchor cables protecting the approach to Basque Roads.

At 8:30 P.M. on the night of 11 April, some British fire ships sailed for the enemy. At 9:30 P.M., Cochrane ordered the fuses lit, and these ships exploded, destroying the boom. Other fire ships were now able to sail through the debris, but now the plan began to go wrong. Several of the fire ships were ignited too soon, many either running aground before reaching the anchorage or sailing harmlessly up the center of the channel. However, the few such ships that reached the French caused much confusion, combined with shells from the Aetna, the Congreve rockets, and broadsides from other British vessels. Some of the French ships broke free of the line to escape the fire ships. The Regulus got clear of one, only to collide with the Tourville. Hortense escaped one fire ship and fired upon another, only to hit other French warships. Océan ran aground and was then hit by a fire ship that her crew, however, managed to fend off, but she was then rammed by the Tonnere and the Patriote.

Dawn revealed a scene of devastation within the French fleet. Cochrane asked Gambier for reinforcements to complete the destruction of the enemy, but the latter only ordered the bomb vessels to shell the French, much to Cochrane’s frustration. Only the Foudroyant and Cassard were still afloat—the other vessels were all aground—but even these two ships eventually ran aground. Four of the French ships were eventually refloated, only to run aground again at the entrance to the anchorage. Cochrane took the Impérieuse inshore and by 2:00 P.M. on 12 April was engaged with the Calcutta, the Aquilon, and the Ville de Varsovie. This prompted Gambier to send support, forcing the three French vessels to strike. Two other ships, the Tonnère and the Calcutta, both caught fire and exploded. Cochrane moved closer with the gun brigs, despite repeated orders from Gambier to retire. On 14 April, after a final attack by the Aetna and gun brigs, four of the French ships managed to escape upriver, while two others grounded attempting the same maneuver.

The French government treated this disaster harshly. The French commanders were tried by court-martial; two were imprisoned, and Captain Jean Baptiste Lafon of the Calcutta was condemned and shot. On the British side, there was much criticism of Gambier for not having supported Cochrane more vigorously. However, the French plan to attack the West Indies had been thwarted.

Order of battle


Caledonia (120)

Caesar (80)

Gibraltar (80)

Donegal (74)

Bellona (74)

Hero (74)

Illustrious (74)

Resolution (74)

Revenge (74)

Theseus (74)

Valiant (74)

Imperieuse (38)

Aigle (36)

Unicorn (32)

Pallas (32)

Indefatigable (44)

Emerald (36)

Mediator (32)

Beagle (18)

Doterel (18)

Foxhound (18)

Insolent (14)

Encounter (12)

Conflict (12)

Contest (12)

Fervent (12)

Growler (12)

Lyra (10)

Redpole (10)

Whiting (4 – fitted as rocket ship)

Nimrod (10 – fitted as rocket ship)

King George (10 – fitted as rocket ship)

Thunder (8) (bomb)

Ætna (8) (bomb)

40 transports or fireships

3 Congreve rocket barges


Océan (118) (flagship)

Ville de Varsovie (80) (burnt)

Foudroyant (80)

Jemmapes (80)

Cassard (74)

Régulus (74)

Tourville (74)

Aquilon (74) (burnt)

Patriote (74)

Tonnerre (74) (scuttled)

Calcutta (54) (scuttled)

Pallas (46)

Hortense (46)

Indienne (46) (scuttled)

Elbe (46)

Other smaller ships

References and further reading Clowes, William Laird. 1996. The Royal Navy: A History from the Earliest Times to 1900. Vol. 5. London: Chatham. (Orig. pub. 1898.) Cochrane, Admiral Lord. 2000. The Autobiography of a Seaman. London: Chatham. Grimble, Ian. 2001. The Sea Wolf: The Life of Admiral Thomas Cochrane. Edinburgh: Birlinn. Harvey, Robert. 2002. Cochrane: The Life and Exploits of a Fighting Captain. London: Constable and Robinson. Woodman, Richard. 1998. The Victory of Seapower: Winning the Napoleonic War, 1806–1814. London: Chatham.