United States Civil War (1861-1865) – Naval Warfare II

USS Kearsarge

On 19 June 1864, one of the most famous nineteenth-century naval battles occurred, but on the other side of the Atlantic. By the spring of 1864 the Alabama had traveled an incredible 75,000 miles over nearly two years and was in need of repair. On 11 June the Alabama arrived at Cherbourg, France. Her captain, Raphael Semmes, hoped he might be able to use French government repair facilities for an overhaul. While Semmes waited for official word, the Union screw steam sloop Kearsarge under Captain John A. Winslow arrived. The two ships were nearly equally matched, and Semmes decided to do battle. In the ensuing fight the Alabama succumbed to superior Union gunnery. In October the Florida was also taken, in violation of Brazilian neutrality.

The Union navy, meanwhile, was capturing the remaining Confederate seaboard ports. Early on the morning of 5 August 1864, Rear Admiral Farragut led 18 ships against the heavy Confederate defenses guarding Mobile Bay, Alabama, in the process securing the surrender of the powerful CSS Tennessee. For all practical purposes, this battle ended blockade-running in the gulf.

Along the South Atlantic coast the Confederate ironclad ram Albemarle for months dominated the North Carolina sounds. In April 1864 she sank one Union gunboat, and in May she dispersed a squadron of seven Union gunboats. The ram was a considerable threat to Union coastal operations, but in a daring boat expedition up the Roanoke River in October, young Lieutenant William B. Cushing sank the ram with a spar torpedo.

Wilmington, North Carolina, was now the last remaining principal Confederate port for blockade-runners and a main overseas supply link for Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia. With the Albemarle disposed of, aggressive Vice Admiral David D. Porter, commanding the largest number of ships in U. S. Navy history to this point, moved against Wilmington in conjunction with a sea lift of troops. One attack at the end of December failed, but a second in mid-January was successful.

On land new Union general in chief Grant accompanied his field army as it drove south toward Richmond in 1864. Lee parried Grant’s blows and inflicted casualties equivalent to the size of his own force, but his forces never recovered from the relentless Union attacks. Grant sought to get in behind Lee at Petersburg south of Richmond, but Lee was too quick for him and the two sides settled down to a long siege.

As Grant attempted to take Richmond and destroy Lee, Major General William T. Sherman took Atlanta and then drove east to the sea, cutting a swath of destruction through Georgia to Savannah. He then turned north through the Carolinas to join Grant. Lee then broke out of Petersburg and attempted to escape west. Cornered at Appomattox Court House, he surrendered on 9 April 1865. Some Confederate ground units held out for weeks, and the Confederate raider Shenandoah continued her depredations against the Union whaling fleet until the end of June, but the war was over and America soon disarmed. The U. S. Army went from 1,000,000 men under arms at Appomattox to only 25,000 by the end of 1866. In January 1865 U. S. Navy blockading squadrons had 471 ships mounting 2,455 guns; by December they numbered 29 ships carrying 210 guns.

Albemarle (Confederate Navy, Ironclad, 1864)
Confederate ironclad ram during the 1861-1865 U. S. Civil War, one of a number of powerful Confederate ironclad casemated vessels. The Albemarle was the first of a two-ship class constructed by Gilbert Elliot at Edward’s Ferry on the Roanoke River, the other being the Neuse. Laid down in April 1863, the Albemarle was launched in July and commissioned in April 1864. She was some 376 tons, 139′ between perpendiculars (152′ overall length) x 34′ x 9′, was driven by two screws from two steam engines with 400 horsepower, and could make in excess of 4 knots. She had a crew complement of 150 men. Armed with only 2 x 6.4-inch rifled guns, she had 6-inch armor. Damaged at launch, she was taken to Halifax, North Carolina, for repairs and completion.

The Albemarle was finished in time to participate in a Confederate Army assault led by General Robert F. Hoke on the Union blockading base at Plymouth, North Carolina. Early on the morning of 19 April 1864, the Albemarle attacked and sank one Union gunboat, the Southfield, and drove off another. She now controlled the water approaches to Plymouth and could provide valuable assistance to Confederate Army moves ashore. In the afternoon of 5 May, accompanied by the gunboats Bombshell and Cotton Plant, she engaged a squadron of seven Union gunboats off the mouth of the Roanoke River. The Bombshell was captured early in the action and the Cotton Plant withdrew up the Roanoke. The Albemarle continued the action alone, disabling the USS Sassacus. Fighting continued for some three hours until darkness halted the action.

The Albemarle posed a great threat to Union coastal operations because her shallow draft enabled her to escape the larger Union ocean-going ships, and she easily outgunned smaller Union coastal craft. For months she dominated the North Carolina sounds. On the night of 27 October 1864, 21-year-old Lieutenant William B. Cushing sank the Albemarle at her berth, using a spar torpedo mounted on a steam launch. Destruction of the Albemarle enabled Union forces to capture Plymouth and gain control of the entire Roanoke River area. It also released Union ships stationed there for other blockade duties.

Very low freeboard, mastless, turreted coastal ironclads developed in the U. S. Navy during the 1861- 1865 U. S. Civil War. Swedish-American inventor John Ericsson’s monitors were utterly unlike any previous U. S. warship. Captain Cowper Coles of the British navy, however, had designed and had built two mastless, coastal ironclads that actually preceded the Monitor. Further, Coles’s ship design and turret technology were superior to those of Ericsson. Ericsson’s turret rotated on a spindle and was thus liable to jam, but Coles’s rested on rollers below the waterline and rotated freely. Further, the first Monitor and its initial follow-on class had a unique “raft” upper body that worked water through the joint with the underwater hull, a fault that doomed the original Monitor during a moderate gale. Finally, U. S. armorclads were protected by laminated 2-inch thick plates; U. S. mills could roll nothing thicker. By contrast, British mills at the time could manufacture plates of up to 6 inches.

The Monitor’s ability to hold her own against CSS Virginia in the first ironclad-to-ironclad clash in history, the 9 March 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads, caused the U. S. Navy to contract quickly for some 55 ironclads along her lines. The first, the Passaic-class, numbered no less than ten units and were the first ironclads anywhere to have more than two built from one set of plans. They were awkwardly armed with one 11-inch and one 15-inch Dahlgren smoothbores (SBs). The Passaics were followed by nine Canonicus-class monitors, distinguishable by the removal of the objectionable upper-deck overhang and an armament of two matching 15-inch smoothbores.

Roanoke (2 x 15-inch SB; 2 x 11-inch SB; 2 x 150-pounder Parrot rifles), a cut-down wooden sloop, mounted no fewer than three turrets. But this top weight was too much for the wooden hull, and Roanoke was limited to harbor defense duties at New York. Large, iron-hulled, twin-turreted Onondaga mounted one 15-inch smoothbore and one 150-pounder Parrott rifle in each turret and served as a powerful deterrent to Confederate ironclads on the James River. None of the later large Union monitors, iron-built Dictator and timber-constructed Monadnock, Agamenticus, Miantonomah, and Tonawanda, saw battle.

Eminent engineer James Eads designed four whale-back, double-turreted monitors of the Milwaukee-class, a hybrid design featuring one turret on Ericsson’s system and the other on Eads’s unique design (4 x 11-inch SBs), in which the guns’ recoil would actually drop the entire turret floor below the waterline, where the ordnance could be safely reloaded, then elevated and run out by steam power.

Two single-turret monitors designed by Eads for work on Western rivers, Osage and Neosho (2 x 11-inch SBs), were unique as the world’s only paddle-wheel monitors. A slightly different version, Ozark (2 x 15-inch SBs), was screw propelled.

The Union Civil War ironclad program ended on a note of farce with the 20 light-draft Casco Monitor class. Ericsson drew the original plans, but they were greatly modified by Inspector of Ironclads Alban Stimers. All drew far more water than designed and proved useless.

Timberclad (U. S. Navy, Ships, 1861)
Early Civil War warships, part of the river navy created by the U. S. government to fight on the inland waters in the West. Commander John Rodgers was sent to the western theater with instructions to secure such a force. By 8 June 1861 he had negotiated contracts to buy and convert three wooden side-wheel freight-and-passenger Ohio River steamers into gunboats. These were the Tyler (four years old and weighing 420 tons), the Lexington (one year old and weighing 362 tons), and the Conestoga (two years old and weighing 572 tons). Their conversion was carried out at Louisville, Kentucky, by the Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company of Cincinnati.

The three were paid for and under the control of the War Department. Commanded by navy officers, they were later controlled by the navy. The steamers were reinforced to enable them to carry heavy guns, and 5-inch-thick oak was installed to provide protection against rifle fire. This resulted in their being known as “timberclads.”

The three gunboats arrived at their base at Cairo, Illinois, in mid-August 1861, and were soon in service. On commissioning, the Conestoga mounted 4 x 32-pounders; the Lexington had 2 x 32-pounders and 4 x 64-pounders (8-inch shells); and the Tyler had 1 x 32-pounders in the stern and 6 x 64-pounders (8-inch shells) in broadside.

USS Tyler Gunboat

The three gunboats were an effective stopgap measure until new ironclads could be brought into service. They saw useful service in battles and operations along the Cumberland, Tennessee, and Mississippi Rivers. The Conestoga was lost in a collision in March 1864; the other two survived the war and were sold in August 1865.

USS Pittsburgh (1862-1865) stern wheeler, ironclad gunboat.

A steam-powered vessel driven by a stern-mounted paddle wheel and developed primarily for inland waterway systems. Until eclipsed by the railroad, the stern-wheeler, along with the side-wheeler, represented a near revolution in inland transportation. Inland river systems have numerous hazards to navigation, including shallow depth, swift currents and rapids, sandbars, underwater snags, seasonal changes in water depth, rocks, and twisting channels. The stern-wheeled riverboat with a shallow draft, flat bottom, and narrow beam, driven by a high-pressure steam engine, made river shipping and travel not only regular but relatively swift.

Stern-wheelers had four key advantages over side-wheeled vessels: They drew much less water, had less beam for superior maneuverability on smaller waterways, and were quicker and cheaper to build. Although often associated with the trans-Appalachian American West and rivers such as the Mississippi, Ohio, Missouri, and Columbia, stern-wheelers were reliable vessels for both freight and passenger service throughout much of the world. In the United States the 1850s were the “Golden Age” of the stern-wheelers in terms of speed, quality, and grandeur.

As naval vessels during the American Civil War, stern-wheelers and side-wheelers played a key role in the Union successes of the western campaigns. Besides serving as gunboats, the river fleets served as troop transports and munitions carriers. They ferried wounded and prisoners of war in addition to carrying food and forage for the field armies.


Mediterranean Lords and Merchants 13-14th Centuries

By the end of the thirteenth century Catalan ships had a good reputation for safety and reliability; if a merchant was in search of a ship in, say, Palermo on which to load his goods, he knew he would do well to choose a Catalan vessel, such as the substantial Sanctus Franciscus, owned by Mateu Oliverdar, which was there during 1298.28 Whereas the Genoese liked to divide up the ownership of their boats, the Catalans often owned a large ship outright. They rented out space to Tuscan wheat merchants or slave dealers, and sought out rich merchants who might be willing to lease all or part of the ship. The shipowners and merchants of Barcelona and Majorca inveigled themselves into the places where the Italians had long been dominant. In the 1270s, the middle-class widow Maria de Malla, from Barcelona, was trading with Constantinople and the Aegean, sending out her sons to bring back mastic (much valued as chewing-gum); she exported fine cloths to the East, including linens from Châlons in northern France. The great speciality of the de Malla family was the trade in furs, including those of wolves and foxes.30 The Catalans were granted the right to establish fonduks governed by their own consuls in Tunis, Bougie and other North African towns. There were big profits to be made from the overseas consulates. James I was outraged when he discovered in 1259 how low was the rent paid to him by the Catalan consul in Tunis. He promptly tripled it. Another focus of Catalan penetration was Alexandria; in the 1290s the de Mallas were seeking linseed and pepper there. In the fourteenth century, King James II of Aragon tried to persuade the sultan of Egypt to grant him protective authority over some of the Christian holy places in Palestine, and the sultan promised him relics of Christ’s Passion if he would send ‘large ships containing plenty of goods’. The papacy, with the outward support of the king of Aragon, attempted to ban the lively trade of the Catalans and Italians in Egypt; those who traded with the Muslim enemy were to be excommunicated. But the king ensured that two Catalan abbots were to hand who could absolve merchants trading with Egypt, subject to payment of a swingeing fine. These fines developed into a tax on trade, and produced handsome revenues: in 1302 fines on trade with Alexandria accounted for nearly half the king’s recorded revenues from Catalonia.

Far from suppressing the trade, the Aragonese kings became complicit in it.

Naturally the Catalans wanted to challenge the Italian monopoly over the spice trade to the East. Yet their real strength lay in the network they created in the western Mediterranean. Catalans, Pisans and Genoese jostled in the streets of the spacious foreign quarter of Tunis, a concessionary area full of fonduks, taverns and churches. Access to the ports of North Africa meant access to the gold-bearing routes across the Sahara; into these lands, the Catalans brought linen and woollen cloths from Flanders and northern France and, as their own textile industry expanded after 1300, fine cloths from Barcelona and Lleida. They brought salt too, which was plentiful in Catalan Ibiza, and in southern Sardinia and western Sicily, but was in short supply in the deserts to the south, and was sometimes used there as a currency in its own right. As thirteenth-century Barcelona began to boom, they ensured that there were sufficient food supplies for a growing city. Sicily early became the focus of their trade in wheat, carried in big, round, bulky ships, and they were so successful that as early as the 1260s they began to supply other parts of the Mediterranean with Sicilian wheat: Tunis, which had never recovered from the devastation of the North African countryside by Arab tribes in the eleventh century; Genoa and Pisa, which might have been expected to look after their own supplies; the towns of Provence. A business contract of the late 1280s simply demanded that the ship Bonaventura, recently in the port of Palermo, should sail to Agrigento where it was to be filled up with ‘as great a quantity of wheat as the said ship can take and carry’.

The Catalans specialized in another important cargo: slaves. These were variously described as ‘black’, ‘olive’ or ‘white’, and were generally Muslim captives from North Africa. They were put on sale in Majorca, Palermo and Valencia, and sent to perform domestic work in the households of their Catalan and Italian owners. In 1287 the king of Aragon decided that the Minorcans were guilty of treachery, declared the surrender treaty of 1231 void and invaded the island, enslaving the entire population, which was dispersed across the Mediterranean – for a time there was a glut in the slave market. The luckier and better-connected slaves would be ransomed by co-religionists – Muslims, Jews and Christians all set aside funds for the ransoming of their brethren, and the two religious orders of the Trinitarians and Mercedarians, well represented in Catalonia and Provence, specialized in ransoming Christians who had fallen into Muslim hands. The image of the young woman plucked off the shores of southern France by Saracen raiders was a stock theme in medieval romance, but the Catalans were perfectly ready to respond in kind; they muscled into the Mediterranean trade networks through piracy as well as honest business.

Meanwhile, Majorcan ships kept up a constant flow of traffic towards North Africa and Spain. A remarkable series of licences issued to sailors intending to leave Majorca in 1284 reveals that ships set off from the island almost every day of the year, even in the depths of January, and there was no close season, even if business was livelier in warmer months. Some of these ships were small vessels called barques, crewed by fewer than a dozen men, able to slip quickly across to mainland Spain time and again. More typical was the larger leny, literally ‘wood’; lenys were well suited to the slightly longer run across open water towards North Africa. The Majorcans were pioneers, too. In 1281 two Genoese ships and one Majorcan vessel reached the port of London, where the Majorcan ship loaded 267 sacks of fine English wool, and the Majorcans continued to trade regularly with England well into the fourteenth century. The Phoenicians had never had much difficulty in escaping through the Straits of Gibraltar, bound for Tartessos, but medieval ships battled with the incoming flow from the Atlantic and the fogs and contrary winds between Gibraltar and Ceuta. They also battled, literally, with the rulers of the facing shores – Marinid Berbers in Morocco, the Nasrid rulers of Granada in southern Spain. These were not hospitable waters, and the opening of the sea route out of the Mediterranean was as much a diplomatic as a technical triumph. Raw wool and Flemish textiles could now be brought directly and relatively cheaply from the north straight into the Mediterranean, bound for the workshops of Florence, Barcelona and other cities where the wool was processed and the textiles were finished. Alum, the fixative most easily obtained from Phokaia on the coast of Asia Minor, could be ferried to cloth workshops in Bruges, Ghent and Ypres, avoiding the costly and tedious trek by road and river through eastern France or Germany. The navigation of the Mediterranean and the Atlantic began slowly to be tied together, even if there were constant crises, and Catalan war fleets often patrolled the Straits. By the early fourteenth century, Mediterranean shipbuilders were imitating the broad, round shape of the northern cogs, big cargo vessels that tramped the Baltic and the North Sea – they even adopted the name, cocka. Down the coast of Morocco, too, Catalan and Genoese ships found markets full of the grain they craved, where the inhabitants were keen to acquire Italian and Catalan textiles; by the 1340s these boats had penetrated as far as the Canary Islands, which the Majorcans tried (and failed) to conquer.

Predictably, the Majorcan merchants, subject to their own king after 1276, decided they wanted their own consuls and fonduks. This was one of many sources of tension between the two brothers, Peter of Aragon and James of Majorca, who divided up James I’s realms. Sailors and merchants were not slow to exploit these tensions. In 1299 a scoundrel named Pere de Grau, who owned a ship, was accused of stealing a tool box from a Genoese carpenter in the western Sicilian port of Trapani. Tit-for-tat, Pere insisted that in fact the carpenter had stolen his longboat. The matter was brought before the Catalan consul, but Pere scathingly stated: ‘this consul does not have any jurisdiction over citizens of Majorca, only over those who are under the dominion of the king of Aragon’. As fast as the Catalans extended their trading network across the Mediterranean, it threatened to fragment into pieces.

The fall of Acre in 1291 shocked western Europe, which had in fact done little to protect the city in its last decades. Plans to launch new expeditions abounded, and among the greatest enthusiasts was Charles II of Naples, after his release from his Catalan gaol. But this was all talk; he was far too preoccupied with trying to defeat the Aragonese to be able to launch a crusade, nor did he have the resources to do so. The Italian merchants diversified their interests to cope with the loss of access to eastern silks and spices through Acre. Venice gradually took the lead in Egypt, while the Genoese concentrated more on bulky goods from the Aegean and the Black Sea, following the establishment of a Genoese colony in Constantinople in 1261. But the Byzantine emperors were wary of the Genoese. They favoured the Venetians as well, though to a lesser degree, so that the Genoese would not assume they could do whatever they wished. Michael VIII and his son Andronikos II confined the Genoese to the high ground north of the Golden Horn, the area known as Pera, or Galata, where a massive Genoese tower still dominates the skyline of northern Istanbul, but they also granted them the right to self-government, and the Genoese colony grew so rapidly that it soon had to be extended. By the mid-fourteenth century the trade revenues of Genoese Pera dwarfed those of Greek Constantinople, by a ratio of about seven to one. These emperors effectively handed control of the Aegean and the Black Sea to the Genoese, and Michael’s navy, consisting of about eighty ships, was dismantled by his son. It was assumed that God would protect Constantinople as a reward for the rejection of all attempts at a union of the holy Orthodox Church with the unholy Catholic one.

The Genoese generally tolerated a Venetian presence, for war damaged trade and ate up valuable resources. Occasionally, as in 1298, pirate attacks by one side caused a crisis, and the cities did go to war. The battle of Curzola (Korčula) that year pitted about eighty Genoese galleys against more than ninety Venetian ones. The Venetians were on home territory, deep within the Adriatic. But Genoese persistence won the day, and hundreds of Venetians were captured, including (it is said) Marco Polo, who dictated his extraordinary tales of China and the East to a Pisan troubadour with whom he shared a cell in Genoa. The real story of the Polos was not simply one of intrepid, or foolhardy, Venetian jewel merchants who set out via Acre for the Far East, accompanied by the young Marco. The rise of the Mongol empire in the thirteenth century led to a reconfiguration of the trans-Asiatic trade routes, and opened a route bringing eastern silks to the shores of the Black Sea, although the sea-lanes through the Indian Ocean and Red Sea continued to bring spices to Alexandria and the Mediterranean from the East Indies. Once they had gained access to the Black Sea in the 1260s, the Genoese and Venetians attempted to tap into this exotic trans-Asia trade. True to form, the Venetians were more interested in the expensive luxury items, while the Genoese concentrated on slaves, grain and dried fruits, local products of the shores of the Black Sea. Good-quality wax was also in high demand, to illuminate churches and palaces across western Europe. The Genoese set up a successful trading base at Caffa in Crimea, while the Venetians operated from Tana, in the Sea of Azov. In Caffa the Genoese collected thousands of slaves, mostly Circassians and Tartars; they sold them for domestic service in Italian cities or to the Mamluks in Egypt, who recruited them into the sultan’s guard. The spectacle of the Genoese supplying the Muslim enemy with its crack troops not surprisingly caused alarm and displeasure at the papal court.

The Genoese despatched Pontic grain far beyond Constantinople, reviving the Black Sea grain traffic that had helped feed ancient Athens. As the Italian cities grew in size, they drew their grain from further and further afield: Morocco, the shores of Bulgaria and Romania, the Crimea, Ukraine. Production costs there were far lower than in northern Italy, so that, even after taking into account the cost of transport, grain from these lands could be put on sale back home at prices no higher than Sicilian or Sardinian imports. Of those too there was still a great need. The Genoese distributed grain from all these sources around the Mediterranean: they and the Catalans supplied Tunis; they ferried grain from Sicily to northern Italy. One city where demand was constant was Florence, only now emerging as an economic powerhouse, a centre of cloth-finishing and cloth-production. Although it lies well inland, Florence depended heavily on the Mediterranean for its wool supplies and for its food; it controlled a small territory that could produce enough grain to feed the city for only five months out of twelve. The soil of Tuscany was generally poor, and local grain could not match the quality of the hard wheats that were imported from abroad. One solution was regular loans to their ally the Angevin king of Naples, which gave access to the seemingly limitless grain of Apulia.

These developments reflected massive changes in the society and economy of the lands surrounding the Mediterranean. By 1280 or 1300, population was rising and grain prices were rising in parallel. Local famines became more frequent and towns had to search ever further afield for the food they needed. The commercial revolution in Europe led to a spurt in urban growth, as employment prospects within towns drew workers in from the countryside. Cities began to dominate the economy of Mediterranean western Europe as never before in history: Valencia, Majorca, Barcelona, Perpignan, Narbonne, Montpellier, Aigues-Mortes, Marseilles, Savona, Genoa, Pisa and Florence, with its widely used and imitated gold florins, to name the major centres in the great arc stretching from the Catalan lands to Tuscany. Aigues-Mortes, rich in salt, whose appearance has changed little since the early fourteenth century, was founded in the 1240s as a commercial gateway to the Mediterranean for the kingdom of France, which had only recently acquired direct control over Languedoc. King Louis IX eyed with concern the flourishing city of Montpellier, a centre of trade, banking and manufacture that lay, as part of a complex feudal arrangement, under the lordship of the king of Aragon. He hoped to divert business to his new port in the salt lagoons, which he also used as a departure point for his disastrous crusade in 1248. In the event, Aigues-Mortes soon became an outport for Montpellier, which avoided French royal control for another century. The Venetians had their own distinctive answer to the problem of how to feed the 100,000 inhabitants of their city. They attempted to channel all grain that came into the Upper Adriatic towards the city; the Venetians would have first choice, and then what remained would be redistributed to hungry neighbours such as Ravenna, Ferrara and Rimini. They sought to transform the Adriatic Sea into what came to be called the ‘Venetian Gulf’. The Venetians negotiated hard with Charles of Anjou and his successors to secure access to Apulian wheat, and were even prepared to offer support to Charles I’s campaign against Constantinople, which was supposed to depart in 1282, the year of the Sicilian Vespers.

As well as food, the big round ships of the Genoese and Venetians ferried alum from Asia Minor to the West; the Genoese established enclaves on the edge of the alum-producing lands, first, and briefly, on the coast of Asia Minor, where the Genoese adventurer Benedetto Zaccaria tried to create a ‘kingdom of Asia’ in 1297, and then close by on Chios, which was recaptured by a consortium of Genoese merchant families in 1346 (and was held till 1566). Chios not merely gave access to the alum of Phokaia; it also produced dried fruits and mastic. More important than Chios was Famagusta in Cyprus, which filled the gap left by the fall of Acre. Cyprus lay under the rule of the Lusignan family, of French origin, though the majority of its inhabitants were Byzantine Greeks. Its rulers were often embroiled in faction-fighting, but the dynasty managed to survive for two more centuries, supported by the prosperity Cyprus derived from its intensive trade with neighbouring lands. Massive communities of foreign merchants visited and settled: Famagusta was the base for merchants from Venice, Genoa, Barcelona, Ancona, Narbonne, Messina, Montpellier, Marseilles and elsewhere; its ruined Gothic churches still testify to the wealth its merchants accumulated.

From Cyprus, trade routes extended to another Christian kingdom, Cilician Armenia, on the south-east coast of modern Turkey. Western merchants supplied wheat to Armenia by way of Cyprus, and they used Armenia as a gateway to exotic and arduous trade routes that took them away from the Mediterranean, to the silk markets of Persian Tabriz and beyond. Cyprus enjoyed close links to Beirut, where Syrian Christian merchants acted as agents of businessmen from Ancona and Venice, furnishing them with massive quantities of raw cotton for processing into cloth in Italy and even in Germany, a clear sign that a single economic system was emerging in the Mediterranean, crossing the boundaries between Christendom and Islam. Some of the cotton cloth would eventually be conveyed back to the East to be sold in Egypt and Syria. Trade and politics were fatefully intertwined in the minds of the Lusignan kings. When King Peter I of Cyprus launched an ambitious crusade against Alexandria in 1365, his grand plan included the establishment of Christian hegemony over the ports of southern Anatolia (of which he had already captured a couple) and Syria, but a sustained campaign in Egypt was far beyond his resources; the expedition turned into the unwholesome sack of Alexandria, confirming that what had been proclaimed as a holy war was motivated by material considerations. Soon after his return to Cyprus, King Peter, who knew how to make enemies, was assassinated.


British Naval Superiority In The Indian Ocean

East Indiaman (Ship Type) Small, broad, roomy ships developed in the 1590s by the Dutch for trade with their colonies in the East Indies. Developed from the galleon and Dutch Fluyt, East Indiamen were rigged as frigates (square-rigged) and powerfully armed, to the point of equaling a man-of-war in fire power. They featured two galleries, a single forecastle deck, a quarterdeck, and a half-deck. Typical of the class was the Den Ary, which carried 54 guns and whose hull was clinker-laid up to the sides of both the half-deck and the quarterdeck.

Shortly after the Dutch, the British entered the East India trade, forming “The Governor and Company of Merchants of London trading to the East Indies,” also known as the Honourable East India Company [EIC]. Chartered in 1600, its ships, as were those of the Dutch, were well-armed and heavily manned. Similar, too, were the ships’ full underbodies, flat floors, sharp turns of the bilges, and quick rises. British East Indiamen were more apt to carry studding sails than were their Dutch counterparts and were frequently commanded by former Royal Navy officers. Quarters were often luxurious, and many vessels were adorned with gilding and ornamental carving.

British naval superiority in the Indian Ocean, arguably dates to Great Britain’s defeat of France during the Seven Years War (1756–63), but it was not cemented until their decisive victory over Napoleon. At the end of the eighteenth century, with the defeat of the Netherlands by France in 1795, Great Britain seized upon this enforced alliance between its main European and Indian Ocean rivals to take Cape Town, Ceylon (today Sri Lanka), and Java and Melaka from the Dutch, and the Mascarene Islands of Bourbon (now La Réunion) and Ile de France (now Mauritius) from the French. Twenty years later, by 1815, the British controlled the Cape, Ceylon, Melaka, and Mauritius, while Bourbon was returned to France by the Treaty of Paris. Just a few years later, the unauthorized occupation of Singapore by Stamford Raffles in 1819 and its formal possession by the British in 1823 almost immediately reduced the economic signifcance of both Melaka and Dutch Jakarta.

European maritime superiority did not go unchallenged in the early modern period. Along the coast of western India two rival indigenous navies clashed with each other and with the EIC to control coastal shipping. The most successful were the Sidis of Janjira Island, about forty miles south of Mumbai, who had ruled this fortifed island since 1618. Descendants of enslaved Africans known as habshis, a broad name denoting origins in northeast Africa, the Janjira Sidis traced their Indian roots to military service in the Deccan of southern India.

From the great fortress they constructed at Janjira, the Sidis became an important factor in coastal shipping north of Goa up to Bombay, whether serving the Mughals or their own interests. Sidi naval power was challenged by the powerful and ambitious Maratha ruler Shivaji Bhosale, whose army was seizing large chunks of western India from the Mughals. Shivaji commanded a series of small forts along the Konkan coast, as well as a fleet of perhaps several hundred ships. Although Shivaji is remembered as a militant Hindu ruler, in the typical Indian Ocean division of labor his ships were captained by Muslims. His several attempts to assert a naval presence on the coast proved to be disruptive to both the English and Portuguese, who were simultaneously contending with Maratha continental expansion. In the process of beating back the Maratha challenge, the Sidis momentarily shifted their alliance from the Mughals to the EIC, but they remained an independent if steadily less powerful coastal naval force deep into the nineteenth century.

The Yaarubi rulers of Oman drew most of their revenue from customs duties levied at their ports, but they also began to expand the date plantations along the Batinah coast of northeastern Oman. The demand for labor created by this agricultural plantation expansion, as well as the maintenance of a standing army by the Imam, were harbingers of increased slave trading to the Gulf from East Africa. Maritime raiding was apparently another source of revenue for Oman, such that Masqat gained a reputation as a pirate’s den. In 1705 an Omani attack on an EIC vessel caused one offcial to write that “Muskat . . . is become a Terror to all the trading people of India,” while a company pilot’s guide published in 1728 cautioned that “the danger of this port is as much from the Treachery of the Arabs as from the Storms and Rocks of the Coasts; for they are not only Pirates and Thieves, but Cheats in every thing wherein you can deal with them.”

By this time, however, internal dissension over election to the Imamate gave rise to civil strife in Oman. In 1749 a new dynasty, the Busaidi, came to power. Under the vigorous leadership of Ahmad b. Said, Oman’s place as a mercantile maritime power in the western Indian Ocean steadily grew. One immediate consequence of this political transition was that the Omani Mazrui governor of Mombasa rejected the new Busaidi claimant to authority. According to the anonymous nineteenth-century Swahili History of Mombasa, which only exists in Arabic renditions, “When the governor learnt that the Imam Ahmad bin Said had come to power, and that he was not of the family of the Imams, he declared himself ruler of Mombasa and refused to recognize the country as a possession of the Imam, and said: Formerly this Imam was my equal: he has now seized Oman, so I have seized Mombasa.” Mombasa’s independence would eventually be ended by Oman’s imperial expansion into East Africa in the long nineteenth century. From the middle of the eighteenth century, however, it was Great Britain that came to dominate the maritime space of the Indian Ocean as it built an empire based around India that eventually extended from South Africa, through the Gulf, across the Bay of Bengal and Malaya all the way to Hong Kong.

The Persian Fleet – Salamis

“Artemisia, Queen of Halicarnasuss, sinks a rival Calyndian ship within the Persian fleet at the Battle of Salamis, off the coast of Greece, 480 BC”

Battle of Salamis

No one who reads Herodotus’ narrative can underestimate the importance of the naval factor in the two Persian invasions. The Persians were an inland power and possessed no fleet of their own. It says all the more for the organizing ability of the Great Kings – Xerxes in particular – that they were able to muster such vast armadas. It also suggests that their knowledge of Greek seamanship and fighting power was such that they by no means despised the enemy with whom they had to deal.

The largest contingent of the Persian fleet consisted of Phoenician vessels, manned by Phoenician crews. Rather surprisingly, the Persians relied also upon ships and crews from the Greek Ionian cities which they had subjugated. Inevitably, they must have felt some doubts about the loyalty of the Greek contingents of their own fleet. On several occasions during the campaigns, the Ionian effort seems to have been half-hearted, and at the battle of Mycale the Ionian Greeks at last deserted their Persian overlords to aid their compatriots.

Artemisia, the Greek princess who ruled Halicarnassus (subject to Persian goodwill), was present herself on shipboard at the battle of Salamis, fighting on the Persian side. However, she seems to have joined either fleet as circumstances dictated at any particular moment, for when pursued by an Athenian vessel she deliberately rammed and sank another galley of her own contingent. The Athenians, thinking that she had changed sides, abandoned the pursuit and Artemisia made good her escape without further impediment.

The truth is possibly that Xerxes found it less risky to take the Ionian fleet with him than to leave it in his rear. On every ship there was a force of soldiers, either Persians, Medes or others whose loyalty was to be trusted. Persian commanders often took the place of local captains and Xerxes probably kept the leaders of the subject communities under his personal surveillance. Their position closely resembled that of hostages to the Persians.

Apart from the Phoenician and Greek naval contingents, there was in Xerxes’ fleet an Egyptian squadron which was to distinguish itself in the course of the fighting. We hear also of ships from Cyprus and Cilicia. Cyprus contained both Greek and Phoenician cities and the people of Cilicia were largely of Greek extraction. Whether the Cilicians felt any bond of sympathy with the Greeks of the mainland is another question, but only the links of empire united them with the Persians. The proportion of the total naval strength to that of the land army is recorded: the land forces, when counted by Xerxes at Doriscus in Thrace, were, according to Herodotus, 1,700,000 strong: the strength of the fleet is given with some precision as 1,207 vessels, not including transports.

The Structure of Ancient Ships

At this point something must be said of the construction of ancient ships in general and of ancient warships in particular. Mercantile and transport vessels were comparatively broad-beamed and correspondingly capacious. They had to depend on sails rather than oars if room was to be left for the cargo. The Greeks sometimes referred to them as “round ships”. By contrast, it may be remembered that the Latin for a warship was navis longa – a long ship. Throughout the ancient period which we are considering, warships were comparatively long and streamlined. They were built for speed and relied upon oars rather than sails. The Persians, in their two invasions, naturally needed both transports and warships.

The characteristic warship which developed about the time of the Persian Wars, and which was used in the battles with which we are concerned, was the trireme. This word is formed from the Latin; the Greek is trieres. The meaning is literally three-oared or triply furnished, but the reference is apparently to three banks of oars, which were ranged one above the other. At an earlier date, biremes, vessels of two oar-banks, were built. More common was the penteconter, a 50-oared galley with oars in a single bank. There were also triaconters, of 30 oars. Homeric ships had as few as 20.

Ancient ships, whether warships or transports, normally made use of single, square-rigged sails, and efficient performance required a following wind. Transports sometimes mounted two or, more rarely, three masts with a single yard and sail on each. Warships lowered their mast and sail before going into action. Steering was by means of two large paddles, one on either quarter. Battle tactics depended to a great extent on ramming the enemy, but boarding operations by heavily armed troops were also carried out and in this way prizes could be taken. Missiles were also used, although this method of fighting recommended itself more to the Persians than to the Greeks.

Persian Naval Strategy

It is interesting that Xerxes reverted to his father’s original plan and decided to invade Greece from the north. He must have considered that his channel through the Athos peninsula eliminated the main hazard of this route. Clearly, he could deploy a much larger army in Greece if his land forces could make their own way along the coast. At the same time, the fleet keeping pace on the army’s flank contained transports which considerably eased his supply problem. The land forces carried a good deal of their own baggage and equipment with the help of camels and other beasts of burden. These did not include horses. It was not customary in the ancient world to use horses for such purposes and it is noteworthy that Xerxes transported his horses by sea on special ships. Horseshoes were unknown in the ancient centres of civilization, and it is possible that the Persian cavalry might have reached Greece with lame mounts if their horses had been obliged to make the whole journey by land.

Warships were, of course, necessary to protect both the transports and the land forces. Without naval defence, the Persian army would have been exposed to the danger of Greek amphibious attacks on its flank and its rear. Moreover, it was Xerxes’ hope that he would crush any Greek naval units immediately, wherever he met them.

He met them first at Artemisium, on the northern promontory of Euboea. Several actions were fought there, with varying outcome. The Greek position was well chosen. In the narrow channel between the Euboean coast and the mainland, the Greeks could not be enveloped by superior numbers. At the same time, they guarded the flank of Leonidas’ forces at Thermopylae. If the Persians sailed round Euboea to attack them in the rear, then the Persian land forces would be separated from their seaborne support. What took the Greeks by surprise was the enormous size of Xerxes’ force, which despite all reports far exceeded their most pessimistic estimates. It was possible for Xerxes to send one section of his fleet round the south of Euboea while he engaged the Greeks at Artemisium with the remainder. Such a manoeuvre entailed no loss of numerical superiority on either front. But summer storms gathered over Thessaly and aided the Greeks. The very size of Xerxes’ fleet meant that there were not sufficient safe harbours to accommodate all the ships; a considerable part of it had to lie well out to sea in rough weather. In this way many ships were wrecked. When a squadron was dispatched to round Euboea and sail up the Ruripus strait, which divides the long island from the mainland, this contingent also fell victim to storms and treacherous currents. The task assigned to it was never carried out.

Quite apart from the figures given by Herodotus, events themselves testify to the huge size of the Persian armada. Despite the heavy losses suffered at Artemisium, Xerxes’ fleet still enjoyed the advantage of dauntingly superior numbers when, late in the same season, the battle of Salamis was fought. Even after Salamis, the number of surviving ships and crews was such that the Greek fleet at Mycale hesitated long before attacking them.

Imperial Lessons

Alexandria, July 11, 1882. The British fleet under the command of Admiral Seymour bombarded the city. Featured warships “Sultan” and “Alexandra”.

The first successful attack by self-propelled torpedoes. The Turkish ship Intibah is destroyed by torpedo boats from Velikiy Knyaz Konstantin torpedo boat tender. A painting by Lev Lagorio.

During 1877–8 the Russians had been providing some torpedo action data during their struggle with the Turks around the Black Sea. The Turkish fleet dominated that sea simply by lying at anchor, as the Russians had no sea-going ironclads and no chance of getting any in while Turkish forts and ships’ guns dominated the narrows to Constantinople; so the Russians had no alternative to using torpedo boats for offensive operations, and they carried out a number of raids by night with specially constructed 15-knot boats some 50 or 60 feet long, carried by mother ships, usually fast merchantmen. However the earlier attacks were made with spar and towing torpedoes, and to get close enough without alerting the enemy with sparks from the funnels and considerable engine noise, they had to drop their speed to walking pace and creep in. Even so they did not escape detection, and were only successful on one occasion when they found the coastal monitor Siefé unprotected by the usual torpedo boat obstructions placed around the Turkish ships. Despite detection by the sentry, they pressed in under her turret guns as they misfired three times and touched a spar torpedo off close by the sternpost; the Siefé sank in a short time. As for the ‘Whitehead’, this was also tried and on one occasion on the night of 25–6 January 1878, the Russians claimed to have sunk a Turkish guard-ship anchored at the entrance to Batum harbour from 80 yards range; although the Turks denied any loss it is possible that this was the first Whitehead success in action. Despite the poor condition of the Turkish fleet and the great resolution of the Russian officers, these were the only effective torpedo attacks of the war. They were modest successes, and it was evident that torpedoes would be little use against an efficient fleet at anchor and guarded as recommended by the British 1875 Torpedo Committee, by nets, lights, Gatling guns and guard boats.

More important than any matériel lessons from the Russo-Turkish war were the strategic issues. Historically Britain’s policy in the eastern Mediterranean had been to support Turkey as a barrier against Russian expansion towards Britain’s Indian Empire and the overland links with that Empire through Mesopotamia or across the sands of Egypt. This policy had been stiffened since 1869 by the opening of the Suez Canal, which seemed to offer French and Russian ships, acting on interior lines from Toulon and the Black Sea, the chance to enter the Indian Ocean and play havoc with all British routes to the East, besides blocking Britain’s own short cut. This was the view of the military departments.

Parallel with this was the strong commercial view: the canal had cut several thousand miles off the routes around the Cape to India and the Far East, and had naturally gathered to itself an increasing volume of steam shipping; by 1875, when Disraeli made his celebrated purchase of Suez Canal shares, over two million tons of British ships were using the waterway every year, 75 per cent of the total traffic. Then, as a symptom of both commercial and military views—or simply as an expression of British expansionist vitality-there was the maritime chauvinist view which by its very nature exaggerated the position; thus The Times could write: ‘The Canal is in fact the sea’; everyone knew who was mistress of the sea! And the Bristol Times and Daily News could go so far as to say, ‘holding that [canal] we hold Turkey and Egypt in the hollow of our hands, and the Mediterranean is an English lake, and the Suez Canal is only another name for the Thames and Mersey.’ In fact the Canal was a part of the Turkish Empire.

When Russia declared war on that Empire in April 1877, Britain was immediately involved, both because there was strong support in the country for the Turks and against the traditional threat to their eastern Empire, and because the Canal, which by now carried three million tons of British shipping a year, might become the scene of warlike operations which would stop commercial traffic. Britain sent a note to Russia, asking her not to ‘blockade or otherwise interfere with the Canal or its approaches’, and moved her Mediterranean ironclad squadron to Port Said.

We don’t want to fight, but by Jingo if we do,

We’ve got the ships, we’ve got the men, we’ve got the money too.

Russia, with her armies fully occupied in a movement around the Black Sea, shortly renounced her belligerent rights against the Canal as an ‘international work’, and agreed to exclude Egypt from her sphere of operations; the following day, as if by reflex, the British squadron weighed and steamed out of Port Said.

The next year, with victorious Russian armies approaching Constantinople Disraeli’s cabinet ordered an even more explicit demonstration: the British ironclad squadron was to steam up the Dardanelles and anchor off the city itself. This was called off temporarily at the request of the Turks who sought an armistice, but was carried out three weeks later while peace terms were being negotiated. It had no effect: Turkey was forced to give up her Balkan Empire to Russian influence, and allow Russia access to the Mediterranean, a defeat for British policy and prestige which threatened war, and a conference was called at Berlin to try and avert it. While preliminary discussions were being held, Disraeli couldn’t resist another naval show: he summoned 8,000 troops from India through the Suez Canal, covered by three ironclads at Port Said, to concentrate at Malta. This was the first time the Indian Army had been used for grand Imperial designs, and while the numbers were not impressive, the manner of their smooth and rapid transfer by water, and the potential of the vast continent they represented, were significant. The Times noted: ‘they revealed England’s capacity for the first time in her history to fight a great Continental war without an ally.’

The actual effect of Disraeli’s demonstration cannot be determined—all parties at Berlin wanted peace—but the upshot was a compromise: Russia gave back to Turkey a great slice of Bulgaria she had acquired at the peace conference, and Disraeli, in a separate convention, took Cyprus from Turkey; he returned to London satisfied that he had brought ‘peace with honour’. Historians have seen in this peace the beginning of an end to the British policy of maintaining the Turkish Empire against Russia at all costs, and—more important for the history of the battleship—the beginning of a new Russian interest in sea power. Four years later they brought out their first systematic naval plan, for 15 battleships, 10 cruisers, later raised to 20 battleships, 24 cruisers, and various smaller craft. The threat of these squadrons in alliance with France provided the main stimulus to British building for the rest of the century.

The same year, 1882, also saw the logical result of Britain’s strategic and commercial interest in the Suez Canal combined with her new-found ‘by jingo’ expansionism; she established military and political control over Egypt. That this happened under a Liberal prime minister, Gladstone, anti-imperial, anti-military, champion of self-determination for all peoples, violent opponent of all that Disraeli had so extravagantly stood for, is an indication of just how inevitable this move was.

It was provoked by a nationalist revolt, itself largely a response to the increasing Europeanization of Egypt since the Canal. When Britain and France sent warships to Alexandria and the Canal to protect their nationals and property and overthrow the nationalist leader, Colonel Arabi, the Egyptian army started throwing up fortifications and mounting guns opposite the ships as they lay at anchor. At which point the French government fell and the new administration, alarmed that the Egyptian crisis might be a sinister German plot to lure French troops from their own borders, recalled their squadrons. Britain was left on her own. Now, while Gladstone was opposed to unilateral action, and tried to seek a solution imposed by the European ‘concert of nations’, he was defeated by his service departments, who took a more practical view after anti-Christian riots and a massacre of 50 foreigners at Alexandria. It became imperative to restore European prestige, and Gladstone sanctioned a naval bombardment of the forts at Alexandria as the quickest and most economical way.

So it was that the first British armoured ships ever to fire their guns in earnest cleared for action on the morning of 11 July 1882, and steamed in to position opposite the forts. They were a diverse collection. Largest and most modern was the Inflexible, commanded by Captain ‘Jackie’ Fisher, a dynamic man already marked for the highest positions; next came the flagship of the Mediterranean station, the Alexandra, the ultimate in British belt-and-battery ships, then the similar Sultan and Superb, and one of the scaled-down versions, the Invincible, to which the commander-in-chief had transferred his flag because of her shallower draft; then there was the Temeraire with her unique arrangement of central battery and disappearing guns at either end above, and finally of the big ships, Reed’s double-turret, fully-rigged, Monarch. There were in addition one smaller ironclad and a number of gunboats. In all, the fleet mounted 43 heavy rifled muzzle-loaders on any one broadside, ranging from the Inflexible’s four 80-ton pieces down to 9-tonners.

Against them the forts mounted only 41 rifled muzzle-loaders, besides 211 obsolete smooth-bores which were little use against armoured ships. Nevertheless, if these batteries had been manned by skilled guns’ crews they would have had all the theoretical advantages: they had steady platforms not deranged by other guns firing alongside, their guns could be set accurately for distance, their shot could be ‘spotted’ on to target by the high splashes it made in the water, and they had the whole of a ship to aim at and damage while a ship had to make a direct hit on a gun or its embrasure to put it out of action.

The theoretical odds didn’t worry the British; it was a bright, clear morning, the sea barely rippled by an offshore breeze, and the guns’ crews, stripped to the waist as in the old days, were eager to give what they considered an Arab rabble a taste of British powder. As the Invincible made the signal for general action a rumble like thunder spread through the separate detachments opposite the forts, and great clouds of thick, white smoke burst from the black hulls of the ships, rising and hanging about the taut rigging, only dispersing slowly. Below, the loading numbers went through their heavy precision drill, now spiced with the urgency of real action.

Again and again, from the smaller calibres first, came ‘the full-toned bellow of an old-fashioned muzzle-loader’, then more dense smoke as the pieces slid back. In the tops officers peered through it to watch the shells rising and growing smaller towards the dun shore some 1,500 yards away, then reported where they landed to the officers of the quarters. Punctuating the continuous thud and chatter came the great concussion of the Inflexible’s turret guns followed by a rumbling sound as the great shells ‘wobbled in the air with a noise like that of a distant train’.

So it went through the glistening day in almost target practice conditions; at one stage when the splashes from the Egyptian shells moved too close it became necessary for some ships to shift themselves with springs from the anchor cables, and for others to weigh and steam to and fro, but the Egyptian reply was not enough to divert the guns’ crews. And gradually the sheer volume of ships’ fire, the exploding shells, the noise and the occasional direct hit which wiped out a gun and its crew, wore the defenders down. Having suffered some 550 killed and wounded, against only 53 British casualties, they evacuated the forts after dark and the sailors and marines walked in on the thirteenth.

They found only 15 of the rifles and nine of the smooth bores disabled by hits from the 1,750 heavy shells, 1,730 lighter shells and 16,000 Nordenfelt bullets fired, and only about 5 per cent of the fire had actually hit the target area, the parapets of the forts. The best shooting appeared to have been made by the two ships with hydraulic laying and training gear, the Inflexible and Temeraire; however, most of the guns of the fleet had mechanical elevating gear and this had proved too slow and clumsy for the smooth water conditions at Alexandria. Had there been any swell the gunlayers could have set the elevation and waited until the ship rolled the sights on target; lacking such customary help one ship at least had bodies of men moving from one side of the deck to the other to produce an artificial roll. The report from the captain of the Monarch illustrates some of the difficulties:

After the captain of the turret had ascertained and communicated the heel to the numbers laying the gun, the time necessarily taken to work the elevating gear, lay the guns by means of the crude wooden scales and make ready is so great that probably another gun or turret will have fired in the interim, and consequently the heel of the ship will be so affected that a relay of the gun is necessary unless a bad or chance shot is purposely delivered.

In addition, there were no more aids to fire control than there had been at the beginning of the century, when effective range had been 300 yards or less; there were no rangefinders, no telegraphs to pass orders or range corrections from the officers stationed aloft to watch the fall of shot, and messages passed by voicepipe were frequently inaudible in the din of battle. The giant products of the ordnance revolution had outgrown the methods of controlling them; had the bombardment of Alexandria failed it is just possible that this lesson might have been heeded, but as the firing had been infinitely better than the Egyptians’, and the victory had been clear-cut and most economical, the reports were filed and there is no evidence that any improvements followed.

The evacuation of the forts took the fighting and destruction into Alexandria itself, hardened the Egyptians behind Arabi and boosted the military and colonial departments in England, whose Cabinet representatives virtually took over from Gladstone and forced him to alter the emphasis of the campaign from a limited punitive demonstration by the Navy to a full-scale invasion by the Army. When the French again refused to co-operate unless the security of the Canal were threatened the British cabinet called in Indian troops; meantime a British admiral who had won a VC in the Crimean War for refusing orders to retreat, ignored instructions to wait for the troops, seized and held Suez with his own squadron, and unilaterally closed the canal. Next month the British army annihilated Arabi’s forces at Tel-el-Kebir, and Britain became sole master of Egypt. The Canal had become at last (almost) as British as the Thames and the Mersey.

These events in the eastern Mediterranean from 1877–82 illustrate the importance Britain attached to command in that sea and over Egypt, a vital link of Empire. This feeling, practical or paranoic depending upon viewpoint, was a major factor behind ironclad, or as they came to be known battleship, building programmes to the end of the century. The scale of these programmes was determined by Russian and French building which, at least in the former case, stemmed directly from the arrogant displays of British naval supremacy. It was well enough for British first lords and naval historians after this to complain that Russia was a ‘land power’ with scarcely any sea trade and therefore no need for a navy, but it was a remarkably one-sided view which expected any great power to take humiliations lying down. On the other hand British interests in the area seemed to practical men in England to demand protection: besides the four million tons of merchant shipping passing through Suez annually by 1882—over 80 per cent of total traffic—and the British investment in the area, there was the awful possibility of such a vital hinge of maritime strategy falling to France or Russia. In this sense the acquisition of real power in Egypt was a natural development of the policy or instinct which had given Britain chains of island and mainland bases from which to protect her shipping throughout the world. The flag had to follow trade.

Whether the Egyptian move was an essential consequence of maritime strategy, or a high-handed demonstration of naval power, or both of these and a bit of the bond-holder’s dilemma, whether it was part reaction to France’s pretensions to a North African empire or was itself powerful stimulus to European powers to carve up bits of the undeveloped world for themselves—as they did with increased frenzy during the following decades—for the purposes of this story it was provocation for a naval race. It not only upset the balance at the meeting point of East and West and extended Britain’s naval commitments, it provided France and Russia with sufficient envy and resentment to begin building programmes which might—at least in alliance—prevent future unilateral action by the ‘mistress of the seas’.

Early Athenian Ships I

Athenians had been seafarers since earliest times, but their ventures were always overshadowed by maritime powers from Asia Minor, the Near East, and the rest of Greece. Legend claimed that even in the days of the first king of Athens, Cecrops, the people of Attica had to contend with raiders who terrorized their coasts. Several generations later King Menestheus led a fleet of fifty ships to Troy as Athens’ contribution to the Greek armada, twelve hundred strong. The city’s record in the Trojan War was undistinguished, outshone even by the contingent from the little offshore island of Salamis under the leadership of Ajax. After the end of the Bronze Age the royal citadels throughout Greece gave way to Iron Age communities, and they in turn grew into prosperous city-states. New currents in overseas commerce and colonization left Athens behind. Cities like Corinth, Megara, Chalcis, and Eretria took the lead.

Meanwhile the noble clans of Athens were pursuing their own initiatives and policies with private warships, armies, trading contacts, royal guest-friends, and religious rites. Some of the most powerful Athenian families even seized and held strategic sites around the northern Aegean and Hellespont as private fiefdoms. The one thing they seem never to have done was to unite their ships and efforts into a state navy. Even the conquest of Salamis, the Athenian state’s first nautical mission since the Trojan War, was said to have been carried out by a single thirty-oared galley and a fleet of fishing boats. But the spirit of free enterprise that ran strong in the ship lords of Attica was to remain a vital force within Themistocles’ new trireme fleet.

Actual naval battles were rare events in early Greek history. Homer knew nothing of fleet actions on his wine-dark sea, though in his Iliad and Odyssey he often cataloged or described ships of war. Their operations were limited to seaborne assaults on coastal towns (of which the Trojan War itself was just a glorified example) or piratical attacks at sea. As the centuries passed, two sizes of sleek, fast, open galley eventually became standard among the Greeks: the triakontor of thirty oars and the pentekontor of fifty. The traders, soldiers, or pirates who manned these galleys (often the same men), thirsting for gain and glory overseas, usually pulled the oars themselves

It was the Phoenicians of the Lebanon coast who literally raised galleys to a new level. These seagoing Canaanites invented the trireme, though exactly when no Greek could say. Enlarging their ships, the Phoenician shipwrights provided enough height and space to fit three tiers of rowers within the hull. Their motives had nothing to do with naval battles, for such engagements were still unknown. The Phoenicians needed bigger ships for exploration, commerce, and colonization. In the course of their epic voyages, Phoenician seafarers founded great cities from Carthage to Cádiz, made a three-year circumnavigation of Africa (the first in history) in triremes, and spread throughout the Mediterranean the most precious of their possessions: the alphabet.

The first Greeks to build triremes were the Corinthians. From their city near the Isthmus of Corinth these maritime pioneers dominated the western seaways and could haul their galleys across the narrow neck of the Isthmus for voyages eastward as well. The new Greek trireme differed from the Phoenician original in providing a rowing frame for the top tier of oarsmen, rather than having all the rowers enclosed within the ship’s hull. Some triremes maintained the open form of their small and nimble ancestors, the triakontors and pentekontors. Others had wooden decks above the rowers to carry colonists or mercenary troops. Greek soldiers of fortune, the “bronze men” called hoplites, were in demand with native rulers from the Nile delta to the Pillars of Heracles.

Like the Phoenician cities of Tyre and Sidon, Corinth was both a great center of commerce and a starting point for large-scale colonizing missions. Triremes could greatly improve the prospects of colonizing ventures, being able to carry more of the goods that new cities needed: livestock and fruit trees; equipment for farms and mills and fortifications; household items and personal belongings. For defense against attack during their voyages through hostile waters, or against opposition as the colonists tried to land, the large crew and towering hull made the trireme almost a floating fortress.

The earliest known naval battle among Greek fleets was a contest between the Corinthians and their own aggressively independent colonists, the Corcyraeans. Though the battle took place long after the Corinthians began building triremes, it was a clumsy collision between two fleets of pentekontors. The outcome was entirely decided by combat between the fighting men on board the ships. Naval maneuvers were nonexistent. This primitive procedure would typify all Greek sea battles for the next century and a half.

Then, at about the time of Themistocles’ birth, two landmark battles at opposite ends of the Greek world brought about a seismic shift in naval warfare. First, in a battle near the Corsican town of Alalia, sixty Greek galleys defeated a fleet of Etruscans and Carthaginians twice their own size. How was this miracle achieved? The Greeks relied on their ships’ rams and the skill of their steersmen rather than on man-to-man combat. Shortly afterward, at Samos in the eastern Aegean, a force of rebels in forty trireme transports turned against the local tyrant and crushed his war fleet of one hundred pentekontors. In both battles victory went to a heavily outnumbered fleet whose commanders made use of innovations in tactics or equipment. Ramming maneuvers and triremes thus made their debut in the line of battle almost simultaneously. Together they were to dominate Greek naval warfare for the next two hundred years.

Now everyone wanted triremes, not just as transports but as battleships. Rulers of Greek cities in Sicily and Italy equipped themselves with triremes. In Persia the Great King commanded his maritime subjects from Egypt to the Black Sea to build and maintain trireme fleets for the royal levies. The core of Persian naval power was the Phoenician fleet, but the conquered Greeks of Asia Minor and the islands were also bound by the king’s decree. All these forces could be mustered on demand to form the huge navy of the Persian Empire. Themistocles believed that Athens’ new trireme fleet might soon face not only the islanders of Aegina but the armada of the Great King as well.

While many cities and empires jostled for the prize of sea rule, ultimate success in naval warfare called for sacrifices that few were willing or able to make. Only the most determined of maritime nations would commit the formidable amounts of wealth and hard work that the cause required, not just for occasional emergencies but over the long haul. With triremes the scale and financial risks of naval warfare escalated dramatically. These great ships consumed far more materials and manpower than smaller galleys. Now money became, more than ever before, the true sinews of war.

Even more daunting than the monetary costs were the unprecedented demands on human effort. The Phocaean Greeks who won the historic battle at Alalia in Corsica understood the need for hard training at sea, day after exhausting day. In the new naval warfare, victory belonged to those with the best-drilled and best-disciplined crews, not those with the most courageous fighting men. Skillful steering, timing, and oarsmanship, attainable only through long and arduous practice, were the new keys to success. Ramming maneuvers changed the world by making the lower-class steersmen, subordinate officers, and rowers more important than the propertied hoplite soldiers. After all, a marine’s spear thrust might at best eliminate one enemy combatant. A trireme’s ramming stroke could destroy a ship and its entire company at one blow.

Themistocles had specified that Athens’ new ships should be fast triremes: light, open, and undecked for maximum speed and maneuverability. Only gangways would connect the steersman’s small afterdeck to the foredeck at the prow where the lookout, marines, and archers were stationed. The new Athenian triremes were designed for ramming attacks, not for carrying large contingents of troops. By committing themselves completely to this design, Themistocles and his fellow Athenians were taking a calculated risk. For many actions, fully decked triremes were more serviceable. Time would tell whether the city had made the right choice.

The construction of a single trireme was a major undertaking: building one hundred at once was a labor fit for Heracles. Once the rich citizens who would oversee the task received their talents of silver, each had to find an experienced shipwright. No plans, drawings, models, or manuals guided the builder of a ship. A trireme, whether fast or fully decked, existed at first only as an ideal image in the mind of a master shipwright. To build his trireme, the shipwright required a wide array of raw materials. Most could be supplied locally from the woods, fields, mines, and quarries of Attica itself. Many local trades and crafts would also take part in building the new fleet.

First, timber. The hills of Attica rang with the bite of iron on wood as the tall trees toppled and crashed to the ground: oak for strength; pine and fir for resilience; ash, mulberry, and elm for tight grain and hardness. After woodsmen lopped the branches from the fallen monarchs, teamsters with oxen and mules dragged the logs down to the shore. The shipwright prepared the building site by planting a line of wooden stocks in the sand and carefully leveling their tops. On the stocks he laid the keel. This was the ship’s backbone, an immense squared beam of oak heartwood measuring seventy feet or more in length. Ideally this oak keel was free not only of cracks but even of knots. On its strength depended the life of the trireme in the shocks of storm and battle. Oak was chosen for its ability to withstand the routine stresses of hauling the ship onto shore and then launching it again. Once the keel was on the stocks, two stout timbers were joined to its ends to define the ship’s profile. The curving sternpost rose as gracefully as the neck of a swan or the upturned tail of a dolphin. Forward, the upright stempost was set up a little distance from keel’s end. The short section of the keel that extended forward of the stempost would form the core of the ship’s beak and ultimately support the bronze ram.

Between the stern- and stemposts ran the long lines of planking. In triremes the outer shell was built up by joining plank to plank, rather than by attaching planks to a skeleton of frames and ribs as in later “frame-first” traditions. For the ancient “shell-first” construction the builders set up scaffolds on either side of the keel to support the planking as the ship took shape. They cut the planks with iron saws or adzes. Because the smooth lengths of pine were still green from the tree, it was easy to bend them to shape. Along the narrow edges of each plank the builders bored rows of holes: tiny ones for the linen cords, larger ones for the gomphoi or pegs. The latter were wooden dowels about the size of a man’s finger that acted as tenons. Starting on either side of the keel, the shipwright’s assistants secured the rows of planks by matching the row of larger holes to the tops of the pegs projecting from the plank below, then tapping the new plank into place with mallets. The pegs, now invisible, would act as miniature ribs to support and stiffen the hull. No iron nails or rivets were used in a trireme.

Once the planks were in place, the shipwright’s assistants spent days squatting on the inside of the rising hull, laboriously threading linen cords through the small holes along the planks’ edges and pulling them tight. Greek farmers sowed linon or flax in autumn, tended and weeded the fields over the winter, and harvested the crop in spring when the blue flowers had faded. The stems were cut, soaked, and allowed to rot. After beating and shredding, lustrous white fibers emerged from the decayed husk and pith. Twisting these fibers into thread produced a substance with near-miraculous properties. Linen cloth and padding were impenetrable enough to serve in protective vests or body armor for hoplites on land and for marines on board ship, while a net of linen cords could hold a tuna or a wild boar. Yet linen could be spun so fine that one pound might yield several miles of thread. Unlike wool it would not stretch or give with the working of the ship at sea. Linen also possessed the very proper nautical quality of being stronger wet than dry.

Early Athenian Ships II

Planks Pegged And Sewn

The system of construction made a strong hull that could withstand severe shocks. Only after the hull was pegged and stitched with linen—or, as an Athenian would have said, gomphatos and linorraphos—did the builder insert the curving wooden ribs. And should a rock or an enemy ram punch a hole through the planking, a wooden patch could be quickly stitched into place to close the breach.

On top of the long slender hull the shipwright now erected the structure that set Greek triremes apart from their Phoenician counterparts: the wooden rowing frame or parexeiresia (that is, a thing that is “beyond and outside the rowing”). Sometimes referred to as an outrigger, the rowing frame was wider than the ship’s hull and in fact performed multiple functions.

First, the rowing frame carried the tholepins for the upper tier or thranite of oars, and its wide span allowed for a long rowing stroke. Second, side screens would be fastened to the rowing frame when the ship went into battle to protect the thranite rowers from enemy darts and arrows. And third, the top of the frame could support a covering of canvas or wood. On fast triremes such as Themistocles had ordered, white linen canvas was spread above the crew to screen them from the hot sun while rowing. On a heavy trireme or troop carrier, wooden planking would be laid down on top of the rowing frame to make a deck on which soldiers or equipment could be transported. Finally, the stout transverse beams that crossed the ship at the end of the rowing frame served as towing bars to tow wrecked ships or prizes back to shore after a battle.

As the great size of the rowing frame suggests, oars were the prime movers of the trireme. At two hundred per ship (a total that included thirty spares), Themistocles’ new fleet required twenty thousand lengths of fine quality fir wood for its oars. The long shaft had a broad, smoothly planed blade at one end, and at the other the handle ended in a round knob to accommodate the rower’s grip. One man pulled each oar, securing the shaft to the upright tholepin with a loop of rope or leather. The 62 thranite oarsmen on the top tier enjoyed the most prestige. Inboard and below them were placed the wooden thwarts or seats for the 54 zygian oarsmen and the 54 thalamians. The latter took their name from the ship’s thalamos or hold since they were entombed deep within the hull, only a little above the waterline. All the rowers faced aft toward the steersman as they pulled their oars.

Once all these wooden fittings of the hull were complete, it was time to coat the ship with pitch, an extract from the trunks and roots of conifers. Once a year pitch-makers tapped or stripped the resinous wood of mature trees. In emergencies they cut down the firs and applied fire to the logs, rendering out large pools of pitch in just a couple of days. Carters conveyed thousands of jars of pitch to the shipbuilding sites in their wagons. The poetical references to “dark ships” or “black ships” referred to the coating of pitch.

More than hostile rams or hidden reefs, the shipwrights feared the teredon or borer. Infestations of this remorseless mollusk could be kept at bay only by vigilant maintenance, including drying the hull on shore and applications of pitch. In summer the seas around Greece seethed with the spawn of the teredo, sometimes called the “shipworm.” Each tiny larva swam about in search of timber: driftwood, dock pilings, or a passing ship. Once fastened to a wooden surface, it quickly bored a hole by wielding the razorlike edge of its vestigial shell as a rasp. From that hiding place the teredo would never emerge. Once inside the hole it kept its mouth fixed to the opening so as to suck in the life-giving seawater. The sharp shell at the other end of the teredo’s body continued to burrow deeper. As the burrow extended into the timber, the animal grew to fill its ever-lengthening home.

Within a month the sluglike teredo could reach a foot in length. Now it was ready to eject swarms of its own larvae into the sea, starting a new cycle. Once planking and ribs were riddled with their holes, a ship might suddenly break up and sink in midvoyage. Even when a wreck reached the bottom of the sea, the teredo would continue its attacks. In a short time no exposed wood whatever would be left to mark the ship’s resting place. Through conscientious maintenance—new applications of pitch, drying out and inspection of the hulls, and prompt replacement of unsound planks—an Athenian trireme could remain in active service for twenty-five years.

The trireme’s design approached the physical limits of lightness and slenderness combined with maximum length. So extreme was the design that not even the thousands of wooden pegs and linen stitches could prevent the hull from sagging or twisting under the stresses of rough seas or even routine rowing. On Athenian triremes huge hypozomata or girding cables provided the tensile strength that the wooden structure lacked. A girding cable weighed about 250 pounds and measured about 300 feet in length. Each ship carried two pairs. Looped to the hull at prow and stern, the cables stretched around the full length of the hull below the rowing frame. The ends passed inside where the mariners kept them taut by twisting spindles or winches. Just as pegs and linen cords formed the joints of the hull, the girding cables acted as the ship’s tendons.

The trireme required many other ropes as well. Made of papyrus, esparto grass, hemp, or linen, ropes supplied the rigging for the mast and sail, the two anchor lines, the mooring lines, and the towing cables. The ship’s tall mast and the wide-reaching yards or yardarms that held the sail were made from lengths of unblemished pine or fir. For the sail, the women of Athens wove long bolts of linen cloth on their upright looms. Sailmakers then stitched many such bolts together into a big rectangle. Despite their great weight—and their great cost—the mast and sail were secondary to the oars and, when battled threatened, were removed from the ship altogether and left on shore. Some triremes also carried a smaller “boat sail” and mast for emergencies.

The ship’s beak had already been fashioned in wood as part of the hull. To complete the trireme’s prime lethal weapon, the ram, metalworkers had to sheathe the beak with bronze. The one hundred rams needed for Themistocles’ triremes required tons of metal—a gigantic windfall for the bronze industry. Bronze, an alloy of nine parts copper to one part tin, does not rust and is more suitable than iron for use at sea. Some of the bronze poured into the rams of the Athenian triremes was recycled, melted down from swords that had been wielded in forgotten battles, from keys to vanished storerooms, images of lost gods, and ornaments of beautiful women long dead. Master craftsmen made the rams with the same lost-wax method that they used to cast hollow bronze statues of gods and heroes for the temples and sanctuaries.

The form of the ram was first modeled in sheets of beeswax directly onto the wooden beak, so that each would be custom made for its ship. As the artists worked the wax onto the beak, it warmed up and softened, becoming easier to handle. At the ram’s forward end the wax was built up into a thick projecting flange, triple-pronged like Poseidon’s trident. When every detail of the ram had been modeled, the wax sheath was gently detached from the wood and carried over to a pit dug in the sand of the beach.

The next step called for clay, the same iron-rich clay that went into Athens’ red and black pottery. With the wax model turned nose downward in the pit, clay was packed around its exterior and into its conical hollow to create a mold. Thin iron rods forged by the blacksmiths were pushed through the wax and the two masses of clay. When the wax was entirely encased in the clay except for its upper edge, the massive mold was inverted and suspended over a fire until all the wax was melted out. A hollow negative space in the exact shape of the ram had now been formed inside the packed clay. It remained only to fill the mold with molten bronze. But this was a complex and difficult undertaking.

Wood fires could not produce the necessary heat; the process required charcoal. A trireme’s ram had to be cast in a single rapid operation. First the bronze workers erected a circle of small upright clay furnaces around the rim of the pit. A channel led from the foot of each furnace to the edge of the mold. Broken bronze, whether from ingots or scrap, was divided among the furnaces. With the lighting of the charcoal, the metal in each furnace quickly became a glowing, molten mass. At a signal, the bronze workers and their apprentices removed the clay stoppers from all the furnaces. Simultaneously the bright hot streams poured down the channels and filled the hollow in the clay mold left by the melting of the wax. The casting happened with a rush, and the bronze cooled and hardened quickly. When the clay mold was broken (never to be used again), the bronze ram itself, smooth, dark, and deadly, saw the light for the first time. After cutting away the iron rods, finishing off the back edge, and polishing the surface, the bronze workers slid the new ram into place over the trireme’s wooden beak, fastening it securely with bronze nails.

Quarrymen and stone workers provided fine white marble from Mount Pentelicus near the city, and from thin slabs of this marble the sculptors carved a pair of ophthalmoi or “eyes” for each trireme. A colored circle painted in red ochre represented the iris. The eyes were fixed on either side of the prow. Athenians believed that these eyes allowed the ship to find a safe passage through the sea, completing the magical creation of a living thing from inanimate materials. In Greek terminology, the projecting ends of the transverse beam above the eyes were the ship’s ears, and the yardarms were its horns; the sail and banks of oars were its wings, and the grappling hooks were its iron hands.

Blacksmiths fashioned a pair of iron anchors for each trireme, to be slung on either side of the bow. They would prevent the ship from swinging while its stern was grounded on the beach. Tanners and leatherworkers provided the tubular sleeves that waterproofed the lower oar ports. From the same workshops came the side screens of hide for the rowing frames. Pads of sheepskin would enable the trireme’s oarsmen to work their legs as they rowed, thus adding to the power of each stroke.

Finally goldsmiths gilded the figurehead of Athena that would identify each ship as a trireme of Athens. The goddess wore a helmet as well as the famous breastplate or aegis adorned with the head of Medusa, the gorgon that could turn a mortal to stone with a single glance. As patron deity of arts and crafts, a goddess of wisdom and also of war, Athena had been presiding over the entire project from beginning to end.

From the mines of Laurium the silver had flowed through the city’s mint, where it was transformed into the coins that bore the emblems of Athena. Then as Themistocles had planned, the river of silver broke into a hundred separate streams, passing through the hands of the wealthy citizens who organized the great shipbuilding campaign. During the months of shipbuilding the silver was disbursed to all those workers, from loggers to shipwrights to bronzesmiths, whose efforts made Themistocles’ vision a reality. In the end, the money returned to many of the same citizens who had voted to give up their ten drachmas for the common good. By the time one hundred new triremes gleamed in the sunlight at Phaleron Bay, the Athenians were already a changed people. In the great contest that lay ahead, as they hazarded their new ships and their very existence in the cause of freedom, their sense of common purpose would grow stronger with every trial and danger.