E.S. Turner

  • Shipwrecks of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Eras by Terence Grocott
    Chatham, 430 pp, £30.00, November 1997, ISBN 1 86176 030 2

Old-time shipwrecks are a richer, quirkier subject than most of us imagine. In 1841 the Nautical Magazine listed 50 ‘Causes of the loss of ships at sea, by wreck or otherwise’. In addition to ‘Mistaking of headlands’, ‘Driving on a lee shore’, ‘Sleeping on watch’, ‘Shifting of cargo’ and so on, the list includes:

Teetotality – coffee instead of rum etc.
Drunkenness, revelry etc.
Presence of captains’ wives, and other women.
A dead-and-alive set; no devil on board.
Discord and dissension; the devil let loose.

This list is reproduced as an appendix to Terence Grocott’s meticulous catalogue of doom, though without any hint as to how exactly captains’ wives and other women contributed to maritime disasters. Did they spread a fatal, deadening sobriety or an excess of devil? This book suggests some additional causes of shipwreck, among them ‘Boys larking with gunpowder’, ‘Youths showing off to women’ and ‘Inveterate stupidity of sightseers’.

Grocott’s title is reminiscent of the speciality subjects mugged up by retired civil servants for Mastermind, but then he is indeed a retired civil servant. Why, the reader may wonder, did he choose the period 1793 to 1816? Was this age richer in horrors than any other? There is no way of knowing. Quoted here is an estimate of 1812 that ‘perhaps not less than five thousand natives of these islands perish yearly at sea.’ The wrecks in this book, we are assured, form only a small proportion of those occurring in the period. They are simply the calamities unearthed after a seven-year trawl mainly through the Times, the Nautical Chronicle, the Annual Register and two West Country newspapers, with an occasional glance at James Fenimore Cooper’s history of the US Navy. The craft involved range from men-of-war and merchantmen to schooners, jollyboats and even small pleasure-craft, the capsizing of which would not normally count as shipwrecks.

The author is not concerned with the loss of vessels in famous naval battles. It is the natural disasters that occupy him – disasters that too often followed on the heels of great victories, but which history has chosen to forget. Only two days after the Battle of Trafalgar, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Quebec-bound transport Aeneas, carrying men of the 100th Regiment, broke up with the loss of ‘about 230 souls, the greatest pan in the prime of life, full of health, vigour and spirits’ (the Times). They died ignorant of Nelson’s victory and their own fate was not known in Britain until many weeks later. A bare two months after Trafalgar came the ill-conceived Weser expedition, which began as a troop convoy of 120 sail from the Downs but, thanks to foul weather and thick river ice, never reached its destination and cost the lives of a thousand men and women. Far worse was Nature’s rout of the Baltic Fleet in 1811, when three ships went down on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, with the loss of two thousand men, as well as many women and children. Even Waterloo was followed by a marine horror, with some six hundred veterans of the battlefield, heading for Ireland, lost in winter storms. For anyone who thought the naval wars against France were simply a matter of ships called La Révolution, Le Droit du Peuple and Ça Ira being seen off by Indefatigable, Impregnable and Implacable, this handbook to history comes as a timely corrective.

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