Friday, 27 November 2015

La Nouvelle Cythère, Well-Intentioned Savages and the Birth of the Modern Travelogue - Georg Forster

27 November 1754, the German-speaking naturalist, ethnologist, travel writer and revolutionary Georg Forster was born in the Pomeranian town of Nassenhuben, now Mokry Dwór, 6 miles south-east of Gdańsk.

“The triumph of science was reserved to later periods of time. Three voyages of discovery, from the most liberal motives, had already been performed, when a fourth was undertaken by order of an enlightened monarch, upon a more enlarged and majestic plan than ever was put in execution before. The greatest navigator of his time, two able astronomers, a man of science to study nature in all her recesses, and a painter to copy some of her most curious productions, were selected at the expence of the nation. After completing their voyage, they have prepared to give an account of their respective discoveries, which cannot fail of crowning, their employers at least, with immortal honour.

The British legislature did not send out and liberally support my father as a naturalist, who was merely to bring home a collection of butterflies and dried plants. That superior wisdom which guides the counsels of this nation, induced many persons of considerable distinction to act on this occasion with unexampled greatness. So far from prescribing rules for his conduct, they conceived that the man whom they had chosen, prompted by his natural love of science, would endeavour to derive the greatest possible advantages to learning from his voyage. He was only therefore directed to exercise all his talents, and to extend his observations to every remarkable object. From him they expected a philosophical history of the voyage, free from prejudice and vulgar error, where human nature should be represented without any adherence to fallacious systems, and upon the principles of general philanthropy; in short, an account written upon a plan which the learned world had not hitherto seen executed.“ (Georg Forster, Preface to “Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World“)

William Hodges: "Resolution and Adventure with fishing craft in Matavai Bay" (1776), showing the two ships of James Cook's Second Voyage at anchor off Tahiti.

Few real-world places have fuelled Western imagination like Tahiti. Since Bougainville stumbled across the place back in 1768, euphorically named it “La Nouvelle Cythère“ after Aphrodite’s island of love and left an enthusiastic report in his travelogue, Tahiti summarised an earthly paradise, inspired Rousseau’s theme of the noble savage, instigated seafarers to revolt and run, from “Breadfruit” Bligh’s “Bounty” mutineers to Herman Melville and, of course, became the vanishing point for artists like Gauguin. Those who were actually there usually couldn’t close their minds to Tahiti’s enchantments, neither stern Bligh himself nor his mentor James Cook and much less a starry-eyed teenaged idealist with his head full of scientific zeal, ideas of the Age of Reason and Enlightenment and the metaphysics of morals. The latter, Georg, shipped on board of HMS “Resolution” in 1772, accompanying his father Johann Reinhold Forster who was hired by the Royal Society to serve as naturalist under James Cook on his Second Voyage. Actually, the Forsters were a replacement for Joseph Banks and Samuel Johnson who both had declined to sail around the world in a cockleshell like the converted merchant collier the “Resolution” was and while the old Forster was a somewhat unspectacular naturalist with quite conservative views, the young one would leave a testament that would have a significant influence on the 19th century, scientific as well as romantic, of how to view the world and tell the tale of it.

The Forsters, father and son, in Tahiti, as imagined by Jean Rigaud in 1780

played an important role in scientific expeditions well into the 19th century, capturing the images of discoveries and that was young Georg’s job on Cook’s Second Voyage. Sketching unknown plants and a bit of wildlife, collecting and preserving the finds, comparing, speculating, guessing, the two Forsters did remarkably well on their three years journey and Georg had ample opportunity to pursue his particular interests, such as ethnography and ethnology, especially among the Polynesians they met all across Oceania. He learned the languages spoken on the islands and while Bougainville with Rousseau in his wake repotted a veritable new Arcadia from the Great South Sea into the Western mindscape, Forster approached the local societies deliberately without the prevalent Christian prejudices and pre-Romantic wishful thinking, but with an attempt of being unbiased and empathic as well as scientifically precise as possible while delineating his perceptions and conclusions in his journal. A phenomenon in ethnography that was a long time in the coming elsewhere. But while Forster took good care to avoid idealisations, a remarkable enough feat for an 18–year-old, the disappointment of an ageing lover resonates faintly from his narrative with the insight that a paradise is already lost as soon as it is discovered. None the less or maybe just because of that, in 1777 Forster published a travelogue, “Observations Made During a Voyage Round the World“, well-written, immensely readable, highly praised by the German-speaking muses’ sons as soon as it was published in his mother tongue, a cornerstone of modern travel literature. And then the great revolution broke out, “and from this day forth begins a new era in the history of the world“, as Forster’s admirer Goethe put it, and Georg was indeed present at its birth in the German States when the Republic of Mainz was founded in 1793. And he probably knew already how the story would end, but there he stood. He could not do otherwise.

A drawing by Goethe from 1793 of a German liberty tree based on the French model.
The inscription reads:  “Passans, cette terre est libre“ (travellers, this land is free)

the Great Russian South Sea expedition with Forster as designated leader was finally cancelled after war broke out with the Ottoman Empire in 1787, Forster vacated his professorship in Vilnius and went to Mainz as head librarian. “Finally, there is freedom of the press within these very walls where printing was invented”, he wrote after French troops under General Custine had occupied the town in October 1792. Forster became a founding member of the local Jacobin Club and laid the ground for the Republic, sovereignty of the people and Liberté, Egalité and Fraternité and all that, proclaimed as the first democratic state on current German territory in March 1793. Forster immediately went to Paris to plead with the National Convent for an integration of “Mayence”, Mainz, into the French Republic and ran straight into the climax of the Reign of Terror. Unlike other German supporters of the Revolution he did not immediately withdraw his support. “The Revolution is a hurricane”, he wrote, “Who can obstruct it? Man, brought into action by it, might do things of a direness posterity cannot comprehend.” And the German-speaking posterity did not weave garlands for Forster either. The Republic of Mainz was occupied by Prussian troops six months after its proclamation, Forster was put under the ban of the still existing Holy Roman Emperor and decided to stay in Paris where he died of Pneumonia at the age of 39 in January 1794. His legacy was, by and large, ignored for the decades of restauration to come when everything Francophile was regarded as high treason in the German-speaking states after the Wars of Liberation. Allegedly, Forster had planned a voyage to the east after the end of the Republic, a few months before he died, a passage to India that never took place.

And more about Georg Forster on:

Friday, 20 November 2015

"... and what is more, the Sperm Whale has done it" - On Whaling and the Wreck of the "Essex" in 1820

20 November 1820, a giant sperm whale sank the Nantucket whaler “Essex” 2,000 miles west of South America, an incident that formed the background of Herman Melville’s tale of “Moby Dick; or The Whale”, published 30 years later. 

“But fortunately the special point I here seek can be established upon testimony entirely independent of my own. That point is this: The Sperm Whale is in some cases sufficiently powerful, knowing, and judiciously malicious, as with direct aforethought to stave in, utterly destroy, and sink a large ship; and what is more, the Sperm Whale has done it.First: In the year 1820 the ship Essex, Captain Pollard, of Nantucket, was cruising in the Pacific Ocean. One day she saw spouts, lowered her boats, and gave chase to a shoal of sperm whales. Ere long, several of the whales were wounded; when, suddenly, a very large whale escaping from the boats, issued from the shoal, and bore directly down upon the ship. Dashing his forehead against her hull, he so stove her in, that in less than "ten minutes" she settled down and fell over. Not a surviving plank of her has been seen since. After the severest exposure, part of the crew reached the land in their boats. Being returned home at last, Captain Pollard once more sailed for the Pacific in command of another ship, but the gods shipwrecked him again upon unknown rocks and breakers; for the second time his ship was utterly lost, and forthwith forswearing the sea, he has never tempted it since. At this day Captain Pollard is a resident of Nantucket. I have seen Owen Chace, who was chief mate of the Essex at the time of the tragedy; I have read his plain and faithful narrative; I have conversed with his son; and all this within a few miles of the scene of the catastrophe.“ (Herman Melville, “Moby Dick”)

"Encounter With a Whale" from "The Mariner’s Chronicle of Shipwrecks, Fires, Famines, and other Disasters at Sea,Volume 1" (Boston, 1835)

There is a waxy substance found in the head cavities of sperm whales, the eponymic spermaceti, and nobody knows for certain what it is actually good for. In the head of a sperm whale, that is. Chandlers, soap makers, cosmeticians and other trades knew, though, what to do with it, as soon as it was outside of a whale’s head. Processing it into expensive candles and oils, for example. And there was sperm oil, something along the lines of liquid wax, likewise found in the head of sperm whales and, likewise, highly priced - as Melville put it: “what kind of oil is used at coronations? Certainly it cannot be olive oil, nor macassar oil, nor castor oil, nor bear's oil, nor train oil, nor cod-liver oil. What then can it possibly be, but sperm oil in its unmanufactured, unpolluted state, the sweetest of all oils?” Whale blubber, the adipose tissue, was boiled into whale or train oil, from the Dutch word “tear” or “drop”, and used for almost everything from lighting lamps to lubricants for machinery and oil from a sperm whale’s blubber was known to have the highest viscosity and was thus the most expensive variant. All kinds of sea mammals and cetaceans were hunted by humans for their oil since time immemorial, but it was as late as 1712 that a New England man, one Christopher Hussey, threw his lance for the first time against a sperm whale. A hundred years later, a downright whaling industry had developed in Hussey’s home town of Nantucket, Massachusetts, some 30 miles south of Cape Cod, hunting for sperm whales across the world. Nantucket’s whale oil barons, almost exclusively Quakers and most of them whaling veterans themselves, owned about 70 whalers and one of them was the old “Essex”, 87’ long and measuring 239 tons burthen, somewhat smaller than most New England whaleships “cruising for sperm” on the coast of Peru, in the Bay of Bengal, off Japan and New Zealand and, since overhunting already began to tell, farer and farer out in the Pacific. With George Pollard Jr. as her captain, then just 29 years old, the youngest skipper of a whaler yet, and a crew of 20, “Essex” left for the hunting grounds out there on August 12, 1819.

"Now, in general, Stick to the boat, is your true motto in whaling; but cases will sometimes happen when Leap from the boat, is still better. " - contemporary illustration, around 1850

Unlike most other cetaceans, bull sperm whales take the fight to their tormentors to defend themselves. Whale boats, usually about 30’ long, were attacked on a regular basis, capsized or smashed to pieces with a “flourish of his tail”, dragged under when the whale suddenly broke off the “Nantucket Sleigh Ride” and dived or charged head on. Attacking the whaleships themselves was rare, but not unheard of. Especially when huge bull sperm whales were involved. Like the one that charged the “Essex” on November 20, 1820. After a by and large unsuccessful cruise in the South Atlantic, around the Horn and off Peru, the Nantucket whaler hunted 2,000 miles west of Ecuador.  First Mate Owen Chase (or Chace) was aboard the ship with a few men, trying to repair a damaged whale boat while Captain Pollard was pursuing a pod of probably female sperm whales with the two remaining boats. All of a sudden, the men aboard “Essex” saw a large bull sperm whale behaving strangely, a giant of a bull sperm whale, actually, 85’ long in contrast to the average 52’ length of a male and certainly weighing more than 60 tons. The leviathan lay motionless at the ocean’s surface, as if considering a plan of attack, then he charged head on, gathering speed as he raced towards “Essex’s” broadside and rammed her at full tilt, dived under her, lay there for a moment, stunned, and swam away again to gain new momentum for his next assault. “I turned around and saw him about one hundred rods [500 m or 550 yards] directly ahead of us, coming down with twice his ordinary speed of around 24 knots (44 km/h), and it appeared with tenfold fury and vengeance in his aspect. The surf flew in all directions about him with the continual violent thrashing of his tail. His head about half out of the water, and in that way he came upon us, and again struck the ship”, Owen Chase would write later in his “Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex, of Nantucket“. Two days later, the battered “Essex” sank.

Cabin boy Thomas Nickerson, then 14 years old, sketched the events after he was rescued as one of the three survivors of Owen Chase's boat 

With everything that could be salvaged from the wrecked whaler, the castaways tried to male for the coast of Chile in their three whale boats, four weeks later they reached one of the largely uncharted Pitcairn Islands, narrowly missing the surviving protagonists of one of the other tales from the South Seas, that of the “Bounty” mutiny on the main island, three former crew members of the “Essex” decided to stay there on the almost uninhabitable island, the rest moved on and then their ordeal began in earnest. By the end of January 1821, the three boats had lost contact. Four weeks later, Chase’s boat with three survivors was fished out by the British whaler “Indian” near the Juan Fernández Islands, Robinson Crusoe’s island, of all the places, west of Chile. Two men had died in Chase’s boat and when the third passed away, one Isaac Cole, Chase and the other two decided to eat his remains to survive and they did. Pollard’s boat hardly fared any better and they drew lots when they were out of provisions, killed and ate the skipper’s cousin, 17-years-old Owen Coffin who had drawn the black spot and finally, Pollard and another member of his former crew were found by another Nantucket whaler, the “Dauphin”, completely exhausted, mentally and physically, allegedly still gnawing on the bones of their former shipmate. The third boat was never seen again, but the three men that stayed behind on the Pitcairns were rescued. However, all eight survivors of the wreck of the “Essex” returned back home to Nantucket by the end of the year, Chase published his narrative and all of them went back to sea. Pollard commanded another whale ship, the “Two Brothers” and managed to loose her as well, on a reef off Hawaii in 1823. He was rescued again, but retired from whaling and sailing and lived out the rest of his life as a night watchmen in his native Nantucket. Allegedly Melville heard the tale of Chase and the “Essex” for the first time when he sailed the same waters on board the whaler “Acushnet” out of New Bedford. He met Chase’s son William when the “Acushnet” rendezvoused with the whale ship “Lima” of Nantucket who gave him his father’s narrative and Chase’s tale became the background for one of the mightiest tales in world literature.

And more about the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex on:

The image above was found on:


Friday, 13 November 2015

"To the pure in heart all things are pure." - William Etty, Painter of Nudes

13 November 1849, William Etty, the first significant British painter of nudes, died in his native York.

“As a worshipper of beauty, whether it be seen in a weed, a flower, or in that most interesting form to humanity, lovely woman, in intense admiration of it and its Almighty Author, if at any time I have forgotten the boundary line that I ought not to have passed, and tended to voluptuousness, I implore His pardon; I have never wished to seduce others from that path and practice of virtue, which alone leads to happiness here and hereafter; and if in any of my pictures an immoral sentiment has been aimed at, I consent it should be burnt; but I never recollect being actuated in painting my pictures by such sentiment. That the female form, in its fulness, beauty of colour, exquisite rotundity, may, by being portrayed in its nudity, awake like nature in some degree an approach to passion, I must allow, but where no immoral sentiment is intended, I affirm that the simple undisguised naked figure is innocent. "To the pure in heart all things are pure."“ (William Etty)

William Etty: "The Sirens and Ulysses" (1837)

Beautiful and good. καλοκαγαθία. Physical beauty, kalós, combined with nobility of the mind, agathós – both aspects constitute a person’s arête, “excellence”, and one would be unthinkable without the other. Phryne, for instance, a famous courtesan of Athens and companion of the orator Hypereides, was accused of impiety to land a blow against her lover. When the Areopagus was in session to determine her fate, Hypereides the spellbinder simply removed Phryne’s robe and asked the Areopagites how such a beauty could be impious. And the jury, in awed reverence, found her not guilty. It was the Greeks who made nudity, the male far more than female, to something along the lines of the foundation of their artistic expression. In undisguised reverence of a human body’s beauty with strong erotic undercurrents, promoting the ideal nude to divinity and not the other way around like other, older cultures did. And with the central role the Greeks played in the aesthetic development of the Occident, the nude figure with the human body as primary subject became a singular and one of the most controversial traditions of Western art. Naturally, the Middle Ages in their theoretical hostility against life’s sensuality had no use for nudes outside obscenity, admittedly often grossly epic obscenities, but things changed with the Renaissance and, ironically enough and Greek ideal or not, sensuous depictions of the nude were comme il faut along with a convenient mythological and sometimes historical narrative. Celebrating nakedness in the fine arts under the auspices of Winckelmann’s noble simplicity and calm grandeur, ended up in some often highly neurotic ensembles full of repressed sexuality and other subtexts and representatives of some epochs, such as the Biedermeier, late Regency and, of course, the Victorian era, could not even tolerate mythological nudes. 

William Etty:
"Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed" (1830)

Early in the 19th century, painting à la Reynolds in the classically idealised grand manner, chiefly the swagger portrait, was the state of British art. Reynolds himself painted but one nude during his long career, the rest of his sitters were all very respectably clothed. Unfortunately, taste changed a bit by then, great daubs became all the rage, history, chiefly, and one found that modern clothing was rather unheroic in contrast to shining armour and those heroes of antiquity who ne’er saw a cannon ball fought naked anyway, judging from the artistic legacy of the Ancients. When the long wars with France were finally over in 1815, morals across Europe, from John O’Groats to Petersburg took a sharp turn towards no nonsense rigidness, depicting ancient history became the mother of all painting at the Royal Academy in London and while some, in the wake of the Romantic Movement, preferred mythology and others like Constable and Turner already worked on a counter-draft with landscapes and their own Romantic narrative, nudes began to show in British paintings again. Especially one artist, William Etty, made it a habit to blend history and mythology, a major point of criticism already for some influential purists, and managed to have at the very least one nude depicted on his often rather enormous canvasses. Most of his paintings usually overflew with them. And nobody really doubted his artistic skill. In fact, he was recognised as a master of painting human flesh in what Etty himself called Venetian colours in the manner of Titian and the 16th century Venetian school. Far too much flesh for many: "We take this opportunity of advising Mr Etty, who got some reputation for painting "Cleopatra's Galley", not to be seduced into a style which can gratify only the most vicious taste. Naked figures, when painted with the purity of Raphael, may be endured: but nakedness without purity is offensive and indecent, and on Mr Etty's canvass is mere dirty flesh”, The Times wrote in 1822.

William Etty: "Cleopatra's Arrival in Cilicia " (1821)

Shy, unattractive and rather quirky. Etty still visited life classes long after he was a recognised master, to kill time, as he said and much to the dismay of his peers, never married and lived together with his niece for more than twenty years, was extremely homesick when he went abroad, everywhere but in Venice, and all the nude models in London feared for their livelihood, when Etty decided to move back home to his native York for good a year before he died. Met with hostility since his first major success, “Cleopatra’s Arrival in Cilicia” in 1821, he was equally celebrated as one of the greatest English painters by his contemporaries, a “triumph of the British school”. At least some of Etty’s pieces, like his imagination of “Candaules, King of Lydia, Shews his Wife by Stealth to Gyges, One of his Ministers, as She Goes to Bed“ from 1830 at least seem to have been conceived to deliberately shock the sensitivities of his audience and they did indeed cause some scandal, while many others were just overladen with nudes, sheets and cherubs swirling around them, sailing their pleasure barges right into the world of kitsch. Still, they were regarded as mere pornography by many and as celebrated as Etty was by others, his work was soon forgotten after his death, along with his portraits, still lifes and landscapes, in 1849.  While they made their first steps as artists 
a few Pre-Raphaelites like Millais were influenced by Etty’s nudes but after the 1870s nobody really was interested in the great daubs that once had shocked their grandparents and Etty’s charm of being the first British artist to make nudes his serious sujet became a party piece for art historians. 

And more about William Etty in the substantially excellent article on:

and 323 of Etty’s paintings can be admired on:

Sunday, 8 November 2015

"... He had no rest at sea, nor I on shore." - "Foul-Weather Jack", one of the more sane Byrons

8 November 1723, the explorer, circumnavigator, Royal Navy officer and the poet’s grandfather John "Foul-Weather Jack" Byron was born in London.

“Reversed for me our grandsire's fate of yore,-
He had no rest at sea, nor I on shore." (George Gordon, 6th Lord Byron)”

Contemporary map maker Alexander Hogg's imagination of Byron's meeting with the Patagonians in 1765

not quite easy to comment offhandedly upon the attractiveness of a certain archipelago in the South Atlantic off the southern Patagonian coast without deviating into a longer geostrategic excursion. However, the rather famous French explorer and naval officer Louis de Bougainville established a permanent settlement in the Eastern part of the Islands, named, in all modesty, Port Louis, after the King of France, goes without saying, and called the place Îles Malouines, since the settlers he brought came from St Malo in Brittany. A year later in 1765, the captain of HM frigate “Dolphin”, while in the process of circumnavigating the world, formally took possession of the Western part of the islands he knew as Falklands, a name established in 1690 in honour of Viscount Falkland, Admiralty Commissioner. After a short while, English settlers began to establish a permanent base on Saunders Island. The next step in the somewhat troubled history of the Falklands. The English captain’s name was John Byron, younger brother of the “Wicked Lord” Byron, who had by then already killed his cousin in a duel over an argument who had more game populating his estates, the milestone that marked the baron’s general descent into madness and scandal. John, however, had accumulated at least some fame for being an explorer and jolly tar with publishing his account of the travels he made as a midshipman, sailing with Anson into the South Atlantic 25 years earlier, seeing the Falklands in 1740 and returning back home to England in a daring open boat journey after his ship, the frigate “Wager”, sunk off Chile. Well into the 19th century, Royal Navy missions to faraway places like the South Atlantic and the Pacific Ocean, more often than not, were a combination of exploration, cartography as well as raiding, especially in wartime, like Anson’s capture of the Manila galleon during the War of Jenkins Ear. On the other hand, if such a mission foundered, survivors picked up by the enemy were usually treated as PoWs, like Mr Midshipman Byron was, alongside with the other survivors of the “Wager” disaster when they were finally picked up by Spanish authorities in Chile, sitting in the canoe they had bartered from local Indians with a last single musket being the only possession they had between themselves other than the ragged clothes they wore.

The wreck of HMS "Wager" in 1739, frontispiece of Byron's:
"Narrative of the Hon. John Byron;
Being an Account of the Shipwreck of The Wager;
and the Subsequent Adventures of Her Crew"

The possibility of a yet undiscovered continent haunted geographers, explorers and imperialists since Antiquity and, naturally, it was one of the mission objectives for the captains of every seafaring European nation on a voyage to the Pacific to discover Terra Australis. John Byron’s “Dolphin”, originally a survey ship and pressed into service as a 6th rate frigate during the Seven Years’ War, was no exception. Tasked with finding and taking possession of lands hitherto undiscovered by other European powers, such as the formal seizure of uninhabited parts of the Falklands in the name of King George III, was well within the scope of his Admiralty orders. Actually, “Dolphin” was at the lower end of the food chain of vessels commanded by reasonably well connected senior post captains like Byron. And it might have been his sheer desire to go out and explore along with his considerable experience in Southern Atlantic and Pacific water that he was chosen for the mission. The first milestone in “Dolphin’s” voyage around the world was allegedly to establish a British base in these waters, to watch shipping along the sea routes between the world’s two largest oceans, but that might well be mid-19th and 20th century hindsight. Following up from van Diemen’s and Tasman’s discoveries from the 17th century and trying to find “Terra Australis” before the Spanish or the French did, namely Bougainville, was, in all probability, the main reason for Byron’s circumnavigation in 1765 and Bougainville sailed for pretty much the same reasons – finding it before their English rivals did. Both seafarers discovered tropical paradises out in the Pacific, Bougainville in Tahiti, Byron among the Gilbert Islands, one of them, Nikunau was often called “Byron Island” during the 19th century, and both would serve 15 years later on the North American station when their countries were at each other’s throats again. Bougainville quite successfully during the Battle of the Chesapeake in 1781 and at least able to get away from France’s decisive defeat at the Saintes in 1782. Byron though, then a Vice-Admiral, was not quite so lucky, but managed at least to acquire a memorable nickname.

Jean-François Hue (1751-1823): "Battle of Grenada"

with intercepting a French convoy in 1778 bound for North America as soon as England’s arch-rival from back then joined in on the rebellious colonies’ side, Byron’s squadron was caught in a storm and scattered across the North Atlantic. Only his own flagship, the 2nd rate HMS “Princess Royal” was able to make it to the planned assembly point in the port of New York. It took him more than two months to assemble his ships up north in Halifax, but further action and stopping the Comte d’Estaing’s squadron from sailing for the West Indies and wreak havoc there was, again, prevented by howling storms. Byron was called “Foul-weather Jack” ever since. A year later, he finally managed to arrive on the Caribbean theatre with 10 ships of the line, tried to retake Grenada from the French with the 21 battleships scraped together from all British squadrons present and got his nose bloodied by d’Estaing who had a considerably superior fleet assembled there. However, the exchange of blows had stopped French expansion in the West Indies and d’Estaing was finally relieved from his command, just as Byron, who returned back home to England. In the meanwhile, his daughter Juliana had eloped with her cousin, the “Devil Byron’s” son and heir William. Since the “Wicked Lord” had hoped that his offspring would marry well to help him recover from his debts and his cunning plans were now going to ruin, he’d rather destroy the inheritance than let it fall into the eloper’s hands, chopping down the woods on his estate and killing the deer he once fought a duel over and what not. Ironically enough, he survived both his son and his grandson and thus, the inheritance, both title and the devastated estates, fell to his great nephew George Gordon, then ten years old, son of John “Mad Jack” and grandson of John “Foul-weather Jack” Byron, who had died peacefully at home in London at the age of 62.

And more about “Foul-weather Jack Byron on:

Wednesday, 4 November 2015

Last act of the Trafalgar Campaign: The Battle of Cape Ortegal

4 November 1805, The Trafalgar Campaign finally ended with the Battle of Cape Ortegal and Commodore Richard Strachan’s capture of the four French ships of the line that had escaped Nelson on 21 October.

“… one of those in our service whom I estimate the highest. I do not believe he has his fellow among the Admirals, unless it be Pellew, for ability, and it is not possible to have more zeal and gallantry … It is my wish to serve with Strachan, as I know him to be extremely brave and full of zeal and ardour, at the same time that he is an excellent seaman, and, tho' an irregular, impetuous fellow, possessing very quick parts and an uncommon share of sagacity and strong sense.“ (Captain Graham Moore in a letter to his brother General Sir John Moore of Corunna, 1808)

Strachan's HMS "Caesar" engaging "Mont Blanc" during the Battle of Cape Ortegal

Six sail of the line that might have made all the difference at Trafalgar. According to Villeneuve’s order of battle, they were the rear division of the allied fleet, commanded by Contre-Admiral Pierre Dumanoir le Pelley. They found themselves in the van when the order to wear came and the Franco-Spanish armada headed back to Cádiz at eight o’clock in the morning. Then the wind dropped, shifted its direction again and again, at 11 am Nelson’s ships hove in sight, two hours later, “Victory” cut into Villeneuve’s ragtail line and opened up on “Redoutable” and now the inexperience of Dumanoir le Pelley’s crews began to tell, as well as the somewhat neglected conditions the allied ships were in towards the end of the Trafalgar Campaign. However, Dumanoir decided not to wear his ships again and sail them into the confused melee of the breaking allied centre or at least decided to do so far too late around 2 pm. He did not head off straight away, though, made a bit of a show, might have considered to obey Villeneuve’s original orders and make for Toulon, but did not interfere with the general action besides exchanging a few broadsides with HMS “Africa” who had wandered off course a bit and tried to join up with Nelson again. When it became clear that there was nothing more that could be done anyway, Dumanoir called it a day and signalled to his squadron to break off the engagement they never really had joined. Two of his captains decided to disobey his orders, Capitaine Infernet of “Intrépide” and Capitano Valdés y Flores of “Neptuno” finally went to fight the British in earnest and were both captured by the end of the day. Dumanoir  got away from Trafalgar with four by and large undamaged ships of the line, continued up north, past Cape St Vincent and towards the Bay of Biscay and the assumed safety of a French port like Rochefort. Nelson though hadn’t mustered all the British squadrons off the Spanish coast and in the Bay of Biscay to face Villeneuve’s allied fleet at Trafalgar. Not by far. And while the battered participants of the epic battle now fought against the storm that raged across the Atlantic for a week, others had kept their endless vigil, at Gibraltar and along the coasts of Galicia, en route to Rochefort.

Thomas Whitcombe's sketch of the climax of the Battle of Cape Ortegal, 1805

Captain Thomas Baker of HM frigate “Phoenix” was actually supposed to patrol in the region off the Scilly Isles west of Cornwall since another rogue French squadron under Contre-Admiral Zacharie Allemand was still at large, out somewhere in the Atlantic and harassing British merchant shipping with a vengeance. A false report made Baker abandon his post, more or less the privilege of an independent command, and look for the “invisible squadron” in the Bay of Biscay. Pure happenstance found “Phoenix” near Cape Finisterre about the time when Dumanoir sailed northeast towards the bay. Sighting the British frigate, Dumanoir decided to give chase before the cruiser might be able to blow the gaff in regards to his whereabouts. To a squadron of four of-the-line, for instance, accompanied by a brace of frigates, heading west towards Cape Ortegal. And pretty soon the hunters became the hunted. Under the command of Commodore Richard Strachan, the still scattered British squadron sighted Dumanoir’s ships in the evening hours of November 2nd, the French tried to escape to the Northwest, deeper into the Atlantic, the British regrouped and caught up with them under the surveillance of the four frigates present, pursued Dumanoir during the following day and finally, in the wee hours of November 4th, two of the frigates began to snap at Dumanoir’s heels in earnest and opened fire on “Scipion”’, the hindmost of the four French battleships, with Strachan’s squadron still 6 miles off.  At noontime, a few dozen miles north of Cape Ortegal, the British ships of the line arrived and joined in. Dumanoir finally ordered his own four ships to form a battle line, the result was probably at least as slovenly as Villeneuve’s attempt at Trafalgar due to his officers’ and crews lack of experience and, like Trafalgar, Strachan engaged them in single combat, the frigates firing their 12 and 18 pounders into the French ships of the line for good measure as well, unusually, since frigates stood off when battleships fought in the days of Nelson’s navy. However, by half past three, all four French battleships had struck their colours and the last act of the Trafalgar campaign was over.

John Francis Sartorius' (1775 - 1831) imagination of Strachan's squadron returning home with the prizes taken at Cape Ortegal, with HMS "Caesar" in the centre towing the dismasted "Formidable" (c 1807)

Strachan, his officers and crews were feted as heroes when they came back home to England, victorious, with their four prizes intact. There was a knighthood and a promotion to rear-admiral in it for ”Mad Dick” Strachan himself, nicknamed so for having a bit of a temper. And even though he did not catch Allemand’s “Invisible Squadron” when he returned to his post in the Bay of Biscay nor cover himself exactly with glory during the botched Walcheren Expedition of 1809, botched primarily due his temper and his inability to liaise reasonably with the Pongoes involved, Strachan still received a bow from Napoleon when the captured ogre saw and recognised him in the longboat below HMS “Bellerophon’s” stern in Plymouth Sound, when Mad Dick was rowed out to finally see the man he fought for almost a lifetime. The four French ships-of-the-line captured off Cape Ortegal were all commissioned into the Royal Navy. “Formidable”, Dumanoir’s flagship served, since there already was a HMS “Formidable”, as HMS “Brave”, until after the war, when she was broken up in 1816, “Scipion” kept her name and remained in service until 1819, taking part in various skirmishes from Java to the Bay of Biscay, “Mont Blanc” became a powder hulk already in 1811, but the former “Duguay-Trouin” really stole the show. Named after a Breton corsair from the 17th century, she was launched in Toulon in 1800, almost shot to a wreck at Cape Ortegal and finally commissioned as HMS “Implacable”. Probably because nobody could pronounce her maiden name. However, “Implacable” served for the rest of the war, quite successfully, in the Baltics, the Bay of Biscay and off Spain and for decades afterwards until she was laid up in 1842. She became a training ship and by the turn of the century, “Implacable” was used for all kinds of things, from being receiving ship to holiday resort and coal hulk, attempts were made to preserve her when she had become the second oldest ship of the Royal Navy after “Victory” herself. And then, in 1949, she was finally scuttled off the Isle of Wight, flying both the British White Ensign and a French Tricolore. Her stern gallery had been preserved, though, and can now be admired, marvelled and wondered at in Greenwich at the National Maritime Museum.

The short contemporary film below shows the end of HMS “Implacable”:

And more about the Battle of Cape Ortegal on: