Monday, 28 March 2016

“We have been unfortunate, but not disgraced" - the Capture of USS "Essex" in the Battle of Valparaiso

28 March 1814, off the Chilean coast during the War of 1812, Cpt David Porter’s USS “Essex” was captured by the frigate HMS “Phoebe”, James Hillyar, and the sloop HMS “Cherub” in the Battle of Valparaiso.

“Hence, if some brainless bravo be Captain of a frigate in action, he may fight her against invincible odds, and seek to crown himself with the glory of the shambles, by permitting his hopeless crew to be butchered before his eyes, while at the same time that crew must consent to be slaughtered by the foe, under penalty of being murdered by the law. Look at the engagement between the American frigate Essex with the two English cruisers, the Phoebe and Cherub, off the Bay of Valparaiso, during the late war. It is admitted on all hands that the American Captain continued to fight his crippled ship against a greatly superior force; and when, at last, it became physically impossible that he could ever be otherwise than vanquished in the end; and when, from peculiarly unfortunate circumstances, his men merely stood up to their nearly useless batteries to be dismembered and blown to pieces by the incessant fire of the enemy's long guns. Nor, by thus continuing to fight, did this American frigate, one iota, promote the true interests of her country. I seek not to underrate any reputation which the American Captain may have gained by this battle. He was a brave man; that no sailor will deny. But the whole world is made up of brave men. Yet I would not be at all understood as impugning his special good name. Nevertheless, it is not to be doubted, that if there were any common-sense sailors at the guns of the Essex, however valiant they may have been, those common-sense sailors must have greatly preferred to strike their flag, when they saw the day was fairly lost, than postpone that inevitable act till there were few American arms left to assist in hauling it down. Yet had these men, under these circumstances, "pusillanimously cried for quarter," by the IV. Article of War they might have been legally hung.” (Herman Melville “White Jacket, Or The World on a Man-O-War”)

An almost contemporary image of the engagement's climax from the Beverley Robinson collection at the United States Naval Academy.

Rear Admiral Manley Dixon’s position was really far from being enviable in 1812. Out on the Brazilian Station in Rio he had one positively ancient ship of the line, six frigates and three sloops at his disposal to monitor the entire South American coastline along with the Pacific Ocean. On top of it, almost all of the possessions of Britain’s ally Spain out there were up in rebellion against their colonial master and rather not supporting the British at this point, but quite well disposed towards the United States and usually inclined to provide their cruisers with shelter and supplies. Three of them were the Uber-frigates of the US Navy Dixon and the Royal Navy had standing orders from Admiralty not to engage without significant numerical superiority after USS “Constitution” captured HMS “Java” off Brazil just a few weeks after Dixon had arrived there. He decided to muddle through, somehow, at least trade and diplomatic networks were still in place and Dixon learned quite soon that an American frigate was heading for Pacific waters. It was David Porter’s USS “Essex”, not quite on par with the “Constitution” but still a deadly threat to British whalers out there. Whaling already was a million dollar business in the early 19th century and decades before the Nantucket Oil Barons took over, the British domineered the trade. Porter, on the other hand, proposed several US forays into the Pacific and while his ideas fell on deaf ears before the war broke out, he now was on a more or less independent command and made straight for the Galápagos Islands, basically the base for all British whalers cruising for sperm off the coast of Peru and Chile since the “Emilia” first hunted there in 1788. Dixon’s squadron, however, was basically occupied in the Atlantic and Porter’s “Essex” had a clear field of fire in 1812. He made the best of it.

USS "Essex" capturing the sloop HMS "Alert",
a few weeks before Porter began his cruise in the Pacific

might not have been Porter’s strong side. One of the captured whaleships he equipped as a second commerce raider was just called “Essex Junior”. Organisation and seamanship was, though. Friendly neutral or not, the South American ports would supply him only for hard cash and Porter decided to live off the land, so to speak. Making the Galápagos Islands his own base of operations, he captured 13 prizes, virtually destroying the British whaling fleet in the Pacific and inflicted an economic damage Porter estimated to be 5 million Dollars - in buying power a sum worth up to half a billion in today’s money. And nobody less than Theodore Roosevelt himself, summarising the naval aspects of the War of 1812 in his influential study some 70 years later, praised his ingenuity to the skies and indeed, keeping his frigate in fighting trim for over 17 months on his returns to the Galápagos Islands just with supplies taken from the prizes was “unprecedented”, as Roosevelt put it. By the end of the year 1813 it was finally time to seek out a real port, though, and he decided to make for Valparaiso. He arrived in January 1814, “Essex” was refitted, Porter paid from the funds he had captured, but on 8 February the Royal Navy finally appeared on the stage off the Chile coast in form of the frigate HMS “Phoebe” and the sloop HMS “Cherub” and promptly bottled him up. Porter never overestimated the fighting capacity of his frigate. Nominally rated 36 guns, she was armed with 34 32-pounder carronades and only12 long 12-pounders. At short range, “Essex” could throw a considerable broadside weight of 570 pounds, but she was hopelessly outgunned at mid and long range by the two British men-of-war. Porter knew his numbers, besides being able to outmanoeuver him when they acted in concert, Captain James Hillyar of “Phoebe” would bring, together with the sloop, 839 pounds of iron into play against “Essex” at short range and more than 200 against the American’s meagre 66 in a long distance gun duel. Valparaiso, however, was a neutral port and Porter decided to wait for an opportunity to slip away.

Contemporary illustration of Valparaiso Bay

For six weeks, “Phoebe” and “Cherub” lay in sight of “Essex” and “Essex Junior”, anchoring in the harbour of Valparaiso. Porter had hoisted his motto to the top of the main mast, “Free trade and sailors’ rights” and Hillyar flew “God and country; British sailors’ best rights; traitors offend both”, and “Essex” answered with “God, our country and liberty – tyrants offend them.” basically the casus belli since the “Chesapeake-Leopard” affair of 1807, songs were sung along these lines, Porter, unsurprisingly, had to concede that the Cherubs, the British sloop’s crew, had the better voices but noticed that his men’s improvised lyrics were wittier and more to the point. A courteous exchange of letters between the two captains took place as well until Porter accused Hillyar of instigating Chilean authorities to expulse him from port. But he was about to slip his cable anyway. On the morning of 28 March, “Essex” made sail, tried to slip around the southern point of the harbour entrance and promptly, the wind freshened up, suddenly changed his direction and carried the American frigate’s fore top away while Hillyar’s two ships closed in on her. After a few broadsides, “Phoebe” decided to play every tactical advantage she had against her now almost unmanoeuverable opponent, trapped between the Chilean shore and her long guns. Positioned against “Essex’” back, she pounded away at mid range, out of the Yankee carronades’ reach. In a last desperate attempt, Porter tried to run his frigate aground and blow her up to avoid capture, failed and finally, at 6 pm, had to strike his colours. He had lost one third of his crew in his hopeless attempt of gallantry to British shot, Hillyar sailed “Phoebe” and her prize back home to England to celebrate his second victory in a ship-to-ship duel and the American frigate was taken into service as HMS “Essex”, no longer as a man-of-war but as troopship and, finally, as a prison hulk in Ireland. Her mooring anchor was discovered in Dún Laoghaire harbour the other day. In the meanwhile, HMS “Cherub” sailed on towards the Pacific and the Galápagos to mop up after Porter’s cruise. Until the end of the war, the sloop recaptured all of “Essex’” prizes except one, from “Essex Junior” to “Sir Andrew Hammond”, a whaler manned by just a few US Marines after Lieutenant John Gamble, USMC, had saved her from her former crew’s mutiny and sailed her for more than 2,000 miles, just to get caught by the Cherubs.

And more about the capture of USS “Essex” on:

Saturday, 26 March 2016

"Thirty Englishmen, As lions brave, did battle give to Bretons three times ten" - Chivalry, The Combat of the Thirty and the War of the Breton Succession

26 March 1351, at the chêne de Mi-Voie, the Halfway Oak between Ploërmel and Josselin on the edge of the Broceliande Forest in Brittany, 30 Franco-Breton and 30 Anglo-Breton knights met to fight a tourney-like emprise, the legendary Combat of the Thirty.

“Siegneurs, knights, barons, bannerets, and bachelors I pray, / Bishops and abbots, holy clerks, heralds and minstrels gay, / Ye valiant men of all degrees, give ear unto my lay. / Attend, I say and ye shall hear how Thirty Englishmen, / As lions brave, did battle give to Bretons three times ten. /And sith the story of this fight I shall tell faithfully, / A hundred years hereafter it shall remembered be, / And warriors hoar recount it then to children on the knee.”

(William Harrison Ainsworth, "The Combat of the Thirty")

Octave Penguilly L'Haridon (1811 - 1872) "Le Combat des Trente" (1857)
Octave Penguilly L'Haridon (1811 - 1872) "Le Combat des Trente" (1857)

In the end, it was the great yew war bows and the bodkin arrows that saved the day for the English, again, at La Roche-Derrien in the only major battle fought in the bloody mess of a sideshow of the Hundred Years’ War known as the War of the Breton Succession. The only one before the Battle of Auray ended this part of the conflict after more than twenty 20 years in 1364. And Brittany suffered like a wounded beast just like the rest of France did during that time, after Duke John III, who died childless, couldn’t be bothered to arrange his succession. "For God's sake leave me alone and do not trouble my spirit with such things", he allegedly said on his deathbed and promptly, the heirs apparent, Joan, Duchess of Brittany, wife of a scion of house Valois, and the redoubtable Joanna of Flanders, became pawns in the great gamble for the French crown between King Edward III and King Philip VI. While both monarchs fought over Brittany in something of a proxy war, the place became a robber barons’ and mercenaries’ paradise with insignificant skirmishes that nevertheless yielded noble prisoners who would be ransomed for a lot of money, sacking undefended villages and a weaker castle or three and, generally, living of the land in the worst sense. But even if their art was in decline long since, there were troubadours still around, epics were still read, every child knew who King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were, Roland, Siegfried and El Cid, and narrative of chivalry was very much alive in all the carnage. And sometimes, it just proved to be the right excuse for starting a proper bar fight. What exactly there was to fight about is not exactly clear when the English captain of a mercenary force, one Robert Bemborough, who held Ploërmel, was challenged to single combat by Jean de Beaumanoir, Marshal of Brittany and Captain of Josselin. It might have been the breaking of an armistice, the honour of the two ladies leading the French and the English faction or something even more personal, in any case, Bemborough suggested to make the challenge a bit more spectacular and each of the two leaders should bring 20 or 30 of his cronies along. A brilliant idea, thought Beaumanoir, a time and a place were agreed and on 26 March, 60 men met at noon at the "Halfway Oak" between Ploërmel and Josselin, dismounted and tried to kill each other like civilised men.

The "Combat of the Thirty" from Pierre le Baud's "Compillation des cronicques et ystoires des Bretons"

"Bois ton sang, Beaumanoir, la soif te passera“, Drink your blood, Beaumanoir; your thirst will pass, his second-in-command Geoffroy du Bois advised, quite like the Nibelungs in the halls of King Etzel when they fought their last fight. A chivalric passage of arms was, after all, a brutal affair. The knights and men-at-arms opened up with pollaxes to have an edge against the full suits of plate they wore or with long swords to cripple or trip their opponents and finished, hours later, usually with the misericorde, the long daggers that found the gaps between the plates of a downed foe, or yielding in complete exhaustion. The death blow to the English team, however, was given by the squire Guillaume de Montauban who mounted a destrier and crashed the huge war horse into the circle Bemborough’s men had ganged up to and allowed the French to follow up and beat, knife and wrestle the stricken Les goddams into submission. It speaks volumes about the quality and flexibility of 14th century’s suits of plate, weighing about 50 pounds, that both teams were able to fight in it for hours and that only 6 Franco- and 9 Anglo-Breton champion warriors had to pay with theirs lives for all the fun, Bemborough among them. According to common customs of chivalry, the knightly prisoners were treated like guests and released after a short while when ransom was paid. In the days of the Hundred Years’ War, ransom could make or unmake the man, especially poor knights who had captured a rich baron or even a king, like Denis de Morbecque did at Poitiers five years later and almost ruined France completely in the aftermath. It was thus far more common not to fight to the bitter end but to yield and treat each other decently, but already “no prisoners!” or “no mercy!” orders were given and a bodkin arrow, a crossbow bolt, a cannon ball, a stake rammed in the mud or a pike didn’t care for class distinctions and credit status. They killed. Modernity dawned on the battlefields of the Hundred Years’ War.

A 19th century imagination of the death of Robert Bemborough during the Combat of the Thirty

The combatants of the event received legendary status, though, quite like present-day sports stars and were wined and dined and sung about throughout Europe. The Combat des Trente, Combat of the Thirty, was what chivalry was all about after all and not lying with an arrow stuck in every armour joint, the harness’ insides befouled by the results of cholera, across one’s war horse, the poor brute impaled on a stake, knee-deep in the mud and rain and a lowly commoner whetting his knife and about to apply the coup de grâce. That was not exactly what the troubadours sung about, but the tourney-like set-up at the "Halfway Oak" was. A skill-match, a knightly challenge and everyone had played by the rules, except Montauban, of course, but the lad had shown initiative, won the game for France and harping about fair play here would be unchivalrous quibble and not even the les goddons did. Until Sir Arthur Conan Doyle retold the tale in his novel “Sir Nigel” more than 500 years later, so there. The knightly brawl, a so-called emprise, changed nothing about the course of the War of the Breton Succession, let alone the Hundred Years’ War, naturally. In Brittany, the stalemate between the two factions was maintained for 15 more years and the Duchy remained the bloody playgrounds of those who might apply a code of honour to their own kind but treated everyone else as regrettable collateral damage, even willingly, since scorched earth tactics were not exactly an invention of the 20th century.

And more about the “Combat of the Thirty“ on

Thursday, 24 March 2016

"Too proud, too proud, what a press she bore!" - The Loss of HMS "Eurydice"

24 March 1878, the training ship for ordinary seamen HMS “Eurydice” foundered in a sudden squall off the Isle of Wight with almost all hands.

“And you were a liar, O blue March day.
Bright sun lanced fire in the heavenly bay;
But what black Boreas wrecked her? he
Came equipped, deadly-electric,

A beetling baldbright cloud thorough England
Riding: there did stores not mingle? and
Hailropes hustle and grind their
Heavengravel? wolfsnow, worlds of it, wind there?

Now Carisbrook keep goes under in gloom;
Now it overvaults Appledurcombe;
Now near by Ventnor town
It hurls, hurls off Boniface Down.

Too proud, too proud, what a press she bore!
Royal, and all her royals wore.
Sharp with her, shorten sail!
Too late; lost; gone with the gale.” 

(Gerard Manley Hopkins: “The Loss of the Eurydice”)

"The Loss of HMS Eurydice" as depicted in the London Illustrated News in 1878

The L-Class sub ran surfaced next Rame Head, off Plymouth, Start, Portland and Wight back in 1938 when the fin watch alerted Commander Frank Lipscomb. There was a ship crossing their course. Nothing unusual in these waters in the days before radar and electronic ship reporting systems, the vessel off their bow, however, was, though: A square-rigged rag wagon of a size seldom seen off Wight since decades. Nostalgia or not, Lipscomb had to take his boat on an evasive course and all off a sudden, the windjammer just disappeared. Or so the story goes. It was one of the more spectacular sightings of a ghost ship in the Channel and the apparition was quickly traced back to the wreck of HMS “Eurydice”. The last sighting of her was seen in 1998 and she was reportedly caught on camera while an episode of "Crown and Country" was shot in Hampshire. And as if the tale of her loss wasn’t eerie enough, during lunch-time in Windsor, already a couple of hours before disaster struck, one Sir John MacNiell obviously had a fit of an da shealladh, the Second Sight of the Highlands, and cried out: "Good Heavens! Why don't they close the portholes and reef the sails?" It was quite an exact summary of what one might have cried seeing the frigate 70 miles away, about to round Dunnose Head with the monstrous black cloud drifting Channel-wards over the quarried Downs of Wight, 500’ above sea level. "Freak reflections of light on mist", visions and ghostly apparitions put aside, when “Eurydice” went down with all her passengers and crew but two, one of the worst peacetime naval disasters ever had hit the Royal Navy.

The somewhat eerie figurehead of HMS "Eurydice", now at the National Museum of the Royal Navy at Portsmouth Historic Dockyard*

HMS “Eurydice”, commissioned in 1843 and 35 years later still “totally guiltless of machinery of any kind“ as the “Times” put it in 1877, was built with rakish lines and an uncommonly shallow draft, 141’ long, weighing 910 tons, a 6th rate frigate that served on various stations across the world, in fair and inclement weather, once, during the Crimean War even as far north as the White Sea. The time of sailing warships had come long since, though, but the navy still had enough vessels at sea that required the knowledge of how to hand, reef and steer like back in the days of Drake, Hawke and Nelson and since no sailor was supposed to be deployable on iron-hulled and steam-powered men-of-war only, Admiralty took good care to train crews aboard appropriate ships. The old frigate was used as a stationery vessel for such a purpose for 20 years before she was refitted and converted for seagoing service in 1877. Under the command of Captain Marcus Hare, young sailors were supposed to learn their ropes aboard her and a year later, she returned from a training cruise to the West Indies, having made the passage from Bermuda to Lizard Point in just 18 days and merrily sailed towards the Solent and Spithead. “Her royals were set, her studding sails were set; in a word, she had crammed on every stitch of canvas she had it in her power to carry”, as an eyewitness reported, and why not, since it was a bright, clear day, the wind coming from astern and her home port was within easy reach before night would fall. Captain Hare even had her gun ports opened for ventilation. When she ran parallel to the coast of the Isle of Wight, her watch might have noticed that other vessels farer out in the Channel began to shorten  sail, but “Eurydice” still made more than 9 knots when she was about to round Dunnose and then, at ten minutes to 4, the gale hit her. All of a sudden, everything went dark, snow stormed around her masts and poop, reducing visibility more or less to zero, the wind pushed her bows from her northeasterly course right away to the east and pressed her on her starboard side, water rushed in through her open gun ports and she was a goner within minutes. Many of her crew, mostly trainees barely 20 years old, were sucked down with her and the rest drowned or froze to death in the icy cold water, 317 souls all in all and the schooner “Emma” who came to her aid when she saw the frigate go down, could fish out only three alive, “Eurydice’s” first officer among them, who died before “Emma” docked in Spithead.

William Broome (1838–1892)"Wreck of HMS 'Eurydice' Being Towed into Portsmouth Harbour"

For more than six months, victims of the catastrophe were still found floating in the waters around the site of the wreck and Victorian England was shocked, from eye-witnesses, then three-years-old Winston Churchill allegedly among them, to Admiralty and the Queen herself. The customary court-martial summoned to inquire the cause of the loss of “Eurydice” was held in August and found Captain Hare, his officers and crew, by and large, blameless, even if many critical voices were raised who thought Hare had acted reckless. However, the Times found somewhat fatalistic words to sum up the disaster: “The memory of the Captain of the Eurydice must, therefore, be cleared of blame, and the officers and ship's company deserve the same acquittal. It is also to be noticed that, in the opinion of the Court-Martial, the stability of the vessel had been properly tested, and had not been affected by any of the alterations which she underwent after her conversion into a training-ship. These conclusions leave us only to acknowledge that, however seamanship may be cultivated and however able and devotee may be our seamen, there are rough blows of natural forces which no skill can parry and against which no foresight can provide.” She was lifted from her watery grave in 11 fathoms of water under immense technical and considerable financial effort and towed into Portsmouth, an ordeal that gave her tortured frames the rest. By the end of the year she had to be broken up, while various memorials were erected in her memory. It was as if her tragic fate was the prelude of the end of the Age of Sail. A year later, her sister HMS “Atalanta”, a training ship for young sailors as well, was lost with all hands in the Atlantic and the concept of using large square riggers for training purposes was seriously called into question. The old rag wagons were succeeded by far smaller, purpose-built brigs and even they were decommissioned in the early 1900s when learning to hand and reef sail on seagoing ships was no longer deemed necessary for officers and men of the Royal Navy. By then, the reports of ghostly sightings of HMS “Eurydice” were already an established part of seaman’s yarn in the Channel and elsewhere.

* The image depicted above was found on

And more about the loss of HMS “Eurydice” on:

Saturday, 19 March 2016

"Twenty years of travel in America" - Fur Trade, New France and the Sieur de La Salle

19 March 1687, the French explorer René-Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle was assassinated by disappointed members of his last expedition near Navasota, Texas.

“The three proceeded on their way,—La Salle, the friar, and the Indian. "All the way," writes the friar, "he spoke to me of nothing but matters of piety, grace, and predestination; enlarging on the debt he owed to God, who had saved him from so many perils during more than twenty years of travel in America. Suddenly, I saw him overwhelmed with a profound sadness, for which he himself could not account. He was so much moved that I scarcely knew him." He soon recovered his usual calmness; and they walked on till they approached the camp of Duhaut, which was on the farther side of a small river. Looking about him with the eye of a woodsman, La Salle saw two eagles circling in the air nearly over him, as if attracted by carcasses of beasts or men. He fired his gun and his pistol, as a summons to any of his followers who might be within hearing. The shots reached the ears of the conspirators. Rightly conjecturing by whom they were fired, several of them, led by Duhaut, crossed the river at a little distance above, where trees or other intervening objects hid them from sight. Duhaut and the surgeon crouched like Indians in the long, dry, reed-like grass of the last summer's growth, while L'Archevêque stood in sight near the bank. La Salle, continuing to advance, soon saw him, and, calling to him, demanded where was Moranget. The man, without lifting his hat, or any show of respect, replied in an agitated and broken voice, but with a tone of studied insolence, that Moranget was strolling about somewhere. La Salle rebuked and menaced him. He rejoined with increased insolence, drawing back, as he spoke, towards the ambuscade, while the incensed commander advanced to chastise him. At that moment a shot was fired from the grass, instantly followed by another; and, pierced through the brain, La Salle dropped dead.“ (Francis Parkman: “La Salle and the Discovery of the Great West”)

Théodore de Gudin: "La Salle's Expedition to Louisiana in 1684" (1844)

Famously, there is a somewhat large land mass barring a direct western trade route across the Atlantic Ocean between Europe and East Asia. The only way to the riches of the East is sailing around the Horn on the southern tip of South America, a dangerous and time-consuming undertaking and dreams of finding a Northwest Passage into the Pacific Ocean were dreamed since the 1500s. However, the European powers pretty soon discovered that the yet unexplored lands in their way had lots of intrinsic value to be exploited, such as, for instance, furs. Back home in Europe, a trivial seeming thing like hat fashion led, through an increasing demand of beaver pelts, to an immense increase in appreciation of wilds close to the Arctic Circle. The Swedes, during the 1600s a major power employing some of the best soldiery of their time who wore wide-brimmed hats made of beaver fur, set the ball rolling and soon every self-respecting European male wanted to be seen in such a headdress. Much to the dismay of the large furry rodents, though, endangered since the end of Middle Ages by drainage and river regulations anyway. Around the 1650s, the populations of European beavers were virtually wiped out and not even Siberia could produce enough fur to satisfy Western demands. Jacques Cartier, a 16th century French explorer, had anticipatory established fur trade relations with the indigenous locals in what was to become Canada and was then known as New France. And soon, the trading posts with melodious names like Quebec and Montreal at the back of an underpopulated beyond began to skyrocket in importance analogous to the decline of Old World beavers. The other two seafaring European nations involved in empire-building in North America, the English and the Dutch, began to cast covetous glances on the fur trade of New France. Proxy wars erupted between the local indigenous factions, mainly the Iroquois Confederation who sought to control the middle ground between the rich fur territories of the western Great Lakes region and the Europeans, supported by the English and armed by the Dutch, and the traditional allies of the French, the Algonquian-speaking nations, the Algonquin people themselves, the Erie, Huron, Illinois, Shawnee and what not. It was a conflict later known as the Beaver Wars and it was fought ruthlessly and bloody for decades. And still, the dream of a Northwest Passage was dreamed and maybe the great rivers south and west of the Great Lakes flew towards the Pacific Ocean and China, who knew? But if so, New France would become the jewel in France’s colonial crown and one explorer decided to discover the lay of the land for certain, for France and for Louis XIV, his king: Robert de La Salle.

A somewhat fanciful depiction of Louis de Buade, Comte de Frontenac et de Palluau,
Governor of New France from 1672 -1698,
performing a war dance with his Huron allies 

The king and the Company of New France, then the Hudson’s Bay Company’s main competitor, granted the young ex-Jesuit Robert land on the western end of the island of Montreal in 1667 and the locals promptly named it Lachine, China, tongue-in-cheek. Undaunted, the newly minted Sieur de La Salle canoed straight out into the wilderness to expand France’s fur-trading empire and find, en passant, the Northwest-Passage, up the St Lawrence River towards Lake Ontario, overland to Lake Erie, recently discovered by his compatriot Louis Jolliet, and, finally, to the Ohio. He and his men had become the first Europeans to see the great river, travelled it, intriguingly westward, as far as present-day Louisville in Kentucky and heard the tale that the Ohi:yó, the “Good River“ would flow into a far bigger one that would finally lead to the Great Sea. It might be a foreshadow of later events and casts a bit of a dim light on La Salle’s leadership skills, but at this point his men refused to go further into the west with him and abandoned the crestfallen explorer to find his own way back home to New France. Jolliet and Father Jacques Marquette had forestalled the discovery of the big river’s headwaters in the meanwhile, the one de Soto called Río del Espíritu Santo, "River of the Holy Spirit", a century before far to the south, the Mississippi River. La Salle, in the meanwhile, busied himself with further explorations, establishing trade posts and forts, winning the trust and patronage of Governor Frontenac, launched the first sailing ship to traverse the waters of the Great Lakes, still in search of a possible passage to India and China, but to no avail. When he returned home to Lachine, his crew was, somewhat derisively, known les Chinois, the Chinese. Nevertheless, La Salle had become a rich man and was responsible for the establishment of New France’s foothold as far as the Ohio Valley and now, in 1682, he set forth to travel the Mighty Mississip to the sea, still hoping it would flow into the Pacific, and claiming all lands en route for King Louis of France. It was the birth of the territory known as Louisiana and on April 9 of the same year, La Salle’s expedition reached the mouth of the river not quite into the Pacific Ocean. But French America, at least in theory, now stretched from the Gulf of Mexico to the Hudson Bay across the entire continent. 

La Salle taking formal possession of Louisiana on 9 April 1682

Even without a waterway to the west, there was still enough to do for La Salle, at least in terms of catching up with his patron Frontenac and turning Louisiana into a prosperous French colony. He departed for the mother country in 1684 to return with four ships and 300 colonists to establish a French settlement on the Gulf coast, but the return voyage to the New World turned into something of a disaster. Off Santo Domingo, his storeship “St Francois” was captured by Spanish privateers, despite the presence of his “Le Joly”, a man-of-war along the lines of something that would later be called a frigate. And then, quite peculiarly, the expedition was unable to locate the mouth of the Mississippi and finally ran aground in Matagorda Bay on the coast of Spanish Texas, some 400 miles to the west, losing his second storeship. La Salle decided to make the best of it and tried to establish his settlement there, still a wedge between the territories of New Spain and Spanish Florida. “Le Joly” returned to France and La Salle tried to reach the Mississippi on foot, exploring Texas, trying to find out the exact lay of Spanish America and the mines there and convincing the locals that the French were far more preferable as colonial masters than the Spanish while affairs in the settlement of St Louis went belly up. La Salle was finally faced with mutiny again during one of his forays and killed in an ambush. Texan St Louis, by then populated only by women, children and disabled men, some 20 souls, was finally rounded up by Karankawa-spealing locals, the adults were killed, the children taken into the tribe. Survivors of La Salle’s last foray finally reached France and reported the death of the explorer. The four children from La Salle’s Fort St Louis were later captured by the Spanish when they finally bothered to investigate the rumours of a French settlement in Texas. They felt a bit uneasy, by and large, and began to establish fortified outposts, events that culminated a century later in the Texan independence movement, while the long strip of French territories cutting through the whole of North America remained, secured by La Salle establishing a chain of forts and his efforts and explorations in the Great Lakes region, the Ohio Valley and on the shores of the Mississippi and it was by a hair’s breadth that France did not become the dominant colonial power on the continent.

And more about René Robert Cavelier de La Salle on:,_Sieur_de_La_Salle

Sunday, 13 March 2016

The White Gold from Dresden - Johann Böttger, Alchemy and the Discovery of European Porcelain

13 March 1719, the alchemist and inventor Johann Friedrich Böttger, credited with discovering the secret of manufacturing European porcelain in 1708, died in Dresden at the age of 37.
“Alchemy was never at any time anything different from chemistry. It is utterly unjust to confound it, as is generally done, with the gold-making of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among the alchemists there was always to be found a nucleus of genuine philosophers, who often deceived themselves in their theoretical views; whereas the gold-makers, properly so called, knowingly deceived both themselves and others. Alchemy was the pure science, gold-making included all those processes in which chemistry was technically applied. The achievements of such alchemists as Glauber, Böttger, and Kunkel, in this direction, may be boldly compared to the greatest discoveries of our century.” (Justus von Liebig)

Joseph Wright of Derby: "Alchemist in Search of the Philosopher's Stone"
Joseph Wright of Derby (1734 - 1797):
"The Alchymist, in Search of the Philosopher's Stone, Discovers Phosphorus,
and prays for the successful Conclusion of his operation, as was the custom of the
Ancient Chymical Astrologers” (1771)

is an old cartoon showing the lord of the manor mustering his staff to announce the tax-based string of layoffs and the question: “Guess who of you is getting his marching orders?” and among the assembled domestics, the hawker and the alchemist look a bit awkward. And while hawkers still can make a rather decent living in employment of Arabian Peninsula-based establishments, the reputation and common notion about the general usefulness of alchemists went down the drain over the last 300 years. By and large something of a dishonour that correlates with the rise of the Age of Enlightenment and what we call modern science. However, for more than two thousand years, when borders between science, magic and theology were less definite than today and anything that might be beyond the PTE’s immediate scope was not dismissed as superstition out of hand, some groundbreaking physical, medical and chemical discoveries were made by Hermetic magicians and alchemists, up to those of Newton, who invested considerably more effort into alchemy than physics, at least in regards to the amount of writings he left behind. The highly metaphorical language and archetypical accounts, though, of alchemists’ and Hermetic mages’ discoveries through the ages usually sounds like complete mumbo jumbo to the uninitiated. A fact that drew the epoch-specific variants of snake oil salesmen like flies, since only a selected few were able to find them out from the start and one of the basic elements of alchemy, known to many by hearsay, was the so-called transmutation of elements, reduced to one very simple, but rather attractive feat: gold making. The game of the fraudsters among them was seen through, sooner or later, since there was usually no Rumpelstiltskin at hand to help them to spin straw into gold when push came to shove. And since there were ten Edward Kelleys and John Fausts to every Roger Bacon and Agrippa of Nettesheim, the whole profession suffered a bit, reputation-wise, already since the Middle Ages, even if gold-making was certainly not the only expressed purpose of the fabled philosopher’s stone. However, the notorious money shortage of Baroque counts found gold-makers in prince’s employment all across Europe during the years of decline of the art, in the vain hope that alchemy would consolidate their budgets. One of such cases was that of Johann Friedrich Böttger.

Böttger showing the Arcanum to King Augustus the Strong of Saxony, as imagined by the German artist Paul Kiessling (1836 - 1919)

The adept Lascaris was an early version of illustrious personages like Cagliostro and the Count of St Germain, travelling Europe in the guise of a Greek monk, allegedly to collect funds to ransom Christian slaves held in Turkish bondage, a rat-catcher full of charisma, good looks and learning. And in possession of a secret substance, a tincture that did not only cure all diseases but was able to transform base metals into gold. Not quite the philosopher’s stone, but the next best thing. Nobody knows why he bequeathed a portion of the Alltinktur to young Johann, trainee in Zorn’s apothecary shop in Berlin, but the sorcerer’s apprentice performed the transmutation for Master Zorn and three witnesses. Promptly, the notoriously broke ex-prince-elector and now King of Prussia Frederick I got wind of it and sent his minions to get hold of the gold maker. Johann fled from Berlin to Leipzig at the last minute and sought refuge with Frederick’s arch-rival Augustus the Strong, Elector of Saxony and King of Poland. On his quest for quid as well, naturally, Augustus saw Böttger’s arrival in Leipzig as a golden opportunity, so to speak, shut him, in line with expectations, in a tower room like the miller’s daughter in Grimm’s fairy tale and forced him to make gold. Instead of straw and a spinning wheel, Böttger at least received a state-of-the-art laboratory in the fortress at Dresden and got down to the Great Work. What more was there to do since Lascaris’ Alltinktur was obviously given to him in homeopathic doses. Over the next five years and several attempts to abscond and having achieved virtually nothing in terms of transmutation, the poor sorcerer’s apprentice at least received support from fine minds of the the New Order, such as the mathematician and physicist Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus. And together, the two at least managed to produce “white gold”.

A porcelain vase made in Böttger's workshop before 1719

Like silk, the Chinese used porcelain since centuries but tried to keep the production of the valuable trade good a secret. While known in Europe since at least Marco Polo’s days, the Dutch East India Company had begun the large-scale import of the fragile Eastern ceramic wares in Europe about a hundred years before Böttger was imprisoned in Dresden. The stuff was extremely fashionable and high priced, hence the name “white gold” for china, the name porcelain became known in the English-speaking world. But the Westerners were at a loss about how to produce it until Tschirnhaus and Böttger struck their mother lode and Augustus ordered the two and their team to concentrate on perfecting the production of porcelain rather than pursuing esoteric follies any further. Tschirnhaus died in 1706 and even though it might be very well his fundamental research and experiments that led to the discovery of European porcelain, Böttger at least perfected its methods of productions. And at last he had something tangible to show, was set free by Augustus after confessing that he was unable to accomplish the Opus Magnum, the Great Work of alchemy. Böttger, because of his technical expertise rather than his credibility, was charged with the technical management of what was to become the famous Staatliche Porzellan-Manufaktur at Meissen in Saxony, took to drink and the project went to the wall until others sorted out the mess left behind by Böttger after his death in 1719. A year later, the crossed swords appeared for the first time on Meissen porcelain products as one of the very first European trademarks and the “white gold” from Saxony was considered at least as equal as the imports from the Far East. 

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