Saturday, 28 September 2013

On the Lee-Shore: A Page from Naval History

Last week's discussion of club-hauling reminded me of a page of naval history on which I have done some research.

As a teenager, I learned a song with the lyrics "She's like the swallow that flies so high, she's like the river that never runs dry, she's like the sunshine on the lee-shore, I love my love, and love is no more."

The song was clearly written by a land-lubber. For a sailor, there is absolutely nothing romantic about a lee-shore. What it presages is death. Trapped between the wind and the rocks, the only hope for a mariner who finds himself on a lee-shore is to club-haul the vessel, an emergency U-turn with a success rate significantly less than 50%. This is the position in which Captain Philippe Dauvergne, the commander of HMS Rattlesnake, found himself on the 11th October 1781. He was on the barren, rocky coast of the island of Trinidada, in the South Atlantic.

     Philippe Dauvergne. The picture is in the public domain.

His attempt to club-haul the vessel failed, and the ship ran aground. Remarkably, Dauvergne managed to save all but four of his crew. Other ships were in the area, and Captain Edward Pasley of HMS Jupiter offered to evacuate Dauvergne and his men.  Dauvergne's commands, however, were to establish a colony on the island, and he insisted on seeing this through. Pasley sailed away, leaving Dauvergne and his companions on the island. This was Robinson Crusoe with a cast of 24 men and one woman (Rebecca Stephens, the wife of a Warrant Officer). Pasley also left them with "a bull, a calf, a he-goat and a she-goat, a ram and three ewes."

The island of Trinidada. Picture: John Vergeris, licensed under CCA.

We know little of what happened on the island, since no log-book survives. There are descriptions of the island in Pasley's published sea-diaries, in Frederick Marryat's novel, Frank Mildmay, and in Edward Knight's (1889) non-fiction account, The Cruise of the Alerte. Reading between the lines of these accounts, I think it likely that Dauvergne established a village of stone-built houses on the east side of the island (Knight thought this to have been a Portuguese penal colony), and that he planted beans and maize (the maize may not have been entirely successful, but the beans clearly were, since they were growing wild on the island when Knight visited). There also seems to have been a disastrous fire on the western side of the island, which may have been started accidentally by members of Dauvergne's crew. They must have suffered many difficulties, not least on account of the land-crabs, which Knight describes as having raided his supplies and nipped himself and his companions on a nightly basis.

             A land-crab. Picture: Gargolylesoftware, licensed under CCA.

When, on 27th December 1782, HMS Bristol arrived off the coast of Trinidada, and put a party ashore, Dauvergne and his men were close to starvation. They were taken aboard the ship, which was en route for India. There Dauvergne was court-martialled and exonerated. A treaty had, by this stage, been concluded between Britain and Portugal, ending any British claims to Trinidada. It is now a Brazilian naval outpost. I did, at one stage, have the intention of writing a novel about the Trinidada episode, but gave up when I realised that I had no prospect of ever visiting the island. It seemed to me that the physicality of the place would have been so firmly imprinted on the minds of those who had been trapped there that I could hardly do justice to their experience without seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting and touching it myself. It will, however, feature in one of my short stories.

HMS Bristol and HMS Hector. William Elliott, 1784 (the picture is in the public domain).

In the aftermath of the French Revolution, Dauvergne returned to his native Jersey, where he established La Correspondence, a network of spies that liaised closely with royalists in France. Trinidada was far behind him, but it is unlikely that he, or any of his companions, ever forgot the eighteen months they spent in one of the most barren and inhospitable places on Earth.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and

Saturday, 21 September 2013

Frederick Marryat: A Writer's Writer in the Age of Sail

The novels of Frederick Marryat (1792-1848) do not have a particularly wide readership today. Some of us have distant childhood memories of enjoying his Children of the New Forest, a saga of the English Civil War (and one of his few novels to remain in print as a paperback) but, in his lifetime, he was better known for his adult fiction and, most especially, for his sea stories, which had a profound influence on Joseph Conrad, C.S. Forester, William Golding and Patrick O'Brian. His main readership today is perhaps among those writing fiction about the age of sail.

Frederick Marryat was the son of the MP and "merchant prince," Joseph Marryat, and his German wife, Charlotte. He joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman in 1806, and retired as a captain in 1830, making a very respectable living as a writer. He was an acquaintance of Charles Dickens, but did not share his talent for finding the most appropriate names for his characters. Action heroes with names like Peter Simple, Frank Mildmay or Mr Midshipman Easy were never likely to endure alongside Mr Midshipman Hornblower, Jack Aubrey or John McWhirr, even if they were on the scene first. Marryat's novels, however, are so closely based on his own naval experience that it is often difficult to know where the memoir ends and the fiction begins. That makes them a tremendous resource for anyone writing about nautical life in the 18th or 19th Century. They give us real glimpses into the realities, both social and technical, of life under sail.

Thomas Whitcombe's "Destruction of the French Fleet in Basque Roads." The ship in the foreground is HMS Imperieuse, the first on which Marryat served.

In Frank Mildmay, or the Naval Officer (1829), he shows us an encounter between a young officer and a condemned man. The older man, facing death without any consolation of religious belief, gives the officer some advice.

"When you are a captain, as I am very sure you will be, do not worry your men into mutiny by making what is called a smart ship. Cleanliness and good order are what seamen like, but niggling, polishing, scraping iron bars and ringbolts and the like of that, a sailor dislikes more than a flogging at the gangway. If, in reefing the topsails, you happen to be a minute later than another ship, never mind it, so long as your sails are well-reefed and fit to stand blowing weather."

In Peter Simple (1834), he shows us the club-hauling of a vessel, a complex and desperate manoeuvre rapidly to turn a ship when it is in danger of being driven aground on a lee-shore.

" ... the whole sky was covered with one black cloud, which sank so low as nearly to touch our mast-heads, and a tremendous sea ... rolled in upon us, setting the vessel on a dead lee-shore ... 'Pipe Belay,' said the captain ... our lives may depend on it! ... Hands by the best bower anchor, Mr Wilson, attend below with the carpenter and his mates, ready to cut away the cable at the moment I give the order ... The captain waved his hand in silence to the quarter-master at the wheel, and the helm was put down. The ship turned slowly to the wind, pitching and chapping as the sails were spilling ... The captain gave the order, 'Let go the anchor' ... At last the ship was head to wind, and the captain gave the signal. The yards flew around with such a creaking noise that I thought the masts had gone over the side, and the next moment the wind had caught the sails and the ship ... careened over to her gunnel with its force ... A few strokes of the axes were heard, and then the cable flew out of the hawse-hole in a blaze of fire ..."

It is, quite simply, the best description that exists of a manoeuvre that has probably not been performed by anyone alive today, and there are plenty of similar examples in Marryat's books that I could have chosen.

Willem Van de Velde's "English ship in a gale trying to claw off a lee shore" (1672). Her captain is attempting precisely the manoeuvre Marryat describes.

Since most of Marryat's books are out of print, I had to consult the British Library's copies but, within the past few months, many of them have been digitised, and are freely available for e-readers, opening these windows on naval life to a new generation of readers and writers.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and

You might like to take a look at the blogs of my fellow authors, all of whom are posting something with a nautical historical theme:


Monday, 16 September 2013

The First Age of Sail?

The Bronze Age (c2000-700 BC in Britain) is, perhaps, the most underestimated period in our history. Not only was metal-working introduced, thereby ending the Stone Age, but the period also saw the appearance of the domestic horse, and of the wheel. It may also have been the first age of sail, although specific evidence for this is tantalisingly elusive. Certainly there was a great explosion of trade. Objects made by the same hands, and with the same tools, are found in Ireland, Wiltshire and Brittany.

Bronze Age boats have been found at North Ferriby in Yorkshire, and in Dover Harbour, their planks literally sewn together with willow withies. These boats, however, had neither masts nor oar-locks. They must have been paddled. When the Ferriby boats were first discovered, it was assumed that they were used for river transport, but the discovery at Dover provoked a reassessment. Why would it be there if it were not a sea-going vessel?

One of the Ferriby boats at the time of its discovery in 1963. Photo: W. Wright.

The National Maritime Museum in Cornwall recently built a replica of one of the Ferriby boats and launched it at Falmouth. If it were not for the shipping lanes, I would probably be willing to take my chances crossing the Channel in one of these, as my characters do in Undreamed Shores, but to take one from Cornwall to Brittany or Ireland would be another matter entirely.

The replica Bronze Age boat launched at Falmouth.

The boats or ships depicted in rock art in Sweden, similarly, seem in most cases to lack masts, although one from Tanum might just show a ship under sail.

Depiction of a small boat and larger ship from Tanum, Sweden. Photo: Ch. Purkner (licensed under GNU).

Rock engravings from Haljesta, Sweden. Photo: Olof Ekstrom (licensed under GNU).

The little gold model of a boat found at Broighter in Ireland has both a mast and oar-locks, but this dates to a late stage in the Iron Age (c50 BC).

The Broighter gold boat. Photo: Ardfern (licensed under CCA).

Parts of the Broighter Boat. 1. Mast. 2. Yard. 3. Steering oar. 4. Grappling iron. 5. Forked implement. 6-7. Oars. (Image is in the public domain).

The demand for bronze would, in itself, have been a spur for the development of maritime trade. The components of bronze are copper and tin. There are relatively few sources of tin in western Europe, and one of the most significant is in Cornwall. At some point between 2000 BC and 50 BC, someone must have set sail from Cornwall for the first time, in a boat that looked more like the one from Broighter than the one from Ferriby.

St Michael's Mount, a possible loading point for Cornish tin bound for the continent.

The circumstantial evidence suggests that this happened at quite an early stage in this time-scale. Perhaps, like the vessel in which Tim Severin crossed the Atlantic, it was made of ox-hides stretched over a light wooden frame, in which case the chances of its being preserved archaeologically are minimal. I strongly suspect that, by 1500 BC, such vessels would have been a common sight around British and European shores, and they would have changed forever the relationship between Britain and its continental neighbours.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and For this week only, the e-book versions are available for just 77 pence.

You might like to take a look at the blogs of my fellow authors, all of whom are posting something with a nautical historical theme:

J.M. Aucoin
Helen Hollick
Doug Boren
Linda Collison
Margaret Muir
Julian Stockwin
Anna Belfrage
Andy Millen
V.E. Ulett
T.S. Rhodes
Mark Patton
Katherine Bone
Alaric Bond
Ginger Myrick
Judith Starkston
Seymour Hamilton
Rick Spilman
James L. Nelson
S.J. Turney
Prue Batten
Antoine Vanner
Joan Druett
Edward James
Nighthawk News

Ville-es-Nouaux, the site of the final battle in Undreamed Shores. The monument in the foreground is Zilar's burial place, and that behind it is the "accursed shrine" built by his people, and buried on Meruskine's orders.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

Cassius Dio and Roman Britain

If Tacitus wrote history in the tradition of Thucydides, then Cassius Dio (c155-235 AD) wrote in the tradition of Herodotus. His 80 volumes of Roman history, not all of which survive, cover 1400 years, from the foundation of Rome in 735 BC down to 229 AD. He wrote in Greek rather than Latin, and is thought to have imitated the writing style of Thucydides, but the scope of his work is much more akin to that of Herodotus.

He spent much of his adult life in Rome (he was an aristocrat, who also served as Governor of Smyrna and Proconsul in Africa), so he would have had access to archival sources which do not survive today, but he cheerfully mixes myth and history when he discusses Rome's early years, and never allows a lack of evidence to spoil the telling of a great tale. Sometimes, when I read his work, it is very tempting to see him as the father of my own craft - historical fiction, rather than "history" in the sense that we understand it today.

He provides much the most detailed accounts we have both of the Claudian invasion of 43 AD, and of the Boudiccan Revolt of 60/61 AD. It is important to remember, however, that he was writing more than a century after the events which he describes. Unlike Tacitus, he is very unlikely to have spoken to anyone who was actually there.

Like Tacitus and Thucydides before him, he does not demur to put words in the mouths of his characters. Here is part of his rendition of the speech that he claims Boudicca gave on the eve of her revolt (it can be read in full at

"I thank thee, Andraste [an ancient British goddess], and call upon thee as woman speaking to woman...that those over whom I rule are Britons...thoroughly versed in the arts of war, who hold all things in common, even women and children, so that they possess the same valour as the men. As the queen, then, of such men, and of such women, I supplicate and pray thee for victory against men insolent, unjust, insatiable...Let the wench sing and lord it over the Romans, for they surely deserve to be the slaves of such a woman."
Translation by Earnest Carey.

"Boadicea haranguing the Britons." Photo: Oksmith, from an 1860 edition of David Hume's The History of England in Three Volumes.

It is, of course, it must be, pure fiction, but, as a novelist, I hope I can be forgiven for wishing I had written it. I may not be the first, either. It has long seemed likely to me (though one could never prove it) that this speech inspired Elizabeth I when she came to write her own speech given at Tilbury on the eve of the confrontation with the Spanish Armada. Elizabeth was fluent in Latin and Greek, and well-versed in the works of the classical authors. To what other source would she turn, as a woman leading her British forces into battle, not just against Spain, but against the "insolence," as she would have seen it, of the Roman (Catholic) world?

Elizabeth I, the "Armada Portrait." Anne-Marie Duff performs the Tilbury speech at

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores and An Accidental King, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from and His course on "The Classical World and its Inheritance" is now open for enrolments at the Highgate Literary and Scientific Institution (

Tuesday, 3 September 2013

Suetonius and Roman Britain

Gaius Suetonius Tranquilus (69-122 AD) was a younger contemporary of Tacitus. Under the Emperor Hadrian, he was also Director of the Imperial Archive, which would have given him access to the letters written and received by emperors and their officials. Hadrian fired him in 119 AD, because his relationship with the Empress Vibia Sabina was thought to be rather too close, although it is unclear how far their "affair" actually went.

It was, perhaps, in order to avoid competing with or duplicating the work of Tacitus that Suetonius chose biography as his principal literary genre, and the work for which he is best known is De Vita Caesarum, the lives of the twelve Caesars (from Julius Caesar to Domitian). This work can be read in Latin and English at (and I ought to have mentioned last week that the works of Tacitus can be read at He delights in telling us about the sexual proclivities of the world's most powerful men (it is through him that we know of Tiberius's paedophilia and Caligula's penchant for incest), but is scrupulously fair in weighing their achievements against their weaknesses. What, then, does he have to tell us about Britain?

Often it is in throw-away lines and minor asides that his insights shine through to us. Of Caligula's plan to invade Britain, he tells us "All that he accomplished was that he received the surrender of Adminius, son of Cynobelinus, King of the Britons, who had been banished by his father..."

                         Coin of Cunobelinus (photo: Saforrest, licensed under GNU).

Of Claudius's successful invasion, he writes that "...on the voyage...from Ostia, he was nearly cast away twice in furious north-westers...Therefore he made the journey from Marseille all the way to Boulogne by land, crossed from there and, without any battle or bloodshed, received the submission of a part of the island, returned to Rome six months after leaving the city, and celebrated a Triumph of great splendour." This has more of a ring of truth about it than Cassius Dio's suggestion that the experienced general, Aulus Plautius, had to appeal to the emperor for "assistance" before moving on Colchester.

The Emperor Claudius (photo: Marie-Lan Nguyen, licensed under CCA).

Of the future Emperor Vespasian's role in that invasion, he tells us that "In the reign of Claudius, he was sent in command of a legion to Germany, through the influence of Narcissus; from there he was transferred to Britain, where he fought thirty battles with the enemy. He reduced to subjection more than twenty towns, as well as the Isle of Wight." This fits closely with what we know from other sources (we might question the definition of a "town"), but the reliance of a Roman senator on the patronage of a freedman is very telling, the more so because Suetonius mentions it only in passing.

His portraits of the individuals who held power have an intimacy about them that makes for compelling reading. One has continually to remind oneself that (since his biographies cover a period of almost 200 years), he did not know most of them personally. As a biographer, this does not entirely surprise me. Having read Sir John Lubbock's letters and diaries, and trawled through his business accounts, the realisation dawned on me, at a certain point that, in some respects, I knew him better than I knew my own father. As a novelist, however, it was to Suetonius that I turned most frequently in my characterisation of Claudius, Vespasian and Titus, all of whom have speaking parts in An Accidental King.

Mark Patton's novels, Undreamed Shores, An Accidental King, and Omphalos, are published by Crooked Cat Publications, and can be purchased from Amazon.