When Peter Weir’s film Master and Commander – The Far Side of the World came out in 2003, I had no idea it would lead me to discover the greatest historical novelist of all time and a fascinating period of British history.
I had not seen the film yet when I picked up a copy of the book Master and Commander which was being marketed in conjunction with the film and written by an author I had never heard of: Patrick O’Brian. It was almost my duty to do so as a history buff, especially a military history buff. I read a passage or two and put it down. Weeks later, the seed of interest having sprouted, I picked up the book again and finally bought it without any great hope. Since then I have chain-read the entire 20 books of what is known by initiates as the Aubry-Maturin series many times. (See this post).
So, in 2005, on a trip to visit my parents in Yorkshire, I planned to make a detour to Portsmouth, home of HMS Victory, the only surviving British ship of the line from that period. Perhaps ‘pilgrimage’ would be a more appropriate to describing my state of mind as I took the train from London to Portsmouth on the south coast of England. And a few moments out of the history books will explain why.
Construction on HMS Victory began in 1759 at the Royal Dockyard at Chatham and she was launched on 7th May 1763. She was a ‘first rate’ ship of the line, that is, one with 100 guns or more. At a time when regular ships of the line carried 76 guns, she was one of the most powerful ships afloat and her role was to be a flagship, the ship chosen to carry the admiral of the fleet. The most famous of those admirals was Admiral Lord Nelson, hero of the Battle of the Nile. And it was aboard HMS Victory on 21st October 1805 that Nelson led his fleet to victory against a combined French and Spanish fleet at the Battle of Trafalgar. This famous victory removed the threat of invasion by the forces of Napoleon Bonaparte that had been hanging over England for many years. Without adequate naval protection against the Royal Navy, no French invasion fleet could now hope to cross the Channel safely. Unfortunately, victory was bought at a high price for the Royal Navy and for England: Admiral Lord Nelson was killed during the battle, shot by a French musket as he paced the quarterdeck of HMS Victory.
So it was with something approaching humility that I made my way to Portsmouth’s Historic Dockyard complex on a September morn in 2005. I had seen photos on their web site and I was prepared (I thought) to be ‘blown over with a feather’. I didn’t know the half of it.
With hastening step I make my way along an old cobbled street flanked by old, low, red brick buildings. And then a square opens and there she is, the Victory.
You are immediately hit square amidships by a silent broadside of emotions. There she lies as she might have been seen by a rating reporting for duty over 200 years ago. Or as she might have been seen through the shaky glass of an enemy commander. Gun ports open, guns run out, tall masts higher than the buildings all around, huge yards all perfectly aligned, she imposes awe, respect, wonder. Here is the epitome, the last word, of the naval architect’s art of that time, carefully preserved and restored to her Battle of Trafalgar splendour. Note the 3 small flagpoles on the ground at the fore of the ship. They carry the flags of Admiral Lord Nelson’s famous signal to the fleet the day of the Battle of Trafalgar: ‘England expects every man will do his duty’.
As I approach I realise that she is deceptively huge. In these photos she may have the look of a small model ship, but I am here to tell you that up close she is utterly impressive by her size. Perhaps it is the fact that she is huge on a still-human scale. Men, not machines, built her: skilled craftsmen, using lost arts of shipbuilding, over a long period. Six thousand trees were used in her construction. She is 186 feet in length on the main gun deck, 50 feet wide at the broadest point. She displaced 3,500 tons (she is now in dry dock). She will not fit in your driveway. Note that she has 3 rows or decks of guns, which is why ‘first rate’ ships were also known as ‘3 deckers’. Regular 76 gun ships of the line, or ‘third rates’, had 2 decks of guns.
Looking up, I am amazed by the size of the anchors attached to the ship. The Victory carried a total of seven anchors of which the 4 largest, the 2 bower and 2 sheet anchors, weighed over 9400 pounds or 4.26 metric tons each. Notice the crown emblem at the end of the cathead (for land-lubbers, that would be that big piece of wood sticking out from which the anchors are deployed). The towering masts are supported laterally by huge grouped cables of rope, called shrouds (in the photo they resemble the strings of a violin or guitar) that are anchored to the hull. They are tarred black because they are part of the ‘standing rigging’, which is rarely handled by the sailors as opposed to the ‘running rigging’, which is handled often and is therefore not tarred. (Tarring helped protect the ropes from water damage). At the fore of the ship you can see the cutwater, the intricate head rails and the figurehead in the form of the Royal Crest with the Hanoverian coat of arms superimposed.
The Victory originally had open stern galleries leading off from the great cabins but they were closed in during a massive refit and reconstruction between 1801 and 1803. Below you can see the three levels of stern gallery windows. The upper deck cabin is the Captain’s quarters, the middle one that of the Admiral (divided into a day cabin and a dining room) and the lower one that of the officers, known as the wardroom.
Obviously, a stern composed essentially of windows (as opposed to a foot or more of solid oak as can be found elsewhere on the hull of the ship) is an excellent target for enemy cannon. Another reason is that a cannon ball fired along the length of a ship (called ‘raking’) would cause much more damage than one fired through the side of the ship. It was thus the earnest wish of any commander to try to manoeuvre his ship to ‘rake’ his enemy, surpassed only by the equally earnest wish of his counterpart to avoid it.
In the above photo you get a better idea of the size of the ship in relation to the passer-by.
Note the boat that has been lowered down to the ground with ropes from the quarter davits (the two black supports sticking out from the hull at 45 degrees). This was something of an innovation at the time, allowing a boat to be lowered and raised quickly and easily. Without davits, seamen had to lower and raise boats using tackles attached to the yards, a long and difficult manoeuvre. You can also clearly see the mizzenmast, the rear-most of the ship’s three masts, with its immense driver boom, the long yard at the foot of the mast leading away back and beyond the stern of the ship.
Having thus far been blown over with a feather in a thoroughly seaman-like manner, I make my way to the portside gangway (the starboard entry is reserved for naval personnel). With the words ‘So this is what it must have felt like’ echoing in my mind like a mantra, I come aboard through the entry port, a convenient ‘door’ halfway up the side of the hull.
I find myself in the half-darkness of the middle gun deck. It smells of old wood, rope, and history. The deck head and especially the deck beams are low: I’m 6’2, I have to stoop. On either side stand rows of big, black, squat guns, their muzzles run out, protruding through open gun ports. On this deck the guns are 24-pounders (24 refers to the weight of the shot or cannon ball they fired). The guns are lightest on the upper decks and heaviest on the lower decks in order to keep the ship stable rather than ‘top heavy’ in the water. The breakdown of guns in the Victory looks like this:
Forecastle: two 68-pounder carronades and two medium-long 12-pounders
Quarter deck: twelve short 12-pounders
Upper gun deck: thirty long 12-pounders
Middle gun deck: twenty-eight 24-pounders
Lower gun deck: thirty 32-pounders, the ship’s heaviest calibre guns
Yes, that makes 104 guns, but the Navy prefers a nice round figure. (The original design called for 100). It also makes for a broadside with a weight of metal of more than 1000 pounds or half a ton, which, as Patrick O’Brian would say, ‘is a nasty thing to receive’.
As I walk around this deck I realise that I am basically on a powerful floating gun platform. To put things in perspective, there are more guns here in this one ship than were present at the Battle of Waterloo. Now consider that at the Battle of Trafalgar the 27 British ships of the line faced off against 33 French and Spanish ships of the line. That makes for lot of heavy metal flying around. And here I am, 200 years later (almost to the day), standing on the ship that was in the thick of the action.
In the photo above we are on the forecastle looking towards the huge bowsprit. You can see one of the carronades on its sliding mount.
I make me way down to the lower deck and its thirty heavy 32-pounders. I am told that the planking underfoot here is original. This deck is where most of the crew ate their meals and slept. The Victory had a nominal crew of 850 in wartime (less in peacetime). They must have been standing on each other’s toes. True, a portion of the crew would always ‘have a watch’, that is, they would be on deck. A portion of the crew, about 140, was Marines and they berthed separately on the middle deck. But it is hard to imagine 500 or so men eating and sleeping on that one deck.
It did not take 850 men to sail the ship: about 100 would have been enough for that, under most conditions. Such numbers of men were necessary to man all the guns. Each 32-pounder here weighs three and three-quarter tons. Once fired the gun kicks back several feet from the gun port until it is halted by attached ropes. Once reloaded it has to be ‘run out’ or pushed forward so that its muzzle again protrudes through the gun port for firing. Little wonder then that each of these heavy guns had crews of 8 or 9 men, less for the lighter guns.
As can be expected aboard a flagship, the majority of seamen on the Victory were professionals, able and ordinary seamen, with a relatively small number of pressed landsmen.
Included in the figure of 850 are about 140 Marines and 4 officers (a captain of Marines and 3 lieutenants). They berthed on the middle deck, one of the reasons being that they were ideally placed to guard the officers in case of a mutiny (the wardroom is on this deck). The Marines were a disciplined elite military unit aboard, much as they are today. Although they helped with the working of the ship and with manning guns in battle their real raison d’être, the role they were trained for, was to form a disciplined company of men armed with muskets to repel boarders or to board enemy ships themselves. Often Marines would be assigned to the tops (small platforms on the masts) from where they could fire down on enemy crews. (Admiral Lord Nelson himself was shot in this way).
To oversee this vast crew, the Captain of the ship had with him at the time of the Battle of Trafalgar, 9 lieutenants, the master (responsible for the sailing of the ship), 7 master’s mates and 22 midshipmen along with other officers and warrant officers.
I can hardly describe to you the simple elegance of the ‘the Great Cabin’, running the entire width of the ship, illuminated by the impressive array of stern windows decorated in a rich wood panelling. (Photography was not permitted here). The white painted walls and deck head are accented by burgundy window sashes and chair coverings. The walls and deck head are curved: there is not a right-angle in the room.
Here Admiral Lord Nelson, and many other great admirals before and after him, lived and worked and took decisions that would have far-reaching effects on the conduct of the war in progress and on history. Leading to the Great Cabin is the admiral’s dining cabin where he entertained his captains and other guests. A long dining table runs the entire width of the room. The Captain’s quarters on the quarter deck above are almost as elegant.
Below on the middle deck lies the wardroom, the mess of the other officers aboard. It is not open to visitors for the good reason that it is being used by a modern-day admiral. For the Victory is even today a flagship: that of the Second Sea Lord and Commander-in-Chief Naval Home Command.
I was very tired that day, suffering from jet lag and lack of sleep. But I eagerly drank in all the sights and impressions of that beautiful ship and the recollection of it is vivid with me even today. And without a doubt, my appreciation of that ship was all the more enhanced by my having read the foremost literary work on the subject beforehand: Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey-Maturin series.