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World War 1 at Sea


THE MERCHANT NAVY, Volume 1, 1914 to Spring 1915 (Part 1 of 2)

by Sir Archibald Hurd

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The Cunard Liner "Lusitiania" off Brow Head (click to enlarge)

on to The Merchant Navy, Vol 1, Part 2 of 2
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A Modern Introduction


Up-to-date, well-researched naval histories have an important part to play in understanding past events, but I would like to suggest they are equalled by contemporary accounts written not long after the stories they describe, and often by those who took part. 


Such near-contemporary accounts include the three volumes of THE MERCHANT NAVY by Sir Archibald Hurd. They remain in print, but are still not widely known, and being out-of-copyright, can be found on the internet.


They are indispensable to any researcher or scholar of World War 1 who wants to start to understand the vastness of the war at sea and its near fatal impact on British, Allied and Neutral merchant shipping.


In reading these volumes, I am surprised how partisan the accounts are. The Germans are still the Hun, but then the U-boat war totally changed the rules of "civilized" mercantile warfare that had reigned for centuries. The shock had still not subsided when these books were written.


Any transcription and proofing errors are mine.


Gordon Smith,














Vol. I







John Murray, Albemarle Street, W



All Rights Reserved


The Lords Commissioners of the Admiralty have given the author access to official documents in the preparation of this work, but they are in no way responsible for the accuracy of its statements or the presentation of the facts.









Mistaken conception of the Merchant Navy - Traditions and romance - Significance of sea power - Growth of the world's war fleets - Influence of the steam-engine - Responsibilities of merchant shipping on the outbreak of war . ...... pp. l -2









The Cinque Ports and Home Defence - The Laws of Oleron - Merchantmen at the Battle of Sluys - War and piracy - Issue of letters of marque - Appointment of Admirals - The Merchant Adventurers - Sebastian Cabot - English seamen in the Narrow Seas - The Hanseatic League - The foundation of the Royal Navy - Elizabethan voyagers - Drake and the Spanish Main - The defeat of the Spanish Armada - The "Adventurers for the Discovery of the Trade of the East Indies" - The rivalry of the Dutch pp. 8-44




Enemy's war on sea-borne commerce - Heavy losses of merchant shipping - Successes of French corsairs - Unreadiness of the Channel Fleet - Spirited defence by British merchant seamen - The risks of commerce in war time - Unwieldy British convoys - Man-power of the Merchant Navy - The effect of impressment - The guerre de course after Trafalgar -The fight of the Windsor Castle - The escape of the Shaw - The Antelope and the Atlante - Consideration for prisoners - The value of Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, and Dieppe - Raids on shipping in the English Channel - British merchantmen captured, 1793-1812 . pp. 44-69




The aftermath of the War - Prosperity and sea power - The influence of the Navigation Laws and the movement for repeal - The competency of masters and officers -Mr. Joseph Hume's agitation - Legislation to promote safety at sea - The Foreign Office inquiry of 1843 - Mr. Samuel Plimsoll and " coffin-ships " - The work of reform - Growth of the Merchant Navy, 1818-74 - The rivalry of the United States - Effect of the Civil War - Progress of ameliorative legislation -Responsibilities of the Board of Trade - Strength of the British Mercantile Marine on the outbreak of the War, 1914 - Liners and tramps - Expansion of the world's sea-borne commerce - Distribution of the Merchant Fleet . . . pp. 70-97




Changed relations of the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine - Unpopularity of impressment - The Registry of seamen - Deterioration of the personnel - Reports from British Consuls - Discreditable conditions - Increase in the number of apprentices - A new scheme of registration and its failure - Repeal of the Manning clauses of the Navigation Laws - Establishment of a Voluntary Naval Reserve - A chequered history - New scheme of training of the Royal Naval Reserve introduced in 1906 - The country's resources in seamen . . pp. 97-116







The position of the merchant seamen - Discussions at The Hague - Germany's deceptive declarations - Professions of respect for the code of humanity - Right of conversion on the high seas - The Admiralty's suspicions - A policy of defensive armament - Germany's varied resources for a war on commerce - British merchant ships detained in German ports before the outbreak of war - British protests - The enemy's Naval Prize Code - The status of merchant seamen - The German declaration of July 22nd, 1914 - Merchant seamen as prisoners of war - The opening of hostilities - Loss of the s.s. San Wilfrido . . .pp. 117-136







The Konigsberg'S attack on merchantmen - A British master's early experiences - The Dresden as a commerce destroyer - Chase of the Pacific Steam Navigation Company's s.s. Ortega - A fine exhibition of seamanship - Escape of the armed merchant cruiser Kaiser Wilhelm der Grosse from the North Sea - Experiences of the officers and men of the s.s. Galicia - Consideration for women and children - Operations of the Karlsruhe off Parnambuco - An enforced cruise - A British captain's diary - A lucky escape - Misfortunes of a defensively armed merchantman - The fate of the sailing-ship Wilfred M. - Capture of the armed merchant cruiser Kronprinz Wilhelm - Operations of the Prinz Eitel Friedrich - The sinking of the American s.s. William P. Frye - Capture of the s.s. Elsinore by the Leipzig - Marooned on an island . . pp. 137-185







Captain von Mueller's resource and courtesy exaggerated - Record of the Emden's captures - Raid in the Bay of Bengal - A passenger's experiences - A rich harvest - A British master's diary - The attack on the oil-tanks at Madras - Captain von Mueller's change of scene - Treatment of British seamen - Escape of the s.s. Glenturret - Destruction of the Emden - The gunboat Geier's only capture - Rescue of the s.s. Southport - A notable exploit - Total captures by enemy cruisers - No lives sacrificed pp. 186-209









The responsibilities of the Navy - The Royal Commission on the Supply of Food and Raw Material in Time of War - Changes in naval conditions owing to the introduction of steam - Command of the sea essential - Concentration of force the key to security - Losses of merchantmen anticipated - Shipowners and the risks of war - An enemy's difficulties - Linking up the Admiralty and the Merchant Service - No fear of starvation . . pp. 210-216




Action of the Committee of Imperial Defence - The basic principle of British defensive policy - Oversea ports and their protection - The danger of panics - Limitation of local defence - An enemy's probable policy - Harbours of refuge - The compilation of the War Book - Admiral of the Fleet Sir Arthur Wilson's declaration - Influence of a policy of concentration of naval force ....... pp. 216-223




A Royal Commission's recommendation ignored - A reversal of policy - Captain Henry Campbell's Memorandum on an intelligence service for the main trade routes - The creation of a Trade Division - Its growth and organisation - Relations between the Admiralty and the Merchant Navy pp. 224-228




Mr. Austen Chamberlain's Committee of 1907 - A fresh inquiry undertaken in 1913 - Formation of Mutual Insurance Associations, or Clubs, changes the situation - Government action and the avoidance of publicity - Co-operation between the State and the Clubs suggested - Estimate of probable losses - Basis of the value of shipping to be accepted - Proposals for the insurance of cargoes - "An administratively practicable scheme " - Prompt action on the outbreak of war .... pp. 228-239




Communications opened with ships and shipowners - Co-operation of other State departments - Counsels of weakness rejected - Merchant shipping urged to continue its operations - A policy of dispersion of shipping adopted - Why the convoy system was impracticable - Early instructions to merchant shipping - The "sea is free to all " - Re-establishing confidence amongst shipowners - An official review of the first two months of the War - The opening of the New Year - Activities of the Operations Division of the War Staff - Daily voyage notices to the Mercantile Marine ... ... pp. 239-252



(Part 2 of 2)







Scarcity of small craft for purposes of patrol - Influence of the submarine and mine - Organisation of the New Navy - Lord Beresford's foresight - Trawlers organised for war purposes - An Admiralty Committee appointed - The purchase of trawlers in 1910 - Manning policy - Progress of recruiting - The mobilisation scheme - The trawler section on the outbreak of war- A notable achievement . . . pp. 253-267







Development of a new policy for attacking sea-borne commerce - The sinking of the s.s. Glitra, the first merchant ship to be destroyed by a submarine - The achievement of U21 in the English Channel - Germany's decision to ignore international law and the code of humanity - Interview with Grand Admiral von Tirpitz in December 1914 - Germany's declaration of the War Zone on February 4th, 1915 - The reply of the British Government - The attack on the s.s. Laertes - The British seamen's ordeal - Enemy threats treated with contempt - The rising toll of lives lost - Merchant ships attacked by aeroplanes - Vessels torpedoed without warning - The escape of the s.s. Vosges - The s.s. Falaba torpedoed and sunk - A court of inquiry - The tragedy of the s.s. Fulgent. pp. 268-317







Mine-laying by the Germans - Operations of British mine-sweepers - Maintaining a swept channel - The needs of the Grand Fleet - Trawlers in a new role - Steam-yachts requisitioned - The Motor-Boat Reserve - Clearing three German minefields - The menace of the submarine - An anti-submarine trawler flotilla - Protecting merchant shipping - A new naval command at Dover - Hunting for submarines - Expansion of the mine-sweeping service - Escape of the Norddeutscher Lloyd liner Berlin - A minefield laid off Tory Island - Foundering of H.M.S. Audacious - Impressment of Liverpool tugs as patrols - Exploration of a new minefield - The Gorleston raid - Activity in the English Channel - U18 sunk by a trawler - Incursions into Scapa Flow - The raid on Scarborough pp. 318-366







The enemy's dependence on the mine and submarine - An attack upon the Grand Fleet - Additional armed trawlers fitted out - The development of the "indicator net" - An extended scheme of patrol introduced - The nucleus of the drifter fleet - Submarine attack off the Mersey - Reorganisation of the patrol area - The war zone declaration and its influence on the patrol - Netting the Straits of Dover - Destruction of a submarine by the steam trawler Alex Hastie - Encounters with submarines - The value of the modified sweep - The fighting spirit of the British crews - The enemy's reply to the indicator net - Loss of fishing vessels and crews - Protective measures devised by the Admiralty - Further changes in the Auxiliary Patrol - The discovery of an enemy minefield . pp. 367-409







The "Blue Ribbon of the Atlantic" - Enemy warning of an attack on the Lusitania ignored by passengers - An unarmed ship, with 1,959 people on board - Lord Mersey's judgment supported by an American judge - The cross-Atlantic voyage - Warnings from the Admiralty as to the presence of submarines off the Irish coast - Captain Turner's decision - The enemy's attack without warning - A passenger's experience - Scene on board the doomed ship - Heroic conduct of an able seaman - The first officer's exertions to save life - Captain Turner's explanation - The official inquiry and judgment - Reception of the news in Germany pp. 410-428







The concentration of enemy craft off the Irish coast to attack the Lusitania - The disposition of patrol vessels - The S.O.S. signal and the response - Rescue of the survivors - Fine service of unarmed fishing-vessels - Increasing constriction on the enemy's movement owing to the activity of the patrol - A well-devised scheme - The introduction of the hydrophone - The fighting spirit of the new Navy - Entrapping the submarine - The harvest of the sea - Trawler sea-fights - A submarine's cowardly action - Destruction of the U-boat - Rescue of a merchant ship and a valuable cargo . pp.429-449




(not included you can use Search)





After a mine explosion ..... 134

The sinking of a merchant ship . . . .146

The white star liner " Olympic " (from the air) ... 202

(Part 2 of 2)

Survivors from a torpedoed ship .... 270

A drifter fleet at sea ..... 320

Flagship of a drifter fleet .... 330

A drifter on patrol ... 358

Net mines being thrown overboard ... 374

Throwing a lance-bomb ... 392

The Cunard liner " Lusitania " off brow head ... 416

Grave of victims of the " Lusitania " at Queenstown ... 426

Laying nets from drifters to catch submarines ... 438



(not included)

The World. Showing the Volume and Distribution of British Trade and the Scheme of Cruiser Protection for the Trade Routes (At End of Book.)

European Waters. Showing the Volume and Distribution of British Trade .

British Islands, North Sea and Baltic Entrance







WHEN the peace was broken on August 4th, 1914, nothing suggested that British merchant seamen would fare worse than their predecessors of the Napoleonic era, and the statement that they would be compelled to face perils in intensity and variety unparalleled in human experience would have been rejected as unbelievable in face of all the efforts made at The Hague to humanise warfare. Events falsified all anticipations.


After the comparative failure of the attack on commerce by surface craft cruisers and auxiliary cruisers the enemy became convinced that in the submarine he had found the means of cutting the communications of the British Empire, and of shutting off from the European battle-fields the essential supplies without which the troops could not continue to fight. The use of the submarine for commerce destruction involved the infraction of international law as well as the ignoring of the code of humanity, since these small craft, packed with machinery and equipped for war, were unable to accommodate the crews of ships sunk, whether by torpedo, gunfire, or bombs. The German flag had already been banished from the highways of the world. So, in desperation, it was decided, whatever the loss of human life might be, and without respect for considerations of law, however widely recognised, to embark on a policy which, rightly or wrongly, became generally known as piracy.


This decision changed the whole aspect of the War so far as merchant seamen were concerned. As the campaign made progress it became apparent that the British merchant seamen were being forced by circumstances, over which neither they nor the British naval authorities had any control, into the forefront of the struggle by sea. They had entered the Mercantile Marine with no thought that they would be exposed even to such trials and sufferings as their predecessors sustained during the previous Great War, for there had been much talk at various international Conferences of ameliorating the conditions of warfare; they found themselves involved in a conflict waged by a merciless enemy with large and newly-developed resources. The seamen were defenceless, for this emergency had not been foreseen either by the Admiralty, by the shipowners, or by the seamen themselves. As the campaign continued, the Germans found that their best hope of success lay in discharging their torpedoes without warning, leaving the crews, and in some cases passengers, at the mercy of the elements.


In these conditions it was thought appropriate that an official history should be prepared, placing on record for all time the manner in which British seamen, refusing to be cowed by the enemy's threats, confronted a ruthless foe, regarding their own lives as cheap if, in spite of the perils they willingly faced, the stream of ocean traffic, necessary alike for naval, military, and economic reasons, were maintained. This history was consequently undertaken, at the suggestion of the Board of Trade, under the authority of the Historical Section of the Committee of Imperial Defence towards the close of 1917, the proposal receiving the cordial support of the Admiralty and the Ministry of Shipping.


The ordeal to which the men of the British Mercantile Marine submitted with generous patriotism can be appreciated only if it is described in an appropriate setting, ignoring neither the plans of the naval authorities for the protection of merchant shipping, elaborated in the years before the outbreak of war, nor the measures afterwards adopted to enable merchant shipping to resist with better hope of success the enemy's policy. On the other hand, no attempt has been made to deal with the naval operations undertaken by the Admiralty for the protection of this country's sea communications, except in so far as they immediately concerned the Mercantile Marine, nor with the economic effects of the naval war on ocean-borne trade. The former subject has been treated in the companion work by Sir Julian Corbett, and Mr. C. Ernest Fayle has become responsible for the latter.


While British seamen, uncovenanted to the State, had never had to confront such an ordeal as that of 1915-18, it would be to misunderstand the history of the British Mercantile Marine, of which little has been written, to conclude that never before had sailors of the Merchant Service taken part in our wars, creating traditions handed down from generation to generation with increasing pride. On the contrary, the Merchant Navy was the defence of the nation's sea interests and its bulwark against invasion before the Royal Navy had any existence, and after the foundation of the Royal Navy it continued to bear no small share in the sea defences of the country. It has been thought not inappropriate to the story which these volumes tell to give in very brief summary, as a preliminary chapter, some account of the contribution of British merchant seamen in the past to this country's maritime history; this summary furnishes a fitting background to the unexampled record of high courage, uncomplaining suffering, and in thousands of instances martyrdom, which the late struggle has provided as an example and inspiration to future generations. The theme is a great one, and there is a tendency to forget that the Merchant Navy was the creator of the Royal Navy.


As soon as the task of preparing this History was Undertaken, it became apparent that, if the record were strictly confined to the experiences of merchant seamen in passenger and cargo-carrying ships, it would convey an inadequate impression of the dauntless courage, fine resource, and dogged endurance of the men serving by sea, who were exposed to the full fury of the enemy's campaign, and of the wide range of the services they rendered. The Germans determined to hold up, or destroy, merchant shipping, and their failure is traceable alike to the spirit exhibited by the crews of merchant vessels and to the manner in which merchant seamen, fishermen, yachtsmen, and others responded to the Admiralty's invitation when it was decided to build up a new Navy to deal with the new problems created by the submarine and mine. And thus it happens that this History embraces an account of the operations of the Auxiliary Patrol, constituting one of the most remarkable aspects of the war by sea.


Acknowledgment is made of the assistance rendered by Lieutenant-Commander E. Keble Chatterton, R.N.V.R., in the preparation of this portion of the History. He was associated with that phase of the war by sea for three winters and three summers, and obtained first-hand knowledge of the sterling work done by the merchant seamen as belligerents in circumstances of much danger and difficulty. With his aid, an attempt has been made to convey an impression of the elaborate organisation which was gradually created by the Admiralty, ultimately comprising nearly 4,000 vessels, and of the high standard of seamanship of officers and men.


Little has hitherto been revealed of the activities of the Auxiliary Patrol. Now, with the advantage of official records, the veil can be lifted and particulars given of some of the most stirring incidents of the war by sea. It must be apparent that the story - a typical British story of a fight against heavy odds - has been little more than half told in the limited space available in this book.


The writing of this record of the ordeal of British merchant seamen would have been impossible had it not been for the cordial help received from officers of the Royal Navy who, while serving at the Admiralty or elsewhere, were brought into intimate association with the Merchant Service, from the officials of the Marine Department of the Board of Trade, of the Ministry of Shipping, and of the Admiralty, from the Registrar-General of Shipping and Seamen, and from many others, to whom acknowledgment is made. Full use has also been made of the records of the various departments.








A HISTORY of the part which merchant seamen took in the war by sea, from its dramatic opening on August 4th, 1914, to its close over four and a half years later, would be incomplete were no attempt made to fill in the background against which the stirring events of those years must stand out in due perspective. Without such an historic setting it would be difficult to appreciate the character and extent of the services which British seamen, non-combatants and unpledged to the State, rendered with fine patriotism, never-failing resource, and a hardihood unparalleled even in British annals.


During the long period of peace after the conclusion of the Napoleonic War, the British Merchant Navy was regarded as a trading organisation - that and nothing more. The authority which the State had exercised in the past had been in general of two kinds - protective and economic. Throughout the latter half of the nineteenth and the first decade of the twentieth century, it tended to interest itself increasingly in shipping, and especially to regulate it more closely in the interest of the persons (passengers and crews) carried in the ships, with a view to safeguarding life. The restricted powers formerly vested in the Admiralty were transferred to the Board of Trade and exercised by that department, overburdened with many and varied responsibilities, with sagacity and restraint, the aim being to discourage as little as possible the individualistic enterprise of the shipping industry.


It was forgotten by the British people that the British Merchant Navy had a war history dating back to a period anterior to the founding of the Royal Navy. No one recalled the part which merchant seamen had borne in former wars, or remembered that in earlier periods of British history the merchant sailor had stood between this country and the invader when little or no progress had been made in the organisation of a fighting Navy as a State institution. The Merchant Navy was thought to be an organisation without traditions and with little remaining romance, owing to the advent of steam, which had replaced sail power. That was a narrow and mistaken view, as events were to show. Just as in the great period of the nation's expanding self-consciousness the Merchant Navy was the finest embodiment of the national spirit, so when the war clouds burst in the summer of 1914, the real character of the British merchant seamen was revealed as the flash of artillery lit up the battle-fields on the Continent of Europe. These sailors were recognised as no ordinary men engaged merely in facilitating the barter and exchange of a commercial community, but as belonging to a great brotherhood, instinct with patriotism and proud of the traditions dating back, in unbroken and glorious sequence, to the early years of British history.


When the present struggle began, two great national forces, the Navy and the Army - the latter supported by Territorials were recognised, and supported out of public funds. Within a few months of the opening of hostilities, the King, in a message of appreciation of the services of the merchant seamen, referred to "his Merchant Navy," subsequently appointing Captain H. J. Haddock, C.B., one of the most distinguished senior officers of the Mercantile Marine, as an aide-de-camp, and the Prime Minister, in a self-revealing phrase, described the Merchant Navy as "the jugular vein of the nation." Its officers and men in a short time set up a record of daring, resource, and fine seamanship, so conspicuous, even when studied against the background of past centuries, that it was necessary to amend the statutes and introduce new regulations in order to enable suitable recognition to be given to them. The merchant sailor, unassuming and modest, took his stand, with the full recognition of an aroused and grateful public opinion, beside the men of the ancient fighting services.


During the years of fierce naval competition which preceded the War, when the talk was of Dreadnoughts, seapower was thought to be a matter of men-of-war battleships, cruisers, destroyers, and submarines organised in fleets, squadrons, or flotillas, and manned by highly trained officers and men. So long as the country possessed a supreme Navy, any other deficiency was of minor importance. The relationship between the Royal Navy and the Mercantile Marine had undergone a radical change since the close of the last Great War, to be reflected in the public attitude towards the Merchant Fleet. The former had become independent of the latter as a source of manpower, owing to the introduction of a system of continuous naval service in the middle of the nineteenth century. It was concluded that, since the necessity of compulsory service had disappeared, the value of the Merchant Fleet as an auxiliary force in time of war had been reduced, though its place as a food-carrier from distant markets was realised by open-eyed statesmen. Mahan, fresh from the study of naval history, had made, it is true, a significant declaration. " Sea power," he remarked, " primarily depends upon commerce which follows the most advantageous road; military control follows upon trade for its furtherance and protection. Except as a system of highways joining country to country, the sea is an unfruitful possession. The sea, or water, is the great medium of circulation established by Nature, just as money has been evolved by man for the exchange of commerce. Change the flow of either in direction or amount, and you modify the political and industrial relations of mankind." (Naval Strategy (Mahan)). This writer was groping after a truth, but even he was blind to the essential character of the functions of a merchant navy, or, rather, did not associate cause with effect. He and other writers, in common with Governments throughout the world, failed to trace the wide influence exerted, on the one hand, by conscription for military purposes, and, on the other, by the introduction of steam as the motive power for men-of-war.


When Napoleon decided to make a levy on the population of France in order to raise a vast army which was to dominate Europe, he laid the foundations of a system which rendered a long war in future years impossible except with the aid of sea carriage. Before that development, armies and navies made relatively small demands upon the man-power of the nations engaged, and those nations were in large measure self-supporting. Europe had had its Hundred Years' War. Maritime commerce was still in its infancy during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. The Continent of Europe was engaged in hostilities almost without interruption for a period of nearly a quarter of a century without being brought to a condition of famine, so great were its resources. Between 1815 and 1914, however, the standard of living in Western Europe had been raised; industrialism had grown at the expense of agriculture; and increasing reliance had been placed upon the ship of commerce, acting as the link between the highly developed nations of the West and the States overseas, which still continue to produce a surplus of food-stuffs and raw materials.


In war-time conscription, as the late struggle was to reveal, withdraws from essential industries all the able-bodied men of a State; it blights agriculture and depresses trade; it converts producers into consumers. Moltke, after the Franco-Prussian War, admitted that long-drawn-out contests would in future be checked by the economic exhaustion which wars on the scale of national man-power would involve, since, from the moment such a struggle opened, a State, in developing fighting energy on a broad national basis, would begin subtracting from its economic strength. But in this respect, as German writers were among the first to recognise, a maritime Power necessarily enjoys advantages over a land Power, so long as it is able to use the pathways of the sea to replenish its supplies of food and raw material from neutral markets. Conscription casts fresh burdens on sea power, and, in particular, on that form of sea power represented by the ship of commerce.


But that is not the only change which occurred during the nineteenth century. The great development of military power on shore was accompanied by a vast growth of military strength by sea. Owing to the advent of steam, the typical man-of-war of the Nelsonian era disappeared, and was replaced by the coal or oil-consuming vessel. Mahan (Naval Strategy (Mahan)) remarked, long before the Great War opened, that, " The days when fleets lay becalmed are gone, it is true; but gone are the days when, with four or five months of food and water below, they were ready to follow the enemy to the other side of the world without stopping. Nelson, in 1803-5, had always on board three months' provisions and water, and aimed to have five months' that is, to be independent of communications for nearly five months. If it is sought to lessen the strategic difficulty by carrying more coal, there is introduced the technical drawback of greater draught, with consequent lower speed and more sluggish handling, a still more important consideration. The experience of Admiral Rodjestvensky in this matter is recent and instructive. His difficulties of supply, and chiefly of coal, are known: the most striking consequence is the inconsiderate manner in which, without necessity, he stuffed his vessels with coal for the last run of barely a thousand miles. That he did this can be attributed reasonably only to the impression produced upon his mind by his coaling difficulties, for the evident consequence of this injudicious action was to put his ships in bad condition for a battle which he knew was almost inevitable." Those words indicate that the American historian was approaching a realisation of the changes which had occurred in the character of naval power, rendering it dependent on auxiliaries for food, ammunition, and stores; but, on the other hand, he under-estimated the extent to which the ship of commerce loaded with coal and operating with the ship of war engaged in attacking commerce, as in the case of the EMDEN and other enemy cruisers, could provide a measure of compensation for the restrictions on naval warfare traceable to the development of the swift-running steam-engine with its enormous consumption of fuel.


All those considerations were inadequately recognised before the War opened in 1914, which was at last to involve in its horrors, directly or indirectly, practically all the nations of the Continent of Europe, was later on to draw in Japan and China, and at last to bring the United States and other American Republics into the arena. Even Mahan did not go farther than to suggest that " a broad basis of mercantile maritime interests will doubtless conduce to naval efficiency by supplying a reserve of material and personnel." Events were to show that his anticipation of reliance being placed upon the Mercantile Marine for men to anything like the same extent as during the wars of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was based upon an under-appreciation of the varied responsibilities devolving upon a merchant navy as soon as the maritime State whose flag it carries becomes engaged in warfare. The books of British writers upon war policy may be studied in vain for a just appreciation of the essential part which the British Mercantile Marine necessarily assumed as soon as this country become involved in varied war activities overseas. Soon after the declaration of war, the British Mercantile Navy was confronted with responsibilities which in character and extent were without parallel in maritime history.

1. Owing to circumstances which need not be examined in this connection, the Royal Navy was without defended bases of supply on the east coast vis-a-vis to Germany. Consequently, as soon as the Grand Fleet was mobilised, heavy demands were made upon the Mercantile Marine for ships to carry fuel (coal and oil), ammunition, stores, food, and everything required for the prosecution of the war in home waters. At the same time, other ships were requisitioned for the support of naval power in the outer seas.


2. The resources of the Royal Navy large as they were proved inadequate to maintain the patrol which it became necessary to organise in order to make the blockade of the enemy effective. Some of the swiftest liners were, therefore, taken up and commissioned under the White Ensign, and from the varied resources of the Merchant Navy the Auxiliary Patrol was organised.


3. As the military commitments of the country increased, a large volume of mercantile tonnage was required for transport purposes. Transport facilities had to be provided for the Gallipoli Expedition, the army at Salonika, the forces based on Egypt, the operations in Mesopotamia and Palestine, and the campaign in East Africa. Shipping was also requisitioned for the troops engaged in routing the Germans out of their Pacific possessions, and other ships were employed in maintaining the military lines of communication between the mother-country and India, New Zealand, Australia, South Africa, Canada, and Newfoundland. Hospital carriers had to be fitted out.


4. Storeships had to be found for the growing armies engaged in all the widely separated theatres of war to carry the vast assortment of material ranging from heavy guns and horses to bomb-throwers and medical comforts.


5. As the British Army grew in size, a vast expansion occurred in the munition movement in the British Isles, in India, and in Canada, as well as in the United States, and a large number of ships were soon engaged exclusively in conveying ores and other raw materials over the seas.


6. At the same time, the sea-dependent people of the British Isles, numbering over forty million persons, had to be fed, and, owing to the isolation of Russia with its surplus grain production, the cutting off of beet sugar from Germany, and the dangers which threatened navigation between the British Isles and Scandinavia, new sources of supply had to be opened up, involving longer voyages, and therefore the employment of a larger amount of tonnage.

It was a fortunate circumstance that this country possessed about half the merchant shipping of the world; otherwise it would have been seriously hampered in the prosecution of the War. It is also a fortunate circumstance that its merchant ships possessed officers and crews who were not to be frightened by the enemy threats or acts. The British Navy has never wanted historians; its history has been written from every standpoint; but the historian to give full credit to the British Merchant Navy, with its fine achievements in peace and in war, has not yet arisen. In approaching the study of the part taken by the Merchant Navy in the Great War, it has been thought pardonable to supply a background, consisting of a short survey of the place which British merchant seamen have filled in the evolution of the British people, a brief record of the heroic services they have rendered in successive wars, and particularly in the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars, and some details of the gradual development of the Mercantile Marine during the nineteenth century. A contrast may thus be provided between the conditions existing in former wars and those with which the British seaman, unarmed and undefended, was confronted when, in performance of his peaceful duty, he was suddenly called upon to meet the menace of the raider, the mine, and, above all, the submarine.












OF all the lessons taught to the inhabitants of these islands by the Great War, none can have been more completely mastered than this - that they owe their very existence to the two branches of the great Sea service - the Mercantile Marine bringing them the bulk of their supplies, and the Royal Navy, the "sure shield" of that vital traffic as well as of the homeland itself. Viewed in the light of this immense debt of gratitude, the two branches are seen to be essentially one, the fighting arm but an extension of the Mercantile Marine; and the modern separation of functions takes its proper place as a natural evolution from the days when our sea battles were fought by vessels temporarily converted from merchantmen to men-of-war. That condition did not mark in any degree the centuries which immediately followed the Roman occupation. Sunk in internecine strife, and the prey to successive piratical invasions, England had then no effective share in the sea-borne commerce of which the Mediterranean was the secular home; and in constructing and maintaining the Fleet which has given him such a high place in our naval history, King Alfred was dealing with a simple though formidable problem of invasion, and, taking an accurate strategical view of the situation, he placed his first line of defence off his coasts. His policy was vigorously carried on by Athelstan, and though from time to time merchant shipping was drawn upon by the Saxon kings for their war fleets, it may be said generally that the basis of the navies of these troublous centuries was essentially a military one. The change came with the return to greater national security, and the consequent growth of maritime enterprise, and the incorporation of the famous Cinque Ports by the Conqueror - a step directly due to the fear of a Danish invasion - may conveniently be taken as inaugurating the unity of the two branches of the sea service.


Upon the seamen of the Cinque Ports - Dover, Sandwich, Romney, Winchelsea and Rye (the list was extended later) - were conferred certain unique commercial and maritime privileges on condition of their raising a powerful force of fifty-seven ships properly manned and equipped for use in any sudden emergency. The period of service (fifteen days) could be extended at the King's pleasure, but in such event the cost was to be borne by the Royal Treasury. The fleet thus created was actively maintained by William Rufus, and it contributed its full share to the great expedition undertaken by Richard I to recover the Holy Land from the Saracens. In this enterprise over 200 merchant vessels were enrolled for the task of transporting the Crusaders; and, disastrous as it proved in some respects, the expedition had notable consequences for the country's maritime progress. In the critical days which followed the death of King John, the Cinque Ports Fleet covered itself with immortal glory by the prominent part it took in the defeat of the French Armada dispatched from Calais under Eustace the Monk. Responding to the patriotic appeal of Hubert de Burgh, the stout sailors and fishermen of Dover manned all the vessels, large and small, lying in the harbour, and, having taken the knights and men-at-arms on board, sailed out to meet the enemy. The battle, as recorded by Matthew Paris, took place off Sandwich. The English sailors proved their better seamanship by getting the weather gauge, and when the cross-bowmen and archers had discharged their arrows under these favourable conditions and quick-lime had been thrown at close quarters, the Frenchmen were rammed and boarded. Such a picture presents the mariners of the southern ports in the most favourable colours. Their brilliant share in the exploit won them a generous extension of their already existing rights, but it has to be admitted that the position of the seamen of the Cinque Ports as a privileged class was productive of many evils which must be set off against their great services to the nation. The privilege now conferred upon them in itself a foreshadowing of the custom of issuing Letters of Marque - of annoying " the subjects of France and all they met of whatever nation," simply meant the right to plunder any and every foreign merchant ship. The example found so many imitators that before long the Channel was swarming with pirates, the strong preying on the weak, "until the evil had grown to such an enormous extent that the most stringent measures were found necessary to sweep the seas of the marauders." (The British Merchant Service (Cornewall Jones)). Moreover, the Cinque Ports were not free from the jealousy characteristic of a privileged class, and feuds with other ports, and notably with Yarmouth, broke out again and again, often marked by savage energy.


We get a picturesque hint of the beginnings of maritime enterprise under the Saxon kings in Athelstan's grant of the rank and privileges of Thane to any merchant or mariner who should successfully accomplish three voyages on the high seas; but for long after the Conquest the limits of British overseas trade appear to have been the entrance to the Baltic in the north and the ports of the Bay of Biscay to the south, nor did our wool trade with Flanders reach its high prosperity till a later date. Richard's last crusade, therefore, has a special significance as the first extended voyage of English ships, and it furnished results far removed from its idealistic purposes. For the first time since the Roman occupation the English now entered into trade relations with the Levant (though English ships did not penetrate there till much later); and not only was a new stimulus applied to the growth of English shipping, but the attempt was made to codify by regular enactment the rules of the sea.


The famous Laws of Oleron, generally attributed to Richard himself, (For a full discussion of this question, see The Black Book of the Admiralty, in the edition of Sir Travers Twiss) but almost certainly derived from a French source, are of great interest for the light they throw on life on board the sea-going merchant ship of the period. The articles covered all matters relating to mercantile shipping questions of total loss, damage, demurrage, harbour regulation, fishing, and the like and in particular defined for the first time the duties and qualifications of the Master of the ship. The Master was put in charge of, and held answerable for, everything on board, and he was required to understand thoroughly the art of navigating his vessel, for the specific reason that he might thereby control the pilot, who was the Second Officer on board a merchantman. Nor could any sailor leave the ship without his consent. Navigation in the days before the compass was largely a matter of practical experience, and of this fact the second article of the Code affords a striking illustration; for it was there laid down that if a vessel was delayed in port by unfavourable weather, or by the failure of the wind, the Master had to call the ship's company together, and take their opinion on the situation, and in the event of a division of opinion he was to abide by the voice of the majority. This rule, in fact, applied to every emergency by which the Master might be confronted. It is interesting to note that such a regulation in a modified form remained in active force for centuries; indeed, one of the charges brought by his detractors against Sir Francis Drake in the period of his great voyages was that, by his attitude towards his officers, he had on occasion treated this obligation with contempt. But Drake, a giant among sea captains and self-reliant to his finger-tips, was a law unto himself in such matters. Here, surely, in this thirteenth century code we perceive the beginnings of that spirit of freedom under discipline which has become traditional in the Mercantile Marine, a spirit which found such rich expression in Elizabethan times, and helped to make the British the first seamen of the world.


The same principle, born as it were of the breath of the sea, is traceable in the article defining with amusing particularity the relations of the Master with the crew. It was the Master's duty to keep peace among his men. If one called another a liar at table, he was to be fined fourpence, but if the Master himself so offended he was mulcted in twice the amount. For impudently contradicting the Master, a seaman was fined eightpence. A single blow from the Master was to be accepted by a sailor without retaliation, but a second blow gave him the right to defend himself. On the other hand, if a sailor struck the first blow, he was either to pay a heavy fine or lose his hand. Finally, if a sailor received abuse from the Master, he was advised to hide himself in the forecastle; but if the Master followed him into that retreat the Englishman's house at sea in the proverbial sense of his castle then the victim was entitled to stand on his defence.


This significant recognition of the rights of the common sailor went hand-in-hand with strict discipline, and order and good conduct were maintained with mediaeval severity. Damage to the ship due to a sailor's absence without leave was punishable with a year's imprisonment; a fatal accident due to the same cause involved a flogging - a flogging of the period - and actual desertion meant branding in the face with a red-hot iron. Other offences, including such human weaknesses as swearing and gambling, often incurred brutal penalties in the Middle Ages, and the punishment of keel-hauling, which seems to have been first practised by the English in the twelfth century, survived into modern times, as we know from the pages of Captain Marryatt.


By the Oleron Code, a defaulting pilot - the navigating officer of the time - was allotted treatment in full proportion to the responsibility of his task. If through his ignorance his vessel miscarried in entering a port, and if he were unable to render full satisfaction for the damage or loss, then he paid for the mishap with his head; and if the Master or the merchants on board chose to exact the penalty there and then, they were not to be called on to answer it in law. Furthermore, any pilot who, in connivance with the "lords of the coast," ran his ship on shore, was to be hanged on a high gibbet at the place of destruction, as a caution to other vessels that might pass thereby. Against any "lord of the coast " involved in such a crime drastic measures were laid down. His goods were to be confiscated by way of restitution, while he himself was to be fastened to a stake in the midst of his mansion and the whole building committed to the flames. In the Middle Ages wreckers infested the shores, and the sense of this ever-present menace to shipping is fully expressed in the severe treatment reserved for those who plundered a ship or murdered castaway mariners. They were to be "plunged into the sea till they were half dead, and then drawn out from the sea and stoned to death." A notable example of the common practice of the impressment of sailors occurred in the following reign at a time when King John was preparing an expedition to Ireland. For the transport of the soldiers, the seamen of Wales were ordered to repair to Ilfracombe on pain of hanging and forfeiture of goods. This power of the Crown was continuously exercised up to the beginning of the nineteenth century. Though never a statutory right, and occasionally challenged as an illegality, it is implied in numerous statutes, and was judicially regarded as a part of the Common Law of the Realm.


Like the fight off Sandwich of 1217, the Battle of Sluys, early in the reign of Edward III, was a triumph for the merchantmen of England. The French King's fleet, largely composed of Norman ships, reinforced by a Genoese squadron, were massed in the harbour at the entrance to the canal leading to the great mart of Bruges - so vast in numbers, says Froissart, that "their masts seemed to be like a great wood." King Edward attacked with a fleet drawn from the various ports of the kingdom, and carrying a large force of archers and men-at-arms. A fierce struggle, lasting all day and renewed the following morning, ended in a complete victory, with capture or destruction of nearly all the French vessels, though the Genoese mercenaries escaped in the night. The Harleian MSS. have preserved for us the list of the Armada with which, six years later, the King blockaded Calais. Exclusive of those of " forrayne Countreyes in this Ayde," the roll shows a total of 707 vessels, and of that number only twenty-five were King's ships. The detailed list is of great interest, also, as an indication of the relative prominence of the different maritime towns. The famous Cinque Ports, their harbours already beginning to silt up, were far out-distanced by the West Country. Sandwich, Winchelsea, Dover, Rye, and Hythe, together muster an average of fifteen ships each, but Fowey - a place of little importance to-day, but then a centre of the tin industry - sent 47; Dartmouth - whence Chaucer's shipman haled - 32; Plymouth, 26; Bristol, 22; and Looe, 20. On the other hand, the modern Welsh ports of Cardiff and Swansea were represented by only one ship each, and Liverpool did not even appear in the tally.


The Battle of Sluys marked the beginning of that exhausting attempt at Continental conquest known as the Hundred Years' War, itself followed by the devastating civil strife of the Wars of the Roses. The long struggle with France interrupted trade and checked maritime enterprise, though it helped powerfully to evoke a new spirit of national consciousness at a time when municipal institutions were beginning to decay and our mercantile policy was undergoing a drastic change. Apart from the ravaging of seaports by the enemy - those on the south coast being special sufferers (The activity of the Norman corsairs in the early years of Edward Ill's reign was so effective that an order was issued directing dwellers on the south coast to take refuge in fortresses and withdraw their goods a distance of four leagues from the sea. (Pol. Hist, of England, vol. iii, p. 334.)) - the country's shipping was continually being diverted from its normal purposes by the military requirements of the Sovereign. In his great invasion of France in 1415, Henry V sailed from Southampton with a vast fleet of 1,400 vessels, having previously impressed all the craft in the country of 20 tons and upwards, and obtained his crews largely by similar methods. Brilliant as the adventure was in its temporary achievements, one is apt to overlook the enormous strain it placed on the economic resources of the kingdom, and to forget such contemporary protests as the humble petition of Parliament representing that the conquest of France would be the ruin of England.


Furthermore, the almost continuous state of war, foreign and civil, intensified the lawlessness which had so long prevailed at sea. The complex problem presented by mediaeval piracy baffled the efforts of even the most statesmanlike rulers. Sea-trading in those days was anything but a peaceful occupation. Professional pirates, whether individual ships or organised gangs like the Rovers of the Sea, whose activities at Scarborough anticipated the modern revival of unrestrained piracy, infested the Channel and the North Sea, adding their depredations to those of enemy craft; and these marauders carried their daring to the extent of harrying the coast and burning seaside towns. At one time, the Isle of Wight was virtually in the possession of a certain John of Newport, whose misdeeds and "riot kept uppon the see " were the theme of a plaintive petition to Parliament.


But apart from sheer plundering, though not always distinguishable from it, was the system of legalised privateering arising out of the issue of Letters of Marque. By the licence thus obtained from the Crown, a trader who had been the victim of foreign aggression, or who sought the means of collecting a difficult debt, was given the right of reprisals on the goods of the community or country to which the offender belonged. The first recorded instance of such a grant occurs in the reign of Edward I, though it cannot safely be assumed that none was issued earlier. It was made in favour of the English owner of a ship which, while bringing fruit from Malaga, was piratically seized off the coast of Portugal and carried as a prize into Lisbon. In this case, the licence to seize the goods of the Portuguese to the extent of the loss sustained was limited to five years. The disadvantages of such a rough-and-ready method of adjusting differences need no great emphasis. In the first place, experience showed that licence for reprisals tended to degenerate into licence of a more general kind; and, secondly, this method of making innocent Peter pay for guilty Paul often acted as a serious deterrent upon trading.


In the British Museum may be seen a gold noble coined by Edward III after the taking of Calais had given him the command of the Channel. On the reverse it depicts a ship and a sword, and it possesses a peculiar interest as the symbol of the first claim by an English King to the sovereignty of the sea. In formally adopting the title of Dominus Maris Anglicani Circumquaque, this clear-sighted ruler was laying claim to no empty formula, but to a real sovereignty involving a number of substantial rights such as those of fishing, the levying of tolls for the use of the sea, free passage for ships-of-war, and, lastly, jurisdiction for crimes committed at sea. It was therefore by the active assertion of this claim that Edward sought to deal with the growing practice of piracy and give protection at sea. His practical measures included the granting to merchant vessels of letters of safe-conduct and the organising of fleets in convoy. Vessels bound for Gascony, for instance, were directed to assemble on the day of the Nativity of the Virgin outside Southampton Water,  ("Chalcheford" in the original, which, according to Dr. Cunningham, was probably Calshot Castle.) sailing thence under the charge of Royal officials. The main effect, however, of the first-mentioned remedy seems, in later times, to have aggravated the evil, for under the Lancastrian Kings we get many complaints of the forging of such documents; and, moreover, it was found by the men on the English coasts that the issue of letters of safe-conduct prevented them from getting redress for pillage by taking the matter into their own hands. In short, the efforts of Edward III had little or no effect in giving protection on the seas. So it was with his successors. In the next reign, letters of marque were granted more freely than ever, and it is recorded of one of the merchants of Dartmouth, a port which held a general privateering commission from the Crown, that with a fleet of his own he captured no fewer than thirty-three vessels with 1,500 tuns of Rochelle wine.


Apart from its more direct results, the long period of wars, by its consumption of the national energies, offered an opportunity to foreign rivals which they were quick to seize. The Hanseatic League had become the most important commercial association of the world at the beginning of the fourteenth century; Bruges and Antwerp had established themselves as the great entrepots of Northern Europe, and the merchant vessels of the Italian Republics were frequenting the markets of the Netherlands. To these several rivals fell, during the war, the bulk of the English carrying trade. Another cause operating against the interests of the English shipper was the commercial policy carried out by Edward III. His broad aims may be summed up as a combination of cheap imports for the benefit of the consumer, with high prices for exports as a means of providing revenue through the Customs; and those aims were apparent in the regulations affecting wool and wine, and the liberal provisions for encouraging the foreign trader. A few years after Edward's death saw the start of a reversal of this policy. The increased resentment of English merchants against the foreign trader, and the depressed condition of English shipping, found expression in the first of many Navigation Acts (1381), which provided that "to increase the Navy of England, (That is to say, the general shipping of the kingdom) which is now greatly diminished, it is assented and accorded that none of the King's liege people do from henceforth ship any merchandise in going or coming within the realm of England in any port, but only in ships of the King's liegance." So diminished, indeed, was "the Navy" that in the following year the new ordinance had to be modified, owing to an insufficiency of shipping. Taken in conjunction with the new regulations for keeping bullion in the country, and the protective encouragement of tillage, not merely as a means of safeguarding the food supply, but for the fostering of the country's military strength, the Navigation Act marks the beginning of a drastic change of mercantile policy - a change, in a happy phrase Bacon applies to the policy of the first Tudor King, "from consideration of plenty to consideration of power."


In spite, however, of the growth of national consciousness, an effective means of providing for the due protection of the country's coasts and shipping seemed for a time no nearer. It was the plundering of English vessels by a daring Scottish pirate early in the reign of Richard II, and the ravaging of Rye and other south coast towns by a French fleet, which induced Parliament, alarmed for the safety of the realm, to pass the first law levying dues on all merchant vessels (with a few exceptions) frequenting English ports, for the specific purpose of maintaining an efficient Royal Navy. But the fleet, no sooner created, was led by John of Gaunt on the wild enterprise of the Siege of St. Malo, instead of being employed in its proper service. And it was a squadron of sturdy merchant ships which, in the absence of the Royal fleet, and of its own initiative, repelled a French marauding expedition. The usurper of the following reign narrowly escaped capture by pirates when coming up the Thames to London, and he was so little able to achieve his aim of establishing a Royal Navy that for a period of over a year the entire guardianship of the coasts was entrusted to the country's merchantmen. By this plan, which illustrates the general system of protection by contract, the shipowners were required to maintain certain ships on the sea, and to two "fit persons" chosen from their body the King granted commissions to act as his Admirals, one for the north and one for the south. In recompense for these services they were empowered to take three shillings on every cask of imported wine, as well as certain dues on exports. It was the Crown's complaint, subsequently, that the merchantmen had failed to fulfil their part of the contract, and the scheme came to nothing. A similar plan was tried, with no better result, under Henry VI; in that case the Commissioners were the Earls of Salisbury, Shrewsbury, Worcester, and Wiltshire, and Lord Sturton, who were assigned the grant of tonnage and poundage on condition of "keeping the seas" for three years. The significance of the maritime efforts of Henry V's reign lies mainly in the improvements in shipbuilding. Three ships turned out at Southampton by the victor of Agincourt, on the models of three big Genoese merchantmen which traded with that port, excited the country's admiration; and examples of private enterprise are found in the great carack built by John Taverner, of Hull, and the fleet maintained by Bristol's merchant prince, William Canynges, among which was a vessel of 900 tons burden. It was owing to this advance in shipbuilding that, later in the century, Englishmen found themselves with vessels fit to take part in distant voyages of discovery.


It was in such conditions of turmoil as have been described that our merchantmen in the Middle Ages not only maintained and even extended their trade, but also, as we have seen, provided the only means for the defence and security of their country. In the light of their varied record we clearly perceive that the mariners who won wide renown in the days of Queen Elizabeth were but carrying a step forward in the dawn of a new age the traditions of their predecessors "good felawes" of the type so vividly presented by Chaucer's shipman. The mariner of mediaeval England was an example of the hardihood of his day. "Of nyce conscience took he no keep," the Prologue tells us. "If that he fought and hadde the hyer hond By water he sente hem hoom to every lond." But he was "hardy" and "wys to undertake," and again and again in the records of these centuries we get proofs of that endurance and tenacity, that native sea sense, that ready resource, which we have come to regard as the birthright of the English seaman. When in 1378, as already mentioned, the King's ships were busy besieging St. Malo, a squadron of French and Spanish galleys seized the opportunity of sailing up the Kentish coast and entering the mouth of the Thames, burning the towns and villages on its banks as far as Gravesend. On returning by the Channel, however, intent on further destruction, the marauders were met by a fleet of West Country merchantmen and valiantly repulsed. The English ships were of less tonnage than those of the enemy, but boldness of attack and better seamanship prevailed, as they have on so many historic occasions since. And in the fifteenth century, in spite of conditions which often approached to social anarchy, we get evidence of the slow but real progress of maritime commerce fostered by the new mercantile policy, which was still further developed under the Tudor kings. The reign of Henry IV saw the establishment of the Merchant Adventurers and similar organisations of English merchants, trading to the Baltic and to Prussia; commercial treaties were common from the reign of Edward IV onwards; in 1480, the year of the birth of the great Magellan, Bristol then the most enterprising seaport of England, its fishermen making regular voyages to Iceland dispatched an exploring expedition in search of the "Island of Brazil "; a score of years later John Cabot, sailing from the same port, had made two memorable voyages to the coast of Labrador, and though he found no precious metals, reported, what was far more significant, an abundance of cod-fish; in 1485 there appeared at Pisa the first English Consul to be appointed in the Mediterranean; and the decline in power of the Hanseatic League in this country, destined to be extinguished finally under Queen Elizabeth, was rapidly hastened. By the new consistency in her mercantile policy, based on national consciousness, England was steadily preparing to gather, by means of her merchantmen of a later day, the fruits of the Age of Discovery.


When men were bidden by law to eat fish twice a week, and throughout the whole of Lent, they were obeying an obligation which it was believed the political needs of the country imposed. Fish was, of course, an article of diet of national importance, apart from the religious considerations which entered into the matter. But the real significance of the act was political. The buying of fish stimulated the fishing industry, the fishing industry was the best school for seamen, and seamen and shipping were necessary for strengthening the country's power against its rivals. Another essential of the national ambition was wealth, and one avenue to wealth was already being indicated by the great explorations of the last decades of the century. The effects of the discovery of America, of the rounding of the Cape by Vasco da Gama, and later the accident of storm which gave Brazil to Portugal, were as swift as revolutionary. The Levantine trade with the East was ruined. For a time the Portuguese became the first maritime Power. Lisbon established itself as the great commercial depot for Western Europe. In their desire for wealth, as a means of national power, Tudor Englishmen turned their eyes to the New World and to the looked-for promise of a north-west route to Far Cathay. This sentiment found expression in 1511, in the protest made by certain members of King Henry VIII's Council against Continental conquest. (This, it may be noted, was eight years after the Portuguese had tapped the sources of the Venetians' Eastern trade and had brought their first cargo of pepper to England.) If we would enlarge ourselves, these statesmen argued, (Recorded in Lord Herbert of Cherbury's History.) "let it be that way we can, and to which it seems the eternal Providence hath destined us, which is the sea. The Indies are discovered, and vast treasure brought from thence every day. Let us, therefore, bend our Endeavours thitherward, and if the Spaniards or Portuguese suffer us not to join with them, there will be yet region enough for all to enjoy."


Henry VIII himself gave effect to the prevalent ideas of the time by endowing the country with its first Royal Navy on an organised basis. But his establishment of the Royal Navy as a regular department of the State was also in accordance with the Tudor dynasty's principle of personal power, and in idea it may be compared with the tendency towards standing armies on the Continent. The importance of Henry VIII's policy must be emphasised, for here we have the beginnings of the differentiation between the naval and mercantile services. A skilled amateur in many arts and crafts, the King concerned himself personally with improvement in construction, and his famous ship, the Great Harry, of at least 1,000 tons, was the largest vessel then known. The first fleet which he secretly fitted out at Portsmouth, small but admirably equipped, was specially designed to deal with the French buccaneers who infested the Channel, and it successfully disposed of a squadron of marauders which had been plundering merchant craft in Mounts Bay. The great fleet, assembled at Spithead in his last war with France, was formed, as in the old days, on a nucleus of the ships flying the Royal Standard, but that nucleus organised, as indicated above, on definite lines. Privateers joined the Admiral chiefly from the West Country ports. At his death Henry left a fleet of over seventy vessels; but more important than that, he had applied a new principle to national defence. Nor did his scheme of organisation end with the provision of a Royal fleet and its crews. As a means of protecting London from pirates, he established two ports on the river at, and opposite to, Gravesend, so that Londoners enjoyed an hitherto unknown security; he founded a Naval Arsenal at Deptford; and there also he established the Fraternity of the Holy Trinity, that since-famous body whose Tudor Charter empowered it to frame "all and singular articles in any wise concerning the science or art of mariners," and to make ordinances "for the relief, increase, and augmentation of this our Realm of England." Nor could we find clearer evidence of Parliament's recognition of the national importance of the Mercantile Marine than in the preamble of the Act passed in 1540 for the "maintenance of the Navy." The dual purpose of the "Navy or multitude of ships of this Realm" (the sense in which we now use the word Navy has, of course, become more specialised) is explicitly set forth that is to say, first: "for the intercourse and concourse of merchants, transporting and conveying their wares and merchandise"; and, secondly, for "a great defence and surety of this Realm in time of war, and also the maintenance of many master mariners and seamen." It went on to complain of the infringement of the existing laws against importing in foreign ships, re-enacted the old Navigation Laws, and, among other provisions, arranged for the publication in Lombard Street of notice of the sailings of ships. Eight years later, Parliament passed the statute imposing the sumptuary regulations as to the eating of fish, to which allusion has already been made.


A significant event which followed the death of Henry VIII was the return to Bristol of Sebastian Cabot, who whether or not he became, as Hakluyt says, "Grand Pilot" of England received, at any rate, the recognition of a pension of 250 marks from Henry's youthful son and successor, who was himself a keen student of geography. It was Cabot who revived interest in the idea of a northeast passage to China, and, having formed the Company of Merchant Venturers to promote the scheme, he fitted out an expedition under the command of Sir Hugh Willoughby, with Richard Chancellor as Pilot-Major, which left the Thames on the first organised voyage of Polar discovery in 1553. All the famous explorer's skill and experience lent themselves to the preparations for this great voyage. Hakluyt tells us that "strong and well-seasoned planks for the building of the requisite ships were provided," and as a protection against the depredations of the worms which "pearceth and eateth through the strongest oak," parts of the keels of the ship were covered " with thin sheets of lead," which seems to be the first-recorded instance of such sheathing in this country. The little flotilla bore Royal Letters of Safe-Conduct, and the elaborate instructions drawn up for its government - an admirable document characteristic of the period - suggest the sagacity and ripe experience of Sebastian Cabot. The contemporary fame of the voyage may be judged from the large concourse which, amid the shooting-off of the ship's ordnance, bade the expedition farewell on the river-shores of Greenwich.


The auspicious start - "a very triumph," says the chronicler - was belied by speedy disaster. Violent storms separated the ships, and Willoughby, with two vessels, beaten out of his course and unable to make the appointed rendezvous, remained to winter in Lapland; there, from cold, famine, and disease, he and all his men miserably perished. Chancellor was more successful. After waiting a few days at the rendezvous, he at length passed through the uncharted seas to the Bay of St. Nicholas, and landed at the spot near where the town of Archangel now stands. He entered into friendly relations with the natives, who were indeed " amazed at the strange greatnesse of the shippe," and then, after gaining a smattering of the language, this astonishing seaman started on a tour of the interior, which brought him finally to Moscow, where Ivan the Terrible gave him a kindly reception. A couple of years later, after vainly attempting to rescue his missing companions, Chancellor returned to Moscow, and succeeded so well in his negotiations that a Russian Ambassador accompanied him on the return voyage, to negotiate a treaty on liberal terms with the Association of Merchant Venturers. His ship was wrecked in a gale off the north of Scotland, and Chancellor lost his life in an effort to save the Russian Ambassador. That functionary, at any rate, escaped, and received an enthusiastic welcome in London. Though a north-east passage to Far Cathay (The north-eastern passage from Europe to the Indies was not achieved till the nineteenth century. In 1878-80 the Vega doubled the most northern promontory of Asia, and made her celebrated circumnavigation of the two continents of the Old World.) remained as much a dream as ever, Chancellor's enterprise laid the foundations of British commerce in Russia and the East. The new opening for overseas trade was speedily followed up. Another merchant pushed into Asia by way of the Volga and the Caspian Sea in 1558, and two years later was dispatched on a commercial mission to the Sophi of Persia. These beginnings led to considerable developments of England's Baltic trade during the next decade.


But it was westward, not eastward, that English seamen's eyes were chiefly turned; the treasure of the Spanish Main, not the merchandise of Tiflis and Samarcand, called aloud to the adventurous spirit of the nation of islanders. With the accession of Elizabeth we enter upon a new phase of national development. The bonfires which blazed up on the death of Mary symbolised the new expansive spirit of a nation which, though by no means completely united, was moved to the pursuit of aggressive aims; and the challenge to the domination by Spain and Portugal of the New Hemisphere rang out clearer and clearer with England's growing consciousness of power upon the seas. The Pope's decree, by which the New World had been divided between the two Catholic Sovereigns, was not at once actively defied either by England or France. Neither country, in fact, was in a state to do so at the end of the fifteenth century, nor had the new religion sprung into vigorous birth. But half a dozen decades had brought sweeping changes. Catholic England had become a Protestant State, and a long period of peace had fostered the growth of national self-consciousness. The almost submissive tone of Henry VIII's Council - "if the Spaniards or Portuguese suffer us not to join them" - is replaced with a very different note. In the third year of Elizabeth's reign even the cautious Cecil bluntly tells the Spanish Ambassador that the Pope had no right to partition the world. It was, however, England's seamen - rough merchant sailors - rather than her statesmen, who were challenging the pretensions and the colonial regulations of the Catholic Powers. The English, freed from the last trace of Continental entanglements - even Calais had just been lost to them - were embracing more and more effectually their birthright on the sea. In other ways they were favourably placed for extracting full advantage from the new conditions. Geographically, the kingdom lay between the King of Spain's southern dominions and his rich and prosperous province of Flanders a strategic position the value of which was illustrated by the frequent success of the reprisals at sea that marked Elizabeth's foreign policy. The staunch mercantile class, with which so much real power rested, were developing overseas trade at a rapid rate; and the experiences gained from many a stormy voyage in the northern latitudes were applied to good purpose in the shipbuilding yards, which were beginning to turn out swifter and more weatherly ships than those of any other nation. The day of the oared galley was already passing; its last great sea-fight was to come in 1571 in the Bay of Lepanto, a short-lived triumph for the decaying Spanish sea power. Hitherto, sea power had been, in a modern historian's happy phrase, (A. F. Pollard (Pol. Hist, of England, vol. vi, p. 309)) "pelagic not oceanic"; now oars, the means of propulsion by which the mastery of the Mediterranean had been maintained for centuries, had yielded precedence to sails, the instrument of supremacy on the ocean. It was English merchant vessels and English seamen who were to prove the full significance of that revolution in the type of ocean-going ships which the age of discovery had inaugurated.


After his marriage with Mary Tudor, Philip of Spain sought for his own purposes to encourage the increase of the English Navy. But the unpopularity of the marriage was deepened by the persecuting zeal of the fanatical Queen, and before the end of the short reign the new religion had given many recruits - particularly from among the West Country families of good blood and with sea associations - to the ranks of the privateers. Without entering into the religious aspect of the matter, it may be noted how truly the rising Protestant States drew their strength from the sea. Persecution in France turned many Huguenots into sea adventurers, preying on the traffic of the Catholic nations, and even attempting settlements in Spanish America; the dreaded "Sea Beggars" were a later creation of the burnings and slaughterings of Alva in the Netherlands.


England's national spirit, then, found its fullest and fittest expression in the deeds of the sea adventurers, and Elizabeth, of whom the Spanish Ambassador Feria told his master that "she is very much wedded to her people and thinks as they do," adapted this formidable weapon to the main purpose of her policy namely, the unity of the nation and the preservation of the realm from foreign intervention. It was a policy that combined bold strategy with circumspect tactics. The privateers, with their often dubious letters of marque, found in their Sovereign a tacit ally. The Queen might, and as the reign advanced often did, take a private share in the expeditions to the West, or even lend a Royal ship to stiffen a squadron of merchantmen bound for the Indies. But it was clearly understood that officially she had no responsibility for any deeds that might be called in question, or for any unlucky miscarriages; and if any freebooters were caught red-handed, they knew they must abide their fate without appeal to their Queen. In fine, "it was Elizabeth's privilege to reap the fruits of public peace, while her subjects gleaned the spoils of private war."


This line of policy was, indeed, almost dictated by the conditions with which the reign opened. The Exchequer was impoverished, and the letters of Sir Thomas Gresham, the City magnate and Elizabeth's first Ambassador at Antwerp, plainly indicate two facts - the difficulty of maintaining the English Queen's credit, and the country's dependence for gunpowder on supplies from abroad. As to the Royal Navy proper, the imposing fleet which Henry VIII had assembled was represented at the accession of his daughter by a total of only twenty-two "great ships." These and other signs of weakness due to religious and political causes deceived some Spanish observers. Feria, bred up in the tradition of Spain's military strength on land, went so far as to describe England in a phrase which has become familiar in our own day as "the sick man of Europe," and recommended Philip to land an army promptly and turn the island into a Spanish province. Philip, probably, had a better idea of the latent strength beneath the apparent weakness. Elizabeth's difficulties and problems were, in truth, real enough; but a dozen years of her statesmanlike handling of affairs and of English enterprise on the seas were enough to give to Feria's words an echo of mocking irony. As to certain elements of our naval strength, some Spaniards remained deceived even after the defeat of the Armada, but there was little self-illusion in the letter written by Feria's successor, Guerau, in 1570. " The whole channel," he said, " from Falmouth to the Downs is infested. . . . They assail every ship that passes, of whatever nation, and after capturing them, equip them for their own purposes, by this means continually increasing their fleet, with the intention on the part of the queen thus to make war on his Majesty through these pirates without its costing her anything, and under the specious pretence that she is not responsible, since the pirates carry authority from Chatillon, Vendome, and Orange."


That is a vivid glimpse of the unofficial war carried on in the Narrow Seas by the English seamen. Nor can it be regarded as too highly coloured a picture of a time when the Mayor and principal inhabitants of a port like Dover were among the most active of the Rovers, and when even English vessels engaged in the Antwerp trade and the very fishermen on the coast often fell victims to the more reckless type of pirate. But already greater deeds were being accomplished in the waters of the New World deeds in which it is sometimes hard to distinguish the different elements of trading legitimate enough according to the ideas of the time exploring, and sheer piracy; yet which, by their daring, skill, and hardihood, have justly won a classic place in maritime history. The early slave-trading voyages of John Hawkins are of special interest as a definite attempt to break down the Spanish commercial monopoly in the New World. Modern ideas of slavery have cast an unjust opprobrium on the name of one of the greatest Elizabethan seamen. Hawkins was no better or worse than his time, and no " guilt " attached to slave-owning or slave-dealing in the sixteenth century. It was not in any case the nature of the cargo that gave special significance to this expedition of a seafaring merchant; its importance lay in its overt challenge to Spain. Hawkins, doubtless, spoke for a section of English mercantile opinion when he claimed the right, under treaties dating back to the first Tudor reign, to trade with the Spanish Colonies. Yet the challenge was a bold and new departure. French pirates, mostly Huguenots, had for thirty years been harrying Spain's trade routes in the West, and only ten years before a bold French corsair, with a single ship, had, with the help of escaped slaves, laid waste some of the chief settlements of the Spanish Main, and even sacked Havana itself. But no English squadron had yet navigated the waters of the Spanish Indies. And though Hawkins and other traders had flouted Portuguese pretensions, based on the papal decree already referred to, and had freely traded with the Guinea coasts, and even with Brazil, no similar invasion of Spanish claims had hitherto been attempted.


It was while trading to the Canary Islands that Hawkins learnt (Hakluyt is our authority for this, as for the other great Elizabethan voyages) that " negroes were very good merchandise to Hispaniola, and that store of them might easily be had upon the coast of Guinea"; and in 1562, with three small vessels, whose tonnage would make a Solent yachtsman smile, he sailed from Plymouth for Sierra Leone. There he collected two hundred negroes, " partly by the sword " - it is a rough story of rough times, which are not to be judged by the ordinary standards of the twentieth century - crossed the Atlantic, disposed of his human goods with much profit and little difficulty to the planters of Hispaniola, where the shortage of labour was severely felt, and returned home "with prosperous success and much gain to himself and the aforesaid Adventurers." In what seems to have been an honest belief in the legitimacy of his proceedings, Hawkins, on the return voyage, had dispatched two vessels chartered in the West Indies with a portion of his goods to a Spanish port. Philip left no doubt as to his view of the voyage. He seized the cargoes on their arrival, and dispatched peremptory orders to the Colonies forbidding all trading intercourse with English vessels. The Adventurers who had planned and financed the voyage, the Lord Mayor of London being of their number, sought in vain to obtain redress for what they regarded as an illegal seizure. While in American waters Hawkins had acted with the circumspection of an astute and experienced trader. He obtained the requisite licence to trade from the Governor at the ports of Hispaniola at which he had called; he paid the local customs dues, or left security for any sums in dispute; he even obtained from the authorities written evidence of his good conduct during his sojourn. These points were urged without avail; nor, indeed, did they touch the main issue. Philip's insistence on his exclusive policy showed clearly enough his recognition of a threat to his sea dominion more formidable than that of the French pirates, and his determination to resist it to the uttermost. If one were to compile a list of single voyages which have marked the opening of great commercial or political epochs, the little squadron with which John Hawkins made his first expedition might well claim its place therein.


Hawkins's second voyage, 1565, was a repetition of the first on a rather larger scale, and not only brought him and his fellow-adventurers a handsome profit of 60 per cent, but established his renown among his countrymen, particularly as a seaman. In this instance he had carried his negroes to the Spanish Main itself, and, confronted by the Viceroy's order forbidding any dealings with him, had to back his negotiations with a show of force before the necessary licence to trade was forthcoming from the authorities. He was careful to follow his usual custom of obtaining certificates for good conduct. The success of the voyage, while it excited feverish anticipations and hopes, and strengthened the growing consciousness of the superiority of English sea power, awoke the liveliest alarm in Spain, and fears for the two great treasure fleets which annually made the voyage between the West Indies and Spain now found expression in the Spanish Ambassador's correspondence with Philip.


Hawkins lost no time preparing for another expedition, and at the same time Thomas Fenner, one of the Chichester Fenners, was busy fitting out a trading expedition to the Guinea coast. Political reasons were, at the moment, giving a conciliatory turn to the Queen's foreign policy, and De Silva's remonstrances resulted in both seamen being required to find heavy security that they would not go to the Indies. Hawkins, therefore, temporarily abandoned his scheme, but Fenner, having no intention, apparently, of going farther than the Guinea coast, sailed in the Castle of Comfort, with one other small vessel. The voyage was to prove a memorable one, and to open many eyes to the fighting quality of the English merchantman of the day. At the Cape Verde Islands Fenner found all his attempts at peaceable trade prevented by the open hostility of the Portuguese authorities, and at the Azores, when separated from his consort, he was caught by a Portuguese squadron, consisting of a 400-ton galleon and two caravels. Three times that day the Castle of Comfort beat off her assailants. The next day, the Portuguese commander, reinforced by four more caravels, again attacked, but so gallantly did Fenner fight his ship that at nightfall the powerful squadron drew off and he escaped. English seamen already enjoyed a wide reputation for skill and hard fighting on the high seas. But Fenner's splendid combat against heavy odds went far to establish also the technical superiority of English gunnery. The incident is the more noteworthy since, only a decade earlier, the Portuguese had again and again proved themselves more than a match for English and French gold-dust traders in conflicts off the Guinea coast.


The third and most important expedition of Hawkins left Plymouth in October 1567, its unacknowledged destination, privily approved by the Queen, ( Sir Julian Corbett thinks it "hardly doubtful" that the agent who brought Hawkins a letter from Cecil, warning him to avoid damages to Spaniards, also conveyed the secret consent of Elizabeth to the purpose of the voyage. (Drake and the Tudor Navy, vol. i, p. 99.)) being the Spanish Indies. The squadron of six vessels included two "great ships" of the Royal Navy, a fact in accordance with the universal custom of the day, by which ships-of-war were employed in commerce in times of peace. These ships were the Jesus of Lubeck, of 700 tons, a sturdy survivor of Henry VIII's fleet, and the Minion, 300-350 tons. Of the remaining four vessels, the Judith, a little barque of 50 tons, was commanded by Hawkins's young kinsman, Francis Drake, now twenty-two years of age, and already burning with a grievance against treacherous treatment at Rio de la Hacha, and destined, as a result of his voyage, to become the terror of the Spanish Main. The presence of Her Majesty's ships had a political significance beyond the Royal desire to take a share in what promised to be a highly profitable enterprise. The squadron was armed and organised on the lines of the Royal Navy; its complement of 500 men included several gentlemen of good houses, whose swords were at the disposal of the Captain of Soldiers; and Hawkins, who at this period might fairly be ranked among the merchant princes of his time, and who described himself in his letter to Cecil as an "orderly person" who had "always hated folly," who, moreover, as Hakluyt's pages proved, wielded an able pen - Hawkins himself kept the state of one of Her Majesty's Admirals at the Seas. A man, in short, worthy of the role with which he regarded himself as entrusted that of vindicating, by force if need were, the legitimate aspirations of English commerce! Acts of illegality judged by modern standards were undoubtedly committed on this memorable voyage, but none of the great figures in the new school of adventure which was now arising, and Hawkins least of all, is to be classed with those cosmopolitan buccaneers of a later century, whose criminal deeds and reckless careers have surrounded the very name of the Spanish Main with an irresistible if sinister glamour of romance. Romance was far from wanting to the deeds of these Elizabethan mariners, but what gives those deeds their epic quality, as enshrined in the immortal pages of Hakluyt, is the national spirit and national purpose which inspired them.


The course of the voyage of the Jesus of Lubeck and her consorts may be followed in the Admiral's own narrative as recorded by that chronicler. Reprisals on the Portuguese, as well as the usual hunting for negroes, marked the weeks spent on the African coast; and when the Atlantic had been crossed, the ship sailed from place to place, "making traffic " with the Spaniards "somewhat hardly, because the King had steadily commanded all his Governors in those parts by no means to suffer any trade to be made with us." Nevertheless, they met on the whole with "courteous entertainment," save at Rio de la Hacha, the depot for the pearl trade, and a place of disagreeable memories for Francis Drake. Carthagena, which was to have been the last port of call, also proved officially obdurate, and then, some days later, arose the "extreme storm" which drove the ships out of their course, and ultimately involved them in the disastrous incident of San Juan de Ulua. Into this roadstead, the haven of the town of Vera Cruz, the battered squadron came to refit and revictual, and no doubt to force a market for the negroes that remained unsold. The consternation of the Spaniards was great when they recognised their formidable visitors, for lying at moorings were the treasure-ships with over a million on board, awaiting the annual fleet of New Spain and its escorts for the combined homeward voyage. A huge prize, in fact, lay at the Englishman's mercy. If Hawkins had been a mere pirate he would have seized it out of hand, and he proved himself the " orderly " trader he had always claimed to be by ignoring the treasure. He took certain measures of defence against treachery, and sent a formal message to the city authorities for permission to refit and obtain requisite supplies, with the further request that action should be taken to prevent any conflict between him and the expected Mexico fleet. The very next morning the "flota" appeared at the mouth of the Haven, headed by a Royal galleon.


Of the dramatic events which followed, Sir Julian Corbett has given a singularly clear and unbiassed account, based on both English and Spanish authorities. (Drake and the Tudor Navy (Corbett), vol. i, p. Ill et seq.) Passing over the details, one may state the facts broadly thus: Hawkins, with a couple of batteries mounted ashore for his protection, was strong enough to have prevented the entry of a newly-arrived fleet, and to have accomplished its destruction. But he was fully aware that an overt act of war would have been displeasing to the Queen, and he gave fresh evidence of his discretion and sense of responsibility by entering into negotiations with the Viceroy and the Admiral of the Fleet. Under the terms arranged after a good deal of disputation, the two fleets moored side by side within the protection of the breakwater, the English were permitted to continue their refitting, and hostages were exchanged. The sequel to this formal military convention was a carefully matured plot on the part of the Spaniards. Secret reinforcements were smuggled on board the ships, and the signal for a cowardly attack was given with the sudden stabbing of several English sailors who had been drinking and fraternising with the Spaniards ashore. Taken unawares and at a complete disadvantage, Hawkins fought a fierce action, in which his superior gunnery silenced the enemy's fire and sank at least two galleons; but discharges from the shore batteries, treacherously captured at the first signal, had sunk one of his own vessels and disabled another, and when the Spaniards loosed a couple of fire-ships at night, the badly crippled Jesus had to be abandoned to her fate, and Hawkins himself barely escaped by boarding the Minion just as her sails were filling. The only other vessel to get away was the Judith, Drake having worked out of the harbour. In the northerly gale which immediately afterwards sprang up the two ships were separated, and the little barque was the first to arrive home; but there seems no evidence for Hawkins's complaint of desertion against his kinsman. ("So," runs Hawkins's narrative in Hakluyt, "with the Minion only and the Judith, the small barque of ten ton, we escaped; which barque the same night forsook us in our great misery.")


It was a tragic and disastrous story, that lost nothing in its effect when told to English ears. It came at a time when the hostility of Spain and the activity of the counterreformation were becoming more and more menacing, and when Catholic plots were on foot at home against Elizabeth's life and throne. "The military and seafaring men all over England," says Camden, of the San Juan de Ulua affair, "fretted and demanded war against the Spaniards." Cautious as ever, Elizabeth remained true to her principle "No war, my lords," but her help to the Huguenots and to the rebellious subjects of Philip in the Netherlands became more active. Finally, in 1572, came the exposure of the foreign plot to assassinate Elizabeth, which led to the dismissal of the Spanish Ambassador and brought the two countries to the verge of open war. It was in that same year that Francis Drake fitted out the expedition which was to achieve one of the greatest adventures in our maritime annals.


The incident of San Juan de Ulua had created in the minds of Hawkins and Drake a feeling of bitter resentment and irreconcilable hostility towards Spain. Hawkins, whose energies were soon to become absorbed in the official work of the Royal Navy, had secured the release of his abandoned crews, as well as heavy compensation, by the characteristic method of a sham intrigue in which he completely outwitted the Spanish Ambassador. Drake sought another way by taking out letters of reprisal, armed with which commission he joined in two voyages to the Spanish Indies. On the second occasion he captured at least one valuable prize. More important still, he effected a valuable reconnaissance in the Gulf of Darien, established friendly relations with the Maroons (the escaped negroes of the Panama Isthmus), and even set up a regular base for future operations. For Drake was taking up the work of Hawkins, and, by infusing into it a new spirit of daring and a contempt for tradition, bettering the instruction of his master. So now he sailed out of Plymouth Sound on the famous voyage of Nombre de Dios, bent on reprisals in the form of a piratical adventure, but, we cannot doubt, with a perfectly clear conscience, convinced, as all his Protestant countrymen were convinced, of the absolute justice of the proceedings. The voyage may be said to mark a new departure in sea-going expeditions - a change in effect from armed trading to privateering.


The little squadron consisted of two vessels only - the Pascha, of 70 tons, and the Swan, of which his brother, John Drake, was captain, of only 25 tons. But small as it was, its equipment was as perfect as the military science of the day could make it. Crossing the Atlantic in twenty five days, Drake anchored to water his ships off the American coast, and then made the secret harbour where on his previous voyage he had improvised a base. To his chagrin, he found that the Spaniards had discovered and plundered his stores. While at this spot he fell in with another English adventurer, Captain Ranse, carrying two Spanish prizes along with him. To the new-comer Drake revealed his plans; he meant to seize Nombre de Dios, the renowned depot of the Spanish traffic from Peru - to seize it while the treasure-houses were still full. Articles of partnership were agreed on; and after setting up the pinnaces which Drake had brought with him, the combined squadron sailed north-west along the coast to the Pine Islands, where Ranse remained with the three ships and the prize caravel, while Drake continued the voyage with the pinnaces and the remaining prizes and a force of seventy-three men.


In a few days the little expedition reached the entrance to Nombre de Dios Bay, and an hour before dawn dashed in to the attack by the light of the moon. While the Englishmen were forming up on the sand after surprising the shore battery, the church bell was frantically pealing its alarm in the ears of the terrified inhabitants. For his assault on the town Drake divided his men into two forces, and after a brief resistance the Spaniards, caught between the double fusilade and over-estimating the strength of their assailants, broke and fled, casting away their arms as the sailors, with broad West Country cheers, chased them through the Panama gate. With the plaza held, the hunt for treasure began. In the Governor's house were found bars of silver piled high, 350 tons in all, awaiting the arrival of the flota of Tierra Firme - the treasure fleet of the Spanish Main. But it was gold and jewels, not merely silver, that Drake was in search of, and these were stored within the solid masonry of the King's Treasure-House, down by the water. It was then that the first check occurred to damp the ardour of these amazing men of the sea. A tropical downpour of rain necessitated their seeking shelter for the sake of bow-strings and powder, and the consequent abandonment of their post in the plaza, and the stout walls of the treasure-house resisted all efforts to break in. Rumours of Spanish reinforcements produced something like a panic, and how natural was the feeling can easily be imagined. For never before had these simple though daring merchant seamen engaged in such an extreme adventure as this of Drake's the deliberately-planned attack by a diminutive, if well-found, land force, upon a town of such size that the men of Devon could only compare it with their well-loved port of Plymouth.


The rain, however, ceased, and Drake controlled the panic with characteristic resource and courage. A detachment was sent round to break in the doors of the treasure-house, and the wildest , dreams of the seamen might well have been realised but for another unlucky stroke of fate. Their indomitable leader had concealed a wound received in the first Spanish volley, and now at the critical moment he suddenly fell in a swoon. That ended the matter. The men, vowing their captain's life more valuable than all the treasure of the Indies, bore him to the boats, and picking up on the way out, with a coolness that provokes a smile, a solitary wine-ship newly arrived at its moorings in the harbour, they installed themselves and their wounded on the town's victualling island just outside the bay. Hither in due time came, on a spying errand and under a flag of truce, an officer bearing a message from the Governor couched in terms of true Spanish politeness, and paying tribute to the humanity shown by Drake on his previous expeditions. The visitor was finally dismissed with a flow of equally impressive compliments, but with the plain assurance that Captain Drake, ere he departed, meant to reap some of the harvest of that commodity which alone would satisfy his company. The story of this interview, the substantial truth of which seems indubitable, reads like a page from some stirring romance. It is of special interest, also, as illustrating those qualities in the young commander which consistently marked his future career a strong regard for humane dealing, and a love of ceremonial and display befitting the dignity of a great sea-captain.


For the present, however, the stroke so daringly conceived and so energetically executed had failed. Yet the fact remained that Nombre de Dios, the very gate of the Peruvian Treasure-House, had been actually taken and for a while held, and Drake returned to the waiting ships evolving new schemes in his restless brain. These plans, based on the information of a runaway slave called Diego, did not commend themselves to Ranse, who parted company with the bolder man, arguing, with reason enough, that the affair of Nombre de Dios would have given the alarm to all the coast settlements. So, indeed, the event proved when Drake turned to his next incredible adventure - an attempt on the capital of the Spanish Main itself. Carthagena, like the rest of the ports, was on the alert, and though he took three prizes in the bay, including a well-laden Seville ship, he quickly saw that some new plan must be evolved. What he finally decided on was a novel and characteristic departure from the general method of harrying the coast - nothing less than a raid into the interior. And his purpose was to seize, in co-operation with the Maroons, the mule-train which would bring the treasure of Peru from Panama across the Isthmus to Nombre de Dios for shipment to Spain. In order to man the pinnaces, which would be essential to the enterprise, it was necessary to sacrifice one of his ships, and the secret scuttling of the Swan, his own vessel and a particularly good sailer, is one of those incidents which cast a flood of light on the masterful and fearless character of this born leader of men. Back in the Gulf of Darien a new headquarters was established, and then passed months of waiting for the great attempt - months full of the most diversified incidents which are none the less astonishing for the simplicity and directness with which the Narrative sets them forth. It is a wonderful tale of privation, extremity of tempest, daring defiance of Spanish authority, threatened desertion, desperate fighting, decimating sickness - a succession of vicissitudes such as might have broken the stanchness of the bravest, and seemed only to stimulate the great sea-captain to fresh feats of resource and daring.


At length the march inland began, with the negro allies as guides, and on the fourth day this devoted band of English seamen reached the highest ridge of the Cordilleras, at a point where the faithful Diego had promised his white master that he should set eyes on the South Sea. Pizarro and Cortez and Balboa had been there before him, but can our maritime history conjure a more dramatic scene than was enacted on this spot in the vast mountain forest? The Maroons led Drake to a "goodly and great tree," notched with steps for climbing, and promised him that from its top he might see the two oceans at once. So the mightiest of our mariners ascended, and having beheld - with what pure passion of the explorer surging in his heart! - "that sea of which he had heard such golden reports," made his memorable vow, beseeching "Almighty God of His goodness to give him life and leave to sail once in an English ship in that sea." And another contemporary chronicler (Camden) adds, "From that time forward his mind was pricked on continually night and day to perform his vow." Not long after his first sight of the Southern Sea, Drake had accomplished the crowning feat of his daring raid, by the capture of the mule treasure-train on its way across the Panama Isthmus.


It was not till November 1577 that Drake sailed from Plymouth on the immortal voyage of circumnavigation which was to accomplish his vow. The fame of his past exploits brought a throng of volunteers to his service, and the expedition was a considerable one for the time, consisting of the Pelican (Admiral), of 100 tons, and four smaller vessels, all well armed and equipped. To follow the course of one of the most famous voyages in history is beyond our scope, and excellent contemporary narratives have made its details familiar. Drake's purpose was to reach the Pacific, by way of the passage discovered by Magellan in his last fatal voyage; and so, having crossed the Atlantic, he took a south-westerly course along the South American coast. Every sort of misfortune seemed to dog his way; the fleet was scattered by storm, and one of the smaller vessels foundered; dissensions occurred between the sea officers and the gentlemen volunteers; and the extraordinary episode in which Thomas Doughty played the leading role ended with the execution of that officer in the little port of St. Julian. In the buffetings which befell the ships on rounding the American continent Drake discovered the open sea-passage south of Magellan's Straits, and it was during these terrible months of almost ceaseless tempests, contrary winds, and incipient mutiny, that the Elizabeth, Wynter's ship (Vice Admiral), was separated from her consort in a fearful storm, and, giving up the struggle, made the best of her way home.


Thus it was left to Drake in the Golden Hind (as the Pelican had been rechristened on entering the Southern Seas) to accomplish the voyage alone. And everyone knows how magnificently he accomplished it, once he had burst into that sea which the Spaniards imagined to be their sole and secure domain. All along the Spanish settlements of Chili and Peru he spread amazed terror. Prize after prize was taken, generally with little resistance; the port of the world-renowned Potosi Mine was coolly ransacked, though without much result; and finally, despite her fortnight's start, a huge treasure-ship, "the great glory of the South Sea," was overhauled and captured before she could reach the shelter of Panama Harbour. So with 600,000 worth of treasure in his hold, literally ballasted with silver and gold and precious stones, Drake sailed north in a fruitless effort to make in reverse the north-west passage which Frobisher was supposed to have discovered in his famous voyage a few years earlier. Baffled by contrary gales and by conditions of Arctic severity, the Golden Hind, with the aid of a captured China pilot's chart, crossed the Pacific, reached the Moluccas (being nearly cast away in those perilous waters), and, having added a cargo of costly spices to her gold and silver, made her way home round the Cape of Good Hope.


So much for a bare outline of the voyage - the first circumnavigation of the world ever achieved by a sea-captain, and that captain a merchant seaman. Its political consequences were far-reaching. Drake became the hero of his fellow-countrymen, and the example of his great adventure, with its direct challenge to the pelagic empire of Spain, was a powerful incentive to national enterprise. The Golden Hind's reappearance in Plymouth Sound came at a critical moment to widen the breach already growing between England and Spain, and when the now famous craft had been brought round in triumph to the Thames, and the Queen went down to knight its captain and to dine in state on board, the official recognition of the great raid was complete. After Philip's absorption of the kingdom of Portugal, with its immense maritime resources, open war became only a question of time, and no doubt existed as to the objects with which Philip was already beginning to prepare a great offensive fleet. So now we part company with Drake, the indomitable navigator and brilliant sea adventurer. Henceforth, it was largely to the work of national defence that Sir Francis Drake, as Admiral of Her Majesty's Navy, devoted himself in the interval that precedes the sailing of the Armada. It must suffice here to record that, after the discovery of Spanish complicity with Throgmorton's plot, Drake, with Frobisher as second-in-command, conducted a raid of reprisals on the Spanish Indies with a fleet of thirty sail, plundering, sacking, and ransoming, on a scale hitherto unattempted; and that, by his blockading operations off the Spanish coast two years later, he threw Santa Cruz's plans into utter confusion and delayed the sailing of the Armada by a twelvemonth.


The familiar story of that determined attempt at invasion need not be told here, beyond noting that this great fight in the Narrow Seas sheds lustre on the daring of the Elizabethan merchantmen, whether trading vessels or privateers, and on their crews. Her Majesty's ships formed only the nucleus of the fleet which gathered in the Channel under the flag of Lord Howard of Effingham, with Drake and Hawkins and Frobisher, as well as others scarcely less famous, as his vice-admirals and captains. The defeat of Medina Sidonia's vast and heterogeneous concourse of craft was conclusive evidence of the complete superiority of English ships, English gunnery, and English seamen of the Royal Navy, which was once more to assume importance. For not only were the English ships faster and more weatherly than the enemy's, but their crews were seamen and gunners too, capable equally of sailing their ships and fighting them, nor did they need to crowd their decks with soldiers as the Spanish did. Expressed briefly and broadly, the English sea tactic was naval in its origin, the Spanish military. In justice also to those fighting seamen of three centuries ago, one other point should be noticed. With some commentators it has been a habit to ascribe the defeat of the Armada to the storms which followed the battle off Gravelines. It is well, then, to record here the simple fact that the Armada was a Beaten and utterly demoralised fleet before it turned northwards on its wild, storm-driven course round Scotland - beaten by the superior dash, gunnery, and seamanship of English sailors. The weather and the perils of those northern waters completed the work of the English guns. The bearing of this great fleet action on the further differentiation between the naval and mercantile services may conveniently be referred to later.


Drake's burst into the Southern Seas stimulated, as we have said, the national spirit of adventure, and, in particular, the minds of British merchant seamen were more than ever bent on the ambition of reaching the land of spices and precious stones, so long the close preserve of the Portuguese. Frobisher's great voyages to the north-west early in the reign were originally inspired by the desire to find a north-west passage to India, and they degenerated into a fruitless quest for gold-yielding ore. In the years between Drake's voyage of circumnavigation and the coming of the Armada, John Davis, one of the most scientific of Elizabethan navigators, followed in Frobisher's track in three successive years in the hope of reaching India; and in the same decade Thomas Candish, taking Drake's old route by way of the Magellan Straits, so far realised his ambitions as to reach China and the East Indies, and ended by sailing round the world. Sir Humphrey Gilbert's disastrous expedition to Newfoundland of 1583 is to be noted as one of those early attempts at British colonisation which seemed so fruitless in their immediate results; and in the following year Sir Walter Raleigh obtained his letters patent "for the planting of new lands on the coast of America," the first step to the successful foundation of Virginia, the original seat of the Anglo-American race.


It is, however, with the rise and prosperity of the East India Company that the history of the Merchant Marine in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is chiefly associated. The defeat of the Armada provided a new incentive to Englishmen to share in the coveted trade with India. Candish, who returned from his great voyage just in time to hear of his countrymen's triumph, brought home detailed observations of the greatest value to British seamen and British merchants. So in the following year we find a significant decision taken by the syndicate concerned in dispatching John Davis on his north-west voyages. Abandoning this long-cherished hope, they sent out yet another expedition under the great navigator, but this time by way of the Cape of Good Hope. It proved the first of a series of voyages which only ceased with the death of this fine seaman, who was killed by pirates off the coast of Malacca. More significant, however, than Davis's voyage of 1589 was the action taken in that year by certain English merchants in petitioning the Queen for licence and encouragement to open a trade with the East Indies. In support of their memorial, they urged that such trade would, as the example of Portugal had shown, tend to the increase of the strength of the Royal Navy. Elizabeth characteristically toyed with the proposal, but in the end granted the necessary authority, and in April 1591 "three tall ships" the Penelope, Marchant Royall, and Edward Bonaventure sailed out of Plymouth Sound under James Lancaster. Hakluyt's narrative of the voyage (He obtained his story from Lancaster's lieutenant, Edmund Barker) shows that from Table Bay the Marchant Royall was sent back owing to the ravages of scurvy, and that the Penelope foundered in a "mighty storme" soon after rounding the Cape. With a stricken crew and a partially disabled ship, Lancaster kept steadfastly on his way through hurricanes and "electric storms," and with the further loss of his master and sixteen men treacherously slain at Comoro Islands, to Zanzibar. Here the mariners had their first taste of the acute jealousy with which the Portuguese regarded all rivals in the rich trade of the East. After some months on the African coast, Lancaster got a favourable wind to take him across the Indian Ocean, doubled Cape Comorin, missed the Nicobar Islands "through our master's default for want of due observation of the South Starre," and reached one of the small islands to the north of Sumatra. In spite of the weakness of a crew now reduced to thirty-three men and a boy, the Edward picked up two small prizes, and then, while lying in wait in the Malacca Straits, this resolute little fighter attacked and captured a Portuguese trader of 250 tons, and later on a ship of 750 tons with a cargo of great variety and value. In fact, profit was looked for from what was considered a legitimate form of piracy rather than from trade, and but for a run of ill-luck of all kinds, Lancaster would have remained lurking in the Nicobar Islands, whither he returned on the homeward voyage, in the knowledge that many a rich merchantman from Bengal and Siam would be sure to pass that way on the first stage of the voyage to Lisbon. A mutinous spirit among his men, damage by storm, contrary gales, shortness of provisions so that off Porto Rico they were reduced to eating hides, culminated in the loss of the ship herself while the majority of the company were ashore. Finally, Lancaster and his companions obtained a passage home on board a Dieppe ship, and crossed to Rye in May 1594. In a sense, the voyage had been disastrous. But Lancaster's misfortunes had purchased a fruitful experience and a fund of valuable information, and offered English merchants and seamen a great and convincing proof that the treasure-house of the East lay open before them.


Meanwhile, the Dutch were beginning to establish that trade with the Orient which was soon to enable them to supplant the Portuguese as our chief rivals, and their enterprise spurred London merchants to new action. In 1599, a number of them, chiefly associated with the Levant Company, which held a charter for overland trading to India, petitioned for a monopoly of trade with the East Indies. The Queen gave her assent to the petition at the end of the following year, the trading privilege being granted for a period of fifteen years, and thus came into existence the first East India Company - the progenitor of that "John Company" which was to be the means of adding India to the British Empire. No time was lost in dispatching the first expedition of these "Adventurers for the Discoverie of the Trade for the East Indies." The fleet of four vessels - of tonnage ranging from 300 to 130, with crews to the number of 480 men left Woolwich in February 1601. A fitting "generall of the Fleet " was found in James Lancaster, who in his recent voyage had given such plain proof of indomitable courage and resourceful leadership, and with him as Vice Admiral went John Middleton, and as Pilot-Major, the famous John Davis. The voyage was a complete success. Lancaster put his merchants ashore to trade, and established factories in Java and elsewhere, and while this more legitimate business was going on, himself got across the trade route and presently captured a rich carack of 900 tons. On the voyage home, this gallant seaman proved his rare qualities afresh by saving his ship in well-nigh desperate circumstances, such as would have tested the nerve and endurance of the bravest. The little fleet returned in the early months of James I's reign, laden with cargoes that included over a million pounds of pepper, and those who had invested their money received 95 per cent, on their capital. The same four vessels made the company's second voyage in the following year, with a resulting profit of nearly 100 per cent., to which, as before, extensive privateering had largely contributed; and in 1607 a third expedition set out, remarkable for the fact that now, for the first time, the company's ships entered a port of the Indian subcontinent itself. This port was Surat, just above Bombay, and an agent was landed to convey to the Great Mogul at Agra a letter of recommendation from King James I. A little later that Sovereign extended the Company's Charter, and in the same year (1609) was present at the launching of the largest contemporary East Indiaman, the Trade's Increase, one of the first two vessels built in the company's own yard at Deptford. A ship of 1,100 tons, she was one of the sensations of the early seventeenth century, but she proved clumsy and unhandy, and came to a tragic end after a brief and adventurous career. She may be taken as a fitting illustration of the rule of thumb methods of ship construction then prevailing, and it may be noted here that it was not until after the Stuart period that English shipbuilding began to establish itself on a scientific basis, largely as the result of the example of French naval models.


At this early period in its history, the East India Company is seen firmly established as well as earning handsome dividends for its shareholders, its ships built in its own yard (although this practice was changed at a later date) and victualled from its own stores, and enjoying the enormous advantage of a hydrographical department of its own, based on the journals and observations compulsorily contributed at the end of each voyage by the masters of its fleet. Developments in India came swiftly. Sailing with two vessels from Gravesend in 1612, Captain Best encountered the Portuguese traders in Surat Roadstead, and beat them in a skilfully-conducted action. It was a small if decisive affair; but its effects were immediate and far-reaching. For the prestige of the Portuguese in the East was sharply lowered, and the Grand Mogul hastened to confer trading privileges, hitherto denied it, upon the new Power in the East. Factories were set going at Surat and elsewhere, Sir Thomas Row came out three years later as an Ambassador to the Grand Mogul in order to ratify the new treaty, and by the same date the Indian Marine, initiated by the Corporation as a means of protection from pirates and Portuguese alike and manned by British seamen, had reached the total of ten local vessels. Forty years later Cromwell, in pursuance of that policy which is so well expressed in his Navigation Act, dealt the last blow to Portugal's pride and sea dominance by extorting a treaty giving to English ships the right to trade in all the Portuguese possessions in the East.


The Navigation Acts of the seventeenth century, however, were mainly directed against the Dutch, for Holland succeeded Portugal as our supreme rival on the seas. The struggle with that stubborn sea-going race continued almost ceaselessly for twenty-five years, and, while it nearly exhausted the Dutch, left England buoyantly ready to meet the more powerful rivalry of the French. In the great expansion of England's sea power which followed, the East India Company played a conspicuous part, and before the end of the eighteenth century it stood virtually alone as the one surviving trading Power in the Orient, its operations embracing China as well as India. Moreover, these strongly built, well-armed East Indiamen, with their fine crews of seasoned sailors, did yeoman service for the country in the long series of wars which culminated in the Napoleonic struggle. For they constituted the chief element in that large commercial marine which our mercantile policy created as a reserve from which the Royal Navy could be almost indefinitely increased.


It is convenient here to note one aspect of the significance of the Armada campaign for its effect on the movement towards that differentiation between the naval and mercantile services which, as we have seen, was initiated by the second Tudor king. Gallantly as the merchantmen fought in single-ship combats, the naval battle in the Channel showed how inadequate they were to the needs of a great fleet action, and from the clear perception of that fact sprang a strong impulse to specialisation and a widening of the breach between professional and amateur warfare at sea. The institution of Ship Money in the next century marked a further step in the same direction. The policy of Charles I expressed in that levy was to substitute a system of money contributions as a means of forming a regular fleet for the mediaeval plan of contributions of ships. A few years later, Cromwell's policy secured, under the professional soldier-admiral of the Blake type, an increased specialisation, which by the end of the century led to the practical disappearance of the merchantman as a fleet ship.





IN that period of almost continuous war which began with the struggle with Revolutionary France in 1793, and ended with the downfall and exile of Napoleon in 1815, the strength of France on the seas was devoted to the destruction of British commerce, and never with more determined persistency than in the ten years which succeeded the victory at Trafalgar. The conflict was maintained with all the resources which France, ruled by despotism, was able to throw into the scales, with the support of the resources of allies whom she made her vassals. Yet this result is clearly shown: that from the outbreak of hostilities the strength of the British mercantile fleet ever grew larger and larger, despite the unceasing onslaught which was maintained against it, and despite the heavy losses which such protracted warfare necessarily involved.


Eleven thousand British merchant ships passed out of the Service by capture as prizes during the French wars. ("Roll of English merchant vessels captured by the French during the war, 1793-1815", Norman's Corsairs of France.) Some compensation was found in the numbers of enemy ships taken and transferred to our flag; but the activity in British shipyards was so well sustained that in 1815 this country possessed more ships and a greater volume of tonnage than at the opening of the Anglo-French struggle. On the other hand, French trade in a few years was almost swept from the seas by the British naval superiority, and opportunities of prize-taking by our cruisers were necessarily smaller. France maintained a coastal trade in the Mediterranean, but little more.


Fortunately for the world, at the outbreak of hostilities in February 1793 England found herself complete mistress of the seas. So early as 1795 the enemy had abandoned all pretence of opposing fleet to fleet, and entered upon an unrestricted guerre de course. France, the spirit of her navy having suffered during the Revolution, turned to her mercantile fleet to supply its place. The object of Revolutionary France was frankly stated by Citizen Boyer Fonfrede in the Convention: "We have now " (he said) "to wage a war of iron against gold. We must ruin the commerce of our enemies, and in order to remove all opportunity of reprisals we must suspend our own commerce. Our shipbuilding yards must build nothing but corsairs, and our manufactories turn out nothing but munitions of war." British seamen, on their part, responded with the audacity expected of them. Not only were our frigates and sloops engaged in constantly harrying the enemy and capturing his ships wherever they showed the flag, but our forces afloat were reinforced by hundreds of vessels, manned by British merchant seamen, which sailed from British ports under letters of marque. Liverpool alone had sixty-seven privateers armed and manned, at sea or ready for sea, four months after the outbreak of war. (Gomer Williams, The Liverpool Privateers.) Numbers were fitted out afterwards in the Thames and at east and south coast ports, and operated in the North Sea and on more distant cruising grounds. The significant admission was made by the enemy, after six years of war, that " not a single merchant vessel sailed under the French flag." (Message to the Directory, January 1799.)


The challenge made to our predominance at sea by the French Navy, revived under Napoleon, does not call for consideration here, but the circumstances of the two rival Powers at the outset coloured the whole conditions of the war. If unable to fight a fleet action, France, by reason of her geographical position, her long coasts, with so many favourably-placed sally ports, and her large maritime population, was more favourably situated than any other Power in the world to conduct a campaign against British maritime commerce. Those of her peaceful trading ships. which escaped capture by British cruisers, or in close pursuit were driven into her ports, effected a quick transformation. France had in the sturdy Norman and Breton populations of her coasts, inured to the hardships of life at sea and already made familiar with war, a striking force ready to be used, and they were not content to remain idle while rich rewards were within their grasp. In hundreds French merchant ships were armed and transformed into privateers, new craft specially designed for speed were laid down in the yards, and, sailing with letters of marque, they harried the long lines of British ships beating up the English channel or traversing the North Sea routes. Into the single port of Dunkirk thirty-six English prizes were brought within three months of the outbreak of war. No fewer than 407 English prizes were sold in that port alone before the Peace of Amiens brought the first pause in the war. The enterprise or greed of profit by owners was seconded by public subscriptions. A club at Strasburg fitted out a corsair, the Jacobin, which effectively raided British trade. The municipality of Bordeaux equipped three corsairs, one of which, the General Dumourier, in her first cruise, returned with prizes valued at 240,000. Blank letters of marque were issued to the Commissionaires of Marine in every port of France, and from Dunkirk to St. Jean de Luz the coast was studded with companies whose sole aim and object was the destruction of English commerce. (Norman, The Corsairs of France, p. 292.)


The more venturesome French corsairs, better equipped and fitted, and commanded by men whose daring won for them a warm place in the hearts of their countrymen, lay in wait for the valuable cargoes passing to and from India and the East, and the highly important trade carried on between England and the West Indies. France brought into this service swift sailing ships, powerfully armed. One of these privateers, the Bordelais, captured in 1799, had operated at no greater distance than Tory Island, about which she had done great damage in the previous summer. Her keel was as long as that of our 38-gun frigates, she was pierced for twenty-two guns on deck, had twenty-four brass 12-pounders mounted, and carried a crew numbering 222 men. The Bordelais was conducted into Cork by His Majesty's ship Revolutionnaire, after having been chased 129 miles in nine and a half hours, being finally overhauled in a gale of wind. (Naval Chronicle, ii, 535)


As often before in her history, England at the outbreak of war was unready. Nearly six months passed before the Channel Fleet, under Lord Howe, got to sea. Near home, in the early days of the struggle, it was believed that British merchant shipping was best protected by the concentration of a main fleet in the vicinity of Torbay, with a reserve fleet off the Isle of Wight. Frigates watched Brest and other French ports, and a constant patrol was maintained. This disposition was afterwards varied, the blockade of Brest being made still closer, and two separate squadrons were formed, with bases at Spithead and the North Sea. The sealing of French outlets could rarely, however, as experience showed, be made effective against raiding craft.


The configuration of the opposing coasts of France and England and the small distances to be traversed by fast-sailing raiders added greatly to the perplexity of the problem confronting the British Admiralty. The English Channel has nowhere a greater width than one hundred miles, and at the neck narrows to twenty miles; and though the North Sea offered a broader expanse, the English coast was quickly reached from the northern ports of France and the Netherlands. The English south coast is poorly provided with natural havens, and in certain winds no shelter was to be obtained between Portsmouth on the one hand and the Downs on the other. Newhaven had not been developed into a port, nor had even a light been placed there. Opposite were the French ports of Cherbourg and Havre, with St. Malo, Boulogne, Calais, and Dunkirk, all within easy access of the trade routes; all offered admirable shelter to the French privateer able to wait a favourable wind and opportunity. The concavity of the English land-line, especially the long stretch from Selsey Bill to Beachy Head, the dangerous shore, the impossibility of weathering a southerly gale upon it at anchor, and the great want of lights and of convenient harbourage, all added to the perils to which British ships congregating there were exposed. If making a large offing to escape the bay, they ran imminent risks from privateers which sallied out from the ports of Normandy. LeVille, of Dunkirk, one of the most daring of these commanders, cruising in the Channel in the privateer Vengeance, and eluding British warships on watch, in five weeks of the autumn of 1795 made no fewer than twenty English prizes.


The most urgent call for naval ships being about the British coasts and in the West Indies, the Indian seas were left unprotected. When Admiral Cornwallis sailed for Europe with his small squadron in September 1793, a single sloop-of-war remained to protect the vast expanse of ocean covered by the commerce of the East India Company (Brenton's Naval History, i, 340); his successor did not reach the station till a year later. In such circumstances severe losses were inevitable. They were, however, less severe than might have been expected. The Indiamen of a century ago were the monarchs of the seas, stout ships of 800 to 1,200 tons, some reaching 1,500 tons, fast sailers, better armed and manned than any others flying the mercantile flag, and capable of giving a good account of themselves in an encounter with any interfering craft short of an enemy frigate. The East India Company, too, fitted out several heavily-armed ships to cruise for the protection of trade. The fleets engaged in the commerce carried on with the West Indies in sugar, coffee, rum, and other colonial produce - and in this connection slaves must not be omitted - offered an easier prey for the larger class of French privateer fitted for long voyages and ocean service, and facilitated raids upon the traffic to and from the West Indies, varied with irruptions upon the routes to India. To such attacks on commerce, the more daring of the French corsairs - men like the famous Robert Surcouf, of St. Malo - devoted their restless energies.


The fine spirit in which these attacks were met by British merchant seamen is manifested in the records of a hundred actions fought about the islands out in the Atlantic. This one is typical. The British ship Planter, in the year 1799, was overhauled by a fast sailer. Captain John Watts, her "commander, backed his mainsail and laid by for the enemy, all hands giving three cheers. "We found her," he says, "to be a privateer of twenty-two guns, twelves, nines, and sixes, with small arms in the tops, and full of men. We poured in our lagrische, and used grapeshot with great success." The privateer sheered off to repair damage. The action recommenced, and was fought with great gallantry throughout the afternoon till the light waned. Captain Watts adds in a letter to his owners:


"At last he found we would not give out, and night coming on, sheered off and stood to the south-west. Our fire must have done great execution. My ship's company acted with a degree of courage which does credit to the flag. I cannot help mentioning the good conduct of my passengers during the action: Mr. McKennon and Mr. Hodgson, with small arms, stood to their quarters with a degree of noble spirit; my two lady passengers, Mrs. McDowell and Miss Mary Hartley, kept conveying the cartridges from the magazine to the deck, and were very attentive to the wounded, both during and after the action, in dressing their wounds and administering every comfort the ship could afford, in which we were not deficient for a merchant ship. When he sheered off we saw him heaving dead bodies overboard in abundance. We had four killed, eight wounded. The force of the Planter was twelve 9-pounders and six 6-pounders forty-three men." (Naval Chronicle, ii, 250.)


It was the common object of a privateer-captain wherever possible to effect a boarding. The advantage lay with him in his superior numbers of men, trained in the use of arms and excited by the prospect of a prize, while the merchantman's crew was generally weaker, and many a bloody fight was waged on the narrow decks. A letter from Barbadoes of December 1st, 1798, describes such an action, fought most gallantly, and in this instance successfully, by the Liverpool ship Barton (Captain Cutler), after being overhauled twenty leagues to windward by a French privateer mounting eighteen guns, 9-pounders and 6-pounders. The chase lasted two and a half hours, the privateer repeatedly altering her course to board, but the heavy and well-directed fire from the British ship prevented her from getting near enough to effect her purpose. Dismantled in her rigging, the enemy sheered off.


"But having refitted, commenced a second attack at noon, with a most sanguinary design of boarding, and notwithstanding the incessant cannonading from the ship, ran plump on board, and endeavoured to throw her men into her, but found her well prepared to receive the enemy, the whole of Barton's crew being assembled on the quarterdeck, and headed by their gallant commander, who was spiritedly seconded by his passengers. An attack, sword in hand, commenced, and the enemy were driven back with considerable loss, many of them being spiked from the netting and shrouds of the ship, while by a well-directed fire from the cabin guns, numbers were swept from their own deck; and a great part of her rigging being cut away she dropped astern and gave over the contest, amidst the victorious huzzahs of the British tars, whose bold commander, calling from his quarter-deck, defied the vanquished Republicans to return to the attack. His passengers bear a proportionate share of the honour with the captain." (Naval Chronicle, i, 437.)


After such adventures in the open sea many a stout merchantman returned to port, badly mauled, for repairs, but ship and cargo saved by the dauntless conduct of officers and crew.


The geographical position of the French West India Islands favoured the operations of the raiders, affording bases into which prizes could be taken, and from which cruisers and privateers could sally out quickly upon the trade routes, besides offering shelter and opportunity for refitting. Around these islands the war on commerce was carried on with ever-increasing British losses, and the necessity of protecting this trade involved the detachment of large numbers of frigates and sloops which were badly needed for service elsewhere. The seizure one after another of all the French islands eventually checked the depredations, though it was found impossible to stop them altogether. Driven from their own lairs, French privateers fitted out in American ports, whence they sailed under a thin disguise to resume their predatory warfare upon British merchantmen.


The guarding of the long ocean routes to India and China offered far greater perplexities to the British Admiralty. As the years went on, the French made ever more determined efforts to cut our trading connections, strengthening their already powerful patrols of cruising frigates and sloops with ships of the line. The concentration of a considerable fleet under Rear-Admiral Sir Edward Pellew, afterwards Lord Exmouth, resulted in the losses being kept within bounds, but throughout the long war the Eastern trade routes were the scenes of some of the most desperately contested actions between British and French frigates and our armed merchantmen and raiding privateers. The need for protection of the large British trade with the Baltic and that with America were other causes which made necessary the dissipation of British naval strength over many distant seas.


When all has been said, however, the area of the gravest peril was the waters about our own coasts, for there the greatest part of our commerce borne by the merchant fleets necessarily congregated. Mahan has drawn in lively fashion a picture of the seas in Napoleonic times:


"Fast frigates and sloops-of-war, with a host of smaller vessels, were disseminated over the ocean, upon the tracks which commerce follows and to which the hostile cruisers were therefore constrained. To each was assigned his cruising-ground, the distribution being regulated by the comparative dangers, and by the necessary accumulation of merchant shipping in particular localities, as in the North Sea, the approach to the English Channel, and, generally, the centres to which the routes of commerce converge. The forces thus especially assigned to patrol duty, the ships 'on a cruise,' to use the technical expression, were casually increased by the large number of vessels going backward and forward between England and their respective stations, dispatch boats, ships going in for repairs or returning from them, so that the seas about Europe were alive with British cruisers; each one of which was wide awake for prizes. To these, again, were added the many privateers, whose cruising-ground was not, indeed, assigned by the Government, but which were constrained in their choice by the same conditions that dictated at once the course of the trader and the lair of the commerce-destroyer. Through this cloud of friends and foes the unprotected merchantman had to run the gauntlet, trusting to his heels. If he were taken, all, indeed, was not lost, for there remained the chance of recapture by a friendly cruiser; but in that case the salvage made a large deduction from the profits of the voyage." (Influence of Sea Power on the French Revolution, ii, 204-5.)


The unprotected merchantman making his way over seas covered with friends and foes was a reality; but this was not the typical British commerce-bearer. Always there was the individual owner willing to take the greater risks in order to earn enhanced profits, trusting to speed and good luck to avoid capture by the enemy, and crews were ready for high wage to tempt Fortune on an adventure. Such vessels were the constant cause of attention by and anxiety to the patrols which the Admiralty found itself forced to maintain. But the bulk of British ocean-borne commerce was not left to the hazard of chance. Convoy was offered and accepted; and the merchantmen outward sailing or congregating near our coasts were mostly gathered in large fleets. Every such convoy involved delay in the assembling of the ships; the speed of the fastest craft sailing in the company was brought down to that of the slowest; and the simultaneous arrival of many ships in port threw large cargoes upon a choked market, thus tending to lower prices and reduce profits. It was the elimination of these effects in the balance-sheet that made the daring individual voyage so attractive. The evasions of convoy, and the many losses of ships and seamen consequent upon them, led to the passing of the Convoy Acts in 1798 and 1803, which compelled ship-masters to take convoy and to pay a certain sum for the protection afforded. The beneficial results were at once apparent in the fall of insurance rates, and in, what was more important to the nation, fewer captures of ships and men.


British convoys during the Napoleonic Wars reached the most unwieldy dimensions, and the fine spectacle such as a cluster of sail made at sea was well calculated to rouse enthusiasm in every British heart. Admiral Sir William Parker, when a young midshipman in the Orion in 1794, in a letter to his mother says:


"We left Torbay on the 13th, Saturday, and the next day were off Plymouth, where the convoy came out to us. It was the grandest sight ever was, a convoy of six hundred sail, besides thirty-six line-of-battle ships. The wind was quite fair and a fine evening: as soon as the convoy was all out, it came on so fine a breeze that we went eight miles an hour, without a stitch of sail set; in fact, in three days, they were all so far to southward that they were out of all danger; and so we hauled off. . . . Captain Duckworth says if I live to be one of the oldest Admirals, it is ten thousand to one if I ever see so large a convoy carried so far to the westward, and without the least accident, and the wind fair enough to bring us back again in so short a time." (Phillimore, Life of Admiral Sir William Parker, i, 39-40.)


A stupendous convoy of no fewer than a thousand ships was gathered in October of the same year in The Belt, when Admiral Sir James (afterwards Lord) de Saumarez, on board the Victory, sailed with it, homeward bound from Swedish waters. An eyewitness has described the vast assemblage in the following passage: "


A scene so novel conveyed some idea of the wealth and power of the British nation - a most beautiful and wonderful sight. The day was very fine; the fleet was anchored in a close compact body, with the Victory in the centre, bearing the Admiral's red flag at the fore, surrounded by six ships of the line and six frigates, and sloops disposed for the complete protection of the convoy. The yacht, with a Swedish flag, containing the Crown Prince passed through; the convoy soon after weighed anchor, when the Royal stranger had the pleasure of seeing them all under sail and proceeding to their destination, regardless of the enemies who occupied the adjacent shores." (Ross, Memoirs and Correspondence of Admiral Lord de Saumarez, ii. 214-5)


The congregation of so many ships in a single convoy and a scene like that above described convey a better idea of the importance of the British merchant fleets a century ago than any elaboration of figures. Small though the wooden sailing-ships were, their management required the signing on of large crews, and the population afloat was nearly three times as numerous as would be required to carry the same trade in days of steam-power and improved mechanical appliances.


The attack by the enemy was not only against ships and cargoes, but also against the seamen. Happily, the barbarities which attended submarine warfare, as practised by the Germans in the European War, were then unknown. Ships were not sunk at sight, and merchant sailors - often, as well, passengers, delicate women and helpless children - left adrift in open boats at the mercy of the ocean, the gale, and the biting frost, sometimes when hundreds of miles from land. Spurlos versenken as a policy of warfare had not been invented. But the merchant seaman of the Napoleonic Wars was liable to capture and confinement till the end of the war or exchange, and this peril was ever present with him when he went to sea. He knew the risk, and accepted it, as seamen of the Great War of the twentieth century faced without flinching the far more serious risks of loss of life by torpedo and shell-fire or drowning, or maiming by exposure to frost-bite. The practice of confining captured merchant seamen was adopted by both belligerents, for in days of simple armaments the trained merchant seaman was already more than half a fighting man, and his transformation into an efficient naval rating was quickly accomplished. The Royal Navy was largely manned by men recruited from the merchant ships, so the capture and detention of peaceful seamen by the enemy served him in a double purpose by injuring British carrying trade and by withholding a potential source of strength from the Navy.


Mention has been made of the large size of the East India Company's ships, rising to 1,300 registered tonnage, and in a few exceptional instances to as much as 1,500 tons. Such vessels exceeded the dimensions of a first-class frigate, and were almost equivalent to a small ship of the line. Early in the war their armament was increased by the addition of 18-pounders, and they were able to put up a good fight with any raiding corsair. These were, however, exceptions in our carrying trade - a class by themselves. The traffic between America and Europe was mostly done in vessels not exceeding 300 tons. From Macpherson's tables, quoted by Admiral Mahan, it appears that the ships trading to the West Indies and the Baltic, between 1792 and 1800, averaged about 250 tons; to Germany, to Italy, and the Western Mediterranean, about 150 tons; to the Levant, 250 to 300 tons, with a few of 500 tons. Even by throwing into the scale the East India Company's ships (averaging about 800 tons), the general average of British shipping is reduced to as low as 125 tons, owing partly to the small capacity of the large number of vessels engaged in the Irish trade. In 1796 there were 13,558 entries and clearances from English and Scottish ports for Ireland, and the average size of these ships was only 80 tons. A similar average is found from the returns of the Irish trade in 1806. Other indications in the naval literature of the time confirm the small size of both our own and enemy shipping. Thus Sir William Parker, when an active frigate captain commanding a single ship from the year 1801 to 1811, was in that period interested in fifty-two prizes, the average tonnage of which, excluding a ship of the line and a frigate, was 126 tons. (Life of Admiral Sir William Parker, i, 412.) Vessels engaged in the British coastal traffic were still smaller; of 6,844 coasters which entered or left the port of London in the year 1798, excluding the colliers which, as a class, were of larger build - the average size was only 73 tons. (Colquhoun's Commerce of the Thames, p. 13.)


Such was the type of vessel dotted about the oceans of the world. The merchant seaman of the day was a much harried individual, living the life of a fugitive, dreading not only capture by the enemy, but almost as much capture by the ships of war of his own country. Ashore or afloat the trained seaman, so much sought after, was never free from the attentions of the press-gang, which was the ultimate method of enforcing compulsory service in the Fleet on those who tried to avoid it. In the street, in the tavern, in his own home, the merchant seaman was marked down for seizure. He had no redress; the appeal which was supposed to shield him against injustice existed only in the letter. At night he was dragged out of his bed, to be herded with a crowd of others, awaiting distribution among the King's ships. Close as was the man-hunt ashore, it was not less keen afloat. The sailors in the Merchant Service had to run the gauntlet for their liberty from one end of the world to the other. A British ship-of-war, falling in with a merchant vessel in any part of the globe, would unceremoniously take from her the best seamen, leaving her just enough hands to bring her home. As the vessel approached the English shore our cruisers, hovering in all directions, would take the pick of the remainder. An old Liverpool sea-captain, in reminiscences of the closeness of the press in that port, has declared that such was the dread of the ever-active press-gangs ashore that homecoming seamen would often take to their boats on the other side of the Black Rock, that they might conceal themselves in Cheshire, and many a vessel had to be brought into Liverpool by a lot of riggers and carpenters, sent round by the owner for that purpose. (Gomer Williams, The Liverpool Privateers, p. 320.)


Many a merchant seaman figuring as "volunteer" was a pressed man, so described to get him the bounty, and others, when the emergency arose, volunteered to assure themselves of the bounty, knowing that they were liable to be impressed, and that the chances of escape were remote. Many men hid from the press-gangs while waiting for the offer of a bounty, which followed after compulsion had done its best. The importance of impressment in the scheme for manning the Royal Navy can best be judged from the establishment which was kept up for this service alone. In 1793-4, the first year of the long French Wars, when impressment was by no means at its height, nor was the Royal Navy maintained at anything comparable to its subsequent strength, there were three flag officers, twenty-nine captains, fifty-four lieutenants, employed in the impress service, with over 4,000 men and on occasions many more. (Steel's Navy List, 1794.)


The rigour which marked the impressment on some occasions when men were badly wanted for the Royal Navy and the want was never satisfied is sufficiently illustrated by two quotations from the newspapers of the day:


"The impress service, particularly in the metropolis, has proved uncommonly productive in the number of excellent seamen. The returns at the Admiralty of the seamen impressed on Tuesday night amounted to 1,080, of whom no less than two-thirds are considered prime hands. At Portsmouth, Portsea, Gosport, and Cowes, a general press took place the same night. Every merchant ship in the harbour and at Spithead was stripped of its hands, and all the watermen deemed fit for His Majesty's service were carried off. Upwards of 600 seamen were collected in consequence of the promptitude of the measures adopted. . . . Government, we understand, relied upon increasing our naval force with 10,000 seamen, either volunteers or impressed men, in less than a fortnight, in consequence of the exertions which they are making in all the principal ports. . . . Several frigates and gun-brigs have sailed for the Islands of Jersey and Guernsey, with impress warrants." (The Times, March 11th, 1803.)


The impress on the Thames on Saturday, both above and below the bridge, was the hottest that has been for some time; the boats belonging to the ships at Deptford were particularly active, and it is supposed they obtained upwards of 200 men. . . . The impressed men, for whom there was no room on board the Enterprize on Saturday, were put into the Tower, and the gates shut to prevent any of them effecting their escape."


The epoch of fleet actions between the British and French navies closed with the victory of Trafalgar. England had, thanks to her isolation by sea and her naval supremacy, maintained her independence and enlarged her Empire, while on the Continent State after State was tumbling to ruin and vassalage. Yet the cost had been a heavy one. Her merchant shipping had undergone devastation, though, thanks to the activity of her shipyards and her own wealth, the losses were more than made good. In the struggle lasting over twelve and a half years, broken by one brief interval of peace, England had lost some 6,500 ships by capture. In the single year 1797 the statistics show 947 vessels captured - a number, happily, far higher than in any other year, and only approached in 1799, when the captures are returned at 730. In the single month of June 1797 no fewer than 106 ships were placed upon the lists of prizes taken from us.


Trafalgar signalised the beginning of a yet more intense attack upon Britain's ocean-borne commerce. Napoleon, defeated in his efforts to oppose British naval strength at sea, despoiled of all hopes of effecting such a naval concentration as should make the invasion of England a practicable task, sought other means to accomplish the downfall of his chief adversary. The Berlin and Milan Decrees of 1806 and 1807 aimed to shut out from the Continent all British commerce, and, by causing widespread ruin at home, to undermine the strength of the great Power against which, on sea and land, he had fought in vain. The Emperor, unable to keep a ship at sea except for such a time as it could elude the stronger forces of his opponent, declared a blockade of Great Britain. The British Ministers retorted by the famous Orders in Council which forbade all neutral vessels to trade between the ports belonging to the enemy and his allies, and sought to divert the world's trade through England. From Trafalgar onwards the French fleets, though continually enlarged, never deliberately attacked, and at sea, as in the earlier Revolutionary period, the struggle again became that of a guerre de course.


It was conducted with the extraordinary thoroughness and vigour which Napoleon, enjoying complete mastery over France, was able to employ in all his schemes. Nothing was permitted to stand in his way. Under his impulse the French fleet soon became stronger in material than it had been since the opening of the war; and the new fleet was created with a single object. (Brenton's Naval History.)


Nelson's one call throughout his commands had been for more frigates always more frigates. The larger number of them were employed on the protection of trade, and the shortage of cruising vessels with the battle fleets - whose eyes they were - due to this cause, had a marked influence on many of the most important engagements. With the disappearance of fleet actions, the smaller ships were able to give less divided attention to trade protection, but there still remained work for the larger vessels. The French, for instance, detached several ships of the line to support the determined attacks they made on the Indian trade routes, and our own squadrons had similarly to be reinforced. England, after Trafalgar, devoted her chief energies in shipbuilding to launching increasing numbers of frigates and sloops. This growth in the number of cruising-ships actually employed on sea service, whilst the number of ships of the line remained practically stationary, is shown in the following table: (Journal of Royal United Service Institution, April 1913).














Ships of the Line

























The disposition of naval ships for the protection of trade necessarily underwent considerable modification. Squadrons of large frigates were kept constantly at sea, ranging from Cherbourg to Finisterre; the coastal trade and the St. George's Channel were guarded by the smaller craft; and a string of cruisers kept up communication between Falmouth and Gibraltar. The work put the greatest strain upon our seamen, who for yet another ten years were called upon to maintain their untiring vigilance. Collingwood, having embarked at Plymouth on the last day of April 1805, and after Trafalgar assumed the command in the Mediterranean, never found opportunity again to set foot in his native country, to which he was brought home a corpse in 1810.


The story of fights by British merchant crews in defence of their ships during the fierce attack upon our trade after Trafalgar is told in hundreds of letters from captains to their owners. Many of them are addressed from ports which the ships had safely made, with riddled hull and shot-torn sails, and rigging telling of the perils safely passed. Not less frequently, it must be admitted, the letters bearing the ill news of capture came from some prisoners' camp. Enemy cruisers were constantly on the look-out for vessels detached from the large sailing convoys, and against a well-armed man-of-war the merchantman, with a lesser weight of metal and ill-trained crew, had small chance. An Homeric contest, waged successfully against overwhelming odds, was that between the British packet Windsor Castle and the French privateer schooner Le. Jeune Richard. A passenger, writing from Barbadoes on' October 3rd, 1807, gives the following account:


"We are just landed here after an unpleasant passage of thirty-seven days, and experiencing one of the most desperate actions which has been fought in this war, though, thank God, we have been victorious, and have cleared those seas of one of the fastest-sailing privateers out of Guadaloupe, which had in the last six weeks taken no less than six fine-running ships viz., the America and Clio in company, the Margaret, the Pope, the Portsea, and another. When we met her she was six days on a fresh cruise, with eighty-six men, and six long sixes and one long 32-pounder gun. Our force consisted of six guns, short sixes, and thirty men, including three passengers. We lost three men killed and seven wounded, the first broadside; but I am happy to say that with the remainder, in an hour and forty minutes, such was their gallantry, that they carried the privateer, after killing twenty-six, wounding thirty, and making prisoners thirty not wounded, in all sixty prisoners, almost treble the number we had left for duty. I cannot enter into more detail by this opportunity, and can only say that if any man has deserved a token of merit from your Underwriters, Captain Rogers deserves it in the highest degree. He is a young man, his first voyage as Acting Captain (the Captain being left at home), and has therefore nothing but his merit to depend upon. He was left with only ten men about him for the last half-hour, rallying them to their duty, with a determination to carry the prize, which repeatedly endeavoured to clear from the packet, but was too fast lashed by her bowsprit to escape, and he boarded her at the head of four men, and charged her deck, with a gallantry never excelled and seldom equalled. The officers of the man-of-war here are astonished when they look at the two vessels and their crews, and instantly in the handsomest manner relinquished all claim to the prize." (Gomer Williams, The Liverpool Privateers, p. 410.)


Instances of such actions fought by British merchantmen, when practically every ship was armed for its defence, might be recorded indefinitely. It must suffice to mention the gallantry, both in defence and attack, of the little Falmouth packet Antelope, when chased off the Cuban coast by the French privateer Atlante. The packet carried a crew of twenty-three men, and had no better armament than six 3-pounders, but she had several passengers on board, who assisted in loading the guns with grapeshot, buckled on cutlasses, and primed their muskets. The privateer's first broadside at close range killed the Antelope's captain and the first mate. Her second mate having died of fever a few days before, she was left without a senior officer. John Pascoe, the boatswain, took command of the ship, and the French, having boarded, were attacked with such vigour that they were hurled back to their own ship, leaving their captain run through the body dead, and several of their crew killed or wounded. Again and again the privateersmen attempted to board, but at each trial they were driven back by the desperate defence. Realising that they had " caught a Tartar " and that the ship was too hot for them, the French endeavoured to cut the grapplings and make off, but the Antelope lashed her foreyard to the enemy's shrouds, and poured in grape and musket-ball at point-blank range. Pascoe, daring everything, then determined to carry his enemy, and had collected a boarding party, who raised lusty cheers preliminary to the assault, when to their surprise the Atlante's red flag at the mainmast and the ensign at her peak were hauled down. The British merchantmen made their prize, and safely brought both ships into port at Jamaica. The privateer had twenty-eight killed and nineteen wounded, more than the entire number of the Antelope's crew and passengers when she went into action. (James Howe, History of Flushing, Cornwall, pp. 26-9.)


It fortunately was customary, both on the French and British side, that after a fight at sea the prisoners taken should be well treated. A privateer, unable to bring his prize into port, would at times hold a ship to ransom, accepting the captain's acknowledgment on the part of the owners, and such arrangements were honourably fulfilled. In one letter of complaint of ill-treatment a British captain declared that it was "disgraceful to a polite nation like the French." This compliment of being "a polite nation" was frequently paid to our determined enemy. The chivalry of the sea is illustrated by many instances in the long wars. The British ship Sally, having fought the French privateer L'Amelie off the entrance to the Bristol Channel, and having been carried by boarding, the crew were allowed to preserve the whole of their private property, and given such comforts as the privateer afforded. Captain Lacroix promised the English commander his liberty and the first ship of little value that he should take, and he was, in fact, sent home in a captured Dundee brig with all his men and the brig's crew and passengers, a bargain having been struck that he should obtain the exchange of an equal number of French prisoners-of-war, to be sent from England to France. The French captain further declared that if the exchange were honourably made he would set free on the first opportunity every Englishman whom the fortune of war should throw into his power.


No royal road to preventing losses among our shipping was ever found, and year after year, until peace in 1815 crowned the titanic efforts of a nation almost exhausted in the struggle, the tables of statistics tell their own certain tale. By immense effort, continuously sustained by a Royal Navy which increased each year in strength of fighting ships, in guns and in personnel, the losses of merchant ships, in the ten years after Trafalgar, were so checked that they were not greater than in the corresponding earlier period. And it must be recollected that for a year and a half during that period hostilities with the United States added a heavy quota to the depredations of French privateers. The British merchant ships were pygmies compared with the leviathans that cross the seas to-day. Individually their loss counted for much less, but the large numbers taken each year, in a war waged continuously for twenty years, placed a strain upon the trade and resources of the nation which only the gigantic edifice of Britain's worldwide commerce, built up upon solid foundations of individual enterprise and served by a stalwart, seafaring race, could have borne.

Our ocean-borne trade, attacked with untiring persistence throughout two decades of war, was the chief object sought out by the French naval ships and the larger privateers, but it by no means represented the whole body of British commerce exposed to sea peril. England was at the same time served by great numbers of small sailing-ships, which conducted the coastal trade round the British Isles and that between our island colonies; and these lines of shipping were peculiarly open to raids by the enemy. Many such vessels undoubtedly swell the lists of captures, and they have complicated the tables of contemporary statistics, vitiating the conclusions drawn from them, both by their presence there and by their absence; for a large proportion of the coastal ships figure on no return, and the vast bulk of commerce which they carried, and of which the enemy took toll, escaped observation, as the clearances made are but imperfectly recorded.


Any estimate of losses among the ships trading from port to port around the coasts can only be made by inference, but there are abundant indications that these losses were severe. In a southerly gale blowing along the English south coast, ships-of-war guarding the Channel found themselves compelled to run for Portsmouth or the Downs, leaving the slower-sailing merchantmen, heavily laden, without protection or without harbourage about the long stretch of dangerous shore, and open to attack by French privateers putting out from Cherbourg, Havre, and Dieppe. The Frenchmen, well aware of the system pursued by our cruisers, and enabled constantly to keep to windward of them, found the merchantmen an easy prey in these conditions. They came out in the wildest weather, in which, far too often for our welfare, they achieved their greatest successes.


Mixed with the ocean traders beating up-Channel was a not inconsiderable coastal trade, and at the Thames mouth this was joined by a still larger stream of small vessels making the journey along the east coasts of Scotland and England to London. There being no inland waterways, and the main roads being wholly insufficient to carry the burden of traffic, London received, not only the great exchange of commerce which made it the trading centre of the world, but also the bulk of its own supplies from the sea. At every hour of the day and night long lines of ships, numbered by thousands in all, stretched from Orfordness to the far north of Scotland, and from Selsey to Ramsgate. In the Thames estuary hundreds congregated at every tide, passing on their way or waiting to go up or down the river, or taking advantage of the shelter. Given a dark night, a fair wind, often a fog, and a daring enemy was rarely without an opportunity for attack, the quick seizure of a prize, and safe escape. Of such opportunities he made full use. "With a fleet surpassing the navy of the whole world," complained a writer in the year 1810, "and by which we are enabled to set so large a proportion of it at defiance, we cannot guard our coasts against insult."


In addition to the cruising frigates and warships watching the French shore, our own coasts swarmed with brigs, sloops, and cutters, kept ready for instant action in every harbour and inlet, whose duty it was to patrol and to protect the coastal traffic. So numerous were these that at one period there were 149 stationed between Southend and Orfordness; 181 between the Thames mouth and Hastings; 138 from Newhaven to Poole; 21 at Liverpool, Glasgow, and Greenock; 114 on the coast of Ireland; and the long stretch from Yarmouth to Leith was protected by 135 craft. (Hannay's Short History of the Royal Navy, ii, 440.)

Yet in spite of the utmost vigilance the losses continued. The public indignation at raids effected within sight of our coasts was expressed in the letter of another writer, who declared that the audacity of French privateers occasioned universal indignation and regret. " Our merchantmen captured before our eyes the national colours of our enemy floating, with gasconading insolence, along our shores, and effecting their escape with impunity, is, indeed, too much for an Englishman's reflection, accustomed as he is to behold the vanquished streamers of the foe waving in submission beneath his country's flag." (Naval Chronicle, xxiv, 460.)


The French privateers engaged in these depredations upon the coastal traffic were mostly the smaller vessels which swarmed in the harbours of Dunkirk, Calais, Boulogne, and Dieppe. Any craft could be made to serve, provided it had speed. The provision of a gun or two, a few hands collected from the desperate riff-raff of the ports, the very minimum of provisioning, and all was ready. Little was risked by the owners, whose craft was worth no more than the proceeds of one or two fortunate voyages. The crews, it was true, ran the chance of capture and of pining in an English prison, but the reward, quickly earned, was an ample incentive. Luggers, sloops, fishing-smacks, with a single gun placed on board, even open row-boats, played their part in the service; and though individual prizes might be of small value compared with those made by the ocean-going corsairs, together they amassed a very considerable sum. A privateer, stealing out at dusk before a long winter's night, might with fortune return with its prize before the next day's sun was high.


Naturally the headlands, such as Portland, Beachy Head, Dungeness, and others, were favourite places for attack, and not infrequently those watching from the shore were witnesses of some smart bit of "cutting out" which the British naval forces were powerless to prevent. Utilising the British flag - a frequent ruse - and moving on the skirts of the assembled shipping, a daring raider in full daylight would make prizes and get clear away under the very eyes of watching seamen. But night was, of course, the most favourable time, and the very severe losses of trade in the winters immediately before and after Trafalgar led to the introduction of a system of watching, by appointed cruisers, each harbour and outlet on the French coast, thus blockading the privateers seeking to dash out from the ports between Cherbourg and Dunkirk; but, notwithstanding this vigilance, many continued to slip through the cordon, as the heavy losses among the British merchant ships from 1805 to 1810 testify. A complete chain of watching cruisers to be maintained all along the French coast was one of the means recommended by the ship-owners to reduce the tale of losses. (Memorandum on the Protection of the Coasting Trade, presented by Mr. Greville, 1809.)


The French spirit made their men quick to adopt every ruse. A common peril besetting our coastal trade was found in innocent-looking fishing-boats, showing their half-dozen men busy at their work, which lay at anchor upon, or within, the lines joining headland to headland. Desperadoes out from Dunkirk or Calais, armed with nothing more effective than the short-range muskets of the day, watched the character and appearance of passing vessels. When night or other favourable opportunity came they pulled quickly alongside the unsuspecting merchant ship which, undermanned and unwatchful, from the scarcity of seamen, was first awakened to the danger by a volley of musketry, followed by the clambering of the enemy on the decks. The crews, few in number, poor in quality, and not paid for fighting, frequently could offer but slight resistance to an overpowering assault. (Mahan, Influence of Sea Power on the French Revolution, ii, 208.)

Typical of French daring was the capture of a West Indiaman, the Benjamin and Elizabeth, in 1799, four leagues off Dungeness, in a fog. She was hailed by a lugger, who, running under her quarter, asked her if she wanted a pilot. On being answered " No," a man on board the little craft who spoke good English called on the Indiaman to back her mainyard and surrender, following this demand with a volley of musketry, after which men, swarming on the lugger, boarded her on the quarter. A sharp fight resulted in the crew being overpowered, and the prize was headed for France. H.M.S. Racoon came up on the crossing, recovered the ship, and sank the lugger with a broadside, all on board going down. (Naval Chronicle, ii, 162.) Tales of the sort were the common talk in every sailors' tavern.


The total losses to which the British mercantile fleets and British commerce were subjected during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars have been discussed by Commander (now Captain) K. G. B. Dewar, R.N. ("What is the Influence of Overseas Commerce in the Operations of War, etc." Printed in Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, April 1913). It must be admitted that the material available is far from satisfactory, owing to various causes: the incomplete manner in which statistics were kept; their not infrequently conflicting nature; the complications introduced by the recapture of vessels taken by the French, and the additions of enemy prizes which were diverted to the British merchant fleets; and the uncertain evidence concerning clearances and times of voyages, which require an average to be assumed. Admiral Mahan estimated the total losses of British ships in round numbers at 11,000, an annual average of about 2 1/2 per cent. and held that the direct total loss to the nation by the operation of hostile cruisers did not exceed 2 1/2 per cent, of the commerce of the Empire. The studies of the Naval War College have placed the losses at double that proportion - 5 per cent. Low as his estimate is, Mahan qualified and reduced it, adding:


"This loss was partially made good by the prize ships and merchandise taken by its (Great Britain's) own naval vessels and privateers. A partial, if not complete, compensation for her remaining loss is also to be found in the great expansion of her mercantile operations carried on under neutral flags: for, although this too was undoubtedly harassed by the enemy, yet to it almost entirely was due the volume of trade that poured through Great Britain to and from the Continent of Europe, every ton of which left a part of its value to swell the bulk of British wealth. The writings of the period show that the injuries due to captured shipping passed unremarked amid the common incidents and misfortunes of life; neither their size nor their effects were great enough to attract public notice, amid the steady increase of national wealth and the activities concerned in amassing it." (Influence of Sea Power upon the French Revolution, ii, 227.)


The duties levied upon cargoes of neutrals who were forced to enter our ports, by the Orders in Council framed as an answer to the Berlin and Milan Decrees, certainly assisted Great Britain in bearing the cost of the war; but it is straining the meaning of words to comprise such traffic within the ambit of British wealth. Mahan claimed, in particular, that the British returns of British losses at sea were larger than those made by the French, but that result is probably due to the very inefficient manner in which the French returns were compiled, and the omission of colonial captures.


Without entering into detailed examination of statistics on which there is ground for disagreement, we may cite the (following) table compiled by Commander Dewar as affording an approximate indication of the intensity of the attack on trade during the war.





By Commander K. G. B. Dewar, R.N., Journal of the Royal United Service Institution, vol. lvii, No. 422.


I Year.

II British Merchantmen captured.

III Clearance of British Shipping engaged in the Foreign Trade.


IV Percentage of Captures to British Ships engaged in Foreign Trade (assuming One Clearance a Year).

Per Cent.






































































AUTHOR'S NOTE. The accuracy of this table cannot be guaranteed, but it affords an accurate comparison between the various years. Columns II and III are taken from the Cambridge Modern History, vol. viii, pp. 485 and 486, vol. ix, pp. 241 and 242. The average tonnage of ships employed in the foreign trade in 1802 is taken as 134 tons (Essays on Naval Defence, by Vice-Admiral P. H. Colomb, p. 241). Assuming that each ship cleared once a year, the number of ships employed in the foreign trade is obtained by dividing Column III by 134.


Neglecting the year 1793, the average column (IV) works out at 5.6 per cent. As, however, ships must on the average have cleared more than once a year, the number of ships must be considerably overestimated, and the percentage of captures in Column IV correspondingly underestimated. On the other hand, a large number of captures included ships engaged in the coastal trade, and if the tonnage of the coastal shipping were added to Column III, the percentage of captures would be decreased.


Returns of the coasting trade were not made until 1824. It was a vital part of our commerce in an epoch when the bulk of the distribution of merchandise throughout the British Isles was done by water, and the many hundreds of small sailing-ships continuously engaged in this traffic traded with a comparatively small number of ports. To ignore it, as too often has been the tendency, is to throw out all the calculations.


Insurance rates may be taken as affording some guidance. They fluctuated violently, and seem to have been highest in 1805, when two strong French fleets were at large in the Atlantic; but it is not without significance that the average rate of insurance during the long wars was more than 5 per cent. (Cambridge Modern History, i, 241.)


Although, with the materials available, anything beyond an approximate estimate is impossible, there appear to be sound reasons for the conclusion that the losses incurred by British commerce in the great struggle in which it was engaged a century ago were much nearer to 5 per cent, than 2 1/2 per cent, as suggested by Admiral Mahan. The wonder is, not that the proportion was so large, but that it was not larger, in view of the advantages which lay with the enemy, possessing many convenient ports and a large number of small craft.


A table showing the number of British-owned ships during the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars is appended. It reflects the steady growth of the British Mercantile Marine in spite of the losses sustained during the years of war. It will be seen that, mainly owing to activity of shipbuilding, the numbers increased from 16,329 to 24,860 between 1793 and 1815, the year when peace was concluded.




From the Appendix to Minutes taken before the Manning Committee, 1859.























































THE British people emerged from the Continental struggle victorious but exhausted. Famine is the offspring of war, and it seemed to contemporaries that, although the supremacy of the seas had been won, economic ruin confronted them. While wages had risen by about 60 per cent., the price of wheat had gone up by 130 per cent. Throughout the country the lower classes of the population had been reduced to a state of privation. In the rural districts, particularly in the south, the advent of the steam-engine, and the industrial movement northward, towards the coal-fields, in association with the economic effects of the war, had robbed prosperous little towns and hamlets of the means of livelihood. The conditions had become so grave that, in the absence of Parliamentary intervention, local justices felt compelled before the end of the century to grant allowances from the rates to supplement the low wages then ruling, the allowances being varied according to the price of corn. Rural England, largely owing to the extinction of village industries, was brought to a condition of misery which had not been known hitherto. The sufferings of the towns were even worse, and distress was widespread. The privations of the mass of people had seemed to reach a climax in 1811-12, when the harvest failed all over Europe. The evil was deep-rooted, and did not soon pass away. Riots, due in the main to the introduction of machinery at this period of economic disturbance from the effects of war, contributed to render the outlook so grave that men feared that industrial unrest would be followed by national ruin.


Contemporary opinion failed to realise that, in liberating Europe by the use of sea power, this country had created the foundations upon which it might build on the ruins of the war a new and better state of society. Not only had the supremacy of the seas been gained, but during the long period covered by hostilities an organisation had been created to enable the British people to take advantage of that success, constituting themselves in process of time the sea carriers of the world. Both the Royal Navy and the Merchant Navy were stronger when peace was signed than they had been when it was broken in 1793. The Merchant Navy had grown in spite of the heavy losses sustained at the hands of the enemy. In other words, as the conflict by sea drew to its close, British sea power, notwithstanding the risks to which it had been exposed over a period of two decades and the losses sustained, rose to a greater strength than it had before attained. In the opening years of the nineteenth century, the British people were so impressed with the miseries which they attributed too exclusively to the war that they were blind to the promise of prosperity which their sea power assured them as an island people. They had, in fact, suffered less in consequence of the long-drawn struggle than any other people in Europe, owing to the policy consistently adopted by successive Governments. Ministers had refused, in spite of temptations, to embark upon a policy of military expansion which would have drawn tens of thousands of men away from productive employment, and in particular from the industries specially associated with the maintenance of the country's sea power. Foreign troops were subsidised, but the utmost reluctance was exhibited to take any step in opposition to the unadulterated maritime principles of defence and offence. Even in 1815, the year which was marked by the overthrow of Napoleon at Waterloo, the number of men voted for the British Army was only 275,392. The country reaped the full advantage of this adhesion to a maritime policy. While the war was still in progress, and the population of the British Isles was suffering economically, the work of industrial reconstruction was undertaken. The development of the steam-engine had directed attention to the vast wealth represented in the coal seams in the northern counties, and the opening years of the century witnessed the uprising of the great manufacturing centres which were to transform England from a country in the main agricultural into one distinguished by its industrial pre-eminence. The foundations on which the promise of the future rested was the supremacy of the Royal Navy and the strength of the Mercantile Marine.


Merchant shipping is not a basic industry: it produces nothing. It is, however, the conduit pipe of comrnerce from market to market. Leaders of public opinion in the early years of last century failed to realise that a new age was dawning, owing to the invention of the marine steam-engine, which was to contract the world and thus encourage ocean-borne trade. Yet events were to prove that this non-productive industry was the most essential element in the life of a people, living in a group of islands, drawing their raw materials, in large measure, from oversea, and relying upon oversea markets for customers to purchase their goods. British merchantmen became the shuttles in the great economic loom which was created in the years following the conclusion of peace by slow and painful stages and amid much political turmoil. As industry developed, the Merchant Navy supported it with an increasing strength that passed almost unnoticed. The shipping industry in those days owed little to the State; it was an individualistic movement, its inspiration and mobility due to far-sighted and resourceful business men in the great sea-ports, who devoted themselves to the creation, as a commercial enterprise, of a great carrying trade. So long as war continued they had maintained their sailings, in spite of the action of enemies and the interference of the press-gang. With the coming of peace, when the demands of the Royal Navy for men were no longer paramount, they devoted themselves without embarrassment to the management of the British Merchant Navy, which for a hundred years was to prove the lynchpin of the industrial movement of the British Isles and the foundation of British economic strength, for a free sea and a healthy marine were the bases on which the Free Trade policy of the latter part of the Victorian Era rested.


Though the nation had preserved its Mercantile Marine in strength, that organisation was in anything but a healthy state. The old Navigation Laws - the expression of a traditional mercantile policy now outgrown and soon to be changed - were still in force. They confined the import trade to British ships or ships of the producing country, restricted to British ships the carriage of merchandise to the Colonies, and reserved the whole of the coasting trade to British vessels navigated by British masters, and manned by crews containing at least 75 per cent, of British subjects. The Navigation Laws limited competition at a moment when the marine steam-engine was making its appearance, and the nation was beginning to understand the advantages it possessed by reason of its coal-fields. It was apparent to far-seeing men that the iron ship was about to make its appearance. Even while the war was still going on, experiments had been made with iron for the construction of ships, and in 1819 the first vessel built entirely of iron was completed on the Clyde. She was intended for carrying coal on the Forth and Clyde Canal. In subsequent years other experiments were made. In view of the advent of the steam-engine and the possibility of employing iron in the shipyards in place of wood, shipbuilders thought it necessary to adopt a cautious policy. They could well afford to do so, since they were protected from the full brunt of foreign competition, at any rate so far as British and Imperial trade was concerned. (The rule as to the employment of English ships for imports was relaxed in the case of America in 1796.) Between the signing of peace in 1815 and the close of the year 1830, the British Merchant Navy not only did not increase, but was thought to have declined slightly both in numbers and tonnage. The falling off, however, was more apparent than real. In 1823 Parliament began the task of repealing the Navigation Laws, but it was one beset with many difficulties. Further evidence of a national awakening to the importance of the Mercantile Marine was supplied in 1836, when a Committee was appointed to inquire into the causes of wrecks. It became apparent that all was not well. The Committee reported that the ships "were so faulty in design and as sailers so slow, that British shipowners feared free trade because they knew that successful competition on equal terms with foreign ships was impossible." The Committee's report contained the following significant passages:


"That the frequent incompetency of masters and officers appears to be admitted on all hands, this incompetency sometimes arising from want of skill and knowledge in seamanship, but more frequently from the want of an adequate knowledge of navigation, it being proved that some masters of merchant vessels have been appointed to command after a very short time at sea; that others have hardly known how to trace a ship's course on a chart, or how to ascertain the latitude by a meridian altitude of the sun; that many are unacquainted with the use of the chronometer, and that very few indeed are competent to ascertain the longitude by lunar observations, while some are appointed to command merchant vessels at periods of such extreme youth (one instance is given of a boy of fourteen, all of whose apprentices were older than himself), and others so wholly destitute of maritime experience (another instance being given of a porter from a shipowner's warehouse who was made a captain of one of his ships), that vessels have been met with at sea which were out of their reckoning by several hundred miles; and others have been wrecked on coasts from which they believed themselves to have been hundreds of miles distant at the time.


"That drunkenness, either in the masters, officers, or men, is a frequent cause of ships being wrecked, leading often to improper and contradictory orders on the part of the officers; sleeping on look-out, or at the helm among the men, occasioning ships to run foul of each other at night, and one or both foundering; to vessels being taken aback or overpowered by sudden squalls, and sinking, upsetting, or getting dismasted, for want of timely vigilance in preparing for the danger, and to the steering of wrong courses so as to run upon dangers which might have otherwise been avoided.


"That the practice of taking large quantities of ardent spirits as part of the stores of ships, whether in the Navy or in the Merchant Service, and the habitual use of such spirits, even when diluted with water, and in what is ordinarily considered the moderate quantity served to each man at sea, is itself a very frequent cause of the loss of ships and crews. Ships frequently taking fire from the drawing off of spirits, which are always kept under hold: crews frequently getting access to the spirit casks, and becoming intoxicated, and almost all the cases of insubordination, insolence, disobedience of orders, and refusal to do duty, as well as the confinements and punishments enforced as correctives, both of which must for the time greatly lessen the efficiency of the crews, being clearly traceable to the intoxicating influence of the spirits used by the officers and men."


The maritime position of the country was unsound. Many harbours were so shallow that the bottoms of ships were specially constructed to take the ground. In spite of the fact that some of the officers of the larger foreign-going ships were men of the highest attainments and of undoubted reputation, drunkenness and incompetency among officers of average type, as well as the seamen, were notorious. Ships were provided with inadequate charts even where any charts were supplied. The Mercantile Marine depended largely on pauper apprentices for its supply of seamen, and there was no examination of masters, mates, or engineers, to test their professional skill. Numerous lighthouses still remained the absolute property of individuals, or were leased to individuals for their personal benefit, and surplus light dues went to so-called charitable purposes and were dispersed through avenues entirely unconnected with shipping. Harbour dues, town dues, charity dues, and passing dues levied on ships were similarly diverted. There were no harbours which could be described as harbours of refuge, though a passing toll had to be paid by all ships off Whitby, Bridlington, Dover, or Ramsgate. The Tyne, Clyde, and Tees were navigable only by small vessels even at high-water, and many other ports now nourishing scarcely existed. "Freight was the mother of wages"; payment for salvage of life was unknown; ships did not carry side-lights; no international rule of the road at sea existed; neither reports of wrecks nor inquiries as to the cause of wrecks had been instituted; crimps preyed, and preyed unchecked, on British seamen; there was no system of recovering the wages or effects of deceased seamen; Parliament had not thought it necessary to make any practical statutory provision as to the supply of food, or as to the accommodation of seamen; there were no checks on the tyranny of masters at sea, and no provision for the proper execution of contracts between masters and seamen; a seaman could not raise any question as to the unseaworthiness of his ship, but could be sent to prison as a deserter if he went ashore to complain; there were no international or code signals. (This summarised statement of the condition of the Mercantile Marine is based on an address at the Mansion House, February 17th, 1887, by Mr. Thomas Gray, C.B., Assistant Secretary, Marine Department, Board of Trade.) That was the condition of the British merchant fleet at the time when a Committee was appointed to inquire into the causes of wrecks. The investigation showed that the maritime interests of the nation were suffering, to the injury of trade and the weakening of the Imperial system. The Committee emphasised many of the causes of the decline of the shipping industry which have already been summarised, and in particular remarked on the increasing competition with foreign shipowners, "who, from the many advantages enjoyed by them in the superior cheapness of the materials for building, equipping, and provisioning their vessels, are enabled to realise profits on terms of freight which would not even cover the expenses of English ships." The report of this inquiry went a long way to confirm the statements which had been made by Mr. Joseph Hume, who from his place in the House of Commons had declared that the British Merchant Navy was losing its place among the mercantile marines of the world, and that it was urgently necessary that Parliament should, in particular, direct attention to the administration of lighthouses around the coast and the provision of harbours.


The public attention which was attracted to the state of the Mercantile Marine at this period at last led Parliament to pass a succession of acts which, practically for the first time since the expansion of the country's maritime power (The essential fact seems to have been that shipping expanded so enormously as to render existing regulations out of date.) recognised the principle that the State had a responsibility towards the shipping industry beyond that which reflected the broad economic policy of the country, and that it was, especially, bound to enforce regulations for the protection of the lives of passengers and seamen. Measures were passed regulating the conditions under which emigrants travelled, establishing a registry office for seamen, and transferring to Trinity House a number of lighthouses which formed part of the hereditary estate of the Crown, and steps were also taken to provide better harbours. In 1846 further progress was made to insure greater safety at sea. It was enacted that all iron steamers should be divided by watertight compartments into three divisions; that all sea-going vessels should be provided with boats in proportion to their tonnage; that steamers should pass to the port side of each other; that steamers when within twenty miles of the coast should carry lights to be prescribed by the Admiralty; that passenger steamers should be surveyed half-yearly by surveyors to be approved by the Board of Trade; that accidents to steamers should be reported to the Board of Trade, that department having power to inquire into the cause of the loss. (This Act is of interest as marking the initiation of a new policy on the part of the State in its relation to the Mercantile Marine. It has since been modified.)


In 1843 fresh light had been thrown upon the condition of the Merchant Navy owing to the action of Mr. James Murray, of the Foreign Office, who, at the request of the Admiralty, addressed a letter to British Consuls abroad asking them to supply him with information "respecting the character and conduct of British ship-masters and seamen." He added in his circular letter that his object was to show "the necessity for authoritative steps on the part of Her Majesty's Government to remedy what appears to be an evil detrimental to and seriously affecting the character of our commercial marine, and therefore advantageous to foreign rivals, whose merchant vessels are said to be exceedingly well manned and navigated."


At that time nine separate departments were concerned in administrating the laws affecting the Merchant Navy, and there was no central board to co-ordinate the work of these several authorities, each department being left to look merely to those interests committed to its charge and to its own convenience. The reports which were received fully confirmed the widespread anxiety which was entertained as to the decline of the character of the British Mercantile Marine. Mr. Murray summed up their general purport in the following statement:


"It is stated from various parts of the world that persons placed in command of British ships are so habitually addicted to drunkenness as to be unfitted for their position, and it will be seen that Her Majesty's Consuls allude specifically to the notorious and gross intemperance, and to the ignorance and brutality of British ship-masters, many of whom are totally void of education. In several reports it is stated that there are honourable exceptions to the unworthy class of masters, thus showing that among British masters frequenting foreign ports bad conduct and ignorance is the rule, and intelligence and ability the exception; that, on the other hand, foreign masters are educated, sober, intelligent men, capable of commanding their ships, and that foreign seamen are consequently more orderly."


Eventually Parliament took action on the lines suggested by Mr. Murray, and in 1850 the Marine Department of the Board of Trade was established. In the previous year the last remains of the Navigation Laws as to foreign trade had been repealed, to be followed five years later by the abolition of the restrictions on the coasting trade. Almost simultaneously, therefore, the protective system as applied to merchant shipping was abolished, and a special office created to administer the varied and often contradictory legislation with reference to the Mercantile Marine which had been passed since the opening years of Queen Victoria's reign. Henceforward the confusion which had hitherto existed with reference to the administration of the laws relating to shipping was mitigated, and there were many indications of increased public interest in the industry, particularly as affecting the safety of passengers and crews.


Mr. Samuel Plimsoll was largely responsible for the movement of public opinion which occurred in later years. He directed attention, in particular, to the number of vessels which put to sea in an unseaworthy condition and overloaded, having often been heavily insured by their owners, who thus stood to gain in case of disaster. Mr. Plimsoll's agitation against "coffin-ships" greatly exaggerated the extent of the evil, but the evil undoubtedly existed. His pertinacity led to the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry, and the publicity given to the scandal resulted in the passing of the Merchant Shipping Act of 1873, giving stringent powers of inspection to the Board of Trade, and legalising what is now known as the "Plimsoll Mark" as a protection against overloading. The evil was scotched but not killed, and the matter received further attention about ten years later, when Mr. Joseph Chamberlain, President of the Board of Trade, introduced into the House of Commons a Bill to provide for "greater security of life and property at sea." In moving the second reading of the Bill on May 19th, 1884, he reverted to the controversy which had arisen as to the responsibility of shipowners for the abuses which had undoubtedly existed over a long period. He made it clear that he advanced no charge against shipowners generally, but was dealing only with a minority. He pointed out that, according to Mr. Hollams, a well-known lawyer, the law as it then stood declared to the shipowner, " buy your ship as cheaply as you can, equip her as poorly as you can, load her as fully as you can, and send her to sea. If she gets to the end of her voyage you will make a very good thing of it; if she goes to the bottom you will have made a very much better thing of it. . . ." Mr. Chamberlain, referring to the Report of the Commission, added:


"The Commissioners pointed out that ' the system of our marine insurance, while it protects shipowners against losses which would otherwise be ruinous, tends to render them less careful in the management of their ships. . . . The contract of marine insurance is, in its essence, a contract of indemnity, and the spirit of the contract is violated if the insured can make the occurrence of a loss a means of gain.' The Commissioners added that ' our whole system of insurance law requires complete revision, for not only does it allow the shipowner in some cases to receive more than the amount of the loss sustained by him, but it also, on the other hand, deprives him of an indemnity in cases in which he ought to be protected by his insurance.' "


Further important and far-reaching reforms were introduced towards the end of the nineteenth century, thus completing the task of revising and codifying the law relating to the Mercantile Marine which had been attempted with a large measure of success in 1854. It may be profitable to turn from this survey of legislation to an examination of the progress of the Mercantile Marine during these years when British shipping, the Navigation Laws having been repealed, had to face world competition, when some of the burdens imposed on British shipowners were lifted from them, and when Parliament intervened to enable the Board of Trade to insist upon the seaworthiness of ships and the safety of passengers and crews. In 1875, Sir Thomas Farrer, then Secretary to the Board of Trade, prepared a memorandum with reference to the "state of British shipping and seamen." He pointed out that "the actual increase of our Merchant Navy is a most remarkable fact," and in order to illustrate the progress gave a series of figures (see below).





Ships belonging to the British Empire at the End of Each Year.

Ships belonging to the United Kingdom at the End of Each Year.













































































Commenting on those figures, the Secretary of the Board of Trade remarked that they gave a very imperfect reflection of the increase in the quality and quantity of the work done by the Merchant Navy. " The quantity of that work is to be measured by the number and length of voyages made and the nature of the freights carried. It is scarcely possible to get at this accurately, but some notion of it may be found from the number of entrances and clearances. For the Foreign Trade of the United Kingdom we can give these. For the Coasting Trade we cannot, since a large proportion of coasting voyages do not appear in the Custom House books; nor can we give complete returns of the employment of British ships on the Foreign Trade of foreign countries." In order to make this point clear, quotation was made of the number and tonnage of British vessels entered and cleared in the foreign trade of the United Kingdom (with cargoes and in ballast) between 1818 and 1874. In the former year the number of ships was 24,448, with a tonnage of 3,601,960; in the latter year the number was 73,534 and the tonnage 30,089,683. It was remarked that, "if complete returns were available for the coasting trade and for the trade carried on between foreign ports by British ships, an even more remarkable indication of the progress of British shipping would have been possible, since the coasting trade has been carried on almost exclusively by British ships." From the statistics given it was evident that, whilst British tonnage nearly trebled between 1835 and 1874 and more than doubled between 1842 and 1874, the tonnage entrances and clearances of British ships in the foreign trade of the United Kingdom in 1872 were about six times what they were in 1835, and more than four times what they were in 1842. The explanation, it was pointed out, was to be found in the increase of steam-vessels, making many voyages where a sailing-vessel makes but one. Statistics were quoted by the Secretary to show the great growth of steam tonnage and the increase in the number of men, exclusive of masters, in spite of the introduction of labour-saving devices. The number of men in 1852 was 159,563, and in 1874, 203,806.


During the period when Parliament was turning its attention to the condition of the Mercantile Marine the United States was developing a great sea-carrying trade. The Americans had not only shown that they could build the finest and swiftest clipper ships, but in 1814 they launched their first steamship on the great waters of the Mississippi, and immediately proceeded to the development of their internal maritime communications which the new propulsive agent made possible. With a fine spirit of enterprise they cultivated their merchant navy by every practicable means, and by the middle of the nineteenth century were the most serious competitors of this country for sea power. By the early sixties the British lead amounted to little more than a quarter of a million tons. And then came the Civil War. The North possessed only a small fighting fleet, and in the emergency the authorities turned to the Mercantile Marine to supply the deficiencies in order that economic pressure, by means of a blockade of the numerous ports of the Confederacy, might be applied without delay. Warships were improvised, but at a terrible cost to the Merchant Marine. Prior to the Civil. War, two-thirds of the foreign trade of the United States was carried in ships flying the Stars and Stripes. American shipping represented 5,250,000 tons. "The extraordinary character of the emergency demanded that much of this tonnage should be impressed into the naval and military services. One million eight hundred thousand tons were taken, and $100,000,000 withdrawn from the capital embarked in the shipping industry. The Alabama, the Confederate tiger of the sea, destroyed 100,000 tons of shipping, and caused the owners of vessels to seek foreign registries or tie their craft to the dock, rather than send them unprotected on voyages which were likely to end in the prize court or destruction by fire at sea. Foreign ships and foreign capital eagerly entered the industry which the United States was compelled to abandon. (An interesting parallel is the blow to English merchant shipping as the result of the Wars of the Roses.) From the damage inflicted upon our Merchant Marine during the Civil War there has been, as yet, no full recovery; and the stupendous increase in our foreign trade is the more remarkable in view of the fact that it has been effected in spite of the disadvantage of its conveyance in ships flying the flags of other nations than our own." (The New American Navy, by the Hon. James Long, former Secretary of the Navy Dept., U.S.A. (1903).)


The American Civil War, coming in the very midst of the transition from sails to steam, removed the most serious competitors with whom British shipowners had had to contend. When in 1875 the Secretary of the Board of Trade, continuing his examination of the state of British merchant shipping, investigated the progress of the British Mercantile Marine in relation to that of other countries, he was able to paint a gratifying picture. Whilst the British tonnage in the trade of the United Kingdom had increased from 65 per cent, of that trade in 1850 to 68 per cent, in 1870, United States tonnage, which had 60 per cent, of the trade of the United States in 1850, had only 38 per cent, of it in 1870. French tonnage, which had 41 per cent, of the trade of France in 1850, had only 31 per cent, in 1870. Dutch tonnage, which had 42 per cent, of the trade of Holland in 1850, had only 28 per cent, in 1870. Prussian tonnage, which had 49 per cent, of the trade of Prussia in 1850, had 46 per cent, in 1870. Swedish tonnage, which had 43 per cent, of the trade of Sweden in 1850, had only 32 per cent, in 1870. Even in the case of Norway, whose marine had grown rapidly, Norwegian tonnage, which had 73 per cent, of the trade of Norway in 1850, had decreased to 70 per cent, in 1870. " It was, of course, to be expected," the Secretary to the Board of Trade remarked, "that when the foreign trades of the different countries were opened to foreign ships, the native ships of each country would do a smaller proportion of that trade, finding their compensation in the new trades between other countries thus opened to them. And so it happened in the case of all maritime countries, except Great Britain. But in her case, with a trade far exceeding that of any other country, and increasing more rapidly than that of most countries, her shipping has not only continued to do the same proportion of her own trade as it did before the trade was opened to other nations, but has increased that proportion. Nor is this all. The foreign trade of each foreign country has also increased very largely; and the native shipping of each foreign country no longer does the same proportion of her own trade as it formerly did. The proportion which native shipping no longer does must be done by ships of some other flag; and though we have no complete figures to show how much of the trade of each of these countries is done by the British and how much by other foreign flags, we have some evidence to show that the British flag comes in for the lion's share of it."


Summarising all the evidence which he had been able to collect, the Secretary of the Board of Trade came to the conclusion that "it is abundantly evident, not only that British merchant shipping has, in the twenty years succeeding the repeal of the Navigation Laws, enjoyed its due proportion of the increase in the trade of the world, which has followed on free trade and the use of steam, but that it has obtained much more than its due proportion, and has outdistanced many of its once-dreaded competitors. Having special advantages in the possession of coal and iron, and having the mechanical genius to turn these advantages to account, it has led the way, and secured itself, not only the largest share of the carrying trade of the world, but the most valuable part of that trade." The legislation affecting shipping which was passed during the latter part of the nineteenth century was opposed to the political sentiments of the time. State interference with trade, either by land or by sea, was regarded with suspicion and distrust. It was felt that Parliament was treading dangerous ground in attempting to regulate industry. A powerful impulse from without was necessary in order to secure Parliamentary action, even to assure the safety of passengers and crews. Shipowners generally were no doubt guiltless of the gross charges which were levelled against them as a class by those who were stirred to action by the abuses which existed in some ships of the Mercantile Marine. The scandals may have been due to the neglect or criminality of the minority. Practically everyone who was concerned with financing and managing the Mercantile Marine opposed the earlier legislative measures, believing them to be harmful to an industry which had hitherto been individualistic. However exaggerated the statements may have been which were made by Mr. Joseph King, Mr. Samuel Plimsoll, and others - and most agitations are based on ex-parte and over-coloured assertions - it cannot be doubted that, had it not been for the intervention of such public-spirited men and the success with which they played on public sympathy, little would have been done by Parliament; or, at any rate, action would have been indefinitely postponed. On the other hand, the pressure of uninstructed public opinion in the country led to the passing of measures without due consideration of details, and a succession of amending and consolidating Shipping Acts was required to unravel the tangle created by the legislation carried in the years of agitation. The movement was not continuous, nor was it always wisely directed, but its general effect was good. Stage by stage, important powers were conferred on the Board of Trade. Its Marine Department is a modern development, created to meet modern needs; its duties, though numerous, are clearly defined and restricted. It is concerned mainly with the security of life and property at sea, and has had, directly, no share in the upbuilding of the Mercantile Marine. The strength of the Merchant Navy has always depended in the main upon the enterprise and business ability of the shipowning community in meeting the nation's needs without State subvention or State encouragement.


The passage of merchant shipping legislation between 1880 and 1885 was succeeded by a further period of great prosperity for British shipping. Freights, both homeward and outward, with some fluctuations, continued high, reaching their maxima in 1889. The prosperity of the industry was reflected in the output of new ships. At the turn of the century freights fell, pointing to over-production, and this was reflected in the orders placed in the shipbuilding yards. On the eve of the outbreak of war in 1914, the earning capacity of shipping had for six years shown a gradual but healthy improvement, with the result that fresh capital was invested in the industry. Even shipyards throughout the United Kingdom benefited from this recovery, and in 1913 were responsible for nearly two-thirds of the world's new construction in spite of the activity in Germany.


At the outbreak of war the British Mercantile Marine was the largest, the most up-to-date, and the most efficient, of all the merchant navies of the world. (This review of the strength and development of the British Mercantile Marine is based, in large measure textually, on the Report of the Departmental Committee on Shipping and Shipbuilding, Cd. 9092.) It comprised nearly one-half of the world's steam tonnage (12,440,000 tons out of about 26,000,000 tons net), and was four times as large as its nearest and most formidable rival the German Mercantile Marine. The tonnage owned by the principal maritime countries of the world on June 30th, 1914, is shown below:




British Empire:

Tons Net

Per Cent.

United Kingdom



Dominions and Colonies










United States*


















Other Countries







*These figures do not include United States vessels engaged in trade on the Northern Lakes (1,693,000 tons).


NOTE: This table was prepared for the Departmental Committee on Shipping and Shipbuilding, Cd. 9092. The steam tonnage of the three Scandinavian countries (Norway, Sweden, and Denmark) amounted together on June 30th, 1914, to 2,185,000 tons net, or to 8.4 per cent, of the worlds steam tonnage.


The tonnage of the United Kingdom consisted mainly of vessels large enough for ocean voyages. If the dividing-line between ocean-going and other vessels is taken at 1,000 tons net (or 1,600 tons gross), it will be found that 90 per cent, of the tonnage of the United Kingdom was made up of vessels of the larger type. The number and net tonnage of steam-vessels (a) of less than 1,000 tons, and (b) of and above 1,000 tons, which were on the Register of the United Kingdom at the end of 1913 were as follows (In the more detailed survey of the position of the British Mercantile Marine before the war, the shipping of the United Kingdom, which represented 93 per cent, of the Empire's shipping, is generally referred to, the reason being that detailed statistics were not always available for the remainder):




Net Tons.

(a) Steam-vessels of less than 1,000 tons net



(b) Steam-vessels of and above 1,000 tons net







It is thus evident that the nation was dependent for supplies and trade on a comparatively small number of vessels of great size the secret of success in peace and danger in war. Vessels of large size are generally more economical than smaller vessels, but in war their loss is the more severely felt proportionately as their number is limited. The enemy's submarine warfare became vital the moment it began to attack the larger vessels on a great scale.


Steam-Vessels on the Register of the U.K. on December 31st.




Net Tons.


Net Tons.

Of 1,000 and under 2,000 tons net





Of 2,000 and under 3,000 tons net





Of 3,000 and under 5,000 tons net





Of 5,000 tons net and above










* The reduction in the number of ships of less than 2,000 tons exactly corresponded with the increase in the number of vessels of and above 3,000 tons.

Before the war this country led the way in most matters of shipowning and shipbuilding; and not least in the building of merchant vessels of large size. Between the end of 1910 and the end of 1913 the average size of the ocean-going" steam-vessels on the register of the United Kingdom increased from 2,500 to 2,700 tons net, a significant movement.


It is not necessary to make any detailed comparison between the British and other mercantile marines as regards the size of vessels employed. The average size of steam-vessels of and above 100 tons gross (or about 60 tons net) is a rough index to the kind of trade in which the vessels of the respective countries were principally employed; and the average tonnage of such vessels which were on the Register on June 30th, 1914, is accordingly shown below:



Net Tons

United Kingdom