Man is a creature on the land occupying a world covered principally by water. Whilst he could move himself and his trade goods by foot, beast and wheel, he realised millennia ago the potentials of the open water and the power of the wind to carry his goods to market. So the birth of the Mercantile Marine was inevitable. The history of the passage of goods upon the high seas has been taken in hand here by Keble Chatterton a recognised scholar of his time on all matters maritime. This book—which includes many images of merchant men—traces the course of this fascinating subject from the earliest times to the early twentieth century with scholarly thoroughness. The reader will discover the Mediterranean traders of the 14th century, the northern sailors, the golden age of the Dutch ,the glamour of the East Indiamen and every other facet of this absorbing subject. Available in soft cover and hard cover for collectors.
Thus, in every respect except tonnage the East Indiaman was a more powerful vessel, and the preliminary tactics are interesting. At 9 a.m., when the Indiaman was well on her weather-quarter, the Frenchman shook out the reefs from her topsails and stood towards the merchantman, who held on her course. Half an hour later the frigate set her t’gallant sails and stuns’ls, and at 10 a.m. hoisted the British blue ensign and pendant. There was nothing wrong in this ruse de guerre, and often during the war of 1914-1918 British ships hoisted neutral colours before opening fire on German submarines. Warren Hastings suspected the frigate was not a British man-of-war, but hoisted her colours and made her private signal. For, in order that East Indiamen might be able to make themselves known on the high seas to British men-of-war, a special code of signals was always arranged by the Admiralty during war-time. This code was sent sealed to the Secret Committee of the company and then handed over to the commanding officer of each ship.<br>
The Frenchman took no notice of the signals, continued rapidly to approach, so that at 11 a.m. the Indiaman shortened sail and cleared for action: it was quite obvious now what was going to happen. At noon the frigate took in her stuns’ls, staysails and mainsail, and then hauled down British colours and hoisted French. After opening fire and disabling part of the Indiaman’s rigging, the Frenchman again attacked, this time killing and wounding several of the merchantman’s crew, badly damaging the foremast, cutting away all the foreshrouds on the port side and the ensign. The latter was quickly hoisted again at the maintopgallant masthead.<br>
A third attack followed, during which the Warren Hastings’ foremast was finally crippled. Thus, owing to the wind and heavy sea, the latter could carry sail on only her main and mizzen masts, and now opened fire. A hot engagement followed, and unfortunately her mainmast was now damaged as well as her standing and running rigging, besides the further loss of men killed and wounded. The fifth attack found her with only the main topsail set, and the enemy poured in a terrible fire, which knocked the spanker boom into splinters and carried away the mizzen mast, which, falling forward, disabled every remaining effective gun on the upper deck.<br>
Troubles came not singly, for the lower deck was on fire, the rudder was rendered useless, and whilst the surgeon was operating, a shell entered and destroyed all his instruments. For four hours and a half the Indiaman had sought to defend herself, but in spite of the zeal and perseverance of her officers and men she was compelled in her crippled state to lower her colours. Then, being thoroughly unmanageable, the Indiaman, with the heavy sea running, happened to fall off, and crashed alongside the Piémontaise, who was to leeward. Thereupon a number of Frenchmen leapt aboard the merchantman with daggers and threatened to kill the lot, dragged the captain about the ship and accused him of having tried to ram the frigate so as to cripple her masts; and then stabbed the captain, whereupon he fainted through loss of blood. The second officer, surgeon, and a midshipman and boatswain’s mate were similarly stabbed. Presently this fury died down, the Frenchman took the Englishman in tow and both arrived at the Isle of France on July 4.<br>
Thus, life in these merchant ships, although well rewarded, was at any time during those long years of hostilities liable suddenly to become most exciting. Ships and men were sent to the bottom or taken captive, but the service went on. Lest the reader should imagine these incidents isolated events, let the following be related. On May 2, 1809, a small squadron of homeward-bound Indiamen had cleared the Sandheads of Bengal River, escorted by H.M. sloop Victor. After three weeks the latter, in dark and squally weather of the night of the 24th, parted company. By the 30th, owing to stress of weather, two ships had left the convoy, and there now remained only the Streatham, Europe and Lord Keith in company. The first two were 820-ton craft; the third was a vessel of 600 tons. The first two carried thirty guns apiece; the Lord Keith had not more than twelve.<br>
At five-thirty on the morning of May 31, when in Lat. 9° 15’ N., Long. 90° 30’ E., these three were on the starboard tack with the wind S.W. by S. when a strange ship was seen seven miles off to the west of south. This was the French 40-gun frigate Caroline, which mounted forty-six guns in addition to her swivels. She had been cruising off the Sandheads and had captured a few ships. Subsequently she had learned from an American ship, the Silenus, which had sailed from the Sandheads, of the number and probable route of the Indiamen. But when first sighted the Caroline was taken by the Indiamen for the Victor. Streatham, being the senior ship, made the private signal about 6 a.m., but having got no answer from the Frenchman, signalled the other two to form into line. Lord Keith leading, followed by Streatham and Europe, but the two last mentioned were a considerable distance apart.<br>
Half an hour later the Caroline hoisted colours and attacked Europe, who quickly returned the fire. At the end of half an hour the latter was disabled. Most of her guns were put out of action, yards, foremast, sails and rigging cut to pieces and hull damaged in several places. And then the enemy raked her from forward and proceeded to deal with Streatham, which by eight o’clock was so utterly crippled that she had to lower colours. Meanwhile Lord Keith and Europe had been firing at Caroline, who now recommenced the action with the last mentioned. Presently Europe closed Streatham, but on learning that the latter had surrendered, and that Lord Keith had escaped, running before the wind, also determined to up helm. Then Caroline, after securing Streatham, went in chase and captured Europe.<br>
On account of the leaking condition which the two prizes were now in, it took three days to get them in a sea-worthy condition, but on July 22, with their valuable cargoes, they were brought by Caroline and anchored in the Bay of St. Paul, Isle of Bourbon. It had been a heavy loss to the East India Company, though the gallant merchant captains, with their ill-armed and badly-manned ships (the crews consisting partly of cowardly Portuguese and lascars), had done all that was possible. The one consoling feature was that Lord Keith managed to get right away, and actually arrived safely back in English waters.