1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Fireship

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FIRESHIP, a vessel laden with combustibles, floated down on an enemy to set him on fire. Fireships were used in antiquity, and in the middle ages. The highly successful employment of one by the defenders of Antwerp when besieged by the prince of Parma in 1585 brought them into prominent notice, and they were used to drive the Armada from its anchorage at Gravelines in 1588. They continued to be used, sometimes with great effect, as late as the first quarter of the 19th century. Thus in 1809 fireships designed by Lord Cochrane (earl of Dundonald) were employed against the French ships at anchor in the Basque Roads; and in the War of Greek Independence the successes of the Greek fireships against the Ottoman navy, and the consequent demoralization of the ill-disciplined Turkish crews, largely contributed to secure for the insurgents the command of the sea. In general, however, it was found that fireships hampered the movements of a fleet, were easily sunk by an enemy’s fire, or towed aside by his boats, while a premature explosion was frequently fatal to the men who had to place them in position. They were made by building “a fire chamber” between the decks from the forecastle to a bulkhead constructed abaft the mainmast. This space was filled with resin, pitch, tallow and tar, together with gunpowder in iron vessels. The gunpowder and combustibles were connected by trains of powder, and by bundles of brushwood called “bavins.” When a fireship was to be used, a body of picked men steered her down on the enemy, and when close enough set her alight, and escaped in a boat which was towed astern. As the service was peculiarly dangerous a reward of £100, or in lieu of it a gold chain with a medal to be worn as a mark of honour, was granted in the British navy to the successful captain of a fireship. A rank of capitaine de brûlot existed in the French navy of Louis XIV., and was next to the full captain—or capitaine de vaisseau.