The History of Yachting/Chapter 10

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CHAPTER X

THE ENGLISH EAST INDIA COMPANY AND
BRITISH NAVY

The English East India Company—Its ships and discipline—Profits—Writer-ships—Tyepans—Exploits of the Indiamen—Capture of the Dutch Oriental fleet, 1795—St. Helena—Table Bay—Leisurely voyages, good fare, and pleasant episodes—Size and equipment of the East India ships—Development of the Royal Navy—British frigates—Guns and carronades—Nelson's flagship—Exploits of the British Navy.

MENTION has been made of the ships of the English East India Company—the famous old Indiamen—which so closely resembled the Royal yachts of that period, and their voyages were so much like yachting cruises, that a further reference to them may not be out of place. These vessels were fitted in the most luxurious manner of their time, for the conveyance of passengers, many of whom were personages of high official rank, social position and wealth, so that the social element entered largely into these voyages. It was therefore necessary that the captains and officers should be gentlemen as well as seamen, for it required almost as much social tact as good seamanship to command these vessels successfully.

In those days a voyage to India or China was a serious undertaking for passengers, requiring careful preparation: the most favorable season for a pleasant voyage was decided upon; then a ship was selected, and, as most of these vessels bore reputations established by former passengers, the various vessels, together with the manners and morals of their commanders, received due attention; then, and this was most important, the other passengers—friends or foes—who had taken or who might be taking passage, received proper scrutiny. Cabins, or what are now known as staterooms, were then engaged, and furnished with great care, for, on those voyages, it was the custom for passengers to provide their own furniture, in order that their personal ideas of comfort might be carried out. All of these matters being arranged and a stock of private stores, wines, etc., laid in, the passengers were ready to embark upon a voyage which was almost certain to last at least five months, probably six or seven months, and possibly eight months or even longer: so the voyagers to and from India and China came to regard these ships as their floating homes, and settled down comfortably to the full enjoyment of the benefit and pleasure of an ocean voyage.

Naturally, it would be interesting to follow the romantic career of this colossal monopoly—with its fleets of heavily-armed frigate-built ships, its governors, boards of council, tyepans, forts, and armies; but a brief sketch will suffice to indicate the scale upon which the affairs of "The United Company of Merchants of England trading to the East Indies" were conducted.

In the year 1708 the old and the new Companies were united, the resultant Company becoming in time the possessor of a considerable part of the vast Continent of India, and ruler over more than a hundred million people. The equipment of the vessels of this Company was as elaborate as any man-of-war of that period; besides being, as already mentioned, expensively fitted for passengers. The ships, also, were allowed to fly the man-of-war pennant, and the crews slept in hammocks, piped up by the boatswain at seven bells in the morning watch, and stowed in nettings along the waist by the quartermasters. The crew of each vessel was divided into messes of eight men; a space allotted to them between the guns where their mess-gear was kept. Every commander in the Company's service was required to be at least twenty-five years of age, the chief mates twenty-three years, and the second mates twenty-two years of age. All were required also to have performed voyages in the China and East-India trade. The commander's uniform consisted of a blue coat, black-velvet lapels, cuffs, and collar, with bright gold embroidery, deep-buff waistcoat and breeches, buttons of yellow-gold metal, engraved with the Company's crest, cocked hat, side arms, and black stocks, or neck-cloths. The dress of the officers was slightly modified, according to the rank.

Many were the privileges and perquisites. So much so that five India or China voyages were estimated sufficient for a commander to be independent the remainder of his days, his profits on each voyage ranging from £8000 to £10,000. Aboard of each ship, ninety-seven tons of space was allowed to the commander and officers, including the petty officers, such as quartermasters, stewards, cooks, carpenter, boatswains, gunners, caulker, armorer, and sailmaker,—the commander himself having fifty-six and a half tons of space. This liberality naturally attracted the finest type of young men in England, who entered the Company's service as midshipmen, having been appointed by the Court of Directors.

The Court of Directors had also rich gifts to bestow upon deserving friends and relatives: Governors and members of the Indian Council had to be appointed, and there were also writerships worth from £4000 to £6000 per annum. But the appointment of young men to the civil service of the company in China was reserved exclusively for the Chairman, who invariably bestowed these appointments upon some near kinsman of his own, or upon a kinsman of one of the directors, who, in due course, would, in some form, reciprocate. These young men, then, had only to live to become tyepans,—positions estimated to be worth £20,000 per annum. Nor were the directors wholly unmindful of themselves. For while their remuneration was nominally £300 per annum, each directorship was estimated to be worth £10,000 per annum, in one form or another. The eagerness therefore with which these directorships were sought, and the sums of money paid to obtain them, demonstrates that their estimated worth was carefully considered; that these men took good care of themselves. Yet with all this glittering surety of success, the Company's ships often were obliged to fight their way. And this they were able to do. In 1703 the Company's ships Chambers and Canterbury, in the Straits of Malacca, engaged, in the night, a French sixty-four and a frigate. The Canterbury was taken, but the Chambers fought gallantly on, and, having crippled the two French men-of-war, escaped. Her commander's log records: "To prevent all thought among my men of surrendering ye ship, and make ye desperate, I nailed the ensigne to the staff from head to foot, stapled and fore-cocked the ensigne staff fast up; I resolved to part with the ship and life together."

In 1757 the Company's ships Suffolk, Houghton, and Godolphin, fought two French frigates off the Cape of Good Hope, and, after a smart action, beat them off. The Court of Directors commended the conduct of the commanders, officers, and crews, and rewarded the crew of each ship with £2000. In 1760 the Company's ship Winchelsea fought a French frigate single-handed, and beat her off. In this year the rate of freight was £40 per ton, or exactly the figure it cost per ton, to construct these expensive vessels. In 1772 the India fleet alone numbered thirty-three ships, 23,159 tons, builders' measurement, which brought home 21,158 tons of merchandise, at a rate of £32 per ton freight. In 1773 the affairs of the Company attracted the attention of Parliament. Sir Richard Hotham—himself a shipowner—appeared as a witness. Among other things, he stated that he was prepared to bring goods from any part of the East for £21 per ton. This inquiry resulted in the Company building larger and even finer vessels.

In 1779 the Bridgewater fought an American privateer of superior force, and beat her off. For this the crew received a reward of £2000. In 1795 an expedition was fitted out at St. Helena—consisting of the Company's ships Goddard, Mauship, Hawksbury, Airly Castle, Asia, Essex, and Busbridge—which proceeded to cruise to windward of the island. Here they intercepted and captured a valuable fleet of nine Dutch East Indiamen, thereby resulting in the annihilation of the Dutch East India Company. In 1800 the Company's ship Exeter captured the French frigate Mélée. Many other instances might be cited tending to show the fighting ability of these ships, and that of their officers and crews.

In 1787 Dodd painted the portrait of an East Indiaman leaving the Downs, outward bound, which is here reproduced, and gives an excellent idea of the Indiaman at that period.

At the present day it is difficult to realize the comfort and luxury aboard these oldtime ships, or the leisurely, dignified manner in which they navigated the seas. The commanders of these Indiamen also appear to have been gentlemen whose whole idea of commanding a ship was safety and comfort, with no desire whatever to get a vessel to do her best work in the way of speed. They took excellent care of their spars, rigging, and sails, and never subjected them to unnecessary strains by carrying too much canvas. As evening approached, they used to "make snug for the night," and even in fine weather the light sails were usually taken in and stowed, remaining in their gaskets until morning. On sailing from London to India or China, it was customary to drop down the Thames as far as Gravesend, and there anchor for one, two, or three days; then to proceed as far as the Downs when the anchor was again let go. If the wind was favorable, not more than a day or two was spent there, but if the wind happened to be from the westward, days and weeks would pass, until it shifted into a quarter that would let the ship lay her course down channel, then another start would be made. If an Indiaman managed to pass the Wight without going into Spithead, it was regarded as "a fine run down channel," and the voyage was fairly begun. When two of the Company's ships fell in with each other at sea, and the weather was fine, it was usual for them to heave-to for hours, the captains, officers, and passengers exchanging visits, and lunching and dining aboard each other's ships until every one was quite ready, later on, to return to his own vessel and resume the voyage.

On the voyages to and from India and China, the Cape of Good Hope and St. Helena were favorite ports of call. But St. Helena not being a particularly comfortable or safe place for a ship to lie, few captains cared to remain there for more than a day or two. The Cape of

An East Indiaman 1788.

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Good Hope, however, offered excellent facilities for rest and refreshment; so here the outward and homeward-bound ships of the Company met. The captains, officers, and crews all knew one another, and were bound together by common interests. Also the passengers; the various officials of the Company, traveling to and from India with their families; the officers of the military forces of the Company and their families; besides the soldiers under their command. These people all met at the Cape, and the latest news from England was exchanged for the gossip of the Company's settlements in Canton, Calcutta, Madras, and Bombay. Old and new friends met at dinners, dances, lunches, and receptions. And when a number of ships happened to be in at the Cape, it was more like a Cowes-Regatta week than a gathering of merchantmen. After a week or two spent in this way, letters were written to friends at home or to those left behind in China or India, the topsails sheeted home, yards mastheaded, anchor hove up, farewells given to the outward-and homeward-bound, and amid the smoke of parting salutes, the Indiamen of the eighteenth century started on their way, eastward across the Indian Ocean, Bay of Bengal, or China Seas.

Upon the arrival of the Company's ships in China or India, the sails were unbent and sent on shore, masts and yards sent down, and decks housed over with a roof of matting. Here the ships would lie for months discharging and receiving their cargoes, when, at last, amid great rejoicings, the homeward-bound pennant and blue-peter would be hoisted, and the voyage home would begin.

As may be imagined, these voyages consumed a good deal of time; but they were comfortable and pleasant, with the best of provisions and good cheer. Indeed, these vessels carried quite a farmyard; cows, goats, pigs, sheep, geese, ducks, turkeys, and chickens. One passenger—Dr. John Fryer—records, "That though a tedious voyage of seven months, it passed away merrily, with good wine, and no bad musick, but the life of all good company, and an honest commander, who fed us with fresh provisions of turkeys, geese, ducks, hens, suckling pigs, sheep, goats, etc., and to crown all, the day we made England, kill'd us a fatted calf, so that you may spare that welcome when you receive this."

Here is an extract from a Victualling Bill of one of the Company's ships, of 1200 tons, for an India voyage: "Ale, Beer, Wine, or other liquors, in casks or bottles, for the use of the commander's table, allowing 252 gallons, or 86 doz. quart-bottles per tun. Thirteen (13) and one-half (½) tuns Beer, strong and small, in casks (not bottles). Twenty-eight (28) tuns, Brandy, or other spirits for the ship's company, Ten (10) puncheons." The officers were provided for in the matter of refreshment as follows: First mate, twenty-four (24) dozen of wine or beer; second mate, twenty (20) dozen; the other officers were attended to on a similar scale for each voyage. And so these famous old ships sailed upon their long voyages year after year. Each was a little community complete in itself; the pleasure of the voyage depending largely upon the character of the captain, and the ability and willingness of the passengers to make themselves agreeable to each other; for, like larger communities, they had the same old problems to deal with; births, marriages, deaths, love, devotion, friendship, intrigue, meanness, gossip, and scandal; indeed, all the phases of human nature, which make and have always made the happiness or the misery of life.

From the year 1702 until 1750 the Company's ships ranged from 275 tons to 500 tons burden, a favorite tonnage being 499 tons. In 1797 no ship owned by the Company exceeded 1000 tons. After that date, however, several ships were built of between 1300 and 1400 tons; and one vessel, the largest of the fleet, was 1417 tons. This was the Earl of Balcarras, built entirely of India teak at Bombay in the year 1815. She carried a crew of 132 men; composed of the commander, six mates, a surgeon and his assistant, six midshipmen, purser, boatswain, gunner, carpenter, master-at-arms, armourer; butcher, baker, poulterer, caulker, cooper, two stewards, two cooks, and eight boatswains; gunner's, carpenter's, caulker's, and cooper's mates; six quartermasters, one sailmaker, seven servants appropriated to the commander and officers, seventy-eight able seamen, and mounted twenty-six guns.

Another fine ship was the Thames, 26 guns, 1360 tons, with a crew of 130 men. Built at London in 1819, this was the largest, and one of the last, ships built in England by the Company; for in 1832 the commerce of India and China was opened to free trade; whereupon the East India Company passed out of existence.

The Navy of Great Britain also steadily developed and increased. In 1757 the Augusta, 60 guns, Dreadnought, 60 guns, and Edinburgh, 64 guns, fought a battle with a squadron of seven French line-of-battleships off Cape François, in which the French ships were defeated. In this year also the Southampton and Diana were launched. These ships were of 671 tons, and mounted twenty-six 12-pounders on the main deck, four 6-pounders on the quarter-deck, and two 6-pounders on the forecastle,—and James remarks that "these vessels may be considered as the first genuine frigates built in England; that is, the first English ships constructed to carry guns on a single whole-deck, quarter-deck, and fore-castle." In 1761 copper was first used for sheathing upon the 32-gun frigate Alarm, but it was not until 1764 that a second ship the Dolphin, was coppered, and nine months later the Jason, and in 1776 the Daphne, also four others; and by 1783 nearly every ship in the British Navy was sheathed with copper. In 1780-82, five 38-gun frigates, of 950 tons each, were launched: the Minerva, Arethusa, Latona, Phaeton, and Thetis. In 1779 the carronade was invented by General Robert Melville, its name being derived from Carron in Scotland, where the first one was cast. In 1782 the Rainbow captured the French frigate Hebe; and James remarks that this prize "did prove a most valuable acquisition to the service, there being very few British frigates even of the present day (1847) which, in size and exterior form, are not copied from the Hebe." She measured 1063 tons, and mounted 40 guns; twenty-eight 18- and twelve 10-pounders. Between the year 1756 and 1788 were built the 98-gun-ships Barfleur, Duke, Prince George, St. George, Queen, Princess Royal, and between the years 1794 and 1798 the Dreadnought, Neptune, Prince of Wales, and Temeraire, of the same class.

The name Victory has existed almost constantly in the British Navy since the year 1570. The most renowned vessel bearing it was the flagship of Lord Nelson at Trafalgar, in 1805, built at Chatham, and designed by Sir Thomas Slade, in the year 1765. Her length of gun-deck was 186 feet; breadth, 51 feet 6 inches; depth of hold, 21 feet 6 inches; tonnage, 2164 tons; 104 guns; made up of 32-, 18-, 13-, and 12-pounders. In 1714 the Royal Navy consisted of 147 ships and vessels measuring 197,219 tons, manned by 40,000 seamen. In 1760 there were 412 ships and vessels measuring 321,104 tons; and in 1783, 617 ships and vessels measuring 500,781 tons.

During the wars (1793-1800) with France, Spain, and Holland, Great Britain destroyed or captured from the enemy, 86 ships of the line, 209 frigates, 275 sloops and smaller vessels,—total, 570; and lost 5 ships of the line, 13 frigates, 41 sloops and smaller vessels,—total, 59. During these wars the Government frequently availed itself of the ships and seamen belonging to the East India Company, which did excellent service.

At the end of that century Great Britain possessed a navy and mercantile marine probably equal to the combined powers of Europe. Not, perhaps, in the number or in even the fighting power of her ships and guns; but in the skill and courage of her seamen, in their stern reliance upon themselves,—the fruit of many a hard-fought battle upon the ocean,—crowned by the glorious victory at Trafalgar, although in that action the greatest of all England's naval heroes fell wounded unto death.

In 1805 Pocock painted the portraits of the Agamemnon, Captain, Vanguard, Elephant, and Victory, the five ships with which Lord Nelson achieved his memorable victories. The picture is here produced.

And yet, despite this power, this magnificent navy of Great Britain was unable in 1812 to conquer the United States upon the sea, nor even render the English and St. George's Channels safe avenues of commerce for the merchant ships of Great Britain. The massive construction and weight of the British men-of-war was their greatest source of weakness—they could seldom cope successfully with the heavily armed, light-built, swift, and skilfully-handled American frigates and privateers. Agamemnon.

Elephant.


The Ships with which Admiral Lord Nelson Won his Five Victories.

Vanguard.

Captain.

Victory.

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