Monday, November 26, 2012

Plantation of the Atlantic, XVIII: Gunfleet

Water, silt, mud, spawning grounds, channels, life, death. Admiralty Chart, but scraped here.
The Thames rises on the spring line of the Cotswolds, near Circencester in Gloucestershire, and runs 215km to the sea. The Admiralty (MoD now) chart above of the banks and channels at its mouth is ephemeral, like all of the underwater geography laid down by the river in its latest interglacial incarnation. With a 16,000 square kilometer catch-basin, it's not surprising that the Thames has a relatively small discharge of 65.8 cubic meters, compared with, say, the Escaut/Scheldt (120), Meuse/MaaΒ (350), much less the Rhine (2000) --not even that much more than the little Aa (10) or Medway (11)!

It carries enough before it, however, to water London, giving ships and their crews reason to thread their way through the sandbanks and silted shallows at the mouth of the river to the metropolis. The Gunfleet Sands probably do  not their name from the weapons the weapons that ships had carried since perhaps the 1300s. They had already carried that name down from time immemorial by the days when the English fleets of the Anglo-Dutch Wars anchored there. Someone would have said something at a time when they were the focus of the Atlantic.

The outline of the story is well enough known. The unstable revolutionary governments that ran England, and sometimes Britain, during the years between the outbreak of the Civil War in 1641 and the restoration of Charles II twenty years later did what unstable revolutionary governments (and contemporary stable non-revolutionary goverments) did: start foreign wars.  Among these foreign wars was once against the Seven United Provinces of the Netherlands. ("Holland," "the Dutch Republic," "the Netherlands." Whatever.)

This particular war must have been a lot of fun, because it set a fashion for the returned king, who, always fashion-conscious, had two of his own. Together, they are the Anglo-Dutch Wars, still a landmark in the history of ferocious sea-fighting.

Leaving aside oodles of politics and ideology for just as long as we can (which is to say, until we get to the part that I think is interesting), the wars were about this:

Admiralty Chart, promotional thumbnail.
Britain and the Dutch Republic are on either side of a sea.  Given that you're already at war with the other side, for whatever reasons seem worth going to war over to you, and you've decided to do something about it, you're pretty much committed to coming to dealing with the water along the way.

It happens that at the funnel at the bottom cones northern Europe's trade with foreign parts. The tides tend to bring that freight up in the narrows of the Straits of Dover, either close to the piratical Cinque Port, or under the shelter of Cape Gris Nez,looking to inch around. Either way, having passed the corner, one either turns left towards the mouth of the Thames, or right towards the mouth of the Escaut/MaaΒ/Rhine. That the shipping is making one choice vice the other might be a reason for making war. That one is trying to compel it to make one choice vice the other is another. What should not escape attention is that either way, capturing that shipping and selling it is an enormously lucrative way of making war. 

I used not to think this way. I thought of the herring shoals of the North Sea as being pretty much the same thing as arable land, and the logic of maritime war in the North Sea as pretty much the logic of war-as-cattle-raiding. * That was when I was a glib young libertarian, though, and a lot of water has passed under that bridge. Here's one little little bit that trickled under that bridge by the way, the Parliamentary Select Committee Report on the Herring Fishery of 1800, actually in print on open shelves in the UBC Library. (What seems to be a PDF of the same is obstinately resisting download.) 

The conclusion of the long ago parliamentarians (if I remember it right) is that when all was said and done, a lucrative herring fishery is big business required ongoing government subsidy, since the only way that people would turn to the sea for a living was if they first had land to support themselves during disasters and failures of the fishery, and that they would inevitably focus on the land over the long run without periodic state intervention. People didn't always know what they were talking about in 1800, but there's a great deal of Canadian lived experience that tends to point the same way: an ocean fishery is the product of an organised state. It doesn't just come into being on its own like a primitive anarcho-syndicalist commune. What about cod, you ask? But the point is that cod (and herring for that matter) didn't start out as an ocean fishery, but rather extended down from the shore. In fact, the failure of a British licensed company of herring fishers is one of the background details of the Second Anglo-Dutch War.

So we need to rethink the marine war. State intervention comes first. Without government's involvement, there would be no vast trade to impeach to the benefit of another. One way to do that, and a fruitful one at that, is in terms of large amounts of money turned into the means of war. Although counts of ships are not hard to find, it isn't always easy to get at counts of men, but when he sallied to fight the Four Days Battle (1--4 June 1666) in the waters about half the way up the funnel, Michiel de Ruyter in the Zeven Provincien led 85 (or 77) ships crewed by 21,000 men. 

The first number is very big by later standards, the second very small, in fact, appallingly small number given that human beings survive at sea by each other's labour. The mighty Zeven Provincien, which would, Wikipedia tells me, rate as a 57 gun ship of the line by Eighteenth Century standards, but which shipped 80 in the Four Days Fight, carried a crew of 600 into battle. That's not a large number, and it implies that the rest of the fleet was even more lightly crewed. When taxed with cowardice, captains of these wars were known to complain that their ships carried only enough men to fight the guns or work the sails, and not both at once. 

The fog of numbers (and sailor talk) that we've all found for other fights of the wars envelops the English side of the sea fight. We all know the basics, that George Monck, private soldier in the expeditions against Cadiz and for La Rochelle, parliamentary soldier, General-at-Sea, conspirator of the Restoration, first Earl of Albemarle, and Lord Proprietor of the Carolinas, had 57 ships under his command when he met de Ruyter near the Galloper Shoal and plunged into battle. Prince Rupert, gallant Rupert of the Rhine, though between those days and this a long time a pirate,** came up on the fourth day to save his hard-pressed commander, only to lose three ships on the shoals. The official count is 10 British ships lost with 1500 lives, 1,450 wounded, 1800 taken prisoner and 3 admirals dead; the Dutch suffered the loss of 4 ships and, numbers failing us, about the same number of dead and wounded. 

The count of admirals is an important one. It includes Sir William Beverley, younger brother of a prominent courtier and made Rear-Admiral of the Red at only 25. Accused of cowardice in the Battle of Lowestoft, he led the van of Monck's squadron in Swiftsure, outsailing his squadron to get in the midst of the Dutch, where his ship was surrounded, and he killed in the boarding action, fighting to the last, determined to show his mettle to the world and Sir John Lawson's daughter, who refused his suit in 1665.*** His body lay in state in Amsterdam's High Kirk before being returned to Britain for family burial. A prominent theory for explaining the Second Anglo-Dutch War is that it was deemed necessary to the success of the dynasty that the Duke of York command Britons in battle. He wasn't in command by the time of this third fight, but he certainly managed to build a clientage of former Parliamentary figures, including most notably our own William Penn

There is romance in the story. Although the crew of the Swiftsure would need to be polled to be certain, the British casualty numbers cover enough marine tragedies as to leave little room for heavy O.R. losses aboard it during the action, it seems that Beverley had what he wanted, a brave death. The romance interests me, however, in that it covers the purchase of patronage through charisma. We talk about the admirals who died in the bloody battles of 1655--1672 because we are talking about state-building. 

The Four Days Fight led to the St. James Day Battle and Holmes' Bonfire**** and an attack on Bergen, where Dutch shipping was sheltering having gone northabout from Cape Finisterre on their way home, a 2200 mile trip, longer than an Atlantic crossing in the Newfoundland latitudes. Then, of course, came the Plague, followed by the Great Fire of London, leading to a financial crisis of late 1666, and the Crown's decision to lay up the fleet in 1667, leading to de Ruyter's raid on the Medway and burning and capturing assorted battleships, the de Witt brothers all but leading the way, taking soundings in channels like amateur pilots to prove that battleships could go where de Witt strategy said they must go, unacknowledged ancestors to every political strategist to come after them. (Am I wrong to visualise the Grand Pensionary as the Winston Churchill of his day?)

The abject failure of the Restoration Monarchy makes quite a talking point when compared with the glorious successes of the Commonwealth in the first. Clearly republicans are a different breed of men, the more so when we take into account the way that generals-at-sea defeated seasoned sailors. Apparently, ideological purity does trump military professionalism! In reality, the generals-at-sea had extensive maritime experience, sometimes of a questionable kind. Indeed, you sometimes wonder just how deep these connections actually go.***** The Commonwealth's victories had a great deal to do with the Commonwealth's ability to extract tax revenues from the British body politic, but lest this still be used as an index of the vitality of Republics versus monarchies, I note that the Commonwealth/Protectorate left a hefty debt to the monarchy. Having raided the library shelves at length for this posting, I can also report that that's not news to anyone.(1)

Indeed, on the base of these sources and looking forward to 1688, it is clearly vastly interesting and important that the voted Parliamentary supply of 1.2 million pounds/annum was not enough for the war, and that the taxes actually levied rarely raised this much. It is similarly interesting that the King's attempt to raise more foundered on problems with conformity acts. Parliament wanted to use supply as a leverage to crack down on religious dissent, and the king disagreed with the idea because he was a Sekret Catholic had just fought this war. 

What is not interesting, because only reported in one of my sources, in the biggest and prettiest book by the least reputable publisher (Harmsworthy and Churches), is that one of the ships intended to reinforce Rupert and Monck at the James Day Fight was the City of London's contribution, a ship of unprecedented size, delayed in its entry into service because all 221 of its unprecedented 42lb cast-iron guns burst in proving. 

Now, I'm being awfully snide in my comments about the political/diplomatic context of the war, but that's because I've spent a fair amount of time slogging through repetitive passages this weekend. I'm not going to disagree that the politics are more important than the number of sailors serving under Monck in the Four Days Fight, and I will concede in advance that we probably don't know the number, so that it's not a viable line of inquiry. I just wish that people would acknowledge the fact that both of the contending navies seem to have been up against the limits of available manpower. Whether it is the Dutch driving industrial wages up to uneconomical levels in order to lure in enough sailors or the British taking thousands of pressed men, including from protected ships such as the Newcastle colliery fleet, the evidence of war is a way of getting at the limits of the size of the available workforce. I would make more of this except that I'm just riding on N. A. M. Rodger's coat-tails. He has already made the lack of trained deep water sailors a key point of his analysis in those big buggering books of a few years past.

But bring it back to the guns, because Harmsworthy and Churches are going down a road that Rodger will follow a few years later, and that is one of serious attention to the materiel of the war. For them, the big iron guns of the English warships is a serious matter, the original cause of the superiority of English firepower, where others would make it the limited drafts of Dutch ships. I'm skeptical, but the sources they use certainly suggest that the Dutch were having trouble importing the guns they needed. Meanwhile, the gunmakers around the Thames were willing to experiment with casting 42 pounders. And this brings me back to a subject that I've touched on a few times lately: forests.

Since it's already my schtick, I hope no-one minds that I cite Wikipedia again. Britain's forests are, of course, famous as instruments of Royal oppression, and not without reason, since the point of the Royal Forests was always that they were "wilderness" outside the common law, as opposed to places where trees were. (I did not know that), thus open to Royal exploitation in unusual ways. This was done because, in spite of the lack of arable, forests were valuable resources that could be exploited in other ways, as I learned as recently as my exploration of  T. O. M. Sopwith's origins, discovering the odd connection between his father the civil engineer, and the Forest of Dean. 

Now, the issue here is not the New Forest or the Forest of Dean, both way out west where no-one much cares. It is the Weald  above London, where the iron ore that made those failed 42 pounders was mined, and smelted with charcoal made of Wealden oak. It's moderately eye-opening to see the navy driving the progress of technology in the middle years of the Seventeenth Century, something that I'm more inclined to expect in the Eighteenth. At the same time, I'm urged to consider the way that Dutch shipping could, by the 1660s, contemplate the northabout approach to the Netherlands via the Greenland-Iceland-United-Kingdom Gap. That is, I suspect, something that would have been impossible fifty years before, and the fact tells us something about the timing of the settlement of New England. Technological change, indistinguishable almost from economic, is lifting all boats, invisibly, and I guess that my 42s, whether they ever passed test, are indices of this. The state commands, the crackpot inventors (try) to deliver, and a traditional industry achieves a new plateau, groping, unknowing, towards the steam engine that changes everything.

But never mind that, because I want to talk about power. The power of the state to press sailors, to tax, to put forest land outside of common law; on the other, the power of admirals to command patronage. It was never the case that Britain and the Dutch Republic could afford to make war on each other out of tax revenues, and the dream of funding war on prize money died in the first months of the conflict. That was for Dunkirkers. 

Making war meant making debt. But the mystery of the modern state is its ability to carry debt. The fiasco of the Medway seems to suggest itself as the moment when the nascent British state's chips were cashed, when it called on its subjects to fight, and they fled instead. But instead of dissolving, the monarchy, mysteriously, went on. Is it because it is inscribed on William Beverley's body, so gallantly pierced?  

*(Even if Wikipedia cites the cameralist propagandist that I vaguely referenced last time as describing the Dutch herring fleets employing 20,000 men, making it a little hard to climb to a million with even the most generous multiplier effects: if you don't want to click on the link, here's the quote, typed at hard labour by Wikipedia user Ereunetes, cut and pasted with ease: "the same author (T. Gentleman) in 1614 estimated the cost of fitting out a Dutch herring buss for three voyages (four months) in Summer (including wages for the crew at £88, barrels for 100 last of herring at £78, beer at £42, bread at £21, butter and bacon at £18, peas at £3, billet at £3, and wear and tear on ship and nets at £100) at £435. One hundred last of herring (at £10) would bring £1000 in his opinion, for a clear profit of £565. In his pamphlet (in which he holds up the Dutch fisheries for English emulation) he states that at the end of May a fleet of a thousand busses would sail, with 20,000 sailors aboard. They would sail to Shetland, but wait till after June 14 (herring being unfit for consumption before that) before starting to follow the shoals. He estimates the value of the catch at more than a million pounds sterling."

**That a Stuart princeling, brought up to palaces and privileges, and aristocratic war on horseback, led a pirate fleet across the Atlantic and even up the Gambia River, is one of the clues that the centre of gravity of Atlantic history in the Seventeenth Century is to be found well out in the corrupting sea, and not in the capitals of the powers, where the future of nation states was coolly plotted by living avatars of Nation.

***Check this out. It's kind of like when Charles Clinton suddenly rises to political and social prominence in New York during the governorship of George Clinton. Hey, look at the crazy coincidence!

****Another Royalist privateer. Admittedly the Wikipedia article notes no evidence that he actually took up a Spanish letter of marque during the Protectorate, but his epitaph says that he fought in Flanders. As a Dunkirker?

*****That's an admittedly vague reference to the fact that the toponym of "Churchill" does not appear to be older than the Churchill family of Somerset in England, but was a common form for Cherchell, Algeria, in the late 1500s. I say tentative because the "theory" such as it is, could be blown away by some pretty basic research that I haven't done yet. Er, call it a brain storm, instead. Anyway, compare this to that.

1.Roger Harmsworthy and Christine Churches, The Anglo-Dutch Naval Wars (Please move your press somewhere that's not such a pain to type: Sutton, 1998);  J. R. Jones, The Anglo-Dutch Wars, (London: Longman, 1996); P. G. Rodgers, The Dutch in the Medway (Oxford: OUP, 1970); Gijs Rommelse The Second Anglo-Dutch War (1665--1667) 


  1. It would be very satisfying to have one of the most unrepentant imperialists of the mid-20th century be descended from Barbary pirates. Unfortunately, since Cherchell is pronounced Shirshell, and since variants of the name were already in use for the village by 1201 (, it seems unlikely.

  2. Well, I wouldn't consider pronounciation completely dispositive, if the transmission were through family names, which get go through spoken>written>spoken transitions all the time.

    The references to "Churchills" in the Domesday Book has me looking like an idiot, though....