Category Archives: Sailing ships

The Dutch in the Medway, by PG Rogers

The Dutch burn English ships during the Raid on the Medway, 1667)(Jan van Leyden, 1669)

People are getting quite excited about Medway Council’s commemoration of the 350th anniversary of the Raid on the Medway, which includes a series of events leading up to fireworks on the 17th June.

Perhaps the most excited group are Dutch yachties, who have long since booked up every space in local marinas and moorings. I expect the Medway’s creeks will be nearly as busy as the waterside that evening.

The battle itself was actually a huge humiliation for the English Navy and a daring, in some ways lucky, but carefully calculated success on the part of the Dutch United Provinces navies. There are some interesting short videos to watch on YouTube (one here and one here),  but if you really want to understand what happened at Sheerness, in Gillingham Reach and off Upnor Castle (and what is now Chatham Marina, Seaforth Publishing has just released PG Rogers’ classic work on the topic, The Dutch in the Medway.

Nab it quick, I say, while it remains on offer, for as well as explaining the background and aftermath, its chapters describing the action is as gripping as it is fascinating – even more so if you’re a North Kent sailor and know the Medway.

It’s really essential reading ahead of an event that will be a celebration for the Dutch (who call the battle ‘The Trip to Medway’). For the British it’s a bit more complicated – I’m expecting both a celebration of how our nations now get along well, but also a moment for commemoration and quiet thought about how such a national humiliation was allowed to happen. My take, which won’t surprise many who know me, is that we should never place too much trust in government decision making or propaganda.

The background was the second Anglo-Dutch war, which was sparked by continuing rivalry over trade and anger over the torture and the killing of nine British traders at the island of Amboyna by the Dutch.

In the period before the Medway, the second Anglo-Dutch war was generally thought in England to be coming to an end: there had been battles and now peace negotiations were taking place at  Breda.

But it was also a time when state finances were at a very low ebb, military procurement badly managed and payment very slow, Navy vessels unmanned, slow progress in building military defences, and a very small army, and a King who was apparently more interested in the fun of court life than the affairs of state. It was, you might think, just the right moment for a Dutch military intervention aimed at influencing the outcome of the Breda talks.

Intervene they did – and this is what Rogers describes so well.

With the help of various disillusioned English seamen and military officers, the Dutch sailed up the Thames, took Sheerness and then, aided by a handy NE breeze, sailed up the Medway for two fierce engagements in the narrow waters off Gillingham and Chatham involving cannon fire, fireships, the destruction of a defensive chain, and boardings of English ships defended by unarmed men – some of whom, not surprisingly, chose to escape rather than face certain defeat and very likely death in an unequal fight.

The second battle occurred three days later – but by this point the British defence had been strengthened, and the attackers were subjected to heavy cannon fire. The Dutch did not reach and destroy the Chatham shipyards, probably partly because the narrowness of the channel (making navigation difficult, perhaps particularly with a NE wind) and because a number of ships had been deliberately sunk to narrow the channel.

By this point a great deal of damage had been done to bthe English Navy’s vessels, its reputation and pride. Ships had been sunk or burned, and the big and symbolic Royal Charles (previously it had been the ship that brought Charles II to England) had been captured. There were attempts at propaganda belittling the Dutch victory, but it seems to have been difficult to hide the truth of a defeat so close to London.

And it wasn’t over yet – the Dutch continued to ply the Thames Estuary, preventing cargo ships from delivering good such as coal to London, and terrifying the folks of capital, who by now were half sure that the Army and Navy were in no state to protect them from the apparently fearless, well led and well informed Dutch, who had gained considerable respect.

It’s perhaps a minor point, but even the feat of  getting the half-rigged Royal Charles down the shallow Medway and safely back to Amsterdam was seen as a great achievement. Once there she was put on show as a prize, which naturally caused great anger in England.

My assessment is straightforward. The Dutch in the Medway is well worth reading, perhaps particularly at a time when we’re reconsidering our role as a trading nation and our relations with the rest of Europe.

‘Death in the Ice: The Shocking Story of Franklin’s Final Expedition’ exhibition at the National Maritime Museum, 14 July-7 January

The NMM is hosting a major exhibition exploring the fate of Sir John Franklin and his crew on their final expedition including 200 objects from the Canadian Museum of History (CMH) and the Inuit Heritage Trust alongside finds from expedition ship HMS Erebus, which was found in 2014.

I think it will be stunning.

The story of Franklin’s expedition is a tremendous one. The expedition set from the Thames on 19 May 1845 in two ships, HMS Erebus and HMS Terror to find the a North-West Passage from the Atlantic to the Pacific. The expedition was last seen by European eyes in July 1845, in Baffin Bay. After two years passed in which nothing was heard of the men the first of a series of expeditions to be sent into the Arctic in an attempt to find them. In all, between 1847 and 1880, over thirty search expeditions were mounted.

Urged by Lady Jane Franklin, Parliament and the British press, the Admiralty dispatched expeditions both overland and by sea and in 1850 offered a substantial reward for news of the expedition or for assisting its crew.

Over the next 30 years, news and relics, such as tin cans, snow goggles and cutlery filtered back to Britain. They showed that the entire crew had died through a combination of factors including scurvy and starvation, and theories about cannibalism and madness brought on by lead poisoning.
In 1859 a piece of paper, known as the Victory Point Note (on display as part of the exhibition) was found that bore the date of Sir John Franklin’s death – 11th June, 1847.

Forensic anthropologist Dr Owen Beattie’s expeditions from the early 1980s onwards found evidence of lead poisoning, probably caused by lead in the expdition’s tinned food. The submerged wreck of HMS Erebus was discovered by Parks Canada in 2014 and then HMS Terror in 2016.

The exhibition includes the role of Inuit in uncovering the fate of the Franklin expedition, including Inuit oral histories and Inuit artefacts, including some incorporating materials of European origin, which were traded from explorers or retrieved from abandoned ships, will also be on display.

Suffolk – the uneatable cheese of the Royal Navy

I’d like to introduce you lot to the excellent Foods of England project.

I particularly liked its entry for Suffolk Cheese, a product that is no longer made for reasons that will become obvious. Until the mid-18th Century it was used by the Royal Navy to feed its sailors, but by all accounts it was dry, salty and so hard there were many stories and jokes about the difficulty of eating it.

Naval administrator Samuel Pepys wrote that he was upset when his domestic staff complained about having to eat it. On the 19th December 1825, The Hampshire Chronicle carried a notice that read: ‘As characteristic of Suffolk cheese, it said that a vessel once laden, one half with grindstones and the other half with the above commodity, on arriving at its destination it was found that the rats had consumed all the grindstones, but left the cheeses untouched.’

Historian NAM Rodger reports that the Navy gave up provisioning ships with the stuff in 1758, no doubt to loud cheering from the foc’sl. My crews, of course, are always provided with the finest cheese I can afford…

Other sea related entries are hardtack or ships biscuits (a nuclear bomb test was named after them), grog, bumpo, and  Cheshire cheese (another Naval staple).

My thanks to Sarah Coxson for the tip!