Tag 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.

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High Teas and High Seas – stories of emigrants sailing to Australia


This looks interesting and fun (in parts) – a book just out from the Australian National Library about the history of emigration to Australia: High Seas and High Teas: Voyaging to Australia, by historian and curator Roslyn Russell. My thanks go to Chris Brady for alerting me to this one.

Here’s the press release:

‘The rats I frighten away by throwing books or anything hard at the spot at which they commence their gnawing.’

Emigrant Janet Ronald wrote this in the journal she kept on board one of the ships transporting free settlers from Britain and Ireland to Australia in the nineteenth century.

On journeys lasting more than 100 days non-stop, our forebears endured raging seas, the dazzling heat of the tropics and freezing temperatures as ships journeyed far into the southerly latitudes. They also formed social communities, putting on plays, developing sometimes lasting relationships and taking part in wild nautical rituals.

Packed in cheek by jowl with fellow passengers and crew, life on board was rigidly defined by social class. Lower-class passengers dined on homemade concoctions of mutton fat pudding (‘clammy to the mouth when eaten cold’), preserved potatoes and experimental stews, while those travelling first-class enjoyed elaborate multi-course dinners, including fresh meat, slaughtered on board.

Navigating the social mores on these giant floating microcosms was only half the story. Amid the chronicles of flirtations and high jinks, odours and rats, there were also tales of despotic captains, severe water rationing, disease, domestic discord and violence, fear of enemy ships and violent storms. From those sailing under servitude to emigrants seeking a new life, the people who braved the journey changed Australia.

Using diary entries and shipboard newspapers, author Roslyn Russell gives a vivid sense of what it was like to leave one life for another and sail across the world into the unknown. In the foreword, Kerry O’Brien writes about his Irish ancestors’ perilous voyages to Australia in the nineteenth century—as both free settlers and guests of Her Majesty.

Roslyn Russell expertly curates the travellers’ personal diaries, allowing the reader to hear directly from 19th-century men like Joseph Pettingell, who lost a beloved child on the journey from London to Hobart in 1834, and women like Annie Gratton, travelling solo and determined to stay ‘respectable’ on the trip from London to Melbourne in 1858.

Background feature pages reveal the colonies’ desired emigrants (‘free from all bodily or mental defects’), answer the delicate question of how men and women relieved themselves on board, list the basic rations doled out to each passenger, and much more.

Other highlights include shipboard newspapers, which appear here in full-page images of front-pages and choice extracts, including an unsolicited advice column on how ladies should behave on board, circulated on the Great Britain in 1861, and a lost and found article appealing for someone to come forward with information about a lost ‘recollection of how I spent the night before last; how I found myself under the table, who picked me up and put me to bed with my boots on’.

Many of the diarists were skilled artists and the book is full of sketched landscapes, birds, people and nautical scenes.

PS – Check the comments below for a fabulous quotation from Henry Lawson.

PPS – The folks at the Australian National Library have kindly sent me some photos of spreads from the book for those who are interested. See below…

22-2330-3192-93High Seas and High Teas 100-101 152-153 212-213

 

 

Pamir, one of the last commercial sailing Cape Horners

Published in May, 1948, this photo-story about the Pamir, one of the last few sailing cargo ships to round Cape Horn on a regular basis, was written by Alan Villiers and accompanied by photographs taken by Norman McNeill is a remarkable document that describes what must often have been a miserable existence, made bearable, probably, by the camaraderie of the crew and the promise of a landfall.

It also provides a splendid example of how to write seriously salty copy.

I’m grateful to sailing pal, excellent chap and East Coast Pilot co-author Dick Holness for bringing it to my attention.

We shouldn’t underestimate the power this had over the minds of boys and young men of my father’s generation and before…

‘Alone in a world heading into the atomic age, the sailing ship made use of free winds of God without benefit of artifice; and the satisfactions of those who served were deep and real. Every voyage was a challenge; it’s safe achievement a triumph.

‘Beautiful as these ships were, they bred a tough race of men. Crews manhandling their ships across the face of the seas, lived close to Nature. They learned to fight not only for every inch the sailer (sic) made along the road, but for their own existence.

‘In those days men thought nothing of living in forecastles ankle deep in sea water. Intense cold cracked their hands and made tough callouses open, running sores.

‘Nothing could be done about such wounds save to daub them in Stockholm tar. No wonder old-timers boasted that their blood was Stockholm tar, their every hair a rope yarn, their fingers marlin spikes.’