A Vengeur-class ship of the line

The Commanding Officer of the Rodney, Captain Bolton, warned his boat’s crews they would be flogged if they allowed Bates anywhere near their craft, in case he tried to escape again. The new batch of pressed men went down to dinner but a few hours later many of them, including Bates, were ascending Rodney’s rigging to unfurl sails. On sailing from Plymouth, Rodney set course down the Channel, to join the Mediterranean Fleet on its blockade station in the Gulf of Lyons, off Toulon. Rodney first stopped at besieged Cadiz, joining eight other British warships supporting the Spanish fleet with the objective of assisting the host nation’s vessels to set sail for Gibraltar where they were to be refitted, having been virtually confined to port since Trafalgar. Bates was sent to one of the Spanish ships, the Apollo, with 49 other sailors from the Rodney. After her refit at Gibraltar, Apollo set sail for Port Mahon, on the island of Minorca, which was once more being used by the Royal Navy as its main support base for the blockade of Toulon. Bates made another unsuccessful bid to escape, giving up and returning to the ship after finding he could not get off the island. He escaped flogging because officers in the Apollo were impressed that he returned voluntarily, but Bates soon rejoined Rodney, at Gibraltar.

In October 1810, an Anglo-Spanish force tried to take the fort at Fuengirola, which was held by Polish troops fighting for Napoleon. It was hoped this would entice the French garrison at Malaga to sally forth, enabling an attempt to recover that important port, but it all went horribly wrong, with the Poles refusing to surrender. Lord Blayney, commander of the landing force, was overjoyed to see a magnificent 74-gun British warship cresting over the horizon.

At this moment His Majesty’s ship Rodney, with a Spanish line of battle ship, appeared off the coast, and I learnt that they had on board the 82d regiment, one thousand strong, which had been sent from Gibraltar to reinforce me; my anxiety to receive them was of course very great, and boats were immediately sent off to assist in landing them.

Blayney went aboard Rodney, to dine with her captain and discuss plans for taking the fortress. The following day Rodney and other warships were moored broadside on to the shoreline, so their cannons could bear on the enemy positions. Polish cannon balls were soon whistling through Rodney’s rigging and there was some hesitancy among her topmen, who did not go up to furl the sails quickly enough for the officers’ liking. Because of such tardiness, all seamen were ‘ordered aloft, and there remained exposed to the enemy’s shot until the sails were furled.’

While in this condition, a single well-directed shot might have killed a score, but fortunately none were shot . . .

The Rodney’s 32-pounder guns spoke, belching flame and smoke, but the ebb and flow of battle placed British and Spanish troops in the line of fire, so she stopped her cannonade. The British lost the initiative altogether and were hurled back, with the hapless Blayney taken prisoner. When this happened Spanish and British troops fled down to the shore. Boats brought the dead and injured out to Rodney, the slaughter having lasted from 2 pm to sunset; Bates and his shipmates were tasked with washing the blood out of the boats and hurling corpses over the side. Meanwhile, Blayney suffered the indignity of watching Rodney and the other vessels vainly bombarding the fortress in which he was now held prisoner.

I went on the rampart, from whence I had a full view of the shipping. The fort was still firing at the Rodney, and at the boats with the troops, which approached close to the shore. A few minutes would have brought them to my assistance, and they would certainly have changed the fortune of the day in my favour; but fate ordered it otherwise. While thus absorbed in my own melancholy reflections, I could not help exclaiming, as I looked on the Rodney and Topaze, there is the ship where a few days since I dined in social friendship, and there the frigate which brought me to this shore, rejoicing in the sanguine hope of serving my country; all on board then, are free, while I am doomed to pass an indefinite period in captivity, deprived of the society of all those who are dear to me in the world!

Rodney and the other warships withdrew and headed east, but a storm blew up, one vessel ‘. . . dashed to pieces on the rocks of the Island of Sardinia, and nearly every one of the crew perished.’ With the gale abating, Rodney joined the fleet off Toulon.

For a time Rodney was in Port Mahon, as flagship of Rear Admiral Thomas Fremantle, one of Nelson’s legendary ‘Band of Brothers’ who fought alongside England’s greatest naval hero at both Copenhagen, in 1801, and Trafalgar, in 1805. Fremantle had been made Rear Admiral in 1810 and yearned for action, having been ashore for some years. He joined the Mediterranean Fleet under the command of Admiral Sir Charles Cotton, who regarded his subordinate as a dangerous talent to be kept in check. In early 1811 Fremantle expressed fears that Minorca was weakly garrisoned by the Spanish and could easily be taken, leaving the fleet off Toulon without proper support. Cotton decided that, as his subordinate was so concerned, he may as well have command of Port Mahon, and that is how Fremantle came to transfer his flag into Rodney from the 110-gun Ville de Paris. Fremantle was happy to receive an independent command and especially grateful to be away from his boss, writing home from Rodney to his wife:

Cotton is incapable of governing this fleet.

Fremantle, as was the custom, took a select group of supporters into Rodney, including all the officers of the Ville de Paris, a band, plus sailors to man small boats, in all sixty people. Orders soon began to fly out from Rodney, providing the jump-start needed to get the island’s dockyard working at a higher pitch, so it could begin refitting some of the fleet’s weatherworn ships.

Essential supplies were dispatched to ships on station off Toulon and when Spanish naval stores from Cadiz and Cartagena arrived, to ensure they did not fall into the hands of the encroaching French, Fremantle hammered out a deal to buy them. Of major concern was the fact that 300 of the 600-strong Minorcan garrison were French prisoners persuaded to serve in Spain’s Walloon Guards. In Rodney Fremantle brooded on the matter and wrote to Cotton that the Walloons ‘seem daily to be more disinclined to the English and I cannot too strongly impress upon you the importance of this place which can be carried by a Coup de Main.’ But the danger passed and Fremantle left Rodney in August 1811, sailing in the new 74-gun HMS Milford to become Britain’s chief naval representative at the Neapolitan court in Sicily. Ultimately, he commanded British warships during a successful campaign in the Adriatic, after a period in home waters returning to the Mediterranean as Commander-in-Chief, but dying at Naples in 1819, aged fifty-four.

William Henry Smyth, grandfather of the founder of the Scouting movement, Lord Baden-Powell, joined Rodney in the summer of 1811. Prior to this Smyth achieved renown when he transferred from Milford to command a Spanish gunboat in defence of Cadiz. It was probably for this excellent work that on 14 December 1811 Smyth was promoted to Master’s Mate. This remarkable twenty-three year old sailor, who was destined to be a noted hydrographer and an admiral, possibly used his time in Rodney, as she cruised off Spain throughout 1812, to collect data for charts still used by mariners as recently as 1961.

At least three of Rodney’s sailors had fought in HMS Victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. They joined Rodney at the beginning of August 1811, like Smyth drafted from Milford before the latter sailed for Sicily carrying Fremantle. It is likely they were switched for men the admiral wanted to take with him. Rodney’s Trafalgar trio were: Gunner’s Mate John Brown, from Ireland, in his thirties; Thomas Sedgwick, from Sunderland, County Durham, in the north of England, a Quartermaster’s Mate in his forties; Charles Thomas, in his mid-thirties, from Boston, America, who became a member of the Rodney’s Carpenter’s Crew. Fellow American Joseph Bates was, meanwhile, getting into trouble again, this time for hanging trousers up to dry behind Rodney’s maintop sail after his daily laundry. The ordinary sailors were required to present themselves in pristine smocks and trousers, but, with only three changes of clothes a week, and not enough time each day to wash and dry clothes before inspection, it was a tall order to avoid punishment for appearing in soiled garments. Therefore, Bates had the bright idea of hanging his clothes out in the breeze where they would dry in double quick time. However, the sail was furled sooner than expected, the enraged First Lieutenant demanding:

. . . whose trowsers [sic] are these found hanging in the maintop?

Not wanting to see his shipmates punished, Bates owned up. Receiving a savage telling off, he narrowly avoided a beating but was put on the so-called ‘black list’ for six months, which involved shining brass and iron work, plus carrying out other demeaning chores on top of daily routine. It all had to be fitted into time usually spent resting off watch or sleeping.

There was no punishment more dreaded and disgraceful.

Two years on from leaving London, Rodney’s officers decided it was time to refresh her reserve water supply, as down in the deepest part of the hold were casks filled from the Thames, not yet touched.

Young Joseph Bates was there when the bungs were removed, seeing his shipmates set light to the foul air that came out with a candle and recalling, ‘it would blaze up a foot high, like the burning of strong brandy.’

According to Bates the water was perfectly clear, the sediment having settled a long time ago. Some of it was drawn off and poured into glass tumblers for Rodney’s officers to taste. One of them held his tumbler up to a lantern and pronounced it ‘the purest and best of water’. Bates thought it tasted good, but he couldn’t help wishing he was drinking from the pure springs of Vermont or New Hampshire.

When it came to refreshing the minds of Rodney’s men, those that could read availed themselves of books from the ship’s portable libraries, which averaged two volumes for every ten men. Reading was allowed on every day except Sunday, which was reserved for a church service starting at 11 am. Bates, a born and bred Presbyterian, saw the prayers of Rodney’s sailors and marines as pure hypocrisy:

. . . how little their hearts were inclined to keep the holy law of God, when almost every other hour of the week, their tongues were employed in blaspheming his holy name; and at the same time learning and practicing the way and manner of shooting, slaying and sinking to the bottom of the ocean, all that refused to surrender . . .

The most notable encounter at sea for this Rodney came in the middle of a gale on 15 January 1812, when a ship was spotted off Cape Sicie, in the Gulf of Lyon, and the battleship set off in pursuit. Meanwhile, two British frigates – Apollo and Alcmene – were using subterfuge to patrol close to the coast, flying French colours. Mistaking these two men ‘o’ war for friendly vessels, the fleeing ship sought their protective custody, only to be boarded. All this commotion alerted the French to something untoward and they ordered out a dozen of their line-of-battle ships from Toulon. With Apollo and Alcmene in the process of snaring their prize, Rodney stoutly hove to and barred the path of on-coming French warships, which, seeing a British battleship standing in their way, decided the situation was not worth a fight and returned to port.

With extra manpower available, and carrying the senior officer, it was Rodney that put a crew aboard the prize, which was sailed to Port Mahon.

Later that year a severe storm battered Rodney badly while on station with the fleet in the Gulf of Lyons, Bates and his shipmates fearing the worst.

For a while it was doubted whether any of us would ever see the rising of another sun. These huge ships would rise like mountains on the top of the coming sea, and suddenly tumble again into the trough of the same with such a dreadful crash that it seemed almost impossible they could ever rise again.

Ten ships of the fleet were badly damaged, including Rodney, her captain instructed to take her back to Britain for repairs.

Her men were overjoyed – going home meant they would finally receive their pay and be allowed twenty-four hours leave ashore, many dreaming of roistering and whoring in the taverns of Plymouth. Bates, on the other hand, fantasized about finally escaping servitude in the Royal Navy. However, as the Rodney prepared to sail for Britain from Port Mahon, fifty of her sailors, including Bates, were called forward and told to get their things together, as they were transferring into the 74-gun HMS Swiftsure. She had just arrived and would in all likelihood serve three years on the Mediterranean station. Bates was plunged into utter despair:

I was doomed to drag out a miserable existence in the British navy.

Bates remained in Swiftsure until the war between Britain and America, provoked in large part by the former’s habit of pressing the latter’s citizens into service in the Royal Navy, broke out. He became a Prisoner of War in 1812 and, after incarceration in a prison ship, then Dartmoor, eventually arrived home in the USA, on 15 June 1815. A career as a merchant service captain followed, before Joseph Bates devoted himself to carrying out God’s work, taking part in the anti-slavery movement and helping to found the Seventh-day Adventist Church. He died in 1872 at the age of eighty.

By 1814 Rodney was flagship for Vice Admiral Sir George Martin, Commander-in-Chief Lisbon. Her commanding officer was Captain Edward Durnford King, who had distinguished himself while in command of the frigate HMS Endymion, encountering the Franco-Spanish Combined Fleet off Cadiz in 1805 prior to Trafalgar, but escaping destruction by pretending to signal a Royal Navy force astern of him. In November 1814 Captain King was appointed to the 74-gun Cornwallis, but ill health forced him to resign his command and return home. Rodney returned to Britain with other ships of the fleet following the abdication of Napoleon in April 1814. Thirteen years later she was renamed Greenwich, so her previous name could christen a new vessel. The Napoleonic-era Rodney (now Greenwich) was decommissioned and sold off in 1836, ending a career in which she experienced no pitched battles at sea, but had played her part in maintaining pressure in the Iberian Peninsula, so helping to bring the little French Emperor down.

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