Napoleon’s Wolf:

 A Cotswolder’s travels in Spanish America

 By

Scott Langley


 Chapter 3                                                                                                                                                            

The Abomination                                                                                                     

 It came as no surprise that neither MacAllister nor Johnson were encumbered with belongings, other than that which they carried within their worn, tattered, and smelly slops.  The only luxury these men seemed to posses was the slender chanter that protruded from the Scotsman’s pack.  The pair followed Bronsan back to his room and helped carry his small trunk, filled with clothes, books, and nautical instruments.  They carried the trunk to the Admiralty docks, where Bronsan hired a boat to take them to Deptford.

The boat took them along the Thames, passed the Houses of Parliament, under New London Bridge and London Bridge, the Customs House, the Tower, and the London docks.  Ships came and went, but most rotted at their moorings, boats ferried passengers across and along the river.  Bronsan watched it all with uncertainty.

The oarsmen pulled through the Grand Surrey and Lime House until approaching Deptford, three miles east of London.  It was a very different place to the last time Bronsan visited, during the wars.  The lowing of cattle used to carry for miles down the river.  Now, the victualling yards, once a living wall of beef waiting to be slaughtered and dried, was now, at best, sparse.

But the dockyards were not.  “So many ships.”  Bronsan muttered.  There were far too many.  Moored, inactive, they were fighting ships - no use for them in a world at peace.  It should be a good thing, and would be for a man who saw opportunity beyond the navy’s cramped living spaces and iron discipline.  Eligus Bronsan was not such a man.  For all his travels, he could not see beyond the quarterdeck or a pair of epaulets.

Most of the ships they pulled by and rowed between were smaller vessels without rating, but there were a pair of frigates, a thirty-eight and even a forty gun razee, Bronsan judged.  What he wouldn’t give for command of one of those?  Amid these, they finally came by the dock where his orders instructed that his ship was to be moored.  As they pulled closer, the dock came away and slowly afforded them a view of the Goat.  Bronsan stood and made his way forward.  MacAllister followed.  “What is that?”

“Our ship, I think.”  Was Bronsan’s terse reply.  As the ship came into view, Bronsan’s excitement and enthusiasm turned to apprehension and horror.  H.M.E.S Goat was a two-masted schooner.  Fully rigged, her sails were tightly furled.  Between her masts projected a long, black funnel, behind which resided a pole mounted with a crosspiece attached to which were two thin rods - the entire contraption being of black metal.  Bronsan’s eye was drawn almost irresistibly to the pair of side-mounted paddlewheels.  They rose above the gunwales and dipped down below the waterline, creating a bizarre monstrosity of a ship.  Before reading the Admiralty summons, Bronsan never thought he would command his own ship and certainly never imagined a ship like this.  “It’s an abomination.”

Without bothering to ask permission, the boat pulled up alongside the Goat.   A half dozen men on deck peered over the side as Bronsan climbed the ladder.  As soon as his feet touched the deck, he turned to the quarterdeck and touched his hat.  He was not even aware he had done it; the action came back to him so naturally, much more so than his struggle up the ladder, where he found certain muscles had atrophied after so much time ashore.

“You must be the other officer they’ve been promising me.”  Bronsan turned to where the voice originated.  It came from a young man, wearing the undress uniform of a lieutenant.  He was about Bronsan’s age or younger, putting him in his mid to early twenties.  His hair was blond and his face carried a youthful charm and innocence, especially when compared to Bronsan’s perpetual scowl.  “Lieutenant Harry Blacker.”

“Eligus Bronsan.”

“What's the date of your commission?”

“A week Thursday.”

Blacker laughed good-naturedly.  “Looks like this little horror is mine afterall.”

“I don't think you understand, my commission of one week is as Acting Commander.  I haven’t been to the tailor’s yet.  My lieutenancy dates to ‘16, February.  My commission specifically gives me command of this vessel.”

“Oh bother.  I suppose I’ll need to move out of the great cabin afterall.”

Johnson and MacAllister came on board and pulled up Bronsan’s chest.  “Sign these men up.  At least one is an able seaman, I don’t know about the other, but you can test him and rate him.”

“Aye, sir.”

“Gather the men, if you please.”  Blacker called all hands to deck and Bronsan read them his commission, making sure they all understood the change in command.  When the men were dismissed, “So, what do you know about . . .” Bronsan asked, as he looked over at the smoke stack and beam lever.  “ . . . these?”

“More than most I suppose.  I’ve been with the Goat since her refit.  I helped to install the engines.  I suppose you know a great deal about them to get this command?”

“I don’t know a bloody thing about them Mr. Blacker.  I imagine that’s why you’re here.” 

“Aye, sir.”  Blacker replied easily.  “Now, can I show you the engines?” 

Bronsan followed Blacker below decks.  In the very bowels of the ship, on the lowermost deck, Blacker showed him the boilers; large rectangular boxes made of iron, which held the seawater that powered the engines.  Three furnaces heated the boilers.  Coal bins, which were now nearly empty, lined the boiler room and normally held the coal for the three furnaces.  The furnaces turned the water in the boilers into high-pressure steam.

“The decks here are all reinforced to bear the extra weight.”  Blacker commented when he noted Bronsan’s attention to the thickened beam under which he had ducked.

Steam lines ran from the boilers to the neighbouring compartment, which Blacker called the engine room.  He explained that the steam was forced through the lines into the two-cylinders.  The cylinders were the engines.  Two cylinders were used because of a tendency for one or the other to occasionally stop at dead centre, a position from which it could not be restarted.  But, with two cylinders together, one fixed to the other, one would start and bring the other along with it.

Steam fed the cylinders, forcing them up and down.  Each cylinder was attached to an arm that ran up through the decks to the beam lever protruding over deck.  The arms turned a crank, the crank turned the wheels, sending the paddles into the water and pulling the ship.

“How fast is she and for how long?”

“We’ve run her in trials at five knots in a dead clam.  As for how long, we carry a hundred tons of coal, we burn about a ton an hour . . ..” As Bronsan nodded, Blacker didn’t bother finishing the calculations, but he did begin to go into equations completely beyond Bronsan’s comprehension, at least for now as his head swam trying to find the practical uses of modern innovation.  As the practicalities sunk in, namely manoeuvring around a sailing ship in a dead calm, no longer were they tied to the wind, Bronsan became less apprehensive and more excited about his new command and these new engines.

As they climbed back to the upper decks, Blacker discussed items such as nominal horsepower and wheel ratios.  They were equations Bronsan only understood much later when the two men had time to sit down and Blacker could quietly explain the calculations and their implications.

“Gods Blood!” Bronsan exclaimed as he nearly lost his footing.  As they stepped onto the upper deck, a black kitten bounded over and scurried between Bronsan’s feet.  “And who is this?”  He asked as he bent down to pick up the creature, which immediately began purring and rubbing up against his chest.

“The men have been feeding him, sir.  They usually keep him below decks.  I’ll make sure he’s kept out of the way.”

“No bother.”  Bronsan scratched between its ears.  “God’s Blood . . .” Bronsan swore again, noticing in the light the black coal smudges on his blue tailcoat and white trousers.  “My best uniform.”

“The hazards of steam, I am afraid.”

“They should call them coal engines to give fair warning.  Steam sounds warm and pleasant, reminds me of a cup of tea.”  Blacker followed Bronsan and the kitten aft and down to the great cabin.  Blacker’s belongings still filled the room while Bronsan’s trunk sat off to the side.  “The ship’s a good deal older than the engines.  She wasn’t constructed as a steamer.”

“No, she was H.M.S. Cormorant when I first saw her.  The Navy Board decided on an experimental refit after the Savannah made her Atlantic crossing and Cochrane started building the Rising Star.  I suppose they decided the navy should have a ship the same.  A few months ago, we held her first trials.  They went rather well.  But, from what I hear, Croker would have none of it.  Mr. Barrow supports the steam programme, but Croker thinks it a waste of time and money.”

“I did get that impression.”  Bronsan sat at the small table.  The kitten was content to stay in his lap and purred happily.

“Unfortunately, Croker is first secretary and Mr. Barrow second.  What they tell me is, at the trials, Croker said the ship was more floundering goat than cormorant.  One of the Navy Board officials thought it a good joke and officially changed her name.”

All at once, Bronsan snorted, gave a grin, and shook his head.  “You were going to write out some equations for me.”  He reminded.

“Oh, yes.” Blacker found papers, pen, and ink, and wrote out the calculations they discussed earlier.  Based upon the area of the pistons, the number of strokes per minute and the diameter and surface area of the wheel, it took several examples before Bronsan gained any understanding of the relations that were supposed to derive a number called ‘nominal horsepower.’  Nominal horsepower, as Blacker explained it, was supposed to be the engine’s power.  Bronsan had a great deal of trouble grasping the relationships, but had no problem memorizing and applying the formulas.  Despite Bronsan’s initial lack of understanding and his questions for which Blacker had no answer, the lieutenant found Bronsan’s energy sparking a greater enthusiasm within himself.

“So, Mr. Blacker, will you take personal responsibility for the operation of the engines?”  It was dark out now and the small great cabin was lit with an oil lamp at the centre of the table.

“Sir?”

“You know more about these bloody engines than I do.  As I see it, I’ll be responsible for the sailing and overall command and you take the engines, keep them running when needed, that sort of thing – like a sailing master for steam.  Here . . .” Bronsan went to his trunk and dug out the steam log.  “This is yours.  Orders are to record the usage of the engines.  We may be going on proper duty, but they still want the test data for these bloody engines.”

“Where are they sending us?”  Blacker envisioned a cruise around Britain or perhaps across the Channel – another of many trial runs.

“I can’t say, not until we’re underway, but we’ll be away several months, possibly half-a-year.”

 “Half-a-year!?  They’re sending us ‘cross the pond then?”

“Aye, ‘tis possible.”

“I can’t just go off for half-a-year.”  Blacker protested.

“Those are our orders, Mr. Blacker.”  Bronsan was not quite sure where to begin with the next bit.  He had something in mind and felt it his place to express, but Blacker was nearly his age and probably had more years in the service, if not his lieutenancy.  Although he may be years out of practice, he had commanded men more senior to himself before and hoped to do so again.  “One thing I won’t tolerate, Harry, is the word ‘can’t,’ most especially with you knowing so much more about these engines than I.  Don’t tell me a thing can’t be done.  There are always problems in getting a thing done.  Tell me how to overcome them.  But don’t tell me ‘can’t.’”

“I understand . . . sir . . . but a . . .?”

“There are always problems Harry, and solutions.  You don’t have to come.”

“And throw away my commission . . .?”  Blacker knew that was the choice he would make if he chose not to follow orders.

“You’re from Devon, aren’t you?”  Bronsan guessed from the accent.  Blacker simply nodded.  “We’ll be victualling for a week or two, time enough for a few days away.”

“We live in Deptford.  My wife followed me when I was stationed here to refit the Goat.  But thank you.”

Bronsan looked around the cabin.  For the first time, he noticed it was not really lived in.  It contained the ship’s papers and some of Blacker’s effects, but none of the personal things that would be here if it were really used.

“What sort of ordnance do we have?  I didn’t see any guns on deck.”

“None.  All the guns, balls, shot, powder, most of the food, ropes, sails, it was all removed.  I’ve no idea where.”  Blacker explained.  “They wanted the ship as light as possible for the trials.  She’s built for six six-pounders and six smashers.”

“Six pounders, is that all?  Will she take nine?”

“I couldn’t say.”

Bronsan took another piece of paper and began writing.  “I have a friend at Woolwich who owes me some money.  If you can bring this to him in a day or two, it should take care of things.”  He passed the paper to Blacker who looked it over.  The paper forgave an unspecified debt in exchange for six six-pounders, six carronades, two nine-pounders (more if they work out), and all the powder, balls, and shot they could use.  Blacker folded the paper and tucked it into his coat pocket.

“Before we see to that, we’ll need to see to the crew.  I counted seventeen.”  Blacker nodded agreement.  “A full complement should put us at sixty.”

“Aye, sir.  A press?”  Blacker suggested warily and without any enthusiasm.  Having taken measure of this man, he judged him to be a stern and no-nonsense sort who would want things done as quickly as possible.  A press gang was the quickest way to fill a tiny unknown ship with a young, unknown captain.

“I’ve had more than my fill of press gangs, Mr. Blacker.  If the streets of Deptford are anywhere near as full as London’s, a few posters should do.”

“Aye, aye, sir.”   Blacker said, relieved.

“Harry, when it’s just you and me, call me ‘Bones.’”

“Bones?”

“As in ‘Sawbones’.  I’ve taken a limb or two in my day.  Maybe that’s why they gave me command, save a surgeon’s pay.”  Lord knows there seemed no other reason.  He thought himself a proficient sailor and more than just competent officer, but he spoke French when they were going to the Spanish colonies and he certainly knew nothing of these engines.  There must be some reason.

 

*   *   *

 

The guns came from Bronsan’s friend at Woolwich.  There was nothing improper about their requisition, it was simply expedited by Bronsan’s offer to forgive an inconsequential debt.  As is the case with most debtors, Bronsan’s friend owed far more than the inconsequential sum due the Cotswolder.  Even so, Bronsan’s friend was more than happy to forgive the inconsequential sum in exchange for the small task of quickly arranging the weapons and ordnance requested, and carelessly failing to forward such through the Navy Board.

So, before the Goat was fully crewed, Blacker arrived back from Woolwich with six wagons fully laden with guns, powder, and shot, with more to be delivered.  Blacker also had in hand a bank draft for the sum of three pounds nine shillings, an inconsequential sum for a lieutenant on full pay.  “You didn’t loan him money, did you?”  Asked Bronsan with a wry grin.

“Certainly not.  I won it off him in a game of whist.”  Blacker proclaimed proudly.

“Why do you think we have guns instead of the pounds he owes me?  I wish you the best of luck in collecting your debt.”

Having procured the guns so readily left them with a slight problem, they did not yet have the men to get them on board.  The powder casks were brought aboard immediately, but the guns had to wait on dock.

However, recruiting was not a worry.  Bronsan arranged to have a posters produced and the crew posted them throughout Deptford’s taverns and docks.  Come the morning of the twenty-fourth, Bronsan set a table at the Goat’s dockside berth.  “We should move the table.”  Said Blacker, looking back at the steamship.  “No one who can see her will want to serve aboard her.”  Despite Blacker’s pessimistic projections, the young sea officers watch as a line of applicants formed at the table.

Intrigue and curiosity at the Goat’s odd shape drew some, but for most – a shilling was a shilling.  And, the longer the voyage, the more shillings were earned.  Although there were rumours that the Goat was to be the Royal Navy’s first steamer across the Atlantic, Bronsan never disclosed their destination, but he thought it important that the crew knew of its duration before signing and told it to each man before he made his mark.  Rather than deter, the long duration served as incentive for sailors who had been stuck at home with their families and no job for far too long.  Before day’s end, the abomination of a ship was at full complement and nary a lubber among them.

A cold, steady drizzle beat down on the Goat, leaving a shimmering coat where the water hit the deck.  Pacing the quarterdeck’s windward side, Bronsan pulled the oilskin cloak tighter around his neck, even though the rain had already found its way down his collar.  Beneath the oilskin, he wore his old undress uniform with a plain epaulette on each shoulder.  Five years ago, as a midshipman, he could hardly wait for an epaulette.  Before his promotion to lieutenant, regulations changed to allow a lieutenant to wear a plain epaulette on his right shoulder.  But, even before he had a chance to find a seamstress and have the thing stitched on, he was home and on half-pay.

Now he had two of the things, it didn’t feel right.  Ever since he was thirteen, only post-captains were entitled to an epaulette on each shoulder.  Now, an acting commander could wear them.  Actually the regulations changed three years before his half-pay, but there was no firm date of transition and so for a time, lieutenants were treated as commanders, commanders as lieutenants, and commanders were piped aboard as if posted.  It was all very confusing and occasionally very embarrassing.

The rain dripped and streamed around the guns, along the rims and over the styling.  She carried six short, fat carronades, designed to lobe balls up high over a short distance; three six-pounders; and two long-nose nine-pounders, one aft, the other forward.  Bronsan reckoned bow and stern chasers such as these would be particularly effective on a steamer like the Goat. No matter where the wind blew, they could run down or away from an enemy under sail.

On the banks of the Thames, a group of hardy young boys gathered in the cold drizzle to watch the passing oddity, moving slowly under sail with its lumbering great wheels, black smoke stack, and mysterious beam lever device.

“Mr. Steinberg, . . .” Bronsan stopped pacing and turned sharply toward the sailor.  Elias Steinberg stopped his work and ran to the captain.  “ . . . will you give Lieutenant Blacker my compliments and ask him to report to me?”  Steinberg touched a dripping wet forelock and went below to fetch the first lieutenant.

“Mr. Margot, . . .” Bronsan yelled over to the Goat’s sailing master and third most senior officer.  “ . . . furl the sails if you please.”

“Aye, sir.”  Margot replied and relayed the order to the boatswain, who immediately set his men to work pulling in the sails.

Harry Blacker came leisurely onto the quarterdeck, wrapping the oilskin around his collar.  Bronsan turned on the first lieutenant with an enthusiastic grin.  Blacker had been encouraging him to try the engines for days, now would be the time. “Let’s fire the furnaces and give these lads a show, shall we?”

“Aye, aye, sir.”  Blacker touched his hat and returned below decks.  Soon, thick black smoke billowed up from the stack.  It took about twenty minutes for the furnaces to heat the boilers sufficiently to generate steam pressure.  Blacker turned the iron wheel to open the valve and steam shot into the engines with a great hiss.  One of the cylinders moved with a painful, metallic groan.  Above decks, the lever moved, up and down, slowly at first, but building speed.

“Mr. Margot, beat to quarters, if you please.”  The crew scrambled to station.  Bronsan drilled them for several hours each day over the almost two weeks that they had been signed into the Goat’s books.  To Blacker’s dismay, Bronsan had spent more time with them than the engines, which had yet to be fired since Bronsan assumed command.  Blacker tried and tried to explain that Bronsan needed to see the engines in action and not to continue training the men as if this were a regular sailing vessel.  Bronsan said he understood, but continued on with his drills.

While the drills produced admirable results, Bronsan could hardly credit himself with the results.  They had their pick of able seamen, men who already knew the ropes and the gun work.

As the sails were furled and the guns loaded and run out, the boys ran after them along the shore, cheering and waving their arms.  The sailors cheered and waved merrily, no doubt feeling a similar youthful exuberance at once again finding gainful employment within His Majesty’s Navy.  With one hand behind his back, Bronsan doffed his bicorn and waved it back at them, feeling a similar excitement and taking great pride in being the master of the quarterdeck.

Smoke poured thickly from the stack and Bronsan’s grin faded.  A deep vibration moved from the planking up his legs.  Grasping the rail, he could feel the vibrations running through the entire structure.  He watched the fittings shake and rattle.

Replacing the hat, the grin quickly turned to its usual foul scowl.  Turning on his heal, he marched below decks to the engine room.  “Harry!”  He yelled, straining his voice as if shouting through a high wind, trying to get Blacker’s attention over the deafening roar of the engines.  “Harry!”  Blacker turned to see Bronsan and walked over close to him.  “Is this normal?”

“Is what normal?”  Blacker shouted back.

“The vibrations – the whole ship is shaking.”

“Yes.”  Blacker yelled back and turned a wheel that shut the flow of steam through the pipes to the engines.  The pumping of the cylinders slowed noticeably and the noise subsided only slightly.

“Is it safe?”

Blacker shrugged.  “For a time.  What worries me more is having the nine-pounders up there.”  They had talked about this subject at great length between drills.  The Goat’s decks were never made to carry the larger cannon.  Bronsan had them reinforced, but Blacker insisted it would not be enough, now Bronsan understood why.  With these vibrations running through the ship, the reinforcing beams would shake loose, providing no support at all when the weapons were fired.

Bronsan nodded sullenly.  “Let’s give these lads a real show and find out just how much trouble we’re in.”  Bronsan made a tight, fast clockwise motion with one finger, indicating that Blacker should open up the steam valves.

“Aye, sir.”  Blacker said cheerfully and went to work.  The noise became louder and the vibrations more apparent.  Bronsan returned to the quarterdeck.  On deck, the paddles churned through the water.  Sail was never so noisy.

“We’re going to give these boys a real show.”  Bronsan repeated to the gun captains.  By now, under the constant turning of the paddle wheels, the boys were falling behind.  They would not bother keeping up for much longer.  “Fire the bow chaser.”

While Bronsan had no trouble obtaining the guns, they were of an older design and had not been fitted with gunlocks.  So, from beneath a hooded battle lantern, the bow chaser’s gun captain extracted a lit linstock.  Keeping it sheltered from the drizzle with one hand, he finally stretched it out over the touchhole and brought it down.  The gun discharged with a satisfying ‘boom,’ sending the boys into ever more enthusiastic cheers as the Goat continued down the river.

Bronsan had all the guns fired in varying sequence, each broadside, for’rd carronades, and the stern chaser.  Two aspects of this ship bothered him in particular, now three if one were to include the vibration of the engines.  The paddle wheels prevented a proper broadside.  They could not bring all their guns to bear.

More disturbing was the vulnerability the wheels presented.  True, the Goat could head into the wind, where an opponent could not follow, but the wheels presented tempting and very large targets.  Even to a seaman unaccustomed to such devices, they tore themselves from the aspect of the rest of the ship and created a natural inclination to want to destroy them.  And the beam lever presented itself far too conspicuously.  It would take very little to damage it and put the engines out of service.

Harry was right: this required a different reckoning.  It was difficult enough commanding a brig-rigged, two-master when most of his experience was on three masts and square sail riggings.  But now, he would have to keep in mind what these engines could do, what they couldn’t do, and what their dangers were.  He would have to learn it so intuitively that should they see action, he would not have to think about it, just be able to bark the appropriate commands from the top of his head.

Once the guns were fired, Bronsan ordered the engines shut down.  Gathering Blacker, Margot, and Guilford, the ship’s carpenter, the four men made a thorough inspection, particularly of the nine-pounders’ new bracings.  Many fittings were loose, shaken by the test firing.  Tightening them would have to be a routine part of running the engines, Bronsan surmised.

“Damn.” Bronsan muttered softly when they inspected the forward supports, running his hand over the braces.  They held, but had shifted noticeably.  “Damn.”  He muttered softly as he ran his hand over the braces.  They held, but had shifted noticeably.  Chips could pound them into place easily enough, but would have to do so every time they ran the engines.  And, if they ever cleared for action while the engines were running, could they be sure the bracings would hold?  And, how many times could the guns be fired before the fitting came loose and the bracings collapsed altogether?

“We can drop them at Gravesend?”  Blacker suggested.

“No.”  Bronsan grunted and shook his head.  “We’ll keep ‘em.  Hopefully they’ll look intimidating enough on the prow to make sure we don’t get much use out of them.  And if we do have to use them, it’s likely the few shots they’re good for is all we’re likely to get.”

   

 

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