Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 2/A cruise in a tub

Illustrated by Edwin Weedon


44-gun frigate in action (by Edwin Weedon).png

Amid the varied improvements in naval architecture to which the latter half of the nineteenth century has given birth: at a time when a man-of-war may undergo so many alterations in the course of construction, that before she is launched all traces of the model on which she was designed are lost, there are still extant vessels with the distinguishing initials H.M.S. before their names, to which the profane are apt to apply the significant, if uncomplimentary epithet of “tub.” And in so doing, these scoffers may be considered merely to imply that the craft in question does not reach their ideas of perfection. But in the year 1782 the term “tub” possessed in the British Navy a more special signification. In the vocabulary of those days a tub was a forty-four-gun ship. She carried sixteen guns on her main, sixteen on her lower, and the remainder on her quarter-deck and forecastle.

Her build was similar to that which popular prejudice assigns to the aldermen of the City of London; for her claims to symmetry were materially affected by the undue proportion which her circumference bore to her length. Her sailing powers were those of a hay-stack. She went before the wind admirably.

It was not then with feelings of unmixed satisfaction that the Honourable Captain James L—— received the intelligence of his appointment to a ship of this description.

The struggle between England and her American colonies was drawing to a close. France, Spain, and Holland had successively declared against us, and our naval supremacy was by no means undisputed.

Captain James belonged to a gallant family. Two of his brothers had won laurels both afloat and on shore, and he himself, at the age of eight-and-twenty, was already a distinguished officer. This, according to the rules of English naval policy from time immemorial, would fully account for his being selected to command a tub. Such as she was, however, he was fully prepared to make the best of her.

He sailed with orders to intercept, if possible, some of the convoys which were then leaving Brest for America with stores and munitions of war.

It was on a fine Sunday evening that he dropped out of Plymouth harbour, taking advantage of the ebb-tide under his lee, with light airs from the eastward. After making a good offing from the Lizard, he shaped his course so as to cross the track of the convoys as soon as possible.

On Monday, the wind got round a little to the southward of east, freshening a little at the same time, and with this leading breeze all the old tub’s canvas told.

It was about daylight on Wednesday that the look-out announced that a strange sail was in sight. As the day broke, he gave notice of another and another, and by nine o’clock they had sighted five vessels—the largest apparently of heavy metal—and then about six miles distant, broad upon their larboard bow.

The first lieutenant was an old sailor and a Scotchman: and was imbued with the amount of caution which the combination of those two qualifications might naturally be expected to produce. He evidently did not like the aspect of affairs; and when they made out another of the ships to be a large corvette, apparently of French build, his anxiety became manifest.

“One at a time would have suited us better,” said the captain, addressing him, and indicating the enemy.

“Weel, yer honor, we can just show them a clean pair o’ heels, wi’ the wind as it is i’ the noo.”

“It will be time enough to think about that, if the worst comes to the worst,” replied the captain; “but I should like to have a better look at them first. Edge a little closer, master, and let us see what they are like.”

The master smiled, as he gave the necessary orders. He had sailed with Captain James before, and formed his own conclusions with regard to what “a little closer” meant.

The squadron which they proceeded to survey was composed of French and American ships. The largest, which bore the broad pendant of a commodore, was nominally a fifty-gun ship, but, as was usual with French vessels of war at that time, she carried some half-dozen guns more than her rating, and a more numerous crew than would have been found in an English vessel of the same size. The second was a corvette, smaller than the English ship, but a beautiful craft, built on the last new model (without one alteration upon the original plan), and with a crew almost equal in number, though not in any other respect, to that of the “tub.”

The third was a sloop of war, and the two remaining vessels were American merchantmen carrying letters of marque.

For some time the French were in doubt with regard to the identity of the stranger under their lee, being half-inclined from her personal appearance to put her down as a merchantman, making a greater show than her resources were likely to support. They felt grateful to her also for saving them the trouble of going out of their way to take her, which would have been contrary to their orders. When at last they made her out to be a man-of-war (such as she was), the French commodore signalled to the sloop and merchant men to go on under easy sail, and that he would overtake them as soon as he had captured the Englishman.

Captain James had continued the process of “edging” for the purpose of “looking at them,” till a distance of little more than a mile and a half intervened. Then the French commodore and the corvette hauled to the wind, and hove in stays to face their coming foe.

“We must fight now,” said Captain James to the first lieutenant, trying hard to suppress the delight which would show itself in his countenance.

“Aye, aye, sir,” said the old Scotchman, getting ready with a will, now that they were in for it.

At this moment they were nearing the enemy rapidly, having the commodore on their weather bow, and the corvette still further to windward.

“Now, master,” said Captain James, “haul sharp up to the wind, and let us try if we cannot weather them both.”

And here the aldermanic build of the old tub stood her in good stead. She could wear and stay a great deal quicker, and in much less room, than the Great Eastern, though she could not go ahead quite so fast.

Fortunately, there was not much sea, and the French ships were now lying-to on the starboard tack, so that she passed within four cables’ length of the commodore’s bows, though not scatheless.

Boom! go all the main-deck guns of the Frenchman that she can bring to bear, and the loss of the foretop-gallant mast and jib-boom, showed that the French were keeping to their usual tactics, notwithstanding their superior force.

Steadily the tub forges ahead, preserving a portentous silence. One old tar in command of a gun on the starboard quarter, who had followed Captain James from his last ship, with the licence allowed to favourites, besought piteously to be allowed to give her “just one” as they passed.

“Keep your physic for the corvette, Jack,” replied the captain.

And the corvette received a full dose; for as the tub ran across her bows at half the distance at which she had passed the commodore, she hulled her with almost every gun, receiving only the contents of her bow-chasers in reply.

“Now, master, bear up and run us alongside of the corvette in the twinkling of a bedpost.”

There was just time to reload the upper-deck guns, and to pour in one smashing broadside from both decks, when a crash aloft announced a collision between the two vessels. The helm had been put suddenly up, according to the captain’s order, and the tub ran stem on into the corvette’s quarter. The bowsprit caught her after-rigging, and in a moment the two vessels were heaving together upon the deep.

The boarders, under the first lieutenant, had been ready and waiting for some time, and the superior height of the tub enabled them to leap down with ease upon the decks of the corvette. As the two ships lay locked in a deadly embrace, Captain James would have reinforced his officer with his last man, rather than fail in his object. But there was no need. The old Scotchman, with a long two-edged Andrew Ferrara, which had done good service in many a well-fought field, led the way nobly, and more than one guard went down beneath its terrible sweep. The good cutlasses and long pikes which followed him made short work. The tide of battle never rolled backward for an instant. The quarter-deck was first taken. Then, after a desperate struggle, the Frenchmen were driven along the waists, the boarders battening down the hatches as they advanced. There was one gallant rally on the forecastle, till a last charge drove a mass of fighting men over the bows with their arms in their hands. In a quarter of an hour there was not a living Frenchman left upon the deck.

Captain James, who had coolly counted on the capture as a matter of course, had given the strictest orders that they were, if possible, to prevent the crew of the corvette from striking her flag, and this they succeeded in doing.

When at last the tub cast the corvette off, the French flag was still flying at her peak, and the commodore imagined that she had succeeded in beating off the attack.

An inquiry might naturally be made, how that respected officer had been employed during the interval. When the English ship luffed and crossed his bows without tiring, he had imagined that she wished to decline the combat. He was undeceived when she opened fire upon the corvette, but his comrade soon lay so completely between them as to cover the English ship from his fire. After he had forged some distance ahead, by the time he had again borne up, so as to lay broadside on to the Englishman, the corvette was taken, and in charge of a prize crew.

The ship of the French commodore was a fine vessel, with a well trained crew; and when attacked exactly as she expected, or allowed to fight according to her own ideas of propriety, she acquitted herself very respectably.

When, therefore, she at last succeeded in exchanging broadsides with the Englishman, passing her almost within pistol shot, her superior weight of metal told with deadly effect, and the old tub almost heeled over on her beam-ends as she received the weight of shot, though fortunately none struck her below the water line. The commodore’s ship suffered much less in proportion from the English broadside, and the crew gave a cheer as they hastened to reload.

“One more like that, and she must strike or sink,” said the commodore. But his triumph was doomed to be short-lived. He has signalled to the corvette to stand off and rake the Englishman, but she does not appear to comprehend. Perhaps, in the smoke, she has been unable to interpret his orders, For now she sails under her former comrade’s stern. But oh, horror! What is this? Crash go the cabin windows of the commodore. One, two shots strike the mizen-mast, and it goes by the board. The corvette pours in the whole of her broadside at biscuit-throwing distance, raking with every gun. Quite unsuspicious that she had passed into English hands, no effort had been made to avoid her manœuvre, and the old Scotchman had judged his distance admirably. Half a dozen guns are dismounted by her fire, and the French commodore and the next officer in command are killed by a splinter from one of them. The wreck of the mizen-mast fouls the rudder, and for a short time she becomes unmanageable. As she broaches to, the old tub takes advantage of her disaster, and crossing her stem, rakes her once more. Her decks are piled with killed and wounded. She fights gallantly for some time longer, but she can do little against the two ships, which are both beautifully handled. At last her fore-mast follows the fate of the mizen, and she is compelled to strike.

When the English captain came on board to receive the sword of the commanding officer, he found a midshipman in charge. Every superior officer was killed or placed hors de combat.

There was a great deal to be done in the way of making arrangements for the disposition of the large number of prisoners, and there was a terrible amount of work cut out for the surgeons.

At last Captain James found a few moments to exchange congratulations with his first lieutenant.

“You are not sorry we edged up to look at them?” he said. But there was still a cloud upon the careful brow of the gallant Caledonian, which success alone was unable to remove. He would have set little value upon a statue of Victory, if it was not very richly gilt.

“I canna help thinking aboot the merchantmen,” he replied. “Its just a vara great pity they should get awa’.”

For be it known to the uninitiated, that though capturing ships of war might give the greater glory, taking merchantmen brought the larger profit.

Now, Captain James had no objection to prize-money; and for spending the largest amount in the shortest time, he might have been backed freely against any officer in H.M. service. Accordingly, he caught in a moment at the suggestion of the first lieutenant.

“If you think the corvette can catch them, you are quite welcome to try, but I cannot give you more than enough hands to sail her.”

“Weel, captain, if we just keep up the French flag till we are pretty close, I’ve nae doot when we show our own they’ll just streek without the firing a shot.”

And the canny Scot’s supposition proved perfectly correct. He sighted the chase early the next morning, and they very obligingly hove to for him to overtake them. When they perceived their error, it was too late to retrieve it. The three ships would have been more than a match for the corvette, manned as she was; but the sloop of war showed a clean pair of heels, and left the heavily-laden merchantmen to their fate.

They hauled down their flags, as a matter of course. After they had struck, the wary lieutenant ordered the greater part of their crews on board the corvette, and carefully stowed them away in irons below with the rest of the prisoners.

On the evening of the second day they overtook the tub and her great prize. Captain James had found great difficulty in keeping the latter afloat, and had been compelled to make the prisoners work at the pumps. But now the wind got round to the southward and westward, and enabled them all to reach Plymouth Sound in safety. A revenue cutter, who had spared them a few hands, acted as their herald, and the people flocked down in crowds to give the old tub and her four prizes a hearty welcome.

In the many long years of naval warfare which followed—in a thousand fights where the long odds lay against the British tar, the memory of Captain James and the old tub lit the road to victory, as the pointers guide the glance towards the polar star.

Herbert Vaughan.