THE PORTUGUESE AND BRITISH NAVIES, 1750-1815
Kenneth H. Light
The period covered is one in which important events that had a
significant and permanennt impact on history, ocurred; the Napoleonic war
(1793-1815), the independence of America and, especially for Portugal and
Brazil, the journey of the Royal Family in 1807/08. The two Navies had, during
this period, an active and very often fundamental part to play. This paper
discusses their principal activities, then describes and comments on the men,
the ships and the men aboard their ships.
It will not come as a surprise to learn that the
responsibilities of the two Navies were very similar:
1. Actions deriving from war - the capture or destruction of enemy vessels, the
transportation of troops, blockade of ports, interception and inspection of
merchant vessels and amphibious operations.
During the periods of conflict activities were so intense that during the 27
years of the Napoleonic war Britain lost 166 vessels, including 5 line-of-battle
ships. In compensation she captured 1,201 vessels, including 159 line-of-battle
ships and 330 frigates. Portugal, in turn, lost the frigate Minerva near Sri
Lanka in 1809.
2. Escort merchant vessels, defending them from the enemy and from pirates.
The North African coast as far as Tripoli was a haven of Barbary pirates. A
Portuguese squadron, using Gibraltar as their temporary base, permanently
patrolled this region. Every year the convoy of merchant vessels (80 or more in
number), heading for India and Brazil, would be escorted as far as the Atlantic
Isles; beyond it was highly unlikely to meet pirates, until reaching the
Brazilian coast. At a previously agreed date, a squadron would be sent to cruise
off Madeira and, after picking up the convoy, escort it to the safety of the
Tagus. In the East, Britain was fully occupied defending vessels belonging to
the East India Company. The region was so dangerous that, in addition to an
escort, the vessels had to be armed.
3. Transport dignitaries to their posts and deportees to their place of
The unique example, during this period, was the journey of the Royal Family of
Portugal to Brazil.
4. Transport valuables for the Crown.
The Portuguese line-of-battle ships that escorted the convoy of merchant
vessels, when necessary, continnued their journey all the way to Brazil. In
1769, for example, the line-of-battle ship Na. Sa. dos Prazeres sailed from the
Tagus on the 25th of April, escorting two vessels going to India and a number of
merchantmen going to different ports in Brazil. In July she put into Salvador
making water, due to the rough passage. On the 29th of May 1770 she arrived back
in the Tagus, having made the journey from Rio de Janeiro in 94 days. She
brought bullion, credit notes and coin for the Crown totalling 908 million
réis, also eleven safes filled with diamonds. She brought an even greater sum
for private individuals.
Another influencing factor, that brought the two Navies together, came from the
officers. In Britain, during the years of conflict, the Navy employed some
120,000 men (600/800 ships on active service); in peace time 18,000. As a result
of this policy sailors lost their jobs, marines went back to their barracks and
officers, without a ship but willing to serve, had their pay reduced by half.
Perhaps this was the principal reason that made so many look to the Portuguese
Navy for employment. During the last 40 years of the XVIIIth century the names
are known of 35 officers who made this transfer (a substantial number in view of
the size of the Portuguese Navy, a fleet of some 25/35 vessels). A few were
still active in 1807; the fleet that brought the Portuguese Royal Family to
Brazil included two brigantines, Lebre and Vingança, under the command of
Daniel Thompson and James Nicholas Keating.
Looking firstly at the men embarked, the shortage of sailors was
perhaps the greatest problem faced by the Navies. The problem existed in spite
of using brute force (press gangs), accepting prisoners before their sentence
had expired, forcibly removing seamen from merchant ships encountered on the
high seas and transferring men from a warship coming in to port to another about
to set off on a voyage; even then ships nearly always left port without their
full compliment. It was common talk that the Admiralty did not encourage
learning to swim for fear of loosing men when the ship was tied to a buoy!
Conditions on board were dreadful (on shore they were not much better, as
described by Charles Dickens in many of his books). The annual pay was £15,
usually paid several months in arrears; clothes issued (uniforms were only
introduced in 1857) and tools lost or broken, were discounted from their paltry
earnings. The only chance of obtaining substantial sums of money was in the
distribution, following the capture and sale of a prize; the singular example
was the capture of the Spanish Hermione, in 1762. Her sale earned each sailor
the equivalent of 36 years pay!
Marines were more like soldiers. On board they carried out guard duty and helped
to maintain discipline; during battle they climbed up the rigging and acted as
sharpshooters (especially directed at officers of the enemy ships) as well as
joinning in the boarding,. Although they participated in a number of tasks,
especially where intense effort was required (such as raising the anchor), they
came into their own in amphibious operations.
Officers began their career at the age of 11 or 12 years, indicated by a
relation or friend with influence. Instructed during many voyages by the
chaplain or priest, the schoolmaster and the captain, in time these young
candidates would sit the examination for the rank of lieutenant. Promotion
followed until the rank of post captain was reached; from then on strick
seniority from the date of promotion was followed. If he did not perish from
disease or battle or blot his record following a court marshal, eventually he
would reach the rank of Admiral. Although in theory lieutenants had to be at
least 19 years old, practise was different; Rear Admiral of the Blue Sir William
Sidney Smith (commander of the squadron that escorted the Royal Family in
1807/08) was promoted to post captain at the age of 18.
No ship's compliment would be complete without a chaplain or priest, cooks,
tailors, bakers, carpenters, caulkers, artillerymen, the surgeon and his
assistants, scribes and servants. In the British Navy a captain had, by right, 4
servants for every 100 men in his crew; this meant that in the case of a 74, the
captain had the right to 24 servants!
Also we cannot forget the large contingent of men, employed directly or
indirectly by the Navy, who remained on shore. They included those who worked in
the shipyards, in the rope making factories, in the manufacture of guns,
purchasing wood, cloth, gunpowder, victuals, water, spirits and the thousand and
one items indispensable for the efficient running of a man-of-war. Also the
staff of the war councils and the prize courts, where judgement was passed on
prizes; the hospitals maintained by the Navy, of which the most famous still
exists today, at Greenwich.
The war vessels that interest us are those line-of-battle ships
that were of sufficient size to participate in a line of battle. In practise
only those vessels with 60 or more guns could be thus used. From the number
constructed the 74 was, by far, the most popular; with a compliment of 650 men,
she measured 60m. in length, 17m wide and drew 7m. She weighed some 1,800 tons.
The construction of a vessel, such as a 74, required 2,000 trees. As a result,
as from the XV century, monarchs ordered the planting of forests in Europe to
supply the much needed wood, usually oak. Portugal also made use of the
hardwoods found in Brazil; at this time Salvador had a well developed shipyard
(during this period the line-of-battle ships Martim de Freitas and the Princípe
do Brazil were built there).
A typical 74 was built with three covered decks, the orlop, the lower or gun
deck and the upper; also the quarter deck, open to the sky in the centre part,
and closed at the stern (the poop), as well as at the bow (the forecastle). The
lower and upper decks were the main gun platforms, but lighter guns were placed
on the poop, and bow chasers could be mounted on the forecastle, so as to be
able to fire forward.
Ballast, in the form of pig iron, lined the bottom of the hold, then came dried
provisions and water casks in different size containers, gun powder (with a
small room beside it known as the 'light room', to provide illumination, but at
the same time avoid the risk of contact and explosion); also dry bread, or
biscuit as it was generally known, kept in a tin-lined room to avoid (without
much success during a long voyage) the attack of famished insects, and spirits
(kept under permanent guard).
The orlop deck contained space for the surgeon, stores of lighter materials and
a central area where the main cable was stowed. It was here that, during battle,
space would be made available for use as a temporary hospital.
The upper and lower gun decks lined with cannons, were also the sleeping
quarters for the crew (each sailor was allowed 40cms. by 1,80cms.). Officer's
cubicles were made of partitions that could be dismounted. By comparison, the
captain had relatively luxurious accommodation, with windows, on the poop of the
quarter deck; suitably divided for daytime duties, eating and sleeping.
The description would not be complete without mentioning that the head room
between gun decks was 1,55cms., the orlop somewhat less.
The three masts (fore, main and mizen) were attached to the ship up to a certain
height, above the top mast and the top gallant mast were added; in stormy
weather they and their yards would be taken down to reduce drag and to lower the
centre of gravity.
The principal sails were attached to yards; their sail area could be adjusted by
tying the reef-lines (rows of small ropes on either side of the sail).
Quadrilateral and rectangular sails (stay sails) were carried in between the
masts and also attached to the bowsprit. Instead of a mainsail, the mizen mast
carried a spanker on a boom. Sails were also carried on yards that could be
extended out from the fore and main mast yards, so that they would hang over the
sea (studding sails); sprit sails were carried from yards hung underneath the
The movement of the main yards were restricted by the cables that supported the
masts; in practise this meant that the angle which a ship could sail into the
wind was restricted. In order to bring a ship to, sails had to be set in such a
way so as to compensate the movement; some sails pulling the ship back, whilst
others pushed her forward.
Navigation depended mainly on measuring the angle of the sun with the horizon to
define latitude and the chronometer, to measure longitude.
The invention of the chronometer is a curious story. In 1707 an unbeaten British
squadron, on its way home, lost four of the five ships that made up the
squadron, shipwrecked on the Scilly Isles; entirely due to a mistake in
calculating the longitude. In 1714 British parliament offered a prize of
£20,000 (today some $12 million dollars) to anyone who invented a clock that
could keep accurate time even under the most hazardous conditions. Following a
lifetime dedicated to the problem, the inventor John Harrison (1693-1776)
received the greater part of the prize from the Board of Longitude, when his
chronometer was finally accepted by the Navy in 1774.
The speed, another element for determining the route, was measured by the log, a
piece of wood known as a log-ship fastened to a line on which knots had been
tied at regular intervals. When tossed overboard, and once past the turbulence
caused by the ship's wake, it was allowed to drift for seven or fourteen
seconds, as measured by the small sand-glass. The length of line that had
drifted out with the log enabled the speed of the ship to be calculated.
Another essential equipment were the anchors, of various sizes. The largest,
four in number, for it was foreseen that they could be lost, required 383 men to
raise it. This enormous effort in fact was to drag the ship, weighing 1,800 tons
(perhaps added to the weight of the wind or tide) and the waterlogged cable up
to 65cms. in circumference and 300m. long, over the anchor; only then could it
be freed from the seabed.
All ships carried flags belonging to enemy and neutral nations, with the
objective of provoking confusion. However, before giving the order to open fire,
honour required that the true colours be shown. Once commissioned a pendant,
some 30m. long was hoisted.
The apex of the British Navy consisted of Admirals, Vice Admirals and Rear
Admirals (officers of flag rank), divided in order of seniority, into red, white
and blue squadrons. These officers were entitled to fly their ensign (of their
colour) on board their flagship; an Admiral on the main mast, similarly a Vice
Admiral on the fore mast and a Rear Admiral on the mizen mast.
On the order to prepare for battle, the decks had to be cleared of all
obstructions; these would include the divisions that made up the cabins, tables
and chairs, personal belongings, hammocks, etc. If the battle was imminent and
time short it was not unknown to clear the decks by throwing everything
overboard rather than stowing below, as was more usual. Guns would be untied and
made ready, powder and shot brought up from below, and a fire lit beside each
cannon. The gun crews, trained by regular practise, would take up their posts
and prepare to aim and fire. Supremacy in a battle depended just as much from
the speed with which broadsides could be delivered as from the accuracy of the
firing. To protect the men from splinters the sides of the quaterdeck were lined
with hammocks and a net extended above the heads of the crew.
On board sailors worked in two shifts, port and starboard, for periods of four
hours on tasks in well defined areas of the ship. Thus the day was divided into
a period of work followed by a period of rest, except in an emergency due to the
weather or the enemy.
Food consisted of dry or salted victuals such as meat, oats, sugar, peas, bread
and cheese. Live animals, fresh vegetables and fruit would be delivered daily to
the ship when in port. In the British Navy each sailor was entitled to a daily
ration consisting of either a gallon of beer, a quart of wine or a pint of rum
diluted in the proportion of two of water to one of rum. Weekly, lime or lemon
juice was distributed to avoid scurvy.
A 74 carried some 250 tons of water. Daily consumption was about 2 tons, but
could be considerably less should it prove necessary.
Health, on board, was precarious. Typhoid and yellow fever decimated the crews;
syphilis, hernias and accidents on board were common. The British Admiralty
registered, during the period 1793-1815, 6,500 deaths due to enemy action,
13,000 due to collective accidents (fire and shipwreck) and 70-80,000 due to
disease and individual accidents.
Strict but fair discipline on board a fighting ship was of paramount importance.
The guidelines were laid down in the Articles of War, regularly read out to the
crew; usually when mustered for Divine Service on Sundays. The penalty for
violation of many of the Articles of War was death. The more usual punishment
for lesser offences such as drunkenness, fighting, stealing and falling asleep
whilst on duty, was flogging; carried out with the cat-o´-nine-tails (nine
pieces of rope each with three knots tied at intervals). More serious offenders
would be taken by boat from ship to ship and flogged before each ship's crew.
Officers were not immune from punishment: Admiral John Byng, court-marshalled
for failing to prevent the French from taking Minorca in 1756, was shot on the
quarterdeck of HMS Monarch.
Little spare time remained for amusement; musical instruments, plays, story
tellers and handicraft were the only alternatives. In port it was usual for
prostitutes to be brought on board; in 1805 Revenge, that carried a crew of 600
men, recorded that 450 prostitutes had come on board (at the same time).
Sometimes women would be hidden on board at the start of a voyage; they would
remain until they could be transferred to another ship returning to port.
Strange cases recorded included that of William Chandler in 1795 (whose real
name was Mary Lacy); she managed to pass as a man and serve on several ships
during a period of 12 years, until her sex was discovered!
We began writing about the belligerent responsibilities of the
Navies and end discussing tactics employed during a battle.
The first objective in a battle was to capture the enemy's ships and only
secondly to destroy them. A captured line-of-battle ship would go to the
dockyard for repairs and, suitably renamed, join the squadron. Even after paying
prize money, to the crew that had captured the ship, it was more economical as
well as advantageous in terms of time.
Reduce or eliminate the manoeuvrability of the enemy's ship followed by
boarding, was the strategy used to capture a ship. It order to achieve this it
was necessary to destroy the sails, spars and masts and, at the same time,
reduce the numbers of the enemy crew.
Traditionally both sides sailed on parallel lines until the line that had the
advantage of the wind decided to close the gap and engage the enemy (still in a
parallel line); close range broadsides followed, sometimes for several hours,
until boarding took place.
An alternative tactic, whose principal adept was the English Admiral Nelson,
consisted in approaching the enemy, but as yet outside the limits of his guns,
turn the whole line and head straight for the enemy so as to pass at right
angles behind each enemy ship. This manoeuvre required exposing the squadron to
the full weight of enemy broadsides for twenty minutes or so, without being able
to reply. Discipline and sang-froid were imperative, for during those long
minutes massive punishment was received. On the other hand on passing each enemy
ship the least protective part was exposed (windows on the upper decks); each
cannon in turn could fire along the length of the ship, the rigging and the
rudder. In addition to common shot, grape and double-headed hammered shot would
be used. Just one passage could result in the total destruction of the rigging
and the eradication of a good part of the crew.
This tactic was employed in the Battle of Trafalgar (near Cádiz), in 1805, when
27 ships of the line faced 33 ships of the combined Franco-Spanish fleet. The
British Navy took 18 prizes without the loss of any ship.
Paintings by S. F. Smitheman ATD, BA, FRSA entitled "HMS Victory Leading
the Line at Trafalgar" and Clarkson Stanfield RA "HMS Victory being
towed to Gibraltar with the Body of Admiral Nelson on board" show us, in a
way that language cannot describe, the effects of the battering suffered to
obtain this victory.
Note: Although many of the references are to the Royal Navy,
they could also apply (with some obvious exceptions) to the Portuguese Navy.
Kenneth H. Light
Member Correspondent of the Instituto Histórico de Petrópolis
Member of the British Historical Society of Portugal
Director of the Society of Friends of the Imperial Museum
Lieutenant Captain Lucas Alexandre Boiteaux, A Marinha de Guerra Brasileira nos
reinados de D. João VI e D. Pedro I, Rio de Janeiro, 1913.
Antônio Marques Esparteiro, Subsídio para a História da Marinha de Guerra;
Nau "Rainha de Portugal". Anais do Clube Naval, Lisbon, 1943.
Antônio Marques Esparteiro, Três Séculos no Mar (1640-1910), Lisbon, 1948.
Brian Lavery, Nelson's Navy, The Ships Men and Organisation, London, 1989.
Patrick O'Brian, Men-of-War Life in Nelson's Navy, New York, 1974.
Joaquim Pedro Celestino Soares, Quadro Navaes 2ed. Impr. Nacional, Lisbon 1861.
Dava Sobel, Longitude, The True Story of a Lone Genius who Solved the Greatest
Scientific Problem of his Time, New York, 1995.