Saturday, October 25, 2008

Six Frigates

Let's go down to the sea in ships ...

One of the great pleasures in life is to embark upon the sea of Patrick O'Brian's twenty volume series of novels about the adventures of a British naval captain and his physician friend during the Napoleonic wars.

These works, which some have called the best historical novels ever written, go far beyond adventure. They create an entire world, complete with exotic peoples and customs. Life aboard the square-rigged vessels of the time is portrayed in all its rich variety -- the sights and sounds, the smells, the food or lack thereof, the tedium, the cold, the heat, the sweat, the storms, the cruelty, and of course the horrendous mayhem of war fought with cannons and cutlasses.

Add to this the wonders of the natural world as explored along the way by Doctor Stephen Maturin (a foreshadowing of the voyage of Charles Darwin), season with his adventures as a spy, and you have a feast as satisfying as one of Captain Aubrey's best formal dinners.

If you haven't read them yet my only advice is to try the first one to test the waters, so to speak, and take them one at a time. If you're not hooked by the middle of the second book it will probably never happen, so you can save yourself the trouble of trying the rest.

Otherwise you will all too soon discover yourself at the end of the final volume (the unfinished #21 is now in print posthumously), wondering where to turn next. If you've gotten that far already, you may be ready for Six Frigates, Ian W. Toll's history of the early years of the United States Navy.

In my case O'Brian had whetted my curiosity about what that period of time was like on our side of the Atlantic. (I don't think it is giving away too much to mention that he was able to place his characters on board HMS Java at the time it was defeated by the USS Constitution, "Old Ironsides," after which they have to spend some time in Boston as prisoners of war.)

Toll has done a magnificent job of making his subject as alive as any current history, and it is full of interesting revelations. The title comes from the first order for ships placed by Congress to protect the commerce of the fledgling nation in 1794 -- a mere six wooden frigates. But these were to be no ordinary ships.

The designer was a Quaker ship builder named Joshua Humphreys who apparently had no qualms about constructing ships of war. By way of explaining how unusual this was for a member of that peaceable community, Toll quotes a Southern congressman who spoke of their uneasy union with the Northern states: "They adopted us with our slaves, and we adopted them with their Quakers." That's how notorious they were for their stance against war and enslavement.

The ships were to be of a unique design, large enough to carry a heavy battery of guns, yet with a hull sleek enough to let them outsail their rivals. This would give them the ability to choose their engagements, either chasing down their prey or escaping when overmatched. In fact, one of the most notable exploits of the Constitution was when it managed to elude a small fleet of British warships even while they were all becalmed.

You don't have to be a warmonger to appreciate the accomplishments that are recorded here. In its time it was an undertaking on a par with the space program. Right from the beginning lives were lost simply in the quest for the timbers to build the ships. The designer would accept nothing but the right-angled trunks and branches of the Southern "live oak" (well known to us in South Florida) to form the strongest possible "knees" in the frame of the ship. It is no exaggeration to say that this decision put the iron in "Old Ironsides." Yet the teams of men that went on lumbering expeditions to the jungles of the deep South were decimated by yellow fever, resulting in many deaths even before the ships were under construction.

One of the most interesting angles on the whole story is the way that the need for a navy brought up all the same concerns about taxation and the budget, the national debt, the power of the federal government, and the effects of a permanent military establishment that are still being debated today. If the aim was to protect the country's commerce, wouldn't it end up doing more harm than good if it saddled the nation with a debt it could never pay? The heated argument raged back and forth through several administrations and involved many of the Founding Fathers on both sides, including Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Adams, and Monroe.

With classic Congressional indecision, the ships were ordered, canceled, built, put into action, put into storage twice, and then taken out again. In the long run the outrages of the Barbary pirates, and the impressment of American seamen by both the British and French, convinced popular opinion of the necessity for a navy regardless of cost. And so it began.

Toll concludes his tale by rapidly reviewing the subsequent growth of the navy through the Civil War and up to the time of Teddy Roosevelt, who created the "Great White Fleet" and ordered it to tour the world, putting everyone on notice about what a big stick he was carrying.

Those who built the original sailing ships could never have imagined that in less than a hundred years they would be succeeded by such a number of steam-driven vessels built of iron and steel -- or that in another hundred years the fleet would include nuclear powered submarines, guided missiles, carriers full of aircraft, and hydrogen bombs.

They were right about one thing, though: The price tag is killing us, even if the bombs aren't.

[For much more on the work of Patrick O'Brian see www.patrickobrian.com. You might also like The Naval History of the United States published in 1886 by Willis J. Abbot, which is available for download from Project Gutenberg. Vol. I covers the same period of time from the Revolutionary War through the War of 1812, with Vol. II picking up from there. Plenty of swash and buckles in both. And of course you can still walk the decks of the Constitution in Boston Harbor, though there is scarcely an original board remaining in it.]

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