Tuesday, 22 October 2013

Admiral Benbow

John Benbow was born in March 1653 at Coton Hill in Shropshire, a village which is now a suburb of Shrewsbury. His father, who seems to have been a tanner, died when he was still young.
    Benbow joined the navy at the age of 25. In those days, the navy was one of the few institutions in which a man from humble origins could rise to a position of wealth and importance; especially when there was fighting to be done, which was the case during his career.

He quickly saw action in the Mediterranean in 1678-81, when Admiral Herbert led attacks on the corsairs operating out of the ports on the coast of Algeria: the notorious "Barbary Shore". These corsairs were a serious threat: they had in the past raided as far as Cornwall, and kidnapped whole villages to sell as slaves. The campaign was successful, but disputes over prize-money led to Benbow transferring to the merchant service for the next few years. But the "Glorious Revolution" of 1688-9, which brought William of Orange to the throne, quickly led to war with France, and he returned to the Royal Navy. He was appointed captain of HMS "Sovereign",and later promoted to Rear-Admiral, and then to Vice-Admiral. He took part in the naval battles at Beachy Head, Barfleur and La Hogue, and in raids on St. Malo, Dunkirk and Calais; and his courage and tactical skill were noted and admired. It was in this war that the British navy established a supremacy over the French which was never subsequently lost.

When peace was eventually signed, Benbow was sent to American waters, to protect trading vessels against piracy. But within a few years, it became clear that hostilities with France were about to resume. This would become known to history as the War of the Spanish Succession, and may justifiably be considered as the first-ever world war, with fighting not only in Europe but also across the Atlantic. In 1702, in anticipation of this, King William dispatched Benbow in command of a small fleet to the West Indies. There in mid-August he fought a running battle of several days against a French squadron under Admiral Jean du Casse. But some of Benbow's captains, led by Richard Kirkby, apparently refused to follow orders, and the action proved indecisive. The British ships which did go into combat were outnumbered, and some sustained heavy damage. Benbow's leg was shattered by chain-shot. He was determined to continue the fight, but to his fury Kirkby and other captains refused. The squadron had to return to Jamaica, where Benbow ordered the arrest of the captains, branding them cowards and traitors.

    In a development which seems extraordinary nowadays, Benbow received a letter from du Casse, acknowledging that Benbow ought to have won the battle, adding, "As for those cowardly captains who deserted you, hang them up, for by God they deserve it". Was this a case of a chivalrous relationship between commanders, or was du Casse simply trying to stir up trouble?

 Benbow died of his wounds in Jamaica on November 4th. His tombstone, with an appropriate inscription, is in St. Andrew's church, Kingston. Captains Kirkby and Wade were tried by court-martial for cowardice and disobedience of orders, and condemned to death. They were shot on board HMS "Bristol" in Plymouth on April 16th 1703. Others of Benbow's captains were also convicted, but were later pardoned.

Benbow quickly became a popular hero. One would have thought that a commander who could not persuade his subordinates to follow orders had failed in the most fundamental way, but it was Benbow's final disaster rather than his earlier successes which inspired the balladeer:-

"Come all ye sailors bold, and draw near, and draw near,
And listen to my lay without fear.
It is of an Admiral's fame
Great Benbow was his name,
How he fought out on the main
Ye shall hear, ye shall hear.

Brave Benbow he set sail for to fight, for to fight,
Until Du Casse's ships they came in sight.
Brave Benbow he set sail
In a fine and pleasant gale
But his captains they turned tail
In a fright, in a fright

Said Kirkby unto Wade, We shall run, we shall run,
Said Kirkby unto Wade, We shall run,
For I value not disgrace
Or the saving of my face,
but the French I dare not face
Or his gun, or his gun"

            -  and so on for several more verses.

Those who know that great classic adventure story "Treasure Island" may recall that the first chapter opens with Billy Bones, First Mate to the legendary pirate Captain Flint, turning up at the inn called the "Admiral Benbow" and living in fear of encountering a mysterious seafaring man who has lost a leg (Long John Silver, of course!)

   Benbow remains well-known in his native Shrewsbury, with a memorial tablet in the church of St. Mary the Virgin

and a pub named after him (though I don't think he would have worn this kind of wig).

There has been a move to erect a statue of him in the town, though so far without result.

Thursday, 10 October 2013

The Columbus Misconception

It is a common belief that Columbus set sail to prove the world was round, which people at the time did not believe. But this is entirely false.

Ever since the writings of Aristotle and other ancient authors were rediscovered in the 12th century, all educated people knew very well that the world was round. This is clear in, for instance, Dante’s “Divine Comedy”, written almost two centuries before Columbus. Dante even has an understanding of gravity, attracting everything towards the centre of the earth. (Strictly speaking, Dante and other mediaeval writers had no evidence to support this belief in a round earth, but they approached the ancient writers in an entirely uncritical spirit: if Aristotle said so, it had to be true!) One ancient Greek scientist, Eratosthenes of Alexandria, had attempted to measure the size of the earth, and had produced an estimate surprisingly close to the true figure.

Marco Polo’s account of his travels to China in the 13th century was very widely read, and European explorers and traders longed to gain access to the vast riches of the East of which he wrote. But with the arrival of the Turks, the overland route across Central Asia was no longer open. What to do instead? Some of the ancient geographers had believed there was a way south round Africa, from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean, and for a generation before Columbus Portuguese explorers had been venturing down the west coast of Africa. But what they discovered was that Africa was very much bigger than expected, so that a voyage round the Cape to India and back might take years rather than months. Furthermore, the Portuguese kept their navigation charts top secret, and prevented any other ships from venturing that way.

Columbus therefore had the idea of reaching India and China by sailing westwards across the Atlantic. The trouble was, he grossly overestimated the size of Asia, and he did not believe the ancient Greek calculations of the size of the earth: he thought it was much smaller! He therefore believed that the coast of China lay approximately at the position of Kansas City, in terms of distance. He spent years attempting to get one of the kings of Europe (including Henry VII of England) to sponsor his voyage. The reason his efforts were fruitless for so long was nothing to do with a belief the world was flat. What happened instead was that the kings would consult their learned men, who would say, “This fellow Columbus doesn’t know what he’s talking about! The world is much bigger than he thinks, and China is much further away - so far away, in fact, that no ship can carry enough food and water for such a long voyage. Columbus’s crew will all have died of starvation long before they get to China!”

The irony is, of course, that these learned men were quite right: Columbus didn’t know what he was talking about!  Eventually Ferdinand and Isabella of Spain thought Columbus was worth a speculative punt, if only to try and outflank the Portuguese.

Although Columbus made four transatlantic voyages altogether, he never realised he had discovered a new continent, but believed he had found the western route to the fabled Indies, and that the coast of China couldn’t be far away. This is why the islands he discovered are still called the West Indies, and the inhabitants of North America were called, until very recently, Red Indians.

On a world map produced in 1507 the new continent was named not after Columbus, but after a slightly later explorer, Amerigo Vespucci; though the reason for this remains unclear. It was left to Magellan, a generation after Columbus, to find a way round South America and across the Pacific to the actual Indies - and, incidentally, to disprove Columbus‘s estimate of the size of the earth.