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Sunday, 13 May 2012

More Maritime History

The first circumnavigation of the earth to be reported in English [and probably just the second ever made in a single voyage] was achieved by Sir Francis Drake and 59 survivors from his crews in 1577-80. Drake's mission had been to disrupt and despoil Spanish trade on the western shores of South America, where the Spaniards did not anticipate hostile forces to penetrate.Unarmed merchant vessels enabled him to take rich pickings for Queen Elizabeth I, including Drake's Jewel which is still on display. The difficulties of getting round the south of South America and into the ocean that Magellan had called Pacific were notorious: strong gales, dangerous coastal  topography and Antarctic cold. Drake lost all his ships except his flagship, the Pelican [later to be re-named the Golden Hind] before he was in the relatively safe conditions of the South Pacific. Rather than facing a return trip around Cape Horn and running the gauntlet of Spanish ships seeking revenge, Drake decided to sail west and cross the whole Pacific, the Indian Ocean and the Atlantic. Such random raiding by English ships infuriated King Philip, who readily accepted the Pope's declaration that Elizabeth I was illegitimate as she had been born while Henry VIII's first wife [Mary I's mother] remained alive and - in the Pope's view - still married to Henry. Philip therefore concluded that it was a matter of propriety, even a religious duty, to remove Elizabeth from the English throne and coincidentally to stop English piracy against Spanish trade. He spent six years constructing and preparing a vast fleet to carry his army [Armada] from Spain to his territory in the Netherlands where even more troops and guns would augment the force in an invasion of England.

Adverse weather forced his fleet to sail up the west coast of Ireland, rather than take the simple route up the English Channel; many of his ships were damaged by the storm, some were wrecked on the Irish and Scottish coasts, and the fleet that eventually reached the Spanish Netherlands [modern Belgium] was seriously depleted. Nevertheless, in principle it was still vastly stronger than the English forces that Elizabeth had been able to assemble, largely by requisitioning commercial vessels. Taking advantage of the west wind, the English admirals in the Channel set fire to several of the commandeered ships and sent them among the anchored Spanish vessels, with significant loss to the larger fleet. The English then harassed the enemy with such effect that Philip's commander-in-chief decided that his force was too far depleted to undertake an invasion of the apparently well-defended English mainland. Vowing to have another try later, Philip reluctantly accepted the situation.

The English government had learned several important lessons: that it is possible to mobilise a significant fleet very quickly, provided the government is ruthless enough in taking shipowners' assets [including the ships' crews] and the stock-in-trade of gunsmiths, grocers, vintners, clothiers, blacksmiths, rope-makers, sail makers and the other essential suppliers. It is possible to achieve significant results with limited resources provided the commanders are sufficiently ruthless, extending to a willingness to sacrifice men and equipment. After the Queen had personally inspired the men with one of her greatest motivational speeches, and the war was won, the crews were held in bases where a huge proportion died of deprivation and disease while the government sought to avoid paying them. The commanders were highly honoured and became legendary national figures - especially Howard of Effingham and Drake - and the Victory was lauded: but the real lessons for government were that sufficient brutality towards people and ruthlessness towards owners of property can achieve amazing results: and if government propaganda is inspirational and personalised to the monarch or the supreme commander the dark side of the campaign can largely be suppressed.

These were to remain the key factors on which the English, later the British, maritime empire depended for the next three hundred and eighty years. That saga will occupy the next few blogs in this series.

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