In my job as Curator of Antiquities I have the great pleasure of looking after the Museum’s fascinating collection of flags. The museum’s collection includes part of an early US ensign, 1600.2 x 1676.4 mm in size. The fifteen star canton survives with two stripes still attached to it. Its construction would appear to be improvised, the bunting being a silk and cotton mixture, the stars linen and the hoist silk. It is all that survives of a flag believed to have been captured by the British in the famous action between Shannon and USS ‘Chesapeake’ on 1 June 1813. The ensign was sold by Debenham, Storr & Sons in 1900 and was said to have been handed down through the family of Lieutenant Samuel Grandy RN who died in 1856. Although Grandy was actively employed in the Navy in 1813, he was not on board ‘Chesapeake’ at the time of the action. After a period in a private museum run by T.G. Middleton at the Edinburgh Castle public house, Regent’s Park, the ensign appeared on the market again in 1908 when it was bought by anglophile American millionaire, William Waldorf Astor for 850 guineas and presented to the Royal United Services Institute Museum. It remained there until the museum closed in 1963 and was then transferred to the National Maritime Museum.
USS ‘Chesapeake’ ensign flag
The capture of ‘Chesapeake’, which took place during the War of 1812, ended a series of actions in which larger and more heavily armed American frigates had captured British opponents.
Fired on by the British in 1807 and scarcely able to retaliate on that occasion, ‘Chesapeake’ already had a reputation as an unlucky ship. At Boston in May 1813, she had just been refitted and had a new commander, James Lawrence. Philip Broke, who saw his chances of promotion dwindling as the war progressed, detached his sister ship to even the contest and issued a challenge to Lawrence. In the event, Lawrence came out of port before he received it. He had been ordered to proceed to the mouth of the St Lawrence and intended to deal with that enemy frigate on the horizon en route.
Boarding and Taking the American ship ‘Chesapeake’ by the Officers & crew of HMS ‘Shannon’
‘Chesapeake’ was wearing three American ensigns in case one or more was shot away and a white flag with the words: “Free trade and sailor’s rights” – a reference to the grievances that had provoked the war.
A seaman asked Broke: “Mayn’t we have three ensigns sir, like she has?”
Broke replied: “No we’ve always been an unassuming ship”.
The 11-minute action ended with the capture of ‘Chesapeake’, not because of Broke’s enthusiasm for long range gunnery, but because of ‘Shannon’s’ superior rate of fire at close quarters and the successful boarding of the US ship by the British. The fact that ‘Chesapeake’ had an inexperienced crew may have decided the issue. Casualties were very heavy on both sides – both Lawrence and his second in command Augustus Ludlow were mortally wounded. Broke, left literally with a hole in the head, and surprisingly survived until 1841. Lawrence’s injunction: “Don’t give up the ship” was widely reported in the press and reproduced on a flag flown at the battle of Lake Erie a few months later.
The museum also holds ‘Chesapeake’s’ signal book, bound with a bar of lead in the spine so it could be thrown overboard and prevented from falling into enemy hands.
On 1 June there was no time to do this.
Signal book of USS ‘Chesapeake’.
Nasty, brutal and short (to misquote Hobbes), this dramatic confrontation between two ambitious commanders ended in personal tragedy. However it became a great focus of patriotism on both sides of the Atlantic during a war in which the United States Navy emerged as a force to be reckoned with.
As a doctoral student (funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council) working collaboratively with the NMM and the Wilberforce Institute for the Study of Slavery and Emancipation at the University of Hull I have been researching the Museum’s collections relating to my project ‘Anti-slavery and the Royal Navy in the Indian Ocean, 1860-90: Race, Empire and Identity’. Alongside material in the Michael Graham-Stewart slavery collection, my time spent researching manuscripts in the Caird Library has proved to be particularly fruitful. With the benefit of time that a PhD brings, and certainly a bit of luck, I have been fortunate enough to discover some manuscripts previously unrecognised in terms of their connection to the Royal Navy’s anti-slavery activities. These include letters and journals created by naval officers serving on anti-slavery patrols off East Africa during the 1870s and 1880s.
Illustrated log of HMS Garnet East Indies Station compiled by Tristan Dannreuther between 23 August 1887 and 6 July 1889
One of the most interesting examples are the 100 or so letters written by teenage Midshipman Tristan Dannreuther to his mother during a three-year-long anti-slavery commission on the East Indies Station on board HMS Garnet during the late 1880s. Alongside other items within the Dannreuther collection, the letters provide a fascinatingly unofficial version of events and activities: the informal strategies devised by the crews working on anti-slavery patrols, the leisure-time spent ashore, and the relationships forged whilst carrying out this very unique work. Writing first as a fifteen year-old, Dannreuther’s macho competitiveness and naive excitement in ‘chasing’ and ‘capturing’ slave dhows is palpable. His encounters with a myriad of people of different ethnic and cultural backgrounds, both on board ship and ashore, highlights the truly multi-cultural nature of the Indian Ocean slave trade. His portrayal of these experiences reveals a spectrum of explicit and implicit racial perceptions, and of ideas of ‘Britishness’ during this phase of increasingly aggressive European imperialism.
Cruising in search of slave dhows off the coast of Africa. The Graphic, 20 October 1888
The Royal Navy’s suppression of the so-called ‘Arab’ slave trade during the run-up to the European ‘Scramble for Africa’ bought issues of race, anti-slavery and national responsibility into sharp focus both at home and abroad. The richness of the private accounts found in the Caird Library lies in the incredibly personal insights offered into the attitudes, values and experiences of the men who confronted slavery and the slave trade on a daily basis. These are especially valuable in providing a layer of historical evidence which complements the official records of suppression.
Cargo of newly released slaves on board HMS London, circa 1880
Albumen carte-de-visite showing St Andrew’s Waterside Church Mission at Gravesend during the 1870s
After five years of working at the NMM, I have fully succumbed to the allure of nineteenth-century photography. My current cataloguing task, as Curator, Historic Photographs and Ship Plans, is a collection of glass plate negatives by F.C. Gould & Son of Gravesend. This commercial firm had its origins in the craze for album portraits that developed during the 1850s and was first known as Gibson’s Photographic Portrait Establishment. It was taken over by Frederick Charles Gould in 1866 and continued to be active under the Gould name until the 1940s, acquiring a particular renown for photographs of shipping on the River Thames.
The Highflyer (1861) off Gravesend shortly before departing for Melbourne in August 1873 (from wet collodion negative G2243)
The earliest negatives in the collection were made during the 1870s using the wet collodion process. These plates were not available in manufactured form and had to be carefully prepared by the photographer. It was necessary to perform the whole coating, exposing and developing process before the emulsion dried, so a portable darkroom had to be employed when out in the field. One can imagine the difficulties Gould encountered using the cumbersome equipment on a blustery waterfront at Gravesend. Inspection of the negatives reveals ghostly blurs and traces of handiwork (including thumb prints set in the emulsion) which speak of the limitations of the medium and the dexterity it required. They also have a magical quality in that they reflect a positive image when seen against a dark background.
The Grantully Castle (1879) off Gravesend circa 1880 (from wet collodion negative G1673)
Specific features of the locality combined to create a marketplace for ship portraits fulfilled by the Gould business and its rivals. Gravesend was a regular stopping-place for traffic on the River Thames and a point of embarkation for emigrants and military personnel. Its community included many watermen, Trinity House pilots, Customs officers, tug crews and others actively involved with the arrivals and departures. In Victorian times it was also a resort with pleasure gardens popular with excursionists from the capital. These cosmopolitan aspects make the early photographic history of the town a colourful subject for me to research.