This book falls within the excellent series of Authentic Voices. Editing has been sensitive and a useful foreword is provided by Professor Andrew Lambert, but the real author is a Midshipman writing his journal at the time of the epic chase. Many will be familiar with the story in its dramatized form by O’Brian in “The Far Side of the World” and the film that was draw from his book “Master and Commander”.
This book is equal to the finest novel, shows the many points where O’Brian blended historic fact with his fictional characters in “The Far Side of the World”, and has all of the excitement of the chase.
NAME: Hunting the Essex, A Journal of the Voyage of HMS Phoebe 1813-1814
AUTHOR: Midshipman Allen Gardiner, Editor, John S Reiske
PUBLISHER: Seaforth, Pen & Sword
BINDING: hard back
SUBJECT: Commerce raiders, War of 1812, USN, HMS Phoebe, The Far Side of the World, Master and Commander, O’Brian, Lavery, great chases, whaling, Pacific
DESCRIPTION: This book falls within the excellent series of Authentic Voices. Editing has been sensitive and a useful foreword is provided by Professor Andrew Lambert, but the real author is a Midshipman writing his journal at the time of the epic chase. Many will be familiar with the story in its dramatized form by O’Brian in “The Far Side of the World” and the film that was draw from his book “Master and Commander”.
The real story is at least as dramatic as the fictional version and at odds with the self serving excuses of the Captain of the USS Essex.
In 1805, Nelson achieved such a significant naval success at the Battle of Trafalgar that the Royal Navy was not to be challenged again by an enemy fleet until 1916 when the German High Seas Fleet attempted to break the RN Home Fleet at Jutland, only to be driven back to its home port to rust until it was required to steam to Scapa Flow and surrender to the British. This history suggests that the Royal Navy was supreme from 1805, but this is less than the whole truth. RN supremacy was achieved against the French during the Seven Years War and this supremacy was later underlined at Trafalgar. From 1805, the Royal Navy lost some of its edge and proved vulnerable to the privateer tactics of captains in the service of the infant United States during the War of 1812. Overall, the War of 1812 was less than an impressive assault by the US. The attempt to invade and seize Canada met with failure and the defending army included a large number of Loyalists who had sought sanctuary in Canada from the coalition of slave owners and dodgy businessmen who had led the insurrection in the British Colonies to the South, creating the United States. When US President Obama in 2013 claimed the US was the oldest Constitutional Democracy, this was a nation that published a Constitution affirming that all were equal etc., but continued a war of genocide against Native Americans into the 20th Century and continued to treat African Americans as worse than 2nd class citizens until very recently. The lasting reminder of the War of 1812 is the White House that got its name from the whitewash to hide the evidence of fire and smoke suffered during the retaliatory attack by the Loyalists and Canadians.
The Industrial Revolution in Britain created increased demand for whale products, lubricants for the industrial machines, and oil for the lamps to light the revolution. The result was that the British whaling fleet had to expand in the Pacific, the Americans having over-whaled the North American East Coast, and the Europeans having over-whaled the seas off Norway and the Spitsbergens. This Pacific whaling operation was of vital importance during the wars with France, but was at the furthest point from Britain, producing long lines of communication.
One of the US commerce raiders was the frigate Essex. She was sent out to decimate and destroy the British Pacific whaling fleet. This single ship was capable of such destruction of unarmed whale ships and their small crews. A typical whale ship of the time might have a crew of only 35, with up to five open rowing boats that would be used for hunting and killing the whales. The characteristics that made a good whale ship were good sea keeping ability and a capacious cargo hold for the whale products that would make a fortune in Britain. This produced a short fat hull that was very strong, but a relatively slow sailer. Against this, a commerce raider like the Essex was a fast viscous shark, mounting a heavy armament on a fast hull and powerful sail plan. Against such a vessel, the whale ships did not stand a chance.
HMS Phoebe was despatched secretly to find and destroy the Essex. In a feat of outstanding seamanship, the captain and crew of the Phoebe tracked and hunted the Essex, blockading her in the neutral port of Valparaiso in an action remarkably similar to the action in World War Two where three small British cruisers blockaded a German commerce raider, the pocket battleship Graf Spee, on the opposite coast of South America. Like the Spee, the Essex mounted an unusually heavy armament and logically should have, at the least, brought a battle with the Phoebe to a bloody draw, but where in terms of speed and firepower, she should have destroyed her pursuer.
After a cat-and-mouse game that lasted weeks, and again showed similarity to the later Battle of the River Plate that ended with the destruction of the German commerce raider, the Essex attempted a break-out. The Phoebe forced her to fight and defeated her in a bloody battle in which the Essex was captured.
Midshipman Allen Francis Gardiner was a junior, or trainee, officer on HMS Phoebe. As for all Midshipman he was required to keep a Midshipman’s journal to record his experiences and provide a both a CV and a guide to developing into an effective officer. These journals include text and drawings that can be some of the most exciting source data available to historians. Most are well-written and illustrated, and some are re-written later as a personal journal that adds more mature perspective. Gardiner has both recorded an epic naval hunt and destroy mission with the lively perspective of a twenty year old naval junior who was keen to include the colour and politics of life in the ports he visited during his voyage.
This book is equal to the finest novel, shows the many points where O’Brian blended historic fact with his fictional characters in “The Far Side of the World”, and has all of the excitement of the chase. That this story has not achieved wider acceptance in the epics of the Royal Navy is perhaps surprising, but then the War of 1812, as a whole, received less coverage than it was due. The Royal Navy was naturally sensitive to some of the unwarranted reverses it suffered before learning to deal again with commerce raiders. The US was equally sensitive about its reverses, including the loss of the Essex. This sensitivity has lasted the years and O’Brian was careful to make the commerce raider French to avoid any possible loss of book sales in the US market.