Posted by: Rob Viens | May 3, 2012

“Flocks of Fowl” on the HMS Warspite

I can only imagine that there is something special about being on an enormous 19th century sailing ship – with 76 cannons, a crew of several hundred sailors and masts like trees sprouting from the deck.  On May 3rd, Darwin got the opportunity to do just that and he was awed by the spectacle of a naval exercise.   Remember that he was still 23 years old, had lived far from the coast, was still relatively new to life at sea, and had read about great sea adventures as a boy.  Having the opportunity to be a guest on a 180-ft long warship must have been the thrill of a lifetime.

HMS Warspite by Nicolas Matthew Condy (1818-1851):

HMS Warspite

My words don’t do it justice, so I’ll let Darwin describe the experience himself. Note, in particular the excitement in his entry and the very “naturalist-like” way he has of describing this unique “human ecosystem”.  He writes in his diary:

“Went on board the Warspite, a 74 line of battle ship, to see her inspected by the Admiral. — It was one of the grandest sights I ever witnessed. — When the Admiral arrived the yards were manned by about 400 seamen; from the regularity of their movements & from their white dresses, the men really looked more like a flock of wild-fowl than anything else. — When a ship is inspected, everything is done precisely the same as if she was engaged with an enemy; & although on paper it may sound like childs play, in the reality it was most animating. — One almost wished for an enemy, when the aweful words were shouted to the great batteries below —”Clear for Action”. — After having mæneuvered the enormous guns & proved how well & easily it was done. — “Fire in the Cock-pit rung through the decks. —in perfect order, the guns yet working, the pumps were rigged, the fire engines brought into play, & all the firemen with their buckets. — The action became hotter. —(nobody knew what was coming). The Admiral sung out “a Raking shot has cut our fore-shrouds”. “Captain Talbot wared ship: cut away the mizen mast. —in an instant men with their axes sprung to their places: & then it was truly wonderful how soon the store rooms were opened & vast ropes brought to support the tottering fore mast. — The admiral was determined to puzzle them: during all this bustle he ordered a broardside, & shouted the main shrouds & fore stay are gone. — In short in a few minutes all our principal ropes were cut through & joined. —

Perhaps however the most glorious thing was when the Bugle gave the signal for the Boarders; the very ship trembled at so dense a body rushing a long with their drawn cutlasses. — The appalling shout, with which the English seamen executes the most dangerous service he is ever called upon to perform, was the only thing that was absent.”  (May 3)

HMS Warspite by Nicolas Cammillieri of Malta (1798-1856):

HMS Warspite

The HMS Warspite was Rear Admiral Thomas Baker’s flagship on the South American Station. It was a 3rd rate ship of the line (see A Field Guide to 19th Century Ships of the British Royal Navy). A 3rd rate ship by definition has 2 gun decks, 64-80 cannons, and carried 500-650 men – it was essentially a battleship with sails. Third rate ships where one of the more popular models in the Royal Navy as they were easier to handle (and required less crew) than a 1st or 2nd rate warship, yet they still packed quite a punch in battle.

The Warspite saw action during the Napoleonic Wars and also spent several years in the West Indies. In the mid 1820’s it circumnavigated the world – being the first large British warship (1st-4th rate) to visit Australia. I found it particularly entertaining to find the following entry in a long list of (mostly very boring and routine) entries in the Rootsweb Naval Database on The HMS Warspite:

“At sea 12 May 1829 A puncheon of rum was picked up in lat. 46.48 N. long 10.34 W, which had apparently been in the water some months.”

It’s funny what “makes the news” when you are out at sea for a while!

The captain of the Warspite (technically “flag captain” as he was in charge of the fleet’s flagship) was Captain Charles Talbot (mentioned by Darwin). The Warspite was Talbot’s first command, after having been only recently promoted to Captain in 1830. Later in his career he was Commander-in-Chief of Queensland, followed by Commander-in-Chief of The Nore. The Nore marks the point where the River Thames meets the North Sea – so this command was essentially responsible for protecting the access to London by Sea.

I’m no naval historian, but I have a soft spot for the Age of Sail – and I must say I’d have loved this experience, too. I’m so jealous! (RJV)


  1. Having spent some time in training to be a Naval Officer and then having spent time mostly on Destroyers and a little time on Carriers I can well understand both Darwins and RJVs feelings about the Naval experience. I still have some very vivid memories of night watches at sea and in port, and battle stations, firing the main batteries (8) 5″-38 Naval rifles, the phosphorescent wake of the ship on a moonlit night while doing 25 knts., and the general routines of shipboard life. It is a very romantic situation when at peace, but not so in wartime (as I’ve been told). One of my own experiences that “all of the white dressed fowl in the rigging” reminded me of was a trip by the fleet into San Francisco Bay for a week long fleet celebration in San Fran.
    As we came under the Golden Gate bridge with all of us lining the rail in our dress whites and freezing to death, we could hear people up on the bridge above yelling to us since the fog was to thick for us to see them. I later found out that those people on the Carrier could see them since the flight deck on the Carrier was about three time higher than our deck. The Destroyer was about 200 ft. long and the Carrier was about 1000 ft. long. Destroyers then were the smallest of the true warships with the size going as follows: Destroyer Escorts, then Destroyers, then Frigates, then Cruisers, then Battleships, then Carriers. The sizes and names are quite different in today’s Navy. Pat Beatie

    • Thanks for the insights Pat!

  2. […] and glory of a third-rate warship. I’ve already discussed the Warspite in some detail (see “Flocks of Fowl” on the HMS Warspite). So today, I thought I’d let Darwin describe the ship as he saw it. “Seeing, when […]

  3. […] I love that last image – the Beagle carefully sailing under perfectly clear skies – rigging full of birds. It makes a nice contrast to the rigging of the Warspite full of “bird-like” sailors back in Brazil – see Flocks of Fowl on the HMS Warspite. […]

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