Posted by: Rob Viens | July 26, 2012

Intimidating Revolutionaries

On July 26th, for the first of several times over the next couple of weeks, the Beagle had to live up to its responsibilities as a ship of the Royal Navy. During this first encounter, the officers and crew of the Beagle were not directly involved in and “combat” but the ship was used as part of an intimidation campaign. It starts like this:

“We entered the bay about 9 oclock: just as we were coming to an anchor, signals were made from the Druid, a frigate lying here; which (to our utter astonishment & amusement) ordered us to “Clear for action” & shortly afterward “Prepare to cover our boats”. We set sail again & the latter part of order was shortly explained by the arriving of 6 boats heavily armed with Carronades & containing about 40 marines, all ready for fighting, & more than 100 blue-jackets.” (July 26)

The Royal Marines were the light infantry of the Royal Navy and it was not uncommon to have several on board (according to the watch list from a couple of days ago, the Beagle had 8 aboard). Marines role on the ship was to both protect the officers (sometimes from the crew) and to fight any naval battles. The marines typically wore a red uniform, leading to the name “redcoats”.  The “blue-jackets” referred to by Darwin are a little more ambiguous for me.  It is possible this refers to members of the Royal Marine Artillery (established in 1804) who wore blue coats.  If anyone knows the answer, please feel free to comment. (For a little more info on “carronades”, see Defending the Beagle with Nine-Pounders.)

Royal Marine from 1815 (National Army Museum, UK):

Royal Marine

The HMS Druid was a fifth rate frigate, launched in 1825 and commanded by Capt G. W. Hamilton.  The Druid spent a lot of its early life in the Americas – from Canada to Argentina. In the 1840’s the ship was stationed in China under several different commanders.

Two noteworthy stories stand out in the Druid‘s records from the Royal Navy Database – (1) it’s apprehension of a ship carrying slaves off of Bahia, and (2) its fire-fighting equipment.

In December 1830, a few days and hundred miles from the soon to be wrecked HMS Thetis, the Druid rescued a ship taking on water – the schooner Destimida. In the process they found 50 African slaves in the hold being transported to Brazil.  They took on the men and brought them to Rio, where they housed and fed them for almost three months while the Brazilian government figured out what to do with them.  In late February 1831, the men were emancipated and freed at which time they left the Druid (though given the times, it would not be surprising if they were soon pressed into service anyway).

Secondly, in the March 1830, the notes state that the Druid was “fitted with the fire-engine pump, invented by Mr. John Earle of Devonport”. And a few years later the notes record a review of how well it worked:

“Jun 1833 it is reported that Earle’s fire-engine pump has worked satisfactorily, and excepting repairs which needed to be made to the leather hose etc. has required no maintenance despite being used every day for emptying the well, washing decks, filling gallery (sic.) cisterns, pumping water from the tanks, and filling them from the boats alongside, and it can be applied as three distinct fire engines if required”  (Naval Database)

I’m not sure why this stands out for me.  I find it somewhat funny what sorts of things end up a part of history.

Anyway…back to the Beagle. Darwin records the current state of affairs as such:

“Captain Hamilton came on board & informed us that the present government is a military usurpation.— & that the head of the party had seized upon 400 horses, the property of a British subject; & that in short the flotilla of boats went to give weight to his arguments.— The revolutions in these countries are quite laughable; some few years ago in Buenos Ayres, they had 14 revolutions in 12 months.— things go as quietly as possible; both parties dislike the sight of blood; & so that the one which appears the strongest gains the day.— The disturbances do not much affect the inhabitants of the town, for both parties find it best to protect private property.— The present governor has about 260 Gaucho cavalry & about same number of Negro infantry.— the opposite party is now collecting a force & the moment he enters the town the others will scamper out.— Mr Parry (a leading merchant here) says he is quite certain a 150 men from the Frigate could any night take M: Video. The dispute has terminated by a promise of restitution of the horses; but which I do not think is very clear will be kept.” (July 26)

Of course, it is interesting to see what troubles Darwin the most about the situation. Its not the threat of violence or the impending revolution (the 15th of the year it seems).  No, it is the threat of being stuck on the ship that really upsets him!

“I am afraid, it is not impossible that the consequences will be very unpleasant to us: The Druids officers have not for some weeks been allowed to go on shore, & perhaps we shall be obliged to act in the same manner.— How annoying will be the sight of green turf plains, whilst we are performing a sort of quarantine on board.” (July 26)

Don’t worry, Charles – you’ll get your chance soon… (RJV)

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