In the spring of 1702, England went to war, siding with the Dutch, Austrians, and Prussians against France and Spain. By doing so, they were setting the stage for the greatest outbreak of piracy the Atlantic would ever know....
In the early years of the conflict, the English and French navies clashed in two massive fleet engagements. These battles involved only the Royal Navy’s largest vessels, the ships of the line: enormous, lumbering, wooden fortresses bristling with three stories of heavy cannon. These ships, the first-, second-, and third-rates, were too slow and cumbersome to use in more subtle operations such as convoying merchantmen, attacking enemy shipping, or patrolling the unmarked reefs and shoals of the Caribbean. They were built for one purpose: to join a line of battle in a massive set-piece engagement....
Each of the navy’s seven first-rate ships had a crew of 800 men, who were crammed into a 200-foot-long hull with a hundred heavy cannon, and months of supplies and food stores, including live cows, sheep, pigs, goats, and poultry.... [Each] massive ship maneuvered into the line of battle, two hundred yards ahead of one ship, two hundred yards behind another. The enemy ships lined up in similar fashion and, after hours or even days of maneuvers, the two lines passed each other, discharging broadsides. The ships would sometimes pass within a few feet, blasting thirty-two-pound cannonballs into each other’s hulls. These balls punched straight through people, eviscerating or decapitating, and spraying the cramped gun decks with body parts and wooden splinters. Cannon trained on exposed decks were generally loaded with grapeshot or with a pair of cannonballs chained together, either of which could reduce a crowd of men into a splay of mangled flesh. From the rigging, sharpshooters picked off enemy officers or, if the ships came together, dropped primitive grenades on their opponent’s deck. Above and below, every surface was soon covered with blood and body parts, which oozed out of the scuppers and drains when the ship heeled in the wind. “I fancied myself in the infernal regions,” a veteran of such a battle recalled, “where every man appeared a devil.”
These early engagements took the lives of thousands of men but they were hardly conclusive. Seven English and four French ships of the line fought a six-day battle off Colombia in August 1702, for example, with neither side losing a single ship. Two years later, fifty-three English and Dutch ships of the line squared off with some fifty French vessels off Málaga, Spain, in the largest naval engagement of the war; the daylong bout of fleet-scale carnage ending in a draw.
By happenstance, the Royal Navy wiped out its French and Spanish rivals early in the war. In October 1702, an English battle fleet trapped twelve French ships of the line and most of the Spanish navy in a fjordlike inlet on Spain’s northern coast, destroying or capturing all of them. Five years later, an Anglo-Dutch force captured the French port of Toulon and so many men-of-war that the French were unable to engage in further fleet actions. Thereafter on many English ships of the line, crewmen had substantially reduced odds of dying in battle, though disease, accident, and abuse still carried off nearly half the men who enlisted.
10 April 2016
European Naval Tactics, 1702
The Republic of Pirates: Being the True and Surprising Story of the Caribbean Pirates and the Man Who Brought Them Down, by Colin Woodard (Mariner Books, 2008), Kindle Loc. 739-785: